Category Archives: Estimates

GiveWell and the problem of partial funding

At the end of 2015, GiveWell wrote up its reasons for recommending that Good Ventures partially but not fully fund the GiveWell top charities. This reasoning seemed incomplete to me, and when I talked about it with others in the EA community, their explanations tended to switch between what seemed to me to be incomplete and mutually exclusive models of what was going on. This bothered me, because the relevant principles are close to the core of what EA is.

A foundation that plans to move around ten billion dollars and is relying on advice from GiveWell isn’t enough to get the top charities fully funded. That’s weird and surprising. The mysterious tendency to accumulate big piles of money and then not do anything with most of it seemed like a pretty important problem, and I wanted to understand it before trying to add more money to this particular pile.

So I decided to write up, as best I could, a clear, disjunctive treatment of the main arguments I’d seen for the behavior of GiveWell, the Open Philanthropy Project, and Good Ventures. Unfortunately, my writeup ended up being very long. I’ve since been encouraged to write a shorter summary with more specific recommendations. This is that summary. Continue reading

Sample means, how do they work?

You know how people make public health decisions about food fortification, and medical decisions about taking supplements, based on things like the Recommended Daily Allowance?

Well, there's an article in Nutrients titled A Statistical Error in the Estimation of the Recommended Dietary Allowance for Vitamin D. This paper says the following about the info used to establish the US recommended daily allowance for vitamin D:

The correct interpretation of the lower prediction limit is that 97.5% of study averages are predicted to have values exceeding this limit. This is essentially different from the IOM’s conclusion that 97.5% of individuals will have values exceeding the lower prediction limit.

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Costs are not benefits

You're about to brush your teeth but you're all out of toothpaste, so you walk over to the drugstore. They're out of your favorite toothpaste too, but there's a shampoo available for the same price. On the efficient market hypothesis, you expect that the market prices already contain all relevant information about the products, so you have no reason to think the shampoo is less valuable to you. So you buy it, go home, and wash your hair.

What's wrong with this story?

The problem is that you're using a marginalist heuristic. The efficient market hypothesis applies to markets in which people have roughly the same preferences. Everyone wants roughly the same thing from their financial investments - to make more money. So at any given level of risk, you should expect to evaluate tradeoffs the same as anyone else does.

In the case of the drugstore, you have a lot of information about whether you prefer shampoo or toothpaste, that is unlikely to be reflected in the price. The efficient market hypothesis suggests that you shouldn't expect to get a much better deal in a nearby store, but not that you should be indifferent between all similarly priced goods. You value toothpaste over shampoo a lot more than any price difference is likely to reflect, because you have what is called an inframarginal preference: you need toothpaste, and you've already got enough shampoo.

Critch just reposted an old argument in favor of voting, by doing a back of the envelope calculation of its expected impact. The model is perfectly fine, but to estimate the value, he uses a related cost. I don't think this seems like a reasonable thing to do if you're not making the shampoo-for-toothpaste error. Continue reading

GiveWell: a case study in effective altruism, part 3

This is part of a series of blog posts examining seven arguments I laid out for limiting Good Ventures funding to the GiveWell top charities. My prior post considered the first argument, that the Open Philanthropy Project, and thus Good Ventures, has superior judgment to that of GiveWell donors. In this post, I consider the second argument:

Even if Good Ventures isn't special, it should expect that some of its favorite giving opportunities will be ones that others can't recognize as good ideas, due to different judgment, expertise, and values. If the Open Philanthropy Project does not expect to be able to persuade other future donors, but would be able to persuade Good Ventures, then these opportunities will only be funded in the future if Good Ventures holds onto its money for long enough. Thus, while Good Ventures may currently have a lower opportunity cost than individual GiveWell donors, this will quickly change if it commits to fully funding the GiveWell top charities.

This post is my most direct response to GiveWell's blog post explaining the reasoning behind its "splitting" recommendation.

Argument 2: Bargaining power

In its blog post on giving now vs later, GiveWell discusses potential policies it might have recommended to Good Ventures on funding the GiveWell top charities' funding gap. Good Ventures and individual GiveWell donors may have very different opinions on what else their money should be spent on, but still agree that the optimal allocation of resources should prioritize the GiveWell top charities.

Without holding the view that Good Ventures currently has a higher opportunity cost than individual GiveWell donors, GiveWell might still believe that committing to fully funding the GiveWell top charities' funding gaps would be a mistake on the part of Good Ventures. GiveWell might believe that this commitment would be bad because it cedes all of Good Ventures's bargaining power to other GiveWell donors.

GiveWell begins with a principled argument, asking whether Good Ventures should respond to each additional dollar given by other GiveWell donors by giving less ("funging"), more ("matching"), or the same amount ("splitting"). GiveWell recommends splitting, and in the first major section, I explore the principled case for this, assuming the conditions of symmetry laid out above. I argue that the principled case for splitting is only coherent under very pessimistic assumptions about effective altruists' ability to cooperate with one another. These assumptions may be justified, but as far as I can tell, haven't been seriously tested.

GiveWell goes on to make a specific recommendation that Good Ventures's "fair share" of the GiveWell top charities is 50% of the top charities' total room for more funding. In the second major section of this post, I see whether this recommendation seems intuitively fair, trying a couple of different simple back-of-the-envelope quantitative comparisons. I argue that the most intuitive relative allocation assigns substantially more of the funding burden to Good Ventures at present. Continue reading

GiveWell: a case study in effective altruism, part 2

In my prior post on this topic, I laid out seven distinct arguments for limiting Good Ventures funding to the GiveWell top charities. In this post, I explore the first of these:

Good Ventures can find better opportunities to do good than other GiveWell donors can, because it is willing to accept more unconventional recommendations from the Open Philanthropy Project.

I'll start by breaking this up into two claims (disjunctions inside disjunctions!): a bold-sounding claim that the Open Philanthropy Project's impact will be world-historically big, and a milder-sounding claim that it can merely do better than other GiveWell donors.

The bold claim seems largely inconsistent with GiveWell's and the Open Philanthropy Project's public statements, but their behavior sometimes seems consistent with believing it. However, if the bold claim is true, it suggests that the correct allocation from Good Ventures to the GiveWell top charities is zero. In addition, as a bold claim, the burden of evidence ought to be fairly high. As things currently stand, the Open Philanthropy Project is not even claiming that this is true, much less providing us with reason to believe it.

The mild claim sounds much less arrogant, is plausibly consistent with GiveWell's public statements, and is consistent with partial funding of the GiveWell top charities. However, the mild claim, when used as a justification for partial funding of the GiveWell top charities, implies some combination of the following undesirable properties.

  • Other GiveWell donors' next-best options are worthless.
  • Good Ventures and other GiveWell donors have an adversarial relationship, and GiveWell is taking Good Ventures's side.

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Anxiety, heart attack, or stroke?

One of my friends who has regular anxiety attacks asked me to help her disambiguate between anxiety attacks and strokes. I wrote up a brief email, and then figured it might be worth sharing with the broader world. I’m not an expert on this, this is just the result of a little searching, so anything you hear from a genuine trusted expert who knows your particular situation should probably override this, but I expect it’s better than no info at all. I answered the question for her particular situation but it should be easy to modify as needed. Continue reading

The cost of cryopreservation

I put together a spreadsheet for a couple of friends calculating how much cryonics costs, and I figured I'd publish it here in case it's useful for anyone else. I can't promise that these numbers are perfect, but this should help you get at least a rough handle on how much cryonics really costs.

Cryonics costs present value worksheet

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