Cosmic Effective Altruism

How Cost Effective Is Informing ET?

A number of people have raised about intentionally trying to make contact with extraterrestrials. Most famously, Stephen Hawking famously warned that based on the history of first-contacts on Earth we should fear enslavement, exploitation or annihilation by more advanced aliens and the METI proposal to beam high powered signals into space has drawn controversy as well as criticism from David Brin for METI’s failure to engage in consultation with a broad range of experts.  However, I’ve noticed a distinct lack of consideration of the potential benefits to alien life as a result of such contact.

For instance, while the proposal to send the google servers might limit our ability to trade in the future it also potentially provides the aliens with whatever benefits they might get from our scientific insights or our historical experiences. For instance, if we were to receive a detailed account of alien society’s struggle with climate change on their planet that second piece of data could be invaluable in choosing our own course not to mention the benefit scientific advancements could offer.

Indeed, if, as many people seem to think, there is some extinction level disaster waiting for civilizations once they reach, or slightly surpass, our current level of technology then such preemptive broadcasts might be the only serious hope of getting at least one sapient species through this Great Filter. While it might be pretty unlikely that our transmission would start the chain of records from doomed civilizations that will eventually push one species past the filter the returns to utility from such an outcome are so massive that such considerations might well outweigh any effect on humanity in the utility calculus.

Anyway, given the huge potential upside (even if unlikely) of an intervention which might improve life across the entire galaxy (even if at very low probability) I was wondering if anyone has done even back of the envelope calculations to estimate how funding projects trying to transmit useful data to extraterrestrials compares to the cost effectiveness of more earthly projects.

Cross posted at the Effective Altruism Forum

Shouldn’t Museums Sell Fossils?

So my understanding (which might be wrong) is that (with a few rare exceptions) the paleontological value of fossil bones is entirely a function of their 3D shape (and perhaps a small sample of the material they are made of) and the information about where and in what conditions they are found.

Given that we now have 3D scanners shouldn’t museums and universities be selling off the originals to finance more research? Or am I missing something?

I’d add that the failure to have greater funding for new expeditions means we are constantly losing potential fossils to erosion, looters, damage etc… It’s crazy to think that the optimal overall scientific end is served by selling none of the fossils in institutional collections (even the low value ones) while knowing that there are probably high value fossils being lost because we aren’t finding them before they are damaged or that land is developed or whatever.

Also, one could simply include buy-back, borrowing or sampling clauses in any sale. Thus, at worst, when the museum wants to do later sampling it must buy back or partially compensate the current private owner putting them in a strictly better situation.

It’s All In Good Fun

I think something that is missing in recent conversations about sexual harassment is the fact that this is part of a larger phenomena in which those with power can genuinely believe that their harassing behavior is ‘just good fun’ and that their victim doesn’t really mind.

It is the same thing we see when bullies (of either sex) tease their victims or when more popular friends denigrate the social failings of their less popular friends. Indeed, we see this in any number of contexts.

I think its important to understand this for a couple of reasons. First, if we want to actually fix the problem we need to understand that this isn’t just a matter of being a good person. Unless good people actively watch for this phenomena it seems they are psychologically vulnerable to thinking they are behaving appropriately despite causing real pain.

It’s also important because we need to recognize this kind of bullying and mean treatment causes pain regardless of whether it has sexual overtones. There are extra concerns when sexual issues are thrown into the mix but the basic problem remains the same. Also, by recognizing it as part of a larger non-gender specific problem helps remove the distracting gender war aspect from the problem and let people of both genders focus on what makes things better rather than how to demonize and blame the other sex.
Also, personally I’d love to know what underlies this tendency. Despite being someone who has been very much the victim of this kind of behavior its disgustingly easy to slip into it myself without noticing. Its like there is a kind of intoxication of social status that inclines one to ignore the feelings and concerns of those with less status than ourselves.

But if all the recent social changes accomplish is to raise the relative social status of women as a group without engaging in systematic change to make this behavior less common all we will achieve in the long run is changing who is treated badly rather than actually making the world a substantially better place….and the next group on the bottom may not have the kind of internal cohesion and social power to bring the issue to public attention again.