Revising my Views on the Impact of Teachers

In No One is Even Trying, I wrote that Grant Sanderson’s Youtube channel 3B1B has 161 million views. Based on how Youtube counts “views”, that’s between 1.3 and 21.4 million hours of learning.

This is incredible to me. If you asked me last night who my hero is, I would have said Grant Sanderson. If you asked me what’s wrong with the world, I would have said that there aren’t more people like him.

But maybe there are.

A regular teacher, teaching 8am–3pm 180 days a year to a class of 20 is producing 25,000 learning hours a year! Over a 50 year career, that’s 1.3 million, same as Sanderson, though in 10x as much time.

It’s even more surprising to compare a teacher with Khan Academy. Depending on how you count “views” they’re at 15 million to 120 million learning hours. But they have 600 employees, and they’ve been around for 12 years. So that’s best case 17,000, worst case 2,000 learning hours per employee per year, compared to a regular teacher’s 25,000.

That’s a little unfair, Khan Academy hasn’t had 600 employees for the full 12 years. But if we assume linear growth, they’ve averaged 300 employees, which would increase their learning hours to 4,000 (best case 33,000).

To be clear, the point is not that Khan Academy is bad (they have way more than lectures, and they’re available to anyone with an internet connection for free). The point is that seemingly non-scalable things like teaching can still multiply out to surprisingly large impact.

Since views counts on Youtube are legible and quantified, it’s really easy to see 100,000,000 and feel really impressed. But counting a view as 30 seconds, a teacher with 20 students and a 50 year career could hit 1.3 million learning hours, the equivalent of 151 million “views”!

Until now, I didn’t have that much respect for teachers. I understood that they’re probably good people, and a lot of them teach as a labor of love, but I didn’t appreciate their impact.

In fact, teaching has been my go-to example for illustrating how effective altruism differs from lay person opinions. Teaching seems like a great job, but if you think about it through an EA lens, it’s just not very impactful. 80,000 hours has very negative reviews of teaching, and another article of reasons not to go into education.

Nothing I’ve learned recently invalidates those articles. And yet, it’s hard to reconcile my belief in the seeming inefficacy of teaching jobs with my reverence for Sanderson. As always, one man’s modus ponens is another man’s modus tollens. I can have whichever belief I want, but not both of them at once. Either teachers are heroes, or Sanderson is merely moderately praiseworthy.

To further drive this point, consider the scenario:

You’re driving through a small town, and while stopping for lunch, hear rumors of a teacher who delivers unusually engaging lectures. As someone interested in pedagogy and social impact at scale, you decide to go check it out in person, and sure enough, the teacher’s amazing!

What would your first thought be? If you’re like me, your first conscious reaction would be “we’ve got to get this guy on Youtube!” If you’re like me, you see it as a horrendous waste of potential that this brilliant educator is stuck in a small town when he could be on the internet, delivering content to the masses at scale.

So you talk to him, set up a small film crew, convince him to take time off teaching to record Youtube lectures, and sure enough it’s a hit! Within your first few years, he’s up to 10 million views.

And yet, it turns out that intuition is totally wrong. He was already clocking in “10 million views” every few years. Of course there are benefits of being online. The content is recorded, the students could be anywhere in the world, you can go back if you missed a section. But none of that feels sufficient to justify my initial reaction.

Maybe I’m just a shameless technophile retroactively justifying my beliefs, but I think there’s still a good reason to revere Sanderson.

I love 3B1B videos because they’re creative and engaging in a way that math never was in school. It genuinely feels like he’s broken through whatever obfuscation prevents kids from understanding math, and discovered better ways of explaining key concepts. And because math is so fundamental to reasoning, this is more than a good educational channel. It feels almost like a leap forward for civilization.

But still, that’s not a metric effective altruism cares about. Maybe the real modus tollens is to abbandon the value system.

No One is Even Trying

This post is about how little work people do, but it starts with stories of unusually high output.

Gory Movies
Quentin Tarantino is the legendary directory of America’s most violent mainstream movies. For a while, he’s been talking about retiring after his 10th film. If you count the Kill Bill franchise as 1, he’s at 9 so far, and now claims the next will be his last.

Meanwhile, Japanese director Takashi Miike has made literally 10 times as many movies, finishing his 100th in 2017. His movies are similarly violent, so he’s been compared to Tarantino, and actually cast the American director in his wacky Sukiyaki Western Django.

Obviously, the movies are not all good. His worst movie has a 0% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes (98 reviews). In contrast, Tarantino’s worst movie is Once Upon a Time in Hollywood which sits at a relatively illustrious 74%.

But it would be a mistake to write off Miike on that basis. Take a look at their top movies instead. Despite its lows, Miike’s filmography also contains 21 movies with audience scores above 70%, twice as many as Tarantino. Here are each director’s top ten films by Audience Score and Critic Score:

(Taranito’s movies tend to have way more reviewers. Data here.)

There are a couple ranks where each director pulls ahead, but overall it’s pretty even.

The point is, Miike’s managed to keep up with Tarantino’s top 10 while simultaneously churning out another 90 movies. When asked about this output in a recent interview, Miike says:

I never set out to make 100 movies. And I never never have a personal motto to make lots of movies, either. I just started making movies, and kept making them at my pace… But at the same time, I’m lazy.

Online Education
3Blue1Brown is a math education Youtube channel run by Grant Sanderson. It spans interactive livestream lectures, visualizations, and approachable explanations for difficult math concepts.

He also has 161 million views, which is just insanely high for a math teacher.

For context, Khan Academy is at 1,806 million, which is 10x higher, but it also has 600 employees! (Not to mention funding from Bill Gates, Carlos Slim and Google.)

In terms of views per employee, that puts Sanderson ahead by a factor of 60. Of course, Khan Academy does more than just produce videos, they also have a gamified app, problems sets and so on.

But still, 60x is just enormous.

It’s worth noting also that KA videos tend to be short because they break each concept into bite sized pieces, around 4 minutes each. Sanderson tends more towards extended essays on a topic, averaging around 16 minutes per video. So if you care about total learning minutes, it’s more like 240x.

Khan Academy has not always had 600 employees, but it’s also been around 12 years to Sanderson’s 5. So if you assume linear-ish growth and an average of 300, and then account for age, these corrections are a wash.

I don’t even know who the point of comparison is here. There are plenty of low-output writers to go around, I’m not going to call anyone out in particular.

But at the far other end of the spectrum, take a look at Byrne Hobart. He’s published 5 days a week, every single week since he launched his newsletter. His last 5 posts are 1968, 2281, 3352, 2535 and 2586 words, so 12,722/week, times 52 weeks, is 661,544 words each year. But the really impressive thing is that he’s simultaneously writing for Coindesk, Medium and Palladium. No, there isn’t any overlap or self-plagiarization.

And then, as I wrote as an edit to my last post, there are people like Heather Cox Richardson who publish literally every day, including weekends. Her word count comes in at 1600, a bit below Byrne, but that’s still 11,200/week. She’s one of the highest paid authors on Substack, second only to The Dispatch, a 15 person team of professional journalists with decades of experience.

Oh right, and she’s simultaneously a Professor at Boston College, authored How the South Won the Civil War, and co-authored Voter Suppression in U.S. Elections, both of which were published this year. I can’t find any mention of her being on sabbatical, and according to some informal estimates, professors work somewhere in the range of 40-60 hours a week.

What’s the deal? How is Richardson able to compete with 15 journalists while running her newsletter as a side project?

It’s worth briefly playing devil’s advocate about each case’s particulars:

  • Miike makes a ton of movies, but a lot of them are garbage. Maybe as long as you try enough times, you occasionally do exceptionally well. Or maybe “director” doesn’t entail the same workload in Japan, and Miike’s delegating to producers, assistants, cinematographers and so on.
  • Sanderson is unusually popular, but that’s not evidence that he’s actually more productive. Maybe he’s discovered a particularly compelling video format, and he’s milking it for all its worth. That’s still laudable, but it’s a different feat that the ones I’m describing.
  • Richardson’s books published this year were probably written in past years, and her Substack is relatively new so it’s not like she was doing both at once. If you can type 80 words per minute and write stream of consciousness, 11,200 words is just 20 minutes a day.

But still, none of that helps explain why there aren’t way more people like this, or why the contrasts are so stark.

The easy explanation is that they just work harder, but in some cases that just doesn’t add up. Danielle Steel has written 179 books, and she reportedly works 20 hours a day. So she’s basically at the limit of what’s humanly possible. But even then, she’s working maybe 2.5x harder than a normal author, and publishing 10 times as many books. By total sales, she’s now the world’s best selling author.

Why does it feel like no one else is even close?

One explanation is that we’re stuck in a double bind. I wrote in Bus Factor 1 that large companies are designed specifically to ensure that no one has personal responsibility, and in Quitting Won’t Save You, I explained some of the surprising difficulties with setting out on your own. Pretty much everyone I know is in one of those two camps.

Escaping the bind takes more than hard work. You have to actually go out and generate your own sense of meaning. You have to build, often without a surrounding social structure, a way of creating value on your terms.

Here’s Danielle Steel from a recent interview:

I grew up in Europe, where it was not considered polite for a woman to be working, and I was married to two different men who did not like that I worked.

Miike’s movies have been banned, not by repressive regimes, but by Finland and Germany. Responding to initial success he said he had

“no idea what goes on in the minds of people in the West and I don’t pretend to know what their tastes are. And I don’t want to start thinking about that. It’s nice that they liked my movie, but I’m not going to start deliberately worrying about why or what I can do to make it happen again”

What I’m getting at, is neither of them seems to be powered by social validation, but they’ve found a way to work pretty much constantly anyway.

But laboring in obscurity is only half the battle. The other half is continuing to do good things once you’re popular. A normal person’s natural instinct is to do everything in their power to maintain their popularity, cater to their audience, and thus become boring. At some point, you are not even a creator, just a fleshy vessel for an idea that already exists independently, and acts through you only as long as you do not exert too much personal will.

It’s hard to express that sentiment in a way that doesn’t sound trite, so let me end with personal testimony. I think a lot about giving up writing. Every day since I started this blog, I have woken up, and wanted to quit. I find myself scanning job boards, or polishing my resume, even though I’ve told myself a million times that I don’t want to go back.

And then a few days ago, something changed. I was featured in Marginal Revolution, then on Hacker News, then on Marginal Revolution a second time, and then Byrne Hobart’s newsletter twice. Practically overnight, there was an influx of subscribers, and more supportive emails than I’ve had time to reply to. From close to 0, I suddenly found myself with a powerful source of external validation.

And it’s horrible. I check the subscriber count 10 times a day. When I sit down to write, I imagine you all judging my work. I’ve read every comment, including all the totally banal ones.

So in one sense, I’m free from the double mind. I have a sense of personal responsibility for my success, and a sense of social validation to go with it. I just don’t know where I go from here to actually produce great work.

I don’t have a neat ending, but in the spirit of Learning in Public in Real Time, I’m recording these thoughts now, and trust that I’ll figure it out later.

A Vote for Jo Is at Most Half a Vote for Trump

I’m embarrassed to even say this out loud, but here it is: A vote for Jo is not a vote for Trump.

I get that this is dumb and pedantic, but here it is:
If you vote for Biden, he’s up one point. If you vote for Trump, Biden’s down one point. So your vote creates a 2 point differential. If you abstain or vote third party, neither Trump nor Biden gets a point. So even if voting for Biden is the default behavior, voting third party is only half as bad as voting for Trump.

Yes, I understands that this is missing the point. I understand that we’re supposed to resist in every capacity such that actions which don’t actively hurt Trump are equivalent to helping him.
I am actually morally sympathetic to that view. I don’t see a distinction between doing good and preventing harm. But even then, let’s not lie. Voting third party is (at most) half as bad as voting for Trump.

Now that I’ve baited you in with non-conformist politics, here’s the punchline:

I voted for Joe Biden, and you should too.

In an earlier post, I quoted the Andrew Gelman / Nate Silver analysis that the average voter has a 1 in 60 million chance of deciding the election. It ranges from 1 in 10 million if you live in a swing state, up to around 1 in 100 billion if your state is hyper partisan.

But that analysis is based on the landslide 2008 election. Obama ended up winning by 9.5 million popular votes and 365 electoral votes to McCain’s 173. In the current election, Predictit has Biden winning 290 to 248, a much smaller margin.

In the original model, Gelman et al. write: “for voters in states such as New York, California, and Texas, where the probability of a decisive vote is closer to 1 in a billion, any reasons for voting must go beyond any instrumental rationality.”

But that just isn’t obvious to me at all. There are all kinds of nightmare scenarios where even very low probabilities multiply out to super high utility. What are the odds of one candidate causing a nuclear fallout or second civil war?

I am not an alarmist, but if you put a gun to my head I would put the odds of civil war at around 1.5%. Another analysis has nuclear war at 1.1% annual, so 4.3% over 4 years, assuming independence.

I don’t know what the actual cost of nuclear or civil war is, but it’s worth making up some numbers anyway. Let’s say it’s the US GDP for a generation. That’s 20 trillion dollars, over 30 years with a 2% growth rate, so 800 trillion. (Analysis by same author estimates 5.5B deaths from nuclear winter induced famine.)

That gives us:
$800 trillion / 1 in a billion chance of influencing the outcome * (0.043 chance of nuclear war + .015 chance of civil war) = $46,400.

But of course, it’s not as if one candidate totally obviates these risks. How much better will Biden be at preventing catastrophe? Hardcore democrats might say 50%, or 90%, but let’s say 10%.

Even then, the resulting impact of your vote is estimated at $4,640 which is not bad for 30 minutes of paperwork. And then add on all the non-speculative short term harm, and incorporate the fact that this election is likely to be much closer than 2008.

I don’t know what that all comes out to, but the burden is on you to figure it out. And if you think it’s going to take more than 30 minutes to do the math, you should probably just use that time to vote instead.