Enjoyed the episode? Want to listen later? Subscribe here, or anywhere you get podcasts:

You might say there’s nothing you can do now [to help wild animals]… Something like that might be true, but one of the things we can do is figure out what we should be trying to attempt.

So if you try to understand the welfare of these animals, just gather basic facts about what their lives are like, this could help you understand how you should do this.

Marcus Davis

In this episode of 80k After Hours, Rob Wiblin interviews Marcus Davis about Rethink Priorities.

Marcus is co-CEO there, in charge of their animal welfare and global health and development research.

They cover:

  • Interventions to help wild animals
  • Aquatic noise
  • Rethink Priorities strategy
  • Mistakes that RP has made since it was founded
  • Careers in global priorities research
  • And the most surprising thing Marcus has learned at RP

Who this episode is for:

  • People who want to learn about Rethink Priorities
  • People interested in a career in global priorities research
  • People open to novel ways to help wild animals

Who this episode isn’t for:

  • People who think global priorities research sounds boring
  • People who want to host very loud concerts under the sea

Get this episode by subscribing to our more experimental podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type ’80k After Hours’ into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

Producer: Keiran Harris
Audio mastering: Milo McGuire and Ben Cordell
Transcriptions: Katy Moore

Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue, original 1924 version” by Jason Weinberger is licensed under creative commons


Rethink Priorities

Marcus Davis: There are multiple types of research we do. When thinking about what type of research people take on, I find it useful to use a kind of model where there’s three different types of things.

So it could be foundational-driven research: these are types of things where someone has the general sense that this is an important issue. A lot of scientific work goes this way, but it doesn’t necessarily have a particular theory of change or a particular end goal in mind. No one directly commissioned it; they just think this is a good idea. I also would add, not just does scientific work often play out this way, but I think pre our hiring in 2018, Rethink Priorities kind of existed on this matter — where Peter and I thought, “Hey, this is an important topic. We should probably do something on it.” Of course we had other goals too, like figuring out if we were a good fit for doing this type of work. But I think this is one bucket. And this bucket, I would say Rethink Priorities primarily does not do currently.

What we do instead is primarily think tank work or consultancy work. With consultancy stuff, as you mentioned, someone directly commissions this work. They say, “Hey, we have this question, we have this specific problem; can you address it?” And we try to do our best to assess it in the manner they see fit and get them to the best solution.

Then I think the third category here is think tank stuff — where we might have a very explicit theory of change, but no one directly commissioned the project. So our work on interspecies comparisons and moral weight began this way, where we thought, “This is really important. A lot of players in this space would also think this is important.” No one said exactly, “I’m going to immediately update on this,” or “Here’s the money to do the project.” But after talking to important people or talking to key stakeholders, we come to think that this is a good way to influence people’s behaviour.

Interventions to help wild animals

Marcus Davis: I think in the short run, anything we do — with a few exceptions I might get into here — is going to have some massive uncertainties. So I’m not going to suggest right now that I have a great idea, that we should definitely do this thing, it’s going to have a positive welfare impact — particularly given the things I just said about not knowing much about the welfare of most species.

That said, I think there’s a couple domains where you might have a more robust chance if you want to have a positive impact. Now, there’s not just the direct impact of actually doing the intervention, there’s also the theoretical impacts of finding out what might work in practice, this might lead people to understand that this is a serious thing worth trying. Those types of impacts as well might matter.

But just thinking narrowly, in the short-term aspect, is this net positive for welfare, some things that might work are things where humans in particular are already culling animals.

So one project we have done this year, led by Holly Elmore, is looking at rodenticides. Just practically speaking, many rodents are killed using poisons that make them internally bleed to death, which seems very bad. It takes many hours and in some circumstances, sometimes maybe days. So basically, if you’re going to try to control the population, you could use birth control. You could use something that doesn’t do that, something possibly that isn’t as painful or last that long, or something like that — where you’re not actually “intervening” in the sense of you don’t need to convince the population that you need to fundamentally change the way you think about things, but you just need to convince them that on the margin these type of things might matter.

And then that type of welfare impact might be significantly large if you’re thinking about going from a position where many, many animals — possibly millions — are poisoned to death, versus having some birth control which might just have no hedonic effect at all. So that’s one type of intervention.

Another type of thing you might consider is something where there’s disease that’s rampant in the population, and it’s something we already understand and know how to control. In this case, Kim Cuddington was working on a project for us, looking at rabies vaccinations for dogs. So if you’re unaware, there are a lot of stray dogs in India, and I think that they already have a robust human rabies vaccine campaign. But one of the problems is dogs have rabies, they bite humans. So there’s some type of intersection here between the welfare of humans and the welfare of wild animals where you can do an intervention. Rabies deaths I also don’t think are very pleasant; they last several months and can be really painful. But you could, say, prevent rabies, which would help humans as well. So that type of intervention might work here.

Again, for basically any intervention outside of changing the type of death that’s happening, I’m not confident in the robust positive effects, particularly if you’re thinking about long-term effects. But these types of things are worth thinking about, or trying to figure out how you can do them and how you implement them at scale in reality as opposed to just theoretically sitting back and assessing, “This might have this impact, this might have that impact.” So I think those types of things are worth considering.

And then there’s the bigger-picture thing. You might say there’s nothing you can do now. And the bigger answer I’d say in response to that is something like that might be true, but one of the things we can do is figure out what we should be trying to attempt. So if you try to understand the welfare of these animals, just gather basic facts about what their lives are like, this could help you understand how you should do this.

Also implementing things like monitoring systems. One thing we did last year, Hannah McKay, an intern who’s now actually a RA of ours, was looking at how you might use monitoring of wild animal vocalisations to understand their welfare. So this type of thing where you’re not actually necessarily intervening right now, but it might set you up for some time down the line to understand the welfare impacts of different actions.

Aquatic noise

Marcus Davis: So aquatic noise is generated in a number of ways, and I think this report was assessing whether you could reduce this aquatic noise, which could be harmful to animals — could be everything from distressing to debilitating, depending on how loud it is. I think some of the sounds are in the 100+ decibels range, so we’re talking getting closer to aeroplane takeoffs, right? If you’re at close distance to that type of sound, like this could be…

Sometimes it’s boats, but the particular instance I think that report was addressing was looking for oil. Where there might be oil off the coast of this country, we want to find out. And the way you find out is you drill down into the seabed using very large tools that make a lot of noise. And this could be distressing. One of the biggest problems with assessing whether this is actually good to do is that we just don’t know. Again, we don’t know very much about the welfare impact of this type of thing on animals. We also don’t know very much about how far away animals can detect it from, because we don’t know enough about their basic capacities.

So this type of thing could be potentially worth pursuing, but it’s also massively uncertain. A lot of these things are. In this particular instance, much like some of the other interventions, it also is the case that you don’t actually just have to argue this purely on welfare grounds. There might be good climate change regions to care about this, or it might just be the case that this isn’t necessary. I think the case study that Saulius Šimčikas was looking at was understanding a historic case where the US was considering this and they already had some type of exploration like this planned, so this might just be duplicative in the first place.

Rob Wiblin: Right. Isn’t it super fascinating that because this is so far off of our radar, we could in principle be doing something that’s incredibly noisy under the sea and deafening animals en masse, and we wouldn’t even really ask the question or potentially notice it, because we’re not measuring whether fish or dolphins or whales or smaller animals are becoming deaf because of our behaviour. How would we ever tell?

Marcus Davis: Yeah, this is bad. But one of the things with this particular issue, of course, this is something that the non-EA community has thought about. Just generally speaking.

Rob Wiblin: Oh, it has. OK.

Marcus Davis: Environmentalists have cared about this for a while.

Rob Wiblin: Oh, I see.

Marcus Davis: And this is something where we’re trying to approach this from a welfare perspective, and looking at what could be causing possible harms that we could possibly prevent, and come to something that some people do already care about that could be useful.

Most surprising thing Marcus has learned at Rethink

Marcus Davis: Undoubtedly, the most surprising thing I’ve learned at Rethink was the number of wild-caught shrimp. It was just so mind blowing that when Daniele originally computed them, she said, “The numbers are really large, and I didn’t believe them. So I computed them again.” And then I saw the number, and I was like, “I also don’t believe this.” So yeah, so I ran it again. This is one of those things where your expectations were just like, it has to be smaller than this. It wasn’t. And this gets to the big-picture question about, it’s just a huge number of animals relative to the number of humans alive right now.

Articles, books, and other media discussed in the show

Rethink Priorities’ Leadership Statement on the FTX situation

RP’s recent work on animal welfare:

RP’s recent work on global health and development:

Other 80,000 Hours podcast episodes:

Related episodes

About the show

80k After Hours is a podcast by the team that brings you The 80,000 Hours Podcast. Like that show, it mostly still explores the best ways to do good — and some episodes are even more laser-focused on careers than most original episodes. But we also widen our scope, including things like how to solve pressing problems while also living a happy and fulfilling life, as well as releases that are just fun, entertaining, or experimental. Get in touch with feedback or suggestions by emailing [email protected].

Subscribe here, or anywhere you get podcasts: