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This week I'll be interviewing Marcus Davis, co-founder and co-CEO of Rethink Priorities, which conducts global priorities research, often with an empirical bent.

What should I ask him?

You can learn more about Rethink Priorities by checking out this talk given by Marcus himself.

Alternatively you can see a list of all their published research here.

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Animal welfare:

  • What is the mean moral moral weight of animals (e.g. chickens, fish, and insects) relative to humans?
    • What do you make of the argument that, since there is a material probability (e.g. 10 %) of the moral weight being larger than 1 (e.g. because animals might have more experiences per unit time), the mean moral weight is close to 1 (e.g. larger than 10 % * 1 = 0.1)?
  • Which farmed and wild animals, if any, have net positive lives?
  • What is the net impact of following a plant-based diet (in particular, what is its sign)?
    • Pros:
      • Increase in the welfare of farmed animals (assuming they have net negative lives, less farmed animals implies more welfare).
      • Less GHG emissions.
      • Expansion of the moral circle.
    • Cons:
      • Decrease in the welfare of wild animals (assuming they have net negative lives, more wild animals implies less welfare).
      • Less civilisation resilience (consuming animals requires an oversized agricultural system, which could be helpful in the event of an agrivultural shortfall, since there is margin to redirect crops from animals to humans).

Global health and development:

  • What is the effect of the best global health and development interventions (e.g. GiveWell's top charities) on population size?
  • What is the effect of changing the population size on the value of the longterm future?
  • Why have the above questions (apparently) not been a research priority, given they seem crucial considerations for assessing the value (in fact, the sign) of global health and development interventions (assuming most of the impact of such interventions are indirect longterm effects)?
  • How does the meat-eater problem affect the effectiveness of global health and development interventions?
    • The negative utility of poultry lives may exceed the utility of human lives for the mean country (I have estimated the ratio to be 2 here).

Cause priorisation:

  • What does he think of more academic global priorities research institutions like the Global Priorities Institute?
    • Does he think their work is more or less important than the more empirical global priorities research Rethink does?
    • Should Rethink engage with this more fundamental research to guide their own research and to what extent do they currently do this?
  • What is Rethink's justification for working in multiple cause areas?
    • Shouldn't they just pick the one they think is highest impact and work in that one?
  • Once having completed research, what is Rethink's strategy to getting it heard and acted on by those that need to?
    • Are there any difficulties here?
  • What are some important gaps in the global priorities/EA research space that exist, that RP isn't planning on addressing?
  • How do you feel about the trade-off between doing consulting work for funders / other orgs vs doing work that you think is actually the most impactful? 
    • How often do these diverge, how much of each does RP do and are you happy with this balance?
  • What advice would Marcus give to people who want to start or are starting new research-focused non-profits?
  • What are the biggest mistakes that RP has made so far?
  • How do you monitor the impact of research that hasn't been commissioned by someone specifically?

What research has been done into the subjective preferences of different kinds of animals, and how that impacts their welfare needs?

For an example that most people would be familiar with, dogs tend to want to be much more active than cats. If you don't take your dog for a walk regularly or give it a lot of space to run around, that's a negative experience. Conversely, cats tend to be quite content to lie around and chill.

For a more controversial example, keeping pigs in enclosed spaces. Many years ago I worked at an intensive piggery operation. Despite a lot of public concern by animal welfare advocates about sow stalls and keeping pigs in small cages, it seemed to me that the pigs themselves didn't mind at all. They would quite contentedly walk into a cage without any objection, they wouldn't bolt for freedom when we let them out, they didn't try to get out of their cages, etc. And it's not as if they are just generically placid creatures that don't complain about anything. For example, social isolation seems to distress them greatly - on the rare occasions where we would need to separate one pig from the others for a few minutes (we did our best to avoid this, specifically because of the distress it caused them) they would panic and scream and try to get free so they could get back to the others. 

Basically, I wonder to what extent do we mistake what animal welfare issues exist because we focus on the things that we humans would not like, rather than the things that the animals themselves don't like? To use another pig example, they really really love food. Every living thing loves food, but pigs really love food. I know the greedy pig is a stereotype, but it's a stereotype for a reason. But this would sometimes lead to situations where a sow would become overweight and to look after her long term health we would put her on a diet. They hate diets. Those sows on restricted feed schedules were angry and miserable as heck. And I think we just overlook how subjectively bad something like that is for them because we think "oh yeah, diets suck, I know what that's like, but it's worth it for your health". But we don't know what it's like for them, we only know what it's like for us.

I don't even really know how you would possibly go about trying to measure and quantify these things. How much does it bother fish to be in a small pond with thousands of other fish? How could you tell? But I'd be interested to hear about the work that's gone into this area, and I think I'd be almost as interested to hear about the research methods as I would the results.


What efforts are being made to strengthen a pipeline between potentially extremely high EV ideas and enabling cause exploration for further discovery? Grant applications are an often unhelpful tool to facilitate such discovery because of the wide variety of factors that could kill grant proposals other than underlying merit of an idea. Cultivation upstream in the idea development community could do a lot to facilitate exploration, which is what Rethink Priorities is all about.

How would his group rate the priority of humanity learning how to control the knowledge explosion?

Does his group feel that the marriage between violent men and an accelerating knowledge explosion is sustainable?

To what degree does his group consider AI or genetic engineering governance to be a form of science culture mythology?

Does his group feel that the "more is better" relationship with knowledge which served us well in the long era of knowledge scarcity is still an appropriate philosophy in an era characterized by knowledge exploding in every direction at an ever accelerating rate?

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