Should we gather conventional qualifications in unconventional cause areas?

Many individuals in the effective altruist community are young, idealistic, academically-minded individuals who care a lot about long-run global security. So why is it so hard to name any who have studied the topics of security and forecasting directly?

One reason for this is just historical circumstance - some leaders of effective altruist thinking started caring about risks because they were researching AI, or because they were studying philosophy. The LessWrong community, founded by Eliezer Yudkowksy, is an example of the former, and the Future of Humanity Institute is an example of the latter. AI and philosophy are arguably no more central to the practise of global risk mitigation than many other fields such as disaster forecasting and disaster preparedness but are disproportionately well-represented because effective altruists have followed or sought to collaborate with early role models.

In contrast, it is quite hard to think of EAs doing postgraduate studies in some other areas:

  • Biosecurity
  • Forecasting (as in The Good Judgement Project)
  • Information security
  • Security policy
  • Geopolitical risk
  • Technological forecasting
  • Science and technology policy

These areas are quite central to projects to improve global security. Moreover, the behaviour of future-focussed effective altruists seems different from the behaviour of others in the effective altruist community.

In contrast to the effective altruists who seek to help future generations, look at those who seek to spread their assistance across national borders - to help those in the developing world. There are some basic similarities. In an organisation like GiveWell, there have been many useful investigations into methodological issues in estimating one's impact. As with FHI, this work has been done by generalists with qualifications in other domains, such as finance. However, many young individuals who take an interest in these issues have undertaken qualifications in development economics. One example would be Eva Vivalt, who has completed postgraduate study in economics, and has maintained contact with that economics establishment while founding AidGrade, although there are others.

It may be because development economics is a large and established community that people are enticed to gain credentials by joining it. Although there are many high-leverage questions for an organisation like AidGrade to investigate, it is also the case for many important questions in development economics, that many hours of work have already been put into finding the right answers. Such fields are more constrained by funding, which people can pursue without credentials in the target research domain.

This stands in contrast to the area of long-run global security, which has so far lacked rigorous research, but has recently attained funding for many full-time researchers. In such fields, expertise and is at a premium. Although some of this work can be done without formal credentials, much of it cannot. Liaising with policymakers requires if not policy study, then experience in think tanks. In universities, for better or worse, it is easier to employ researchers with good graduate education.

So why haven't more of us studied in security or forecasting? Is it because these domains are more fragmented than development economics? If so, should we work to correct this? Is it because these sciences are too underdeveloped to be worth studying? Then again, perhaps if we would enter these fields, we could achieve change from inside. Even if there is little expertise to be achieved in this field, the credentials and contacts could help with enacting policy change.

One would think that forecasting security risks, and their response to policy would be worth studying for most young individuals aiming to secure the far future.

A remaining interpretation is that the nonconformists who are excited about new research in long-term global security are not the kind of people who would obtain ordinary qualifications in order to advance their field.