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Health Behavior Interventions Literature Review

Ah, I see—in that case, it makes a lot of sense for you to pursue these case studies. I appreciate the time you invested to get to a double crux here, thanks!

Health Behavior Interventions Literature Review

Thank you for your replies, Jamie, I appreciate the discussion. As a last point of clarification when you say ~40%, does this, for example, mean that if a priori I was uninformed on momentum v complacency and so put 50/50% credence on either possibility, that a series of case studies might potentially update you to 90/10%?

When I'm thinking about the value of social movement case studies compared to RCTs, I'm also thinking about their ability to provide evidence on the questions that I think are most important

I don't disagree—but my point with this intuition pump is the strength of inference a case study, or even series of case studies, might provide on any one of those questions.

Health Behavior Interventions Literature Review

To clarify, I suspect we have some agreement on (social movement) case studies: I do think they can provide evidence towards causation—literally that one should update their subjective Bayesian beliefs about causation based on social movement case studies. However, at least to my understanding of the current methods, they cannot provide causal identification, thus vastly limiting the magnitude of that update. (In my mind, to probably <10%.)

What I'm struggling to understand fundamentally is your conception of the quality of evidence. If you find the quality of evidence of the health behavior literature low, how does that compare to the quality of evidence of SI's social movement case studies? One intuition pump might be that the health behavior literature undoubtedly contains scores of cross-sectional studies, which themselves could be construed as each containing hundreds of case studies, and these cross-sectional studies are still regarded as much weaker evidence than the scores of RCTs in the health behavior literature. So where then must a single case study lie?

For what it's worth, in reflecting on an update which is fundamentally about how to make causal inferences, it seems like being unfamiliar with common tools for causal inference (eg, instrumental variables) warrants updating towards an uninformed prior. I'm not sure if they'll restore your confidence, but I'd be interested to hear.

Health Behavior Interventions Literature Review

Hi Jamie, I'm glad to see this work out and will look forward to reading it in more depth. Congratulations—I'm sure it was hugely labor intensive! In my quick read, I was confused by this point:

Weaknesses of the health behavior literature, despite decades of research and huge amounts of funding, suggest serious limitations of experimental and observational research in other contexts, such as the farmed animal movement.

I think this is too pessimistic and somewhat short-term thinking. Instead, I would explain the weakness of the current health behavior literature by a few factors:

  1. Foremost, I think this is a symptom of the extraordinary difficulty of empirical research. It's simply hard to do high-quality research and we are still very much actively discovering what it means to do high-quality research.
  2. Decades just aren't that long of a time to spend on a research subject, especially in light of the first point. Many contemporary research questions have been known and unanswered for millenia. For example, we have been studying how to extend human life, largely without success, since ancient times.
  3. Various cultural factors in academia inhibit the conduct of high-quality studies. As a few examples: funders sometimes simply won't cut a check big enough to fund a single high-quality study, but several smaller lower quality ones; some subfields have simply accepted low-quality study designs as a fact of life and made only modest efforts to improve them; a publish or perish mentality incentives producing many small studies on diverse topics, rather than one high-quality study; and highly powered studies are more likely to return a null result, thus damaging publication prospects.

Of course, none of these are easy to surmount, but I don't see reason to give up on trying to conduct high-quality studies, especially with few alternatives available. Which brings me to my second question:

This makes other types of evidence, such as social movement case studies, relatively more promising.

To my (limited) understanding, case studies are by and large a type of observational research, since they rely on analyzing the observed outcomes of, for example, a social movement, without intervention. It seems like social movement case studies are then limited generally, like most observational research, to understanding correlations and motivating causal theories about those correlations, rather than measuring causation itself. Furthermore, case studies are usually regarded as low-quality evidence and form the base of the evidence pyramid in epidemiology. As such, I'm not sure how the difficulty of collecting high-quality evidence then implies we should collect more of what is usually regarded as low-quality evidence.

This also seems like a rather broad proclamation about the usefulness of experimental and observational studies—have you considered the merits of regression discontinuity designs, instrumental variables estimation, propensity score matching and prospective cohort studies, for example? All of these seem like designs worth considering for EAA research but don't seem broadly explored either here or in Sentience Institute's foundational question "EAA RCTs v intuition/speculation/anecdotes v case studies v external findings".

How to Measure Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status

Thanks for the helpful clarifications and responses, Jason. I don't have anything to add at this point, but look forward to reading more of your work!

How to Measure Capacity for Welfare and Moral Status

Hi Jason, thank you for writing this. I appreciate the refreshing reiteration that we do and must make trade-offs between the interests of different species, as well as your careful philosophical treatment. A few thoughts:

An animal’s capacity for welfare is how good or bad its life can go. An animal’s moral status is the degree to which an animal’s experiences or interests matter morally.

While capacity and moral weight are important parameters, I think there also remains significant empirical uncertainty about actual experience as well. Without eliminating this uncertainty, estimate of the two former values may not be especially useful.

(1) a holistic approach, in which relevant experts employ their normative and biological expertise to make all-things-considered estimates of the appropriate tradeoffs between different lives, experiences, or interests, and (2) an atomistic approach, in which we identify empirical proxies for morally salient features, then let our best scientific understanding of the degree to which different animals possess those features guide our estimates of comparative moral value. The two approaches are not in principle mutually exclusive.

As you indicate, these are, of course, not mutually exclusive. However, I suspect they overlap so much as to be not worth distinguishing as any reasonable application would apply both approaches. As you suggest, the weightings of the atomistic features would rely on expert judgement, as would estimates of combination effects, which could occur at the species (or even individual) level. For example, Bracke 2019 is the best study I've seen on comparing a wide array of chicken housing condition. In the study, a panel of chicken welfare experts were provided a set of "atomistic" attributes (eg, stocking density, temperature, light exposure) about different housing conditions to inform holistic judgments of the relative welfare of each system. While this is not exactly the same task as assessing capacity for welfare and moral status, it seems analogous and illustrative of the need for a hybrid approach.

So I think there is good reason in general to worry that unwanted considerations unduly sway one’s intuitions about the value of nonhuman animals.

I agree, but this might be mitigated by including these as explanatory variables. For example, the impact of speciesism could at least be examined and potentially controlled for by inclusion of the above-cited speciesism scale or the impact of diet patterns by inclusion of a diet screener.

Personally, I think order is probably the right rank at which to investigate the subject.

This seems very unlikely to be the correct taxa in my opinion. First, taxa above genus or family are generally arbitrary in scope. Second, relevant traits would likely be heterogeneous within such a broad group. For example, within the order of bivalves, there are sessile and motile species, and species with a dozen plus compound eyes or "eyes" that detect only light and dark.

Effective Animal Advocacy Resources

The Brooks Animal Law Digest is a good new resource. (Also, I noticed the version of this article on RP's website suggest leaving a comment, but a comment field is not available there.) Thanks for putting this all together, Saulius!

The Individual and the Bathwater

I don't think anyone is suggesting shifting "most of the resources" (Jacy only suggests 50% of existing individual resources) and certainly not all resources, so I don’t think the "and" not "or" message is really relevant. Of course, if there are people who hold this view I’d be curious to learn more. I think the question for most is identifying the optimal ratio. Sentience Institute is also quite clear on the evidence underlying that belief and it's not a lack of a link between advocacy and diet, but the existence of more public support for institutional change, historical precedent and psychological arguments. For what it’s worth I also believe we need some balance between the two, as Harish Sethu wrote about at Labs.

I appreciate your pointing out that many institutional approaches have “even less real-world empirical support.” As you know, The Humane League Labs is actively working to rectify this :) However, one might object that in the history of social change, institutional approaches have significantly more empirical support, at least in so far as few if any social movements seem to have succeeded by convincing each individual to their cause. I think there is still work to be done marshalling this evidence and I’m not convinced the existing evidence is applicable to animal advocacy. But I nonetheless find this evidence (the history of social change) more convincing than not in support of institutional approaches (maybe 60% credence).

I am also concerned that it’s not clear what individual efforts you’re suggesting. At least in the US, attitudes and intentions towards animals seem quite good:

  • Animal Tracker finds 68% of US adults “Strongly” or “Somewhat support” “the animal protection movement’s goal to minimize and eventually eliminate all forms of animal cruelty and suffering.”
  • Gallup finds 32% of people agree that “Animals deserve the exact same rights as people to be free from harm and exploitation”, while another 62% agree “Animals deserve some protection from harm and exploitation, but it is still appropriate to use them for the benefit of humans”. Separately, 64% support “passing strict laws concerning the treatment of farm animals”.
  • Sentience Institute finds 54% of people agree with “I am currently trying to consume fewer animal-based foods (meat, dairy, and/or eggs) and more plant-based foods (fruits, grains, beans, and/or vegetables).” and 49% agree with “I support a ban on the factory farming of animals.”

These numbers could certainly be higher, but overall they seem decent and have been at least somewhat validated with the success of state-level legislation passed at the poll. Of course, the attitude-behavior and citizen-consumer gaps mean attitudes and intentions don’t necessarily translate to other behavior changes, like reduced animal product consumption or choosing cage-free over caged eggs. But to me, this suggests we need to focus on measuring and changing the behaviors we’re interested in, rather than the attitudes and intentions that don’t translate.

More broadly, I agree with a commenter elsewhere that this discussion seems to focus primarily on corporate animal welfare campaigns when there are many other institutional avenues to consider.

(Lastly, at the risk of nit picking on a very minor note in the intro, but social sciences like economics and political science often consider institutions, so I’m not sure social science necessarily inclines one toward the individual.)

The Individual and the Bathwater

Thank you for writing this, Tom. I've split my comments in two, with another on the larger issue of individual v institutional interventions. Here I’ll focus on the particulars of cage-free commitments as a case study.

First, I'm not sure I follow the "Institutions are likely aiming for "good enough."" section: if an improvement in animal welfare is profitable, it should presumably happen without any advocacy. But I'm not sure it then follows that "the pressure of public opinion is needed to drive welfare beyond "good enough"".

Second, most corporate cage-free commitments don't rely on consumer “willingness to pay” for cage-free eggs per se. Instead of asking people to directly choose cage-free over caged eggs, entire restaurant chains and states provide exclusively cage-free eggs, so the choice would have to be made at the restaurant or state level. It’s possible people would then choose not to buy certain products or patronize particular restaurants, but given the low price elasticity of eggs I wouldn’t expect this to be a large effect; it seems even less likely that people in Los Angeles or San Francisco would drive hours to obtain modestly cheaper eggs. I think this interpretation that corporate campaigns wins have been caused by the attitudes, intentions and behaviors of the public is likely where we disagree most. I agree there is likely some requisite threshold of public support, but it’s not clear this public support then causes change.

Third, I agree with the concern about holdouts. However, this is where the power of legislation, and, unless that holdout is a producer, secondary targeting can come in to play.

Fourth, at least where the industry has actually transitioned to cage-free (about 20% currently), I’m less concerned about “institutional backslide” as this would again require large capital investments to reinstall cages.

Fifth, I think we should not take the industry's claims (like “In response to initially weak demand for cage-free eggs...”) at face value, and there are many possible reasons a particular producer might not remove cages. (The article offers some other explanations, like the wide price spread resulting from the post-avian influenza egg glut. But we should also consider more mundane possibilities like Rose Acres creditors weren't willing to lend them more money—it certainly looks better to say there was insufficient consumer demand!) Since ~2015 the increase in share of cage-free eggs in the US market has been almost linear. So if consumer demand, rather than retailer/restaurant/first receiver, has been shifting conversions to cage-free, it's not been apparent in overall production.

Lastly, I'm not sure which particular outcomes you're referring to with gestation crate commitments, but the details of the pork industry and the commitments create some dissimilarities with the cage-free commitments.

[Link] Surveying US College and University Dining Services for Potential Collaboration on Diet Change Research 2017-2018

Thank you, Aaron! I think your observation that animal product consumption differs systematically between restaurants, grocery stores and other venues is likely accurate. This study mitigated the problem by selecting for campuses where most of the food purchased can be tracked via the dining services, thus providing a more complete picture of individual diets. Of course, these diets may not be representative of the general population but at least a more complete picture of individual diet reduces selection biases between food venues. That said, we didn't find many campuses that met those selection criteria, so future field research will likely need to consider the limitation of sampling only a possibly biased portion of diet.

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