Saturday, March 28, 2009

Worms in the Rain

Update (2013): I no longer squish dying worms because I fear doing so may cause more harm than if they died on their own. I do, however, try to move them off the pavement onto the grass so that other pedestrians won't inadvertently half-crush them.


It rained last night, and this morning, I was not surprised to see a number of earthworms strewn across a stone walking path. While a few of the worms appeared healthy enough to return safely to the soil, most were clearly either dead or sufficiently incapacitated that they would die within a few hours.

The sight is truly painful. When I'm not in a hurry, I feel obligated to stop and completely squish those worms that appear to be suffering but not yet dead. I make sure to slide my foot along the pavement so that the guts of the worm are stretched out, ensuring a quick and certain death. This is, I think, what I would most want someone to do to me if I were going to be transformed into a worm in such a situation. (It's the opposite approach, I assume, from what a Buddhist or Jain would do, which seems to me unfortunate given their supposed concern for all creatures. Sometimes reverence for life ends up causing more suffering.)

The task of squishing worms feels overwhelming, because there is a practically unlimited supply of nearby places I could go where I could find dying worms on pavement. It would probably not be optimal for me to spend my life seeking out worms so that I could put them out of their misery. But this is not because the expected reduction in suffering due to stepping on worms is small: Indeed, if we give worms, say, a 1/3 chance of being able to feel pain, and if only 1/3 of the worms I step on are not yet dead or unconscious, then in the five minutes it takes me to step on 25 of them, I will have averted roughly three expected experiences of slow, lingering death. Rather, the reason it probably is not cost-effective to spend my life on this task is that the stakes in other domains are so much higher: The amounts of suffering in nature as a whole are vastly higher, "beyond all decent contemplation."

In theory, it would be optimal for me to bypass the worms on the sidewalk so that I could have an extra few minutes to do more abstract work that has far higher expected returns. The reason I don't do so, apart from feelings of direct pity, is somewhat selfish: Thinking about how much I ought to be getting done in the five minutes I save is stressful and overwhelming. It's hard to go through life with the mindset that every five minutes you waste on trivialities amounts to (far) more than three expected worms suffering while they die helplessly. And yet this is true. The best excuse I can give is that humans are not built to handle emotional burdens on this scale.

By the way, if readers have suggestions on the worms-in-the-rain situation, I would be glad to hear them. As far as I can tell, the worms come out to escape drowning, though they may also use the moisture as a chance to mate. In either case, though, it's clear that many of the worms on the pavement are in no position to return back to the soil, as is demonstrated by their shriveled-up remains the following day. It's not obvious that the rain or pavement themselves are to blame, because, as Charles Darwin suggested, it may be that many of these worms "were already sick, and that their deaths were merely hastened by the ground being flooded." If that is the case, then worms in the rain represent merely a glimpse of the vast amounts of sickness and death that occur all the time among animals in the wild.

Note: Professor Jeffrey Lockwood wrote a nice reply to this blog post, which appears as the third comment below.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Carter Center and PSI

Givewell has a new review of the Carter Center, focusing on its health programs, which comprise 80% of total spending. The summary chart includes a section "What does $100 do?" with some impressive figures, including one of the following depending on the program:
  • "Averts 12-25 cases of guinea worm," or
  • "Averts 10-50 years of serious debilitation (blindness, low vision, or irritating skin disease)," or
  • "Averts 1-30 years of blindness and another 1-30 years of low vision (surgeries); little or unknown (other components)," or
  • "Averts 15-85 total years of lymphedema (swollen limbs) and 25-165 total years of hydrocele (swollen scrotum)," or
  • "Enables ~29 additional years of school attendance by treated children," or
  • "Averts 10-47 malaria episodes (1 in ~320 is fatal)."
These are some excellent concrete scenarios to imagine when you're wondering, say, whether to spend $100 on a luxury or whether making an extra $100 is really that important.

Givewell's previous recommendation of Population Services International still stands. The 2007-2008 report concluded:
We estimate that it costs PSI $650-$1000 to prevent a case of HIV/AIDS and $500-$2500 to prevent a death from malaria; across the organization, we estimate that it costs PSI about $650-$1000 to save a life. These estimates do not include other benefits of PSI's activities, such as preventing unwanted pregnancies and reducing non-fatal malaria infections.
PSI is arguably a better choice than the Carter Center for international health, inasmuch as it devotes its entire budget to the task, rather than just 80%, but a specific examination of treatments would be in order. Either one seems like an excellent choice.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Horror movies

I really dislike horror movies, often feeling rather sick when I watch them; they're sort of like a miniature form of torture. (While I don't have mirror-touch synesthesia, I do probably have stronger mirror neuron firing than most other movie viewers?) But I think I generally feel more revulsion against pain afterwards than before. Just the few horror movies I have seen are probably somewhat responsible for my general disposition of wanting to prevent suffering.

It's interesting that a stereotypical horror movie watcher is perhaps the opposite of this: The usual image of such a person is a young person, probably male, and probably somewhat macho. It's also likely that watching horror movies repeatedly leads to desensitization. So a strategy of aiming to make people care more about suffering by promoting extensive consumption of horror movies would probably backfire.

Watching disgusting films is a unique experience that has made me a slightly different person from who I otherwise would be. This isn't surprising, perhaps, because apart from being a victim of violence or torture oneself, there are no other ways to encounter cruelty so graphically and forcefully. I wonder: What other human experiences are similarly powerful, to the extent that I should seek them out in order to broaden my perspective on the world?

About this blog

This blog contains some short ideas or notes that I want to record. However, my main site has generally more substantive content. I also post occasionally on the Felicifia forum.