Evidence-based voting

I enjoyed Michael Plant’s article in The Conversation today, ‘Which party’s manifesto promises would make Britain happiest?‘ Plant attempts an evidence-based approach to choosing which party to vote for by reading their manifestos. Despite it being basic and limited, I’m very glad it exists, and I think there should be more attempts to select an objectively best party to vote for.

Call me a radical, but I think people should vote for the party that will do the most to increase happiness. If a party’s policies won’t reduce misery and help people have more pleasant, fulfilling lives, what are they good for?

You may recall that myself and Hugo Burgin attempted a similar analysis in 2016 for the Australian Federal election. As we said then, “We say ‘attempted’ because such analyses are incredibly complex (which is possibly why none exist), although we believe that some attempt at picking the best party is better than no attempt.

Voting correctly is a lot more important than people often think it is. Again, in 2016 Burgin and I said:

People often say that you’re unlikely to have any impact when voting, or that the impact of your vote is so small that it’s not worth thinking about, but this is only true if you only care about yourself. In Doing Good Better, Will MacAskill simplistically estimates that the expected value of voting for a US citizen, when spread out across all citizens in USA, is around $5,200 USD (~$7,000 AUD at the time of writing). That is to say, on average, $5,200 of the budget will be spent differently as a result of your vote (see the appendix for a more detailed explanation of why this is so). This means it’s very important to vote for the party that will spend the budget in the best way possible.

I do have some concerns around Plant’s analysis. I want to stress first that I’m not necessarily criticising Plant for this. He was (presumably) operating alone, with limited time and resources, and also had a limited number of words on the article to play with. I’m just outlining what I would want in an ideal analysis. Having said that, my concerns are as follows.

Plant doesn’t account for non-human animals (edit – he did mention them briefly, I just missed it), which is a major gap, though he does try to account for non-British citizens. He also doesn’t seem to look at the future or far future. Needless to say, far future effects (e.g. 1,000 years plus) are extremely difficult to predict, so again, this is not a criticism of Plant. He relies on manifestos and promises, which won’t necessarily be kept. An ideal analysis would look at history and likelihood of individual parties meeting their promises.

One reservation around these types of analyses in general is that people might use them to come out with the answer they want, whether consciously or subconsciously, although there are ways around this with sufficient oversight.

My ideal outcome looks something like this: A group of benevolent individuals grants an organisation funding say 1 year prior to an election. This organisation can’t be a non-profit in many countries (e.g. Australia), because they are not legally able to support any one political party. This organisation then produces and releases the report shortly before the election. The majority of the population, being motivated by maximising wellbeing of all sentience over the course of the universe (I wish), votes accordingly.

There is a very real question as to how many people would trust such an analysis. There will probably be some people who will never change the party they support out of sheer mistrust that it didn’t pick their party. The trust may have to be built up slowly over several elections and with strong, impartial oversight. I have no idea how to do this, but I do think it is important and worth dedicating time and money to. People have $5,200 worth of impact every time they vote, and we surely want to see that impact being positive.

The Reducetarian Summit – thoughts

As you may have been aware, the Reducetarian Summit was on in New York city last weekend. I went because I was on the fence about whether the ‘reducetarian approach’ to animal advocacy was a good idea (I’ve written about that here), and I wanted to learn more. It was also a pretty great networking opportunity, and it is always nice to meet in person people you have been engaging with online for years.

I also had the pleasure of interviewing Tobias Leenaert, the Vegan Strategist, for my podcast, which you can find here. We talked about the pros and cons of a reducetarian approach. Tobias advocates for an ‘adaptive’ approach, which I like. It involves being flexible and using whichever approach works best for a given situation*. You can also find criticism of this discussion here.

Overall, the talks were mostly on par with what you might expect to see at a conventional animal advocacy conference. There were talks on the impacts of animal agriculture on animals, global health and the environment, as well as on cellular agriculture/plant-based meat alternatives and political lobbying. The main difference with a conventional conference was there a relative lack of discussion about animal rights.

Interestingly, it seemed like most people at the conference were vegan, which surprised me. I had figured that the conference might mostly appeal to people wanting to reduce but not eliminate their animal product consumption, but it seems to have been mostly people with the same mindset as me. They either wanted to learn about the approach, or wanted to improve their advocacy and network.

There weren’t really talks on the pros and cons of a reducetarian approach as I was expecting, so I can’t say I changed my opinion much. I slightly updated towards thinking that reducetarian advocacy could be good in some situations, but as I mentioned previously, I still hold reservations about the way it is currently being done by some people.

The conference was protested by about half a dozen individuals, lead by Harrison Nathan, who has been a critic of various aspects of effective altruism in an animal advocacy context. They stood out the front on the first day with signs, and I went to speak with them. Nathan and I have engaged online about his disagreement with the reducetarian approach, and I share many of the same reservations. I am glad to see that Nathan’s objections come from believing that reducetarian advocacy is ineffective, rather than the more deontologist belief that advocating for anything less than total veganism is always wrong.

I had advised against a protest for fear of it harming the reputation of vegans and reinforcing stereotypes, but I stand pleasantly corrected (as far as I can tell). The protest was very calm and reasonable, and for getting across their views, it seemed successful**.

One recurring theme of the panel talks was a general positivity towards organic food, and a general disdain towards GMO food. This frustrates me. I won’t delve in to the science now, except to say that there is no evidence, health or environmental, saying that we should preference organic or non-GMO food. In fact, GMO food can be designed to have higher food yields, be more nutritious, and more disease resistant. As my friend Michael Selden eloquently put it, “I’m an environmentalist so I’m pro GMO. It’s that simple.” The same Michael Selden (who runs a cellular agriculture fish company) was in a panel on cellular agriculture and spoke positively of GMOs, to my joy. It was a much needed voice in the dark at the conference.

Many people are pro-organic food because they are worried about pesticides, and think that organic food doesn’t have pesticides. This is false – organic food uses organic pesticides, which are not necessarily better and can be worse than synthetic pesticides. For example, copper counts as an organic pesticide. Also, while some pesticides can be harmful, they are probably on average less harmful than you think, and they do provide benefits to food yield etc. Without pesticides, we would need a lot more land and resources to produce the same amount of food. If anything, people should advocate for better and safer use of pesticides than for no use of pesticides.

I also just want to share an exchange I had at the conference which I found quite interesting. I was with a few friends who were all involved with the effective altruism movement, and we were chatting with one woman who had never heard of it before. After explaining the basic concepts, she said, ‘Oh that sounds great, but I’m not earning a lot of money, and I can’t donate much to charity, is there still a place in effective altruism for people like me.

The idea that effective altruism is all about money and donations is an old criticism, but it still comes up from time to time (not that it was necessarily a criticism in this case). But the point is just that taking a high paying job and donating a lot of money to effective charities is just one effective way to do a lot of good that people often overlook, not that it’s the only way. Depending on your situation (interests, skills, network and experience), it might be more or less effective than other things you could do. For example, you could do effective advocacy or research work.

I just found this exchange a good reminder to make sure the message is clear, because I really believe in effective altruism and don’t want people to get the wrong impression of it.

Below are some photos from the conference, including some of my favourite graphs and figures from presentations.

* A valid point was raised to me about saying that ‘it depends’. This could be harmful because it stymies discussion. We can say that it depends and is probably different for different situations, but when it comes down to something like actually putting a message on a leaflet, we need to know what to do.

** Again, a valid point was brought to my attention after writing this. I spoke with the protesters, but most people attending the conference didn’t. Their perception of vegans in general may still have been harmed by the existence/presence of the protest, as they didn’t have the chance to speak with them and hear their arguments or motivation.

Why focus on poultry? From Darius Teter’s talk.
Great panel on ‘The rise of conscious capitalism’, with HRH Prince Khaled bin Alwaleed bin Talal, investor and prince of Saudi Arabia, Molly Breiner of Aloha, Monica Klausner of Veestro, and Adam Chandler of The Atlantic (left to right).
Myself and Tobias Leenaert, after recording our discussion for my podcast.

It was great to see the three milk choices for coffee at the conference were all vegan (as was all the delicious food!), but even more amusing to see everyone excitedly taking this photo, myself included.

 

Podcast episode 3 – The Reducetarian Solution book review (01/05/2017)

Today I expanded on the book review that I wrote on The Reducetarian Solution, a series of essays on eating less animal products edited by Brian Kateman. It’s not an entirely vegan book, which may bother some people, but I think people interested in animal advocacy should know what it says to know whether to promote, support or recommend it.

LA Times Book Festival & pitching bricks at tech workers

I just wanted to quickly share something that blew me away today.

I was at the LA Book Festival, a large part of which is a massive series of panels discussing anything from politics to activism and fiction books. I was at a panel on activism when one of the speakers, Cleve Jones (a well known LGBTQ activist), said this.

“When I see a bus full of young tech workers on a Google bus going to Silicon Valley, my first instinct is to pitch a brick in the window. It would be unfortunate though if I hit the driver.”

This was met with resounding applause and cheering from the audience. I couldn’t believe it, and to be honest I felt a little afraid. He believes that the gentrification of San Francisco due to the tech industry is displacing families, and that the workers don’t realise they are being exploitative. As far as I can tell, there was little relevant context beyond talking about exploitation rather generally.

I’m 90% confident I haven’t misrepresented his views here. The quote might be slightly paraphrased because I have a poor memory, but I’m confident it’s accurate enough.

Response to: ‘The Crucible of the Application Process’ by Dillon Bowen

I just read a great article by Dillon Bowen titled ‘The crucible of the application process’. Bowen discussed some of his frustrations about being a young academic applying for jobs and scholarships. In particular, his motivations for wanting to do good were often questioned. I’ve highlighted some key quotes, because I can’t beat Bowen’s words here.

“…the first question they would ask, almost unanimously, was but why do you care about extreme poverty?

Well, because there’s no single problem on earth responsible for more suffering or needless waste of human life, I would respond.

Yes, but why do you care about extreme poverty?

What on earth did they mean? A number of them followed up by asking if I had witnessed anyone living in extreme poverty. No, I hadn’t. Had I or anyone I know ever contracted malaria or a neglected tropical disease? No. Did I feel I had a responsibility to the developing world as a beneficiary of colonialism? Not particularly. How did my privilege and my identity as a White Westerner contribute to my decision to focus on extreme poverty? It didn’t.”

But the thing I don’t understand is why do you care? This was the final question of my Rhodes nomination interview. I can’t properly express the frustration I feel whenever this question is put to me. Every time I try to explain the importance of extreme poverty, and every time my answer isn’t good enough.

It was all I could do at that moment to keep my composure. What do you want me to say? I felt like asking. There are 900 million people living on less than $2 a day. That’s why I care. That’s the reason. There is nothing else. It doesn’t matter that I’m White, it doesn’t matter who my ancestors were, it doesn’t matter what country I’m from. All that matters is that people are suffering and I can help them. What more reason do I need?

This really resonated with me. Unfortunately, I don’t believe this phenomenon is restricted to academia, as Bowen hopes. I had a similar experience when I was going for a job in the energy industry 3 years ago and made it to the final round interviews (2 available jobs out of 6 remaining candidates).

To that point, I had been asked a range of technical and aptitude questions, but also questions about my motivation. This was before I discovered anything like effective altruism, but I was already broadly aligned with the views that you highlight here.

The answers I gave were pretty similar to Bowen’s. My motivation to combat poverty and climate change came not from a personal connection to the issues, but of believing they were the most pressing issues, and the best opportunities for me to do good.

In the final interview, they asked me a question that stumped me. “What makes you wake up and want to be a geologist each day?” I was confused, because I thought I had answered that. I told them again about my reason for choosing the oil and gas industry. I believed the industry had a big role to play in both poverty and climate change, and I wanted to be a part of that. I wanted to change the industry from the inside to become even better.

They weren’t satisfied. I paraphrase the second question, but it was something to the effect of “But what specifically motivates you?”

Was it so incomprehensible that I would want to do a job because of extrinsic reasons? I told them I woke up every morning and watched the news to remind myself of the horrors in the real world, to motivate myself to work harder and try to stop them.

Finally, I told them that my father was in the oil and gas industry too, and from a young age my family and I had gone camping and collected fossils and rocks and developed a fascination. They seemed happier with that. I didn’t get the job.

Why spending money on shark culling is a terrible idea

A 17 year old surfer in Western Australia has been killed by a shark. This is, of course, a tragedy, and my thoughts are with the girls friends and family for the loss. However, in response the Australian Federal Government has said that they are open to a shark cull to ‘protect people’, which would be equally tragic, if not much greater. Let’s look at some numbers.

First, I need to acknowledge that I think this is bad because I intrinsically value animal suffering, and feel like this might impact animal suffering in a negative way. But even if we just look at humans (and not only that, specifically humans in Australia!), this idea would be an incredibly inefficient way of reducing suffering and/or death.

Here I’m going to make some simplified assumptions to make the case for culling seem more attractive than it is, then show that it still doesn’t make sense. From 1958 to 2014, 72 people died to shark attacks in Australia (536 attacks total). Let us suppose that for a one-time investment (unrealistic) of $10 million (unrealistically low) we can prevent all shark attacks in Australian waters for the next 56 years (unrealistic). If we suppose 72 more people would have died in this time frame, this would be an estimated cost of $138,888 per life saved*.

Even with these extremely optimistic assumptions, that is an exceedingly poor return on investment. The Against Malaria Foundation can save a human life for approximately $6,000 AUD by preventing cases of malaria. But even if we care much more about people in our own country than in Africa (which, to be fair, governments have to), there are still more effective ways of reducing death.

For example, the median cost per quality adjusted life year (QALY) gained for Australians by interventions for specific diseases such as diabetes is $3,700 AUD.

Do we care about all suffering, or just suffering specifically experienced by humans and caused by sharks? That would be silly, but then, government policy doesn’t always seem to make much sense. The steelman of this might be that they are trying to win publicity points (and aren’t ignorant of cost-benefit analyses). Sharks are a topical issue today, and the government wants people to like them. But let’s not pretend the policy would make any rational sense to someone interested in improving the world, even if you only care about animals of your own species that happen to within an arbitrarily defined political boundary.

I urge the Australian Federal Government to please reconsider any thoughts of a shark cull, and to focus on helping sentient beings in a significantly more efficient manner.

* One might even be able to make an argument that a shark cull would increase human deaths. I have no numbers for this argument and therefore place low confidence on it, but if a shark cull is incomplete (i.e. doesn’t kill all sharks), yet more people end up swimming because they think it’s safer, more people might die.

Misconceptions about clean meat

I’ve seen a lot of misinformation about clean meat (also known as cellular agriculture or ‘lab meat’) and want to try and clear some of this up. I first just want to highlight this podcast interview of Our Hen House with Christie Lagally, scientist at the Good Food Institute, which covers much of the basic science and implications of clean meat. In particular, it covers many common misconceptions, and I’ll refer back to it.

First, a definition – According to New Harvest, cellular agriculture isthe production of agricultural products from cell cultures“. It is currently produced primarily by using fetal bovine serum (from my understanding, purchased from farmers when a pregnant female cow has been slaughtered), but can in theory be produced entirely from plants, without any animal intervention whatsoever. As Christie Lagally says in the Our Hen House podcast, if clean meat is ever to replace a large percentage of traditional agriculture (animal farming), this has to be the case. It is simply not feasible to mass produce clean meat using fetal bovine serum.

Yes, it is not ideal that we are currently using fetal bovine serum, and this is the crux of why many animal advocates oppose clean meat. But I would argue they are missing the bigger picture. For arguably a very small involvement in animal agriculture, we have the opportunity to reduce a vast amount of animal suffering. If clean meat replaces even just 1% of meat demand globally, it will have been worth it.

It is intriguing that most vegans are (admittedly sometimes without realising) ok with some participation in animal exploitation if it leads to better outcomes. For example, most car tyres are not vegan. Yet I still utilise vehicular transport. I, and many others, argue that the small amount of animal products used in this way is outweighed by the good that we do elsewhere because we are able to get around easily. You probably wouldn’t be a very good animal advocate if you had to walk everywhere. I would argue that clean meat is just another form of this argument, except with near limitless upside (it could revolutionise the food system), and it’s temporary. It’s because of this upside that I donated $60,000 AUD to the Good Food Institute last year (So perhaps you could say I’m biased? I would argue the opposite, I thought carefully about the arguments for and against and decided to donate as a result.).

This isn’t to say that I don’t think there are some potential downsides to clean meat. I do wonder if the looming possibility of commercially available clean meat might cause some near-veg*ns to not make the transition, because they figure they can hold out for clean meat. I’ve never seen an analysis of this, but it certainly seems plausible.

This brings me to an engagement I had via email with Trisha Roberts, host of the Vegan Trove podcast. In an online discussion about the pros and cons of clean meat, someone directed me to her podcast on the topic. If you don’t want to be biased by my summary, I suggest you listen first.

In short, I was pretty blown away. Not only was much of the material misleading, some of it was just blatantly incorrect. I sent Trisha an email addressing my concerns, so I’ll just copy that below.

Hi Vegantrove,

I just heard your two part podcast from 2016 titled ‘Clean meat’: http://www.vegantrove.com/2016/07/05/vegan-trove-0035pt1/

I thought it raised some good points, but I’d just like to point out some misleading comments.

You spoke about how GFI is a business which is publicly listed and can be bought and controlled by the likes of Monsanto. I’m unsure where you got this impression from, as GFI is a non-profit and can’t be bought.

You also made it sound like the way clean meat is produced today is the way it always will be produced. This is likely misleading, because clean meat companies recognise that the only way to get scale with this is to be able to develop the culture entirely from plants, with no animal involvement whatsoever. This is not only theoretically possible, but similar work has already been achieved.

You criticise Bruce Freidrich et al for putting money into clean meat instead of vegan advocacy, but I think this misses the point. Bruce did that because he thinks it’s a more effective way of reducing suffering than vegan advocacy. E.g. there are many people in the world who wouldn’t be convinced by veganism, but many of them might switch to clean meat. I think this issue comes down to a difference in ethical framework rather than any factual disagreement. I understand that you approach animal ethics from a deontologist/abolitionist perspective, while Freidrich and many others approach it from a consequentialist perspective. If you hold different ethical views, you will of course come up with different answers for what we ought to do.

I hope this shed some light on the material you discussed in the podcast. I also hope you will consider issuing a correction. The comments that GFI is a business are particularly damaging, and entirely false.

Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you want to discuss this at all.

Best,

Michael

I was particularly distressed by how she claimed GFI was a business, and went on about this at length. I have no idea where she could possibly have gotten this idea from. She also spoke at length about a possible future world where we all had a local chicken or pig or cow that we could harvest cells from and grow them in a culture whenever we wanted food. As I said above, this is unrealistic and not feasible. If people think this world really is the future of clean meat, I can see why people would reject it.

Trisha responded with a rather detailed email of her own. I’ve asked her for permission to share part or all of it here, as I think it highlights her views succinctly, but she declined, so I will briefly cover them here.

First, she didn’t address my concern about her claims that GFI is a business that could be bought out by Monsanto and used for evil. That point was either missed or ignored.

She raises a good point that even clean meat would likely be unhealthy, so why should we promote something unhealthy? This is a fair point, but human health seems to be a distraction here. By sheer scale, the primary issue at hand is the 70 odd billion land animals (plus many more marine animals) farmed for food each year. Further, why should this be any different from promoting vegan junk food to help get people across the line?

She goes on to reiterate many of her points, but does manage to find the time to criticise the work that Santos does, an energy company in Australia that is involved in hydraulic fracturing. I used to work for Santos. At first I was confused because I never mentioned Santos or fracking. I’m guessing she looked me up, saw that I used to work for Santos, and used the opportunity to criticise me for that. This is somewhat of a distraction, but I do find it amusing that she first said she had little time to respond, but had time to look me up and use my previous line of work as a talking point.

I think a very large part of the debate here is not about scientific facts, but about disagreement on the correct moral framework. It seems the case that those who reject clean meat do so because it involves animal exploitation, however small an amount, in the short term, and no amount of potential impact in the future could justify that. As a utilitarian, I think this is a fairly poor way to make ethical choices in this world, but that’s a discussion for another time.

At the very least, I would like to encourage people to keep differing ethical frameworks in mind when they discuss this issue. It rarely seems acknowledged, but if someone has a different ethical framework to you, they will almost certainly come up with a different answer to you on what we ought to do.

A surprising way to fight climate change

In keeping with my theme of publishing rejected op-eds and letters to the editor (because why let that writing go to waste) I’m posting here a letter to the editor submission to the Sydney Morning Herald in February 2017.


It’s difficult to say whether the latest heat wave across Australia is the result of climate change, but it does serve as a good reminder for how individuals can make a meaningful difference to the environment. Many concerned citizens have taken steps to make their lives more green by getting solar panels and replacing cars with bikes and buses. However, one of the most effective ways to reduce environmental impact is often overlooked.

A vegan will produce on average 50% less carbon dioxide, use 1/11th the oil, 1/13th the water, and 1/18th the land compared to an omnivore, considering only food related use. Being vegan is easy and is more impactful than getting solar panels, taking less showers, buying locally and riding a bike.

Not to mention it lowers your risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and many cancers. It’s even much better for the health of the animals. An average vegan will spare thousands of animals over their life from an existence of pain, cruelty and abuse.

If you want to be an effective environmentalist, sure, get solar panels. But make sure you go vegan as well.

Understanding utilitarianism

I want to share a thought/question I have about applying and understanding utilitarianism. A few days ago, someone posed me this question:

Utilitarianism judges the ‘goodness’ of an action based on its consequences, right? But imagine two scenarios involving a driver who knowingly drove under the heavy influence of drugs. In one scenario, they got home safely. In another, they hit and killed someone. By utilitarianism, the latter seems to be more bad than the first. But they both made the same choice, one just got lucky. So do we say they made equally bad choices?

I think the answer should be that the goodness of an act shouldn’t be its actual outcome, but its expected value. In other words, the average outcome. In that sense, both drivers in the above scenarios made equally bad choices.

But what about people who made a bad choice without realising? For example. Paula donates $100 to X charity. She did a bit of research and thinks its a good charity. Unfortunately, it turns out the charity actually made things a lot worse, and so the effect of her donating was bad. Since it was a bad charity before she donated, the real expected value of her action was negative. But Paula didn’t know this – do we say she did something wrong?

I would get around this by proposing that the goodness of an action should be based on what the actor thought the expected value would be. Paula thought that the expected value of donating to that charity was positive. Surely we can’t hold it against her?

This is where I’m up to, but I still have some concerns about this that I’m not sure how to address. What about someone who is either wilfully ignorant, or is otherwise unwilling to do research to find out the effects of their actions. Do we excuse them for their actions?

Take someone who consumes meat but doesn’t know the reality of factory farming. Say someone approaches and tries to inform them, but they don’t want to hear it. They don’t know what the impacts of them eating a steak are, but they aren’t interested in knowing. Are they therefore bad people for eating steak? Or does it not affect how we might see their moral character from a utilitarian framework?

As often happens, I find my philosophical questions have already been answered, sometimes hundreds of years ago. If you know this has been answered, or you have an answer, or you think I’m talking nonsense, let me know by leaving a comment.