All of jasoncrawford's Comments + Replies

Can we “cure” cancer?

Thanks Kent, can you say something about this book?

2Kent Burnett19hThe book The Cancer Code contains three stories about the cause of cancer. The first cause is a story about toxins; examples are lung cancer caused by smoking and asbestos. The second cause is cancer is a genetic disease. And the book documents two or three cancers that are genetic in origin. The third cause is poor metabolic health. The book notes that obese and diabetic people have higher cancer rates for certain types of cancer than metabolically healthy people. The vital part for people following scientific progress is the people that believe in genetics did not come from the toxin believers, and the metabolic health advocates did not come from the genetic cause believers. The author Dr. Jason Fung MD tries to explain where the different groups of believers came from, but I need to understand institutions better to explain it.
A Cure for My Cancer

Amazing story, and fantastic post, thanks!

Can we “cure” cancer?

Thanks for the detailed thoughts!

Yes, we did start fighting infectious disease long before the germ theory. Most notably, the first immunization techniques, against smallpox, long predated the theory. Also there were sanitation reforms that helped significantly. But these methods were limited: e.g., no vaccines for any disease other than smallpox were created, and water sanitation did not include chlorination. Indeed, sometimes sanitation efforts backfired, as when Edwin Chadwick tried to clean up the stench of London by building sewers to drain all cesspo... (read more)

A Catalog of Big Visions for Biology

Thanks Sam! Your comment about biologists thinking the cure for cancer doesn't exist spurred these thoughts: Can we “cure” cancer?

Starting the Journey as CEO of the Roots of Progress

Welcome, Heike! Very excited to be working with you.

Eli Dourado AMA

I meant more on the question of financial incentives for metrics. Basically, charging healthy people less / charging more for risk factors. Are you allowed to do this? I think some amount of this is allowed in some jurisdictions, but are there crucial limitations on it?

1elidourado7dThe ability to charge people more and less based on observed (but not demographic) characteristics got pretty limited by the Affordable Care Act. I'm not sure of the details, however.
Eli Dourado AMA

Are there any restrictions on what insurance companies are allowed to do with this kind of info? Health insurance is highly regulated too.

1elidourado8dI'm not sure what the privacy implications are, but they can definitely give you the devices for free if it's cost-effective for them to do that.
Eli Dourado AMA

Policy barriers aside, speaking strictly from considerations of technology and economics, what is the ideal near-term future for energy? Nuclear, geothermal, solar? Maybe even solar-powered fuel synthesis like Terraform Industries is doing? Or what combination of the above?

4elidourado8dA very important question is how long solar prices can continue to drop. Assuming it continues a while, I have questions about whether it makes sense to transmit electricity long distances in such a world. A lot of smart people think transmission is very important to the clean energy buildout, but I don't know. Transmission adds a fair bit of cost, and if solar gets cheap then it might make sense to pay the rooftop premium rather than the transmission premium. So if solar keeps dropping in price, it may make sense to have rooftop solar everywhere + off-grid solar to power industrial applications. Gigawatt-scale nuclear I think we could do for LCOE of 2¢/kWh if the industry and regulations were not so dysfunctional. Modular reactors will always be more expensive than that (maybe 4¢ best-case scenario), but the advantage of modular is that you reach some level of scale in manufacturing and deployment, which is where gigawatt-scale has really sucked (every gigawatt plant is bespoke). Modular is also better because you don't have to do as much transmission as in a GW-scale plant. If we get good at drilling holes in the ground, I think 3¢/kWh almost anywhere on the planet would be a good target for advanced geothermal. Also comes with the advantage of not having to worry about spent fuels and nuclear proliferation. Geothermal is also fantastic for low-grade heat needed for certain industrial processes like paper mills. Wind is already pretty cheap, but it relies heavily on long-distance transmission, which as I've noted is a headache. For mobile applications, high-density batteries are definitely possible. Batteries that have near the energy density of liquid hydrocarbon fuels have already been made in the lab, the challenge is switching over the manufacturing system and reaching scale. Synthesizing liquid hydrocarbons is a great solution, especially until really high-density batteries arrive. I believe I bought the first quantity of zero-carbon jet fuel in the wo
Eli Dourado AMA

So many of the regulatory/policy barriers to progress seem so daunting. Using the “Important, Tractable, Neglected” heuristic, what are the top opportunities to unblock progress? Put another way perhaps, if you were writing a priority list for an organization like the Institute for Progress or Balsa Research, what would you go after?

6elidourado8dI kind of did this analysis in 2019 on "how to move the needle on progress []" and landed on health, housing, energy, and transportation as important sectors to fix. If you think about it in productivity terms, in general equilibrium, low-productivity-growth sectors will tend to get bloated as a percent of GDP, while high-productivity-growth sectors will tend to shrink. I still think the 2019 analysis is basically right, although I would emphasize one particular aspect of tractability, which is having a specific solution in mind. Tom Kalil talks about this as a test of policy maturity: suppose you have a 15-minute meeting with the President of the United States, and after the meeting the President is willing to call somebody and tell them what to do. Who do you have him call and what do you have him tell them to do? Until you have an answer to that question, your policy solution isn't mature. I think there's a division of labor in the policy world between the more researchy and more activist groups. The researchy people should be working to discover mature policy ideas (in the Tom Kalil sense) and then the more activist groups should be working to get them implemented. So for the research side, who are starting out without mature policy ideas and trying to generate them, tractability isn't really a concern, it's more about importance. The goal is to generate something tractable. The more activist people need to think more about taking the mature policy idea and running with it, and for them, tractability (political viability, etc.) is more important starting out. Progress is so hard to come by in the policy world that I don't think we should disqualify anything for not being neglected. Even housing/YIMBY stuff, I'm happy for more people to go into it if it gets us over the line. So policy researchers should work on big industrial sectors like health, housing, energy, and transportation (and major cross-cu
Eli Dourado AMA

There are two magic buttons, as follows, but you can only press one. Which would be better for progress and why?

  1. We instantly get the ideal legal/regulatory/policy environment for progress, across the board (this button does not affect science or R&D)
  2. We instantly get huge scientific/R&D breakthroughs: cure for cancer and aging, nanotech that works, fusion that works, benevolent AI (this button does not affect anything social, so all these things would face today's regulatory environment)
4elidourado8dGiven the trade you've laid out, I'd take the scientific breakthroughs. I think there is no agency to regulate nanotech, so it would be a "born free" industry, and we'd see a lot of rapid progress. Benevolent AI too. On the cancer and aging cures, yes, FDA is broken, but they'd get through approval in several years, and then we'd have them. I do think, however, that the policy environment is worth many years of R&D breakthroughs, perhaps 10 or more. We'd get a revitalized transportation and energy industry, dirt cheap housing, better consumer health tech, and a faster rate of R&D development going forward. It wouldn't take much unbalancing of the scales to make me flip the answer.
2Jim Muller11dSuch a great question, excited to see Eli's answer.
Eli Dourado AMA

If you were to draft a set of cause areas for the progress studies movement, what would be high on the list?

3elidourado8d1. Deregulate land use (YIMBY stuff) 2. Make transportation insanely great: eVTOL, supersonics, small airports with minimal screening, autonomous dynamic bus service 3. Lower the cost of clinical trials and expand freedom to go around the FDA through informed consent 4. Reform permitting/abolish NEPA/end vetocracy 5. Energy abundance/fix the NRC/fix the nuclear industry/expand geothermal/deploy solar 6. Make government that works and is run by grown-ups (I am a big fan of ranked choice voting for this) 7. Big increases in immigration, with concessions to the xenophobes that immigrants probably need to speak English and get deported if they commit serious crimes 8. End make-work policies that are embedded in almost every sector 9. Make sure safety rules are at least actually adding safety instead of safety theater
2Ruth Grace Wong11dI'm also curious to know if you think that centralization, the way that other movements (I'm thinking of effective altruism) have specific cause area prioritizations that proponents tend to follow, is a good or a bad thing. In your opinion, what qualities make an effective modern movement that can actually get things done?
Why slow progress is more dangerous than fast progress

I agree that “one technology plowing ahead much further than the rest” is unlikely, but I don't think that's the issue.

To return to your seat belt example: seat belts were invented and widely deployed only after cars had been around for decades. Car technology got way ahead of car safety technology. That's the sort of pattern I think we should reduce in the future.

I like the Deutsch quote and agree.

1Mathias Sundin13dYup, I agree. And the best way for that would have been faster progress of safety technology, IMO.
Why slow progress is more dangerous than fast progress

I think “slow” vs. “fast” is just the wrong way to conceptualize the decision/tradeoff. We should be thinking about how to steer progress and how to sequence it. “Pedal to the metal” or “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” is not safe, but merely slowing down doesn't really help. We should, for example:

  • take whatever time is necessary (but no more than that) to do appropriate, useful safety testing on new technologies
  • invest in inventing safety measures, ideally in the first version of new technologies
  • think about what types of technologies are more likely
... (read more)
1Mathias Sundin13dThanks for the reply! This text is short, so more nuances could be added. But I touch on the things you mention: I think the general angst over one technology plowing ahead much further than the rest is exaggerated: "Of course, giving Caligula a nuclear bomb wouldn't be great. But the risk of one technology progressing much faster than the general level of knowledge is low. Innovation depends on earlier innovation. There is a reason the Romans didn't have a Manhattan Project. If we increase the rate of innovation in one area, it will spill over and increase innovation in other areas as well." David Deutsch also touches on this in a quote: "The first flight of an airliner should not be carrying passengers. One should not trust the first predator 🐺 that seems friendly. But there is also danger from intangible enemies within, like taboos and pessimism. So one shouldn’t forgo the option to experiment with making use of the wolf. Unbeknownst to the people who first tried that, it would go on to create a new species 🦮 that could be of immense use – including guiding blind humans during the millennia before blindness is cured." What I try to get across is that fast progress is often described, wrongly, like you do now, "pedal to the metal." 😀 That is often taken as an excuse to argue for slowing down or stopping progress -- and that is more dangerous than trying to speed things up.
Revving up the Progress Studies Idea Machine

I think these are good ideas and I too would like to see more of the kinds of things you list above.

I'd love for this Forum to serve as the first draft of a lot of this stuff. For instance, if people want to write up specific cause areas, or lists of cause areas, so we can all start discussing them, that would be great. We could create a new tag “Cause Areas” so that they are organized in one place and easy to find.

What is Constructive Journalism?

Interesting exercise: what would Our World in Data look like as a column in that chart?

Who wants a gift subscription to Jim Pethokoukis's Substack?

Don't know anything about Seaborg in particular. Floating nuclear is an interesting idea. I don't know enough about the technical issues to know whether it's practical; I've been told that the motion of the waves creates engineering problems. I also think the legal issues may be problematic. If you're offshore, you might avoid the US NRC, but now you're probably under the jurisdiction of the UN or something, which is probably worse. There's really no way to escape regulation if you're doing nuclear—you just have to find reasonable regulators.

Tyler Cowen AMA

In academia, you've said that “The incentive is to build a brick … not to build a building.” If the balance is off here, how could we reform academic incentives to get more buildings?

2Tyler Cowen22dCan't really do it! You have to hope for some crazy people with tenure bucking the system. There are always a few of those, but they will not dominate. But add to their ranks crazy untenured people who write on the internet, and then you have something real in terms of influence.
Tyler Cowen AMA

Are you more of a hedgehog or a fox? (In Isaiah Berlin / Archilochus terminology: “A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing.”)

Are you more of a bird or a frog? (In Freeman Dyson terminology: “Birds fly high in the air and survey broad vistas … out to the far horizon. They delight in concepts that unify our thinking and bring together diverse problems from different parts of the landscape. Frogs live in the mud below and see only the flowers that grow nearby. They delight in the details of particular objects, and they solve problems one a... (read more)

2Tyler Cowen21dThe one big thing I know is that I know many things. And I am a bird.
Tyler Cowen AMA

Some ~12 years after the book, what are your thoughts on the Great Stagnation? (Asking more about the phenomenon of stagnation and less for thoughts on the book itself.) How has this played out? Have your predictions held up? What will stagnation look like going forward?

1Tyler Cowen22dSee this column for my take: [] My prediction in 2011 was that the Great Stagnation would end within twenty years, so far to me that is looking correct.
Age of Invention: The Pull of Cities

Very interesting topic. How widespread is the “pull” idea? When I first read about it in an essay from you a while ago, I thought it was kind of a niche view, but I've been reading Robert Allen's The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective and he seems to have the same view, so maybe not so niche?

charlesxjyang's Shortform

Interesting thread, but I draw a somewhat different conclusion: in the long run, we need a heat-management system for the Earth (and eventually, other planets). Managing CO2 is good but insufficient.

There are also some replies contesting the original claims, e.g.: 

"Progress" alternative to GiveWell?

A lot of (most?) progress studies work is being done outside academia, or on the border of academia, not in proper journals and peer-reviewed publications. My own work is for a general audience. Anton Howes left academia to write for a general audience. Eli Dourado is at a think tank that is affiliated with a university, but he writes for a general audience. Brian Potter came from industry and writes for a general audience. Etc.

See this answer in my AMA about how people can contribute: (read more)

Think wider about the root causes of progress

Yes, any major improvement in a fundamental area—not only in communication, or more broadly in information technology, but also in energy, manufacturing, materials, or transportation—will have ripple effects throughout the entire economy.

1SebastianG1moI think that's a little too reductionist. CACE: CHANGE ANYTHING CHANGE EVERYTHING. It is certainly true, but trivially true. The question is more like how much does a change in literacy result in a change in technology, rather than are the two related. Basically everything is related within the topics of science, innovation, and the intellectual life. I take Gary's point to be relative. Were communication advancements necessary, while obviously not sufficient, prerequisites for the energy revolutions which followed? Can we make a causal diagram which flows from advances in communication in the 17th century and 18th century to advances in technology? Personally I'd be extremely surprised if it were the case even a diminished form, but it's a very interesting hypothesis to try and disprove.
Alexander's Shortform

Efficiency is a dimension of progress, but it is only one dimension. Sometimes we make progress by improving the power, speed, or throughput of our machines or processes. Not all improvements are efficiency improvements. But over time, higher efficiency is one of the big trends of industrial progress.

I agree that anything that leads us off a cliff, that is, leads us to some disaster for humanity, is not progress.

But the problem with the concept of “sustainability” is: what are you trying to sustain? Our goal should be sustained progress, sustained economic... (read more)

2Alexander1moThank you Jason. That's a very thoughtful response. I will check out those recommendations.
Think wider about the root causes of progress

I think the main statement of Allen's argument is his book The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective. Here's a summary article he wrote: “Why was the Industrial Revolution British?” You could also check out Scott Alexander's review of his book Global Economic History: A Very Short Introduction.

In the first book mentioned above, Allen states: “I do not ignore supply-side developments like the growth of scientific knowledge or the spread of scientific culture. However, I emphasize other factors increasing the supply of technology that have not ... (read more)

AMA: Jason Crawford, The Roots of Progress

I think the Earth–Mars communication problem is definitely solvable, and it makes sense that the solution would be built on top of existing web standards. But I think new solutions and new standards/protocols would need to be developed, and it would be less than straightforward—it will require real engineering. And no matter what the solution, the overall user experience will be different.

Daniel Golliher's Shortform

Cross-post that essay here as a linkpost!

Maybe a little bit of naïveté is good.

I agree with the gist of this but would formulate it differently. It's not about naivete, foolishness, or emotion. It's about vision.

Maybe a little bit of naïveté is good.

Bezos once said he would keep funding a project as long as it had one high-judgment champion. Of course, that leaves open the meta-judgment of who is high-judgment, and then it allows them to be a champion without having a solid “rational” case for the project.

Patrick McKenzie AMA

Any thoughts or meta-level lessons after VaccinateCA about how to improve competence in our institutions, particularly in government? So many problems (not just in the US) come down to corruption in government, or institutionalized incompetence, or a cultural expectation of slowness and low productivity, etc. How do we get underneath these problems to structural issues of organization and incentives, and fix the root causes?

6patio112moFrom seeing parts of the official effort that vastly outperformed the median entry in the official effort, some ideas: Continued experimentation with approaches like the U.S. Digital Service which attempt to create pockets of high-functioning competence and make them available at-need to people in the rest of the system who desire to consume e.g. engineering competence but cannot avail themselves of it locally due to institutional constraints. Stop trying to boil the ocean; start embracing boiling a pot of drinking water and then creating a factory to do that at scale. This would have been against my beliefs for most of my life, but I think I am in favor of less people in strategic decisionmaking and more accountability for them versus having strategic decision being delegated to hundreds of thousands of people across tens of thousands of orgs, none of them feeling responsible for the final outcome. It may be a true statement that no individual anywhere thinks that they were ultimately responsible for vaccine administration policy or accountable for vaccination rates or other metrics of interest. That... is an insane result. I think people outside the government need to become radically more familiar with how it operates, not as described in civics class but how it actually functions in the real world. The details of e.g. org charts, reporting lines, incentives, etc matter an awful lot, and to the extent those details are unknown outside of local communities of practice, they are unlikely to reflect our true values. (Or, in some cases, any values at all.) I think many mechanisms for transparency in government (public records laws, FOIA, etc) are positive, but it seems like we have a great deal of low-hanging fruit. Is there a compelling reason why the state doesn't publish an org chart, for example? I can imagine many; for one, I doubt the state actually is capable of publishing an org chart. That seems like a capability that we should demand from it as a condit
2briancpotter2moThe difficulty isn't normalizing (per square foot is probably the most reasonable), it's getting death information for individual buildings. Outside of the most famous buildings it's not easy to track down.
Introductions thread (please introduce yourself)

I'm Jason Crawford, author of The Roots of Progress, where I write about the history of technology and the philosophy of progress. I've written about everything from iron & steel to Haber-Bosch to smallpox to nuclear power to the bicycle. I've also written why progress studies is a moral imperative, why we need a new philosophy of progress, and why our society needs industrial literacy.

I've been interviewed as a spokesman for the progress movement in Vox and BBC, and I've done lots of podcast interviews as well.

I'm turning The Roots of Progress into a ... (read more)

Building Fast and Slow: The Empire State Building and the World Trade Center (Part I)

Any comments on worker safety? Whenever the topic of building speed comes up, some people assume that faster construction must be less safe, and more workers were injured or died. Wondering what the data says

3briancpotter2moIn general, worker safety has improved significantly in the 90 years since the Empire State Building was built, see here: Workplace Fatalities Fell 95% in the 20th Century. Who Deserves the Credit? - Foundation for Economic Education ( [] It's pretty common to interpret slower speed as the inevitable cost of increased safety, but looking at some notable projects the link is less than obvious to me: -5 workers died during the construction of the Empire State Building, which was built in 11 months -0(!) workers died during the construction of the Chrysler Building, which was built in 20 months. -5 workers died during the construction of the Sears Tower, which was built in 4 years. -2 workers died during the construction of One World Trade, which was built in 7 years -60(!) workers died during the construction of the original World Trade Center, which was also built in 7 years. It would be interesting to do a more thorough analysis, scaled to building size, but it's not trivial to do (I did a quick check for number of deaths on some less notable buildings and they're much harder to find if they exist at all). It's a reasonable hypothesis, but most people suggesting I think are going off vibes rather than actual data. And it seems clear that it's at least in-principle possible to build both quickly and safely (though you could make like, a stochastic argument against this).
How is progress correlated with energy intensity?

I enjoyed Richard Rhodes's Energy: A Human History

Vaclav Smil has written a couple books on energy; I haven't read them yet but probably Energy and Civilization: A History is the most relevant?

Our World in Data has a lot of research on energy, see e.g. this chart of GDP per capita vs. energy use that shows a strong correlation (the relationship is reciprocal, IMO).

Eli Dourado and Austin Vernon have an article on energy superabundance—what could we do in the future with lots more energy?

See also the intro to this post of mine on nuclear.

2Mathias Sundin2moThanks!
"Progress" alternative to GiveWell?

Great question, what form could this take? I can think of a few themes for funds, based on the three drivers of progress I laid out in this post:

  • Metascience: improving the way research is managed and funded, or just directly funding good research that can't easily be funded through traditional channels. Orgs in this theme include PARPA, Convergent Research, New Science, Arcadia Science, and Arc Institute.
  • Policy: regulatory reform to remove roadblocks and improve incentives for progress. The Institute for Progress and the Center for Growth and Opportunity d
... (read more)
2palcu2moNot only you don’t have QALY, but you cannot RCT easily things in progress studies. The most progress-adjacent idea that EA has debated is the against Randomista post [] and to have more focus on economic growth. But right now I think the consensus is that QALYs and RCTs will still dominate.
3SebastianG2moI'd say the donation legibility is a concern here. The best progress-related institutions aren't set up in a way where low dollar denominated donations make obvious helpful marginally valuable improvements. When I donate five hundred dollars to vaccines acquisition and distribution in Angola, that's believably a marginal difference that matters. Under what models of progress does a marginal $500 provide a lot of value? I think in the context of microgrants to young people and young ideas, it is great! But I'm having trouble for something like New Science. Maybe the marginal 500 dollars should be spent on youtube advertising for channels that are PS aligned? I can find that somewhat believable.... particularly because I have my eye on a certain Nigerian youtuber who is criminally undersubscribed.
3srhoades102moOn the Policy point, I often wonder what occurs after the research and writings done by e.g. Institute for Progress (and yes a QALYs/$ metric seems near impossible). How could one better discern the outcomes of the Policy work, and that the research and recommendations for Policy isn't shouting into a void? Another way of thinking about it is if one were to put money or time into Policy, what would those actions look like?
List of Book Recommendations

American Genesis: A Century of Invention and Technological Enthusiasm, 1870–1970, by Thomas P. Hughes.

A history of the creation of large technological systems of production and distribution, and the social response to those systems. It’s not only about the century of technological enthusiasm, but also about how that enthusiasm went wrong (in my opinion), and how it came to an end.

I reviewed it in two parts: 1) American invention from the “heroic age” to the system-building era, 2) From technocracy to the counterculture.

List of Book Recommendations

Louis Pasteur: Free Lance of Science, by René Dubos.

A biography of Louis Pasteur, covering his major achievements and placing them in the context of the origins of microbiology and the germ theory of disease.

I enjoyed this book very much. First, the career of Pasteur is an amazing one, well deserving of a biography. Pasteur demonstrated the role of microbes in fermentation processes, disproved contemporary claims of the spontaneous generation of life, played a major role (along with Robert Koch) in establishing the germ theory of disease, and invented the ... (read more)

List of Book Recommendations

The Alchemy of Air: A Jewish Genius, a Doomed Tycoon, and the Scientific Discovery That Fed the World but Fueled the Rise of Hitler, by Thomas Hager.

The story of the Haber-Bosch process for creating synthetic ammonia, which is crucial for producing the fertilizer needed to feed the seven billion or so people on Earth today. In Hager’s phrase, it turns air into bread. It’s also the story of the lives of the men who created it, and its consequences for world agriculture and for Germany during the World Wars.

This was a very well-told story, and I’d recommend ... (read more)

List of Book Recommendations

The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm, by Lewis Dartnell.

A summary of the technologies that the modern industrial world depends on, the basic principles of their operation, and how one might re-establish them if the world were to suffer some global shock that led to the breakdown of civilization. A good survey of the key technologies of industrial civilization.

List of Book Recommendations

A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy, by Joel Mokyr.

This book was pivotal in the launch of The Roots of Progress. It is about how the Enlightenment, between about 1500 and 1700, set the stage for the Industrial Revolution. Special attention is given to Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton.

I had to skim many chapters of this book, especially in the beginning. However, I found its key ideas absolutely fascinating. For a summary, see Mokyr’s article in The Atlantic, “Progress Isn’t Natural”.

List of Book Recommendations

Where Is My Flying Car? A Memoir of Future Past, by J. Storrs Hall.

A work combining historical analysis and bold futurism, looking for the causes of the Great Stagnation (including and especially our lack of flying cars) and painting a picture of what a technological future could look like.

I enjoyed this book a lot, and learned a lot from it. Hall’s vision of the future includes not only flying cars, but nanotechnology-powered manufacturing, nuclear-powered everything, and artificial intelligence. My biggest single takeaway from the book is the potential f... (read more)

List of Book Recommendations

The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World, by David Deutsch. 

A work of philosophy, mostly epistemology, with a bit of quantum physics thrown in. The theme is that all problems are solvable—“anything not forbidden by the laws of nature is achievable, given the right knowledge”—but that there is no end of problems or solutions, just as there is no end to knowledge or to mistakes. In contrast to both skepticism and “inductionism”, Deutsch promotes “fallibilism”.

I found this book fascinating and agree with much of it, although I dis... (read more)

List of Book Recommendations

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, by Steven Pinker.

The message of this book is that reason, science and humanism—which Pinker identifies as the key themes of the Enlightenment—have, historically, led to massive progress in almost every area of life, and that they are our best means of continuing this progress into the future. But these ideals are not consistently upheld, and are often under attack. Therefore, we need to fortify and defend them.

My book review.

Do you have a model of how to approach the problem of progress?

Not a fully-worked-out model, but here are some thoughts.

On methods:

  • Progress studies is an integration of history, philosophy, and economics (and maybe other fields, but those are the big ones).
  • I think history is the empirical foundation—where we get the case studies and the data from. That's why, when I wanted to understand progress, I started by studying how it has actually happened, and indeed before I even asked “how” I just tried to figure out what happened.
  • Quantifying is good if/when you can do it appropriately. But make sure the thing you are measur
... (read more)
AMA: Jason Crawford, The Roots of Progress

Not sure exactly, but there are some popular books I dislike. I read the first chapter of Dawn of Everything and was unimpressed. See Holden Karnofsky's “book non-review”. Also, I tried to read Sapiens and I could not get through two chapters of it. C. R. Hallpike's review captures my feelings about it.

Re methods of analysis, I am highly skeptical of cyclical theories of history (Turchin/cliodynamics).

But generally as long as you're looking at data and other evidence, and applying logic, you should be able to discover some nugget of truth.

AMA: Jason Crawford, The Roots of Progress

“Needs” might be too strong, but I think more people would be a good thing. More people means more ideas, more art, more science, more inventions, more innovations, more pushing the boundaries of knowledge and practice. If you define “genius” as 99.9999th percentile intelligence, then for every million people born, we get one new genius.

Indeed, there is an argument that we need continued population growth in order to keep up economic growth. The intuition for this, in brief, is that the more we advance, the broader and more challenging the technological fr... (read more)

AMA: Jason Crawford, The Roots of Progress

I dunno… years is too short and centuries maybe too long, so I guess I'd say decades? That is a very wide spread though.

And if you really mean all, I place non-zero probability on “never” or “not for a very long time.” After all, we don't even do all economically important manual tasks using machines yet, and we've had powered machinery for 300 years.

Distinguishing the impact and value of an idea

I have seen this kind of analysis before (e.g., this ACX post). There is something to it, but I think in most contexts, the absolute/total “impact” of an idea (using your terminology here) is more important/relevant than the counterfactual/incremental “value.”

There are a few contexts in which the counterfactual/incremental analysis is what you want, but I’m not sure what you learn from that beyond “it’s more valuable to work in neglected areas, rather than crowded ones, all else being equal.” That is a true and important lesson, but not one for which we ne... (read more)

How Karl Compton believed a research department should be run

It would be interesting to break down R&D models into attributes, like:

  • Average team size?
  • How are problems selected?
  • How is funding allocated?
  • Average amount of funding controlled by a single manager?
  • How is talent selected?
  • How is talent developed?
  • Etc.

And then fill out a table of those attributes for all the major models (university lab, corporate lab, DARPA, etc.)

2ericgilliam2moThis is interesting. I guess I anecdotally have started doing this but my memory (like everyone's) can be quite faulty/hazy. Maybe I'll start keeping a running spreadsheet that I mark up as I read.
AMA: Jason Crawford, The Roots of Progress

I think more people have a relevant background than may be obvious at first:

  • Scientists, inventors, and founders can directly make material progress
  • Historians, economists, and philosophers can study progress and incorporate it into their work
  • Educators and journalists can communicate about progress to their audiences
  • Writers and artists can inspire people with an ambitious vision of the future
  • Policy makers can remove obstructions and roadblocks to progress
  • Parents can educate their children about progress

What everyone can do: educate yourself, spread the world... (read more)

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