The Triumph of Humanity Chart

One of the greatest successes of mankind over the last few centuries has been the enormous amount of wealth that has been created. Once upon a time virtually everyone lived in grinding poverty; now, thanks to the forces of science, capitalism and total factor productivity, we produce enough to support a much larger population at a much higher standard of living.

EAs being a highly intellectual lot, our preferred form of ritual celebration is charts. The ordained chart for celebrating this triumph of our people is the Declining Share of People Living in Extreme Poverty Chart.

Share in Poverty

(Source)

However, as a heretic, I think this chart is a mistake. What is so great about reducing the share? We could achieve that by killing all the poor people, but that would not be a good thing! Life is good, and poverty is not death; it is simply better for it to be rich.

As such, I think this is a much better chart. Here we show the world population. Those in extreme poverty are in purple – not red, for their existence is not bad. Those who the wheels of progress have lifted into wealth unbeknownst to our ancestors, on the other hand, are depicted in blue, rising triumphantly.

Triumph of Humanity2

Long may their rise continue.

 

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Happy 5th Birthday, Giving What We Can!

Giving What We Can recently celebrated its 5th birthday. It’s not much of a party if no-one external congratulates you, so here we go: Happy Birthday, GWWC!

It’s pretty impressive how much GWWC has grown since those early days. Here’s a chart of total membership, which I’ve put together from GWWC emails and liberal use of the internet archive. I’m sure they have better data (without gaps!) internally, but I’ve never seen this chart before. Notably, growth seems to have picked up since the fall of 2013. Did GWWC change their strategy at that point? (or their membership-counting-methodology?)

Lines going up are always good

Putting the same chart on a log scale, we can see that GWWC have actually done a reasonably good job of sustaining exponential growth.

Lines that go up on a log scale are even better!

Fitting a line of best fit to the chart, I estimate GWWC’s membership is growing 73.1% a year. Assuming 2% population growth, it will take just 30.25 years before all the world’s population are GWWC members. Taking over the world by the time I’m 58 sounds like pretty good going!

Happy Birthday, Giving What We Can!

Diseased reporting about Africa

The Giving What We Can facebook group recently linked to a Washington Post article called ‘The long and ugly tradition of treating Africa as a dirty, diseased place.’ GWWC didn’t actually write the piece, but they did share it, and described it as ‘a warranted critique’, so we’ll assume they basically agree with the contents.

The article had many interesting parts on Ebola, where they said basically exactly what you would expect them to say on the basis of their political views. But I’m not an expert on ebola, so I shan’t address that.

They have a section on phrenology, where they attack the idea that ‘the size, shape and other physical characteristics of a person’s skull determine that individual’s intelligence.’ Well-known example of scientific misconduct notwithstanding, in truth it appears that skull size does positively correlate with intelligence.. Perhaps one could excuse Seay and Dionne (the authors) by saying that correlation is not the same as determination – there are still clever people with small heads, and idiots with big heads. But at the very least they were extremely misleading.

But the really interesting thing is the accusation that westerns have unfairly portrayed Africa as being a ‘diseased place’. Strangely, nowhere in the article do the authors actually argue that Africa does not suffer from a heavy burden of disease. Perhaps this is one of those things that are wrong to say, even though they’re true?

Yet if so, how strange for GWWC to share it! After all, GWWC recommends Against Malaria Foundation, which combats malaria in Africa. True, AMF also has operations in Asia and South Africa – but when called upon to describe AMF’s good work, GWWC describe it as saving “primarily African children who have been unable to develop immunity. It is one of Africa’s biggest killers.”

GWWC also recommends Deworm the World, which also operates in Africa. As does Project Healthy Children, another GWWC top pick. And SCI, a long-standing GWWC favorite, only operates in Africa.

Why does GWWC recommend these charities? Because they tackle diseases that are very cheap to treat, so we can easily do a lot of good by funding their treatments. They’re so cheap that they’ve been irradicated from western countries.

So GWWC should be well aware that Africa suffers from many diseases unknown in the west. Indeed, much of GWWC’s public relations work involves educating people about the opportunity for improvement these diseases represent. GWWC spends a lot of time talking about diseases prevalent in Africa, but absent in the west. So isn’t GWWC basically guilty of representing Africa as a ‘diseased place’?

Sure, GWWC could argue that there’s nothing wrong with saying this. It is, after all, true. But they why are we representing the Washington Post’s article as ‘warranted’?

Concern for those we know not

Many social movements involve attempts to improve the welfare, rights or status of the movement’s own members. For example:

  • Nationalist Parties: try to support the people in the country, and are generally mainly supported by people in that country. It’s rare to very actively support another country’s nationalist movement, unless as a proxy in a war.
  • Labor Unions: at least initially, these were formed of working class people trying to benefit themselves.
  • Feminism: though there is considerable debate about the definition, this is generally considered to be about supporting women, and has over twice as many female supporters as male supporters. This is especially unusual when you realize that most social movements (including effective altruism) are primarily male.*

In other examples, the people in the movement are closely related to but distinct from the supposed beneficiaries:

  • Home-schooling: the parents who lobby for the legality of home-schooling are too old to benefit from it themselves, but do hope to benefit their children.
  • Soup Kitchens: people donating to soup kitchens probably have enough to eat themselves, but they hope to benefit others in their community.
  • Upper-class socialists, straight LGBT activists, male feminists and so on would also fit into this category.

Effective Altruism takes this one step further, however. Not only do most EAs care about people with little regard for nationality, most of our causes have beneficiaries extremely remote from ourselves:

  • Third World Hunger/Health: Virtually all EAs are part of the middle classes of the developed world. Few have ever been to Africa, and fewer still have ever met a beneficiary of GiveWell. Yet EAs continue to send large amounts of money to them, motivated only by abstract benevolence.
  • Animal Rights: Very few EAs have been to a factory farm, and the animals won’t reciprocate our concern. I guess everyone has seen animals in person, but rarely the intended beneficiaries.
  • Existential Risk: Here, the benefits mainly accrue to people so remote they don’t even exist yet.

I wonder if this is related to the typical backgrounds of effective altruists: physics, math and philosophy, all of which are extremely abstract, and rely on generalizing ideas from the specific to the general. Perhaps only those with a case of memetic immune disorder are capable of forgetting the original purpose of ethics was reciprocal altruism and kin selection, and instead generalize it to include people they have never met and never will.

I can think of only a few examples of other social movements with beneficiaries as remote:

  • Anti-Slavery in northern England: the Manchester cotton mill workers supporting abolition, even though they had never met a slave, and actually directly personally benefited from slavery.
  • The Pro-Life Movement: pro-life activists can hardly be said to be directly benefiting, and nor have they ever met an unborn child (though they may have seen ultrasounds, EAs have seen pictures of third world hunger). Pro-abortion people would argue that this case is almost identical to the Existential Risk case, as the beneficiaries aren’t yet people.

These examples do not seem to support my memetic immune disorder theory: Lancaster mill workers were not well-known for their educational level. But England as a whole was very well educated, and banned the slave trade for apparently largely altruistic reasons.

 


 

*I realize there is much debate on these points; some people argue that feminism is good for men, some that it is bad for women, and the YouGov article even argues there is little gender difference in support, though I think they have made the motte and bailey error. But you are welcome to substitute your own examples.

RCT as I say, not as I do

Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs) are the gold standard in policy evaluation.

Say you’re investigating a third world development policy, like building schools, or installing water pumps, or distributing malaria-resistant bednets. A random sample of the villages in an area are selected to receive the policy. The other villages form the control group, and receive no special treatment. Metrics on various desiderata are recorded for each village, like income, lifespan and school attendance. By comparing these outcomes between villages with and without the intervention, we can judge whether it made a statistically significant difference.

RCTs give us strong evidence of a causal link between the intervention and the result – we assume there were no other systematic differences between the treatment and control villages, so we have good grounds for thinking the differences in outcome were due to the intervention.

This is a marked improvement over typical methods of evaluation. One such method is simply to not investigate results at all, because it seems obvious that the intervention is beneficial. But people’s intuitions are not very good at judging which interventions work. When Michael Kremer and Rachel Glennerster did a series of education RCTs in Kenya, all their best ideas turned out to be totally ineffective – plausible ideas like providing textbooks or teachers to schools had little impact. The one thing that did make a difference – deworming the children of intestinal worms – was not something you’d necessarily have expected to have the biggest impact on education. Our intuitions are not magic – there’s no clear reason to expect our to have evolved good intuitions into the effectiveness of developmental policies.

A common alternative is to give everyone the intervention, and see if outcomes improve. This doesn’t work either – outcomes might have improved for other reasons. Or, if outcomes deteriorated, maybe they would have been even worse without the intervention. Without RCTs, it’s very difficult to tell. Another alternative to RCTs is to compare outcomes for villages which had schools in the first place to those which didn’t, before you intervene at all, and see if the former have better outcomes. But then you can’t tell if there was a third factor that causes both schools and outcomes – maybe the richer villages could afford to build more schools.

The other main use of RCTs is in pharmaceuticals – companies that develop a new drug have to go through years of testing where they randomly assign the drug to some patients but not others, so we can be reasonably confident that the drug both achieves its aims and doesn’t cause harmful side effects.

One of the major criticisms of RCTs is that they are unfair, because you’re denying the benefits of the intervention to those in the control group. You could have given vaccinations to everyone, but instead you only gave them to half the people, thereby depriving the second half of the benefits. That’s horrible, so you should give everyone the treatment instead. This is a reasonably intelligent discussion of the issue.

But this is probably a mistake. Leaving aside the issue that it’s more expensive to give everyone the treatment than a subset (though RCTs do cost money to run), it’s a very static analysis. Perhaps in the short term giving everyone the best we have might produce the best expected results. But in the long term, we need to experiment to learn more about what works best. It is far better to apply the scientific method now and invest in knowledge that will be useful later than to cease progress on the issue.

Indeed, without doing so we could have little confidence that our actions were actually doing any good at all! Many interventions received huge amounts of funding, only for us to realize, years later, that they weren’t really achieving much. For example, for a while PlayPumps – children’s roundabouts that pumped drinking water – were all the rage, and millions of dollars raised, before people realized that they were expensive and inefficient. Worse, they didn’t even work as roundabouts, as the energy taken out of the system to pump the water meant they were no fun to play with.

Another excellent example of the importance of RCTs is Diacidem. Founded in 1965 by Lyndon Diacidem, it now spends $415 million a year, largely funded by the US government, on a variety of healthcare projects in the third world, where it deliberately targets the very poorest people. Given that total US foreign aid spending on healthcare is around $1,318 million, this is a very substantial program.

Diacidem have done RCTs. They did one with 3,958 people from 1974 to 1982, where they randomly treated some people but not others. The long time horizon and large sample size makes this an especially good study.

Unfortunately, they failed to find any improvement on nearly all of the metrics they used, and as they used a 5% confidence interval, you’d expect one to appear significant just by chance.

 “for the average participant, any true differences would be clinically and socially negligible… for the five general health measures, we could detect no significant positive effect… among participants who were judged to be at elevated risk [the intervention] has no detectable effect.

Even for those with low income and initial ill health, surely the easiest to help, they didn’t find any improvements in physical functioning, mental health, or their other metrics.

They did a second study in 2008, with 12,229 people, and the results were similar. People in the treatment groups got diagnosed and treated a lot more, but their actual health outcomes didn’t seem to improve at all. Perhaps most damningly,

“We did not detect a significant difference in the quality of life related to physical health or in self-reported levels of pain or happiness.”

Given that these two studies gave such negative results, you would expect there to be a lot more research on the effectiveness of Diacidem – if not simply closing it down. When there are highly cost-effective charities than can save lives with more funding, it is wrong to waste money on charities that don’t seem to really achieve anything instead. But there seems to be no will at all to do any further study. People like to feel like they’re doing good, and don’t like to have their charity criticized. Diacidem is political popular, so it’s probably here to stay.

Sound bad?

Unfortunately, things are far worse than that. Diacidem does not actually cost $415 million a year – in 2012, they spent over $415 billion, over 300 times as much as the US spends on healthcare aid. It wasn’t founded by Lyndon Diacidem, but by Lyndon Johnson (among others) Nor does it target the very poorest people in the third world – it targets people who are much better off than the average person in the third world.

The RCTs mentioned above are the RAND healthcare experiment and the Oregon healthcare experiment, with some good discussion here and here.

Oh, and it’s not actually called Diacidem – it’s called Medicaid.