Posts

Concrete next steps for ageing-based welfare measures 2019-11-01T14:55:03.431Z · score: 34 (15 votes)
How worried should I be about a childless Disneyland? 2019-10-28T15:32:03.036Z · score: 24 (14 votes)
Assessing biomarkers of ageing as measures of cumulative animal welfare 2019-09-27T08:00:22.716Z · score: 72 (29 votes)

Comments

Comment by willbradshaw on Concrete next steps for ageing-based welfare measures · 2019-11-18T21:23:37.542Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Sadly AWMs only really give a relative measure of welfare against a comparable genetic background: you can use them to say population A is ageing faster than population B and therefore has worse cumulative welfare, but not (at least currently) to obtain an absolute welfare measure for either population. That makes it difficult to see how they could be used to compare welfare between different species, including humans.

Comment by willbradshaw on EA Forum Prize: Winners for September 2019 · 2019-11-04T20:28:56.334Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · EA · GW

The current setup (with exactly three very large prizes for posts and many more small prizes for comments) does seem a bit odd to me in that I expect it means many of the best contributions to the forum not eligible for prizes. I can easily imagine that there are excellent posts that are better than many or all of the awarded comments but not quite good enough to make the top three, and these posts can't currently win anything.

I feel it might be good to permit excellent runner-up posts to win comment prizes as well, or otherwise to allow these posts to win small prizes.

Comment by willbradshaw on Notes on 'Atomic Obsession' (2009) · 2019-11-01T14:58:34.640Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

What's the "side of caution" in this case?

Comment by willbradshaw on Who runs the Forum? · 2019-10-30T12:18:31.250Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Agree a clearer feedback policy and way to provide feedback would be helpful, as would some way of objectively aggregating feedback among users. :-)

Exist.io (a quantified self service I use) use Changemap, which seems to serve a similar purpose.

Comment by willbradshaw on How worried should I be about a childless Disneyland? · 2019-10-28T19:31:31.771Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

I'm not sure I understand the first question. I don't really know what a "non-conscious being" would be. Is it synonymous with an agent?

My impression is that feeling lost is a very common response to consciousness issues, which is why it seems to me like it's not that unlikely we get it wrong and either (a) fill the universe with complex but non-conscious matter, or (b) fill it with complex conscious matter that is profoundly unlike us, in such a way that high levels of positive utility are not achieved.

The main response I can imagine for this at this time is something like "don't worry, if we solve AI alignment our AIs will solve this question for us, and if we don't things are likely to go much more obviously wrong". But this seems unsatisfactory here for some reason, and I'd like to see the argument sketched out more fully.

Comment by willbradshaw on EA Hotel Fundraiser 5: Out of runway! · 2019-10-26T12:39:20.080Z · score: 8 (6 votes) · EA · GW

Just wanted to note that the room is, in fact, ten-sided.

Comment by willbradshaw on What is wild animal suffering? · 2019-10-26T12:34:26.497Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

On a meta-level, it seems that a huge amount of this comes down (perhaps unsurprisingly) to strategy, framing, and target groups. This being the case, it might have been better to be more explicit about this in this post: "For [these reasons], Animal Ethics prefers to define WAS [thusly] when communicating with [target groups]. Other groups may make different communication decisions in other contexts."

Comment by willbradshaw on What is wild animal suffering? · 2019-10-26T12:26:23.075Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · EA · GW

Hi Oscar, thanks for your reply. Since I don't think there's any serious disagreement about the third point (about conservationism) I'll drop it and focus on the other two. :-) I'm also not going to address the within-EA aspect of the terminological dispute since I think we've more-or-less covered everything on both sides there.

You didn't link to the Kirkwood paper so I don't know exactly which definition he uses, but of the three possible interpretations you give in the OP I don't see a severe contradiction between 1 and 3 (that's just the difference between a thing and the study of that thing, which is generally clear from context), while the potential between 1 and 2 isn't any worse for WAW than for WAS; it just seems to be the case that people can interpret "wild animals" as either "animals in the wild" or "animals from undomesticated species (possibly in captivity)", and you need to make clear which one you mean. So I'm not currently buying this as an argument against WAW compared to WAS.

It's a reasonable point that if you're targeting traditional animal rights activists who oppose more welfarist approaches to animal issues then you might want to avoid welfarist language. I don't know much about this so I won't argue the point. I do (weakly) claim that when it comes to WAW we should be more concerned about reaching out to welfare scientists and conservationists than animal rights activists, and that our dominant language should reflect that. This might just be a WAI/AE strategic difference, though.

Regarding the scope of the term "wild animal suffering", I maintain that the most natural definition of the term is "suffering experienced by wild animals", without additional restrictions regarding the source of that suffering. Of course one can also clarify that one is also (even principally) concerned about non-anthropogenic harms, or that one thinks naturogenic harms are massively more neglected (I agree with this), but I think actually trying to restrict the scope of the term to that is likely to produce unneeded confusion, as well as throwing away an important on-ramp for getting people to care about natural harms to animals. In our experience at WAI, for example, being inclusive of anthropogenic harms has been very helpful at getting academic collaborators on board.

Finally, it seems to me that if we're taking a strictly deprivationist account of the harm of death (which I'm very sympathetic to), then death is included as a (potential) harm under WAW but not WAS; ceteris paribus, killing an animal might reduce its net welfare if its future would otherwise be good, but it's not going to increase its suffering.

[NB: As of this week I no longer work at WAI.]

Comment by willbradshaw on What is wild animal suffering? · 2019-10-22T19:15:14.459Z · score: 8 (5 votes) · EA · GW

[NB: Any opinions I express here are mine alone and not intended to represent the Wild Animal Initiative.]

There are several things I like about this post, including the clarification that it is difficult to strictly distinguish between naturogenic and anthropogenic harms, the explicit inclusion of urban animals, and the emphasis on individual context rather than species membership.

Nevertheless, there are a few things I disagree with here, regarding both the terms used and the way they are defined.

Firstly, I think the "wild animal suffering" (henceforth WAS) framing is worse than "wild animal welfare" (henceforth WAW) and should be largely abandoned in its favour. I think this for two main reasons:

  • In terms of the broader populace, I claim WAS sounds much stranger than WAW. The animal-welfare movement is well-established; the animal-suffering-reduction movement is not. Framing the issue as WAW places it firmly in the context of existing concerns in a way many more people can get behind. As such, I predict that this framing will make it easier to get buy-in from more mainstream scientists (which is essential to moving forward with welfare biology), as well as the general public.
  • In terms of the EA movement, I think WAW is more inclusive than WAS. Many people involved in the cause area are not negative utilitarians, and the WAS framing seems to assume that they are in a way that I don't think is helpful.

Both of these seem to me to be reasons why a WAS framing would make it more difficult to attract broad support for improving the lives of wild animals than a WAW framing. (I'm speaking from personal experience here: I became much more interested in participating once people started switching to WAW. I think that being put off by the negativist framing of WAS was a big part of this. I'm not sure how much I endorse this, but I do think it is true.)

I don't agree with the claim that the WAW framing is likely to cause confusion, so I don't find that counterpoint very compelling.

Secondly, I disagree with some of the boundaries drawn here around the concept of wild animal suffering / welfare. I think the term most naturally applies to anything that affects the suffering/welfare of wild animals, whether naturogenic or anthropogenic or something in between, and hence disagree with the claim here that WAS/W should refer only to harms that are "completely or partly natural". I also think including death or other non-welfarist harms in the definition is odd and confusing; if you're concerned about these I think a different term, such as "wild animal rights" or somesuch, would be preferable.

Thirdly, while I agree that there are important differences between traditional conservationist values and WAW (and personally don't think that species or ecosystems have more than instrumental value), I'd gently caution against overstating the opposition between these worldviews. It's my impression that, framed correctly, a substantial fraction of people in the conservation movement are sympathetic to concerns about the welfare of individual wild animals, and willing to consider including it as something to be considered when planning conservationist interventions. This was a big update for me when I learned about it, and I don't think it should have been. Conservationists are doing what they do because they love nature and, in many cases, because they love animals. This is important to keep in mind.

Comment by willbradshaw on Reality is often underpowered · 2019-10-22T11:45:01.469Z · score: 13 (8 votes) · EA · GW

[NB: I talked briefly to Greg in person about this last weekend, but felt it might be valuable to put this up here anyway for the purpose of public discussion / testing my beliefs.]

I have mixed feelings about this.

On the one hand, I really like the framing of reality being underpowered in certain contexts, and I think this post does a good job of explaining why this is often the case. I think the observation that we often have a lot of tacit data about the world that is hard to fit into explicit models but can nevertheless make non-data-driven expert predictions perform better than change is well-made and well-taken.

Nevertheless, I feel that in a great many cases, non-quantitative, intuitive, first-principles-heavy analyses of the world very often fail; that their rate of failure may often be poorly correlated with their apparent compellingness; that non-quantitative experts overestimate the explanatory power of their work at least as much as (and probably more than) more data-driven analysts; and that a shift towards more explicit, quantitative, data-driven approaches is often among the best ways to distinguish real knowledge about the world from the pseudo-knowledge that I think is rampant in many fields of human enquiry.

As an example: I have several friends who are academic historians, and from time to time we've talked about cliometrics/data-driven approaches to history. The general attitude seems to be "yeah, seems cool if you can do it, but just try that in [my period of study]. There's no way you could build a decent quantitative model with that little data." While I've generally been too tactful to say this to their faces, my response to these sorts of claims has historically been that if the data is too sparse to do meaningful analysis on, it's probably also too sparse to draw any other conclusions more general than a simple existence proof ("this thing happened once"). Or, more pithily, "if you don't have enough data to know things, you should just admit it".

I now suspect this is too strong a stance, but I still think there is some important truth in it. My feeling is that there may well be "good reasons why expert communities in some areas haven’t tried to use data explicitly to answer problems in their field", but there are also many bad reasons, among the most common of which is that very few people in that field have strong quantitative skills. I suspect that experts in data-poor fields often lack the epistemic modesty or statistical know-how to admit the consequences of that paucity.

Comment by willbradshaw on What are the best arguments for an exclusively hedonistic view of value? · 2019-10-21T15:48:00.314Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Why are pleasure and suffering fundamentally different? I hear this a lot but it's not at all obvious to me why this is the case. They certainly seem to share a great deal in common, for example in terms of their evolutionary origins, functional purpose, and apparently inherent (dis)preferability.

Obviously pleasure and suffering are fundamentally different in that one seems good and the other seems bad, but as I understand it the essential claim here is that they are fundamentally different in other key respects. Which respects are those?

Comment by willbradshaw on Problems in effective altruism and what to do about them · 2019-10-21T12:00:27.146Z · score: 8 (6 votes) · EA · GW

I'm generally pretty in favour of public criticism of EA orgs, and of public disputatiousness in general, but this piece is (a) quite long-winded and hard to read and (b) where I did get a good idea of what it was claiming, not especially compelling. A piece on the same themes that was 1/3 as long and better researched could have been valuable.

Comment by willbradshaw on Assessing biomarkers of ageing as measures of cumulative animal welfare · 2019-10-08T12:44:20.265Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Maybe it would be helpful if I try to lay out my rough model of why fasting responses to limited food availability exist in the wild, and we can see if there's actually a disagreement here.

I certainly agree that "we should doubt that animals eat (and our ancestors ate) more than is best for their fitness". If they were eating more than was good for their fitness, you'd expect them to evolve to eat less. However, wild animals exist in a state of severe food insecurity, in which food may be abundantly available one day and scarce for weeks thereafter. It probably is quite difficult to have offspring while food is scarce, and probably not very valuable anyway since those offspring will be food-deprived during crucial developmental periods. So it makes sense to use what energy you have to maintain a healthy body, and wait for better times.

The response to DR would therefore be a "making the best of a bad situation" sort of thing: from a fitness perspective it would be better to eat lots of food, have lots of offspring, and die young, but since that option is unavailable due to food scarcity it is better to activate an energy-conserving fasting response that will keep you in better shape until the good times return.

Importantly, the claim is not that DR improves fitness. It is that it increases lifespan. Natural selection doesn't care about increased lifespan, or even increased healthspan, except insofar as it increases the number of descendents you have. And food deprivation is certainly very costly: DR mice show dramatically reduced fertility relative to AL (=eat-as-much-as-you-want) mice. However, they also show less age-related decline in fertility, so if you later put them back on an AL diet they are more fertile than mice of the same age that have been on AL the whole time. I think that summarises the evolutionary point of a fasting response pretty well.

Comment by willbradshaw on Assessing biomarkers of ageing as measures of cumulative animal welfare · 2019-10-05T11:47:49.675Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

Okay, so from this I think you mean the metabolic response to dietary restriction, not the actual restriction of diet.

If that's dangerous in expectation, why would it have evolved?

Comment by willbradshaw on Assessing biomarkers of ageing as measures of cumulative animal welfare · 2019-10-03T15:50:20.366Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA · GW

I find this comment a bit confusing, I'm afraid. Do you mean dietary restriction would be dangerous or that the metabolic response to DR would be dangerous? If the latter, why? Given that it seems to be an evolved fasting response I'd be somewhat surprised if it was bad for fitness overall.

Comment by willbradshaw on Assessing biomarkers of ageing as measures of cumulative animal welfare · 2019-10-02T12:29:58.947Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · EA · GW

Given all that...

Obviously, it's highly speculative at this point, but what would you guess the correlation coefficient is between cumulative welfare and biological ageing? How large does the correlation need to be before it's useful?

We'd need to weight the different exposures by how widespread and frequent they are: some potential exceptions (e.g. food or reproduction) would be much more important than others (e.g. addictive drugs). Given some sort of weighted measure of this kind, I'd guess a moderate negative correlation, with a pretty wide uncertainty. I'd be quite surprised if it turned out to be near-zero or positive, though.

I think a moderate correlation like this should definitely be enough to be useful in many or most cases, given a sufficiently large sample. However, it also depends what exposure you're actually interested in studying; if it turns out to be one of the exceptions then it doesn't really matter how rare those exceptions are. So I think a better idea of where exactly exceptions to the rule might lie in the space of potential experiences would be more useful than estimating the overall correlation.

Comment by willbradshaw on Assessing biomarkers of ageing as measures of cumulative animal welfare · 2019-10-02T12:08:56.938Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA · GW

These are good questions, thanks for commenting. I'll start with your more general question then address the specific examples raised. Please be aware that everything I'm saying here is based on theory

Let's summarise the overall hypothesis as being that cumulative welfare and rate of biological ageing are generally negatively correlated. In general, I'd expect counterexamples to this general idea to be fairly rare among exposures whose general form has been present in the environment long enough for the species to evolve in response to it: a species should evolve to become averse to damaging (and generally ageing-causing) exposures and attracted to protective ones.

Pro-ageing exposures might be hedonically positive on-net if (a) they provide a gain to short-term reproductive fitness that is large enough to outweigh the longer-term costs of accumulating damage, or (b) the exposure is new and misaligned with the animal's evolved incentives. An important potential example of the former that is discussed in the 2019 Bateson & Poirier review is reproduction, which is quite stressful and costly but obviously vital to reproductive fitness. Potential examples of the latter might be various addictive-but-damaging superstimuli, such as addictive drugs or wireheading. I'd expect examples of the latter group to be fairly rare in nature, but they could potentially be important for some captive populations.

The same general classification would apply to exposures that are anti-ageing but hedonically negative: they might be good for the condition of the body but bad for reproductive success, or they might be new exposures that are misaligned with the animal's evolved drives. It's not as easy for me to come up with examples for these. There's also potentially the issue of hormetic effects: damaging or aversive stimuli that provoke a response that is on-net beneficial to health and longevity. The pro-lifespan effect of dietary restriction and fasting is the most well-studied and important of these, and is probably the biggest issue with this idea I've thought about that didn't make it into the report.

So there are probably some exceptions to the overall hypothesis the sorts of methods proposed here would rest on. However, I expect these exceptions to be fairly rare for animals in their natural environment, and I'm actually sceptical of most of the candidates raised here:

  • Reproduction is obviously crucial to fitness, but while sex is clearly hedonically positive in many species, it's far from clear to me that reproduction as a whole is. It certainly doesn't seem to be clear in humans that having children is good for your happiness on-net, for example.
  • I'd be at least mildly surprised to learn that smoking is on-net hedonically positive, even in the first couple of decades of regular use. My impression is that many of the health effects kick in pretty quickly, and a lot (though not all) of the perceived pleasure of smoking is actually lifting of negative feelings that wouldn't be present if you weren't addicted to nicotine. So I suspect many or most smokers significantly overestimate how much net pleasure they get from smoking, though I'm not confident about this. The same applies to many other addictive drugs.
  • Insofar as castration is negative in humans I think that largely arises from psychological/social factors I'd expect to be largely missing from most animals. There's the pain of the actual procedure, of course, and some lost pleasure from sex, but apart from that it's not obvious to be that it's bad on-net. I don't actually know if we have any data on what the lives of castrated wild animals are like, though.
  • Dietary restriction is probably the potential exception I'm most worried about in the wild (though I'd guess it's not much of a problem when applying the technique in captive populations), but even here I'm not sure how severe it is. DR typically involves mild to moderate caloric deprivation, and AFAIK more serious starvation does not generally extend lifespan. I'm not sure the level of deprivation required to extend lifespan is all that hedonically negative after you've got used to it: this seems to be the reported experience of people on intermittent fasting, for example, though it might be different if it's out of your control. So while mild food deprivation might be mildly hedonically negative, it might not be strongly so, and so might not actually be net-negative when the hedonic gains of improved health etc. are taken into account. (Also, AFAIK there's not much evidence that DR increases longevity in humans.)

My level of uncertainty is high for most of these cases, and I'm largely falling back on the classic academic cop-out of "more research is needed". But suffice it to say that there aren't any obviously true and important exceptions I'm aware of. The main potential exceptions I'm worried about that might be important in the wild are reproduction and food deprivation, which I'd say definitely need to be looked into further.