What is the Most Important Problem in the World?

How does one even start answering this question?

Welcome to issue #37 of Light Gray Matters, which today focusses particularly on the Matters part of the title.

I’m part of a writing group so cool it’s called “Writing Group” but in Latin, therefore “Congregatio Scriptores.” I say it’s a writing group because everyone in it is a writer of some sort, but mostly we’ve just been having pretty awesome discussions every two weeks.

Until now! We decided to plan a common publication around, you know, a light and easy theme: What’s most important issue in the world right now?

One friend said he had a list of 25 issues, and he picked one at random. He wrote about the scary possibility of stable totalitarianism — an oppressive regime that would rule the entire world and that it would become nearly impossible to break out of, forever.

Another friend, inspired by the first, wrote about the risk of false telos — the risk that humanity would pick a wrong end goal and commit to achieving something that actually doesn’t matter at all.

The others in the group, for various no doubt excellent reasons, didn’t manage to find time to write something. (Did I mention that our deadline was supposed to be today? Yeah, consider this newsletter my entry, I guess; otherwise I failed too.) It’s not easy to turn a writing group into a true writing group.

As for myself, my thoughts initially went to groupthink. I believe groupthink — the tendency for everyone in a community to think alike — is at the root of many problems, including totalitarianism and false telos. It is also closely related to my series of essays about diversity.

But as I sat down to write about it, I couldn’t find anything interesting to say that others hadn’t said before me. The essay “JUMP” by Mike Solana is everything I was going to write, only better. It starts with the urban legend that if everyone in China jumped at the same time, it would destroy the world; and it ends with this incredibly alarming image:

People often joke you can’t change the world with a tweet. But it’s more apparent now than ever that you can. The problem is, in practice, a meme at rapid global scale doesn’t often look like freedom, or justice, or prosperity. It looks like a billion people doing the same thing, at the same time, in a temporary state of madness.

Jump.

I can’t match such incredible writing, so I lost my will to write that essay. Oh well.

Besides, I’m not even sure groupthink should be the top most pressing issue. Or even among the top ten. But what might that be? How might we find out?


Let’s see what 80,000 Hours has to say. 80,000 Hours is a nonprofit that wants to help you make your career (which, typically, lasts 80,000 hours) have the most positive impact possible.

I always feel super uncomfortable when visiting their website, because obviously my life is nowhere near a state to solving major world problems. But let’s dive in anyway.

80,000 Hours classifies the following four areas as the top-priority problems:

The second-highest priority areas are:

Then there’s a whole list of “other potentially promising issues to work on” which you can check out on this page. Stable totalitarianism is one, for example. Some could be broadly considered as avoiding groupthink, like “safeguarding liberal democracy.”

80,000 Hours has their own way to define top problems, which you can read in their extensive documentation. I’m not sure to what extent I agree with them — I don’t think I have a coherent personal framework to evaluate the importance of world problems. Maybe I thought of groupthink just because the JUMP essay had made a big impression on me, or because it’s the sort of thing we talk about in the Congregatio Scriptores.

But I do note that one of 80,000 Hours’s top issues is “global priorities research.” This means:

rigorously investigating what the most important global problems are, how we should compare them to each other, and what kinds of interventions best address them. For example, how do we compare the value of more work on climate change vs. global health vs. preventing future pandemics?

So, it’s a meta-issue. It’s the issue of determining what the most pressing issue is.

In a way, it’s not surprising that 80,000 Hours identifies this as one of their top issues, since it’s what they do — just like a dentist might say that dental health is the single most important aspect of your health. But it looks sound. If there’s no consensus on what we should prioritize, we should think really hard about this, otherwise we risk pouring a lot of resources in something that doesn’t matter. A false telos.

Then again, I’m writing a post titled “What is the Most Important Problem in the World?” so of course I would say that, right?

Maybe that’s what blogging is, for a generalist. It means giving your attention to various topics that capture your interest, so that you illuminate something important.

Or maybe I’m just using this as a cop-out to justify not working on AI or climate change or something.

Anyway, today I had a chat with those two friends from the Congregatio, and we’re going to switch to a different writing project. That means I am free to stop worrying about this question and go back to just following my interests and not caring about the world’s most important problems. A win!

Also I’m basically fully unemployed right now, no one is getting those 80,000 hours at the moment anyway.

For now, that feels pretty good.

Étienne

P.S. I don’t know if it’s one of the top issues in the world — but the institution science is broken in so many ways the shards are basically the size of dust at this point. Since in a previous life I was on the way to becoming a scientist, and now I (pretend that I) am a writer, I’ve been thinking about improving the intersection of those things.

I hope to garner some feedback from people in and around science and science communication — I want to know if it’s a plausible idea. So please read the essay if you think it’s an interesting topic. Thanks!