tessa

Interested in the promises and perils of biotechnology, and especially in pragmatic balancing of the two. Currently in the SF bay area. Sometimes I help out with EA Global.

tessa's Comments

Responsible Biorisk Reduction Workshop, Oxford May 2020

That's great!

I've been working on a biosecurity event (Catalyst) that's happening later this month in SF. It's going to be a larger and less purely EA audience (and thus I expect it to have less of a working-group atmosphere) but I'd be happy to connect afterwards and share any takeaways on biorisk event organization.

8 things I believe about climate change

Myself and Zachary Jacobi did some research for a post that we were going to call "Second-Order Effects Make Climate Change an Existential Threat” back in April 2019. At this point, it's unlikely that our notes will be converted into a post, so I'm going to link a document of our rough notes.

The tl;dr of the doc:

Epistemic status: conjecture stated strongly to open debate.

It seems like there is a robust link between heat and crime (at least 1%/ºC). We should be concerned that increased temperatures due to climate change will lead to increases in conflict that represent an existential threat.

  • We assumed that:
    • Climate change is real and happening (Claim 0).
    • Conflict between humans is a major source of existential risk (Claim 1).
  • Tessa researched whether increased atmospheric CO2 concentrations would make people worse at thinking (Claim 2).
    • She concluded that there is only mixed evidence that CO2 concentrations affect cognition, and only at very high (i.e. indoor) concentrations.
    • If you are concerned about the CO2 → poor cognition → impulsivity/conflict link, worry about funding HVAC systems, not climate change.
  • Zach researched whether heat makes people more violent (Claim 3).
    • They concluded that "This seems to be solidly borne out by a variety of research and relatively uncontroversial, although there is quibbling about which confounders (alcohol, nicer weather) play a role. On the whole, we’re looking at at least 1%/ºC increase in crime. The exact mechanism remains unknown and everything I’ve read seems to have at least one counter-argument against it."
    • The quality of the studies supporting this claim surprised both of us.
  • We did not get around to researching the intersection of food scarcity, climate change, and conflict .

The rough notes represent maybe 4 person-hours of research and discussion; it's a shallow investigation.

Against value drift

My values being differently expressed seems very important, though. If I feel as if I value the welfare of distant people, but I stop taking actions in line with that (e.g. making donations to global poverty charities), do I still value it to the same extent?

That said, my example wasn't about external behaviour changes, so you probably weren't responding with that in mind.

I've inarguably experienced drift in the legibility of my values to myself, since I no longer have the same emotional signal for them. I find the the term "Value Drift" a useful shorthand for that, but it sounds like you find it makes things unclear?

Against value drift

It seems they are worried they might learn more and decide they were wrong and now want something different... If you truly, deeply care about altruism, you'll keep picking it in every moment, up until the world changes enough that you don't.

I don't object to learning more and realizing that I value different things, but there are a lot of other reasons I might end up with different priorities or values. Some of those are not exactly epistemically virtuous.

As a concrete example, I worry that living in the SF bay area is making me care less about extreme wealth disparities. I witness them so regularly that it's hard for me to feel the same flare of frustration that I once did. This change has felt like a gradual hedonic adaptation, rather than a thoughtful shifting of my beliefs; the phrase "value drift" fits that experience well.

One solution here is, of course, not to use my emotional responses as a guide for my values (cf. Against Moral Intuitions) but emotions are a very useful decision-making shortcut and I'd prefer not to take on the cognitive overhead of suppressing them.

What are your top papers of the 2010s?
Answer by tessaOct 22, 201910

Dylan Matthews's answer, excerpted from the Future Perfect newsletter

This question is inspired by today's Future Perfect newsletter (signup link), in which Dylan Matthews wrote:

We’re barely two months from the end of the 2010s, and that has meant a lot of end-of-decade best-of lists on everything from movies to songs to albums to TV shows. And, at least for me, it's meant a lot of arguments with friends over whether, say, Yeezus actually holds up, or if The Master or Phantom Thread is the better Paul Thomas Anderson movie, or if The Good Place is better than Parks and Recreation.

So I started wondering what a list of the papers — in economics, political science, sociology, psychology, and philosophy — that most influenced me over the 2010s would look like. Unsurprisingly, it looked like a list of ideas that have influenced my writing in Future Perfect profoundly.

I should say that this is a small fraction of the research that’s influenced me greatly this past decade, and if you’re an academic reading this and I’ve left you out, I mean no disrespect at all! But here are five papers that have really changed how I think about the world in the 2010s (and keep an eye out for an expanded list on the site in the coming weeks!).

"Cluelessness” (2016) by Hilary Greaves

The choices we make have unpredictable consequences that ripple out for centuries or millennia, by affecting life and death. This is a very technical paper (this podcast presents a more accessible version), but Greaves does a great job of explaining cases where this kind of cluelessness is fine (where we can just make our best guess as to which action will work out best) and in which cases it’s really, really troubling.

"Free Distribution or Cost-Sharing?” (2010) by Jessica Cohen and Pascaline Dupas

I’m cheating slightly with this one; Cohen and Dupas’s article appeared in working paper form before being officially published in 2010. It uses a randomized experiment to show that giving away anti-malaria bednets for free dramatically increases their usage relative to charging a small, nominal fee.

This implies that charities like Against Malaria Foundation that facilitate the direct distribution of bednets can have huge positive effects. I’ve given thousands of dollars to AMF due in no small part to this paper.

"Using the Results from Rigorous Multisite Evaluations to Inform Local Policy Decisions"(2019) by Larry Orr, Robert Olsen, Stephen Bell, Ian Schmid, Azim Shivji, and Elizabeth Stuart

The Cohen-Dupas paper is in some ways the best possible case for randomized trials being valuable. Here’s the best countercase I’ve seen.

Focusing on education, this team of researchers tries to use average results of education policies, as measured by big randomized trials held in different locations, to predict the results in individual locations. They find that this doesn't work very well at all: you can't just take average results and expect that the same effect will hold in your specific case. It's a challenging result for evidence-based policy and one I'm still grappling with.

"The Coalition Merchants" (2012) by Hans Noel

If public opinion doesn’t determine the future of public policy, what does? Here, Noel tells a compelling story that places “coalition merchants” — party activists, sympathetic journalists, and other ideologues — at the center, deciding “what goes with what” and what it means to be a conservative or a liberal.

He illustrates this using race relations in the 1950s and 1960s; he argues that intellectuals like William F. Buckley and groups like Americans for Democratic Action were crucial in identifying support for government services with support for civil rights, and opposition to one with opposition to the other.

"Does School Spending Matter? The New Literature on an Old Question" (2018) by C. Kirabao Jackson

We probably focus too much on individual studies and not enough on big pooled evidence reviews. In this review (ably summarized here for folks without NBER access), Jackson walks through 13 recent papers, many coauthored by Jackson himself, that use highly rigorous near-random methods to measure the influence of money on school outcomes.

It’s a very basic question — does pouring more money into public schools improve outcomes? — and the answer, Jackson finds in the research base, is yes. It’s a good model for reviewing an evidence base, and it's a paper that’s genuinely changed my mind on the topic. I previously thought per-student funding didn’t matter much; I now think it matters a great deal.

What book(s) would you want a gifted teenager to come across?

I'd second Thinking, Fast and Slow.

I took a general primer on human biases ("Psychology of Critical Thinking") at a local university in high school, which overall had an enormously beneficial effect on my thinking.

Thinking, Fast and Slow is the most comprehensive popular book I've read which covers that territory, and wins points for describing in detail the experiments that Kahneman and Tversky used to reach their various conclusions. My understanding is that most of Kahneman and Tversky's results have held up, but not everything the book discusses has replicated well- many of the results it describes on priming are questionable.

Might be worth complementing with some of Ben Goldacre's books (e.g. Bad Science or I Think You'll Find It's A Bit More Complicated Than That) for very object-level critiques of research (and especially research reporting in the press and the UK government) or Atul Gawande's The Checklist Manifesto for descriptions of how to systematically avoid human errors when doing complicated tasks.

What book(s) would you want a gifted teenager to come across?

I think it might still be worth sharing with caveats.

I got a lot out of reading Feynman as a 14-year-old girl. In particular, I was spending much of my time on creative projects (making props for theatre shows, drawing comics, etc.) even though I grudgingly felt like I'd need to work towards a STEM career to be more useful. His stories about painting and picking up random library books and learning languages (another hobby of mine at the time) made STEM careers seem much more compatible with the kinds of thinking I enjoyed.

That said, I have much more mixed feelings upon re-reading the book as an adult. Stories that seemed like harmless good fun now read as incredibly inconsiderate.

For example, Feynman describes playing a prank on a waitress at a local restaurant by putting her tip under an inverted full glass of water. When she goes to collect her tip, she spills the water. He shows her how she could have avoided the spill by slipping a sheet of paper under the glass and carefully sliding it to the edge of the table. The next time he goes to the restaurant, he inverts an empty glass, and is amused to watch the waitress very carefully and slowly slip paper underneath. I don't find this funny, especially since he describes how busy and rushed the waitresses are, but he clearly did.

The book also includes some stories about how he'd pick up women at bars in somewhat manipulative ways, but that didn't faze me as a teenager (I think I chalked it up to ambient sexist and adversarial relationship norms, which aren't unique to Feynman's writing) and still bothers me less than the above story.

If physics is many-worlds, does ethics matter?

My impression (also not a physicist) is that there's no obvious connection between a wave function collapsing somewhere in the universe and your neurons churning through a decision about which door you'd rather walk through. Under Many Worlds, every quantum-possible universe exists, but that doesn't mean that your experience of decision-making is equal-and-opposite distributed across those worlds. If you like the look of the right door better than the left door, then probably most of your selves will go through that door.

(If you're interested in a fictional exploration of these issues, Ted Chiang's Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom is excellent.)

Will splashy philanthropy cause the biosecurity field to focus on the wrong risks?

Yes, I have updated towards the view that a single funder can strongly influence the direction and focus of a research field.

I notice I feel reluctant to give any detailed description of what I learned in those conversations in this entirely public forum; I'd like people to feel as if they can share their opinions with me without those later being broadcast.

My broad, stitched-together impression (which could be as much my interpretation as the opinion of those I spoke to) is that people are excited about the emergence of a major new funder, but leery of the sudden change in what research is most easily able to get funded. In addition to bringing new people into the field, Open Phil granting has redirected some established researchers to focus on GCBRs, and I think there is a view that GCBRs are a valid concern, but not so singularly important that they should overwhelm other research agendas.

Hi, I'm Holden Karnofsky. AMA about jobs at Open Philanthropy

How much collaboration exists between research analysts (or operations associates, for that matter)?

I decided against working in academic research because I do much better in a team environment (short feedback loops, bouncing ideas off peers, sense that my work contributes to shared purpose and projects) than I do working independently. I prefer the industry side of basically all of Philip Guo's industry vs. academia comparisons. Would it still make sense for me to apply for an OpenPhil job? I think I have relevant skills, but I'm worried that I wouldn't be effective in a research environment, even if it is non-academic.

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