Posts

The Intellectual and Moral Decline in Academic Research 2020-02-07T16:47:32.079Z · score: 20 (10 votes)
The illusion of science in comparative cognition 2019-11-02T19:17:18.322Z · score: 21 (7 votes)
IGDORE forum for discussing metascience 2019-10-23T18:28:07.141Z · score: 7 (3 votes)

Comments

Comment by gavintaylor on The Intellectual and Moral Decline in Academic Research · 2020-02-13T14:34:46.242Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks for the discussion on this Tom and Will.

I originally posted this article as, although it presents a very strong opinion on the matter and admittedly uses shock tactics by taking many values out of context (as pointed out by Romeo and Will), I thought that the sentiment was going in both same the direction that I personally felt science was moving and also with several other sources I'd read. I hadn't looked into any of authors other work, and although his publication record seems reasonable, he has pushed some fairly fringe views on nutrition and knowing this does reduce the weight I give to views in this article (thanks for digging into it Tom).

For a more balanced critic of recent scientific practice I'd recommend the book Real Science by John Ziman (I have a pdf, PM if you'd like a copy). It’s a long but fairly interesting read on the sociology of science from a naturalistic perspective, and claims that University research has moved from an 'academic' to 'post-academic' phase, characterised as the transition from the rigorous pursuit of knowledge to a focus on applications, which represents a convergence between academic and industrial research traditions. Although this may lead to more applications diffusing out of academia in the short-term, the 'post-academic' system is claimed to loose some important features of traditional research, like disinterestedness, organised skepticism, and universality, and tends to trade quality for quantity. The influence of societal interests (including corporate goals) would be expected to have much influence on the work done by 'post-academic' researchers.

Agreed with both Will and Tom that there are certainly are still lot of people doing good academic research, and how strongly you weight the balance will depend on which scientists you interact with. Personally, I ended up leaving Academia without pursuing a faculty position (in-part) because I felt I the push to use excessive spin and hype in order to publish my work and attract funding was making it quite substanceless. Of course, this may have been specific to the field I was working in (invertebrate sensory neuroscience) and I'm glad to hear that you both have more positive outlooks.

Comment by gavintaylor on The Intellectual and Moral Decline in Academic Research · 2020-02-12T12:29:02.225Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks for elaborating Will.

Agreed that the increase in funding for science will generally just increase the size of science, and the base assumption should be that the retraction rate will stay the same, which would lead to a roughly proportionate increase in the number of retractions with science funding. The 700% vs. 900% roughly agrees with that assumption (although it could still be that the reasons for retraction change over time).

The idea of increasing retractions being a beneficial sign of better epistemic standards is interesting. My observation is that papers are usually basically only retracted if scientific fraud or misconduct was committed (e.g. falsifying or manipulating research data) - questionable research practices (e.g. P-hacking, optional stopping or HARKing), failure to replicate, or even technical errors don't usually lead to a retraction (Wikipedia also notes that plagiarism is a common cause of retractions). It is a pity there is no ground truth for scientific misconduct to reference the retraction rate against.

Aside, this summary of the influence of retractions and failure to replicate on later citations may be of interest. Thankfully, retraction usually has a strong reduction on the amount of citations the retracted paper receives.

Comment by gavintaylor on The Intellectual and Moral Decline in Academic Research · 2020-02-09T17:12:24.071Z · score: 10 (7 votes) · EA · GW

I agree that it's an extreme stance and probably overly-general (although the specificity to public health and biomedical research is noted in the article).

Still, my feeling is that this is closer to the truth than we'd want. For instance, from working in three research groups (robotics, neuroscience, basic biology), I've seen that the topic (e.g. to round out somebody's profile) and participants (e.g re-doing experiments somebody else did so they don't have to be included as an author, instead of just using their results directly) of a paper are often selected mainly on perceived career benefits rather than scientific merit. This is particularly true when the research is driven by junior researchers rather than established professors, as the value of papers to former is much more about if they will help get grants and a faculty position rather than their scientific merit. For example, it's very common that a group of post-docs and PhDs will collaborate to produce a paper without a professor to 'demonstrate' their independence, but these collaborations often just end up describing an orphan finding or obscure method that will never be really be followed up on, and the junior researchers time could arguable have produced more scientifically meaningful results if they focused on their main project. Of course, its hard to evaluate how such practices influence academic progress in the long run, but they seem inefficient in the short-term and stem from a perverse incentive of careerism.

My impression is that questionable research practices probably vary a lot by research field, and the fields most susceptible to using poor practices are probably ones where the value of the findings won't really be known for a long time, like basic biology research. My experience in neuroscience and biology is that much more 'spin', speculation, and story telling goes into presenting the biological findings than there was in robotics (where results are usually clearer steps along a path towards a goal). While a certain amount of story telling is required to present a research finding convincingly, it has become a bit of a one-up game in biology where your work really has to be presented as a critical step towards an applied outcome (like curing a disease, or inspiring a new type of material) for anybody to take it seriously, even when it's clearly blue-sky research that hasn't yet found an application.

As for the author, it looks like he is no longer working in Academia. From his publication record it looks like he was quite productive for a mid-career researcher, and although he may have an axe to grind (presumably he applied for many faculty positions but didn't get any, common story) being outside the Ivory Tower can provide a lot more perspective about it's failings than what you get from inside it.

Comment by gavintaylor on The Intellectual and Moral Decline in Academic Research · 2020-02-07T20:51:41.697Z · score: 14 (7 votes) · EA · GW

Good point. Unfortunately the Economist article referenced for this number is pay-walled for me and I am not sure if it indicates the total number of clinical trial participants during that time.

Your comment got me interested so I did some quick googling. In the US in 2009 there were 10,974 registered trials with 2.8 Million participants, and in the EU the median number of patients studied for a drug to be approved was 1,708 (during the same time window). I couldn't quickly find the average length of a clinical trial.

I expect 80,000 patients would be at most 1% of population of total clinical trial participants during that 10 year window, so this claim might be a bit over-emphasised (although it does seem striking at first read).

Comment by gavintaylor on Welfare stories: How history should be written, with an example (early history of Guam) · 2020-01-05T18:06:54.477Z · score: 8 (5 votes) · EA · GW

Jason Crawford is writing about the history of many industrial advances at Roots of Progress. I think his approach is complementary to yours, and he describes it at:

https://rootsofprogress.org/problem-solution-history

https://rootsofprogress.org/whats-wrong-with-books-on-industrial-history

Comment by gavintaylor on Comparing naturally evolved and engineered solutions · 2020-01-02T21:27:10.027Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · EA · GW

This seems like an interesting way of comparing the results of different types of design solutions.


One important thing to consider is that evolution was under a lot of additional constraints compared to engineers when 'designing' organisms. For instance, reactions occur at room temperature and with organic chemistry, many organisms are self-replicating and self-assembling, energy and materials are usually limited to what an organism can collect itself. And rather than optimising for any specific parameter, evolution is just aiming for an organism to survive and reproduce - so few solutions will be optimal in terms of performance/efficiency unless there was a strong evolutionary pressure for them to be so.


My experience with bio-inspired design is that it is usually best to look to biology for high-efficiency solutions as resource scarcity is a constant in most environments. High-performance biology is seen in microscopic structures, which probably still out-perform engineered solutions in many areas.

Comment by gavintaylor on How Fungible Are Interests? · 2019-12-19T16:28:40.417Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

I think something else to consider is that familiarity can also build a passionate interest that is hard to let go of.

In the case of Sue the Poet, it's not that she's was unskilled and looking for something interesting, she's already found writing and, as described, practiced this a lot and found she is a skilled and (potentially) successful writer. Likewise, I assume that your friend the computer scientist has already studied computer science for a while and has become quite skilled at it, so its less appealing to start from scratch with physics (there would be some skills in common between CS and physics, but it will probably still feel like a big step-back on the learning curve).

While there is an element of sunk-cost fallacy here, I think that people who've done training and found that they are skilled at something are probably less likely to want to change their interest than somebody who has experience and found that they are un-skilled, or otherwise unsuccessful at their first interest. This seems like it could create a perverse incentive as generally-talented people who are highly successful in their first field could be disincentivized from trying to move into a more important field where they could have a larger impact. In academia there are often programs to encourage interdisciplinary research, but I wonder if the people these draw in may tend to be those that aren't particularly successful in their original field? (I consider myself a interdisciplinary scientist and can admit there is a bit of truth in that)

In line with this, I think it's good that EA/80k posts often emphasize the value of testing out a variety of promising career paths, not just picking the subject you are either most interested in or judge as most important when entering college. Maybe it could also be good to pre-commit to testing some number of options for a certain time (say 4 fields x 6 months) before comparing your interest and ability between them to avoid the temptation to commit to the first one grabs your attention. I know a lot of graduate courses do something similar with lab rotations, although I don't know how common this is elsewhere in career planning/education.


Comment by gavintaylor on "Altruism-driven research" (EA meets... plant pathology?) · 2019-12-19T11:52:45.420Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks for posting this. I think that there is a lot more scope for the INT framework to be used by researchers outside of the top-priority EA areas. From personal experience, if you come into EA as an experienced researcher from a field outside the priority areas it's somewhat hard to connect with the existing resources unless you're willing to change fields.

But I think there would benefits from more general outreach to scientists/academic working in other areas. For instance, nudging researchers to think about the potential impacts/consequences of their work could encourage a norm of selecting impactful, not just interesting, projects (academic research already encourages working on neglected/original and tractable problems) and some may also pass this idea on to their students who may be better positioned to transition to work on a top-priority EA area.

Comment by gavintaylor on We're Rethink Priorities. AMA. · 2019-12-16T00:22:55.211Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Also, it may be worth considering that in many cases preprints are considered much more 'citeable' in academic articles than general webpages/blog posts would be. I think having the DOI is seen as a mark of permanence, which is considered superior to just having a permalink to the accessed version.

Comment by gavintaylor on We're Rethink Priorities. AMA. · 2019-12-15T18:31:00.334Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Peter, do you have any tips for being productive while doing independent research and other work in parallel? I'm also trying to do both scientific research and scientific consulting at the same time. I've found my two major difficulties are slowed productivity while context switching (which I usually need to do several times a week, between projects in very different fields) and feeling obliged to prioritize time/energy on my clients research projects in front of my own (regardless of what I consider their relative importance/interest to be). I'd be interested to know how you deal with these or similar challenges.

Comment by gavintaylor on We're Rethink Priorities. AMA. · 2019-12-15T18:18:41.566Z · score: 7 (5 votes) · EA · GW

Biorxiv has a new initiative where they will review preprints, with the idea of the review comments then being published next the pre-print and then used by directly editors of the journal(s) the paper is later submitted to. I don't know too much about this, but it could be a useful way to get reviewer comments for some of invertebrate sentience posts, even if you don't later intend to submit them to a journal. Some further information is at:

https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/10/bid-boost-transparency-biorxiv-begins-posting-peer-reviews-next-preprints

https://www.cshl.edu/transparent-review-in-preprints/

Comment by gavintaylor on Reality is often underpowered · 2019-12-15T18:07:28.322Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

I recently stumbled onto this article supporting the use of both serendipitous and planned case studies.

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1046/j.1365-2753.1998.00011.x

This is related to clinical practice, but again the ideas may be relevant to development. The authors note that case-studies are particularly useful to clinicians who are might be in a good position to look for patients fitting into a specific population during their routine practice - I wonder if the same concept could be applied to field staff in development projects. For instance, developmental 'case-studies' probably won't generate generalizable results, but they could be helpful in tailoring an RCT validated intervention to a specific population.

Comment by gavintaylor on My recommendations for RSI treatment · 2019-11-21T16:07:42.811Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · EA · GW

People likely to develop RSI are probably also likely to develop back pain (which I had well before RSI-wrist problems). The book 8 steps to a pain free back looks superficially like pseudo-science, but I'd actually recommend it as I found the exercises and techniques it described to be really useful. Over 10 years after having read it I still use the 'stretchsitting', 'stretchlying' and 'inner-corset' techniques and haven't had major back-discomfort since.

I have a pdf of book, message me if you'd like a copy.


Comment by gavintaylor on Is there a clear writeup summarizing the arguments for why deep ecology is wrong? · 2019-10-28T17:13:20.393Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Good links Max. I've often felt there is a conflict between ecosystems/species preservation and animal welfare and these are really useful for exploring that idea more.

However, I one point that I still get some cognitive dissonance from is the low-importance ascribed to (species) diversity. It seems like if resources are to be used to make more happy individuals (so using resources to improve the lives of unhappy individuals is not an option, maybe we're in a utopia where the lives of all sentient individuals are already net-positive and we value totalist population ethics), then it could, for instance, be better to produce more happy rhinos than happy humans, as there are far fewer rhinos than humans (if our utopia has the same current species numbers as the world today), so we will get more increase in the diversity of happy experiences. A moral weighting should also be applied between humans and rhinos, but if there is a huge difference in relative population numbers then it would probably be the dominating factor. How do others value a world with 7,700,000,000 people and 40,000 rhinos vs. a world with 7,700,010,000 people and 30,000 rhinos (using rough current species numbers and assuming all were fairly happy)?

I think my intuition is to incorporate diminishing returns (for a given species) into multi-species population ethics, given that the experiences (phenomenology) of species differs, so they experience happiness in different ways. Does this make any sense, and is there a name for such ethical views? It works best for me from the totalist population ethics standpoint, and I probably wouldn't extend this to saying we should help unhappy rhinos over unhappy humans, even given the current populations of both species.

Comment by gavintaylor on Ramiro's Shortform · 2019-10-24T12:14:22.307Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Ramiro.

I think that Point 1 will be difficult to test in this way. What you want to do sounds a bit like a regression discontinuity analysis, but (as I understand it) there isn't really a sharp time point for when you started promoting EA more; the translations/meetings etc. increased steadily since Oct 2018, right? I think this will make it harder to see the effect during the first year that you are scaling up outreach (particularly if compared by month, as there is probably seasonal variation in both donation and outreach). Brazil has also had a fairly distinct set of news worthy events (i.e. election and major political change, arrest of two former presidents during ongoing corruption scandals, amazon fires, etc.) over the same time period you increased outreach. If these events influence donation behaviour, then comparisons to other countries might not be particularly relevant (and it further complicates your monthly comparison). I think a better way to try and observe a quantitative effect would be if you compare the total donations for three years: pre-Oct 2018, Oct 2018-Oct 2019, post-Oct 2019 (provided you keep your level of outreach similar for the next year, and are patient). Aggregating over year will remove the seasonal effect of donations and some of the effect of current events, and if this shows an increase for 2019-2020, then you could (cautiously) look at comparing the monthly donation behaviour (three years of data will be better to compensate for monthly variation).


At this point, I think tracking your impact more subjectively by using questionnaires and interviews would produce more useful information. Not sure if charities would link their donors to you (maybe getting the contact of Brazilians who report donating in the EA survey would be more likely), but you could also try adding a annual questionnaire link to your newsletter/facebook/site like 80,000 hours does. I'd specifically try to ask people who made their first donations, or who increased their donations, this year what motivated them to do so.

Comment by gavintaylor on Reality is often underpowered · 2019-10-19T14:12:33.637Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

I read an article about using logic to fill in the gaps around sparse or weak data that reminded me of this post. The article is focused on health science, but I think the idea is relevant to development as well.

https://nutritionalrevolution.org/2019/06/30/the-case-for-coming-to-conclusions-based-on-weak-evidence/

Comment by gavintaylor on Best EA use of $500,000AUD/$340,000 USD for basic science? · 2019-10-02T11:45:24.800Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

As far as I know all western universities take overheads, although the percentage varies a lot. I used to be at the Biology Department in Lund University and they took 50%!

But I think that refusing overheads is only really an option on the margin, for foundations and individual funders. Most researchers get the majority of their funding from government funding agencies (e.g. NIH, NSF) and as far as I know these all pay full overheads, but universities actually need these overheads to fund their operating expenses. I don't have first hand knowledge of this, but my understanding is that if overheads are 50% and you get $100 grant that doesn't pay overheads, the University actually has to source $50 from elsewhere in order to administer your grant.

I've never heard of a University turning down an grant without overheads, but I have heard that bringing in a majority of overhead free money reflects poorly on an academic during a career review for promotion/tenure/new job etc.

Comment by gavintaylor on My recommendations for RSI treatment · 2019-09-24T12:35:19.796Z · score: 7 (3 votes) · EA · GW

That's interesting you mention the psychological aspect - I searched a lot of material on RSI, but don't recall seeing this discussed before. When I initially developed RSI it didn't bother me much, but as the physical symptoms progressed it upset me more and probably ultimately contributed to some moderate depression I developed (it didn't help that my depression was related to difficulty reaching professional goals, and the RSI was slowing me down on achieving them). I put off treatment for both when they were at the mild stage and ultimately only treated the RSI after I treated the depression - maybe that was the wrong order to take.

Comment by gavintaylor on Best EA use of $500,000AUD/$340,000 USD for basic science? · 2019-08-27T20:08:48.125Z · score: 12 (5 votes) · EA · GW

Also, if you donate to researcher at a University, try to make sure it goes directly to them and their institution doesn't take overheads from it.

Comment by gavintaylor on Best EA use of $500,000AUD/$340,000 USD for basic science? · 2019-08-27T12:38:18.705Z · score: 25 (13 votes) · EA · GW

OPP funds transformative basic science and might be able to make some suggestions about how to allocate the money.

https://www.openphilanthropy.org/focus-area/scientific-research/transformative-basic-science

Comment by gavintaylor on What are good reasons for or against working on protecting biodiversity and ecosystem services? · 2019-08-25T18:02:36.588Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

I have wondered if species extinction should be treated as worse than simply the welfare/suffering of the last members of a species.

For example, I take it that most EAs would view the loss of the last 100 million humans as much worse than the 7.6 billion who might die before them in an existential catastrophe, particularly if the survivors still had a chance at re-building human civilizations. Likewise, if we lose a species, we lose any future value that was intrinsic to having that species in existence. And as most human value is likely to be in the far future this could also be true for animals, but this can only be realized if the species remains extant (i.e. future humans may wish to create zoo simulations or worlds after WBE or space colonization).

While I agree that a lot of both near- and long-term human related causes seem more important than protecting breeding populations of all endangered species, it could be that we are undervaluing the intrinsic benefit of biodiversity. A cheap way of safeguarding against the case we are currently under prioritizing species preservation would just be to take some genetic samples from those that are endangered (already being done). Then the opportunity exists to recreate extant species in the future if resources are available and we decide they should have been conserved.

Comment by gavintaylor on How to generate research proposals · 2019-08-22T12:18:59.078Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Nice, I particularly like the table and bullet-point forms you used for curating your ideas - I often find myself with too many ideas to work on and this seems like a good way to take an objective overview.

During my PhD I read 'Becoming a successful scientist' - this presented a strategic approach to scientific discovery and problem selection (Section 3.1) that I haven't really seen elsewhere. It focused on science, but the ideas of looking for contradictions, paradoxes, new viewpoints or different scales may also be helpful for generating research questions in philosophy/economics.

I have a PDF of the book I'm happy to send by email, PM me.

Comment by gavintaylor on How Life Sciences Actually Work: Findings of a Year-Long Investigation · 2019-08-20T12:03:55.969Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Another comment about the failings of peer-review and convoluted ways to circumvent them. It's quite common that reviewers will suggest extra experiments, and often these can improve the quality of the paper.

However, a Professor in Cognitive Psychology once told me that reviewers in his field seem to feel obliged to suggest extra experiments and almost always do. Even if the experiments in the paper are already quite complete, the reviewer will usually suggest an unnecessary control or a tangential experiment. So this Professor's strategy to speed things up was to do, but then leave out, a key control experiment when he wrote up his papers. Reviewers would then almost always pick up on this and only request this additional experiment, and so then he could easily include it and resubmit quickly.

Comment by gavintaylor on How Life Sciences Actually Work: Findings of a Year-Long Investigation · 2019-08-20T00:19:25.984Z · score: 11 (7 votes) · EA · GW

Very interesting post! I have worked in life science up to the postdoc level and think that is generally a reasonable summary of how life sciences research works (disclosure, Guzey interviewed me for this study).

One question is I have is how generalizable is this description geographically and across Universities? Based on the Universities/funders referenced I'd assume your thinking about Tier 1 Research Universities in the US. But did the demographics of your interviewee demographics suggest this could be situation more broadly?

A few other comments to e on some of the points:
Role of PIs
Agreed that senior PIs with large labs tend not to do very much bench work themselves. However, they aren't solely managing and writing grants - I think one of the most important things PIs do is knowledge synthesis through writing literature reviews. I haven't really met any postdocs that have the depth and breadth of knowledge of their lab head, which allows the later to both provide a high-level summary of their fields in reviews and also propose new ways forward in their grants.
A counterpoint I've come across is in mixed labs runs by a PI with a computational background who has postdocs and PhDs doing lab work while he works on using their biological results for computational modelling. From my perspective, these types of labs seem to function quite well as the PI usually relies on people coming into the lab to be well trained in the biological assays they'll use, but then teaches them computational techniques that end up using themselves by the end of their project.

Peer review
One of the big drawbacks of peer review is the hugely variable quality of reviews that are provided. As an example simply in terms of the level of detail provided, I have had comments of one paragraph and three pages for the same article.
I think a key reason for this is there isn't really any standardized format or expectations for reviews nor is there much training or feedback for reviewers. One thought I've had is that paying peer-reviewers would allow journals to both enforce review consistency and quality - although publishers have such large profit margins that it this could be feasible, they have no incentive to do so as scientists accept the status quo. In the absence of paid peer-review, I think that disclosing reviewer names and comments helps prevent 'niche guarding' and encourage reviewers to provide a useful and honest review (eLife does this currently, not sure if any other journals do so).

Permanent researchers
Agreed that letting postdocs move into staff scientist/researcher positions would be helpful - this has been discussed a bit in the Nature and Sciences career sections over the last few years (such as here). I've usually heard from postdocs who moved into staff scientist or lab/facility manager positions that they wanted to stop relying on grants for their employees and to get some job stability. But some then later regretted the move after finding the positions didn't have many options for career advancement relative the professor track. The staff scientists role is a relatively new academic position (although it has been around for a long time in government and private research labs) that doesn't yet have a lot of consistency between Universities - it would probably help to have more discussion and even formalize the roles expectations before a lot of people move into it.

Solo founders
This is an interesting observation and I hadn't thought about the individual lab head model in this way. I'd actually like to take this a step further and say that academia has a habit of breaking up good pairs of biologists. How so? In a few cases, I've seen two senior postdocs or a postdoc and junior PI (so essentially two researchers quite closely matched their level of experience and with complementary skills) work really well together and produce outstanding results over a few years, which will usually lead to one of the duo getting a permanent position. The other may be able to continue on as a postdoc for a while, but as their research speciality will overlap heavily with their colleague's field and it's unlikely that the hiring/promoting institution will open another position in a similar area for a few years, the postdoc will probably have to move elsewhere to continue their career. Although the two may continue to collaborate, the second person to be hired often starts working on different topics to show their intellectual independence (although the new topics may be less impactful than what they were working on as a pair). I only know of a few cases where duos separated in this way and I haven't really followed their outcomes, but I'd assume that the productivity of both researchers declined afterwards. Allowing one to move into a staff researcher position would help in this respect.

Big labs vs. small labs
Another option is a cluster of small labs working on a similar theme (I was in one in Lund that worked on Vision, another in the department worked on Pheromones). This seems to be more common in Northern Europe where high salaries tend to limit the group sizes that are possible (often PI, 1-2 postdocs, 1-2 PhDs). Clusters seemed to have the benefits noted for larger labs, but meant there were a lot of PIs around to mentor students, and also allowed the cost of lab facilities and support staff to be shared.

Research niches
Territorial PIs seem quite common, and as noted, the publication/grant review process allows them to be quite effective at delaying/blocking and even stealing ideas that encroach on their topic. A link was recently posted here to an economics paper taht even suggested new talent entering a field after the death of a gatekeeping PI could speed up research progress. If it seems that a gatekeeping PI is holding back research in an important field, I think that a confrontational grantmaking strategy could be used - whereby a grant agency offers to fund research on the topic but explicitly excludes the PI and his existing collaborators from applying and reviewing proposals.

Differing risk-aversion between PIs and students
Although a PI may seem risk-loving, he benefits from being able to diversify his risk across all of his students and may only need one to get a great result to keep the funding coming. He's unlikely to get all of his students working together on one hard problem, just like a student can't spend all his time on a high-risk problem.
I tend to think that developing the ability to judge a project's risk is an important skill during a PhD, and a good supervisor should be able to make sure student has at least one 'safe' project that they can write up. Realistically it is possible to recover from a PhD where nothing worked well during a postdoc, but it is a setback (particularly in applying for ECR fellowships).
I feel that postdocs are possibly where the highest risk projects get taken on at the individual level, both because they have the experience to pick an ambitious but achievable goal, and also because they want to publish something great to have a good chance at a faculty position.

Comment by gavintaylor on Do Long-Lived Scientists Hold Back Their Disciplines? · 2019-08-14T00:06:47.065Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · EA · GW

A simple suggestion to mitigate these problems could already be trialled well before life extension is available. It is probably possible to identify niche field where star scientists are acting as gatekeepers (either from citation patterns or conversations with scientists in a variety of fields) - an agency interested in that field could then simply offer some large and long term grants for work in the field provided that does not involve any of the star scientist or any of his collaborators. Hopefully the promise of substantial funding would be enough to encourage new entrants to the field.

Admittedly, this would be a very confrontational approach that might lead the star scientist to try and block publications or other grants from people entering his field in this way, but academic rivalries already occur via other causes so it should hopefully work itself out. If funding scientific competition like this resulted in similar gains as this publication shows for the death of a star scientist then it is not only a solution to the situation, but also suggests funding competitors could prove more effective than funding the incumbent gatekeepers in some cases.


Comment by gavintaylor on Do Long-Lived Scientists Hold Back Their Disciplines? · 2019-08-13T12:28:39.491Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

I think a lot of this comes down to social factors rather than star scientist's productivity decreasing with age.

At least in neuroscience, and probably in the life sciences more broadly, PIs who are very influential in a subfield (or who start a new one) tend to be the go to people for a topic and often become the gatekeepers, so work on that topic is generally done in collaboration with them. Junior scientists (even ones trained by that PI) will usually try to establish a unique research focus that avoids conflict with the exisiting star PIs, even if that means they end up working in a less promising area.

I haven't read the linked paper, but I assume that one factor leading to increase in productivity is simply an increase in good people working in a promising research field where the gatekeeper was removed. In principle, this doesn't need the death of a star scientist to achieve.


Comment by gavintaylor on Concrete project lists · 2019-08-10T19:21:04.195Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Ryan, do you know of anybody in the EA space working on BCI, either on development or ethical considerations. BCI is mentioned surprisingly infrequently here.

Comment by gavintaylor on Extreme uncertainty in wild animal welfare requires resilient model-building · 2019-08-09T14:33:16.336Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Interesting article Michael, thanks for linking to it. I haven't thought much about measuring experience states before, but after briefly looking over Simon's essay I think happiness/suffering must, at minimum, be possible to indicate on an ordinal scale. But while many factors that lead to happiness/suffering can probably be measured on a ratio scale (pain could be measured objectively as nociceptor activity), I doubt that how they influence valanced experience is consistent interpersonally, or even intrapersonally at different times/conditions.

Nonetheless, I think suffering the Weber-Fechner argument can still be made if suffering/happiness is measured on an ordinal scale. For instance, say a person is suffering immensely because of being in a lot of pain, vs. someone suffering mildly from minor pain. Our intuition would be to help the person in immense pain, but we will probably have to do much more to relieve their pain for them to even notice we've helped, compared to the person being in minor pain.

I've also just realized that intuitive problem with this argument is asymmetric, in that it indicates that we are better of doing a nice thing for somebody who has is in a neutral state vs. somebody who is already very happy which does intuitively makes sense (and is how the Weber-Fechner law is usually applied to finance - a poor person appreciates a $100 gift a lot more than a millionaire).

Does this mean that for a given link between a factor and intrinsic state (say pain to suffering), we are likely to get a greater change in subjective experience by working to improve that factor for individuals who are already close to neutral to start with? This seems counterintuitive...


Comment by gavintaylor on Extreme uncertainty in wild animal welfare requires resilient model-building · 2019-08-08T18:21:27.206Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · EA · GW

I am not sure if absolute suffering/pleasure should be measured on a linear scale, but there the Weber-Fechner law suggests that relative changes are likely to be perceived less than linearly.

The Weber-Fechner law indicates that the perceived change in a stimulus is inversely proportional to the initial strength. Example:

Weber found that the just noticeable difference (JND) between two weights was approximately proportional to the weights. Thus, if the weight of 105 g can (only just) be distinguished from that of 100 g, the JND (or differential threshold) is 5 g. If the mass is doubled, the differential threshold also doubles to 10 g, so that 210 g can be distinguished from 200 g.

This is true for the 5 main senses in humans and some animals, but I'm not sure if its been tested for pain (which is already quite a subjective sense), or subjective/emotional states in response to stimuli.

So while I intuitively agree that one person experiencing 10 units of suffering is worse than ten people experiencing 1 unit of suffering, the Weber-Fechner law counterintuitively suggests that a person who goes from 1 to 0 suffering will experience more subjective relief than somebody going from 10 to 9.

Comment by gavintaylor on How to evaluate neglectedness and tractability of aging research · 2019-08-02T18:55:46.583Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Nice post! Agreed that hard problems (or at least those that are likely to take more than the usual academic funding cycle to produce results) are likely to be relatively neglected.

It would also be good to consider that interdisciplinary research tends to be hard to fund but often produces outsized results (tool development for basic biology often falls into this category). So some of the hard problems could be more tractable to an interdisciplinary group, but getting funding for one is often impractical. I don't know enough about the priority areas you identify as neglected and important to know which might benefit from an such approach, but specifically allocating some funding for interdisciplinary work could might produce good results in these areas.



Comment by gavintaylor on [Link] Bolsonaro is cutting down the rainforest (nytimes) · 2019-08-02T13:19:27.931Z · score: 9 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Both Bolsonaro and the Brazilian environment Minister Salles show strong support for loggers, even when the loggers are working illegally on (still) protected land. The Brazilian Institute for the Environment (IBAMA) does try to monitor and prevent illegal logging, but is limited in its ability to do so because of the threat of violence from loggers.

Unfortunately, IBAMA seems to receive little support from politicians - for instance, after loggers burned an IBAMA full tanker used to fuel helicopters that it was using to monitor illegal logging activities, Salles gave a speech to the loggers that seemed to generally support them more than his own department:

...there is a law that must be respected while it is still a law. On the other hand, there is the need for the products provided by the loggers...

(paywalled source and pdf copy - in Portuguese, and google translate doesn't do a great job)

IBAMA looks to have a very uncertain future, but it does sound like their capabilities to monitor logging activity are quite limited at the moment (and I'm not sure what enforcement options they have).

A tractable intervention could be to provide more modern and scalable remote monitoring capabilities (UAVS/drones or even satellite imagery) and the skills to analyse data from them. I don't know if IBAMA could receive such equipment directly as donations, or if the monitoring would be better done by a NGO that could then openly publish its results.

Comment by gavintaylor on How urgent are extreme climate change risks? · 2019-08-02T12:25:24.429Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · EA · GW

From the Vox article:

I also talked to some researchers who study existential risks, like John Halstead, who studies climate change mitigation at the philanthropic advising group Founders Pledge, and who has a detailed online analysis of all the (strikingly few) climate change papers that address existential risk (his analysis has not been peer-reviewed yet).
...
Further, “the carbon effects don’t seem to pose an existential risk,” he told me. “People use 10 degrees as an illustrative example” — of a nightmare scenario where climate change goes much, much worse than expected in every respect — “and looking at it, even 10 degrees would not really cause the collapse of industrial civilization,” though the effects would still be pretty horrifying.

From Halstead's report (which Vox seems to represent as a reliable meta-analysis - my apologies for butchering the formatting):

I FOCUS ONLY ON DIRECT RISKS AND DO NOT DISCUSS THE INDIRECT RISKS, SUCH AS WAR DUE TO MASS MIGRATION
...
The big takeaway from looking at the literature on the impact of extreme warming is that the impact of >4 degrees is dramatically understudied. King et al characterise this as “knowing the most about what matters least”
...
-Is extreme warming an ex risk?
*6 degrees
On the models: For the impacts I have looked at, 6 degrees isn’t plausibly an ex risk, though it would be very bad. 6 degrees would drastically change the face of the globe, with multi-metre sea level rises, massive coastal flooding, and the uninhabitability of the tropics.
*10 degrees
On the models: It’s hard to come up with ways that this could directly be an ex risk, though it would be extremely bad.
-Model uncertainty
The impacts of extreme warming are chronically understudied suggesting some model uncertainty.
There might be some unforeseen process which makes human civilisation difficult to sustain.
-Indirect risks
None of this considers the indirect risks, like mass migration and political conflict. These could be a pretty substantial risk over the next 150 years.

It sounds like study on the effects and consequences of extreme warming, particularly indirect/secondary risks, are quite neglected and could benefit from some more work (although I'm not sure how tractable work on this is at this point).

Note that the Vox article also doesn't discuss existential risks arising from indirect effects.

Comment by gavintaylor on Invertebrate Sentience Table · 2019-07-25T20:41:33.254Z · score: 8 (4 votes) · EA · GW

After hearing opinions about the Cammerts from another academic who knows them‚ I've unfortunately become a lot less confident that this study could replicate.

Comment by gavintaylor on Invertebrate Welfare Cause Profile · 2019-07-16T13:17:08.922Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · EA · GW

All of the interventions in the 'helping now' section focus on preventing additional human caused harm to invertebrates. I agree these are important, but there may also be promising interventions that improve the welfare of invertebrates from their current baseline.


For example, a popular intervention for insect conservation is to plant wildflowers along curbsides, particularly in agricultural areas with monocultures. I'm not completely sure how insects choose nest sites, but I doubt that an evaluation of local food resources is made. So insects (bees for instance), that disperse into fields growing grasses probably suffer from food scarcity (as well as pesticides). All in all, I expect that this particular intervention is less effective at increasing insect welfare than the harm-prevention interventions proposed (and it would likely increase insect numbers in agricultural areas which may be net negative due to pesticide exposure), but there may be other life-improving options to consider. These may be quite tractable to implement if they fit into conservation groups existing agendas.

Comment by gavintaylor on Invertebrate Welfare Cause Profile · 2019-07-16T12:43:04.397Z · score: 6 (5 votes) · EA · GW

I would be cautious about using clock-speed to as a multiplier for consciousness experience, particularly for small flying animals. Insect flight is dynamically unstable (hovering hummingbirds probably are to), and their flight control systems respond on the order of one to a few wingbeat cycles, which does give them their appearance of very fast responses. But the speed of consciousness relevant cognitive processing is probably slower; for instance, bumblebee flower discrimination can take 10+ seconds.

That said, I do intuitively expect small mammals (like rats) with faster heart beats and shorter life spans to have a faster subjective experience that larger mammals, so I'd expect the same to be true for insects to some extent. I'd just avoid assuming that the fastest neural processing an animal is capable of (probably related to sensorimotor control of body stabilization) applies to all of its cognitive process.

Comment by gavintaylor on Invertebrate Welfare Cause Profile · 2019-07-10T16:59:50.428Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Thanks Jason. The moral weighting is a tough question, so I hope you have the time to get to some conclusions about this.

With regards to the papers, around half of them are probably written in German so they are easily overlooked and why I highlighted them. Luckily many have an English abstract. Still, by the end of my PhD I knew quite a few words in German about die Bienen!

Comment by gavintaylor on Invertebrate Welfare Cause Profile · 2019-07-10T12:46:20.233Z · score: 8 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Nice piece Jason. The research Rethink Priorities did also raised my credence that invertebrates have some level of consciousness. However, I'd like to know more about how the capacity for consciousness translates to morally valuable experiences. If consciousness is on a scale from 0 to 10 and humans are at 10 and a bee is at 3, are it's experiences 3/10th as important as mine? Or is there a further multiplier one should apply to account for 'value of experience given level of consciousness'? If so, how would we go about determining that weighting?

In relation to compiling extant scientific research, I have a some unusual advice that I just thought of. It's really worth looking at papers published in German from the 1950's until the 1980's. It's unlikely they will be directly addressing invertebrate sentiance or welfare, but it's likely they'll cover many topics on your table. When I a was doing honeybee sensorimotor research, there were many ideas I had (say 20 to 40%) that I found had been really thoroughly covered during that period (often using equipment that was really quite impressive!). This body of work doesn't receive much attention these days, but can often be found as references in papers up until the 90's, or in current publications by older German PI's.



Comment by gavintaylor on Impact of aging research besides LEV · 2019-07-08T21:18:50.178Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

To step back even earlier in the research pipeline, do you have any idea if there could be additional hallmarks to be found?

I look forward to the next post!

Comment by gavintaylor on Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers · 2019-07-08T13:59:04.502Z · score: 11 (4 votes) · EA · GW

Good point. I was commenting more on my perception of the conservation field rather than considering biases in the methodology of this study, but they keywords used were:

[insect*] AND [declin*] AND [survey]

Which does is completely biased to finding studies showing insect declines. Fig 1. also shows that most of the included studies were done in the US and Europe, with very little data coming from the tropics where most insect diversity is.

Comment by gavintaylor on [Link] Ideas on how to improve scientific research · 2019-07-06T15:49:27.960Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Brian presents a lot of nice ideas in that article. Besides methods of improving academic publication and knowledge transfer, it sounds like a skill shortage exists:

People who understand both technology and business are rare. They are the intersection of two already rare groups. Many scientists have an allergic reaction to business, and many business people are unable to distinguish real science from pseudoscience. Perhaps, if we didn’t have to rely on these rare bilingual people, we’d see more innovative products in the world.

EA has a lot of experience identifying talent to fill gaps, maybe working out ways to find people with an aptitude for science and business could be a high value project.

Comment by gavintaylor on Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers · 2019-07-06T14:42:19.127Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA · GW

I did overlook addressing the change in biomass value in my original comment but I now see this was the focus of your post. The species in decline % was more striking and the point the authors of the article emphasised. I have now checked the article again to make sure I understand this point.

Unfortunately the article is not particularly clear about the methods it used to get that value, but it the median 2.5% annual rate of biomass loss indicated in Fig. 2 comes from 5 studies measuring biomass loss in specific locations (the introduction lists Germany flying: -2.8% p.a., Puerto Rico: ground foraging -2.7% p.a., canopy dwelling -2.2% p.a., not sure what the other two data points are. They list UK Carabid beetles at -1.05% p.a. but don't include this in the figure).

My interpretation is that 2.5% should be taken to indicate the annual loss of biomass in habitats where many species are in extinction/decline. So although the authors don't state it explicitly, it seems they intend this to represent the gross decline in biomass attributable to species extinction/decline. Yet this should be offset by gains in biomass from habitats where species are increasing in abundance to reach a % for net change. And while the authors don't seem very optimistic about this:

Even if some declining insects might be replaced with others, it is difficult to envision how a net drop in overall insect biomass could be countered

Still, I think the 2.5% loss would be a 'worst-case' scenario. All in all, this value is based on very limited data and I think it should be interpreted cautiously. If more data was available to calculate a net change in insect biomass, I expect this would be much closer to 0%.

Reading this paper carefully actually left me feeling quite skeptical about how species population monitoring is conducted and reported. While I'm not an ecologist or conservationist and may be missing something, it seems there is a strong bias to studying insect groups that are declining vs. those that becoming more abundant (some are mentioned in the text, often generalist species). So the conclusions have to be pessimistic if all the studies you have to review focus on monitoring species with the highest risk of extinction.

Comment by gavintaylor on Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers · 2019-07-05T21:07:30.761Z · score: -1 (5 votes) · EA · GW

Not sure I agree with point i. If people are terraforming planets then introducing insects (or something like them) would be quite reasonable for both ascetic and ecological reasons. And simulations are likely to first be run on simpler brains (soon we will be able to simulate a nematode!), so many simpler animals may be simulated before we get to the point of simulating the first people.

Comment by gavintaylor on Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers · 2019-07-05T20:28:44.503Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · EA · GW

I think you're confusing species extinction with changes in total insect population, when the two aren't necessarily linked. Most of the time that article is talking about the percentage of species in decline (although in some cases % is used to refer change in population), but if those species are not particularly numerous to start with, this may not affect total population levels much. The report also lists several situations where insect abundance is increasing:

A comparison of historical records of 74 butterflies in Finland showed how 60% of grassland species declined over the past 50 years, whereas 86% of generalist species and 56% of those living at forest edge ecotones increased in abundance.

So I don't think this article provides strong evidence about any change in wild insect populations, just that biodiversity will be reduced.

Comment by gavintaylor on Impact of aging research besides LEV · 2019-07-01T20:04:54.528Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Emanuele, is your work on LEV considering how to prioritise research on the different hallmarks of aging? I alluded to that in my previous comment about how to prioritise aging research for short term impact, but given your original post summary indicates that moving LEV closer by 1 year provides 36,500,000 people 1000 QALYs each, this does seem to be a fairly important consideration.

Comment by gavintaylor on Invertebrate Sentience Table · 2019-06-25T16:18:03.669Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · EA · GW

I mentioned Braitenberg vehicles in a reply to one of Jason's other posts and then realized I hadn't seen these mentioned elsewhere in relation to invertebrate sentience (or in EA really), so I thought it would be worth mentioning them here as the concept may provide some interesting perspectives. Essentially, the vehicles are a thought experiment by Braitenberg (a neuroscientist) on intelligence based on building up from something simple that moves faster when it doesn't like where it is (vehicle 1) to a vehicle that is practically human (vehicle 14). Essentially, the book explores at what point can we agree that the vehicle is intelligent, even if the mystery of biological intelligence isn't present because we built it (actually, this is almost exactly analogous to Mesh:Hero experiment described in the 2017 Consciousness report). Strangely, the work seems to be better known by roboticist than by neuroscientists.

I think Braitenberg vehicles could be a useful reference for this project as the vehicles were all based on biological concepts of different levels of intelligence, and the vehicles may already have been discussed by philosophers of intelligence as to what level constitutes a threshold for a intelligent (probably analogous to conscious) entity. Indeed, the vehicles could also provide inspiration for something analogous to the sentience score requested by Sammy, as each vehicle was intended to represent something of a 'step up' in intelligence. So one could take the max or average level that a taxa reaches on such a scale as its score.

Comment by gavintaylor on Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 3 · 2019-06-25T14:10:16.348Z · score: 13 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Ok, finally got around to writing about navigation. A few comments I have about this:
-I agree that navigating known paths/areas is a fairly simple skill. However, if the animal increases the speed with which it traverses such areas it is usually taken as an indicator of becoming familiar with the route. If an animal always moves at a constant speed in a known environment, it may be an indicator that it is constantly in exploring without ever learning.

-The examples presented for navigating unknown areas in the Sentience Table are a bit less clear for me in terms of whether they reflect navigational learning or contextual conditioning. Mazes (as they are generally presented to humans) do seem a reasonable indicator of learning to navigate an unknown area, however, the way they are often used in insect studies means that they primarily test conditioning rather than navigational ability. For instance, the methods used to teach bees to navigate a maze in Zhang et al 2000, were:


Bees were trained to come to a feeder placed initially just outside the entrance to the maze. After they were marked, the feeder was moved slowly step by step through the maze, remaining for ∼1 h in each decision chamber.


As such, it seems to more of an indicator they learnt a series of choices they had to take quite slowly. Likewise, Zhang et al 1996 show bees learning symbolic cues to solve mazes (such as turn right if the wall is green) seem to be more of an indicator of rule learning.
The Drosophila heat aversion paradigm developed by Ofstad et al is quite similar to the Morris water maze, and although this paradigm is a good test of visual-spatial memory (when the animal then quickly changes its position to the new cool point based on movement in the visual panorama), reaching the safe point should be solvable by a Type 1 Braitenberg vehicle (which does not seem to be intelligent).
The examples of maze learning in cockroaches are perhaps a bit more like what humans generally associate with maze learning - I looked back through the references from Webb and Wystrach 2016 and found the original paper on maze learning in cockroaches, where roaches navigated an actual hot metal maze to find a cooler safe point, and it seems their speed and accuracy increased over time.
Perhaps an issue is that maze learning is difficult to motivate insects to do in the same way that vertebrates do. For instance, I think it would be very hard to train a bee to enter a maze and search it for food - placing it (or the entire hive) at the centre seeing if they navigate out might be a better analogy (but I suspect this may just end up with them getting stuck in the corners). That said, I think it is fairly clear that central place foragers navigate unfamiliar territories, it's just that I don't find most uses of mazes to be particularly relevant. The fact that a honeybee hive can be moved to a forest and the bees will quickly forage on available flowers seems a good indication of their ability to navigate unknown areas, but I don't know of anybody who has really tried to quantify this, it's just taken as a given.

-When discussing spatial memory, it's important to consider the distinction of traversing routes vs. having a map like memory. Traversing route (or things like traplining) implies that a set path can be learnt (indicated by landmarks or odometry) but not necessarily that different paths can be linked. However, map memory is taken to imply that routes are placed on a topographic representation in its memory and that an animal can then use this map to link points on known routes with a novel shortcut (that isn’t based on shared landmarks visible between the routes). This is quite controversial and hard to motivate insects to do reliably (as bees and ants tend to try to go to and from their nest on specific routes, but don’t usually jump between routes). I would place this higher than detouring in terms of navigational ability. Actually, I was surprised to see detouring as a navigational ability as I’d never thought about it much. However, I agree that ant work indicates detouring shows a degree of navigational flexibility between direct route following and map navigation. Unfortunately it's probably quite hard to test detouring reliably in flying insects without building large 3D constructs, although some virtual reality work may have done this.


I've enjoyed looking through the criteria and evidence you've used in putting together the Invertebrate Sentinance Table, particularly in that its led me to think place my knowledge of invertebrate neuroscience in a consciousness framework. Feel free to get in touch if you'd like my opinion on any of your further work on this.

Comment by gavintaylor on Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 3 · 2019-06-24T21:26:48.853Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Jason, apologies for my delayed reply as well. I’m quite interested in Invertebrate Sentience project and am happy to share some of my knowledge on these topics. My background was originally in robotics and I’ve worked on invertebrate sensory neuroscience from a fairly reductionist viewpoint (and wouldn't previously have been very concerned by questions on consciousness!). While my research was always quite concentrated on vision in flying insects, I felt that I gained quite a well-rounded perspective on invertebrate neuroscience in the labs I worked at and the conference I went to. I think this might be quite common amongst invertebrate neuroscientists - compared to vertebrate fields there are a smaller number of people working on a larger range of organisms so I think there tends to be more intermingling of ideas. Funnily enough, the thing that probably took me longest to adapt to was not treating insects as little input-output automatons but I suspect that if you were to do some insect research your background would lead you to over-anthropomorphise. There is often a fine line between things you can reliably expect insects to do reflexively vs. similar tasks that result in much more variation in what they will do.

Agreed the learning is a complicated issue. My perspective was mostly in trying to separate out things that seem complicated because of the motor component compared to the complexity of the contextual component (which I agree is probably a more important indicator of cognitive flexibility). A taxonomy of learning capability would be interesting (I would assume psychologists have done this for human children), but I wonder if it would necessarily match between taxa - it is possible that different types of phenomenal learning can be performed by a variety of neural architectures, so some organisms may find non-elemental learning easier than elemental learning if that is what they have been exposed to most during evolution.

With regards to novelty, I think it could actually be something quite useful for indicating valanced experience. I’m not an expert on this, but I understand that as well as positively and negatively cued stimulus, novelty can act as a ‘bottom-up’ modulator for selective attention in flies. Further, mutant Drosophila that with abnormal response to novelty are found to have disturbances in learning and memory. Bruno van Swinderen’s lab is doing some interesting work on this, and he has discussed using ‘bottom-up’ modulators to investigate ‘top-down’ selective attention (which seems pretty key to subjective experience in humans). It is possible that novelty is analogous to positive reinforcement in some situations (like developmental learning) but I think Bruno would argue that it can be deeper, because it indicates the animal is actively engaged in learning new information about the world (and I’m sure he’d be happy to talk further on this if you’d like).

I hope to get to replying about navigation tomorrow :)

Comment by gavintaylor on Why I'm focusing on invertebrate sentience · 2019-06-24T12:41:07.447Z · score: 5 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Nice post Max. I found this by backtracking from the recent posts from Rethink Priorities on invertebrate sentence and am glad that this is starting to gain research traction. A few comments:

Research might be less directly persuasive then more direct forms of advocacy (because it is not optimized for that purpose), but I think that there is also less worry about backlash from it.

Research on invertebrate sentiance is controversial in research, and I expect it will be hard to except for vertebrate focused researchers. For instance, Andy Barron's PNAS article received three rebuttal letters. It has also received a lot of citations, and while I have not looked through them in detail, I suspect it would not be referred to favourably in vertebrate literature (looking at these citations could in itself be an interesting subproject to see how this high profile paper was received in different fields). Academic research can be quite political, and professors often maintain their stance on controversial topics longer than the evidence suggests they should. It's hard to predict how this will influence public opinion, but as the media often likes to get both sides of a story, any press describing an invertebrate sentience study is likely to note the controversy with an unfavorable quote from a vertebrate researcher. Perhaps a form of research advocacy could involve synthesising the arguments for invertebrate sentience in a non-confrontational and comparative (to vertebrates) way for publication in a vertebrate focused specialist journal.

Many invertebrate biologists who might otherwise have a lot to contribute in the area are not philosophically inclined, and have not thought about the ethical implications of their knowledge, and so become confused about the question of insect sentience.

Agreed, I have a background in robotics and computational-behavioral-invertebrate-sensorimotor-neuroscience (ok, that a bit of smash together of fields) although I am now doing more work in computational physics and 3D imaging. When doing neuroscience studies on invertebrates explaining a behaviour as conscious would be completely unacceptable by publication stage (although invertebrate researchers do tend to anthropomorphize the actions of their study animals while in the lab). Even behaviour that seems quite intelligent (like learning) becomes practically reflexive as soon as you can pin down the underlying neural circuit in an invertebrate. This partly from my group's approach which which was always mechanistic and focused on a reductionist approach. However, I suspect that research on similar topics in humans doesn't result in the 'magic' of intelligence being lost when, say, learning can be described by a circuit. Since becoming involved with EA I have become more aware of the philosophical discussion around invertebrate neuroscience, but I suspect there are not many others.


Comment by gavintaylor on [Link] Ideas on how to improve scientific research · 2019-06-21T19:43:26.919Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

I'd really like to read this article, but I've reached my limit of free monthly reads on Medium. So it is somewhat ironic that Brian's last point is about the cost of academic journals.



Comment by gavintaylor on Features Relevant to Invertebrate Sentience, Part 2 · 2019-06-19T15:00:08.546Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

No worries! Yes, eusocial insects certainly are quite amazing creatures. There are actually studies looking at facultatively social bee species (whereby females can nest individually or in hives with multiple reproductive females) that suggest sociality leads to increase in brain volume. Besides cognitive demands, sociality also appears to lead to other things like increased hygiene and immune function prevent disease spread in a colony.

Actually, it could be interesting to include naked mole-rats as a vertebrate comparison specific to social insects in this study. I'm not really familiar with their biology but they are generally considered eusocial , particularly that there is division of reproductive labour that creates queen and worker castes within colonies. Maybe impressive feats seen in social insects also appear in mole-rats more than you would expect compared to normal rats? In fact, there are also eusocial species shrimps from the Synalpheus genus which would probably display different traits to the other groups of crustaceans you're looking at.

I also updated the Aphid link, it should work now, but the link is below if it doesn't.

https://academic.oup.com/beheco/article/25/3/627/2900485