3882 karmaJoined Working (6-15 years)


Strategy Fellow — cFactual

Principal — Good Structures

I previously co-founded and served as Executive Director at Wild Animal Initiative, and was the COO of Rethink Priorities from 2020 to 2024.


Topic contributions

Some helpful thoughts on this are here.

I think that the evidence price-taste-convenience hypothesis is unfortunately fairly weak given available evidence, for what it is worth. This analysis and this analysis are, I think, the best write ups on this.

My experience with insect welfare science is that the conclusions are rarely intuitive because insects are so physiologically and behaviorally different than vertebrates. What about the work done on black soldier flies, slaughter methods, mealworm rearing, etc do you find to be not concrete, or to what extent do you find the conclusions to be intuitive? I would have had no idea, for example, based on intuition alone, what stocking density to rear yellow mealworm larvae at to minimize the risk of disease, cannibalism, or early mortality, or other indicators of stress. But because of science in this space, we now have a decent idea! The best way to reduce confidence intervals is to do relevant research.

I'm curious what you've been reading that's made you say this generally, because animal welfare science is a highly concrete research field, that has made many recommendations for specific improvements for animals that would not have been obvious without the research, so I find this incredibly surprising to hear someone say who has read in the space. The experimental methodologies have been developed and critiqued for decades, they've just rarely been applied to insects.

I don't think these areas have run into PR issues historically, but they are perceived as PR risks.

I also didn't like this comment because it seemed unnecessarily arrogant, and also dismissive of global health and animal welfare people, who I hope you would consider at least part of the heart of the wonderful EA intellectual ecosystem.

For what it's worth, as a minor point, the animal welfare issues I think are most important, and the interventions I suspect are the most cost-effective right now (e.g. shrimp stunning), are basically only fundable because of EA being weird in the past and willing to explore strange ideas. I think some of this does entail genuine PR risk in certain ways, but I don't think we would have gotten most of the most valuable progress that EA has made for animal welfare if we paid attention to PR between 2010 and 2021, and the animal welfare space would be much worse off. That doesn't mean PR shouldn't be a consideration now, but as a historical matter, I think it is correct that impact in the animal space has largely been driven by comfort with weird ideas. I think the new funding environment is likely a lot worse for making meaningful progress on the most important animal welfare issues.

 The "non-weird" animal welfare ideas that are funded right now (corporate chicken campaigns and alternative proteins?) were not EA innovations and were already being pursued by non-EA animal groups when EA funding entered the space. If these are the best interventions OpenPhil can fund due to PR concerns, animals are a lot worse off.

I personally would rather more animal and global health groups distanced themselves from EA if there were PR risks, than EA distancing itself from PR risks. It seems like groups could just make determinations about the right strategies for their own work with regard to PR, instead of there being top down enforcement of a singular PR strategy, which I think is likely what this change will mostly cause. E.g. I think that the EA-side origins of wild animal welfare work are highly risky from a PR angle, but the most effective implementation of them, WAI, both would not have occurred without that PR risky work (extremely confident), and is now exceedingly normal / does not pose a PR risk to EA at all (fairly confident) nor does EA pose one to it (somewhat confident). It just reads as just a normal wild animal scientific research group to basically any non-EA who engages with it.

Thanks for the question! This is a fully separate and unaffiliated group that only works on scientific research on insect welfare. 

The Insect Institute, to my knowledge, doesn't do any scientific research, nor fund it.

Thanks for the question! This is something I've talked with people a lot about, so have a lot of thoughts on it — apologies for the long response in advance! Answering for myself, and not other people involved:

I’ve never been able to understand how any serious consideration of insect welfare doesn’t immediately lead to the unacceptable conclusion that any cause other than the welfare of demodex mites or nematodes is almost meaningless.

  • I broadly don't buy that because conclusions seem strange, we shouldn't engage with them. To me, it's much more unacceptable to think that something could be unacceptable just because we don't like the conclusion. We should pursue truth, and act according to what our best model of the world is.
    • Practical ideas have already emerged from this work, and been implemented. As with many animal welfare issues (e.g. insect welfare, wild animal welfare, etc), what people perceive as absurd isn't due to taking the animals' interest seriously, it's due to utilitarianism being a particularly demanding moral philosophy. The idea of capturing a spider in a cup to take it outside being a good thing to do instead of killing it is a widely held belief.
    • The absurdity you sense all comes from the demandingness of specific ethical systems, so if you're concerned about weird outcomes, I'd probably look there instead. If your moral philosophy is demanding you only care about nematodes and you find that to be a problem, I'd contend that's an issue with your moral philosophy, not an issue with thinking about nematodes.
    • I don't think EA would ever demand working on only one cause, or if it did, that seems like a bad formulation of EA.
  • Taking some insects and some other arthropods seriously does not imply taking nemotodes or demodex mites seriously as moral patients (or even consider those as remotely similar animals, though the mites are more complicated). An adult black soldier fly has ~1000x the neurons of a nemotode, and ~1/1000th the neurons of a dog (though neurons shouldn't really be used this way). My understanding is that our last common ancestor with insects is something like 200 million years after our last common ancestor with nemotodes.  
    • I'm pretty sure I've taken this issue as seriously as anyone else in the EA world has for longer than almost anyone else, and I've never believed that anyone should think about nematode welfare ~at all. I think that roughly 0 EA resources should go to nematode welfare. I don't know anyone who thinks that the only causes that matter are nematode welfare or even insect welfare. This is not due to concerns about nematode being rejected out of hand. It's because the evidence for their subjective experience is much weaker.
    • Even if demodex mites can suffer, say, it might be really hard to do anything about that. That doesn't mean we shouldn't do anything about insect farming or other places where we can have impact.
  • I think the evidence for insect sentience is incredibly disheartening — I would like to live in a world in which I had a high degree of confidence that insects don't experience suffering. Instead, I live in one where it seems like a reasonable possibility.
    • It is the case that if insects suffer to a reasonable degree, and we take their suffering seriously, it probably implies incredibly significant things about what our relationship to the world ought to be like. I'm unhappy about that, but it seems like something we should face head on, if the evidence suggests it is worth doing.

How do you envision useful, practical ideas emerging from further insect/arthropod welfare work, rather than just a lot of absurd conclusions?

  • The insect farming industry takes this issue seriously, so seems perfectly reasonable for people concerned about animal welfare to do so too (e.g. the industry lobbying group in Europe had animal welfare guidelines well before anyone remotely connected to EA had engaged on this issue seriously).
    • Animal welfare based commitments based on insect welfare have been in place at retailers for years (e.g. Asos), and insect welfare is a discussion item at industry conferences, etc.
    • I think likely the single most impactful animal welfare campaign by number of animals impacted was insect-focused: this 2012 Starbucks cochineal campaign.
  • I'll also note that this fund exclusively exists to fund scientific research, especially research targeting practical applications. I don't think philosophy, except work like the moral weight project that has direct relevance to developing and evaluating interventions, has much use for animal welfare work at all, and wouldn't personally be in favor of funding it.

I think something worth noting is that most (all?) the negative PR on EA over the last year has focused on areas that will continue to be funded. The areas that were cut for the most part have, to my knowledge, not drawn negative media coverage (maybe Wytham Abbey is an exception — not sure if the sale was related to this though).

Of course, these areas could still be PR risks, and the other areas could be worth funding in spite of the PR risks.

Edit: For disagree voters, I'm curious why you disagree? A quick Google of the negative coverage of OpenPhil or EA all appear to be areas that OpenPhil has not pulled out of, at least to my knowledge. I'm not arguing that they shouldn't have made this determination, but I'd be interested in counter-examples if you disagree (negative media coverage of EA work in an area they are not granting in any more). I'm sure there are some, but my read is that most the negative media is covering work they are still doing. I see some minor off hand remarks about digital sentience, but negative media is overwhelmingly focused on AI x-risk work or FTX/billionaire philanthropy.

This isn't FDIC insured, but the money market fund linked is just in US treasuries so presumably negligible risk.

There are some multi-institution accounts called Insured Cash Sweep you can find to get higher FDIC insurance limits, though I think they generally have lower interest rates. This one from Mercury is an example.

I didn't know the answer, so asked one of the authors. The short answer is that they are significantly harder to detect using visualization techniques and sequencing the genome is just a lot easier, and requires way fewer insects to do so.

The longer answer is that the way we'd "see" these ion channels in insects is basically creating a fluorescent dye with a molecule that binds to only the specific ion channel you were trying to measure (e.g. cold detection might be different from mechanical injury). Then, you'd take many cross sections of the insect's body, and hope that one of them intersected with the dyed molecule in the right position in the nociceptor. You'd have to come up with individual molecules that bind with each kind of nociceptor you were trying to detect, and not other ones. Also, there is a strong chance this doesn't work, so you'd have to do it on many different insects and hope that one produces a good result.

It sounds like for smaller insects, there are some other techniques that allow you to more directly look at these proteins, but mantid bodies are too large for them to work. And, even if looking at them directly, you're looking at them in a densely clustered surface with moving parts (animal tissue), and hundreds or thousands of other proteins, etc, so it wouldn't necessarily be easy to differentiate them.

But, sequencing and assembling a genome of an insect is fairly easy - you theoretically only need one individual (though in practice it might be more), and the rest of the process is fairly straightforward and reliable.

The paper wasn't trying to assess insect sentience, but was evaluating welfare considerations for crickets due to the potential risk of cricket sentience from a precautionary principle perspective. So it doesn't go into detail on cricket sentience, and primarily refers to this paper as a primer on why we might take insect pain as a potential reality.

For a more thorough background on insect sentience, I recommend Rethink Priorities Invertebrate Sentience series, and Moral Weight Project (though neither looked at crickets specifically).

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