In general, how many people are aware of a problem is strong Bayesian evidence for how much any one person can do to solve the problem. This effect is due to several causes:
- Larger problems take longer to solve, allowing more time for people to find out about the problem.
- Larger problems affect more people personally; if a problem affects you, you’re going to be very aware of it.
- If a problem is easy, it can (by my definition) be solved by a small group of people; it will then go away and nobody else will hear of it. Hard problems, on the other hand, require large amounts of effort; the people trying to solve the problem will realize this and start PR campaigns to get people involved.
- If many people are worried about a problem, large numbers of people will try to help solve it (relative to other problems); your contribution thus matters less in proportion to the total effort.
Note that the number of people involved doesn’t usually affect how hard the problem is (for any given problem). The difficulty of the problem is still there regardless of how many people care about it, but the problems we care about aren’t chosen randomly; there is considerable sample bias. This effect is apparent in a large number of cases:
- Problems that pop up in popular politics, such as global warming, nuclear war and managing the economy well, are rarely if ever fixed. Political problems have the special difficulty of having two competing sides involved, which isn’t usually seen in other areas. The two competing sides act like springs; as soon as one side begins to get the upper hand, the other side notices and pays more attention to that particular issue, and so the pendulum swings back and forth without getting much done.
- Problems that you can solve personally are almost never regional or global issues. And by “solve”, I don’t mean that you have the One True Glorious Plan for a final solution; I mean you could actually go out and solve the thing, by yourself, using only your own resources, without an imaginary army of people backing you up.
- If there’s a problem which has the potential to affect a large number of people, but isn’t that well known, anyone involved in mitigating it can wind up doing a disproportionate amount of good. This is why organizations like the Singularity Institute and the Lifeboat Foundation have been so successful with a comparatively small number of donors.
- If you think you have the solution to a scientific or engineering problem which has eluded a large number of other people, go back and look again, because you have probably made a mistake somewhere. Yes, that includes you, if any creationists, perpetual motion inventors, or crackpot theorists are reading this blog.
- Cheap space travel is a very well-known problem, and most of the companies created to solve this problem have gone bankrupt. Even SpaceX, which is backed by hundreds of millions of dollars of Elon Musk’s personal money, has not yet gotten a vehicle into orbit.