2018 list of half-baked volunteer research ideas

by Jacy_Reese19th Sep 20183 comments


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I've heard from some EAs recently that they would like to do research in a part-time/volunteer capacity, but their bottleneck is research ideas that could be done by a non-expert without much support from a professional organization, e.g. Saulius Šimčikas' recent post on "Fish used as live bait by recreational fishermen." In this post, I'll share some ideas for such projects.

I tend to prioritize movement-building, farmed animal issues, and improving the quality of the far future, but I'd encourage other people to contribute any other EA research ideas in the comments section.

And these are definitely half-baked ideas, and I'm not prepared to defend them in much detail. I've tried to add citations for context when I had some readily available.

I also don't expect so many people to work on these ideas with sufficient rigor that duplicating effort is a huge concern, though of course coordination is helpful. I've seen a lot of research that was never done because of duplication concerns, but very little harm from duplication of effort in this context.

Some of these are also included in Sentience Institute's research agenda, though many of those (e.g. RCTs) aren't as promising for this context.

The list is in very rough order of the value of a decent-quality implementation of the idea.

Research Ideas

  • Detailed analysis of how much would it cost (money, land, energy, etc.) to actually have large-scale “humane” animal farming (i.e. net positive lives to the average well-informed person)
  • Aggregation of predictions made for new technologies. E.g. when did people think we would get personal computers after the first supercomputers came out? (context: AI timelines, predictions of the year 2000)
  • What can be done with grazing/non-arable land in an animal-free food system: E.g. What plants (e.g. switchgrass for biofuels) can we grow on how much of it? Can we put clean meat breweries on it? Housing? Rewilding?
  • Aggregation of attempts at certification programs (analogous to "humane meat") across different industries. Namely, how and how often do they lead to industry-wide reform?
  • Aggregation of the health evidence for and against animal products (probably best to start by aggregating pro-vegan and anti-vegan lists of studies and arguments; I currently don't know of any even-handed lists)
  • Timeline of how public perceptions of vegetarianism have changed over the past two centuries (e.g. old media articles)
  • Summaries of Cochrane and similar reviews on mass media interventions for public health (e.g. "Mass media interventions for smoking cessation in adults" [1]). Namely, what, if any, somewhat-robust conclusions have been found that might apply to the advocacy of plant-based eating?
  • Summaries of social movement strategy books (e.g. Power in Movement, Rules for Radicals, From Dictatorship to Democracy)
  • Various other literature reviews (e.g. voter turnout, anti-substance abuse, environmental advocacy, healthy eating, exercise, anti-violence, anti-discrimination/bias)
  • Various social movement case studies (e.g. environmentalism (e.g. climate change, pollution, wildlife preservation), children’s rights, early US antislavery, mental disabilities, prison reform, anti-abortion, animal rights (e.g. lab, entertainment, food, shelters), anti-smoking, healthy eating)
  • Summary/references for farmed animal welfare laws in each country (similar to WAP's API), especially Switzerland, Austria, Australia, China, and India. Including a timeline for each country if possible.
  • How useful is reducing animal farming for reducing pandemic risk?
  • More detailed analysis of how much animal farming subsidies affect animal product prices (see Lewis' brief investigation here)
  • Analysis of the impact of animal ag on global food prices

[1] (see comment)

3 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 8:34 PM
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Something similar perhaps worth exploring is putting up awards/bounties for doing particular research projects. A central clearing-house of this could be interesting (I know myself and a couple of others have done this on an ad-hoc basis - that said, efforts to produce central repositories for self-contained projects etc. in EA have not been wildly successful).

A couple of related questions/topics I'd be excited for someone to have a look at:

1. Is rationality a skill, or a trait? Stanovich's RQ correlates with IQ fairly strongly, but I imagine going through the literature could uncover how much of a positive manifold there is between 'features' of rationality which is orthogonal to intelligence, and then investigation of how/whether this can be trained (with sub-questions around transfer, what seems particularly promising, etc.

2. I think a lot of people have looked into the superforecasting literature for themselves, but a general write-up for public consumption (e.g. How 'traity' is superforecasting? What exactly does GJP do to get a reported 10% boost from pre-selected superforecasters? Are there useful heuristics people can borrow to improve their own performance beyond practice/logging predictions? (And what is the returns curve to practice, anyway?)) could spare lots of private duplication.

3. More generally, I imagine lots of relevant books (e.g. Deep Work, superforecasting, better angels) could be concisely summarised. That said, I think there are already services that do this, so less clear if this already exists whether it is worth EA time to repeat 'in house'.

Questions about the EA community:

  1. Attendance data from EA London suggests women are as likely to attend an initial event as men, but less likely to attend future events. Is this true for other EA communities?
  2. Interview people who have previously attended 5+ EA events, but haven't attended any community events in the last year. Do they still consider themselves part of the community? Why don't they attend events anymore?

[1] Cochrane mass media health articles (and similar):

  • Targeted mass media interventions promoting healthy behaviours to reduce risk of non-communicable diseases in adult, ethnic minorities
  • Mass media interventions for smoking cessation in adults
  • Mass media interventions for preventing smoking in young people.
  • Mass media interventions for promoting HIV testing
  • Smoking cessation media campaigns and their effectiveness among socioeconomically advantaged and disadvantaged populations
  • Population tobacco control interventions and their effects on social inequalities in smoking: systematic review
  • Are physical activity interventions equally effective in adolescents of low and high socioeconomic status (SES): results from the European Teenage project
  • The effectiveness of nutrition interventions on dietary outcomes by relative social disadvantage: a systematic review
  • Use of folic acid supplements, particularly by low-income and young women: a series of systematic reviews to inform public health policy in the UK
  • Use of mass media campaigns to change health behaviour
  • The role of the media in promoting and reducing tobacco use
  • Getting to the Truth: Evaluating National Tobacco Countermarketing Campaigns
  • Effect of televised, tobacco company-funded smoking prevention advertising on youth smoking-related beliefs, intentions, and behavior
  • Do mass media campaigns improve physical activity? a systematic review and meta-analysis