81 karmaJoined Apr 2020Pursuing a doctoral degree (e.g. PhD)



Hey! I am Mart, I learned about EA a few years back through LessWrong. Currently, I am pursuing a PhD in the theory of quantum technologies and learning more about doing good better in the EA Ulm local group and the EA Math and Physics professional group.


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That makes a lot of sense!

Consumers might not know or think much about the health aspects of things

This describes me quite well in many of my health choices, and unfortunately this is apparently really common.

potassium salt is 10x as expensive as normal salt

In my case, I also did not find salt that is pre-mixed at a price that makes sense to me - I bought a pharma-grade bag of KCl and mixed it with usual table salt myself[1], which resulted in a net-price that is 3x of the usual sodium salt.

So it goes back to policy, and whether governments should just regulate sodium content even in salt - we didn't really explore this, given the higher evidence base and cheapness of salt policies.

That sounds very reasonable - I'll be looking forward to hearing about updates in the future!

  1. with the hope that diluting by 1/3 will not be too much for the anti-hygroscopic components of the store-bought table salt ↩︎

That makes a lot of sense - in practice, there are many relevant considerations and other interventions might well be preferable in many contexts.

The expert opinion

[...] though a Chinese RCT does show positive results, and the current evidence is convincing, still more studies are needed, with the magnitude of benefit not as large as you would think.

also sounds as if potassium-enriched salt surely helps to some degree, but probably isn't a solution by itself. And I get the impression that research in the coming years will probably improve the uncertainties here.

Apart from this, I am a bit surprised that the costs ("perhaps double the price") would be a problem for richer countries. If I am understanding this right, this should still be obviously worth it as a health expenditure? A very simple estimate might be:

  • lost expected life due to high blood pressure: ~2 years (scaling the DALY burden to a single person)
  • expected gains from switching to potassium-enriched salt: ~1/2 year (I am guessing)
  • expected costs: 80 years * 2/3 kg/year * $10/kg = ~$550
  • resulting cost-effectiveness (assuming 1 year = 1 DALY): $1100 / DALY averted

Of course this isn't comparable to GiveWell effectiveness, but it is really cheap compared to other health expenses.

I just realized that I could also just follow the links and found a part of the answer

[...] Another expert is more bearish, noting that though a Chinese RCT does show positive results, and the current evidence is convincing, still more studies are needed, with the magnitude of benefit not as large as you would think. That said, because it's a substitution of sodium for potassium, there's a double benefit for cardiovascular health; people don't consume enough potassium, and potassium lowers blood pressure. And while there is a concern that increasing potassium intake across the population can create risk to people with chronic kidney disease, the evidence is that such people tend to suffer from cardiovascular disease anyway – most hypertension sufferers have higher risk of diabetes/obesity etc.

in section 4.1 1) g)

and also

Of huge interest too is potassium substitution; though evidence of that is fairly new, they think it is a game changer that can accelerate action. They are trying to figure out the name (e.g. potassium-enriched salts) from a public relations perspective. Increasing potassium reduces heart disease – it is an effective strategy. Low sodium salts in general do cost more – perhaps double the price. Then again, Himalayan salts are similarly twice as expensive, yet people still buy it – the challenge is getting the message out there, and that it is good for you (i.e. benefits of potassium); in Australia they are trying to understand the barriers to scaling up. There is research on how to get potash in a scalable way – there is a lot of potassium out there, and only a small amount is food grade (20%), with the rest (80%) used for things like fertilizer.

in section 3.3. Global Salt NGO, point 2.

I am happy to learn that people are working on this :) And it does make sense that the increased price also creates difficulties for adoption. This certainly isn't a trivial problem. Also, I agree that the public relations perspective is important. Here in Germany, there were large health problems due to missing Iodine, which were reduced by fortifying table salt - but even though the necessity for Iodine hasn't changed, people/products are starting to use the fortified salt less.

Regarding increasing potassium intake:

A few weeks ago, I  heard about this as a good idea via a podcast which claimed that getting closer to the potassium recommendations would remove a large part of the problems of high sodium consumption. I switched my salt to 2/3 sodium and 1/3 potassium a few weeks ago, and until now I didn't notice negative effects on taste[1]
Given that potassium is not that expensive, my impression was that a public policy of "everyone, potassium is x% part of table salt from now on" would lead to a large chunk of the benefits without people having to change their taste preferences a lot (by both decreasing sodium by x% and increasing potassium consumption correspondingly). This would increase the prize of salt significantly, which should have similar effects to a sodium tax (the prices would still amount to low single-digit cent costs per day even for high salt consumption).

I would be curious about your thoughts on this, given that you have researched this topic a lot more deeply :)

Nonetheless I could still imagine that there are a number of foods with completely excessive amounts of salt for which other interventions would still be a good idea.

  1. I trust the nutritionist enough to be confident that this change is a good idea for me personally, but I did not look up the sources and I might well have misunderstood the effect-size of increasing potassium consumption ↩︎

I am just coming from a What We Owe the Future reading group - thanks for reminding me of the gap between my moral untuitions and total utilitarianism!

One reason why I am not convinded by your argument is that I am not sure that the additional lifes lived due to the unintended pregnancies are globally net-positive:

  • on the one hand, it does seem quite likely that their lives will be subjectively worth living (the majority of people agrees with this statement and it does not seem to me that these lives would be too different) and that they would have net-positive relationships in the future.
  • but on the other hand, given a level of human technology, there is some finite number of people on earth which is optimal form a total utility standpoint. And given the current state of biodiversity loss, soil erosion and global warming, it does not seem obvious that humanity is below that number[1]
  • as a third part, given that these are unintended pregnancies, it does seem likely that there are resource limitations which would lead to hardships if a person is born. We would need to know a lot about the life situation and social support structures of the potential parents if we wanted to estimate how significant this effect is, but it could easily be non-trivial.
  • edited to add and remove: the number of 100 pregnancies averted does not correspond to 100 fewer children being born in the end. A significant part of the pregnancies would only be shifted in time. I would be surprised if the true number is larger than 10 and expect it to be lower than this. My reasoning here is that the total number of children each set of parents is going to have will hardly be reduced by 100x from access to contraception. If this number started at 10 children and is reduced to a single child, we have a reduction that corresponds to 10 fewer births per death averted. And stated like this, even the number 10 seems quite high (sorry, there were a few confusions in this argument)

This being said, the main reason why I am emotionally unconvinced by the argument you give is probably that I am on some level unable to contemplate "failing to have children" as something that is morally bad. My intuitions have somewhat cought up with the arguments that giving happy lives the opportunity to exist is a great thing, but they do not agree to the sign-flipped case for now. Probably, a part of this is that I do not trust myself (or others) to actually reason clearly on this topic and this just feels like "do not go there" emotionally.

  1. It also does not seem obvious that we are above that number. Especially when trying to include topics like wild animal suffering. At least I feel confident that human population isn't off from the optimum by a huge factor. ↩︎

This is a good point, although I would argue that the reasons why practicing religion has these advantages is unrelated to it being a case of Pascal's wager (if we let Pascal's wager stand for promises of infinite value in general).

This is not enough to claim that Christianity as a whole holds this position, but there certainly exist sentiments in this direction such as

Revelation 3:15--16

I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.
(Holy Bible, New International Version)

I really like the description, but would like to add that infinities in the "size" of the universe could also refer to time: it might be that there is an infinite future which we could possibly influence even if the size of the universe is finite. I don't think that anyone expects this to be true with anything approaching certainty (due to entropy it seems likely that there is no possibility to sustain life/agents indefinitely), but it does not seem ruled out to me that there could be relevant loopholes like cosmic expansion ensuring that entropy can just grow indefinitely or other unusual scenarios (like the possibility to create a pocket universe by triggering a big bang)).

Would one only use 'direct steps' in decision-making? How is "path dependency" interpreted?

I'm not sure what you are referring to here. I would flag that the relative value type specification is very narrow - it just states how valuable things are, not the "path of impact" or anything like that.

After talking to GPT about this[1], I think that my concern is actually already covered by your

If people were doing it by hand, there could be contradictory properties, as you mention. But with programming, which we likely want anyway, it's often trivial or straightforward to make consistent tables.

and could be addressed to a large degree with a few automatized checks and a user interface (one could even auto-fill the table given the first line of entries by assuming ~maximum resulting uncertainty for the unknown correlations). I feel like this could be really helpful for reflecting on one's values if done right, or overwhelming if done wrong.

  1. [GPTs answer includes a summary, so I'll leave out my prompt:] I see your point now. You're referring to a potential inconsistency in the triangle inequality context for relative values. Let's use a concrete example to explore this. Suppose the relative value of 'chocolate' to 'vanilla' is given by a 90% credibility interval from 0.8 to 1.2, and 'banana' to 'vanilla' is from 1.0 to 1.5. This would imply that, based on your preferences for chocolate and banana ice cream relative to vanilla, 'banana' should have a relative value compared to 'chocolate' that lies within a certain range. If, however, you then provide a wide 90% credibility interval for 'chocolate' to 'banana' (e.g., 0.2 to 5), it may seem inconsistent with the narrower ranges implied by the comparisons with 'vanilla'. In this case, it may be that you need to revisit your estimates for 'chocolate' to 'vanilla' and 'banana' to 'vanilla'. If you feel a lot of uncertainty about 'chocolate' vs. 'banana', perhaps you also should feel more uncertainty about these options compared to 'vanilla' than you initially thought. You may have overestimated your confidence in these comparisons. Alternatively, if you're confident in your estimates of 'chocolate' to 'vanilla' and 'banana' to 'vanilla', you may want to narrow down your 90% credibility interval for 'chocolate' vs. 'banana'. In any case, it's a good point to keep in mind when building a relative value table. You want to be consistent in your uncertainty estimates across different comparisons. If there seems to be a contradiction, it's a sign that you may need to rethink some of your estimates. ↩︎

Thanks! I'll reply in separate comments

Is the meaning of each entry "How many times more value is there in item1 than in item2? (Provide a distribution)"?

Yep, that's basically it.

Okay, so maybe relative values are a more straightforward concept than I thought/feared :)

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