Do Some Trans People Pass? The Results



The first five pictures were of cisgender women; the second five pictures were of transgender women.

(Yes, I’m lazy.)

The cisgender pictures are from r/selfie; the transgender pictures are from r/transpassing, a subreddit where people post pictures of themselves to see whether they pass. Both were from the most upvoted pictures of the last month. The trans girl who hadn’t taken HRT was #8, the second girl with a flower crown; an astonishing 37% of voters thought she was cisgender.

Of the five cisgender girls, two were conclusively identified as cisgender, while three had less than sixty percent of voters identify them as either cis or trans. In two cases, the voters leaned towards cisgender, while in one case, the voters leaned towards transgender. Of the five transgender girls, three were conclusively identified as transgender, one was conclusively identified as cisgender, and the remaining girl was not conclusively identified either way, although voters leaned towards her being transgender.

My initial predictions were wrong; I thought that people would be far more likely to misidentify transgender people as cisgender and vice versa than they actually were. In fact, with two exceptions (one cis and one trans), the lean of the vote was in the correct direction.

However, I found the lack of consensus striking. I defined “lack of consensus” as failing to get at least sixty percent of voters to agree on whether you’re cisgender or transgender; by this relatively narrow definition, four women’s pictures were unidentifiable. Using a broader definition, in which fewer than two-thirds of voters agree, six women’s pictures were unidentifiable as cisgender or transgender. As qualitative evidence, several commenters mentioned that, if they hadn’t known that five of the pictures were of trans women, they would have assumed all or nearly all the pictures were of cisgender women.

My interpretation of this data is that base rates matter. Many people– I would roughly guess about half the population– are not readily identifiable as cisgender or transgender if there’s a 50/50 chance that they’re cis or trans. However, in the real world, 99.7% of people are cisgender; for this reason, pretty much all ambiguous people are read as cisgender all the time.

What matters, of course, is not the actual base rate but the perceived base rate. Sophia Kovaleva commented on the original post:

I recently spent 20 minutes arguing with Russian border control agents that my passport is mine, and the incorrect gender marker in it is not a result of “a technical mistake on the part of the organization that issued the passport”. Never mind bone structure or height or the pitch and resonance of the voice – they couldn’t clock me despite seeing my passport and having me literally saying “I’m trans” (well, technically I was saying “I’m changing my sex” in order for this statement to be accessible to them).

Of course, Russia is a very traditional and transphobic country, so the perceived base rate of trans people is extraordinarily low, perhaps zero. No amount of evidence would cause people to update in favor.

I myself have noticed that context matters. When I lived in a Southern state, I passed as male if I cut my hair, wore a button-down shirt, and didn’t talk very much– except when I went to anime conventions. Since many people crossplay at anime conventions, people didn’t expect that someone in male clothing would be male. Now that I live in San Francisco, I rarely pass: people expect butch women to exist. (Inexplicably, having green hair caused me to be read as male, until I started carrying around a baby a lot of the time, at which point people started reading me as female again. I have attempted to persuade my husband to wear a dress in an attempt to confuse people into gendering me as male, but no dice.)

This suggests an unfortunate tradeoff for transgender people. The feminist, trans-friendly places where being perceived as trans is least dangerous are exactly the places where it is most difficult for us to go stealth.


Book Reviews for April


Whores and Other Feminists: An interesting anthology, but profoundly marred by its inclusion of only relatively privileged sex workers. More essayists worked at a single San Francisco peep show, the Lusty Lady, than did street sex work. While many contributors were queer, there was no discussion of intersections of sex work with addiction, abuse, or immigration, and the contributors of color were safely cordoned off in their own section. Interesting essays include those by sex work feminist foremothers Annie Sprinkle and Nina Hartley, as well as an interview with a butch lesbian second-wave feminist who accidentally got a substantial fraction of her local second-wave lesbian feminist community to work at an erotic massage parlor. Also, I am as disappointed as anyone that dapper butch escort for lesbians is not a profitable profession.

Even among this group of relatively privileged sex workers, all of them acknowledge that sex work is not “empowering” but instead just a job– and often a crappy one at that. (The one exception is a New Agey sex worker who identifies as a sacred whore. This is a very San Franciscan book.) It’s just that, as crappy as their jobs are, the situation won’t be improved by making it illegal. Hopefully this will put to bed the straw man that sex workers’ rights activists think that sex work should be legal because of how ~empowering~ it is.

Conquering GRE Math: A very complete review of the math that’s on the GRE. It concentrates more on computation than on the mathematical reasoning that the GRE mostly tests.

The Unschooling Handbook: Probably the best unschooling book I’ve read so far. Instead of endlessly discussing the principles of unschooling and children’s natural desire to learn, the unschooling handbook focuses on what it’s like to unschool, including three chapters that describe weeks in the life of three different unschooling families and an extensive list of resources.

The Unschooling Handbook is fairly old, so its discussion of the Internet is hilariously out of date. (“We have the Internet at our library, but we only use it to check our email– there are so many books to read!”) I continue to be suspicious of claims about the educational value of video games and television.

To unschool reading: read to your children, have an environment full of text, play pre-reading games, and guide them to books that match their interests. To unschool writing: offer opportunities to write stories, poetry, and essays; reluctant writers may enjoy having a pen pal. To unschool math: play math games and do math puzzles; look for math in everyday life, such as cooking and allowances; have math manipulatives such as tangrams and Cuisenaire rods; play games that involve a math element, such as most card games (probability); read books about math and watch math videos. To unschool science: encourage experimentation; read books about science and watch science videos; take trips to museums, parks, and zoos; have scientific tools such as a microscope and a telescope. To unschool history: maintain a timeline; read history books, especially biographies; study genealogy; go to living history events; read and watch historical fiction and critique the inaccuracies; travel. To unschool the arts: let children experiment with music, painting, sculpture, and acting; buy nice art supplies, which allow children to produce higher-quality and more satisfying art. In each subject, follow the child’s interests: it’s okay if they learn all about the rainforest but never quite get to learning about Pluto.

[content warning: child abuse]

The Baby Thief: The Untold Story of Georgia Tann, the Baby Seller Who Corrupted Adoption: Learn from my mistakes: Don’t read this book when you have a newborn baby or you will start crying while clutching your baby and demanding reassurance that no one will steal him from you.

A fascinating work of investigative journalism about Georgia Tann, one of the women who popularized adoption in the twentieth century. Tann was a piece of work. She took children from their parents who loved them and wanted them, often justifying it because the parents were poor. Some children, taken for adoption at age four or six, lived for decades without knowing whether their parents or siblings were alive. Tann would lie to parents that their children had died and then take the child for adoption. Tann ran ads with adorable pictures of adoptable babies, encouraging people to adopt a child for Christmas as if they were a puppy. She did only the most cursory screening of adoptive parents; many adoptees were abused or treated as slaves. One adoptive parent even screamed at her child that if she had known he would be such a disappointment she wouldn’t have paid so much for him. Tann was neglectful of the children she took for adoption; in fact, her neglectfulness managed to raise the Memphis infant mortality rate to the point that the US government investigated.

Tann was also a lesbian. I guess it’s… nice?… to have LGBT representation among totally evil people.

Sensate Focus in Sex Therapy: An Illustrated Manual: A clearly written explanation of sensate focus, intended for clinicians.

Sensate focus is the Swiss army knife of sex therapy interventions, useful for everything from premature ejaculation to sexual trauma. At its core, sensate focus is very similar to mindfulness: you touch your partner, focusing only on the physical sensations of touch, such as soft/hard, hot/cold, or smooth/rough. You touch the parts of your partner’s body you find interesting to touch. Arousal may happen, but it is not expected; sensate focus has no particular goal other than exploring your partner’s body. Over the course of a few months, a couple undergoing sensate focus passes through several stages: alternating touching, with breasts and genitals off limits; alternating touching with breasts and genitals allowed; simultaneous touching; touching genitals to genitals; PIV without movement; PIV with movement.

The book has a useful chapter about adapting sensate focus for different problems: for example, a patient with hypoactive sexual desire may need to be coached in developing a sexual fantasy life and encouraged to read or view erotic literature. The book has a much less useful chapter about adapting sensate focus for sexual minority groups (LGBT people, kinky people, poly people), which mostly says that they can do sensate focus like anyone else. It would be interesting if they had talked about, say, whether one could use pain play during sensate focus or the common trans experience of dissociating during sex.

Ask Me About My Uterus: A Quest To Make Doctors Believe In Women’s Pain: A harrowing and engrossing memoir about one woman’s experience with endometriosis. Full of interesting facts about endometriosis: did you know that some female fetuses have endometriosis? Norman experienced a depressing amount of medical sexism, such as a doctor whose primary goal was not preventing her pain but saving her fertility (despite the fact that she wasn’t sure whether she wanted children and was in so much pain she was incapable of enjoying PIV). I think people who have never had a uterus should read this memoir so that they can feel properly grateful.

[Spoilers for the Octavian Nothing series.]

The Pox Party: I adored the premise of this book. On the eve of the Revolution, a teenage slave who believes he is an African prince is being educated by a set of eccentric Enlightenment philosophers intent on discovering whether black people have the same intellectual capacity as white people.

Unfortunately, the sequel was far less engrossing due to replacing the eccentric Enlightenment philosophers with assorted Loyalist soldiers, and I quit halfway through.

I am confused about the definition of YA. Does it just mean “has a teenage protagonist”? Because there were multiple gruesome torture scenes in this book and while I support teenagers reading whatever they want I think some adults might have objections.

Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom: I read this book to gain more insight into the social conservative point of view.

I think what Anderson calls the consent-based and the conjugal views of marriage are both coherent. The consent-based view holds that marriage is a private matter between people who love each other. The purpose of legal marriage is to provide certain benefits people usually want to give to people they love, such as hospital visitation and inheritance rights. Socially, if we don’t recognize a couple as married, we’re implicitly saying that they don’t love each other.

The conjugal view, however, views marriage as primarily a vehicle for the production of children. Anderson tries to spiritualize it, but I think for most of the past this was primarily an economic arrangement. Children are not any different from any other economic value husbands and wives provided for each other, from clothes to agriculture. (It’s important to note that only relatively recently did children become a net economic drain on their parents.) Gay marriage, premarital sex, divorce, and adultery can all be coherently forbidden from this point of view. However, I think it has implications that social conservatives don’t particularly like: most notably, that love between the couple is also irrelevant. It’s nice if it happens, but if you’re vaguely fond of each other and you have an economically productive household, that is an entirely successful marriage. (Notably, many marriages in a conjugal model are arranged.)

“Love is irrelevant to marriage, you should be happy to marry someone who’s nice but whom you have no particular romantic feelings for and then have lots of babies” is a hard pill for straight people to swallow, and I don’t blame Anderson for trying to get around it. But I don’t think you can. If you accept love as a valid basis for marriage, gay marriage, no-fault divorce, and the rest come along with it.

I found Anderson’s religious freedom arguments often unconvincing. If the state requires that all adoption agencies give children to gay couples, and then the adoption agencies refuse and close, it’s not really a violation of their religious freedom. You don’t have a religious-freedom right to run an adoption agency. Similarly, if the state required that all doctors provide actual medicine, and you are a Christian scientist doctor who believes you should never treat any illness with anything except prayer, I do not think it would be a violation of religious freedom for them to revoke your medical license. You have a right to believe whatever you like and to practice your faith freely, but you don’t have a right to have special exceptions to religion-neutral rules.

You also don’t have a religious-freedom right for other people not to boycott your business. Like, really, this is not a right that exists at all. I am sympathetic to the desires of assorted wedding-cake bakers not to bake cakes for gay weddings, but it is a bit much to say that not only should you have the legal right to refuse service to gay weddings but you should also have the right not to face any consequences of your actions whatsoever.

I thought it was very amusing how Anderson would advocate for traditional marriage and then pull out slippery-slope arguments about polygamy. A man marrying multiple wives is very traditional.

Uniquely Human: A Different Way Of Seeing Autism: This is the single book that most eloquently expressed how my own autism works. Prizant emphasizes the role of anxiety in autism. Much autistic behavior– from the emphasis on routines, to stimming, to meltdowns, to infodumps–. can be understood as a way of trying to cope with an overwhelming world. He emphasizes that both sensory issues and social problems can create a world that causes anxiety for autistic people, and it makes sense that we would want to maintain a sense of control. He discusses the importance of understanding echolalia as a form of communication, not as meaningless parroting. He explains that enthusiasms– whether it’s an interest in space, car license plates, or the way your fingers look when you draw them across your face– should be encouraged and used as a tool to help educate autistic people, not eliminated. It may be necessary to teach autistic children to take turns in conversation and infodump consensually, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t ever infodump at all. Prizant says that there is no autistic behavior, even the “severest”, that is without parallel in allistic people; I think that is likely to be accurate.

Unfortunately, Prizant focuses consistently on parents of autistic children. Even when he discusses autistic adults, it is to encourage the parents of autistic children by telling them that their children might be happy someday. I don’t resent parents of autistic children having books at all. But if a book is entitled “A Different Way of Seeing Autism” instead of “A Different Way For Parents To See Their Autistic Children,” I expect it to discuss autistic adults (who, after all, are more common than autistic children) and to target both autistic people ourselves and our non-parental loved ones.

Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (And Why We Don’t Talk About It): One thing I absolutely loved about this book is that after Anderson wraps up her main argument there are three essays by other experts disagreeing with her. That is amazing. Every nonfiction book should do this.

Anderson’s argument is that employers can be productively understood as “private governments”; specifically, they are typically centrally planned authoritarian dictatorships. Employers often have minute control over every detail of their employees’ working lives, from dress to speech; workers have minimal right to privacy and other protections. Employers often extend their dominance into the employees’ private lives: most famously, employees from across the political spectrum have been fired for their off-duty speech. Unless the employee is in a protected group, they have no recourse. Certainly, employees can leave, but “you can always quit” is an argument much like “we don’t need democracy, you can always emigrate.” Many people do not have another country or corporation that wants to take them.

Anderson claims that we don’t notice the government-like nature of the workplace because of our ideologies of the free market. Adam Smith and other original creators of the free-market ideal believed that in a free market most people would own their own small businesses. Whatever the advantages of most people working for pay– ranging from economies of scale to lower risk for employees– if most people are employees, corporate governance becomes an issue.

Anderson suggests that, in addition to making it easier for people to leave their jobs, we should use the public government (the state) to limit employers’ rights, perhaps by forbidding employers firing employees for their off-duty speech or behavior. She also argues that employees should be given a voice in corporate governance, perhaps by reserving some seats on the board of directors for employee-elected people.

If nothing else, highly recommended because you get to read Anderson telling Tyler Cowan to check his privilege.

Do Some Trans People Pass?



I am occasionally informed that no trans people ever pass, because their physiology and bone structure will inevitably reveal what sex they were assigned at birth. So let’s play a game.

Here are ten ordinary people’s publicly available selfies. Five are trans, five are cis. I am not going to include sources yet, because I don’t want people to be able to look up which is which; sources will be included in the answer key. If one of these is your selfie and you’d rather I not use it, I am happy to remove it. In a few days, I will post an answer key.

I have filtered for picture quality (i.e. nothing where you can’t see the person’s face) but did not deliberately choose pictures where the trans people passed particularly well. One trans person included is pre-HRT. All pictures are of women because men, regardless of assigned sex at birth, are much less likely to take selfies.

Ways of Thinking About Psychological Gender Differences



Broadly speaking, I’ve noticed three different ways people can think about psychological gender differences: they can say there is no difference between men and women on a particular trait, they can say that there are two overlapping bell curves, or they can say that there is a fundamental, essential difference between men and women.

(To be clear, this is different from saying the difference is genetic or environmental. Whatever the cause of a psychological difference– genetic, environmental, or both– a person may think it resembles overlapping bell curves or that it is a fundamental and essential difference.)

First, some people think men and women are the same on a particular trait: for example, they might argue that men’s emotions are just as strong as women’s, that women are just as interested in sex as men are, or that men talk just as much as women do. They might think people are mistaken about the alleged difference: for example, the blog Language Log has written many posts arguing that men talk just as much as women do.

Sometimes, however, people think that men and women behave differently, but not because of an underlying psychological difference. They might believe that men and women face different incentives. For example, they might think that women are less likely than men to be interested in casual sex, not because they like casual sex less in the abstract, but because women are more likely than men to be shamed for having casual sex and less likely than men to have orgasms during casual sex. They might believe that women take more maternity leave than men do paternity leave because women have to recover from the physically difficult ordeal of pregnancy and childbirth and because pumping breastmilk is very inconvenient. Other times, people believe that different behavior is a product of discrimination. For example, women might be less likely to work in a particular field because hiring managers assume that they are incompetent.

Second, some people believe that there’s a psychological difference between men and women on the population level, but that many men have the more female-typical version of the trait and many women have the more male-typical version of the trait. This is easiest to see in a picture:


(Note that, in many cases, a person may believe the means are closer together than they are in this picture.)

An obvious example of a physical overlapping-bell-curves trait is height. Men are generally taller than women, but there are still lots of short men and tall women, and it’s not that surprising if any particular woman is taller than any particular man. Similarly, a person might believe that sex drive is an overlapping-bell-curves trait: men typically have higher libidos than women, but many men with low libidos and women with high libidos exist, and it’s not that surprising to find a heterosexual couple in which the woman has a higher libido than the man.

Third, some people believe in fundamental and essential differences between men and women. I’m going to do the worst job describing this one, because I basically don’t believe in fundamental and essential differences between men and women, but I’ll do my best.

The easiest way to observe this belief in the wild is to go to a bookstore’s relationship self-help section, where you will encounter books like Love and Respect: The Love She Most Desires, The Respect He Desperately Needs, Men Are From Mars and Women Are From Venus, and Act Like A Lady Think Like A Man. (Methodology: I looked on Amazon’s relationships bestseller list for books about gender.) As part of their fundamental premise, these books assume that no men primarily desire love, that no women want to retreat into their caves and refuse to talk to anyone when they’re upset, and that no men are willing to date women who don’t want sex that much.

But these beliefs affect more than relationship advice. I was recently reading Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom, which made the following argument against gay marriage (edited for space):

The complementarity that defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman is crucial as well for the raising of children. There is no such thing as “parenting.” There is mothering, and there is fathering, and children do best with both…

[University of Virginia sociologist] Wilcox finds that “most fathers and mothers possess sex-specific talents related to parenting, and societies should organize parenting and work roles to take advantage of the way in which these talents tend to be distributed in sex-specific ways.” These differences are not the result of gender roles or sex stereotypes. They are a matter of what comes naturally to moms and dads, what moms and dads enjoy doing with their children…

[Rutgers University sociologist] Popenoe concludes:

“We should disavow the notion that “mommies can make good daddies,” just as we should disavow the popular notion . . . that “daddies can make good mommies.” . . . The two sexes are different to the core, and each is necessary—culturally and biologically—for the optimal development of a human being.”

What are the distinctive gifts of mothers and fathers? Wilcox reports, “Among the many distinctive talents that mothers bring to the parenting enterprise, three stand out: their capacity to breastfeed, their ability to understand infants and children, and their ability to offer nurture and comfort to their children.” And fathers, Wilcox writes, “excel when it comes to discipline, play, and challenging their children to embrace life’s challenges.”

As Popenoe explains:

“The complementarity of male and female parenting styles is striking and of enormous importance to a child’s overall development. . . . [F]athers express more concern for the child’s long-term development, while mothers focus on the child’s immediate well-being (which, of course, in its own way has everything to do with a child’s long-term well-being.) . . . [T]he disciplinary approach of fathers tends to be “firm” while that of mothers tends to be “responsive.” While mothers provide an important flexibility and sympathy in their discipline, fathers provide ultimate predictability and consistency. Both dimensions are critical for an efficient, balanced, and humane childrearing regime.’

This argument makes little sense from a non-essentialist point of view. From the point of view that psychological gender differences don’t exist, of course, it is nonsensical. With the exception of the capacity to breastfeed (which people with XY chromosomes do not have absent copious medical intervention), they argue, there is no reason that a parent of any gender can’t have any of those capacities. Who says fathers can’t nurture and mothers can’t discipline?

From an overlapping-bell-curves perspective, it is also silly. There are many more heterosexuals than there are gay people, and heterosexuals are more likely than gay people to have children. If even ten percent of women are as firm as the average man, then there are many more children who have a father and an unusually disciplinarian mother than there are children who have lesbian parents. Therefore, it makes sense to prioritize the unusual people getting married issue, perhaps by raising awareness that if you are a man who cares a lot about your child’s immediate well-being you should make sure to have children with a woman who prioritizes the future. (Alternately, since they’re willing to forbid gay marriage, perhaps they should require heterosexuals to take some sort of personality test to get married.)

But if men and women are basically different, those arguments sound like nitpicking. Sure, there are probably some playful women somewhere (they might argue), just like there are some people who only have one hand and some people who have eleven toes, but no one says “human beings have two hands except for certain people who have experienced tragic accidents.” At their core, men and women are basically different, and it makes sense to make policy based on that.

(Before the feminists and men’s rights activists of my blog howl, I’d like to point out that this is how the most striking physical sex differences actually work: there are in fact no cisgender men who can get pregnant and no cisgender women who can produce sperm. From a purely theoretical perspective, it’s not that odd to postulate that some psychological sex differences are equally striking.)

Awkwardness and Verbal Consent

There are a lot of things you can say in favor of a norm of using affirmative verbal consent while having sex. It accommodates people who have a hard time reading other people’s body language, whether because of inexperience or an impairment. It lets people negotiate more specific desires and communicate their preferences more easily. For many people, it decreases ambiguity.

But the real reason I use it is that the alternative seems awkward.

I have a hard time imagining how one would even go about having sex without using affirmative verbal consent. I instinctively imagine it as being a game of Charades. “Three syllables… starts with S… rhymes with ‘duck by dock’…”

Setting that aside and genuinely trying to imagine it as best I can, I can’t help but imagine awkwardness. What if I put my hands down someone’s pants when they just wanted to make out, and then they have to say “uh, I actually don’t want that” and it totally breaks the mood? What if I’m not sure if my partner’s into it and I can’t check? How do I say when I want something? Do you just sort of pull away to get a condom, and how does your partner tell that apart from pulling away because you don’t want sex? Am I allowed to tell them that they’re sexy? For fuck’s sake, how do you ever get out of that state where you’re both cuddling on the bed together and you want to have sex but you keep getting distracted arguing about Star Wars?

(And yes, when I have had sex without affirmative verbal consent, it has been hella awkward.)

I observe that when people say they don’t want to use affirmative verbal consent, a lot of times they say they don’t want to use it because it’s awkward. It breaks the mood to ask the other person if they want to kiss. They’re not sure how often they should ask or how to ask without sounding creepy or supplicating. They kind of think the entire business sounds like signing a contract that says that the undersigned, being of sound mind, consents to seven (7) kisses and gentle caresses around the area of the left buttock.

I used to think “you people are crazy, obviously verbal consent is the only non-awkward way to do things.” But now I think we’re both right.

I am used to using verbal affirmative consent. Other people are used to using nonverbal affirmative consent. Either way, our default actions, our instincts, our ability to read others, is based on a certain set of norms. Of course it’s awkward to try to use a different set of norms! We don’t know what we’re doing, what’s acceptable or unacceptable, or how to tell if the other person is into it. It’s just like switching any other set of norms. There’s nothing inherently awkward about driving on the right side of the street, but you’ll certainly feel awkward if you’re used to driving on the left.

Link Post for May


I’ve been posting my book reviews on Goodreads recently instead of here; I’m interested in people’s thoughts about whether I should crosspost or whether you want to just read it here.


Better Angels of Our Nature misrepresents data.

An in-depth debunking of myths about campus rape statistics. Covers both feminist and anti-feminist myths.

Effective Altruism

A thoughtful critique of several common EA tropes, including some I support. This is the sort of disagreement we should encourage in effective altruism.

Holden Karnofsky’s AMA about working for the Open Philanthropy Project.

Men’s Issues

What happened to the black autistic man whose therapist was shot by police while trying to protect him?

Racial gaps in upward mobility are primarily driven by a gap between the upward mobility of black men and white men; major causes appear to be incarceration and black men growing up in shitty neighborhoods.

Positive portrays of masculinity.


NIH RCT of moderate drinking funded by the alcohol industry.

I used to think only I relived all my most embarrassing memories all the time, but it turns out that’s an everyone thing. The solution is self-compassion. How about something easier like climbing Mount Everest?

Just Plain Neat

Why open plan offices don’t work.

Daniel Mallory Ortberg has a blog! It is as delightful as his many fans have come to expect.

Some Crucial Considerations for WAS


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A “crucial consideration”– a term invented by Nick Bostrom— is a piece of evidence that radically changes the value of pursuing a particular intervention or focus area. For example, if a particular piece of technology is scientifically impossible, it’s not very effective to pursue developing it anyway; if animals are not moral patients, then it doesn’t make sense to advocate against factory farming. Since so little is known about how to best pursue wild-animal welfare, there are a lot of crucial considerations, and having different opinions on them may radically change what interventions you support and how cost-effective the interventions are. This is a summary of some crucial considerations that effective altruists reasonably disagree on, but does not try to advocate for any particular view or resolve them. (That would take a lot more than a single blog post.)

Do we support animal rights, animal welfare, or human responsibility for domestic animals?

Among the animal activism community, there are several different philosophies about how we should treat animals. Animal rights advocates such as Tom Regan argue that animals have a right to live free from exploitation, such as in medical research or agriculture. Animal welfare advocates such as Peter Singer argue that many of the ways we treat animals cause them great suffering and give us relatively trivial benefits. Since it is wrong to cause a being suffering except to prevent a greater suffering, we must stop mistreating animals. Still others argue that we have a specific duty to domestic animals, because we domesticated them, and the way animals are used in animal agriculture is neglecting that responsibility. I will discuss the implications of these views for wild-animal welfare in later blog posts, but suffice it to say that all three views have different implications about how we should treat wild animals.

What population ethics do we subscribe to?

Population ethics is the ethical study of issues related to creating beings and causing beings to stop existing. Population ethics examines issues like:

  • Is it better to create a small number of very happy people or a large number of somewhat happy people?
  • Is it wrong to fail to create a happy being, or to create a predictably unhappy being?
  • Is it possible to hurt people who don’t exist yet (for example, by polluting the Earth)?
  • Is not creating a being different from killing a being? If so, why?

Many of the ways human beings affect nature affect the number of animals that exist, not simply the welfare of animals that exist. For example, sometimes humans destroy habitats that support many animals and replace them with habitats that don’t support many animals at all. Sometimes humans try to reduce the populations of certain species, such as rats and deer. Many potential interventions into wild-animal suffering, such as wildlife contraception, prevent animals from existing. Unfortunately for wild-animal welfare advocates, however, there is no philosophical consensus on population ethics, and most systems of population ethics violate some of our moral intuitions.

Are invertebrates moral patients?

There are many orders of magnitude more invertebrates than vertebrates in the world. If invertebrates have even a little moral weight, the effects of our actions on invertebrates are very important. Unfortunately, invertebrates often have thousands of offspring. To maintain a stable population, only two of their offspring can survive to reproduce; the rest can be expected to live short lives potentially filled with terrible pain. Since there are so many invertebrates and many of them are so small, it is difficult to improve their lives in any way other than preventing them from existing.

Does biodiversity matter?

Many people argue that protecting biodiversity improves human well-being. The services provided by intact ecosystems– ranging from timber to climate regulation, soil formation to spiritual benefits– have been valued at tens of trillions of dollars a year. Many people also believe that biodiversity is intrinsically valuable for its own sake. Certain proposed interventions to promote wild-animal welfare, such as habitat destruction, reduce the level of biodiversity. Future research may find that other promising ways to promote wild-animal welfare have an effect on biodiversity, and if we care about biodiversity (either instrumentally or intrinsically) that will affect our decision-making about interventions.

How unpredictable is nature?

Nature is complicated, and many decisions have unexpected consequences. We see that already when we interact with nature for human benefit. After a few years of unexpectedly bad weather, a fishery believed to be sustainably fished can collapse. Fertilizer runoff from farms can cause more algae to grow, which increases the density of snails, which are an intermediate host for a species of frog parasites, which causes higher parasite loads in frogs. If nature is sufficiently unpredictable, it may be very difficult to come up with an intervention that we’re sure has a positive effect. On the other hand, humans do make many accurate predictions about nature: if we couldn’t, it’d be impossible to know that habitat destruction makes species more likely to be endangered or that climate change harms ecosystems. It may be possible to make sufficiently reliable predictions about how our actions affect wild-animal welfare as well.

How common is chronic stress in nature?

Chronic stress happens when an animal experiences a stressor, such as low social status or hunger, for a long period of time; in humans, it is linked not only to anxiety and depression but to physical health conditions like heart disease. Experts disagree wildly about how common chronic stress is in nature. Some experts, like Oscar Horta, argue that predation and other stressors make chronic stress very common. Other experts, like Robert Sapolsky, claim that chronic stress is basically unknown in nature. Still other experts, like Rudy Boonstra, say that chronic stress appears only in certain species in which it is adaptive. If most wild animals experience a great deal of chronic stress, it’s more likely that their lives aren’t worth living. Conversely, if wild animals experience far less chronic stress than humans, their lives may be more pleasant than ours.

How bad is dying?

Many deaths in the wild are fairly gruesome, ranging from animals that are eaten alive by predators to termites that vomit up their guts at predators. But how painful are those deaths? It is possible that death by starvation, for example, is less painful than one would naively believe. Conversely, if death is extraordinarily painful, the death itself may make an animal’s life not worth living, even if otherwise the animal was very happy. That is particularly true for short-lived species, who have fewer positive experiences to outweigh the cost of a horrible death.

How do we account for leverage?

Many charities seek to influence how other charities, private donors, or the government spend money or other resources; the charity evaluator GiveWell calls this leverage. Several of the most promising interventions into wild-animal suffering– including encouraging the use of wildlife contraception, spreading concern about wild animals, and seeding the field of welfare biology– are highly leveraged. Depending on how one accounts for the opportunity cost, these interventions may be very cost-effective or not very cost-effective at all.

Reducing Aquatic Noise To Help Fish


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Disclaimer: I came across this issue while researching a recent paper. I think it is interesting, but do not think the evidence is solid enough to prioritize this as an intervention yet.

The level of low-frequency ambient noise in the open ocean has doubled every decade since the 1950s; this increase in noise levels is primarily anthropogenic, associated with transportation, development, and resource extraction. Freshwater and estuarine noise levels have also increased in the past seventy years, perhaps even more sharply, because freshwater and estuarine habitats are closer to humans. Most anthropogenic noise is noise pollution, because it doesn’t provide any useful information to wild animals, but may cause them stress or make it more difficult to hear useful information.

recent meta-analysis examined the effects of ambient noise on fish. It looked at 42 studies from 11 countries, which had a combined 2,354 data points. 36 studies were conducted in laboratory settings, while six studies were collected in situ. The studies included marine, estuarine, and freshwater species.

Anthropogenic noise has a significant negative effect on fish behavior and physiology. In general, behavior responses were 4.73 standard deviations worse in fish exposed to anthropogenic noise than in control fish. Physiological responses were 1.35 standard deviations worse in fish exposed to anthropogenic noise than in control fish. Conversely, there were no significant effects of non-anthropogenic noise on fish behavior or physiology.

Anthropogenic noise increases movement-related behaviors, such as directional changes and altered swimming behavior. These are likely to be predator avoidance behaviors, which are energetically costly and which may indicate that the fish is afraid of predators. Anthropogenic noise also increases the amount of time the fish spends in nest care. While increased nest care may seem to be positive, in fact, it is likely to be negative for fish; nest care is a strenuous and time-consuming activity which can exhaust some fish of some species to the point of death. Finally, anthropogenic noise decreases foraging-related behaviors, such as foraging efficiency, capacity to discriminate food, and number and proportion of food items consumed. Therefore, fish exposed to anthropogenic noise are likely to be hungrier and to have less nutritious diets.

Physiologically, anthropogenic noise increases fish’s hearing thresholds and stress levels. Increased hearing thresholds may make it more difficult for fish to hear quiet sounds, including noises made by conspecifics and predators. It is possible that high levels of anthropogenic noise may cause long-term hearing impairment in fish. The increased stress levels may indicate that anthropogenic noise causes fish distress and impairs their overall welfare.

It is important to note that the effects of noise on fish have been understudied, so just because an effect was not found does not mean it doesn’t exist. It is reasonable to predict that anthropogenic noise has many negative effects on fish which we have yet to study.

While it’s important to note that no cost-effectiveness analysis has been done on anthropogenic noise reduction and it may turn out to be cost-ineffective, nevertheless I think anthropogenic noise reduction is a good example of some heuristics I use when thinking about wild-animal welfare. Many environmentalists support reducing the level of noise pollution in the water in order to protect ecosystems and keep them in a more natural state. Anthropogenic noise reduction would, in theory, allow both environmentalists and wild-animal advocates to achieve their goals. From a purely environmentalist perspective, one might not prioritize anthropogenic noise reduction over other ways of preserving biodiversity: however, if you’re concerned both about conservation and about wild-animal welfare, reducing anthropogenic noise is more cost-effective than it would be if you only cared about one of them.

April Fools Post


[OOC note: Thanks to the glowfic chat for brainstorming help.]

Judging from my predecessors’ notes, a week or so after this post goes live I will disappear off into some other world. I am annoyed. This world is wonderful and I fear that all other worlds will be as unsuited to me as the world I was born in (I refuse to call it my home).

I grew up my entire life believing that I was sick and broken. I had desires that no one else had. I desperately searched on the Internet– keywords like “want sex with person not in love” and “sexually attracted to stranger” and “teenager wants sex with classmates”– and all I got were articles speculating about whether people like me existed and declaring, with great certainty, that if we did we were sociopaths, incapable of normal human relationships, likely to abuse and rape or at best treat all our sex partners as masturbatory toys.

There must have been people like me somewhere. I was not the only person like me in my world. (Was I? Now that I know that world-travel is possible, I wonder if perhaps perhaps I was transported there at an age so young that I don’t remember.) But if there were people like me, they knew better than to say anything. I studied, I was careful, and I managed to pretend.

People in my home world were not asexual. They had libidos starting at puberty, just as humans in this world do; they were capable of enjoying the sensations their genitals produced, and masturbation was encouraged as healthy and relaxing. But it was unthinkable to want to have sex with a person unless you were in love.

You who were born in this world misunderstand me when I say “unthinkable”. You round it to purity culture– a continual struggle against sexual thoughts triggered by lingerie catalog models and women in bikinis, culminating in a desperate marriage at nineteen to some inappropriate person so you’ll at least get to have an orgasm. But people in my home world do not struggle or repress; those thoughts simply don’t exist at all.

The only thing my homeworld uses scantily clad models to sell is underwear. Actors are likely to be graceful and to have very average and symmetrical faces, but otherwise vary wildly in appearance, including many you would consider ugly. There is a genre of media which caters to people who wish to masturbate; it usually devotes six hours to in-depth development of the love interest’s character before the clothes start to come off. There is no such thing as non-porn sex work. Bars are solely for drinking; nightclubs are solely for dancing. There are no sexually transmitted diseases.

We have a concept of human aesthetic beauty, in much the same way that one can have a concept of the aesthetic beauty of a landscape without wanting to fuck mountains. The aesthetically beautiful may be more likely to find employment as actors or models or spokespeople, but experienced no particular advantage in marrying; people were far likely to fall in love with the kind, the intelligent, the charismatic, and the witty than with the beautiful.

There are two ways marriages happen in my world. The more romantic one is termed “dating.” People hang out with their friends until they notice they are in love with someone, and then hope the other person is in love with them too. It works out that way more often than you would expect from chance– after all, similar people who spend a lot of time together and get along often fall in love– but often results in heartbreak, drama, and the shattering of friendships. Even once the couple has gotten together, they often turn out to have glaring incompatibilities which sink the relationship. Dating is pretty self-evidently a terrible idea, but parents find it illiberal to seclude their children from others of the opposite gender, and teenagers will never stop doing something just because it’s a bad idea. Love– not to mention one’s first experience of sexual attraction– tends to result in some pretty dubious decision-making.

The more traditional one is termed “courtship.” Conservative families tend not to allow their children to interact with people of the other sex until it comes time to look for a romantic partner. At about nineteen or twenty, one begins a focused search for a romantic partner. Traditionally, one consulted a matchmaker; today, one more often uses a dating site. (The photos, of course, exist mostly to allow you to recognize the person you’re messaging when you meet up.)

The first date with any prospective spouse is a detailed exploration of all possible dealbreakers and incompatibilities. To someone from this world, the conversation may seem blunt almost to the point of being mercenary. For example, the normal packet of information exchanged before the first date includes a list of favorite and least favorite chores and how often you expect them to be done; your income, expenditures, assets, and debts; whether you are open to polygamy; how often you masturbate and to what, if anything; whether you want kids and, if so, what opinions you have on raising them; a schedule of a typical week in your life; and a list of life goals, if any. The religious often include opinions on theology; the politically active, on politics; the fannish, on aesthetics. The first date involves clarifying these packets and asking any questions that were best asked in person.

The second conversation involves introducing your prospective partner to your parents, who had previously been given the information packets and your thoughts on the first date. Depending on the parents, this can be either a mere formality (“if my child likes you, I approve”) or a harrowing experience which leaves you single until age forty because No One Is Good Enough For My Child.

For the next six months, you hang out fairly regularly. It is generally recommended that one stress-test the relationship by creating circumstances that will inevitably lead to arguments, such as assembling a piece of furniture or navigating somewhere without GPS when you’re already late. Compatible conflict resolution strategies are very important for a marriage and difficult to screen for by exchanging a packet.

Six to twelve months into the relationship, the partners may realize that they are in love and want to have sex. Generally, at this point, they get engaged. Of course, six to twelve months is a rather long time, so it is usual to date three or four people concurrently and break it off when you fall in love with someone.

While traditional people tend to begin courting young, it’s not that uncommon for more liberal people to give up on dating after the third or fourth drama explosion and start courting instead, particularly once they start working and have less time.

About five percent of the population identifies as aromantic, which means they are not romantically (and therefore not sexually) attracted to anyone. (About half a percent of the population identifies as asexual but not aromantic.) It is difficult to know whether one is aromantic, of course, because of how long it takes to fall in love with someone; however, if you’ve dated or courted for a few years without falling in love with anyone, you are likely to identify as aromantic. It is not uncommon for aromantic people to suddenly fall in love with someone at age forty.

We did not seem to have other sexual minorities. I myself, of course, am what you call bisexual, and I was painfully aware that I was sexually attracted to people whom I could not possibly have children with. This merely compounded my sickness. Whether you asked priests or evolutionary biologists, they agreed sex was created for the purpose of having children, which is why we didn’t want to have sex unless we could have kids. (Of course, some couples didn’t want children and that was fine, but that was different than the perversion of wanting sex when it was biologically impossible to have children at all.) My thoughts about people of the same sex were inchoate, unformed. I wanted, but it was impossible for me to know what I wanted. I wanted to kiss them, to touch them, and then…? Who knew.

Now that I have traveled to this world, I wonder about the people termed “aromantics.” I have been introduced to the concept of closeted lesbian opinions; it is, apparently, surprisingly easy to not notice that you want to have sex with someone. On Earth, lesbians and gay men are often attracted to dozens if not hundreds of people and thus eventually manage to notice. On my home world, where one might only have to deny one or two attractions, many people probably just thought they were close friends. On Earth, many gay people first met other gay people through bars and cruising, casual sex that allowed them to return to their heterosexual lives afterward. Without that opportunity to create solidarity, perhaps gay people lived isolated, never organizing politically to create the awareness and acceptance that exists on Earth.

(I wonder if there was some secret place where people like me went to have sex with each other. If there was, I didn’t know it.)

We did, however, have an unusually high level of polygamy; it was considered a normal if fairly alternative lifestyle. Generally, a marriage started out monogamous, and many people preferred that their relationship stay monogamous. However, many people agreed that in the event that either partner fell in reciprocated love with someone else, they could marry that person. Polygamous marriages were legally recognized, although you did occasionally read about people being arrested for fraudulent polygamous immigrant marriages.

It was, in fact, possible to cheat; it was just not possible to cheat casually. Infidelity inevitably meant that your partner had fallen in love with someone else and chosen to pursue that relationship. For this reason, cheating was usually high-stakes and heartbreaking. Your partner could never tell you that all those other girls meant nothing to him.

From my perspective, this world I have entered is a utopia. There are websites that facilitate people like me having casual sex! There’s pornography! Millions of websites devoted to pictures of complete strangers naked and having sex! Hookups are normal, a subject of jokes and thinkpieces, even a way people meet their spouses.

Even more, over the past year, this world has shown me that I was wrong about people like me. We can be kind and compassionate; we can be loving; we can have committed long-term relationships– sometimes even committed long-term relationships where we hook up at the same time. I tend to have a pretty low opinion of myself, but I can’t have a low opinion of every person who’s had casual sex that I’ve encountered over the past year.

There are four things I think are good about my world. First, there’s no double standard; I find it quite odd and repulsive when men, sometimes men who have casual sex themselves, go on about how women who have casual sex are disgusting cum dumpsters. Second, approaching marriage in a deliberate way is a much better way to get married than not doing so; I’m baffled by the number of people who want to get married and have no plan for doing so. Unromantic as courtship is, it also makes sure you don’t wind up dating someone who’s wildly incompatible with you; if you court, you won’t end up accidentally marrying someone who disagrees with you about kids or budgeting. Third, no STDs. Fourth, it is an accepting environment for those of low or no libido, and I fear that the sexual freedom your world has created has stigmatized people like the ones from my former world.

Otherwise, my former world can go hang.

Feel free to ask questions in the comments, although no promises about me answering them with anything other than complaints.