Posted on Facebook, in reply to “The best person who ever lived is an unknown Ukrainian man“, an article by William MacAskill. Viktor Zhdanov, the ‘Ukrainian man’, was a major figure in the eradication of smallpox.
Eliezer: Wouldn’t the inventors of Science live far enough upstream of this accomplishment, and a vast number of others, that any one of them would far outweigh Viktor Zhdanov? This seems not very defensible as an answer to the stated question, versus “Who did the most good in the 20th century?” or “Who did the most good that is similar to the sort of good GiveWell tries to do?”
Commenter: Was there any one person who was that essential to inventing the scientific method?
Eliezer: Compared to the causal role that Viktor Zhdanov played in wiping out smallpox? Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, Galileo, Copernicus, Laplace, hell, Lavoisier or Leeuwenhoek probably played a causal role in eradicating smallpox comparable to Zhdanov. This judgment of human worth seems blatantly unjustifiable to the point I suspect signaling, unless you believe in an incredible-seeming degree of fatalism about the timing of scientific epistemology and the life sciences and the replaceability of the named heroes within it, versus the replaceability or timing-sensitivity of Viktor Zhdanov, versus also the replaceability of everyone involved in the absence of nuclear war like Vasili Arkhipov and Schelling and so on.
Commenter: Those were all great guys, though I wouldn’t say they “invented science”, they just made huge fundamental strides.
Eliezer: Calling someone the literal all-time winner for human good accomplished so far, is a much stronger judgment than “Viktor Zhdanov saved millions of lives and is a great hero”, and implies a comparative judgment of all the other strong candidates.
Whom we valorize is not a value-neutral act, still less who we valorize above others. You can see how I might question and indeed, call shenanigans, on awarding the literally highest valor to someone who played a major causal role in a long causal chain ending up in completing the eradication of smallpox in the 20th century.
Over all of human history, which is the stated breadth of judgment in the article, Science as a whole clearly accomplished much more good as a whole – including, e.g., the eradication of smallpox. Even a relatively more distributed or relatively more replaceable causal role in Science’s development would lead to a clear claim on scoring more net utilitarian points. Consider humanity’s entire development curve over the last 500 years, then consider the total effect over all that time of shifting the development curve 1 year forward, then ask whether any of the scientists on my given list might have accomplished that much with their lives, when Science was young and fragile. Even if you believe the Renaissance was inevitable, I find it hard to believe that the earliest scientists really made *so* little difference to how it developed or how long it took. I’m not an expert historian but I find it easy to imagine that killing Gutenberg (H/T Alyssa) would have counterfactually set back the curve of human progress by at least 1 year.
In this context, awarding the highest value of all time to a global poverty anti-disease campaign activist (after smallpox had already been significantly fought back, so that we cannot reasonably award the effort in which Zhdanov played one role, all of the credit for defeating all of the smallpox in the 20th century) is something that I not only disbelieve, but find hard to believe was a neutral error.
Anything we might say to devalorize the most important scientists of the 16th century, at this remove, is probably an argument that we could level against Zhdanov too. So I say again that it is very suspicious that the most important people involved in by far the biggest story of the last 500 years, along with the people involved in the second-biggest stories of democratic institutions like the democratic revolution in the US colonies, are being thrown under the bus for a 20th-century global poverty disease eradication activist. The existence of vaccines, antibiotics, and modern medicine *as a whole* is something like maybe the 4th most important story of the last 500 years with a significant share of its own credit going to Science. I’d put industrial revolution / capitalism / finance 3rd, where a big share of the credit there goes to democratic institutions (though not all of it, it was gathering speed in Britain well before democracy got started) and then a lot of the technological aspect flows back to Science too.
I worry there may be a kind of myopia about human history that may be developing in the Global Poverty section of EA. Human history is a big story. Lotta stuff happened. Science, democracy, industrial markets, and the existence of modern medicine are not unreal background forces that we quietly assume so that we can focus on real understandable things like delivering a vial of vaccine to another country. Science, democracy, industrial markets, and modern medicine did not always exist. People had to fight for them. They gave their lives for them. The world has not always been the way it has been. (And it won’t always be the way it is, either.)
PS: I expect Holden not to particularly disagree with me about any of this, so I’m not saying all global poverty EAs are making this mistake or that the case for global-poverty EA is conceptually tied to this mistake.