Youth Movements

Have you heard about the new “effective cars” movement? Passionate young philosophy students from top universities have invented a revolutionary new idea, now sweeping the intellectual world: cars that get you from home to the office or store and back again as reliably, comfortably, and fast as possible. As opposed to using cars used as shrub removers, pots for plants, conversation pits, or paperweights. While effective car activists cannot design, repair, or even operate cars, they are pioneering ways to prioritize car topics.

Not heard of that? How about “effective altruism”?

Effective altruism is about asking, “How can I make the biggest difference I can?” and using evidence and careful reasoning to try to find an answer. Just as science consists of the honest and impartial attempt to work out what’s true, and a commitment to believe the truth whatever that turns out to be, effective altruism consists of the honest and impartial attempt to work out what’s best for the world, and a commitment to do what’s best, whatever that turns out to be. …

I helped to develop the idea of effective altruism while a [philosophy] student at the University of Oxford. … I began to investigate the cost-effectiveness of charities that fight poverty in the developing world. The results were remarkable. We discovered that the best charities are hundreds of times more effective at improving lives than merely “good” charities. .. From there, a community developed. We realized that effective altruism could be applied to all areas of our lives – choosing charity, certainly, but also choosing a career, volunteering, and choosing what ewe buy and don’t buy. (MacAskill, Doing Good Better)

This all sounds rather vacuous; who opposes applying evidence and careful reasoning to figure out how to do better at charity, or anything? But I just gave a talk at Effective Altruism Global, and spent a few days there chatting and listening, and I’ve decided that they do have a core position that is far from vacuous.

Effective altruism is a youth movement. While they collect status by associating with older people like Peter Singer and Elon Musk, those who work and have influence in these groups are strikingly young. And their core position is close to the usual one for young groups throughout history: old codgers have run things badly, and so a new generation deserves to take over.

Some observers see effective altruism as being about using formal statistics or applying consensus scientific theories. But in fact effective altruists embrace contrarian concerns about AI “foom” (discussed often on this blog), concerns based neither on formal statistics nor on applying consensus theories. Instead this community just trusts its own judgment on what reasoning is “careful,” without worrying much if outsiders disagree. This community has a strong overlap with a “rationalist” community wherein people take classes on and much discuss how to be “rational”, and then decide that they have achieved enough rationality to justify embracing many quite contrarian conclusions.

Youth movements naturally emphasis the virtues of youth, relative to those of age. While old people have more power, wealth, grit, experience, task-specific knowledge, and crystalized intelligence, young people have more fluid intelligence, potential, passion, idealism, and a clean slate. So youth movements tend to claim that society has become lazy, corrupt, ossified, stuck in its ways, has tunnel-vision, and forgets its ideals, and so needs smart flexible idealistic people to rethink and rebuild from scratch.

Effective altruists, in particular, emphasize their stronger commitment to altruism ideals, and also the unusual smarts, rationality, and flexibility of their leaders. Instead of working within prior organizations to incrementally change prior programs, they prefer to start whole new organizations that re-evaluate all charity choices themselves from scratch. While most show little knowledge of the specifics of any charity areas, they talk a lot about not getting stuck in particular practices. And they worry about preventing their older selves from reversing the lifetime commitments to altruism that they want to make now.

Effective altruists often claim that big efforts to re-evaluate priorities are justified by large differences in the effectiveness of common options. Concretely, MacAskill, following Ord, suggested in his main conference talk that the distribution looks more like a thick-tailed power law than a Gaussian. He didn’t present actual data, but one of the other talks there did: Eva Vivalt showed the actual distribution of estimated effects to be close to Gaussian.

But youth movements have long motivated members via exaggerated claims. One is reminded of the sixties counter-culture seeing itself as the first generation to discover sex, emotional authenticity, and a concern for community. And saying not to trust anyone over thirty. Or countless young revolutionaries seeing themselves as the first generation to really care about inequality or unwanted dominance.

When they work well, youth movements can create a strong bond within a generation than can help them to work together as a coalition as they grow in ability and influence. As with the sixties counter-culture, or the libertarians a bit later, while at first their concrete practice actions are not very competent, eventually they gain skills, moderate their positions, become willing to compromise, and have substantial influence on the world. Effective altruists can reasonably hope to mature into such a strong coalition.

Added 1a: The last slide of my talk presented this youth movement account. The talk was well attended and many people mentioned talked to me about it afterward, but not one told me they disagreed with my youth movement description.

Added 10a: Most industrials and areas of life have a useful niche to be filled by independent quality evaluators, and I’ve been encouraged by the recent increase in such evaluators within charity, such as GiveWell. The effective altruism movement consists of far more, however, than independent quality evaluators.

Added 8Aug: OK, for now I accept Brienne Yudkowsky’s summary of Vivalt, namely that she finds very little ability to distinguish the effectiveness of different ways to achieve any given effect, but that she doesn’t speak to the variation across different kinds of things one might try to do.

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  • Ben Albert Pace

    You say that the Effective Altruists’ core position is ‘far from vacuous’ but I did not quite catch what you thought it was? I personally find it quite a slippery concept, and if I had to actually say what I think the defining feature is it would be taking highly competent people from startup culture and universities and devoting a lot of time and effort to ‘doing the most good’ in the world, for the obvious-yet-vague definition of ‘good’.

    Btw, I point to this concept by telling people about all of the EA orgs e.g. Givewell doing rigorous and scholarly reviews of evidence about charities (run by successful hedge-fund types), 80,000 hours (using university types) doing scholarly reviews of evidence about career effectiveness, and CFAR (using a mix of people) trying to use current cognitive psychology and their own testing to try to find debiasing methods. And all of the other orgs. These all have obvious uses and are filing gaps in our knowledge that are not getting filled-and-compiled elsewhere.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      Core position: “old codgers have run things badly, and so a new generation deserves to take over.”

      • Ben Albert Pace

        Ah, my mistake. I see now.

        As one of these youths, allow me to ruminate on this.

        I need to figure out how to update on this whilst still associating with the people that I believe are high status.

      • solipsist

        But advocating for *anything* historically new matches that pattern! “Policy makers make poor decisions” (old cogers run things badly); “we should solve it with prediction markets” (the new generation deserves to take over).

      • John_Maxwell_IV

        If this was the EA movement’s core position, I would expect to see:

        1) Lots of EA politicians. Instead there are about zero EA politicians.

        2) Few high-status older folks in the EA movement. Older folks would be selected for desire to submit to younger folks, or younger folks would explicitly denounce older folks on the basis of their age. Instead, the average older person in the EA movement seems to be higher status than the average younger person.

        (You claim that EA only “collects status” from old people. But affiliation is two-way: by putting someone older like you, Musk, or Bostrom on stage in front of an audience, your status is being increased. You can’t both believe saying “don’t trust anyone over 30” shows you are a youth movement, and putting people over 30 on stage in front of hundreds of people shows you are a youth movement.)

        3) Strong attempts to work with the highest-status young people available (for example, young celebrities) in order to speed the young person takeover. Instead, the EA movement seems more interested in working with aging billionaires like Bill Gates.

        4) Populist attempts to galvanize as many young people as possible, using emotionally charged appeals, in order to speed the takeover. Instead, the EA movement mostly stays away from this, favoring analytical argumentation.

        There are a a number of alternative explanations for the low levels of older folks in EA:

        * Most new social movements originate among young people.

        * Social movements tend to acquire people who are similar to the current membership, because they spread through the social graph and because people are more comfortable with those they are similar to.

        * Perhaps people are more charitable in far mode: its easier to commit to charitable donation as a student when you won’t have an income for years, vs an older richer person who already has an income to give with.

        * Sunk costs & ingrained attitudes mean older folks are more reluctant to radically rethink career choices, affiliations, etc.

      • CarlShulman

        “You can’t both believe saying “don’t trust anyone over 30″ shows you are a youth movement, and putting people over 30 on stage in front of hundreds of people shows you are a youth movement”

        Yes, if charity evaluators are a good thing, and charity speakers like the folk from GiveDirectly are good, then what exactly is so terribly different about the mass movement that is giving money using the charity evaluators, promoting the above, and trying to follow the example of the above in their careers?

        “The effective altruism movement consists of far more, however, than independent quality evaluators.”

        Yes, e.g. much of their audience, including the biggest funder. And responsiveness and use of those evaluators is perhaps the most defining/distinctive feature for most of the movement, and certainly one of the primary elements.

        http://www.goodventures.org/research-and-ideas/blog/learning-to-be-an-effective-altruist

      • Robert Koslover

        It seems that the Beatles mastered the trick of being both young revolutionaries and old codgers simultaneously. E.g., consider
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E8ftyVQM5FE .
        On the other hand, the Monkees, who were actually created by (but not composed of) over-30 yr olds, directly claimed that they spoke for the young generation: E.g., see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ksJ6QP8BYn0 .

  • anonymous

    “who opposes applying evidence and careful reasoning to figure out how to do better at charity, or anything?f” It turns out that several – maybe the vast majority of people – do. When I see people talking about altruism, they usually emphasize the passionate part, the “at least I’m doing something” and not the effectiveness, the being-grounded-in-evidence part. Maybe you are surrounded by people who worry about reason and evidence and do not realize what a minority position that is.

  • SanguineEmpiricist

    Link for data on distribution?

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      Follow the closest link to those words! http://www.aidgrade.org/

      • SanguineEmpiricist

        Most of the outgoing links on the blog are broken including /blog/ and stuff, i’m not sure what i’m missing, i’ll check the author’s website

    • SanguineEmpiricist

      Rather, the given link is empty

  • CarlShulman

    It seems to me that the core of EA is approximately applied Singerite utilitarianism. Famine, affluence, and morality, animal liberation, catastrophic risks are longstanding utilitarian interests. Many of the people in the movement were inspired by Singer, especially the philosophers who started Giving What We Can.

    “suggested in his main conference talk that the distribution looks more like a thick-tailed power law than a Gaussian. He didn’t present actual data, but one of the other talks there did: Eva Vivalt showed the actual distribution of estimated effects to be close to Gaussian.”

    The variation within the DCPP figures has been referred to in the past, with comparisons to rich country domestic stuff.

    Eva’s figures were for effect size in SDs, not cost-effectiveness, not weighted by current spending (rich country charity is mostly domestic), and were already restricted to development interventions getting RCT coverage (many things don’t get that coverage), while much of Will’s point is the advantage of focusing on the poorest rather than rich country domestic stuff.

    Still, I think there is some overstatement of differences that comes from using point estimates from things like DCPP without adequate adjustment for regression to the mean/winner’s curse, and that it is worth flagging when much of the improved reported cost-effectiveness comes from changing the criteria of evaluation, e.g. caring about foreigners rather than only co-nationals, or assessing benefits in QALYs/happiness rather than in dollars, or caring about results rather than warm glow and the usual charity signals (other than the signals of seeking high utilitarian impact, etc)..

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      Well sure if you are willing to just but big different weights on effects you can come up with big differences in value. But that detracts a bit from the focus on measurement.

      Is there another data-set on cost effectiveness that shows a non Gaussian distribution?

      • CarlShulman

        I mentioned the DCPP dataset being used for this purpose, supplemented with comparisons to domestic stuff. Talk to Toby Ord to get the precise methodology of his claim.

        “Well sure if you are willing to just but big different weights on effects you can come up with big differences in value. But that detracts a bit from the focus on measurement.”

        Thus my description as applied utilitarianism:

        1. Cosmopolitanism of various kinds gives you a different and wider distribution of effects (to contrast with various domestic rich country charity, e.g. standards for cost per DALY in the US vs Malawi). However, many people are uncomfortable with discriminatory nationalism and refuse to say things like “sure, saving 1 life in my country is more important than 100 people in that poor country”, or just unreflective about it and change their minds when it is pointed out how much more welfare they can produce when working with the global poor. The focus on measurement highlights that differences and jolts many people into attention to cosmopolitanism.
        2. There is a large swath of charitable giving that doesn’t try to compare effectiveness and responds primarily to visual images that have little correlation to effectiveness. Actually trying to compare and keep track delivers some easy wins, and historically there was almost none of this in the charity sector pre-GiveWell (there was more CBA in government programs, but its influence on decision-makers is far from complete). This is important for utilitarianism, but not so important for warm glow or showing you are a nice person under normal circumstances.

        EA hasn’t succeeded in picking winners with orders of magnitude better cost-effectiveness than the most effectiveness-minded and evidence-based foundations within a cause area, e.g. vs the Gates Foundation in global poverty. But it has managed to avoid a lot of knowably worse options in the sector, and focused on the sector rather than domestic stuff with far worse $/QALY figures.

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        If I ask google about “DCPP dataset” all it finds is data about the Diablo Canyon Power Plant. Is that really what you expected me to find as support for this claim?

      • somervta

        ‘Disease Control Priorities Project’, I would assume

      • CarlShulman
      • Jeff Kaufman

        Disease Control Priorities Project. http://www.dcp-3.org/dcp2/

        Unfortunately they’ve broken all their links and I can’t find the CSV presentation of their research anymore. Luckily I saved a copy: http://www.jefftk.com/dcp2.csv

      • Eva Vivalt

        Good analyses by Carl and Robin here. I’d agree that AidGrade’s data focuses on international development, while most of the difference in cost-effectiveness is probably in domestic vs. international programs.

        Sorry for the web issues — combination of this and several other media hits, I guess. Web developer is looking at it. In the interim, you can see a key figure here: http://evavivalt.com/2015/05/your-mileage-may-vary-variation-in-effect-sizes

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        Is your estimate of the distribution of real effect sizes normal or log normal? In either case, what is your estimate of the real variance? That seems to be the key issue here.

      • CarlShulman

        The graph I saw looked like it was giving effect sizes in standard deviations, but for heterogeneous measures (including effects of different value per SD), not QALYs or QALYs/$ or $ in CBA.

        So it would also be good to have an estimate for the distribution in welfare per dollar, for direct comparability with DCPP.

      • Eva Vivalt

        – As Carl mentioned, the data are in terms of effect sizes, not cost-effectiveness. We have some cost data and can make that figure but not today. It would still just be within international development programs.

        – For effect sizes, bear in mind that when sample sizes are low, you’ll (artificially) get some high results and there might be some bias towards those. Most studies are underpowered. Aidan Coville and I are writing something on the false positive report probability that would be implied… coming soon.

        – Here (attached figure) is the mean effect size within intervention-outcome combination for those that have at least 3 papers in that cell, excluding one high outlier (you’ll never guess which… the effect of rural electrification on study time! Which highlights three points: 1) that which outcomes each paper considers matter, and you can imagine that there is some bias towards studying everything that might possibly have a detectable effect size, skewing the distribution, 2) that how you weight outcomes matters a lot, 3) hidden in here, albeit aggregated, is an indication of the power problem — 0.2 is considered a “small” effect size and you might not pursue outcomes you expect to have even smaller effect sizes because a) you don’t normally have large enough samples to have the power to detect them b) if you did detect them, so what? Of course, depending on how you weight outcomes and how big the SDs are, maybe you’d still pursue it, but…).

        – For variation, I have a lot more to say. More than 80% of the time one can’t say which intervention performs better for a particular outcome. The coefficient of variation, which is a unitless figure (easier to compare across outcomes) that is the inverse of the signal to noise ratio, i.e. sd/mean, is typically ~2 across papers in the same intervention-outcome cell in the econ/public health studies in AidGrade’s data — in medical studies, it’s ~0-0.5. Here is a P&P on the topic: http://evavivalt.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/aer20151015.pdf And here is way more information, although I should warn that this will be updated shortly so you might want to wait for the new version: http://evavivalt.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Vivalt-JMP-latest.pdf.

      • Toby Ord

        It is from Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries, 2nd edition (DCP2), the most recent large global survey of health intervention cost effectiveness. I’ve emailed you the data, along with some analysis showing it is roughly log-normally distributed (not Gaussian or power-law). I don’t think it should be very surprising that it is log-normal as there are a large number of multiplicative factors, leading there via the central limit theorem. But it does lead to striking implications as I’ve argued elsewhere, with the top interventions being about 100 times as effective as the median ones in this data. As Carl says, I’d apply some regression to the mean if using this for decision-making.

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        OK, log-normal makes a lot more sense, and is probably close to what Vivant meant. So then the issue is the log-variance, and I’d like to hear Vivant’s estimate of that parameter.

      • CarlShulman

        It’s Vivalt, not Vivant.

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        Yes; fixed.

      • CarlShulman

        You might add a note to this in the OP, since the distribution was not being claimed to be a power law, and you now have his data:

        “Concretely, MacAskill, following Ord, suggested in his main conference talk that the distribution looks more like a thick-tailed power law than a Gaussian. He didn’t present actual data, but one of the other talks there did: Eva Vivalt showed the actual distribution of estimated effects to be close to Gaussian.”

  • Matthew Graves

    I grew up in a charitable household where I recall hearing CharityNavigator ratings discussed at the dinner table (but maybe I’m misremembering). My impression of Givewell was it was just this generation’s CharityNavigator, where someone from the for-profit world said “hey, there’s this thing that we all do that no one does in the non-profit world; let me start a non-profit to do that.”

    But I do agree with your assessment that EA is mostly about the youth movement aspects, rather than altruism or effectiveness. Of the EAs I’ve polled, the coolness of the people is a major reason they give for why they’re an EA.

    I give 10% of my income to charity, but I don’t consider myself an EA. I think my perspective is too focused on ‘marginal revolution,’ and I have other philosophical differences.

    • David Moss

      I think this depends a lot on which circles of EAs you hang around with. Among the EAs I know personally very very very few are into it because of “cool people”- and the people who do think and promote this idea are very off-putting to me and them.

  • Ben Albert Pace

    If you knew there was going to be a movement around applying abstract reasoning skills, scholarship, and startup-abilities, to doing the most good for humanity, would you not expect it to have the appearance of a youth movement? From your description of youth and old movements, it sounds like the youth would be selected for in doing this work.

    By the way, I will spend some time thinking about what biases the youth aspect induces, and see if I can implement strategies to counter them. I will also ask myself what class of insights you have that allowed you to notice this and not me, and see if I can I need to pay attention to so that I can notice the general class of biases (if you can give a pointer wrt this, please let me know).

    Just not right now, I’m doing household chores (as a ‘youth’, mum makes me do them all).

  • Jeff Kaufman

    “MacAskill, following Ord, suggested in his main conference talk that the distribution looks more like a thick-tailed power law than a Gaussian. He didn’t present actual data, …”

    The main argument EAs give for a power law distribution comes from Ord’s graph [1], presented in this talk [2] and elsewhere, looking at the interventions evaluated in the DCP2. The top few give many more DALYs per dollar than the bulk.

    Similarly, the benefit of eradicating smallpox worldwide, one of the best things we’ve ever done, is enormous. It’s much much higher than the next best few global health achievements.

    Unfortunately I missed the second half of Eva’s talk. Are you talking about the “all international aid interventions prevent/cause development” slide?

    [1] http://www.jefftk.com/daly-per-1000-usd.png
    [2] http://www.jefftk.com/p/taking-charity-seriously-toby-ord-talk

    • Matthew Graves

      “Similarly, the benefit of eradicating smallpox worldwide, one of the best things we’ve ever done, is enormous. It’s much much higher than the next best few global health achievements.”

      Really? I thought there was a strong argument to focus on diseases in proportion to their prevalence, which says eradication is misspent resources–hunting down the last case of polio is unlikely to be your highest DALY per dollar, because its expense is why it’s the last case of polio.

      I do think it’s a huge PR win to eradicate diseases, but as soon as you start taking PR effects into account I think you get a charity landscape that looks basically like the one we already have.

      • Jeff Kaufman

        It’s hard to remember how bad smallpox was. It killed 300-500 million people in the 20th century, more than died in all the wars combined. Many people who didn’t die still suffered a lot from it.

        During the period when we had the vaccine but smallpox hadn’t been fully eradicated, we needed to keep everyone vaccinated on an ongoing basis to keep it from spreading back into other areas. Once it was fully gone we could stop this routine vaccination, removing that ongoing cost.

        Eradicating polio or malaria is not as clear a win, mostly because smallpox was such a horrible disease, but a simple “focus on diseases in proportion to their prevalence” doesn’t let you invest once to avoid the ongoing cost of continued prevention.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      I asked Eva directly about the distribution in the Q&A, so I’m relying most strongly on her direct answer. I see a graph in the Ord talk you link to, but I don’t see any source for it there, nor any model fit of it.

      • http://www.stafforini.com/ Pablo Stafforini

        >I see a graph in the Ord talk you link to, but I don’t see any source for it there, nor any model fit of it.

        Robin, the source appears to be Jamison et al. (2006), chap. 2.

      • Jeff Kaufman

        The graph is cost effectiveness estimates for all interventions for which the DCP2 has one. I wanted a higher resolution graph so I reproduced it, pulling data from the spreadsheet distributed with the DCP2 report. I believe people are claiming it’s power law just from eyeballing it, but it’s clear the highest estimates on the chart are much higher than most estimates, and that’s all the argument depends on.

        As Carl says below there are reasons to be suspect of this data, including that errors when multiplying a list of factors pushe you toward power law output, but my understanding was that basically all of the times people had tried to survey the effectiveness of a broad spectrum of interventions they found some were much more valuable than the rest. Which makes me really sad I missed your question in the Q&A!

      • Jeff Kaufman

        Talking to Eva Vivault, it’s the distribution of effect sizes where she saw a gaussian distribution, while Ord, MacAskill, etc claim a power law for cost effectiveness. You presented MacAskill and Vivault as disagreeing, but it sounds like instead they were talking about different things.

      • CarlShulman

        Not a power law, a log-normal distribution (which still gives huge gains from prioritizing the best interventions instead of picking randomly).

  • Romeo Stevens

    I think the analogy doesn’t work as a criticism because effective cars would in fact have important things to do. They could point out that people’s behavior wrt which activities in cars cause the most risk are incoherent. They could point to simple innumeracy like Obama being mocked for saying that people keeping their tires inflated would save billions a year in gas costs (despite it being true). They could push for automation and warn people of the biases by which a single example of an automated car crashing is weighted more heavily than the base rate of human driven cars crashing. Etc.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      I’m sure one can say useful things to people to inform them about how to be more effective regarding cars. It is much harder to claim you’ve invented the new idea of informing people about how to use cars.

      • Romeo Stevens

        The implication being that EA claims that no one has ever thought about effectiveness in the charity world before? I haven’t encountered such a claim. Much EA literature explicitly cites things such as the Copenhagen Consensus.

      • CarlShulman

        CC was targeted towards governments (recommending interventions not charities), and governments have made use of cost-benefit analysis in a wide range of circumstances.

        Consumer-focused charity evaluation based on impact is rather new.

  • Alyssa Vance

    “This all sounds rather vacuous; who opposes applying evidence and careful reasoning to figure out how to do better at charity, or anything?”

    Uhhh… a lot of people? Did you spend two minutes Googling before asking this question? Just last year, the CEO of Charity Navigator – a very well-known and respected nonprofit evaluator – wrote an editorial denouncing effective altruism as “defective altruism”, on the basis that:

    “It is sadly thus that the very human impulse to help others and the mantra of Charity Navigator since its inception — that people should become informed donors and give with their heads as well as their hearts — have been infused with logic so cold that even Mr. Spock would cringe upon hearing it. (…) By contrast, defective altruism is — by the admission of its proponents — an approach that not only unjustifiably claims the moral high ground in giving decisions, but also implements this bold claim by *weighing causes and beneficiaries against one another* [emphasis in original]. In this, it is not moral, but rather, moralistic in the worst sense of the word.” (http://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_elitist_philanthropy_of_so_called_effective_altruism)

    I don’t know how you could be any clearer – according to the CEO of Charity Navigator, weighing causes against one another using evidence and careful reasoning is immoral.

    A few years ago, this happened in San Francisco:

    “In 2007, the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) held a seminar for the nonprofits vying for a piece of $78 million in funding. Grant seekers were told that in the next funding cycle, they would be required — for the first time — to provide quantifiable proof their programs were accomplishing something.

    The room exploded with outrage. This wasn’t fair. “What if we can bring in a family we’ve helped?” one nonprofit asked. Another offered: “We can tell you stories about the good work we do!” Not every organization is capable of demonstrating results, a nonprofit CEO complained. He suggested the city’s funding process should actually penalize nonprofits able to measure results, so as to put everyone on an even footing. Heads nodded: This was a popular idea…” (http://www.economicpolicyjournal.com/2009/12/worst-run-big-city-in-us.html)

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      You can find a few people who say almost anything. I couldn’t claim to have invented conservation of momentum in 2005 just by pointing to a few crazy people who said in 2004 that momentum isn’t conserved. I’d need to at least show that non-conservation was the *usual* position then.

      • Alyssa Vance

        You’re radically moving the goalposts. The original claim was that the core idea of evaluating charities based on numbers/evidence/analysis/logical reasoning was “vacuous”, since everybody (or at least everybody worth caring about) already agreed with it. You’re now claiming that the EA movement didn’t *invent* the idea for the first time ever, without acknowledging this is different from the original claim. You’re also making the very-unlikely-on-priors claim that the views of the CEO of Charity Navigator and a large number of SF nonprofits are considered crackpot, crazy-fringe positions within the charity world, and then shifting the burden of proof to try to force me to provide evidence against it rather than meeting your burden of providing any evidence for it.

      • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

        When one rhetorically asks “who opposes X?” one isn’t claiming that no one ever opposed X. Instead one is asking if there were ever substantial people worthy of respect.

      • Jonathan Weissman

        Alyssa is claiming, quite reasonably, that the CEO of Charity Navigator qualifies as an example of “substantial people worthy of respect”.

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        the CEO of Charity Navigator qualifies as an example of “substantial people worthy of respect”

        That’s of course true. What is actually false, however, is that the CEO of Charity Navigator “opposes applying evidence and careful reasoning to figure out how to do better at charity.” Alyssa ignore his advice on using the head as well as the heart–the head being, I assume, hard evidence and careful reasoning.

        The Effective Altruists’ difference with this CEO is might be that they advocate using the head exclusively. That seems what the CEO is charging. But that wasn’t the claim under discussion. I don’t even know whether EAs go that far and, certainly, doing so isn’t possible.

      • Vadim Kosoy

        It seems that your definition of “worthy of respect” logically implies “endorsing X” making your own claim vacuous. It’s like saying that in 1800 everyone “worthy of respect” already supported liberalism making any movement to the effect superfluous.

      • Ben Albert Pace

        Who would count for you as valid people to use in this situation? I would personally have thought that the CEO of Charity Navigator was the *best* example to pick.

      • Chris

        I’m now unsure of what you are claiming. In the original post, I read “this all sounds vacuous” as acknowledging the temptation to react to the term ‘Effective Altruism’ as positively-valenced buzzwords. At first glance, ‘Effective Altruism’ sounds kind of like ‘Excellent Achievers’ or ‘Fantastic DoGooders’; contentless but appealing. You then go on to say that EA isn’t vacuous and has a substantive position, parts of which you go on to disagree with.

        Is that what you mean? Or do you mean that endorsement of evidence-based/cost-effective approaches to charity are generally supported/favorably viewed, even by people in the charity industry. ‘Evidence-based’ and ‘cost-effective’ are fairly well-defined terms, not buzzwords.

        If you mean the former, then I don’t understand your conservation of momentum analogy, which doesn’t seem to apply.

        If you mean the latter, then I don’t know what you mean by ‘asking if there were ever substantial people worthy of respect’ .

      • Chris Said

        FWIW, I also read the line to imply that very few people oppose applying evidence to charitable giving. I agree with Alyssa that a lot of people oppose this, including a lot of very powerful people. The effective altruism community should be applauded for their focus on evidence, even if part of their motivation resembles that of a youth movement.

    • semiemployed_theorist

      Here is another good example: the vice president for Heifer International. Question: why shouldn’t we test giving cows to poor people versus cash via randomized trial? Answer: “we can’t make experiments…it’s just not that linear. It’s not an equation. It’s an ecosystem…We can’t measure that stuff.” See: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/503/i-was-just-trying-to-help?act=1
      (start at 31:00).

      • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

        Again, this is no flat denial of the value of “applying evidence and careful reasoning to figure out how to do better at charity.” It is a question of the kind of evidence that’s germane. It is an ignoramus position, but it isn’t nearly as ignoranus as would be contradicting the indicted vacuous standard.

        [That is to say, Alyssa and company are the ones “moving the goalposts.”]

    • David Condon

      To an outsider unfamiliar with charity, I’d say the statement does come across as vacuous at first. It’s reasonable to assume that if millions of people are working on a problem, that they’re doing so in a mostly productive fashion.

  • Alyssa Vance

    “But in fact effective altruists embrace contrarian concerns about AI “foom” (discussed often on this blog)”

    Do you have any data to support that? I think you reached your conclusion first and then “adjusted” the facts to fit the conclusion, rather than the other way around.

    Doing a quick sample of ten randomly chosen EA Global attendees, two had machine learning experience and expressed general support for MIRI/FHI (although that certainly doesn’t mean they must agree with them about everything); two more had machine learning experience and didn’t appear to have ever heard of MIRI/FHI; the other six had no experience with or interest in AI at all.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      The program of the event gave very prominent coverage to AI foom risk concerns, certainly far more than most other charity groups in the world.

      • Duncan Sabien

        So, I’d like to start by saying that I find a lot of excellent food for thought in what you’ve said (including some useful criticism that I’m hoping I’ll end up ACTUALLY REACTING TO, rather than just nodding at), but … having spent a lot of time looking at and digging through the program, there were only about five items that even explicitly referenced existential risk or organizations like MIRI/FHI, and only a pair that place AI front and center. This on a list of over 50 talks, panels, and workshops. If that’s “far more than most other charity groups in the world,” which is a claim that sounds true, it still doesn’t seem to fall into the category of undue pushing or contrarianism.

      • Alyssa Vance

        Generally agreed, but I’ll also note that Robin’s claim is even stronger than the one you’re disproving: Robin’s claim was that EA as a whole believes a specific theory of Eliezer’s, which Robin made up the name “foom” for in order to discredit it (much like “Big Bang theory”, back in the day). This is a much narrower claim than EA being concerned about AI risk overall. Eg. Elon Musk obviously cares about AI risk, having donated $10 million to it, but from his panel comments clearly disagrees with Eliezer about the existence/likelihood of a rapid takeoff threshold.

      • Duncan Sabien

        Yeah/agreed. I think there’s a mixup occurring between “acknowledged high status” (which people like Eliezer and Elon Musk have, to varying degrees and for various reasons) and “widely held community beliefs.” The two are not the same, but it’s easy to see them getting conflated if you’re randomly eavesdropping/sampling at an event like last weekend’s.

  • Aceso Under Glass

    The contention of EA is that people *are* using charity in ways equivalent to using cars as paperweights, and it is stupid.

  • Someone on the inside

    I also love how most of them are white, wealthy and when asked what they’ve done in what is often years of “working” for organisations that are part of the community they reply “community building” or stuff they have been thinking about or “trying to figure out”, all while dismissing people who actually are actually doing concrete things with real sacrifice as ‘ineffective’. I am so sick of these arrogant little “world saving” brats.

    • Duncan Sabien

      Have you actually found your real work dismissed by people? Like, face-to-face, or in direct writing? If so, I’m not at all surprised that you’re sick of it, and it’s completely understandable that you’d start to write off people associated with the same organizations. But none of the EAs I’ve personally come into contact with take that view. I’ve only ever experienced people who admire, thank, and congratulate ANYONE who’s doing ANYTHING to make the world a better place; that they follow it up with curiosity about how to do even MORE good in the future doesn’t ever seem to imply that they ignore or undervalue what’s already been accomplished.

    • Christian Germain

      Why would you start your post off with the “white and wealthy” calumny? If you are interested in making contributions make them. Don’t discount the contributions of others based on some arbitrary and artificial concept of their “otherness”.

  • Isaac Burke

    >Have you heard about the new “effective cars” movement? Passionate young philosophy students from top universities have invented a revolutionary new idea, now sweeping the intellectual world: cars that get you from home to the office or store and back again as reliably, comfortably, and fast as possible.

    Almost every field has websites and organizations dedicated to comparing different [X]s to see how effective they are. Effective Cars, specifically, is a thriving industry and has achieved the status of a popular hobby.

    That this wasn’t true of charities until recently, and even now it is vastly more the exception than the rule, is *unusual*.

    >decide that they have achieved enough rationality to justify embracing many quite contrarian conclusions.

    Not that YOU would ever do that, Robin…

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      I added to the post my support for independent quality evaluators in all industries.

    • David Condon

      I wouldn’t consider it unusual that non-profit entities aren’t as responsive to the demands of the market as for-profit entities. I would consider it quite predictable.

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  • IMASBA

    “Effective altruism is about asking, “How can I make the biggest difference I can?” and using evidence and careful reasoning to try to find an answer. Just as science consists of the honest and impartial attempt to work out what’s true, and a commitment to believe the truth whatever that turns out to be, effective altruism consists of the honest and impartial attempt to work out what’s best for the world, and a commitment to do what’s best, whatever that turns out to be.”

    My beef with statements like this one is that they show a mistaken belief that everyone would agree on what the desired outcomes are, but I’m not sure such beliefs are specific to youth movements. There is no single impartial, scientific answer because the answer depends on the different moral and ethical subjective preferences of different people*, just like there is no single impartial, scientific answer to the question “which color is the most beautiful?” or “who is crazy and who is sane?” Such mistaken beliefs can become very dangerous very quickly because the “impartial and scientific” moniker inspires fanaticism. So by all means, have EA, just acknowledge that their will be different versions of it for different people.

    * Example: Robin Hanson believes it is better to have a large population living on subsistence level with short lives, while I think it is better to have a small population having a high standard of living and long life. The difference stems from an abstract disagreement about whether never having existed should be counted as a form of suffering for a possible mind.

  • charlies

    Generally- what’s the percentage of “movements” that are not also “youth movements”

  • asd_Q

    There are definitely some people who actively oppose “applying evidence and careful reasoning to figure out how to do better at charity” but a bigger problem is probably people just not caring much about it. Even if most people wouldn’t argue that it’s wrong to weigh charitable opportunities against each other and figure out which ones do more good, they generally don’t actually bother to do it. Arguing that it’s very important to apply evidence and careful reasoning to charity isn’t vacuous at all if most people are acting as though it weren’t true.

  • Christian Germain

    “While old people have more power, wealth, grit, experience, task-specific knowledge, and crystalized intelligence, young people have more fluid intelligence, potential, passion, idealism, and a clean slate.” See what he did there…he complimented us old farts so he could drop in a bald faced assertion as if it was an undisputed truth. Very sneaky…

    I’m liking this EA stuff…rather than see this as a young-old dichotomy I would suggest an engineer-liberal arts spectrum or a Myers Briggs “thinking” – “judging” axis.

  • robertwib

    I think some of the psychology described by Robin Hansondoesn’t match EAs very well.

    We are idealistic and young. But it’s not true that we are throwing out all the old stuff. What ‘old codgers’ are we enthusiastic about and building on?

    * JPAL, Copenhagen Consensus and RCTs
    * Cost effectiveness focussed economists, econometrics and health economics
    * Behavioural and moral psychology
    * Some parts of analytic moral philosophy dating back to the 18th century
    * Old physicists/science fiction authors/futurists.

    The speakers at EAG this year were notably older and more experienced than ever before as we get more credibility and access to such people. There are many existing groups and academics we like.

    What are some of the concrete suggestions 80,000 Hours makes?

    * Go into management consulting to gain relevant skills for your long term future career;
    * Think about gaining career capital and skills earlier on, expecting to have most direct impact late in your career;
    * Work to get into a foundation and somewhat improve their grant-making;
    * Go into politics and focus on important/neglected/tractable policy areas;
    * Do an economics PhD and go work at the World Bank or an aid agency;
    * Go into high earning careers and give money to good causes.

    In some ways these are *conservative* incrementalist approaches and we are often hit from the angle that we are not nearly revolutionary enough.

    Compared to other young idealists EAs are less enthusiastic about ‘remaking things from scratch’. Most of us are pretty content to let market capitalism run and improve people’s wellbeing to a great extent, and then use a minority of highly-altruistic and effectiveness focussed people and donors to fill in the worst gaps that it leaves (the stuff that’s left out on the tail of effectiveness by the current ‘system’).

    Maybe that’s a huge mistake, but we can’t very well be both revolutionaries and reactionaries at the same time.

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      Social categories like “youth movement” are defined by prototypes and correlates. Such movements do not usually try to change ALL social habits, they usually point to older thinkers in support of their claims, and they need not be “liberal” as opposed to “conservative.” I don’t mean to suggest that youth movements are generally bad, but I do mean to suggest that a simple theory of their nature helps to predict when they tend to be good at what.

  • stevesailer

    The urge to moneyball could, at least in theory, be applied profitably beyond baseball.

  • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

    And their core position is close to the usual one for young groups throughout history: old codgers have run things badly, and so a new generation deserves to take over.

    Have there really been youth movements throughout history? They seem to require a certain idealization of youth that developed in the 20th century. (Autonomous youth movements should be distinguished from efforts of old people to organize youth, e.g. Boy Scouts.)

    I agree that EA has the earmarks of a youth movement, but the only prototype I can think of is sixties radicalism. [If the sixties are an indication, character as a youth movement is transitory, a blip really.]

    • http://overcomingbias.com RobinHanson

      I learned about many previous youth movements in Strauss & Howe’s book Generations.

  • zarzuelazen

    The ‘Effective Altruism’ movement is not at all effective. I’ve been forced to come around more to Robin Hanson’s position that this sort of altruism is more like signalling – just done to make people feel good about themselves and issue a ‘signal’ that they’re ‘good people’, without actually fixing the problem.
    In general private charities are not effective at fixing poverty, you need concerted coordinated action from a singleton (a single big organization with vast resources and reach, such as a government).
    Poverty is a political problem…. ‘Effective Altruists’ realize this at some level, that’s why they’re so big on the ‘artificial super intelligence takes over the world’ thing.

    • http://juridicalcoherence.blogspot.com/ Stephen Diamond

      Poverty is a political problem

      I’m inclined to think (although I lack any familiarity with EA beyond what’s readily encountered online) that EA will become a political movement. Just as the rather apolitical (“nonideological”) 60s youth movement rapidly became subordinated to organizations run by middle-aged Stalinists–adulating the geriatric Mao–I would bet that EA will become subordinated to some established political tendency–likely of a neoliberal variety. Pure speculation: after all, the real importance of EA scarcely compares with that of the old Students for a Democratic Society.

      [Arch supporters of EA (say Robert Wiblin) are known to consistently take the side of the corporations and to preach open borders.]

    • Anon

      I’m not an EA and I tend to cause more harm than good to my fellow men.

      But I’m still surprised how you treat poverty here. It’s not a binary thing that is either “fixed” or “not fixed”; poverty comes in degrees. You have provided no evidence that private charity can’t shift the degrees.

      Also government can’t solve poverty either without causing other costs and harms.

      Also governments aren’t singletons unless you have one world government that is robust against rebellion. You have got the term wrong.

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  • sarah

    GOod one

    theessentialstudentsblog.wordpress.com