Jamie_Harris

Jamie Harris is a researcher at Animal Advocacy Careers, a charity that he co-founded which seeks to address the career and talent bottlenecks in the animal advocacy movement, and at Sentience Institute, a social science think tank focused on social and technological change, especially the expansion of humanity's moral circle.

As well as hosting The Sentience Institute Podcast, Jamie does a number of small projects and tasks to help grow and support the effective animal advocacy community more widely. He works on whatever he thinks are the best opportunities for him to improve the expected value of the long-term future.

Give Jamie anonymous advice / feedback here https://forms.gle/t5unVMRci1e1pAxD9

Comments

Informational Lobbying: Theory and Effectiveness

Thank you for this review! Ever since I did a literature review of mostly political science literature on "Is the US Supreme Court a Driver of Social Change or Driven by it?" I've been interested in comparable reviews of legislative tactics.

I especially appreciate the summary of the empirical research. Some of those findings seem really impressive to me and that has increased my optimism about lobbying. I look forward to reading through your spreadsheet with summaries of other papers.

(80%) Well-resourced interest groups are no more or less likely to achieve policy success, in general, than their less well-resourced opponents.

I was very surprised by this claim... it was part of what spurred me to read the piece immediately rather than save it to my reading list. But I don't recall seeing evidence for the claim in the post. What has encouraged this high confidence in this claim (which seems very counterintuitive to me)? Apologies if I just missed it.

Yet in some cases there simply is no organized opposition, and a relatively small investment can meaningfully alter wording, put a policy on the agenda, or cause a bill to become law.

The suggestion for the spending strategy in the "Effective lobbying" section seems to rest on this claim. But again, I don't recall seeing much empirical support in the review; does this rest on the theoretical discussions that you summarise? Actually, Baumgartner et al. provide some contrary evidence to this hypothesis:

"The table [table 3.1, page 58] shows that a surprisingly large number of issues (seventeen cases) consist of a single side attempting to achieve a goal to which no one objects or in response to which no one bothers to mobilize. Ironically, the lack of countermobilization is a good predictor of failure. Many of these reflect efforts to put an issue on the agenda, but these efforts are either too early in the process for anyone yet to have reacted or they are clearly not moving so others have not gotten involved in the issue."

They discuss this a little more on the following pages. They note that 17 cases had only one side -- 15 of these were 1 opposing the status quo, none defending it. Unfortunately, from a quick look back, I can't see the proportion of these 15 cases that did result in a policy change.

Health Behavior Interventions Literature Review
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%.)

Interesting. Let's imagine a specific question that we might be interested in, e.g. do incremental improvements (e.g. on welfare of animals or prisoners) encourage momentum for further change or complacency? ~10% sounds about right to me as an upper limit on an update from a single case study. But a case study will provide information on far more questions of interest than this single question. And as we look at several case studies and start to compare between them, then I can imagine an update of more like ~40% from historical social movement evidence in general on any single question of interest.

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

That may be so, but they would be providing evidence on very different types of cause and effect relationships. E.g. the effects of motivational interviews on dietary behaviour, vs the effects of incremental improvements (e.g. on welfare of animals or prisoners) on a movement's momentum for further change. 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.

Social Movement Lessons from the US Prisoners' Rights Movement

Thanks for the comments! It's great to see what was interesting / useful / confusing etc for people, and generally quite hard to get detailed feedback, so I appreciate you taking the time to read and reply.


I would not say that either of these are more "fundamental" than the other.

Sure. This might just be a semantics/phrasing thing, or it might reflect a whole number of different assumptions we have.

I think you are saying that activists focused on the welfare of prisoners over the absolute number of prisoners, and that perhaps this was a mistake.

Yes! Another caveat is that it's very unclear whether focusing more on the "more fundamental political and systemic issues" would actually have been a more cost-effective way to help prisoners. (It could have just been intractable to affect those changes, for example)

But it sounds like maybe you don't think the evidence there is strong?

Correct!

I would be curious if you could give some kind of statement about how confident you are that this "legitimizing" consequence happened and/or how likely it is to happen in farmed animal welfare.

I could give some kind of statement on a number of things:

  • How confident I am that particular litigation in the prisoners' rights movement led to particular specific outcomes, e.g. that litigation in Costello v. Wainwright "encouraged prison construction, rather than improvement in the conditions of existing prisons."
  • How confident I am that, overall, the litigation in the prisoners' rights movement had some kind of entrenchment effect (regardless of whether it also had various positive effects)
  • How confident I am that, overall, the litigation in the prisoners' rights movement was positive or negative for advancing their goals, and some kind of ballpark guess at its net effects.
  • Comparable statements of confidence about social movements more broadly.
  • Comparable statements of confidence about the farmed animal movement specifically.

Because doing any or all of these things for any or all of the "strategic implications" i each case study could be very time consuming, I don't do it.

I'm hoping that at some point, I'll be able to do a bit more of a roundup / analysis post, where I look at some of the key themes and leanings from across several of our case studies. There might be more scope for making these sorts of claims or estimates in a post like that, though it still might not be worth the time. I'd be interested in your thoughts on that!

How receptive the legal system is to these challenges is clearly a crucial consideration for how effective they are, so I would be interested in thoughts/resources about the current legal climate.

I'm afraid I can't really help here. I did write "Is the US Supreme Court a Driver of Social Change or Driven by it? A Literature Review" and have interviewed Kevin Schneider of the Nonhuman Rights Project, but neither of these resources answer this very directly.

Health Behavior Interventions Literature Review

Thanks Jacob! It's great to see what was interesting / useful / confusing etc for people, and generally quite hard to get detailed feedback, so I appreciate you taking the time to read and reply.

I'm sure we could debate these topics at length; that's a tempting prospect, but I'll just reply to some specific parts here.

I don't see reason to give up on trying to conduct high-quality studies

I still think RCTs have their uses. It's just that they can be limited in various ways and that other research methods have some advantages over them, as discussed in the "EAA RCTs v intuition/speculation/anecdotes v case studies v external findings" section you refer to.

To summarise my view update from this review in other terms:

Lots of money has gone into health behaviour research. I expected the health behaviour literature to come to some fairly strong conclusions about the value of some intervention types over others. This didn't seem to be the case, given various limitations and inconsistencies in the research. Hence, I'm less optimistic about the usefulness of conducting comparable research now, relative to other types of research that we could conduct.

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.

I don't agree with this. I think that you can look for evidence that X caused Y in a particular case, rather than just that X preceded Y. (Of course, often the evidence is very weak or nonexistent that X caused Y.) I discuss that in more depth here. You then have the separate problems of How much weight should we place on strategic knowledge from individual historical cases? and/or How likely is it that correlations will replicate across movements? It's hard to describe answers to those questions in precise and unambiguous terms, but I'd answer them with something like "not a lot" and "quite likely," respectively.

have you considered the merits of regression discontinuity designs, instrumental variables estimation, propensity score matching and prospective cohort studies, for example

I have never heard of these things, let alone considered their merits! I don't think that invalidates the view update I describe above, though if I look into these things more, it might restore my confidence?

Moral circles: Degrees, dimensions, visuals

You don't need to agree with premise 3 to think that working on MCE is a cost-effective way to reduce s-risks. Below is the text from a conversation I recently had, where alternating paragraphs are alternating between the two participants.

The brief conversation below focuses on the idea of premise 3, but I'd also note that the existing psychological evidence for the "secondary transfer effect" is relevant to premise 4. I think that you could make progress on empirically testing premise 4. I agree that this would be fairly high priority to run more tests on (focused specifically on farmed animals / wild animals / artificial sentience) from the perspective of prioritising between different potential "targets" of MCE advocacy, and also perhaps for deciding how important MCE work is within the longtermist portfolio of interventions. I can imagine this research fitting well within Sentience Institute. If you know anyone who could be interested in applying to our current researcher job opening (closing in ~one week's time), to work on this or other questions, please do let them know about the opening.

----

"I don't personally see value lock-in as a prerequisite for farmed animals -> artificial sentience far future impact... if the graph of future moral progress is a sine wave, and you increase the whole sine wave by 2 units, then your expected value is still 2*duration-of-everything, even if you don't increase the value at the lock-in point."

"It doesn't seem that likely to me that you would increase the whole sine wave by 2 units, as opposed to just increasing the gradient of one of the upward slopes or something like that."

"Hm, why do you think increasing the gradient is more likely? If you just add an action into the world that wouldn't happen otherwise (e.g. donate $100 to an animal rights org), then it seems the default is an increase in the whole sine wave. For that to be simply an increase in upward slope, you'd need to think there's a fundamental dynamic in society changing the impact of that contribution, such as a limit on short-term progress. But one can also imagine the opposite effect where progress is easier during certain periods, so you could cause >2 units of increase. There are lots of intuitions that can pull the impact up or down, but overall, a +2 increase in the whole wave seems like the go-to assumption."

"Presumably it depends on the extent to which you think there's something like a secondary transfer effect, or some other mechanism by which successful advocacy for farmed animals enables advocacy for other sentient beings. E.g. imagine that we have 100% certainty that animal farming will end within 1000 years, and we know that all advocates (apart from us) are interested in farmed animal advocacy specifically, rather than MCE advocacy. Then, all MCE work would be doing would be speeding up the time before the end of animal farming. But if we remove those assumptions, then I guess it would have some sort of "increase" effect, rather than just an effect on the slope. Both those assumptions are unreasonable, but presumably you could get something similar if it was close to 100% and most farmed animal advocacy efforts seemed likely to terminate at the end of animal farming, as oppose to be shifted into other forms of MCE advocacy."

"Yep, that makes sense if you don't think there's some diminishing factor on the flow-through from farmed animal advocacy to moral inclusion of AS, as long as you don't think there are increasing factors that outweigh it."

Moral circles: Degrees, dimensions, visuals

Hey! As you probably know, I'd be keen to connect with them. Thanks!

Retrospective on thinking about my career for a year

Nice post. I like some of the specific tips, such as searching LinkedIn for people who had done the course you were considering.

Unless I missed something, it seems like you only applied for 2 internships, 2 graduate programmes, and 2 jobs. This seems a surprisingly low number of opportunities to apply for, given the time you spent exploring this. I wonder if there was a particular reason for this. Did you not find the experience of applying useful for the applications you did make? Or was it just that there are few opportunities in the field(s) you were exploring?

Some history topics it might be very valuable to investigate

Thanks! And, of course, I understand that our lists look different in part because of the different cause areas that we've each spent more time thinking about. Glad we could complement each others' lists.

Focusing in on "I worry that they're too deep and rigorous and that this has drastically cut down the number of people who put the time into reading them" - do you think that that can't be resolved by e.g. cross-posting "executive summaries" to the EA Forum, so that people at least read those? (Genuine question; I'm working on developing my thoughts on how best to do and disseminate research.)

Huh, weird, I'm not sure why I didn't do that for either of the case studies I've done so far -- I've certainly done it for other projects. At some point, I was thinking that I might write some sort of summary post (a little like this one, for our tech adoption case studies) or do some sort of analysis of common themes etc, which I think would be much more easily readable and usable. I'd definitely post that to the Forum. I don't think posting to the forum would make a lot of difference though, for us. This is mainly because my impression / intuition is that people who identify with EA and are focused on animal advocacy use the EA Forum less than people who identify with EA and are focused on extinction risk reduction, so it wouldn't increase the reach to the main intended audience much over just posting the research to the Effective Animal Advocacy - Discussion Facebook group and our newsletter. But that concern probably doesn't apply to many of the suggestions in your initial list.

Perhaps the value of people who've done such history research won't entirely or primarily be in the write-ups which people can then read, but rather in EA then having "resident experts" on various historical topics and methodologies, who can be the "go-to person" for tailored recommendations and insights regarding specific decisions, other research projects, etc.

I think there's some value in that. A few concerns jump to mind:

  • Historical case studies tend to provide weak evidence for a bunch of different strategic questions. So while they might not single-handedly "resolve" some important debate or tradeoff, they should alter views on a number of different questions. So a lot of this value will just be missed if people don't actually read the case studies themselves (or at least read a summary).
  • While I think I'm pretty good at doing these case studies to a relatively high standard in a relatively short amount of time (i.e. uncovering/summarising the empirical evidence), I don't think I'm much better placed than anyone else to interpret what the evidence should suggest for individual decisions that an advocate or organisation might face.
  • In practice, I've hardly ever had people actually ask me for this sort of summary or recommendation. Off the top of my head, I can only think of two occasions where this has happened.

If you do end up making a top-level post related to your comment, please do comment about it here and on the central directory of open research questions.

Slight tangent from the discussion here, but you might like to add "and their summary of "Foundational Questions for Effective Animal Advocacy" after where you've listed SI's research agenda on that post. This is essentially a list of the key strategic issues in animal advocacy that we think could/should be explored through further research. Once I've published my literature review on artificial sentience, I'd be keen to add that too, since that contains a large list of potential further research topics.

Some history topics it might be very valuable to investigate

I'm excited to see this post! Thanks for the suggestions. A few I hadn't considered. In general though, this is an area I've thought about in various ways, at various points, so here's my list of an additional "9 history topics it might be very valuable to investigate" (with some overlap with your list)!


I'll start with some examples of categories of historical projects we've worked on at Sentience Institute.

1. The history of past social movements

Some overlap with your categories 3 and 8. This is to inform social movement strategy. At Sentience Institute, we've been focusing on movements that are 1) relatively recent, and 2) driven by allies, rather than the intended beneficiaries of the movement. This is because we are focusing on strategic lessons for the farmed animal movement, although I've recently been thinking about how it is applicable to other forms of moral circle expansion work, e.g. for artificial sentience (I have a literature review of writings on this coming out soonish).

Conducted by SI:

Not conducted by SI, but highly relevant:

I've written a fuller post about "What Can the Farmed Animal Movement Learn from History" which discusses some methodological considerations; some of the discussion could be relevant to almost any "What can we learn about X from history" questions of interest to the EA movement. (As a talk here)


2. The history of new technologies, the industries around them, and efforts to regulate them.

This overlaps with your category 4. Sentience Institute's interest has been in learning strategic lessons for the field of cellular agriculture, cultured meat, and highly meat-like plant-based foods, to increase the likelihood that these technologies are successfully brought to market and to maximise the effects that these technologies have on displacing animal products.

Conducted by SI:


3. Assessing the tractability of changing the course of human history by looking at historical trajectory shifts (or attempts at them).

Covered briefly in this post I wrote on "How tractable is changing the course of history?" (March 12, 2019). I didn't do it very systematically. I was trying to establish the extent to which the major historical trajectory shifts that I examined were influenced by 1) thoughtful actors, 2) hard-to-influence indirect or long-term factors, 3) contingency, i.e. luck plus hard-to-influence snap decisions by other actors.

One approach could be to create (crowdsource?) a large list of possible historical trajectory shifts to investigate. Then pick them based on: 1) a balance of types of shift, covering each of military, technological, and social trajectory shifts, aiming for representativeness 2) a balance of magnitudes of the shifts, 3) time since the shift, 4) availability of evidence.

Some useful feedback and suggestions I had when I presented this work to a workshop by the Global Priorities Institute:

  • Gustav Arrhenius of Institute of Future Studies suggested to me that there was more rigorous discussion of grand historical theories than I was implying in that post. He recommended reading works by Pontus Strimling of the Institute of Future Studies, plus work by Jerry Cohen on Marxism plus by Marvin Harris on cultural materialism.)
  • Christian Tarsney (GPI) suggested that a greater case for tractability is in shaping the aftermath of big historical events (e.g. world wars) rather than in causing the those major events to occur.
  • William MacAskill (GPI) suggested that rather than seeking out any/all types of trajectory shifts, it might be more useful to look specifically for times where individuals knew what they wanted to change and then investigating whether they were able to do that or not. e.g. what's the "EA" ask for people at the time of the French Revolution? It's hard to know what would have been useful. There might be cases to study where people had a clearer ideas about how to shape the world for the better, e.g. in contributing to the writing of the bible.

Some other topics I've thought about much more briefly:


4. The history of the growth, influence, collapse, etc. of various intellectual and academic movements.

Overlaps with your category 3. I think of this as quite different to the history of social movements. Separately from direct advocacy efforts, EA is full of ideas of research fields that could be built or developed. The ones I'm most familiar with are "global priorities research," "welfare biology," and "AI welfare science" but I'm sure there are either more now, or there will be soon, as EAs explore new areas. For example, there were new suggestions in David Althaus and Tobias Baumann, "Reducing long-term risks from malevolent actors" (April 29, 2020). So working out how to most effectively encourage the growth and success of research fields seems likely to be helpful


Various historical research to help to clarify particular risk factors for s-risks will materialise in the future

These could each be categories on their own. Examples include:

  • 5. To what extent have past societies prioritised the reduction of risks of high amounts of suffering and how successful have these efforts been?
  • 6. Historical studies of "polarisation and divergence of values."
  • 7. "Case studies of cooperation failures" and other factors affecting the "likelihood and nature of conflict" (some overlap with your category 5. This was suggested by CLR. I had a conversation with Ashwin Acharya who also seemed interested in this avenue of research)
  • 8. Study how other instances of formal research have influenced (or failed to influence) critical real-world decisions (suggested by CLR.)

9. Perhaps lower priority, but broader studies of the history of various institutions

The focus here would be on building an understanding of the factors that influence their durability. E.g. at a talk at a GPI workshop I attended, someone (Phillip Trammel? Anders Sandberg?) noted a bunch of types of institutions that have had some examples endure for centuries: churches, religions, royalty, militaries, banks, and corporations. Why have these institution types been able to last where others have not? Within those categories, why have some lasted where others have not.


Other comments and caveats:

  • Hopefully SI's work offers a second example of an exception to the "recurring theme" you note in that 1) SI's case studies are effectively a "deeper or more rigorous follow-up analysis" after ACE's social movement case study project -- if anything, I worry that they're too deep and rigorous and that this has drastically cut down the number of people who put the time into reading them, and 2) I at least had an undergraduate degree in history :D
  • On the "background in history" thing, my guess is that social scientists will usually actually be better placed to do this sort of work, rather than historians. (Some relevant considerations here)
  • Any of these topics could probably be covered briefly, with low rigour, in ~one month's worth of work (roughly the timeframe of my tractability post, for example), or could literally use up several lifetime's worth of work. It's a tough call to decide how much time is worth spending on each case study. Some sort of time capping approach could be useful.
  • Relatedly, at some point, you face the decision of how to aggregate findings and analyse across different movements. I think we're close to this with the first two research avenues I mention that we've been pursuing at SI. So if anyone reading this has ideas about how to pursue this further, I'd be interested in having a chat!
  • Many of the topics discussed here are relevant to Sentience Institute's research interests. If you share those interests, you could apply for our researcher opening at the moment.
  • To write this post I've essentially just looked back through various notes I have, rather than trying to start from scratch and think up any and all topics that could be useful. So there's probably lots we're both missing, and I echo the call for people to think about areas where historical research could be useful.
  • It's long been on my to-do list to go through GPI and CLR's research agendas more thoroughly to work out if there are other suggestions for historical research on there. I haven't done that to make this post so I may have missed things.
  • I was told that the Centre for the Governance of AI's research agenda has lots of suggestions of historical case studies that could be useful, though I haven't looked through this yet.
  • These topics probably vary widely in terms of the cost-effectiveness of time spent researching them. Of course, this will depend on your views on cause prioritisation.
  • Once I've looked into the above lists and thought about this more, I might improve this comment and make my own top-level post at some point. I was planning to do that at some point anyway but you forced my hand (in a good way) by making your own post.
  • I'm definitely interested in your interest in research for topic 10 on your list, so please keep me in the loop!
Call for feedback and input on longterm policy book proposal

Admittedly I read Charlotte's comment before reading the full proposal but my main thoughts were: (1) Everything in the book looks really interesting and exciting and I'd be keen to read (or give more feedback on) the specifics in each chapter. (2) It didn't seem like the content of the different chapters was very clearly linked together. That's not necessarily a bad thing, since some books are structured like that (e.g. edited academic books, textbooks etc) but seems unusual for a short, self/co-authored books?

Load More