There are some things that are obvious, that should be obvious, but people just ignore them or find clever rationalizations for why they’re not obvious. As years go by, I see more and more of these things. For me, the scary thing is how non-obvious they seemed a couple of years ago, because it reminds me that there could still be hundreds of such things around me right now and I don’t see them as obvious. These can be “cached patterns” of thought, logical fallacies, or lazy thinking. Maybe there are some complex problems that are not really obvious to a more trained eye: if you think I have made a mistake, present an argument for why that is so, I’ll be happy to change my mind. But, lacking that, here are 3 of some pretty obvious things that are not obvious:
- Death is not good. This is obvious for managing your everyday life (e.g. you don’t walk into traffic), but somehow, if you apply this thought to a longer time horizon, you get very different results from what is usual. Most of us don’t want death today, tomorrow, or even next year, but we (say we) want it in 50, 60, 70 years. Consider this: if I asked you “Would you like to die tomorrow?”, you would say no. If I asked you that same question the next day, you would say no. If I asked you that same question a year from now, you would say no. If I asked you that question on 5 March 2089, if I said “Would you like to die tomorrow?”, you would STILL say no. In other words, no matter when I ask you, be it today, tomorrow, next decade, or the next millennium, you will say no, and you will never say yes if you are in good health and have friends. Obvious conclusion: we should try really hard not to die: cryonics, fasting (or at least a healthy diet), applied gerontology, and other things. There is nothing beautiful about death, nothing poetic about allowing the destruction of your own soul. There is nothing nice in ceasing to exist.
- Optimization is good. But it’s non-obvious. Say that you want to learn Swedish. You go to a language school and follow the curriculum. It reminds you of your high school days: you all start with checking homework assignments in the workbook, then you talk for a couple of minutes, then you read from the book, then you write down some answers to the questions about the text, and maybe then the teacher explains some topic of Swedish grammar to you. Straightforward. If you were my student a couple of years ago, you would have followed this same curriculum. However, that is no longer so. I asked myself the question: “How can I make my students learn Swedish in the least amount of time possible with the highest possible results?” The answer was not the curriculum we were doing. The answer was: learn really well the most frequent 100 words and the combinations they can produce. That was all it took, a simple question intended to make something better. The result: my students get to a conversational level in probably half the time. If you don’t really get why optimization is good, ask yourself: “Would I like to learn good Swedish in 8 years or in 1 year, given the same amount of effort?” If the answer is obvious to you, then so should the method be. Obvious conclusion: most of the things in your life can be optimized, but aren’t, because of a lack of thought. If you want results, if you really want/need something, you optimize, you don’t do the usual/normal/expected thing.
- Saving 500 people from certain death is better than helping an old, blind woman cross the road. Yes, you might get warm, fuzzy feelings about that old, blind woman. She is so obviously in need of assistance! Okay, if you have to choose, do you a) save the lives of 500 people and let the old woman find her own way or b) help the woman and let 500 people die? Can’t do both. Depending on your answer, effective altruism could (should) be obvious to you. When you can’t do everything but only one thing, you do the one thing that saves the most lives, helps the most people. Saving your dog from drowning is better than sharing your friend’s band page on Facebook. Sending $100 every month to a poor single mother in a Kenyan village to feed and educate her children is better than giving $100 to a random poor guy in USA. He’s in need of assistance, yes. But you giving $100 to a family in Kenya is the equivalent of, I don’t know, giving $1500 to the guy in the USA. Your limited $100 has a much stronger effect in Kenya than in the USA. You save more lives, help more people. Many people resist to such a cold calculation: how can you be so COLD about it? So… machine-like? Well, if you aren’t, you have to live with the fact that you let 500 people die just so that you can help an old lady cross the road. You have to live with the fact that your dog drowned because you helped your friend with his band page on Facebook. If you don’t optimize for maximum effect in helping, you have NOT done your best. You have done something, okay, that is better than nothing. But you didn’t give it your best. The poor woman in Kenya and her children will be hungry for another month. Obvious conclusion: instead of donating to other charities and organizations, join Giving What We Can, the organization which aims to put your money where it has the largest effect. Read 80000 hours. Do what does the most good.
This post might continue. These three things are the most obvious ones that I’ve been thinking about, but I might add other stuff as well (doesn’t have to be so serious as these three). Do you have something that you find fairly obvious, but people around you don’t? Leave a comment, I want to know.