Topic Contributions


How about we don't all get COVID in London?

AFAIK there is one positive, randomized trial for a nasal spray containing Iota-Carrageenan (Carragelose):  "The incidence of COVID-19 differs significantly between subjects receiving the nasal spray with I-C (2 of 196 [1.0%]) and those receiving placebo (10 of 198 [5.0%]). "  It is available at least in Europe, and in the UK I think under the brand name Dual Defence.  Why it has not received more attention is beyond me. 

"Fixing Adolescence" as a Cause Area?


Does bullying increase  with onset of adolescence? Schools alone cannot be the factor causing the decrease in life satisfaction, since it seems to occur after grade 5, but students have been in school before that already. 

The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright

(Caveat: Due to space and time constraints, this comment aims to state my position and make it somewhat plausible, but not to defend it in depth. Also, I am unsure as to whether the goal of bioethicists is to come up with their own ethical positions, or to synthesize the ethics of the public in a coherent way)  

For most of the post, I draw on decisions made by (bio)ethic committees that advise governments around the world. I believe those are a great basis for doing so, because they are generally staffed by researchers and independent. My cursory searching has found such committees in France and Austria; the members of the Austrian committee are mostly either high ranking bio-ethics professors, or are at least working in the field in some  capacity. Their reports and votes are public. The info for the French members is less transparent. I have not looked into the various US ethic commissions because their appointments seem much more influenced by politics.

You make a great disambiguation of different levels of criticism against "bioethics". The strong version of the view is that bioethicists as academic researchers reach bad conclusions, even compared to the general population.

I believe there is good justification for holding this view. In particular, many of the decisions made by ethic commissions are highly counter-intuitive to me:

  1. Many of the provisions of informed consent differ from what the general public would consider reasonable. For example, in challenge trial protocols, even those created by proponents, payment of participants beyond time compensation was discouraged in order "not to take advantage of the poor". I believe most people would disagree with that (depending on the framing), as would most EA-types.   
  2. The bioethics committee of  Austria explicitly speaks out against surrogate motherhood: "In view of the manifold and complex social, mental and legal problems connected with “surrogate motherhood”, the Bioethics Commission recommends that methods of reproductive medicine be denied to male homosexual couples." (I could not find a poll of the public for Austria, but the public in France is supportive
  3. The commission in France recommends against physician assisted suicide and euthanasia, the commission in Austria recommends only against the latter. (p.61)  
  4. The WHO advisory committee on Covid-19 challenge trials was split on whether it would be ethical to conduct one if there was no available treatment (p.9). Most of the members are however not bioethicists.  
  5. No strong evidence, but in reading these reports I have not seen them actually making a cost-benefit calculation or referring to one. I think doing so would be very unusual. 

If one accepts these decisions as bad, then I do not believe that the defence of institutional dynamics is sufficient to explain them away. The members are not appointed by a politicized process, but seem to just be experts in their field, and certainly not career bureaucrats. 

But they themselves and their decisions are sometimes public, so maybe they fear backlash over some decisions? However often there is a minority opinion advocating for more permissibility, so presumably holding such positions is both possible and does not lead to huge backlash. 

Prediction Markets in The Corporate Setting

"Moreover, I observe that machine-learning or model-based or data-analysis solutions on forecasting weather, pandemics, supply chain, sales, etc. are happily adopted, and the startups that produce them reach quite high valuations. When trying to explain why prediction markets are not adopted, this makes me favor explanations based on high overhead, low performance and low applicability over Robin Hanson-style explanations based on covert and self-serving status moves." 

I agree that the success of bespoke ml tools for forecasting negates some of the Hansonian explanations, but probably not most of them. 

  1.  As ML tools replace human forecasts, they do not pose a threat to the credibility of executives. They do not have to provide their own forecasts that could later be falsified. 
  2. (Speculative) The forecasts produced by such tools are presumably not visible to every employee, while many previous instances of prediction markets had publicly visible aggregate predictions. 
  3. These tools forecast issues that managers are not traditionally expected to be able to forecast. Weather and pandemics are certainly not in the domain of executives, and I am unsure whether managers usually engage in supply chain and sales predictions.   
  4. These tools do not actually provide answers that could be embarrassing to executives, and for which prediction markets with aggregated human expertise could be useful. For example, machine learning cannot predict "conditional on proposal by CEO Smith, what will our sales be". A good test for this explanation could be how many companies allow feedback to strategy proposals by employees and visible to all employees. 
A case for the effectiveness of protest

Thanks for the writeup! This is surely a perspective that we are missing in EA. 

I did not have time to read all of the post, so I am not sure whether you address this: The cost-effectiveness estimates of XR are ex-post, and of just one particular organization. To me it seems obvious, that there are some movements/organizations that achieve great impact through protest, it is more difficult to determine that beforehand.  

So as far as you propose funding existing projects, do you believe that the impact and behaviour of a  movement are stable?  Unlike NGOs, movements seem much more amenable to unforeseen (bottom-up) change, as there is inherently less control over it. How stable do you believe these movements to be?  

Donating money, buying happiness: new meta-analyses comparing the cost-effectiveness of cash transfers and psychotherapy in terms of subjective well-being

They did not have a placebo-receiving control group. 

All the other points you mentioned seem very relevant, but I somewhat disagree with the importance of a placebo control group, when it comes to estimating counterfactual impact. If the control group is assigned to standard of care, they will know they are receiving no treatment and thus not experience any placebo effects (but unlike you write, regression-to-the-mean is still expected in that group), while the treatment group experiences placebo+"real effect from treatment". This makes it difficult to do causal attribution (placebo vs treatment), but otoh it is exactly  what happens in real life when the intervention is rolled out! 

If there is no group psychotherapy, the would-be patients receive standard of care, so they will not experience the placebo effect either. Thus a non-placebo design is estimating precisely what we are considering doing in real life: give an intervention to people, who will know that they are being treated and who would just have received standard of care (in the context of Uganda, this presumably means receiving nothing?).  

Ofc, there are issues with blinding the evaluators; whether StrongMinds has done so is unclear to me. All of your other points seem fairly strong though.

An update in favor of trying to make tens of billions of dollars


You’d also expect that class of people to be more risk-averse, since altruistic returns to money are near-linear on relevant scales at least according to some worldviews, while selfish returns are sharply diminishing (perhaps logarithmic?).


It's been a while since I have delved into the topic, so take this with a grain of salt: 

Because of the heavy influence of VCs who follow a hits-based model, startup founders are often forced to aim for 1B+ companies because they lost control of the board, even if they themselves would prefer the higher chances of success with a <1B company.  That is to say, there are more people and startups going for the (close to) linear  utility curve than you would expect based on founders' motivations alone. How strong that effect is  I  cannot say. 

This conflict appears well known, see here for a serious treatment and here for a more humorous  one

Book Review: Open Borders

You mention "It’s probably the case that the biggest harms from immigration come from people irrationally panicking about immigration, but (surprise!) people are in fact irrational.". 

From an EU-perspective, the effect seems pretty clear: After the refugee crisis 2015-2016 there have been numerous cases of populist right-wing parties gaining support or outright winning elections after running on anti-immigration platforms: to name just a few: the Lega Nord in Italy became part of the government, the FPÖ polled at their highest in 2016,  and anti-immigration sentiment was at least influential for Brexit. These are arguably outcomes that substantially weaken political institutions and lead to worse governance. 

This kind of backlash from some parts of the established population happens at moderate levels of immigration. We should expect it to be much stronger when immigration would be much higher under an Open Borders system, and account for the effects of that.   

We're Redwood Research, we do applied alignment research, AMA

I think it is fair to say that so far alignment research is not a standard research area in academic machine learning, unlike for example model interpretability. Do you think that would be desirable, and if so what would need to happen? 

In particular, I had this toy idea of making progress legible to academic journals:  Formulating problems and metrics that are "publishing-friendly"could,  despite the problems that optimizing for flawed metrics bring,  allow researchers at regular universities to conduct work in these areas.

Has Life Gotten Better?

Looking forward to the posts, and happy to postpone further discussion to when they are published, but  to me the question and your alluded to answer has enormous implications for our ability to raise life satisfaction levels. 

Namely: very rough estimates suggest that we are now 100x-1000x richer than in the past, and our lives are in the range [good-ok], but generally not pure bliss or anything close to it. If we extend reasonable estimations for  the effect of  material circumstances on wellbeing (i.e. doubling of wealth increases satisfaction by 1 point on a 10 point scale) , we should then expect past humans to have been miserable.  

I  am skeptical that this was the case: On the one hand, belief systems  like Buddhism clearly espouse that life is suffering. On the other hand, other religions are arguably not that pessimistic about life. Furthermore, folk tales and historic accounts generally do not  seem to  support that people were looking forward to their death (with some exceptions, e.g. spirituals from African-American slaves, that show that life can get that bad.)  Also, existing hunter-gatherer tribes seem as satisfied as  modern people. (which I guess you already incorporated into your chart somewhat).

To me, it is not surprising that some of the material gain gets eaten by the treadmill-effect (for example status symbols like flashier cars), but we have to remember that pre-modern people had no access to modern medicine to relieve pain (teeth pain can be horrible), far less delicious food and comfort, etc.. This could suggest that life satisfaction has, maybe not a a set-point, but rather a  narrow range where it can move under realistic conditions. 

Load More