Notes on “Bioterror and Biowarfare” (2006)

Cross-posted from the EA Forum

I recently finished reading Malcolm Dando’s 2006 book Bioterror and Biowarfare: A Beginner’s Guide, following Darius Meissner’s recommendation. I’d recommend the book for people who want to learn more about bioterror, biowarfare, and/​or chemical weapons, and who don’t yet have extensive knowledge on those topics. (I fit that description, and have ranked the book as the 24th most useful-to-me of the 49 effective-altruism-related books I’ve read since learning about effective altruism (EA).)

Here, I’ll:

  1. Summarise my six “main updates” from this book

  2. Share the Anki cards I made for myself when reading the book

    • I intend this as a lower-effort alternative to writing notes specifically for public consumption or writing a proper book review

    • If you want to download the cards themselves to import them into your own deck, follow this link

  3. Share a few final thoughts on whether you should read this book

(Since the first of those three parts seems the most valuable per word, and the second part is quite long, I’ve split parts 2 and 3 into comments below the post itself.)

My hope is that this post will be help some people to quickly:

  • Gain some key insights from the book

  • Work out whether reading/​listening to the book is worth their time

(Note: Before commenting on this post, it may be worth considering whether your comment might pose an infohazard [see also]. Feel free to send me a direct message instead/​first. Relatedly, I ran this post by someone before publishing it.)

My main updates from the book

This section briefly summarises the main ways in which the book shifted my beliefs on relatively high-level points that seem potentially decision-relevant, as opposed to just specific facts I learned about. Note that each of those updates was more like a partial shift towards even more /​ somewhat less credence in something, rather than a total reversal of my previous views. (See also Update Yourself Incrementally.)

  1. It seems that the picture I’d gotten regarding bioterror and biowarfare from some talks/​writings by EAs (especially The Precipice) was basically correct, not misleading, and not missing extremely important points

    • I already would’ve guessed that that’s the case, but my guess would’ve only had perhaps ~75% confidence.

      • So this updates me towards placing a bit more trust in the analysis I get from EAs (or at least professional high profile EA researchers)

        • Perhaps even on topics that those EAs have less than a year’s worth of expertise on themselves

  2. There was more overall state-level bioweapons activity during WW1, in the interwar period, and during WW2 than I’d have guessed

    • This should push my estimate of the existential risk posed by biotechnology/​bioweapons slightly upwards

  3. Historically, bioweapons activity has focused more on anti-animal and anti-plant weapons/​attacks, relative to anti-personnel ones, than I’d have guessed

    • Perhaps this should make me think of the “bio” part of anthropogenic biorisk as “risks from biotechnology/​bioweapons”, rather than “risks from engineered pandemics”?

      • Because this suggests some of the risk might come not from human pandemics, but rather from anti-animal or anti-plant attacks causing major agricultural shortfalls which in turn indirectly harm the long-term future via the sorts of paths that ALLFED and Beckstead (2015) worry about

        • But I’m not sure how significant that risk pathway is

    • Perhaps this should also push my estimate of the existential risk posed by biotechnology/​bioweapons slightly downwards?

      • This would be based on the premises that (a) this historical fact implies there’ll be less anti-personnel bioweapons activity than I’d have thought, and (b) anti-personnel bioweapons activity contributes more to existential risk than anti-animal or anti-plant bioweapons activity does

      • But I’m not sure if either of those premises hold

    • I think this should also update me towards placing at least a bit more credence on ALLFED’s /​ David Denkenberger’s concern about agricultural shortfalls caused by things like a possible “super weed, super crop pathogen, super bacterium, or super crop pest” (source)

      • And that should in turn slightly update me towards placing more credence on other claims of theirs which I haven’t evaluated

  4. The author presents some pathogens as quite concerning and says they are placed in categories for relatively high concern by some relevant authorities, despite those pathogens seeming to me to be extremely unlikely to cause an existential catastrophe, and quite unlikely even to cause a global catastrophe

    • This doesn’t really affect my estimate of the existential risk posed by biotechnology/​bioweapons, because:

      • Other pathogens the author mentions do seem to pose more risk from a longtermist perspective

      • This only relates to existing pathogens, not possible future pathogens

      • I already believed that posing an existential risk is a high bar that most pathogens won’t meet

    • Also, of course, something can be bad without meeting the definition of a global catastrophe!

    • But this point does suggest to me that much of the general vibe of concern that comes from some experts on biorisk might be about much smaller scale (though still bad) disasters than what longtermists are most concerned about

  5. This book somewhat increased my credence in the view that international law (e.g., the 1975 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC)) can be quite effective for tackling issues like biorisk (rather than e.g. it just almost never being taken seriously), and that it is very important for reducing biorisk

  6. During the George W. Bush administration (and the Clinton administration, to a lesser extent), US reluctance or opposition to certain improvements to the BTWCseems to have been the largest or one of the largest obstacles to those improvements happening

    • (See e.g. the Wikipedia article’s section on the failed negotiation of a verification protocol.)

    • This somewhat increased my credence that the US often fails to take a leadership role in, or actively undermines, diplomatic or international law efforts that could reduce existential or global catastrophic risks

      • I already had substantial credence in that from an international relations university unit and some of my nuclear weapons research

    • But then at other times and in other ways, the US had a very positive role

    • Altogether, this updates me towards higher credence that influencing relevant US government actions could be highly valuable

      • Since we can’t just count on the best actions being taken by default, but nor does it seem inevitable that bad actions will always be taken

My thanks to Darius Meissner for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this post (including the parts I’ve now split out into comments).