Posts

Why We Age, Part 2: Non-adaptive theories 2020-05-26T17:41:19.142Z · score: 71 (25 votes)
An addendum on effective population size 2020-05-25T12:35:52.481Z · score: 17 (8 votes)
Why We Age, Part 1: What ageing is and is not 2020-05-24T09:06:08.897Z · score: 43 (18 votes)
Evolution is sampling error 2020-05-23T16:21:46.864Z · score: 30 (15 votes)
Some quick notes on hand hygiene 2020-02-06T02:47:33.981Z · score: 71 (29 votes)
What are the best self-help book summaries you've read? 2020-01-03T17:45:46.102Z · score: 5 (3 votes)
Should I floss? 2019-12-24T16:06:27.379Z · score: 20 (13 votes)

Comments

Comment by willbradshaw on Why We Age, Part 2: Non-adaptive theories · 2020-05-30T09:35:33.235Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Interestingly, Other Minds (a recent popular science book about cephalopods) seems to mostly put credence in non-adaptive theories, and indeed has a very nice general exposition of these theories (the section of the book after the passages I quote in that link talks at length about octopus semelparity).

Comment by willbradshaw on Why We Age, Part 2: Non-adaptive theories · 2020-05-30T09:28:01.665Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I don't believe it.

  1. The Jundishapur Journal of Natural Pharmaceutical Products doesn't exactly scream "credible source" to me. My honest inclination is to ignore this paper and wait to see if the theory pops up somewhere more reputable. I somewhat doubt it, since this paper gives off pretty strong crank vibes.
  2. Even if we ignore the credibility signals, the paper doesn't show any effect of DDW on lifespan. The fact that they make claims about geroprotective effects without looking at lifespan is a big red flag. The paper is also just pretty bad and unconvincing in general (e.g. it appears to contain absolutely no statistics).
  3. Even if DDW did increase lifespan, there are lots of other things that increase lifespan in mice. There's no particular reason to just ignore all that and attribute everything to deuterium.
  4. Even if DDW was as effective in mice as all other ageing treatments combined (which would be a huge finding), it still wouldn't tell you why mice live so much shorter than naked mole rats (or humans).

So unless there's solid evidence that DDW makes mice immortal, as opposed to making their coats (maybe, subjectively) a bit glossier, saying that "aging could be simply caused by deuterium and evolutionary explanations would then be a red herring" is flagrant hyperbole, verging on making stuff up.

Comment by willbradshaw on Why We Age, Part 2: Non-adaptive theories · 2020-05-27T18:59:59.326Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not sure about this. I have to think about it.

Comment by willbradshaw on Why We Age, Part 2: Non-adaptive theories · 2020-05-27T15:09:50.877Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

But that sort of thing is pretty rare, so the claim that it happens in a particular species with no such obvious mechanism (or indeed in practically all animals) is a little harder to swallow.

I think it's important that the AP theory holds even if the early-life gain is very small and the late-life cost is very large; that should broaden the list of potential ways to achieve that trade-off.

More generally, the idea of antagonistic pleiotropy as a general phenomenon doesn't seem that surprising to me: trade-offs are everywhere in biology, and if one side of a trade-off is underweighted by selection then it'll get shafted. It's basically just overfitting: it would be surprising if the optimal set-up for growing, surviving and reproducing over a span of (say) 20 years were also the optimal set-up for doing the same over (say) 100 years, and natural selection is almost entirely optimising for the former.

I meant that I would expect a mutation that causes tissue repair function to degrade with age to decrease fitness (slightly) overall, since there's no obvious connection to some beneficial effect earlier in life.

One potential response to this is that this is systems thinking rather than genes thinking. Many genes do lots of things across lots of systems, so you could see a mutation that improves functionality in a way that's relevant to one system early in life, at a cost to another system in late life.

(I'm personally more of a fan of relaxed purifying selection, which seems like the more general and less contingent theory, but I do think antagonistic pleiotropy theory is solid enough that finding more concrete examples of it wouldn't surprise me.)

Comment by willbradshaw on Why We Age, Part 2: Non-adaptive theories · 2020-05-27T14:56:52.547Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Cells don't just die of nothing. Their deaths have causes: causes like telomere attrition, genomic instability, cellular senescence, mitochondrial dysfunction, or loss of proteostasis.

The paper is not trying to enumerate every thing that changes for the worse with age (it doesn't include immunosenescence, for example, even though that's among the most important systemic changes you see with age). It's trying to distill down to a list of things that cannot be adequately reduced to other processes.

Comment by willbradshaw on Why We Age, Part 2: Non-adaptive theories · 2020-05-27T12:44:40.029Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Isn't it fairly obvious why juveniles are smaller? They have to fit inside the mother, or inside an egg which had to fit inside the mother. Even if the egg could potentially grow, you're limited by the energy reserves you started with until you hatch and find more. Staying in the egg also seems very dangerous (can't hide or run away from predators, can't move away if temperature/light/etc levels aren't good, etc).

I can't tell whether or not your second paragraph is disagreeing with anything I said in my post.

Comment by willbradshaw on Why We Age, Part 2: Non-adaptive theories · 2020-05-27T12:40:20.022Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Antagonistic pleiotropy is certainly plausible in the abstract, but it's not obvious how it would work in humans.

Are you suggesting antagonistic pleiotropy is particularly non-obvious in humans (vs other animals), or that it's non-obvious generally but you particularly care about humans? This isn't directly related to your question, I'm just curious.

Something like tissue repair, for instance, is obviously beneficial in old age but it's hard to see how it would be harmful early on.

This sentence confuses me. Why would you expect it to be harmful early on? Antagonistic pleiotropy predicts mutations that are beneficial in early life and harmful later. Is this a typo (switching old and young)?

Also, it seems like this kind of explanation suggests we should be fairly pessimistic about finding a "cure" for aging, since there are likely many different unrelated causes.

Yeah, I think this is basically right. In general my impression is that most experts don't believe ageing is "one thing" – a single underlying cause we could neatly target. On the other hand it also doesn't seem to be, like, a million things: there is an enumerable list of key causes, on the order of ten items long, which together account for most of the physiological ageing we see in mammals. It's not obvious to me what to make of this theoretically.

(Of course, there are still plenty of people who like to claim they've found the single mechanism underlying all ageing, usually fortuitously closely related to the thing they study.)

Comment by willbradshaw on Why We Age, Part 1: What ageing is and is not · 2020-05-25T12:27:05.024Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Speaking for the intuition of wear and tear, it does seem surprising to me that an "embedded repair system" has enough redundancy to not get worn down by the real world.

I think this is a priori reasonable, but we do have existence proofs of animals that don't seem to age. Even if you think (say) naked mole rats are probably ageing a bit (just too slowly for us to detect on the timescales of our experiments) that doesn't address why all other rodents don't age at the same (very low) rate. I don't think wear-and-tear will get you anywhere when trying to address divergence in lifespans between related species.

As for bones, there are vertebrates that can regenerate whole limbs, so it's certainly doable.

Comment by willbradshaw on Highlights of Comparative and Evolutionary Aging · 2020-05-24T16:57:28.783Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Yup, agreed.

(Unless you're interested in how that kind of influencing is done, in which case it might make a useful case study.)

Comment by willbradshaw on Highlights of Comparative and Evolutionary Aging · 2020-05-24T09:13:14.079Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Remember, it's not that they're immortal, it's just that their chance-of-dying-per-unit-time stays flat; that still implies that the number of survivors drops off exponentially over time.

This is true, but does still raise the question of what exactly these 30-year-old mole rats are dying of. They barely get cancer, they don't seem to have high baseline rates of the kinds of intrinsic causes of death you see in humans (heart disease etc.), and in captivity they're not exposed to predation or starvation, so...inter-mole violence? Status anxiety?

According to this popsci article:

Naked mole rats generally don't get many chronic diseases that become familiar to humans as they age, like diabetes or Alzheimer's, Buffenstein said. In the wild, the animals might die by predator attack or from starvation, infection or lack of water, she said. In the lab, the cause of death is usually hard to find; the main issue that shows up in necropsies, Buffenstein said, are mouth sores, indicating the animals weren't eating, drinking or producing saliva well in their last few days and infection set in.

So as of 2018 the answer seemed to be ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

(Buffenstein is a mole-rat PI at Calico.)

Comment by willbradshaw on Three small suggestions for the LW-website · 2020-05-24T08:56:16.308Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I agree with other commenters that this is a non-issue unless a post is high-karma or curated, in which case unlisting it would be a bad idea and it should get a disclaimer instead. I'm pretty strongly opposed to "editing the record" in the way you describe in the OP.

(Less opposed to suggestions 2 and 3, though they don't seem terribly useful.)

Comment by willbradshaw on Highlights of Comparative and Evolutionary Aging · 2020-05-24T08:50:10.593Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I think I would claim that the semipolitical fluff is probably the most valuable part of the book. In terms of moving the needle on mainstream acceptance, having a Harvard professor say fairly directly that "ageing is bad and we should cure it" is something I'd expect to make a significant difference.

Comment by willbradshaw on Evolution is sampling error · 2020-05-23T22:27:41.742Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Nice.

Edited to add:

For the same reason, please correct me if I am going against guidelines or acting in a way which is unusual on LessWrong.

This is a great comment and I upvoted it.

Comment by willbradshaw on How does publishing a paper work? · 2020-05-22T17:13:11.846Z · score: 12 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I'm currently in the process of trying to convert a preprint into a journal article (and another draft into a preprint), so this is very near-mode for me right now. Restricting my comments to points where I can add something over the other answers (or disagree with them):

  • 1. I personally quite like 2-column PDFs. At the very least they are far preferable to 1-column PDFs. :-P

  • 2. Yes, but a lot of it is pretty important work. I'm generally the plots guy in my collaborations, so a lot of the extra work is coming up with the best visualisations I can for the data, which is valuable. Though there is then a lot of extra extra work of making sure all the visualisations use consistent colour schemes / legends / layouts etc, which is slow and tedious.

  • 3. This is extremely field specific. In mathematics authors generally go alphabetically. In biology the person who did most of the lab work generally goes first, the person who did most of the analysis (if there is one) generally goes second, the first author's boss goes last, and everyone else goes in the middle. Sometimes you have awkward things where the first two or three authors get marked as "co-first-authors", where they did roughly equal amounts but someone has to go first. And so forth. In many arts/humanities subjects almost all papers are single-author so they haven't really worked this out yet. For most other fields I'm not familiar with the conventions.

  • 5. My limited prior experience of peer-review has been frustratingly slow but otherwise broadly positive. Our paper was definitely better after peer review than it was before, and I expect this to be generally true and good. Stephan Guyenet had some recent comments on this that got linked by Slate Star Codex.

  • 6. As others here have pointed out, I think it's generally the other way around.

  • 7. Contrary (or possibly just less diplomatically than?) to Richard_Kennaway, I think the situation here is exactly as terrible as you describe. I consider the major journal publishers to be parasites of the lowest order. But! This does not necessarily apply to the editors who work for those companies, many of whom do useful work.

  • 8. How much preprints substitute for papers varies hugely by field. Physics is an outlier. In biology it's becoming increasingly common but is still far from universal (but at least most of the important journals accept preprints). In other fields it's much rarer, and in some fields the best journals won't take your paper if you preprinted it first (though I think/hope this is dying out?).

  • 10. Is "publishing" in this point supposed to be distinct from preprinting / publishing not-in-a-journal? Assuming it is, "allows future research to frictionlessly cite your findings" is increasingly a non-issue (preprints have DOIs and most journals let you cite them, at least in my field/s). On the other hand, here are two other useful roles served by publishing in journals.

    • Peer-review is pretty good. You need some kind of peer review, broadly defined. I think there are probably vastly better ways of doing it than the current system, but the current system is much better than what most places outside of academia have.
    • When you're deep in the maw of Goodhart's Law it's easy to forget that the metrics everyone is now savagely gaming were originally good metrics. In the absence of another system (arXiv + karma?) for legibly aggregating expert opinion on the quality of academic work, a journal hierarchy does contain useful information. I have never (yet) published in Nature or Science, but my experience of personal encounters with those who have is that they are generally (certain sexy topics excluded) very impressive.
Comment by willbradshaw on How does publishing a paper work? · 2020-05-22T15:46:51.426Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The Open Science Foundation has a whole pile of arXivs, most of which nobody has ever heard of.

Comment by willbradshaw on April Coronavirus Open Thread · 2020-04-02T21:30:59.109Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

From the Center for Health Security's covid19 brief:

PANAMA IMPLEMENTS GENDER-SPECIFIC SOCIAL DISTANCING In an effort to further enforce nationwide social distancing measures, Panama recently announced that it is implementing gender-specific rules for when people can leave their homes. Women will be allowed to be outside on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and men will be allowed on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. On Sundays, everyone must remain indoors.

More info here. Maybe someone was listening to Scott's surname-based lockdown suggestion.

Comment by willbradshaw on What should we do once infected with COVID-19? · 2020-03-21T15:39:12.478Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I'd appreciate knowing why someone downvoted this.

Comment by willbradshaw on LessWrong Coronavirus Agenda · 2020-03-20T20:50:09.927Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Sorry, I think these comments came across as more aggressive than I was intending. I think there's mutual confusion/talking at cross-purposes here. I'm not sure it's worth digging into too much since I'm not sure there's actually any decision-relevant disagreement, so feel free to disregard the following (uh, even more than usual) if you don't fancy digging into this further. :-)


I'm not sure why you think I do.

From my perspective, my confusion arises from the following:

  1. You included basic coronavirus biology on something called a LessWrong coronavirus agenda, as an example of something you wanted to "nudg[e] LessWrong to pursue";
  2. You then gave a counterexample of something that both assumed too much background knowledge and left too much out, suggesting that you'd like whatever LessWrong pursued in that area to not have those deficiencies;
  3. This suggested to me that you'd like LessWrong coverage of basic coronavirus biology that simultaneously assumed less background knowledge and left less out than that counterexample;
  4. But I don't see how that would be possible without someone on LessWrong writing a complete from-first-principles molecular biology course.

Based on this conversation I think I'm probably misinterpreting what inclusion on the agenda implies you'd like to see LessWrongers do.

Comment by willbradshaw on LessWrong Coronavirus Agenda · 2020-03-20T18:28:14.139Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Okay, but those are textbook chapters. If you're looking for those I recommend Chapter 28 of Fields Virology, 6th edition (similar information to Fehr & Perlman, better presentation, somewhat more comprehensive).

But do you really think LessWrong should be going for something more comprehensive than that? I don't really see the value in that, as opposed to getting a smart-person's-summary that links to more comprehensive resources.

Comment by willbradshaw on LessWrong Coronavirus Agenda · 2020-03-19T15:41:00.261Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

What is the basic science of coronavirus? E.g. this guide is trying, but requires more background knowledge than ideal and leaves a lot out.

It's very unclear to me how you can simultaneously overcome both "requires more background knowledge than ideal" and "leaves a lot out", at least without just giving someone a stack of textbooks to read.

I'm like ~2/3 of the way through writing a post on coronavirus structure, which might turn into a series of posts on coronavirus biology if I have time, and this is actually pretty hard. The amount of background knowledge required to really understand what's going on is huge; I have a biology PhD and I'm only skimming it.

So any post that attempts to attack this has a high chance of being at least two of incomprehensible, useless, very long, and dull. I'm doing my best to overcome this, but it's tricky.

Comment by willbradshaw on March Coronavirus Open Thread · 2020-03-17T09:49:02.593Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Last month, NIAID RML released an album of SEM and TEM images of SARS-CoV-2. This includes the multi-coloured image everybody is using but also a lot of other very striking images. Check it out!

Comment by willbradshaw on Should we all be more hygenic in normal times? · 2020-03-17T09:22:14.178Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW · GW

In my post on hand washing David Mannheim did a quick estimate suggesting that the time costs of handwashing more often would roughly break even, based only on the expected work time saved from not getting colds. That's before factoring in effects of your cleanliness on the health of other people, the physical unpleasantness of being sick, or any diseases other than common colds. So my guess is that the cost-benefit analysis of having better hand hygiene is strongly positive even on a normal year; even more so when you take into account the small chance of stemming the next big epidemic.

For two of the other main things that generally get recommended for day-to-day hygiene, not touching your face and coughing/sneezing into your elbow, the cost is mostly in building the habit, so if the habit is already built as a result of this pandemic then the cost seems trivial.

Comment by willbradshaw on March Coronavirus Open Thread · 2020-03-15T22:19:28.285Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks but I'm not asking for sources. I have lots of sources already.

Comment by willbradshaw on When are the most important times to wash your hands? · 2020-03-15T14:59:09.400Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I think this is probably a good idea. I don't think it conflicts with what I said, though.

I personally find sanitising the keyboard quite annoying if the computer is already on, so would probably restrict this to the start/end of the day and try to prevent contamination from hands the rest of the time.

It's not a big deal, especially if I'm using sanitizer anyway: just smear some on the keyboard from the hands before it all dries up.

This suggests to me that you're either using too much hand sanitiser or (post-keyboard-transfer) too little.

Comment by willbradshaw on Possible worst outcomes of the coronavirus epidemic · 2020-03-15T14:35:36.292Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Coronaviruses in general, including the original SARS-CoV, do indeed have proofreading enzymes, which is why their genomes are so unusually stable (and hence so unusually large) for RNA viruses.

I didn't dig down on the SARS-CoV-2 genome yet (I only started looking into this in depth yesterday) but a quick search suggests that the proofreading exonuclease is indeed there.

Comment by willbradshaw on When are the most important times to wash your hands? · 2020-03-15T14:12:01.173Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Probably so obvious that you left it off, but:

  • After touching another human

For me the biggest one left after these is:

  • After touching the dog

You already have "after using the computer". I think I'd add "before using the computer" as well, or even instead – keeping the computer a safe zone seems like a good move, and this seems more doable than constantly cleaning the keyboard.

Comment by willbradshaw on Recommendations for a resource on very basic epidemiology? · 2020-03-15T14:00:05.818Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm currently focusing on molecular stuff but after that I plan to start reading Rothman's "Epidemiology: An Introduction", which I've seen broadly recommended as the gateway drug to Rothman et al's "Modern Epidemiology", which is the standard textbook on the subject. So either of those might be worth a look?

[And yes, it's .]

Comment by willbradshaw on March Coronavirus Open Thread · 2020-03-15T11:41:56.039Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks, this is a nice layman's overview. I'm not a layman, though, and I'm planning on going much deeper than this (I've spent a lot of my weekend buried in virology textbooks).

From the article: "HIV and SARS-CoV-2 have about as much in common as a human and a satsuma" I wonder whether this is just journalistic flair or actually grounded in something. They don't cite their sources very well, unfortunately.

Comment by willbradshaw on March Coronavirus Open Thread · 2020-03-15T08:43:48.258Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm working on a document / series of posts about coronavirus biology – viral structure, replication cycle, that sort of thing. This is mostly for my own education but I figure it's also a useful exercise to make the result public in a presentable form. I'm posting this here (a) as a commitment device to get something out in the next week or so, and (b) to see if anyone has any questions they'd like answered in this area that I could look into.

Currently I'm mainly learning about coronavirus biology in general, expect to switch to COVID19 specifically in a couple of days.

Comment by willbradshaw on March Coronavirus Open Thread · 2020-03-15T08:40:43.631Z · score: 9 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Clarification: you don't need everyone to be immune or dead. Just enough people that the remaining population can't sustain a continuous epidemic.

Comment by willbradshaw on The Lens, Progerias and Polycausality · 2020-03-10T13:12:13.607Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks Phil. I should probably just put these on LessWrong to be honest.

The lens-growth phenomenon sounds like it might be a neat case of antagonistic pleiotropy as applied to developmental rates: a process calibrated to give good results in early adulthood might be selected for even if it gets wildly out of whack in later life. IIRC Williams gives the example of male Fiddler crabs, whose major claw grows faster than the rest of the body: the difference is calibrated to give them big sexy (but still manageable) claws in early adulthood but can severely impede movement in late life (I have not independently validated this example). One could imagine something similar happening here.

Comment by willbradshaw on The Heckler's Veto Is Also Subject to the Unilateralist's Curse · 2020-03-10T11:10:11.181Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

This seems basically right if the community of possible actors is the same as the community of voters assigning karma. If the community of voters is different from, or much larger than, the community of actors, you might still encounter the unilateralist's curse as seen from the perspective of the community of actors, especially if the latter is better-informed than the former.

Comment by willbradshaw on The Heckler's Veto Is Also Subject to the Unilateralist's Curse · 2020-03-10T11:08:18.953Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I don't understand what work the term "Heckler's Veto" is doing here. In my understanding, "the heckler's veto" refers to situations where someone can prevent someone else from speaking by being loudly offended, either directly (by shouting them down) or indirectly (through laws or norms against "offensive" speech). A heckler's veto is one kind of veto, but I'm not sure what the value is in applying the term to vetoes in general.

This re-framing of the underlying statistical insight (the unilateral veto being "dual" to the unilateral act) seems relevant to its application to censorship: an author deciding to publish a blog post (even if other forum members think it's harmful) is in the position of taking unilateralist action—but so is a member of a board of pre-readers of whom any one has the power to censor the post (even if the other reviewers think it's fine).

I'm not sure you can call it a reframing when it's present fairly prominently in the original paper espousing the concept. But yes, if any number of pre-readers can unilaterally veto publication of a topic, then you might run into the unilateralist's curse. That doesn't mean pre-reading for info hazards is a bad idea: the pre-readers (including the authors) can simply take a vote to avoid unilateralist issues.

Comment by willbradshaw on Some quick notes on hand hygiene · 2020-02-19T20:00:39.943Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Also worth noting that, depending on the virus, particles outside a host can often survive for hours or sometimes days. To get infected by direct inhalation you'd need to be fairly close to a sick person when they were shedding virus into the air – i.e. to be very close to them in both space and time. To get infected through surface contamination the time requirement is much less stringent: you only need to be where an infected person was fairly recently. If you don't have good hand/face/mouth hygiene, they can infect you without your ever seeing them or knowing they were there.

Comment by willbradshaw on Some quick notes on hand hygiene · 2020-02-12T17:31:03.475Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Instead of sanitising light switches, stop having light switches. Movement sensors/Google Assistent can switch lights without any need for touching switches.

But if, like the crushingly vast majority of households and most workplaces, you do in fact have light switches, you should sanitise them.

Doorknobs are awful technology to the point that Australia recently outlawed them for new bulidings. Handles are still problematic but have a larger surface area so different people touch at different places and less pressure is also helpful.

I was using "doorknobs" as shorthand for any kind of door handle. If you have door handles, you should sanitise them. I think this is unhelpful pedantry.

Comment by willbradshaw on Some quick notes on hand hygiene · 2020-02-12T03:04:41.133Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

This argument has always seemed suspicious to me from a rationality perspective. Do you take other steps to deliberately expose yourself to pathogens (e.g. playing in the mud, or deliberately dropping your food on the floor before eating it, or licking unsanitary surfaces, or seeking out coughing/sneezing people to be close to)? If not, why not? Do you have some reason to believe the current level of exposure you get from not washing your hands is optimal (or at least close-to-optimal) from the perspective of improving your immune system through exposure?

The above paragraph probably sounds uncharitable. I can think of ways the "improve your immune system" argument might be true. There is an argument that early-life exposure to germs might strengthen the immune system and decrease allergies (the "hygiene hypothesis"). But it does seem to prove too much, especially given the vast and obvious gains in public health through hygiene and sanitation over the past 150 years. And it should seem especially suspicious when you're (a) going against a very strong expert consensus, in favour of (b) being lazy about something everyone kinda wishes they could just be lazy about.

Comment by willbradshaw on Some quick notes on hand hygiene · 2020-02-11T22:53:18.044Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Hey, at least (2) is good rationality practice. :P

Comment by willbradshaw on Some quick notes on hand hygiene · 2020-02-11T22:51:58.023Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yeah, this is something I worry about as well. It's probably a good idea to clean your phone with hand sanitiser regularly, but unless you're doing it multiple times per day (which nobody is) it's still going to be a big problem. AFAICT most people never clean their phones at all.

Comment by willbradshaw on Some quick notes on hand hygiene · 2020-02-10T00:04:47.526Z · score: 8 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I'd guess that washing your hands has some diminishing marginal returns, so if washing your hands for 30 seconds 15 times a day is approximately as good as not washing your hands at all, you can probably do better than both by being somewhere in the middle (e.g. washing your hands for 20 seconds at the 10 points during the day when they're most dirty).

My personal guess would be that if you want to minimise the time cost of hand washing your best bet would be to really drill in (a) always washing your hands before touching food, and (b) not touching your face. If you can be very confident in those two things you can probably let up on the general hand hygiene slightly. I was going to say that this applies if you don't care that much about externalities, but to be honest if you always wash your hands before touching communal food you'd already be doing much better than most people.

(ETA: Also see David's other comment below)

Comment by willbradshaw on Some quick notes on hand hygiene · 2020-02-07T01:10:01.630Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Bite your fingernails, or stick you fingers, hands on/in you mouth a lot? Stop or be aware of what you've been touching since the last cleaning.

That's not at all practical, though. Changing a habit such as biting fingernails is extremely difficult, and definitely not worth it to reduce the risk of getting a virus.

I was pretty surprised to see "definitely" here. If it significantly reduced your risk of getting a serious respiratory infection I'd expect it to be worth the effort.

Comment by willbradshaw on Some quick notes on hand hygiene · 2020-02-07T01:07:53.932Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don't have a long reply to this yet since I didn't get the chance to look up actual data (as opposed to recommendations) but I'd be interested to

Insofar as a health intervention is ineffective it could be for one of three reasons:

  • The base rate of the thing it prevents is low
  • The intervention is not good at preventing the thing
  • The thing is not that bad even when it does happen

Which is your main sticking point here?

Comment by willbradshaw on Some quick notes on hand hygiene · 2020-02-07T01:04:46.224Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Is there good epidemiological data that estimates how many disease transmissions have insufficient hand hygiene as an important/necessary vector?

As opposed to what? Direct airborne transmission via breathing in droplets?

My model of the spread of colds and flu and so forth is that it is primarily down to bad hand hygiene. I'd predict (with pretty low confidence) that more people get infected through getting virus on their hands and then onto their face / into their mouth than by breathing in virus directly. I'll look into this more when I get the chance, though, since lots of people are asking about this.

Comment by willbradshaw on Some quick notes on hand hygiene · 2020-02-07T01:01:19.782Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Studying this with Anki is a waste of time in my opinion. Just execute the instructions three times and you're good to go. Physical skills are best learned physically.

So this particular physical thing has one big advantage, in that you can go through the motions of it anywhere without much inconvenience or embarrassment. I think that makes at least a basic "practice this" card useful as a reminder. I'd predict that someone who had a periodic ping to check on/practice the habit would be more likely to keep it; do you disagree?

Comment by willbradshaw on A point of clarification on infohazard terminology · 2020-02-03T19:16:26.899Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Regardless, I would also suggest that, while it's definitely worth putting in some time and effort (and gathering of multiple opinions) to optimise terminology, it may still sometimes be worth adopting a term that is less ideal at describing what you want in order to avoid cross-term confusion.

I do want to flag that, following my own advice above, I would switch to "cognition hazard"/"cognitohazard" if that has the most consensus and we can't come up with a better term, as long as we also find some new term for the other competing meaning of "memetic hazard"; this seems to be the strategy that minimises total confusion/conflict.

Comment by willbradshaw on A point of clarification on infohazard terminology · 2020-02-03T18:40:00.091Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Brainstorming:

  • Cognition hazard
  • Knowledge hazard
  • Awareness hazard
  • Knower hazard (sounds too much like "Noah hazard"?)
  • realisation hazard
  • comprehension hazard
  • ...

I also thought of "culture hazard" but that sounds like a different thing.

I think it's probably okay for the term to not be immediately intensely evocative of the thing we're going for, as long as it's (a) catchy and (b) makes enough sense once explained to be memorable. I do think "memetic hazard" meets both of these criteria, though perhaps (a) more than (b).

Ironically, and perhaps unfortunately, the current usage of "memetic hazard" does seem to be very memetically fit. :P

Comment by willbradshaw on A point of clarification on infohazard terminology · 2020-02-03T18:31:19.695Z · score: 5 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for this. I think that even with the edits I was probably too confrontational above, so sorry about that. I'm not sure why this issue is emotional for me, that seems weird.

To start off, I agree that, ceteris paribus, the current usage of "memetic hazard" is strange. It has the advantage over e.g. "direct IH" of sounding cool and scary, which was probably desirable for SCP-like uses but is perhaps not ideal for people actually trying to do serious work on info-hazardy concepts.

I notice a conflict in my thoughts here, where I want to be able to refer to knower-harming hazards with a term that is (a) distinctive, evocative and catchy (such that it seems compelling and is actually used in real situations) and (b) sober, precise and informative (such that it can be used productively in technical writing on the subject). "Memetic hazard" satisfies (a) but not (b); "direct information hazard" satisfies (b) but not (a). This is not ideal.

I think for academic-ish work the term "direct info hazard" or something similarly bland is a fine descriptor for "knower-harming information". I'm not sure what sort of term we would want to use for more popular work. "Knowledge hazard" seems okay to me? But I agree more suggestions here would be valuable.


So this paragraph is me suggesting that, while perhaps we shouldn't repurpose the term "memetic hazards", we should still avoid spreading or further entrenching the current, confusing usage of that term, and should jump aboard a different term for that concept instead.

Insofar as "memetic hazard" is being used simply to mean "knower-harming information hazard", this seems reasonable. The term is still obscure enough that if enough people jumped on a new term it could probably gain more traction, and "memetic hazard" can be left as an obscure and kinda-confusing synonym of [whatever the new term is] that people bring up from time to time but isn't widely used outside SCP.

[One counter-consideration. Having skimmed some existing usage of "memetic hazard" on the internet, it seems some people are using it to mean a directly (?) harmful idea that also encourages its bearers to spread it. The blandest form of this would be an idea that is harmful to know but fun to talk about; sci-fi (including SCP) contains many much more extreme instances. This usage does seem to make more use of the "memetic" aspect of the name. It also seems to (a) be hard to really capture precisely and (b) deviate from how I typically use (and how eukaryote originally used) the term, so it might be better to just leave that aspect alone for now.]


The question remains of what to call the concept you are trying to capture in your work. At present I don't think I have a good enough understanding of what it is you're going for to offer great suggestions. From my limited understanding, I do think "communication hazard" could do the trick – it seems to me to capture (a) the generality, i.e. that we're not focusing on true or false info; (b) the selection idea, i.e. that part of the hazard arises from how well different ideas spread via communication, and (c) part of the mutation idea, namely the part that arises from imperfect person-to-person communication (rather than within-mind mutations).

Assuming you still think "communication hazard" is no good, I might suggest making a top-level post explaining the concept you want to capture and looking for more/better suggestions? That seems like it could generate some new ideas; we could also use a similar approach to look for suggested replacements of the current usage of "memetic hazard". Regardless, I would also suggest that, while it's definitely worth putting in some time and effort (and gathering of multiple opinions) to optimise terminology, it may still sometimes be worth adopting a term that is less ideal at describing what you want in order to avoid cross-term confusion.

Comment by willbradshaw on A point of clarification on infohazard terminology · 2020-02-03T05:35:35.586Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

So I think there's an interesting distinction here between bad terminology you just made up, and bad terminology you're inheriting from others.

If you just invented a new term and several people think it's not a good term, they'll probably seem wrong to you, and there's a good chance you'll be wrong about that and should change it — before your new term has time to take root. There should definitely be a duty on people to make sure their new terms are not confusing.

On the other hand, if you (and at least some other people) think an existing term is bad you have two choices: you can accept it for the purposes of consistency or try to change it to something less confusing before its reach grows further. Both strategies are trying to avoid confusion in some sense, but differ in their variance; the first is accepting the existing confusion for the sake of not creating further confusion, and the second is risking further confusion to try and reduce existing confusion.

Which of these is the correct course of action probably depends on how problematic the old name is, how widespread it is, and how much power you have to change it. Personally, I think it's less confusing to memorise one bad term than to remember the relationship between one bad term and one better term, so I think the risk of proliferating terminology is probably not worth taking most of the time. But sometimes there'll be a pretty compelling reason to make the change, especially if you can co-ordinate enough top people in the field to make it stick.

So far I've mostly been talking about the situation where something is called X, and for some reason you think it should be called Y. This is pretty common (see e.g. the debates around what to call clean/cultured/cultivated/... meat). I think this current disagreement over "memetic hazard" is worse than that, though, because rather than trying to change the name of a thing, the goal is to change the thing a name refers to. So we have a sort of shuffle proposed, where the name X is transferred from thing A to thing B and a new name Y is proposed for thing A. This seems much more likely to cause confusion to me.

Comment by willbradshaw on A point of clarification on infohazard terminology · 2020-02-03T01:36:26.462Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Regardless of scuffles over the name, I do want to express support for the idea of spreading awareness of memetic hazard (/whatever) as its own distinct concept. I've definitely been in conversations where I've said something mildly memetic-hazardy (e.g. "hey, that thing kinda reminds me of this other, unpleasant thing") and got the response of "hey, info hazard". And I think having a more precise term for that kind of knower-harming information in slightly wider parlance would be helpful.

Comment by willbradshaw on A point of clarification on infohazard terminology · 2020-02-03T01:18:31.075Z · score: 6 (5 votes) · LW · GW

It is an unfortunate fact that everyone who starts to work on info hazards at some point decides to come up with their own typology. :P

As a result, there is a surfeit of terms here. Anders Sandberg has proposed "direct information hazard" as a broad category of info hazards that directly harm the knower, and I've largely adopted his usage. It does seem desirable to have a term for any kind of communication/information that harms the knower, regardless of whether it is true or false or neither.

"Cognition hazard" kind of gestures at this but doesn't really capture it for me. I would guess a cognition hazard would be something that (a) is hazardous because it causes you to think about it a lot (brooding/obsessing/etc) or (b) is hazardous if you do so. This feels like a smaller/more technical category than what is usually captured by "memetic hazard". Maybe "knowledge hazard" would do the trick, if you definitely want to abandon "standard" usage (such as it is)?

Comment by willbradshaw on A point of clarification on infohazard terminology · 2020-02-03T00:48:55.110Z · score: 10 (6 votes) · LW · GW

On reflection, I think I maybe need to give some justification for why I object so strongly to muddying the terminological waters. Also, this and the preceding comment are directed at MichaelA and Convergence Analysis, not at eukaryote (I put it in the wrong thread, sorry).

Anyone who's been educated in a technical field knows what it's like to encounter a really nasty terminological tangle. Over decades, lots of different terms build up for lots of related but distinct terms, many of which are similar even though their referents are importantly different, or different even though their referents are the same. Teachers spend a lot of time untangling these terminological difficulties, and students spend a lot of time being confused by them. They also make explaining the issues to laypeople much more difficult than they need to be. Even though a better, simpler terminology would clearly be preferred, the costs of switching are nearly always greater than the costs of sticking with convention, and so terminological confusion tends to get worse over time, like junk DNA accumulating on a genome.

This will almost inevitably happen with any intellectually tricky field, but we can at least do our best to mitigate it by being aware of the terminology that has gone before and making sure we pick terms that are minimally likely to cause confusion. We certainly shouldn't deliberately choose terms that are extremely similar to existing terms, even though their meaning is very different. Especially if the issue has been brought to your attention, since this provides additional evidence that confusion is likely. Deliberately trying to repurpose a term to mean something importantly different from its original meaning is even worse.

In the case of the various Europe-associated councils, it would clearly have been desirable for the namers of later ones to have stopped and tried to come up with a better name (e.g. one that doesn't involve the word "council", or provides some additional distinguishing information). Instead, they decided (perhaps with some justice, I don't know) that their usage was better, ploughed ahead, and now we're stuck with a horrible confusing tangle.

Ditto this case with "meme hazards" and "memetic hazards". The meaning of "memetic hazard" is somewhat established (insofar as anything in this field is established). But those proposing "meme hazard" think (with some justice) that their usage makes more sense, and so want to try and override the existing usage. If they fail, we will have two extremely similar terms persisting in the culture, meaning importantly but confusingly different things (one roughly a subset of info hazards, the other a superset). We'll all have to spend time first understanding and then explaining the difference, and even then someone will occasionally use "meme hazard" to refer to (the established meaning of) "memetic hazard" or vice-versa, and confusion will result. And all this will have been avoidable with just slightly more considerate choice of new terminology.

There are plenty of other terms one could use for the superset of information hazards that includes false information. I've previously suggested some in the past (communication hazard, concept hazard); I'm sure more could be come up with with a little effort. I'm not convinced the superset concept is important enough to be worth crystallising into a term at all, but I wouldn't be too surprised if I'm wrong about that. Even in that world, though, I think one still has a duty to pick terms that are optimised to avoid confusion, rather than (as in this case) to cause it.

[Edited to remove "idea hazard" as a suggestion, since MichaelA correctly pointed out above that it has a different meaning, and to remove inflammatory language I don't endorse.]