Don’t Shoot the Messenger

Epistemic status: confident but informal

A while back, I read someone complaining that the Lord of the Rings movie depicted Aragorn killing a messenger from Mordor. In the book, Aragorn sent the messenger away.  The moviemakers probably only intended to add action to the scene, and had no idea that they had made Aragorn into a shockingly dishonorable character.

Why don’t you shoot messengers?  What does that tradition actually mean?

Well, in a war, you want to preserve the ability to negotiate for peace.  If you kill a member of the enemy’s army, that puts you closer to winning the war, and that’s fine.  If you kill a messenger, that sends a message that the enemy can’t safely make treaties with you, and that means you destroy the means of making peace — both for this war and the wars to come.  It’s much, much more devastating than just killing one man.

This is also probably why guest law exists in so many cultures.  In a world ruled by clans, where a “stranger” is a potential enemy, it’s vitally important to have a ritual that guarantees nonviolence, such as breaking bread under the same roof. Otherwise there would be no way to broker peace between your family and the stranger over the next hill.

This is why the Latin hostis (enemy) and hospes (guest or host) are etymologically cognate. This is why the Greeks had a concept of xenia so entrenched that they told stories about a man being tied to a fiery wheel for eternity for harming a guest.  This is why the sin of Sodom was inhospitality.

It’s actually not about charity or compassion, exactly. It’s about coordinating a way to not kill each other.

Guest law and not shooting messengers are natural law: they are practical necessities due to game theory, that ancient peoples traditionally concretized into virtues like “honor” or “hospitality.”  But it’s no longer common knowledge what they’re for.

A friend of mine speculated that, in the decades that humanity has lived under the threat of nuclear war, we’ve developed the assumption that we’re living in a world of one-shot Prisoner’s Dilemmas rather than repeated games, and lost some of the social technology associated with repeated games. Game theorists do, of course, know about iterated games and there’s some fascinating research in evolutionary game theory, but the original formalization of game theory was for the application of nuclear war, and the 101-level framing that most educated laymen hear is often that one-shot is the prototypical case and repeated games are hard to reason about without computer simulations.

One of the things about living in what feels like the shadow of the end of the world — there’s been apocalypse in the zeitgeist since at least the 1980’s and maybe longer — is that it’s very counterintuitive to think about a future that might last a long time.

What if we’re not wiped out by an apocalypse?  What if humans still have an advanced civilization in 50 years — albeit one that looks very different from today’s?  What if the people who are young today will live to grow old? What would it be like to take responsibility for consequences and second-order effects at the scale of decades?  What would it be like to have models of the next twenty years or so — not for the purpose of sounding cool at parties, but for the sake of having practical plans that actually extend that far?

I haven’t thought much about how to go about doing that, but I think we may have lost certain social technologies that have to do with expecting there to be a future, and it might be important to regain them.

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Early-Stage Medical Projects as an EA Focus

Epistemic Status: throwing an idea out for discussion

I think there’s a reasonable case to be made that medical research can count as an EA cause.

For the purposes of this post, I’m going to make some common assumptions: that you care at least to some degree about worldwide humanitarian benefit (e.g. human lives or QALYs saved) and are willing to compare causes on that basis.  You don’t have to be a strict utilitarian — I’m not.

Tractability and Scale

If you look at the Global Burden of Disease stats, you’ll find that what kills and disables people worldwide isn’t so much different than what kills and disables people in the developed world: cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes.  (If you look just at disability, depression and low back pain are big too.)

Yes, infectious disease is a big problem.  And yes, the most effective global charities have focused on infectious disease for good reason — we know how to prevent it fairly cheaply. Malaria incidence has dropped by 40% in the past 15 years, mostly thanks to insecticide-treated mosquito nets, provided by organizations like the Against Malaria Foundation.  This is a really impressive success.

But the rest of the DALY pie is taken up by diseases that we really don’t know how to cure yet.  There is no equivalent of a mosquito net for cancer. It seems reasonable that people who are concerned with “doing the most good” should at least look to see if there are “good buys” in the world of chronic noninfectious disease.

Room for Funding and Comparative Advantage

But don’t universities and pharma companies have biomedical research covered? What use is an individual donor or investor?

It would be the work of a much longer piece of writing to demonstrate rigorously that there’s bias in biomedical research, and I hope to get to that eventually. But, in rough outline, what I believe is that there are distorted incentives that favor elaborate, expensive treatments and slow research programs.  On the whole, researchers are rewarded for getting bigger grants, not smaller ones, and the fact that all healthcare is paid for by insurance means that normal market pressures to keep the cost of treatment down don’t operate properly.  By this reasoning, we should expect that there are underfunded-but-effective experimental medical treatments out there that fail to make it all the way through the pipeline. I’ve seen a few examples so far of early-stage research that could have major impact (organ regeneration is one) but risks stalling due to lack of a business model and lack of investment.

Then there are projects so ambitious that they’re not funded much because they’re not really on the mainstream radar.  Serious attempts at anti-aging research, like the SENS foundation, are surprisingly small in scale; they are crowdfunding a $30,000 experiment for repairing mitochondrial gene defects.  The Brain Preservation Foundation, which funds a prize aiming to cryopreserve a brain at high precision, has a grand total of 14 donors over $1000.  Bone marrow cryopreservation, as far as I know, is a technologically solved problem that could make bone marrow transplants much cheaper; but the project in question died for want of investment.

The best-studied, most evidence-based charities are good causes to promote confidently to the public or to large foundation donors.  But there still may be a place for high-risk, high-return, experimental stuff.  If you are unusually interested in doing your own background reading, and especially if you have a scientific background, then you have a comparative advantage in investigating and giving to (or investing in, or working on) projects small enough that most of the world doesn’t know about them, and that e.g. GiveWell hasn’t already thoroughly examined.  There’s an exploration-exploitation tradeoff, and it seems likely that not all the “exploration” of good causes has been done yet.

Next Steps

The next steps I’m taking in this vein are fairly modest; passive information-gathering of biomedical research news and biotech startup news, plus hopefully starting discussions among knowledgeable people, with the aim of finding out what’s out there and promising.  Small donations to organizations that look promising (I donated to SENS). I have a selfish as well as a humanitarian interest in medical research — it’s interesting to me and I would like myself and my loved ones to be healthy for as long as possible — so I’m not saying that everyone should devote time and effort into looking into this.  But it would be nice to see transformative medical research discussed as one of the options in the EA space.