Cultural persistence

Discuss the wiki-tag on this page. Here is the place to ask questions and propose changes.

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In Freitas-Groff, Zach (2021) Longtermism in animal advocacy, Animal Charity Evaluators, March 31, there's discussion of persistence studies, the implications that that might have for animal advocates, and what new persistence-studies-style research could be done to further inform animal advocates. It might be useful for someone to add some text to this entry which draws on what Zach says there.

The relevant part is in the last ~18 minutes, and especially the last ~12 minutes.

I consider the current name and description for this tag a first draft. Feel free to make suggestions/edits.

Alternative name ideas:

  • Cultural Persistence
  • Cultural, Political, and Moral Persistence
  • Something else along these lines
  • Persistence Studies???
    • I think this is too narrow; it seems to imply all of these posts should be very related to the kind of academic work that is sometimes called "persistence studies"

How about renaming it to Cultural persistence?

I'm ~ on the fence, so if that sounds better to you, feel free to rename :)

I took a closer look, and it now seems to me that this should be called Cultural change, which is the standard academic term, and merged with cultural evolution. We also have memetics, which probably should also be merged.

Hmm, I think I disagree on both points. I think these three topics are indeed all quite related, but are meaningfully distinct and sufficiently important to each warrant their own entries. 

I think memetics may be a subset of cultural evolution, but it seems to still have a relatively clear scope and be an important subset.

And cultural evolution is not centrally concerned with the question of how persistent various cultural changes are - I'd say that's well under half of what cultural evolution discusses, in my experience. Other topics include things like how cultural evolution occurs (e.g., copying vs population growth vs conquering), what things are more "fit" from a cultural evolutionary perspective and what determines that, and how cultural evolution has proceeded historically. But the question of how persistent various cultural changes are is very important to the case for longtermism as a whole and to prioritising different longtermism-related cause areas and interventions.

I also think this is a case where it makes sense to deviate from the standard academic term, because "our" values/worldviews mean "we" are particularly focused on something different to the most common nearby focus in academia. (Caveat: I haven't much looked into academic work on cultural persistence vs cultural change.) I think longtermists are more interested in (very long-term) persistence than change - sort-of like change is what we expect to be likely by default in most cases, and what we're wondering is if persistence is sufficiently likely for various things to still be important in expectation, and where and how such persistence would occur. 

Though this is orthogonal to the discussion concerning the present article, I think whatever minor differences exist between cultural evolution and memetics do not justify having two separate articles. 'Memetics' is also a term of dubious scientific standing and is not generally used in the scholarly literature. So I would strongly lean toward merging those two entries.

Concerning the present article, I think the problem with it is that its scope is not defined very clearly and doesn't seem to capture a "natural kind". In general, and as noted previously, I think it's a bad sign when the title of an article contains a conjunction or a disjunction, and in this case the reference to "political/cultural" variables looks particularly problematic.

When a Wiki entry corresponds to a term or expression that is standardly used in the scholarly literature, or whose meaning is otherwise obvious, it's fine to first create the article and provide an explicit definition at a later stage. In articles like this one, by contrast, a definition is crucial, since it's a precondition for resolving any disagreements editors may have about it, including what it should be called, how it differs from other existing articles, or whether it should exist at all. Given that you created the article, would you be able to write such a definition?

Regarding cultural persistence (or whatever):

I've now changed the name to cultural persistence, updated and expanded the text, and (hopefully) more clearly indicated how this connects to both the academic line of work and to EA interests. Feel free to make additional suggestions/edits as well :)

I roughly agree with the general principle given in your final paragraph. (FWIW, I did propose the original name and description before creating the entry, and did see it as more a "first pass" than a final state. But that's not really disagreeing with your comment, since your comment can be seen as basically a prod to now go beyond that "first pass".)

In this case, I also think that switching to the term "cultural persistence" largely bypasses these concerns, since that term's meaning seems fairly intuitive and is covered in some academic work. (That said, I haven't read any of the papers in full myself, though I've encountered various EA summaries of them.)

Thanks, Michael. I agree that the name change renders the other issues moot.

Regarding memetics and cultural evolution:

I just checked the history of the tags, and apparently Owen Cotton-Barratt created the memetics entry, and then later I created the cultural evolution entry (having proposed it in my tag proposal thread and noted it overlapped with memetics, and with JP indicating being in favour of this new entry as well). 

I think there's a reasonable argument for just having one or the other entry. And if we do just have one, I think it should be cultural evolution rather than memetics.

It's also possible that if we'd had the cultural evolution entry first and then someone proposed a memetics entry, my intuitions would be less favourable.

But currently I still weakly favour keeping the memetics tag, for the reason given above: I think it's a large and interesting enough topic in its own right to warrant an entry, even if it does seem to be a subset of cultural evolution. (But this is just a weak favouring, and can be overruled.)

'Memetics' is also a term of dubious scientific standing and is not generally used in the scholarly literature.

A substantial chunk of our wiki entries are terms that aren't used in the scholarly literature. 

This case is different in that the scholarly literature has to some extent discussed and then apparently often looked down on this term, rather than simply never discussing it. But FWIW, my independent impression is that "memetics", at least as used by EAs, points to a just quite clearly useful set of metaphors, analogies, etc., which aren't in the right category of thing to be a "false theory" or "pseudoscience". 

To me, I think the main reason the dubious scientific standing matters is not because of the information that provides but because I think the wiki is intended partly for purposes along the lines of field building, and for that it's good to manage our reputation, look credible and serious, etc. I'd understand cutting the entry for that reason, especially given it overlaps considerably with "cultural evolution".

As far as I understand, Beckstead and other EAs also refer to this as a "trajectory change". Hence, I would find it useful to mention this name in the tag page.

I think this is definitely related to / relevant to the idea of trajectory change, so, prompted by your comment, I've added each entry in the other entry's Related entries section. And I do think an expanded version of the text for each entry should mention the other concept. (Like, once an editor gets around to it, that'd be good.) So thanks for mentioning that!

OTOH, I think the concepts are meaningfully distinct, rather than being synonymous. In particular, trajectory changes are persistent changes to total value at every point in the long-term future. Whereas things like persistence studies tend to focus on far shorter time horizons, and their scope could in theory cover persistence in cases where the persistence doesn't affect how morally valuable things are. (Though I expect almost all instances of persistence would at least slightly affect the value of the future, even e.g. a very slight rearrangement of keyboards that lasts indefinitely for some reason.)

Yes, I agree with you that they should be different but are related, so thanks for your edits. Beckstead uses at least the QWIRC keyboard as an example for trajectory changes in his Phd as far as I remember.