129 episodes

Unusually in-depth conversations about the world's most pressing problems and what you can do to solve them.

Subscribe by searching for '80,000 Hours' wherever you get podcasts.

Produced by Keiran Harris. Hosted by Rob Wiblin, Head of Research at 80,000 Hours.

80,000 Hours Podcast with Rob Wiblin The 80000 Hours team

    • Education
    • 4.8 • 73 Ratings

Unusually in-depth conversations about the world's most pressing problems and what you can do to solve them.

Subscribe by searching for '80,000 Hours' wherever you get podcasts.

Produced by Keiran Harris. Hosted by Rob Wiblin, Head of Research at 80,000 Hours.

    #102 – Tom Moynihan on why prior generations missed some of the biggest priorities of all

    #102 – Tom Moynihan on why prior generations missed some of the biggest priorities of all

    It can be tough to get people to truly care about reducing existential risks today. But spare a thought for the longtermist of the 17th century: they were surrounded by people who thought extinction was literally impossible.

    Today’s guest Tom Moynihan, intellectual historian and author of the book X-Risk: How Humanity Discovered Its Own Extinction, says that until the 18th century, almost everyone — including early atheists — couldn’t imagine that humanity or life could simply disappear because of an act of nature.

    Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.

    This is largely because of the prevalence of the ‘principle of plenitude’, which Tom defines as saying:

    “Whatever can happen will happen. In its stronger form it says whatever can happen will happen reliably and recurrently. And in its strongest form it says that all that can happen is happening right now. And that's the way things will be forever.”

    This has the implication that if humanity ever disappeared for some reason, then it would have to reappear. So why would you ever worry about extinction?

    Here are 4 more commonly held beliefs from generations past that Tom shares in the interview:

    • All regions of matter that can be populated will be populated: In other words, there are aliens on every planet, because it would be a massive waste of real estate if all of them were just inorganic masses, where nothing interesting was going on. This also led to the idea that if you dug deep into the Earth, you’d potentially find thriving societies.
    • Aliens were human-like, and shared the same values as us: they would have the same moral beliefs, and the same aesthetic beliefs. The idea that aliens might be very different from us only arrived in the 20th century.
    • Fossils were rocks that had gotten a bit too big for their britches and were trying to act like animals: they couldn’t actually move, so becoming an imprint of an animal was the next best thing.
    • All future generations were contained in miniature form, Russian-doll style, in the sperm of the first man: preformation was the idea that within the ovule or the sperm of an animal is contained its offspring in miniature form, and the French philosopher Malebranche said, well, if one is contained in the other one, then surely that goes on forever.

    And here are another three that weren’t held widely, but were proposed by scholars and taken seriously:

    • Life preceded the existence of rocks: Living things, like clams and mollusks, came first, and they extruded the earth.
    • No idea can be wrong: Nothing we can say about the world is wrong in a strong sense, because at some point in the future or the past, it has been true.
    • Maybe we were living before the Trojan War: Aristotle said that we might actually be living before Troy, because it — like every other event — will repeat at some future date. And he said that actually, the set of possibilities might be so narrow that it might be safer to say that we actually live before Troy.

    But Tom tries to be magnanimous when faced with these incredibly misguided worldviews.

    In this nearly four-hour long interview, Tom and Rob cover all of these ideas, as well as:

    • How we know people really believed such things
    • How we moved on from these theories
    • How future intellectual historians might view our beliefs today
    • The distinction between ‘apocalypse’ and ‘extinction’
    • Utopias and dystopias
    • Big ideas that haven’t flowed through into all relevant fields yet
    • Intellectual history as a possible high-impact career
    • And much more

    Producer: Keiran Harris.
    Audio mastering: Ben Cordell.
    Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel.

    • 3 hrs 56 min
    #101 – Robert Wright on using cognitive empathy to save the world

    #101 – Robert Wright on using cognitive empathy to save the world

    In 2003, Saddam Hussein refused to let Iraqi weapons scientists leave the country to be interrogated. Given the overwhelming domestic support for an invasion at the time, most key figures in the U.S. took that as confirmation that he had something to hide — probably an active WMD program.

    But what about alternative explanations? Maybe those scientists knew about past crimes. Or maybe they’d defect. Or maybe giving in to that kind of demand would have humiliated Hussein in the eyes of enemies like Iran and Saudi Arabia.

    According to today’s guest Robert Wright, host of the popular podcast The Wright Show, these are the kinds of things that might have come up if people were willing to look at things from Saddam Hussein’s perspective.

    Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.

    He calls this ‘cognitive empathy’. It's not feeling-your-pain-type empathy — it's just trying to understand how another person thinks.

    He says if you pitched this kind of thing back in 2003 you’d be shouted down as a 'Saddam apologist' — and he thinks the same is true today when it comes to regimes in China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea.

    The two Roberts in today’s episode — Bob Wright and Rob Wiblin — agree that removing this taboo against perspective taking, even with people you consider truly evil, could potentially significantly improve discourse around international relations.

    They feel that if we could spread the meme that if you’re able to understand what dictators are thinking and calculating, based on their country’s history and interests, it seems like we’d be less likely to make terrible foreign policy errors.

    But how do you actually do that?

    Bob’s new
    ‘Apocalypse Aversion Project’ is focused on creating the necessary conditions for solving non-zero-sum global coordination problems, something most people are already on board with.

    And in particular he thinks that might come from enough individuals “transcending the psychology of tribalism”. He doesn’t just mean rage and hatred and violence, he’s also talking about cognitive biases.

    Bob makes the striking claim that if enough people in the U.S. had been able to combine perspective taking with mindfulness — the ability to notice and identify thoughts as they arise — then the U.S. might have even been able to avoid the invasion of Iraq.

    Rob pushes back on how realistic this approach really is, asking questions like:

    • Haven’t people been trying to do this since the beginning of time?
    • Is there a great novel angle that will change how a lot of people think and behave?
    • Wouldn’t it be better to focus on a much narrower task, like getting more mindfulness and meditation and reflectiveness among the U.S. foreign policy elite?

    But despite the differences in approaches, Bob has a lot of common ground with 80,000 Hours — and the result is a fun back-and-forth about the best ways to achieve shared goals.

    Bob starts by questioning Rob about effective altruism, and they go on to cover a bunch of other topics, such as:

    • Specific risks like climate change and new technologies
    • How to achieve social cohesion
    • The pros and cons of society-wide surveillance
    • How Rob got into effective altruism

    If you're interested to hear more of Bob's interviews you can subscribe to The Wright Show anywhere you're getting this one. You can also watch videos of this and all his other episodes on Bloggingheads.tv.

    Producer: Keiran Harris.
    Audio mastering: Ben Cordell.
    Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel.

    • 1 hr 35 min
    #100 – Having a successful career with depression, anxiety and imposter syndrome

    #100 – Having a successful career with depression, anxiety and imposter syndrome

    Today's episode is one of the most remarkable and really, unique, pieces of content we’ve ever produced (and I can say that because I had almost nothing to do with making it!).

    The producer of this show, Keiran Harris, interviewed our mutual colleague Howie about the major ways that mental illness has affected his life and career. While depression, anxiety, ADHD and other problems are extremely common, it's rare for people to offer detailed insight into their thoughts and struggles — and even rarer for someone as perceptive as Howie to do so.

    Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.

    The first half of this conversation is a searingly honest account of Howie’s story, including losing a job he loved due to a depressed episode, what it was like to be basically out of commission for over a year, how he got back on his feet, and the things he still finds difficult today.

    The second half covers Howie’s advice. Conventional wisdom on mental health can be really focused on cultivating willpower — telling depressed people that the virtuous thing to do is to start exercising, improve their diet, get their sleep in check, and generally fix all their problems before turning to therapy and medication as some sort of last resort.

    Howie tries his best to be a corrective to this misguided attitude and pragmatically focus on what actually matters — doing whatever will help you get better.

    Mental illness is one of the things that most often trips up people who could otherwise enjoy flourishing careers and have a large social impact, so we think this could plausibly be one of our more valuable episodes.

    Howie and Keiran basically treated it like a private conversation, with the understanding that it may be too sensitive to release. But, after getting some really positive feedback, they’ve decided to share it with the world.

    We hope that the episode will:

    1. Help people realise that they have a shot at making a difference in the future, even if they’re experiencing (or have experienced in the past) mental illness, self doubt, imposter syndrome, or other personal obstacles.

    2. Give insight into what it's like in the head of one person with depression, anxiety, and imposter syndrome, including the specific thought patterns they experience on typical days and more extreme days. In addition to being interesting for its own sake, this might make it easier for people to understand the experiences of family members, friends, and colleagues — and know how to react more helpfully.

    So we think this episode will be valuable for:

    • People who have experienced mental health problems or might in future;
    • People who have had troubles with stress, anxiety, low mood, low self esteem, and similar issues, even if their experience isn’t well described as ‘mental illness’;
    • People who have never experienced these problems but want to learn about what it's like, so they can better relate to and assist family, friends or colleagues who do.

    In other words, we think this episode could be worthwhile for almost everybody.

    Just a heads up that this conversation gets pretty intense at times, and includes references to self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

    If you don’t want to hear the most intense section, you can skip the chapter called ‘Disaster’ (44–57mins). And if you’d rather avoid almost all of these references, you could skip straight to the chapter called ‘80,000 Hours’ (1hr 11mins).

    If you're feeling suicidal or have thoughts of harming yourself right now, there are suicide hotlines at National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the U.S. (800-273-8255) and Samaritans in the U.K. (116 123).

    Producer: Keiran Harris.
    Audio mastering: Ben Cordell.
    Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel.

    • 2 hrs 51 min
    #99 – Leah Garcés on turning adversaries into allies to change the chicken industry

    #99 – Leah Garcés on turning adversaries into allies to change the chicken industry

    For a chance to prevent enormous amounts of suffering, would you be brave enough to drive five hours to a remote location to meet a man who seems likely to be your enemy, knowing that it might be an ambush?

    Today’s guest — Leah Garcés — was.

    That man was a chicken farmer named Craig Watts, and that ambush never happened. Instead, Leah and Craig forged a friendship and a partnership focused on reducing suffering on factory farms.

    Leah, now president of Mercy For Animals (MFA), tried for years to get access to a chicken farm to document the horrors she knew were happening behind closed doors. It made sense that no one would let her in — why would the evil chicken farmers behind these atrocities ever be willing to help her take them down?

    But after sitting with Craig on his living room floor for hours and listening to his story, she discovered that he wasn’t evil at all — in fact he was just stuck in a cycle he couldn’t escape, forced to use methods he didn’t endorse.

    Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.

    Most chicken farmers have enormous debts they are constantly struggling to pay off, make very little money, and have to work in terrible conditions — their main activity most days is finding and killing the sick chickens in their flock. Craig was one of very few farmers close to finally paying off his debts, which made him slightly less vulnerable to retaliation. That opened up the possibility for him to work with Leah.

    Craig let Leah openly film inside the chicken houses, and shared highly confidential documents about the antibiotics put into the feed. That led to a viral video, and a New York Times story. The villain of that video was Jim Perdue, CEO of one of the biggest meat companies in the world. They show him saying, "Farmers are happy. Chickens are happy. There's a lot of space. They're clean." And then they show the grim reality.

    For years, Perdue wouldn’t speak to Leah. But remarkably, when they actually met in person, she again managed to forge a meaningful relationship with a natural adversary. She was able to put aside her utter contempt for the chicken industry and see Craig and Jim as people, not cartoonish villains.

    Leah believes that you need to be willing to sit down with anyone who has the power to solve a problem that you don’t — recognising them as human beings with a lifetime of complicated decisions behind their actions. And she stresses that finding or making a connection is really important. In the case of Jim Perdue, it was the fact they both had adopted children. Because of this, they were able to forget that they were supposed to be enemies in that moment, and build some trust.

    The other lesson that Leah highlights is that you need to look for win-wins and start there, rather than starting with disagreements. With Craig Watts, instead of opening with “How do I end his job”, she thought, “How can I find him a better job?” If you find solutions where everybody wins, you don’t need to spend resources fighting the former enemy. They’ll come to you.

    It turns out that conditions in chicken houses are perfect for growing hemp or mushrooms, so MFA have started their ‘Transfarmation project’ to help farmers like Craig escape from the prison of factory farming by converting their production from animals to plants. To convince farmers to leave behind a life of producing suffering, all you need to do is find them something better — which for many of them is almost anything else.

    Leah and Rob also talk about:

    • Why conditions for farmers are so bad
    • The benefits of creating a public ranking, and scoring companies against each other
    • The difficulty of enforcing corporate pledges
    • And much more

    Producer: Keiran Harris.
    Audio mastering: Ben Cordell.
    Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel.

    • 2 hrs 26 min
    #98 – Christian Tarsney on future bias and a possible solution to moral fanaticism

    #98 – Christian Tarsney on future bias and a possible solution to moral fanaticism

    Imagine that you’re in the hospital for surgery. This kind of procedure is always safe, and always successful — but it can take anywhere from one to ten hours. You can’t be knocked out for the operation, but because it’s so painful — you’ll be given a drug that makes you forget the experience.

    You wake up, not remembering going to sleep. You ask the nurse if you’ve had the operation yet. They look at the foot of your bed, and see two different charts for two patients. They say “Well, you’re one of these two — but I’m not sure which one. One of them had an operation yesterday that lasted ten hours. The other is set to have a one-hour operation later today.”

    So it’s either true that you already suffered for ten hours, or true that you’re about to suffer for one hour.

    Which patient would you rather be?

    Most people would be relieved to find out they’d already had the operation. Normally we prefer less pain rather than more pain, but in this case, we prefer ten times more pain — just because the pain would be in the past rather than the future.

    Christian Tarsney, a philosopher at Oxford University's Global Priorities Institute, has written a couple of papers about this ‘future bias’ — that is, that people seem to care more about their future experiences than about their past experiences.

    Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.

    That probably sounds perfectly normal to you. But do we actually have good reasons to prefer to have our positive experiences in the future, and our negative experiences in the past?

    One of Christian’s experiments found that when you ask people to imagine hypothetical scenarios where they can affect their own past experiences, they care about those experiences more — which suggests that our inability to affect the past is one reason why we feel mostly indifferent to it.

    But he points out that if that was the main reason, then we should also be indifferent to inevitable future experiences — if you know for sure that something bad is going to happen to you tomorrow, you shouldn't care about it. But if you found out you simply had to have a horribly painful operation tomorrow, it’s probably all you’d care about!

    Another explanation for future bias is that we have this intuition that time is like a videotape, where the things that haven't played yet are still on the way.

    If your future experiences really are ahead of you rather than behind you, that makes it rational to care more about the future than the past. But Christian says that, even though he shares this intuition, it’s actually very hard to make the case for time having a direction. It’s a live debate that’s playing out in the philosophy of time, as well as in physics.

    For Christian, there are two big practical implications of these past, present, and future ethical comparison cases.

    The first is for altruists: If we care about whether current people’s goals are realised, then maybe we should care about the realisation of people's past goals, including the goals of people who are now dead.

    The second is more personal: If we can’t actually justify caring more about the future than the past, should we really worry about death any more than we worry about all the years we spent not existing before we were born?

    Christian and Rob also cover several other big topics, including:

    • A possible solution to moral fanaticism
    • How much of humanity's resources we should spend on improving the long-term future
    • How large the expected value of the continued existence of Earth-originating civilization might be
    • How we should respond to uncertainty about the state of the world
    • The state of global priorities research
    • And much more

    Producer: Keiran Harris.
    Audio mastering: Ryan Kessler.
    Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel.

    • 2 hrs 38 min
    #97 – Mike Berkowitz on keeping the US a liberal democratic country

    #97 – Mike Berkowitz on keeping the US a liberal democratic country

    Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election split the Republican party. There were those who went along with it — 147 members of Congress raised objections to the official certification of electoral votes — but there were others who refused. These included Brad Raffensperger and Brian Kemp in Georgia, and Vice President Mike Pence.

    Although one could say that the latter Republicans showed great courage, the key to the split may lie less in differences of moral character or commitment to democracy, and more in what was being asked of them. Trump wanted the first group to break norms, but he wanted the second group to break the law.

    And while norms were indeed shattered, laws were upheld.

    Today’s guest Mike Berkowitz, executive director of the Democracy Funders Network, points out a problem we came to realize throughout the Trump presidency: So many of the things that we thought were laws were actually just customs.

    Links to learn more, summary and full transcript.

    So once you have leaders who don’t buy into those customs — like, say, that a president shouldn’t tell the Department of Justice who it should and shouldn’t be prosecuting — there’s nothing preventing said customs from being violated.

    And what happens if current laws change?

    A recent Georgia bill took away some of the powers of Georgia's Secretary of State — Brad Raffensberger. Mike thinks that's clearly retribution for Raffensperger's refusal to overturn the 2020 election results. But he also thinks it means that the next time someone tries to overturn the results of the election, they could get much farther than Trump did in 2020.

    In this interview Mike covers what he thinks are the three most important levers to push on to preserve liberal democracy in the United States:

    1. Reforming the political system, by e.g. introducing new voting methods
    2. Revitalizing local journalism
    3. Reducing partisan hatred within the United States

    Mike says that American democracy, like democracy elsewhere in the world, is not an inevitability. The U.S. has institutions that are really important for the functioning of democracy, but they don't automatically protect themselves — they need people to stand up and protect them.

    In addition to the changes listed above, Mike also thinks that we need to harden more norms into laws, such that individuals have fewer opportunities to undermine the system.

    And inasmuch as laws provided the foundation for the likes of Raffensperger, Kemp, and Pence to exhibit political courage, if we can succeed in creating and maintaining the right laws — we may see many others following their lead.

    As Founding Father James Madison put it: “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”

    Mike and Rob also talk about:

    • What sorts of terrible scenarios we should actually be worried about, i.e. the difference between being overly alarmist and properly alarmist
    • How to reduce perverse incentives for political actors, including those to overturn election results
    • The best opportunities for donations in this space
    • And much more

    Producer: Keiran Harris.
    Audio mastering: Ben Cordell.
    Transcriptions: Sofia Davis-Fogel.

    • 2 hrs 36 min

Customer Reviews

4.8 out of 5
73 Ratings

73 Ratings

jellyberg ,

Incredibly important

Cannot recommend this highly enough.

Spatialsociety ,

Interesting topic but speaks too fast

Sounds like it is sped up! Distracting.

PabloStafforini ,

By far my favorite podcast

This is far and away my favorite podcast. Great choice of guests and an extremely knowledgeable and articulate host. If you haven't yet listened to any episode, I recommend the ones with Toby Ord (#6), Nick Beckstead (#10), Phil Tetlock (#15), Will MacAskill (#17), and Hilary Greaves (#46).

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