Bob Jacobs

Organizer @ EA Ghent
935 karmaJoined Dec 2019Gent, België
bobjacobs.substack.com

Bio

Participation
4

I'm a student of moral science at the university of Ghent, where I also started an EA group.         

If you're interested in philosophy and mechanism design, consider checking out my blog.

How others can help me

If you offer me a job I'll probably drop out of university for it.

How I can help others

philosophical research, sociological research, graphic design, mechanism design, translation, literature reviews, forecasting (top 20 on metaculus).

Send me a request and I'll probably do it for free.

Sequences
7

Invertebrate Welfare
The Ethics Of Giving
Moral Economics
Consequentialist Cluelessness
The Meta Trap
AI Forecasting Infrastructure
High Time For Drug Policy Reform

Comments
106

Topic contributions
10

I made two visual guides that could be used to improve online discussions. These could be dropped into any conversation to (hopefully) make the discussion more productive.

The first is an update on Grahams hierarchy of disagreement

I improved the lay-out of the old image and added a top layer for steelmanning. You can find my reasoning here and a link to the pdf-file of the image here.

The second is a hierarchy of evidence:

I added a bottom layer for personal opinion. You can find the full image and pdf-file here.

Lastly I wanted to share the Toulmin method of argumentation, which is an excellent guide for a general pragmatic approach to arguments

You raise some minor objections but I think the biggest problem with charter cities (apart from the lack of empirical evidence of their effectiveness[1]) is the free-rider problem. Society uses taxes to invest in common goods such as education, healthcare, research... If rich people use these common goods to generate their wealth, but then once it's time to start paying their taxes, opt to create a tax haven charter city instead, we will have an underinvestment in these public goods and we'll get a race to the bottom. For an eventual endpoint of this race you can look at the old company towns, or worse, slave plantations.

Similarly, while this system disincentivizes creating common goods, it also incentivizes destroying certain common goods. For example, we already have great difficulty getting existing countries to act on climate change. Imagine that rich people could just create a new city without any laws against pollution/greenhouse gases; you'd get another race to the bottom. You can construct a similar scenario for any type of negative externality.

Of course this is only what would happened were they able to be freely created. In reality they will probably never even get to the stage where they can do much of anything, including damage, because even starting one is fraught with political problems. (For more information, see the linked rethink priorities report).

  1. ^

I found this topic first from a short snippet in The Week, then from the news article https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/maintaining-a-vegetarian-diet-might-be-in-your-genes-180983021.

Remove the dot at the end, otherwise it's a dead link.

It is important to note that behavior is always in relation to an environment, so we can't say that some behavior is 70% caused by genetics, the most we can say is that something is 70% caused by genetics in this specific environment. This is easy to check with a thought experiment, lets take these people whose "willingness to stick with veg*n diets, regardless of their stated reasons, are 70-80% inborn" lock them in a vegetarian Hindu monastery and you'll obviously see the rate of vegetarian diets skyrocket. So when you write "Vegetarianism is mostly genetic, claim Wesseldijk et al." Wesseldijk herself would say:

Yet, as Dr. Wesseldijk reminded me in an email, high heritabilities do not imply that biology is destiny. According to surveys by the Vegetarian Resource Group, the percentage of Americans who are vegetarian or vegan jumped six-fold between 1994 and 2022—from 1% to 6%. This impressive change in patterns of meat-eating was due to shifts in cultural attitudes, not changes in our DNA.

And to tie it in to the Hindu monastery (from the same article):

It is important, however, to keep in mind that estimates of heritability only apply to the populations that the subjects in the studies represent. Most of the individual differences in meat-eating among the Dutch are rooted in genes, yet culture is almost entirely responsible for the fact that per capita meat consumption is 20 times higher in the Netherlands than it is in India.

Or as Dr. Wesseldijk has also phrased it:

An environment can completely counteract something that is highly heritable, and the same goes with vegetarianism

Incredible work!

Your previous research/intervention in Kenya showed that UBI can have a positive impact, not only on the recipient villages, but also on nearby villages.

In this study the welfare of those in nearby villages seems to not be the focus. Although you did look at nearby markets which had a somewhat disappointing conclusion:

We do not reject the null that consumer prices in nearby markets were unchanged, both for agricultural and non-agricultural products, though to be fair these estimates are not precise enough to rule out meaningful appreciation (or depreciation) given the design and scale of the experiment.

I would personally be very interested to see you try to track/quantify the welfare impact on nearby villages in the future, since those spillover effects can create a big bump in the expected DALY's per dollar.

The Belgian senate votes to add animal welfare to the constitution.

It's been a journey. I work for GAIA, a Belgian animal advocacy group that for years has tried to get animal welfare added to the constitution. Today we were present as a supermajority of the senate came out in favor of our proposed constitutional amendment. The relevant section reads:

In exercising their respective powers, the Federal State, the Communities and the Regions strive to protect and care for animals as sentient beings.

It's a very good day for Belgian animals but I do want to note that:

  1. This does not mean an effective shutdown of the meat industry, merely that all future pro-animal welfare laws and lawsuits will have an easier time.  And,
  2. It still needs to pass the Chamber of Representatives.

If there's interest I will make a full post about it if once it passes the Chamber.

EDIT: Translated the linked article on our site into English.

Thank you!

Yes, I agree distributions are better than single numbers. I think part of the problem for podcasts/conversations is that it's easier to quickly say a number than a probability distribution, though that excuse works slightly less well for the written medium.

I didn't base it off an existing method. While @Jobst tells me I have good "math instincts" that has yet to translate itself into actually being good at math, so this mostly comes from me reading the philosophical literature and trying to come up with solutions to some of the proposed problems. Maybe something similar already exists in math, though Jobst and some people he talked to didn't know of it and they're professional mathematicians.

As for casual users, I would urge them to take 'agnosticism' (or at least large ranges) seriously. Sometimes we really do not know something and the EA culture of urging people to put a number on something can give us a false sense of confidence that we understand it. Especially in scenarios of interactions between agents where mind games can cause estimations to behave irregularly. I mentioned how this can go wrong with a prediction market, but a version of that can happen with any group project. Regular human beings do on occasion foreact e.g. If we know we like each-other, and I think you'll expect me to do something on a special day, the chance that I will do it is higher than if I didn't think so.
All of this doesn't even mention a problem with Bayesianism I wasn't able to solve, the absent-minded driver problem. Once we add fallible memories to foreaction the math goes well beyond me.

I don't know what "P(doom)" means. Even beyond the whole problem of modeling billions of interacting irrational agents some of whom will change their behavior based on what I predict, I just don't think the question is clear. Like, if I do something that decreases the chance of a sharp global welfare regression, increases the chance of an s-risk, and has no effect on x-risk, what happens to P(doom)? Are we all talking about the same thing? Shouldn't this at the very least be two variables, one for probability and one for how "doom-y" it is? Wouldn't that variable be different depending on your normative framework? What about inequality-aversion, if there is one super duper über happy utility monster and all other life is wiped out, is that a 'doom' scenario? What about time discounting, does the heat death of the universe mean that P(doom) is 1? I don't know, P(doom) confuses me.

It seems I didn't get brigaded [tap on wood], but I still feel uneasy answering this. You got some downvotes on this comment initially which means the karma system pushes you to not reply, in the same way it pushed me to not reply to the HBD-proponents I was debating. This voting-power-by-popularity system doesn't incentivize having conversations, so feel free to answer in the comment section on your substack instead. I will edit in a link to it at the end of this comment if you do so. This comment is going to be shorter anyway.

Firstly, I wanted to say that I also didn't downvote your post because while I disagree I do sympathize with the amount of effort that went into it, and this karma system would punish future unrelated posts and comments in a guilt-by-association-fashion, not just this post (although I did give it a disagreement vote since that influences nothing):

Secondly, to clear up any confusion I don't think a journal being made by horrible people allows you to conclude that their conclusions are false, but I do think it allows you to not give them any money.

Thirdly, I think we run into the same issue with g as we do with intelligence. If g is just correlation between different cognitive tasks, then the natural question is, which tasks? And which tasks are considered 'cognitive tasks'? Because the results will differ based on what you choose.

Fourthly, I think the difference with linking a video and linking the mankind quarterly is primarily money, one costs 75 dollar and the other is free. For the record I have watched the video in it's entirety and am not just throwing something at you while I myself don't know of any counterarguments. I could've typed them out, but I just don't think I have much to add both in terms of information nor presentation. For those who are familiar with the subject you can skip to 1:02:11 of the video at which point he really starts diving into their methodology instead of giving a general overview. Which ties into...

Fifthly, I think the video points out a general pattern of Lynn and his colleagues using a clearly cherrypicked dataset then being called out on it, at which point they switch to another slightly less clearly cherrypicked dataset which people then call them out on etc. Now maybe this latest dataset they use is genuinely good but I think this is a 'boy who cried wolf' scenario where I just no longer think it's prudent to trust them or trust that reading their work is a productive use of time.

Lastly, maybe at some point we run out of good environmental interventions (like iodine) and maybe then (assuming some premises) it becomes prudent to switch to genetic interventions. But until that time we should focus on those environmental interventions, not just because of their immediate cost effectiveness but also because of one of my points you didn't address, namely that those environmental interventions are way more egalitarian/emancipatory, which produces better results in the longterm.

For example, Francis and Kirkegaard (2022) employ the use of instrumental variables

I can view an astonishing amount of publications for free through my university, but they haven't opted to include this one, weird... So should I pay money to see this "Mankind Quarterly" publication?

When I googled it I found that Mankind Quarterly includes among its founders Henry Garrett an American psychologist who testified in favor of segregated schools during Brown versus Board of Education, Corrado Gini who was president of the Italian genetics and eugenics Society in fascist Italy and Otmar Freiherr von Verschuer who was director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of anthropology human heredity and eugenics in Nazi Germany. He was a member of the Nazi Party and the mentor of Josef Mengele, the physician at the Auschwitz concentration camp infamous for performing human experimentation on the prisoners during World War 2. Mengele provided for Verschuer with human remains from Auschwitz to use in his research into eugenics.

It's funded by the Pioneer Fund which according to wikipedia:

The Pioneer Fund is an American non-profit foundation established in 1937 "to advance the scientific study of heredity and human differences". The organization has been classified as a hate group and has been described as racist and white supremacist in nature.[2][3][4][5] One of its first projects was to fund the distribution in US churches and schools of Erbkrank, a Nazi propaganda film about eugenics.[6]

Something tells me it wouldn't be very EA to give money to these people.

So what about the second source? 

For example, if a high GDP caused higher IQ, we would expect oil-rich nations like Qatar, the UAE, and Kuwait to score closer to nations like the USA, UK, and Japan in NIQ. However, they score more in line with their geographic neighbors, suggesting, but not proving, that NIQ causes prosperity rather than vice versa (Christainsen, 2013).

I can check Christainsen's work since it's in a reputable journal and thus available through my university. He himself says in the paper:

While differences in average scores worldwide can thus be plausibly viewed as being influenced
by genetic differences across world regions, it is also possible that score differences are influenced by regional differences in culture that are independent of genetic factors. 

Cultural factors are harder to measure and thus get neglected in research thanks to the streetlight effect. Still we might sample a subsection of more easily measurable cultural interventions like eduction and see which way they point. We can use the education index to compare the mentioned countries. Countries like the USA, UK and Japan score high on it (0.9, 0.948, 0.851 respectively) while countries like Qatar, the UAE and Kuwait score lower (0.659, 0.802, 0.638 respectively). That seems like a promising indication, but can education actually increase IQ?
You cited Ritchie in this post, but he and his colleagues also have a later meta-analysis showing that education can greatly increase intelligence:

Across 142 effect sizes from 42 data sets involving over 600,000 participants, we found consistent evidence for beneficial effects of education on cognitive abilities of approximately 1 to 5 IQ points for an additional year of education. Moderator analyses indicated that the effects persisted across the life span and were present on all broad categories of cognitive ability studied. Education appears to be the most consistent, robust, and durable method yet to be identified for raising intelligence.

Now you might worry that this is not "true intelligence/g-factor" and a "hollow" gain, but I fear that here we run into the issue that there's no consensus on what the "true intelligence" actually is. It may be hollow according to your definition but not mine. Even if there was consensus we might disagree about what IQ actually measures. The debate about what aspects of "true intelligence" IQ actually captured is summarized on wikipedia as:

While IQ tests are generally considered to measure some forms of intelligence, they may fail to serve as an accurate measure of broader definitions of human intelligence inclusive of, for example, creativity and social intelligence. For this reason, psychologist Wayne Weiten argues that their construct validity must be carefully qualified, and not be overstated.[84] According to Weiten, "IQ tests are valid measures of the kind of intelligence necessary to do well in academic work. But if the purpose is to assess intelligence in a broader sense, the validity of IQ tests is questionable."[84]

Some scientists have disputed the value of IQ as a measure of intelligence altogether. In The Mismeasure of Man (1981, expanded edition 1996), evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould compared IQ testing with the now-discredited practice of determining intelligence via craniometry, arguing that both are based on the fallacy of reification, "our tendency to convert abstract concepts into entities".[90] Gould's argument sparked a great deal of debate,[91][92] and the book is listed as one of Discover Magazine's "25 Greatest Science Books of All Time".[93]

Along these same lines, critics such as Keith Stanovich do not dispute the capacity of IQ test scores to predict some kinds of achievement, but argue that basing a concept of intelligence on IQ test scores alone neglects other important aspects of mental ability.[15][94] Robert Sternberg, another significant critic of IQ as the main measure of human cognitive abilities, argued that reducing the concept of intelligence to the measure of g does not fully account for the different skills and knowledge types that produce success in human society.[95]

_______

In 2002, psychologist Richard Lynn and political scientist Tatu Vanhanen published their seminal book in the field of national intelligence entitled IQ and the Wealth of Nations. Their starting assumption was that since IQ and earnings had a positive correlation, the relationship should persist when comparing nations, meaning that nations with higher average IQ should be more economically productive (Lynn & Vanhanen, p. 4).

Yeah, I really wouldn't trust how that book picks its data. As stated in "A systematic literature review of the average IQ of sub-Saharan Africans": 

For instance, Lynn and Vanhanen (2006) accorded a national IQ of 69 to Nigeria on the basis of three samples (Fahrmeier, 1975; Ferron, 1965; Wober, 1969), but they did not consider other relevant published studies that indicated that average IQ in Nigeria is considerably higher than 70 (Maqsud, 1980a, b; Nenty & Dinero, 1981; Okunrotifa, 1976). As Lynn rightly remarked during the 2006 conference of the International Society for Intelligence Research (ISIR), performing a literature review involves making a lot of choices. Nonetheless, an important drawback of Lynn (and Vanhanen)'s reviews of the literature is that they are unsystematic.

They're not the only one who find Lynn's choice of data selection suspect. Wikipedia describes him as:

Richard Lynn (20 February 1930 – July 2023) was a controversial English psychologist and self-described "scientific racist"[1][2][3] who advocated for a genetic relationship between race and intelligence. He was a professor emeritus of psychology at Ulster University, but had the title withdrawn by the university in 2018.[4] He was the editor-in-chief of Mankind Quarterly, which is commonly described as a white supremacist journal.[a] Lynn was lecturer in psychology at the University of Exeter and professor of psychology at the Economic and Social Research Institute, Dublin, and at the University of Ulster at Coleraine.

Many scientists criticised Lynn's work for lacking scientific rigour, misrepresenting data, and for promoting a racialist political agenda.[b] A number of scholars and intellectuals have said that Lynn is associated with a network of academics and organisations that promote scientific racism.[c] He has also advocated fringe positions regarding sexual differences in intelligence.[26]

____

Lynn and Vanhanen collected IQ scores from various studies and made corrections, such as adjusting for the FLynn Effect

I suggest you remove the capital L typo, otherwise people might erroneously think Lynn had something to do with its discovery.

_______

The case for the importance of IQ for numerous real-world outcomes was made in the controversial book The Bell Curve (1994) by psychologist Richard Herrnstein and political scientist Charles Murray. They cogently argued that cognitive ability was playing a more important role than socioeconomic status in influencing various socioeconomic outcomes such as being in poverty, finishing high school, finishing college, being unemployed, having an illegitimate first birth, having a low-weight baby, committing a crime, and other significant outcomes (Herrnstein & Murray, 1994, pp. 127-268).

That book has so many problems that instead of typing it all out I would like to direct people to this video which points out a lot of them. (It also goes over a lot of Lynn's other scientific malpractices)

______

Even if one embraces the 100% environmental explanation for national differences in IQ, one can still consider the possibility of environmental interventions being less cost-effective or more limited in magnitude relative to what could be called “genetic interventions.”

I don't think anyone thinks the environment explains 100%, but given that it's much larger and has many more variables it seems reasonable to assume it can explain more of it. Since we profess ourselves to be effective altruists I would also like to see a price comparison between the interventions. This post doesn't really discuss how high the prices for "genetic interventions" are, while environmental interventions like giving iodine are really cheap. Giving iodine used to be one of GiveWell's top charities:

We have limited data on the costs of iodization, but estimates range from $0.05-$0.10 per person per year. Salt iodization appears to be within the range of cost-effectiveness of our priority programs.

Iodine deficiency causes an average drop of 13 IQ points, which means we can gain much more than the estimated 9 IQ points of embryo selection at a tiny fraction of the cost.
________

This is fortunate, considering the most likely scenario is that elites adopt the technology more rapidly than the population at large. Government subsidies and low costs would ameliorate the issue of inequality.

I think the real worry here is that the elites will use their (increased) power to ensure that the government doesn't give subsidies to the poor so they can keep their relative power in society. A similar dynamic is already happening in education with the money for public schools vs private schools so I suspect this would also happen with other 'intelligence-increasing interventions'.

_______

Intellectuals today, even geneticists, continue to take a firm stance against “eugenics” (see Harden, 2021; Rutherford, 2022). Opponents of practices such as screening embryos know that the accusation of “eugenics” is an effective tool because it so widely elicits repugnance. Whether or not a practice like embryo screening qualifies as actual “eugenics” is a fact about the English language rather than morality. The Chinese equivalent, “yousheng,” is used almost exclusively in a positive manner when referring to preimplantation diagnosis (Cyranoski, 2017). Furthermore, the mere accusation of eugenics is insufficient evidence of the practice being repugnant since most people endorse some form of “eugenics.” Even if some practices are eugenic, there are surely morally defensible forms of eugenics (see Weit et al., 2021).

I would argue that's a good thing. Like @titotal commented on the 'most people endorse some form of "eugenics"' post:

I think it's a good thing that most people have a revulsion towards the Nazi version of eugenics. I think trying to rehabilitate the word  "eugenics"  could plausibly lead to a lessening of that revulsion and and increase in support for their version. Just use a different word for the thing that's okay, and that all goes away. 

[...]

Trying to rehabilitate the word "eugenics" is like someone trying to rehabilitate the swastika symbol by waving a sanksrit version it around and insisting it means prosperity and good luck. It's not gonna work, it's going to offend and upset people, and people are gonna think you're a Nazi. 

____

I do feel some amount of warped-mirror empathy for the fact that you clearly spend a lot of time writing a long post with lots of citations on a politically unpopular position that doesn't get a lot of karma. A similar thing happened to me albeit from the polar opposite side of the political spectrum, which is why part of me wanted to spend time giving you something I didn't get, a rigorous reply. But another part of me remembers that the last time I spend time arguing IQ and genetics on this forum a bunch of HBD-proponents brigaded me and I lost karma and voting power.

So I obviously did end up writing this comment because I'm an idiot, but I think I will leave it at that.
Feel free to reply to this comment but I now feel exhausted and fear a back and forth will get me brigaded, sorry :/

Say you had to choose between two options:

Option 1: A 99% chance that everyone on earth gets tortured for all of time (-100 utils per person) and a 1% chance that a septillion happy people get created (+90 utils pp) for all of time

Option 2: A 100% chance that everyone on earth becomes maximally happy for all of time (+100 utils pp)

Let's assume the population in both these scenario's remain stable over time (or grow similarly), Expected Value Theory (and classic utilitarianism by extension) says we should choose option 1, even though this has a 99% chance of an s-risk, over a guaranteed everlasting utopia for everyone. (You can also create a scenario with an x-risk instead of an s-risk). This seems counterintuitive.

I call this the wagering calamity objection.

EDIT: This is not the 'very repugnant conclusion' since it's not about inequality within a population, but rather about risk-aversion.

Gunman: [points a sniper rifle at a faraway kid] Give me $10 or I'll kill this kid.

Utilitarian: I’m sorry, why should I believe that you will let the kid live if I give you $10? Also, I can’t give you the money because that would set a bad precedent. If people know I always give money to gunmen that would encourage people to start taking hostages and demanding money from me.

Gunman: I promise I will let her live and to keep it a secret. See, I have this bomb-collar that will explode if I try to remove it. Here's a detonator that starts working in 1 hour, now you can punish me if I break my promise.

Utilitarian: How do I know you won’t come back tomorrow to threaten another kid?

Gunman: I'm collecting money for a (non-effective) charity. I only do this because threatening utilitarians is an easy source of money. I promise I'll only threaten you once.

Utilitarian: So you're saying the mere existence of utilitarians can generate cruel behavior in people who otherwise wouldn't? Guess I should consider not being a utilitarian, or at least keeping it a secret.

EDIT: Will someone explain why this is worth (strong) downvotes? This seems like a pretty natural extension of game theory; If you reveal you’re always open to sacrificing personal utility for others you leave yourself more open to exploitation than with a tit-for-tat-like strategy (e.g. contractualism), meaning people are more likely to try and exploit you (e.g. by threatening nuclear war). If you think I made a mistake in my reasoning why leave me with less voting power and why not click on the disagreement vote or leave a comment explaining it?

EDIT 2: DC's hypothesis that it's because of vibes and not reasoning is interesting, although I find the hypothesis that some EA's strongly identify as utilitarian and don't like seeing it questioned also plausible (they don't seem to have a problem with a pro-utilitarianism argument having a child in mortal peril, e.g. the drowning child experiment). There's a reason thought experiments in ethics often have these attributes; I'm not trying to disturb, I'm trying to succinctly show the structure of threats without wasting the readers time with fluff. So for example, I choose a child so I don't need to specify a high amount of expected DALY's per dollar, I choose a sniper rifle because then there doesn't need to be a mechanism to make the child also keep the agreement a secret, I choose a bomb-collar because that's a quick way to establish a credible punishment mechanism, etc etc.

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