Tag Archives: Charity

Yay Soda Firms

It is usually bad for people to die, and so good for them to keep living. Overall in our society, people who weigh more for their age and gender tend to die more, and so many are concerned about an “obesity epidemic”, and seek ways to reduce people’s weight, such as by getting them to consume fewer calories. Such as from drinking sugary soda.

TIME magazine says that evil soda firms, like evil tobacco firms before them, are lying about science to distract us from their evil:

You may not have noticed it yet, but sodamakers are working hard to get you off your couch. On Aug. 9, a New York Times article revealed that Coca-Cola was quietly funding a group of scientists called Global Energy Balance Network that emphasizes the role of exercise, as opposed to diet, in fighting obesity. … This has some nutrition and obesity experts charging soda companies, whose sales of carbonated soft drinks have hit a 20-year low, with cherry-picking science to make its products more appealing. … Indeed, there isn’t strong evidence to show that exercise alone … can help people shed pounds and keep them off. … It’s not the first time science has been used to sway public perceptions about the health effects of certain behaviors; the tobacco industry famously promoted messaging passed on studies that claimed to prove that “light” or “low-tar” cigarettes were less harmful that regular ones. (more)

Yes, it is true that the literature usually suggests that for most people exercise won’t do much to change their weight. However, another consistent result in the literature (e.g., here, here) is that when we predict health using both weight and exercise, it is mostly exercise that matters. It seems that the main reason that heavy people are less healthy is that they exercise less. Obesity is mainly unhealthy as a sign of a lack of exercise.

So if we cared mainly about people’s health, we should cheer this effort by soda forms to push people to exercise. Even if that also causes people to cut down less on soda. A population that exercises more doesn’t weight much less, but it lives much longer. In fact, exercise seems to be one of the biggest ways we know of by which an individual can influence their health. (Much bigger than medicine, for example.)

I suspect, however, that what bothers most people most about fat people isn’t that they’ll die younger, its instead that they look ugly and low status, and so make them also look low status by association. So we don’t want people near us to look fat. All else equal we might also want them to live longer, but that altruistic motive can’t compete much with our status motive.

So boo soda firms if you want your associates to not seem low status. But yay soda firms if you want people to live and not die (sooner).

Added 11a: The New York Times reports this as the main message:

… Global Energy Balance Network, which promotes the argument that weight-conscious Americans are overly fixated on how much they eat and drink while not paying enough attention to exercise. Health experts say this message is misleading …

Actually that message seems exactly right to me, and not at all misleading.

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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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Docs Not So Helpful

In one of my first blog posts back in 2006 I said people overestimate the social value of joining a helping profession, like doctors:

Yes, if you choose to be a doctor, you will spend your time providing services that people perceive to have value, sometimes enormous value. However, you cannot take full credit for this value. (more)

Now 80,000 Hours’ Rob Wiblin, who once blogged here, says “If you want to save lives, should you study medicine? Probably not”:

Most people skilled enough to make it in a field as challenging as medicine could have a bigger social impact through an alternative career. The best research suggests that doctors do much less to improve the health of their patients than you might naturally expect. Health is more determined by lifestyle factors, and most of the treatments that work particularly well could be delivered with a smaller number of doctors than already work in the UK or USA. (more)

In contrast, 80,000 Hours is quite bullish on getting an Economics PhD.

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Effective Altruism Complaints

The Boston Review asked eleven people to respond to an essay by Peter Singer on effective altruism, i.e., on using careful analysis to pick acts that do the most good, even when less emotionally satisfying. For example, one might work at a less satisfying job that earns more, so that one can donate more. Response quotes are at the end of this post.

The most common criticisms were these: five people complained that in effective altruism the people helped don’t directly participate in the decision making process, and three people complained that charity efforts targeted directly at people in need distract from efforts to change political outcomes. Taken at face value, these seem odd criticisms, as they seem to apply equally to all charity efforts, and not just to this approach to charity. Yet I doubt these people have published essays complaining about charity in general. So I’m tempted to try to read between the lines, and ask: what is their real issue?

Charity plausibly has a signaling function, at least in part. Charity can let us show others our wealth, our conformity to standard social norms, and our loyalty to particular groups. Charity can also display our reassuring emotional reactions to hearing or seeing others in need or pain. Charity can also let us assert our dominance over and higher status than the people we help, especially if we control their lives a lot in the process. (There are birds who gain status by forcing food down the throats of others who lose status as a result.)

The main complaint above, on including the helped in decisions, seems closely related to showing dominance via charity that controls. But again, how is this problem worse for effective altruism charity, relative to all other charity?

I think the key is the empathy signaling function. People who give because of emotional feelings induced by seeing or hearing those in need are seen as having friendlier and less suspect motives, and people who participate in a political process that includes those they help are also seen as treating them more as equals. In contrast, people with an abstract distant less emotional relation to those in need, whom they help directly as opposed to indirectly via politics, are seen as less having a personal-like relation to those they help, and so are more plausibly trying to dominate them, or to achieve some other less relational purpose.

This interpretation, that the main dislike about effective altruists is their less displaying empathy emotions, is also supported by two other criticisms made of Singer’s essay: two people complained that effective altruism relies too much on numbers and other abstractions, and two people complained that it can be very hard to estimate many numbers.

Imagine someone who said they were in love with you, cared about you, and wanted to live with you to help you, but who didn’t seem very emotionally engaged in this. They instead talked a lot about calculations they’d done on how you two could live your lives together well. You might suspect them of having ulterior motives, such as wanting to gain sex, money, or status from you. Maybe the same sort of thing is going on in charity. We want and expect a certain sort of emotional relation to people who help us, and to people who help the same people we help, and people who say they are trying to help but who won’t join in the usual emotions in the usual way may seem suspect. We’d be more likely to find fault with their approach, and to suspect them of bad ulterior motives.

Those quotes from responses to Singer: Continue reading "Effective Altruism Complaints" »

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Doing Good ≠ Being Good

Most of us like to be associated with “idealistic” groups that claim that they are doing good, i.e., making the world better. However, this is usually not our strongest motive in choosing to associate with such groups. Instead, we more strongly want to make ourselves look good, and gain good-looking associations. Most idealistic groups quickly learn to cater to this demand by:

  • Making meetings where people can visibly show off their affiliation with the group, form ties with like-minded others, and affiliate with impressive speakers/leaders.
  • Making ladders of extra recognition, such as awards, and offices.
  • Offering training to develop and credential related skills.
  • Advocating for the world to put more value on the features that this group’s members have, and less value on other features.
  • Advocating to others to join this and related groups, via arguing the virtues of it and its members.

Of course such groups try to frame these activities in terms of making the world better. And yes, groups that really were trying to make the world better might in fact do some of these. The tipoff, however, is their relative neglect of everything else required to actually make the world better. Groups tend to be far clearer on how to tell who is good than on how exactly good individuals make the world better, on what else exactly is required, and on how they are going to manage that.

Let me give some examples:

  • Christianity presents itself as good for the world, but its main activity is meetings centered on impressive people, and at meetings most people are mostly thinking about how good or bad they are or have been. They talk a lot about what is good vs bad behavior, but are pretty thin on how more good behavior will help the world.
  • I recently talked at a conference of ecological spiritual consciousness raising folks. They had impressive speakers who celebrated features of attendees. Some presented an explicit ladder of higher consciousness, ranked famous people on it, and talked in detail about how to move to higher levels. They want a more egalitarian and ecologically sustainable world, but are fuzzy on how exactly spiritual consciousness helps there.
  • The recent movie Tomorrowland seemed on the surface to be about having hope for and working for a better tomorrow. But in fact a secret society was obsessed with finding the few best people in the world, even though it already had enough secret tech to save the world. Most superhero stories are on the surface about heros struggling to help the world against an opposing villain, but actually more about how cool and impressive it would be to have certain abilities.
  • Political disputes seem to easily get distracted by issues of who is better. Immigration becomes all about what immigrants are worthy. School becomes all about how it can makes you better and who deserves a chance to get better. Charity debates become ways to show who has enough empathy, or enough toughness. How to promote innovation quickly becomes celebrating particular innovators.
  • When discussing how to get better predictions, there is far more interest in finding correlates of who personally is a super-forecaster, than in finding better institutions like prediction markets to promote good predictions. Similarly for rationality, there is far more interest in how to spot rational folks, and in rationality training, than in institutions to promote rationality.

Look, yes the world is full of people, and yes the qualities of those people make some different to world outcomes. But a great many other things also matter for outcomes. So if you were really focused on doing good, you’d pay lots of attention to things other than being good. Doing good isn’t just being good, not by a long shot.

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Ranking The Sacred

Consider four possible acts:

  1. Eating Twinkies
  2. Watching Gilligan’s Island
  3. Fighting cancer
  4. Working for racial justice

Now consider pairwise comparisons of value between these acts. You might say which you prefer, or which matters more, or is more important or admirable.

It seems to me that we don’t mind ranking #1 vs #2. We might think the exercise silly, but we’d still be comfortable expressing an opinion. It also seems to me that we don’t mind puffing up our chest and intoning very seriously that either of #3,4 are more noble and admirable than either of #1,2, and looking sadly down on those who might say otherwise. But if asked to rank #3 vs #4, we are much less comfortable. In this case we could be seen as saying something against an act many find important and admirable. That isn’t the sort of thing we like to be quoted on. We don’t like to speak against the sacred.

Because of this, we end up sharing less info about relative rankings among the acts we most admire. Which, alas, are the acts most valuable to rank. We learn what others think of the relative ranking of silly tv shows and minor foods, but not about our most important choices. Silly humans.

I’m fond of this classic question pair: “What is the most important research question in your discipline?” followed by “Why aren’t you working on it?”

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On Exposing Hypocrisy

Imagine that you are a kid, and that you recently acquired a new friend who likes to come over to your house to play. You’ve started to notice that he pays a lot of attention to your sister when he visits, that he likes to visit when she is home, that he likes to play in the house near where she is at the time. You suspect that he has a crush on your sister, and that is why he recently became your friend.

This is a case of hypocrisy, where X is less about the Y that it seems about, but is instead more about Z. Here X is your new friendship, Y is his liking to spent time with you, and Z is his wanting to get closer to your sister. Of course Y is probably true to some extent, though not as much as he’d led you to believe.

Now consider some possible responses to this situation:

  1. Nothing: Do and say nothing; pretend you don’t notice.
  2. Private support: tell him privately about your suspicions, but make sure he understands that you will fully support his efforts, and that you don’t hold any grudge.
  3. Private confrontation: tell him privately about your suspicions. Act mildly offended.
  4. Public exposure: speak loud and clearly, in front of all his friends, as well as your sister, giving evidence of his hypocrisy. Act deeply offended.
  5. Indirect private confrontation: have a mutual friend tell him that his behavior seems suspicious. This mutual friend isn’t offended, and promises not to keep it quiet. But they were wondering, that’s all.

What if you like this person, and so want him to act more like a real friend. Which of the above responses are most likely to turn his hypocrisy, in pretending to do Y while really doing Z, into sincerity, i.e., really doing mainly Y?

In this case #4 is probably the absolute worst approach, and #3 probably isn’t that much better. #2 may usually have good outcomes, but even that risks him feeling embarrassed and avoiding you. #5 is a little safer, but even that could spook him. I’d say #1 is probably the safest: just do nothing.

Consider this as a metaphor for exposing hypocrisy more generally. Sometimes exposing hypocrisy, or confronting the hypocrites, can shame them into actually doing what they say they are doing. But at other times it scares them away, so that they do even less of what they said they were doing.

For example, people pretend to learn at school, but more plausibly they meet mates and signal their features. If this hypocrisy were made clear, would people actually learn more, or would they switch to other ways to meet mates and signal features? People also pretend to give to charity because they want to help, but more plausibly they want to bond with associates and to signal their gentle natures. If their hypocrisy were made more visible, would they try to be more effective at helping with their charity, or would they switch to other ways to associate and signal gentleness?

Consider this a partial answer to Ryan Carey’s request for criticism of effective altruism. A community associated with that label says it wants to promote charity as helping, and it points out how common charity patterns often fall far short of that goal. And if main cause of falling short were ignorance or laziness, this should induce a lot more helping. But if the main cause is instead hypocrisy, then what they are mainly doing is exposing hypocrisy.

And yes, for some people exposing their hypocrisy will shame them into more effectively doing what they had been pretending to do. But for others it may embarrass them into doing less. Maybe they will be more forthright about bonding and showing gentleness in other ways. I don’t actually know which it will be on net. But I do know that we should study hypocrisy more carefully, in order to better position ourselves to answer such questions.

Added 8a: People vary in their gentleness both via immediate system one reactions, and via more considered system two reactions. If people are more interested in signaling their system one gentleness, and if effective charity choices are those that look better to system two, then effective choices can be in conflict with their signaling desires.

For example, in the standard trolley problem people say they would divert the trolley to kill one person on the tracks to save five on other tracks, but would not push one person off a footbridge to achieve the same savings. Pressuring people to admit that pushing in the trolley problem is effective altruism is getting them to resist their system one inclinations, and if they succeed at that they may look less good to associates in terms of system one gentleness.

Added 10a: Sebastian Nickel reminds me of this study showing:

Large prior donors increase the likelihood of giving in response to information on aid effectiveness, whereas small prior donors decrease their giving.

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Neglecting Win-Win Help

Consider three kinds of acts:

  • S. Selfish – helps you, and no one else.
  • A. Altruistic – helps others, at a cost to you.
  • M. Mixed – helps others, and helps you.

To someone who is honestly and simply selfish, acts of type A would be by far the least attractive. All else equal such people would do fewer acts of type A, relatives to other types. Because they don’t care about helping others.

To someone who is honestly and simply altruistic, in contrast, acts of type M should be the most attractive. All else equal, such a person should more often do acts of type M, relative to the other types. A simply altruistic person is happy to help others while helping themself.

Now consider someone who wants to show others that they are altruistic and not selfish. To such a person, type M acts have a serious problem: since both selfish and altruistic people often do type M acts, observers may plausibly attribute their behavior to selfishness. Compared to a simply altruistic person, a person of this type finds type A acts more attractive, and type M acts less attractive. They want everyone to see them suffering, to show they are not selfish.

In fact, most people do seem to care just as much about seeming altruistic as about being altruistic. I thus predict a neglect of acts of type M, relative to acts of type A. For example:

  • Having kids. Observers often don’t credit parents for being altruistic toward their kids. They instead describe parents as selfishly wanting to enjoy the kids attention and devotion.
  • Having lovers. In a world of monogamous romantic pairs, someone who chooses not to pair up can force someone else to also go without a partner. So choosing to be part of a pair helps others. But observers often don’t credit romantic partners for altruism toward partners. They instead say lovers selfishly seek pleasure and flattery.
  • Inventing. While people in some kinds of professions are credited with choosing them in part to help others, people in other professions are not so credited, even when they give a lot of help. For example, nurses are often credited with altruism, but inventors are usually not so credited. Even though inventors often give a lot more help to the world. Perhaps because inventing seems more fun than nursing.
  • Marginal charity. Adjusting private optima a bit in the direction of social good helps others at almost no cost to yourself, but is hard for observers to distinguish from not doing so.

In sum, the more eager we are to show others that we care, the less eager we are to do things that both help us and help others. We instead do more things that help others while hurting us, so that we can distinguish ourselves from selfish people. Because of this we neglect win-win acts like having kids, being in love, and inventing. Which seems a shame.

Added 8a: Seems I’ve said something like this before, as did Katja Grace even earlier. Seems I’ve written more than I can keep track of.

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Part Of Something Big

A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself. Joseph Campbell

Most Twitter talk reminds me of the movie Ridicule, wherein courtiers compete to show cruel wit and cynicism. This makes me crave a simple direct conversation on something that matters.

So I pick this: being part of something larger than yourself. This is a commonly expressed wish. But what does it mean?

Here are some clues: Judging from Google-found quotes, common satisfactory “things” include religions, militaries, political parties, and charities. For most people “the universe” seems too big and “my immediate family” seems too small. And neither seem idealistic enough. “All utilitarians” is idealistic enough, but seems insufficiently coherent as a group. The words “part” and “thing” here are suspiciously vague, suggesting that there are several elements here, some of which people are more willing to admit than others.

Here’s my interpretation: We want to be part of a strong group that has our back, and we want to support and promote ideals. But these preferences aren’t independent, to be satisfied separately. We especially want to combine them, and be a valued part of a group that supports good ideals.

So we simultaneously want all these things:

  1. We are associated with an actual group of people.
  2. These people concretely relate to each other.
  3. This group is credibly seen as really supporting some ideals.
  4. We embrace those ideals, and find them worth our sacrifice.
  5. Our help to this group’s ideals would be noticed, appreciated.
  6. If outsiders resist our help, the group will have our back.
  7. The group is strong enough to have substantial help to give.
  8. The group does’t do wrongs that outweigh their ideals support.
  9. Both the group and its ideals are big in the scheme of things.

Since this is a lot of constraints, the actual groups that exist are unlikely to satisfy them all. So we compromise. Some people see most all big coherent groups as easily corrupted, and so only accept small groups. For some, group bonding is so important they’ll compromise on the ideals, or accept weak evidence that the group actually supports its ideals. If group strength is important enough to them, they may not require any ideals. For others, the ideal is everything, and they’ll accept a weak group defined abstractly as “everyone who truly supports this ideal.” Finally, for some being appreciated is so important that they’ll take the thing the world seems to most appreciate about them and accept a group and ideal defined around that.

If this is right then just talking about what are the best ideals and how to achieve them somewhat misses the point. Also somewhat missing the point is talk about how to make strong well-bonded groups. If people typically want the two of these things together, then the actual design problem is how to achieve good ideals via a strong well-bonded group.

Which isn’t a design problem I hear people talk about much. Some presume that if they can design a good enough ideal, a good group will naturally collect around it. Others presume that if they can design a good enough way for groups to coordinate, groups will naturally coordinate to achieve good ideals. But how reasonable are these assumptions?

If we focus on explaining this preference instead of satisfying it, a homo hypocritus framework fits reasonably well. Coalition politics is central to what we really want, but if cheap we’d rather appear to focus on supporting ideals, and only incidentally pick groups to help us in that quest.

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Jones, Beckstead, & I

Nick Beckstead talked with Garett Jones and I on long run consequences of growth. One point is worth emphasizing: if long run growth matters more than today’s suffering, directly helping those suffering today is unlikely to be the best strategy. From Beckstead’s summary:

What are the long-run consequences of helping people in the developing world, e.g. through donating to GiveDirectly?

If the argument for doing this is that it helps with long-run growth, it’s implausible. It seems very unlikely that donations to GiveDirectly are the best way to speed up economic growth. Improvements in the institutions that hold back innovation would seem more plausible.

Programs like GiveDirectly may have some indirect effects on governance, which could in turn have
effects on long-run growth. For example, people who are suffering less because they are less poor might vote better. We should not assume, in general, that any way of helping people has [predictable] long-run consequences on growth. … [Also,] sending resources from high-growth nations to low-growth nations would be bad for long-term growth. (more)

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