Effective Altruism is not a no-brainer

Ozy writes that Effective Altruism avoids the typical failure modes of people in developed countries intervening in developing ones, because it is evidence-based, humble, and respects the autonomy of the recipients of the intervention. The basic reasoning is that Effective Altruists pay attention to empirical evidence, focus on what's shown to work, change what they're doing when it looks like it's not working, and respect the autonomy of the people for whose benefit they're intervening.

Effective Altruism is not actually safe from the failure modes alluded to:

    • Effective Altruism is not humble. Its narrative in practice relies on claims of outsized benefits in terms of hard-to-measure things like life outcomes, which makes humility quite difficult. Outsized benefits probably require going out on a limb and doing extraordinary things.
    • Effective Altruism is less evidence based than EAs think. People talk about some EA charities as producing large improvements in life outcomes with certainty, but this is often not happening. And when the facts disagree with our hopes, we seem pretty good at ignoring the facts.
    • Effective Altruism is not about autonomy. Some EA charities are good at respecting the autonomy of beneficiaries, but this is nowhere near central to the movement, and many top charities are not about autonomy at all, and are much better fits for the stereotype of rich Westerners deciding that they know what's best for people in poor countries.
    • Standard failure modes are standard. We need a model of what causes them, and how we're different, in order to be sure we're avoiding them.

Effective Altruism neither can nor ought be humble

Effective Altruism is often pitched through the narrative that if we sincerely try to do good better, we will end up doing the most possible good one can do. The narrative is not that there's a particular type of doing good that we're specializing in, that other people happen to have neglected; it's a universalist movement. Either we're claiming to be more altruistic than all the other effective people or more effective than the other altruistic ones, or both. This is not a humble claim.

We should expect to have to go out on a limb in order to find extraordinarily effective interventions. If Effective Altruist interventions are so obvious that anyone can easily verify that it's better, and they're still neglected by the rest of the world, that implies that the rest of the world is stupid, evil, or both. If we don't believe one of those things - and in general it seems bad practice to blithely assume that everyone else disagrees with you for one of those reasons - then we should not expect it to be something that's uncontroversially good and cost-effective. We should expect that when we do find an intervention that seems clearly better to us, it will be somehow difficult to explain our reasoning or require some sort of expert knowledge to understand or violate people's moral intuitions or in some other way seem weird or speculative or just not the done thing.

Effective Altruism is based on weaker evidence than EAs think

Ozy writes:

First, effective altruists tend to emphasize evidence. It’s all too easy to make assumptions that people in developing countries really want what you think they ought to want, regardless of their stated preferences. It’s all too easy to blunder into some complex system you don’t understand and mess everything up, because you have a PhD and none of these people have a fourth-grade education and how could they possibly know more than you do? It’s all too easy to tell yourself a beautiful story about the grateful natives and ignore the facts on the ground. It’s all too easy to decide that clearly what would really benefit people in the developing world is whatever benefits you.

[...] There’s a reason that a lot of recommended effective altruist charities are in public health. Economic development involves a host of assumptions about how economies work and how to trade off different values and so on, any of which can be mistaken and then you have an utter disaster on your hands. Deworming only requires the assumptions that deworming medicine works the same in Africa as it does in Europe and that most people do not like being infested with worms, both of which seem to be on fairly firm ground.

This does not seem like an opinion unique to Ozy - Ozy is just nice enough to write this up on their blog where I can critique it. I used to talk this way too. Many Effective Altruists I've spoken with seem to think that the case for deworming as a high-value intervention is a slam dunk, based on GiveWell's research. They seem to think that we can be very confident that we're making a huge difference in human well-being. Unfortunately, I do not think that this is borne out by the facts. And GiveWell agrees. Publicly.

GiveWell doesn't think deworming is a slam dunk; Effective Altruists ignored this

Let's talk about deworming, a star intervention among GiveWell's top charities. I get the sense that people think there's decisive evidence from randomized controlled trials that clearly shows that deworming charities have huge effects on life outcomes. GiveWell recently published a blog post clarifying their position on this:

Our cost-effectiveness model implies that most staff members believe there is at most a 1-2% chance that deworming programs conducted today have similar impacts to those directly implied by the randomized controlled trials on which we rely most heavily, which differed from modern-day deworming programs in a number of important ways. [...]

The “1-2% chance” doesn’t mean that we think that there’s a 98-99% chance that deworming programs have no effect at all, but that we think it’s appropriate to use a 1-2% multiplier compared to the impact found in the original trials – this could be thought of as assigning some chance that deworming programs have no impact, and some chance that the impact exists but will be smaller than was measured in those trials. For instance, as we describe below, worm infection rates are much lower in present contexts than they were in the trials.

That GiveWell blog post was published after Ozy's post, but GiveWell's uncertainty about the magnitude of deworming's impact was already publicly available on GiveWell's website. It's a bad sign about Effective Altruists' attitude towards evidence that GiveWell needed to yell this loud to have people take what they're saying seriously.

If you read GiveWell's intervention report and follow the links, you will find that there's a sort of evidence pyramid. There's strong base of empirical evidence for the comparatively modest result that deworming pills kill worms. There are two controlled trials (one randomized, the other one close enough) that show effects on school attendance and test scores but not IQ, but they're in areas nearly adjacent to each other during similar time periods, in which infection rates were probably unusually high due to El Niño. Only one of these studies measures the thing we're most interested in, a long-term life outcome improvement: an increase in income as a higher share of treated than untreated kids were able to get comparatively high-wage manufacturing jobs.

This is not terribly weak evidence. Personally, I think this is enough evidence to justify visiting schools in poor villages and making kids take gigantic bitter poisonous pills that often make them feel sick twice a year every year. But let's look at this with clear eyes. "Deworming kills worms" is not what makes this charity exciting to Effective Altruists - people are excited about the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative and Deworm the World because their programs look like they might provide huge improvements in life outcomes, relative to costs. And this depends on the tip of the evidence pyramid. Medicine's track record is not that great. It would not be terribly surprising if under the more ordinary circumstances of areas treated, routine deworming did more harm than good.

The cost-effectiveness spreadsheet linked to in GiveWell's intervention report implies something like a 70% chance that the single study relied on for the long-term life outcomes result is wrong - and another 70% chance that even if the effect is real, it doesn't generalize outside the period and population studied. I would prefer if the cost-effectiveness model were made explicit in the text of the intervention report rather than only in a linked spreadsheet, but it's available, publicly, on GiveWell's website. Some Effective Altruists just seem intent on assuming that the underlying uncertainty doesn't exist.

SCI isn't a slam dunk as an organization either

There are two huge gaping holes in the case for the effectiveness of giving to GiveWell's top-recommended deworming charity, the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (SCI). (Note that Deworm the World is also a GiveWell top charity, but GiveWell does not believe that they are funding constrained.) The first is that they seem not to be on top of how much money they have or where it's going. From GiveWell's page on SCI:

We wrote in our November 2015 review that SCI's accounting system seemed ill-suited to its needs and that SCI's financial information was limited in scope and prone to containing errors. In December 2015, we spoke to SCI's former Finance and Operations Manager, who confirmed that the financial systems SCI was using were not well suited for NGO grant management, and that SCI had not allocated sufficient staff capacity to managing its finances. [...]

Based on our experiences with SCI's financial reports, we believe that they are prone to containing errors. We detail the errors we have learned about in this footnote (including some errors we found in 2016). Of particular note: (1) a July 2015 grant from GiveWell for about $333,000 was misallocated within Imperial College until we noticed it was missing from SCI's revenue in March 2016; and (2) in 2015, SCI provided inaccurate information about how much funding it would have from other sources in 2016, leading us to overestimate its room for more funding by $1.5 million.

It's also hard to get clear comprehensive data on what they're actually doing:

The evidence we have seen on SCI's track record of reaching those it has targeted for treatment is fairly limited. We have seen results from about half of the countries SCI has worked in and, for those countries from which we have seen results, we have generally seen one year of results, though SCI has worked in the country for several years.

To be clear, I'm not sure that this makes SCI exceptionally sloppy as an organization. Most charities don't seem to try to be even this transparent, and the fact that we have observed all these flaws in an organization willing to talk to GiveWell strongly suggests that similarly respectable charities we aren't looking at in detail are doing even worse.

Effective Altruism doesn't prioritize autonomy

GiveDirectly is a great example of an org that respects the autonomy of its beneficiaries, as Ozy points out:

Second, effective altruists care a lot about autonomy. Give Directly does what it says on the tin: it gives poor people in Africa unconditional cash transfers. Much to the surprise of burden-carrying white men everywhere, it turns out that if you give people money they make basically reasonable decisions about what to spend it on: they buy livestock, furniture, and iron roofs. It turns out that people generally know their own needs better than you do, and you should generally trust them instead of assuming that you know better. Consider the effective altruist proverb: if your intervention cannot outperform giving poor people cash, you should just give them the cash. This sort of essential respect for the preferences of people in the developing world speaks well for our ability to actually improve things, instead of just making ourselves feel better.

However, to remind you - SCI is also a central EA charity. Their mission is to go into villages full of poor people, round up the kids during schooltime, and make them swallow gigantic bitter pills full of poison that often make them sick, twice a year, every year, for their own good. Then sending another team in to check the pill-givers' work, to see whether the kids actually got the pills, because we don't even trust the pill-givers. As I said above, I think that the expected value of this program is strongly positive - but it's sure as heck not about autonomy.

If you want a program that delivers medicine in a way that respects autonomy, you might want to look at Living Goods, a GiveWell "standout" charity that distributes medicine (including deworming pills!) and other goods through trained local salespeople who sell them door to door.

To be clear, I don't think that prioritizing estimated effectiveness over autonomy is a mistake in the case of SCI. It looks like the expected value of the best known interventions that optimize for autonomy is not so large as to make earning to give a terribly appealing option. The very best interventions - the ones orders of magnitude better than giving to GiveDirectly - involve some steering power on the part of the donor and the organization.

But we shouldn't pretend that a single giving opportunity exists that combines SCI's expected value, the Against Malaria Foundation's high confidence that the intervention improves outcomes a lot, and GiveDirectly's respect for autonomy and high confidence that more money means more program. These are different things.

Effective Altruists don't change our minds

I don't want to let GiveWell off the hook entirely. Something about their rhetoric and their place in society seems to reliably cause positive portrayals in mainstream publications to say things like:

The most common refrain from experts I consulted was that my priorities pointed in a clear direction: If what you want is to save lives with certainty, several people said, you have to go to GiveWell.

You can't buy certainty. GiveWell agrees - you just can't do it. At least not without a lot more personal involvement than giving to some of the GiveWell top charities. The fact that many Effective Altruists persistently think you can is a bad sign.

Effective Altruism cannot be humble - it demands high-value giving opportunities

Peter Singer persuaded a bunch of people to give all they can to the developing world, under the premise that you can save a life for not very much money. A lot of Effective Altruists were basically persuaded to devote their careers to doing the most good by this argument:

To challenge my students to think about the ethics of what we owe to people in need, I ask them to imagine that their route to the university takes them past a shallow pond. One morning, I say to them, you notice a child has fallen in and appears to be drowning. To wade in and pull the child out would be easy but it will mean that you get your clothes wet and muddy, and by the time you go home and change you will have missed your first class.

I then ask the students: do you have any obligation to rescue the child? Unanimously, the students say they do. The importance of saving a child so far outweighs the cost of getting one’s clothes muddy and missing a class, that they refuse to consider it any kind of excuse for not saving the child. Does it make a difference, I ask, that there are other people walking past the pond who would equally be able to rescue the child but are not doing so? No, the students reply, the fact that others are not doing what they ought to do is no reason why I should not do what I ought to do.

Once we are all clear about our obligations to rescue the drowning child in front of us, I ask: would it make any difference if the child were far away, in another country perhaps, but similarly in danger of death, and equally within your means to save, at no great cost – and absolutely no danger – to yourself? Virtually all agree that distance and nationality make no moral difference to the situation. I then point out that we are all in that situation of the person passing the shallow pond: we can all save lives of people, both children and adults, who would otherwise die, and we can do so at a very small cost to us: the cost of a new CD, a shirt or a night out at a restaurant or concert, can mean the difference between life and death to more than one person somewhere in the world – and overseas aid agencies like Oxfam overcome the problem of acting at a distance.

But the moral force of the argument depends on the strong contrast between the magnitude of what is given up, and the magnitude of what is saved. (Jonah Sinick makes a similar point here.)

GiveWell can be thought of as a test of the hypothesis that we can find exceptionally good giving opportunities, if we use a certain type of high standards of formal rigor and accountability. It turns out that when you try to do that, you can't judge most programs, most organizations don't want to talk to you, and when you finally find something you have moderate confidence in working and an organization you're moderately sure is actually doing the intervention, the expected value is nowhere near the fantastically high results we were expecting.

When conventional giving opportunities that are easy to verify don't turn out to be extremely high expected value, you have a choice. You can accept a lower payoff, or you can start going out on a limb and making personal judgment calls in situations with higher uncertainty, or you can play pretend.

With its SCI recommendation, GiveWell took the second approach. But it seems that lots of EAs are taking the third.

Effective Altruists are chasing yields

In the investment world, there is a concept called chasing yield. In an environment where asset prices are high and the yield on investments is low, investors believe that they ought to be able to find better returns, so they buy assets with higher returns - pretending that they're not taking on more risk by doing so:

“More money has been lost reaching for yield than at the point of a gun.”

Raymond DeVoe, Jr. (February 1995)

Investors may be very tempted to reach for yield in today’s low interest rate environment. [...]

There is no shortage of headlines in the financial press instructing investors where they can find high-yield investment opportunities. I’m not going to debate the investment merits of the various strategies being touted for yield, except to remind you there is no such thing as a free lunch. Investments don’t pay 6% in a 2% environment unless risk is involved. If you don’t understand the risk or don’t think any risk exists, you should run the other way.

Investors chase yield by lowering the credit quality of their fixed income investments. BB rated junk bonds are yielding 4.75% versus the 10-year Treasury note at 1.9%. They also chase yield by extending maturities. A 30-year treasury bond is yielding 2.7%, almost a full percent above the 10-year. There are also income funds with creative strategies, preferred stocks, master limited partnerships, leveraged income funds, etc. all promising better yield for the income-starved investor.

It's worth noting that investors are humans, and anything that will tempt an investor in investment-world will tempt you in your world as well. When you buy into a narrative that a certain sort of opportunity is available, and make life decisions based on that assumption, it's very hard to notice when the evidence suggests that this situation is no longer true - or maybe that it never was.

It can hurt to learn that you're not going to be able to keep a promise. It's really bad news, and at first it feels to hard to bear. It hurts to learn that you're not going to be able to help others as much as you'd hoped. And it's the most understandable thing in the world to flinch away from that.

This seems like basically what's going on in Effective Altruism. Public EA figures tacitly promise that you can help poor people, with high confidence, cheaply. Effective Altruists make life choices based on the assumption that there are opportunities to save a live for a thousand dollars or less with near certainty, so there's some motivation not to notice when reality fails to live up to our demands.

But when we succumb to that motivation, we are not responding to the evidence. Because of this, Effective Altruism is not as evidence based in practice as we like to think.

Effective Altruism quacks like a duck

Ozy's description of the demographics of Effective Altruism don't look promising:

Indeed, its success in avoiding these failure modes is striking, given that its membership is overwhelmingly white and from the developed world and has a collective racial politics that can be best described as ’embarrassing.’

The prior on this sort of group causing harm through well-meaning interventions in the lives of distant poor people is pretty high. High enough that I feel like there's some Chesterton's Fence analogue that should be invoked here - if there's a pattern that reliably produces some failure mode, you should really be sure you understand how it produces that failure mode before blithely assuming that you'll do better just because your inside view doesn't predict those failure modes. The inside view of the people who came before also didn't predict those failure modes!

People who throw stones should live in glass houses

This blog post has mostly been a criticism of good people trying to do good things. I feel that it's good form for me to offer up some constructive suggestions for other people to criticize.

Recommendations for GiveWell

  • Make cost-effective analysis models more explicit, in the body of the intervention report, and again in the body of top charity reports:
    • Not because the exact model is likely to be a very precise fit, but precisely to make it clear that you are relying on a model and making inferences, where you believe there's uncertainty, and where you're more confident.
    • Filling in the model with numbers will help, not because the exact quantitative result is very meaningful, but because "70% chance" is expressive in a sense that "seems likely but some reservations" isn't.
    • This will also make it easier to argue with GiveWell's assumptions, which will create more opportunities for GiveWell to learn, faster.
  • Givewell publishes a lot of long pages, that necessarily end up burying very interesting information. Replacing a long blog post with a series of shorter ones published one at a time as info becomes publishable would invite more feedback, for a few reasons:
    • Often in very long blog posts and reports, very interesting info isn't headlined up top, which makes readers less likely to notice it.
    • This might help with a faster thought-to-publication cycle, which I think would be very high value on its own as it would encourage more feedback (since it's less motivating to comment on stuff when the decision was long ago). This would also increase the timeliness of the external feedback GiveWell gets.

Recommendations for Effective Altruists

  • Stop making claims you haven't been personally persuaded of by reviewing the evidence.
  • Stop treating GiveWell like a divine revelation of the one true giving opportunity. They're not, and they know it, and they keep saying so. Believe them.
  • SCI still seems like a fine organization to donate to if you're short on research time right now but have money to give.
  • In the long run, the way to have a high impact is to do your own thinking. Favor understanding what your likely effect on the world is, over abstract considerations of "bestness." The former will cause you to apply more thought, and the latter will create subtle mental pressure to look away from problems with your system.

Reach recommendations for people who want to decisively contribute

  • GiveWell's done a great job putting a lot of important information out there, but it's in a fairly dense form and it's often difficult to figure out the exact reasoning behind a recommendation. (Case in point: GiveWell's recent blog post was surprising to many people.) Start organizing this information into a wiki on the effectiveness of interventions and charities. (If you decide to pick up this project, I invite you to ping me or comment below to help coordinate with other interested people. This probably overlaps in ambition with Arbital but is feasible now without the completion of someone else's technical project.)

Next actions for me

  • Offer up a more specific critique of GiveWell's and Effective Altruists' intellectual processes and propose alternatives that they can adopt or argue with. I'm throwing stones, so I should show people the basic courtesy of living in a glass house.


I've worked for GiveWell and Open Philanthropy Project in the past. I'm still in touch and on good terms with people there, but the opinions here are my own.

33 thoughts on “Effective Altruism is not a no-brainer

  1. Robin Hanson

    You miss the bigger effect: The charities that GiveWell rates high all have plenty of money; there is far more money chasing effectiveness than those charities can handle. So the marginal effect of your giving is on other charities, ones much harder to evaluate.

      1. Robin Hanson

        I thought I had learned from you that there are large donors capable of funding all of your top charities, who choose not to because they don't want to hog them, and expect others will fund mostly make up the gaps. Which is why groups like Open Philanthropy allow themselves focus on funding other activities.

        1. Holden Karnofsky

          More info here: http://blog.givewell.org/2015/11/25/good-ventures-and-giving-now-vs-later/#Coordination

          It's true that there's one donor (Good Ventures) that could fully fund our top charities if it chose to, and we've advised against it for game-theoretic reasons. But it's not true that this is primarily about not "hogging" the giving opportunities - rather, it's about trying to achieve a fair split (more at the link). Most importantly, we don't expect others will fully make up the gaps: our top charities have substantial gaps that we don't expect to be filled.

  2. Holden Karnofsky

    Hi Ben, thanks for the thoughtful post. A few reactions ...

    1. I think your characterization of GiveWell and its views here is largely accurate.

    2. I'm not going to comment on your characterization of effective altruists and their views, except to say that I think there is a lot of variation within the community.

    3. In response to your suggestions:

    A. We don't put our spreadsheets front-and-center because we think the main effect of this would be to add increased emphasis to the cost-effectiveness figures. We want to discourage people from taking these figures too literally or making the specific estimates too central to the case for our top charities. We used to have the spreadsheets more front-and-center, and we think it's unlikely that this would lead to more understanding of the specific key judgment calls in the model, as opposed to leading to more emphasis on the bottom-line figures. That said, we think it is straightforward for people who want to find our spreadsheets to find them, and we do generally encourage people to try putting their own assumptions in - we just haven't seen much sign that most of our audience is interested in doing so.

    B. Almost every GiveWell page and blog post includes a short summary at the top. That said, I agree with the idea that more frequent, narrower-scope blog posts would be helpful in highlighting major judgment calls we're making and major points of confusion. We've long had a goal of doing more of this, and the recent post on deworming is one example of increased investment in that goal.

    1. Benquo Post author

      I agree that there's a lot of variation. I'm trying to point to one particular narrative that I think is wrong and harmful. Effective Altruists have also done a lot of good, and many EAs continue to do and support extremely valuable work.

      I also agree that the deworming blog post is an example of the sort of thing I'm asking for more of. I was delighted to see it.

  3. Vipul Naik

    Hi Ben,

    Thanks for a really great post that contained a lot of things that I think are worth iterating. It might be worth disclosing that you have previously worked as a research analyst at GiveWell, but all views are of course your own, etc.

    As is customary for Internet comments, I will dwell on a point where I think your emphasis was off.

    > "Let’s talk about deworming, a star intervention among GiveWell’s top charities. I get the sense that people think there’s decisive evidence from randomized controlled trials that clearly shows that deworming charities have huge effects on life outcomes"

    I'm be curious to know where you "get the sense" for this.

    My impression is that while SCI and DTW are given honorary status by many self-identified EAs and other GiveWell followers as probably-effective-charities-because-GiveWell-recommends-them, this doesn't amount to anything close to a considered endorsement. If I were to look at what people were actually endorsing, I'd look at:

    (1) GiveWell money moved metrics: GiveWell provided a summary in their blog post at http://blog.givewell.org/2016/05/13/givewells-money-moved-web-traffic-2015/ that I further discussed at http://effective-altruism.com/r/main/ea/xn/givewell_money_moved_in_2015_a_review_of_my/ As you can see from GiveWell's summary, and as I discuss more in my post, the two main charities that get the bulk of non-Good Ventures money (about 90%) are GiveDirectly and AMF. As I also explain in my post, we should apply the caveat to money moved that most money is moved by big donors. So it may be that in terms of number of donors per charity (which GiveWell doesn't release) GiveDirectly and AMF don't reach 90%. But if you think of money moved as the strength of endorsement, then 90% is a reasonable conclusion.

    (2) Public announcements of charity donations: If you look at GiveWell staff members' personal donations, you'll see that none of them are donating to SCI. In fact, SCI isn't even mentioned in the body of the post! What about people outside GiveWell? Most of the fundraisers I heard of during Giving Season were associated with AMF. Charity Science's page lists three areas: cash transfers, bed nets, and deworming, but their donate page for deworming seems to go to Deworm the World's page, and not to SCI. In fact I don't recall reading any ringing endorsement of SCI, or any discussion at all of SCI as a charity that might be worth donating to.

    Given all this evidence, it's not very clear that either GiveWell donors or Effective Altruists had a clear and favorable impression of SCI, or even any impression at all beyond probably-good-but-haven't-looked-into-it, which is a reasonably okay first impression to have of something that you don't intend to investigate or act upon further.

    This does still leave open the question of whether GiveWell made a reasonable estimate of the uncertainties around deworming and SCI prior to July 2016, and whether it did a good job of communicating. This was a question Issa Rice raised at http://blog.givewell.org/2016/06/20/weve-learned-sci-year/#comment-939692 and I would tentatively say that GiveWell did mispredict or miscommunicate on this issue to some extent. Part of this, I think, stemmed from GiveWell not being sufficiently quantitative about how big its communication gap with SCI might be (i.e., although I had read their previous reports, I would not have thought based on those that GiveWell would find it totally expected that $330,000 in grant money would be unaccounted for). Regardless, I think that whatever issues there were, these didn't have a huge effect since most people ended up neither donating to nor advocating for SCI.

    1. Vipul Naik

      I just noticed that, according to the 2015 Effective Altruism Survey results, that were released a few hours ago, the number of self-identified EAs who donate to SCI is pretty large, and comparable with the number who donate to GiveDirectly. Both are about half the corresponding number for AMF and about 10% of the overall sampled population. That's interesting and might lead me to walk back partly on the claims in my original comment.

      Full PDF: https://eahub.org/sites/eahub.org/files/SurveyReport2015.pdf Pages 9 and 10

      1. Vipul Naik

        With that said, the survey donation data is from 2014, so isn't directly comparable with the GiveWell money moved numbers I mentioned in my first comment.

    2. Alexander Gordon-Brown

      There are aspects of this I agree with, but on balance I more disagree than agree. I'm going to focus on the areas of disagreement.

      "We should expect to have to go out on a limb in order to find extraordinarily effective interventions. If Effective Altruist interventions are so obvious that anyone can easily verify that it’s better, and they’re still neglected by the rest of the world, that implies that the rest of the world is stupid, evil, or both."

      Nope, it just implies the rest of the world doesn't care very much about effectiveness in altruistic actions (I guess you could call that 'evil', but it feels like a stretch. 'Apathetic' would both be closer.). The evidence for that statement is *huge*; survey data on people giving to charity highlights that almost nobody gives based on how effective they think the program is, Givewell hasn't been around for very long and before them I can't think of a charity evaluator looking at program effectiveness, and anyone who has even spoken to anybody about where they give to charity and why should have a wealth of anecdotal evidence as well.

      Is believing this bad form? Maybe, it's not a very nice thing to say about someone and I wouldn't frame it quite this way to someone's face. But in a closed sphere where I'm not directly engaging with those groups I don't care very much about that, mostly because the actual factual claim seems to be clearly true.

      Note your argument is basically an 'efficient market hypothesis' as applied to charity. But the EMH only works when the participants have incentives to act efficiently, which are notably lacking in the charity sphere.

      If the rest of the world did seem to be *trying* to act efficiently, and EA merely disagreed with the world's conclusions rather than their goals, I would indeed be much more sceptical of EA's conclusions. But actually when I see actors stating they have much the same goals, e.g. Bill Gates, I much more agree rather than disagree with their conclusions. In particular, note Bill Gates also thinks you can save lives much more cheaply in the developing world than the developed one (side note: is he making the claim that the world is stupid and/or evil too?)


      "That GiveWell blog post was published after Ozy’s post, but GiveWell’s uncertainty about the magnitude of deworming’s impact was already publicly available on GiveWell’s website. It’s a bad sign about Effective Altruists’ attitude towards evidence that GiveWell needed to yell this loud to have people take what they’re saying seriously."

      Vipul has already given what would be my primary critique on this; people putting their money where their mouth is were clearly not favouring deworming in large amounts. Also note that Givewell can be and was influencing the breakdown of money moved simply by recommending an allocation, which always favoured AMF (excepting the December 2013 set when there were RFMF concerns) and which I know people were taking seriously. Going back through the EA Facebook group there's been tons of talk about the shaky evidence for deworming for years and many donated to Give Directly in 2013/14 on that basis, while others felt deworming was a risk but ultimately worth it for potential high upside. So I just don't know where you got the impression that the vast bulk of EAs think deworming's impact was cut-and-dried.


      " It looks like the expected value of the best known interventions that optimize for autonomy is not so large as to make earning to give a terribly appealing option."

      "It turns out that when you try to do that, you can’t judge most programs, most organizations don’t want to talk to you, and when you finally find something you have moderate confidence in working and an organization you’re moderately sure is actually doing the intervention, the expected value is nowhere near the fantastically high results we were expecting."

      "When conventional giving opportunities that are easy to verify don’t turn out to be extremely high expected value, you have a choice. You can accept a lower payoff..."

      Wait, say what? If the evidence for bed nets and deworming was destroyed overnight leaving Give Directly as the best charity out there, it certainly wouldn't stop *me* earning to give. It would still be true that there are around two orders of magnitude difference in income between the richest and poorest places in the world, and I'd still expect direct cash transfers from developed to developing to have a 100x multiplier from the perspective of world utility (as a very very approximate first pass) as a result. The fact we can probably do even better than 100x is great for the world, but hardly necessary for the strength of the EA message. All you really need to believe is that money gets quite a lot less valuable when you have 100x more of it. Let's say the log-income/utility association is wildly wrong and actually 10x is the right multiplier. That's *still* very good. How often do you find interventions in rich countries where putting $100 in the right place leads to $1000 worth of better outcomes? If we starting talking about a multiplier of 5x or less, then I agree EA, at least as currently practiced, loses a lot of its appeal.

      But to be completely explicit, current multipliers on best charities seem more likely be more on the order of 1000x, though you have to accept some uncertainty ('go out on a limb') with that to get there. Those numbers have a *very* long way to fall before they stop being attractive.

      You actually make a mistake here that I think is quite common in EA, which is looking at Give Directly and saying 'meh, it's not that good'. I strongly disagree. Give Directly is thoroughly awesome. It just happens to probably-not be the *most* awesome thing out there.

      1. Benquo Post author


        Thanks for the specific critique!

        I don't see supporting SCI as a problem per se - like I said, I think they're doing a lot of good! I'm more worried about the way I've heard people talk about charities like SCI, and what I think this implies about their underlying heuristics.

        The efficient market hypothesis and being better than other people

        I agree that it's not reasonable to assume that charity generally is an efficient market. It's likely that in the conventional charity world, developing-world charities are comparatively underfunded. This is a pretty modest claim.

        It seems like for the GiveWell recommendation to carry a lot of weight within this category (where people involved have already been selected for caring about people in the developing world), you ought to believe that even within this category charities are mostly not trustworthy in some important way, and resources are being substantially misallocated such that giving to a grab-bag charity like Oxfam is a bad idea relative to giving to GiveWell-audited charities.

        Expected value modeling and authority

        I think the part of EA culture where people sketch out expected value arguments with explicit models, like you've done in your comment here, is basically healthy. I'm glad you're thinking about this stuff, and I'm glad you're motivated to give, with open eyes, on the basis of your own thinking.

        I think there's a second narrative that often gets mixed together with the one you're talking about, where EA organizations have the unique ability to identify the right giving opportunities, where you can be *sure* if (but only if) you trust an EA organization's recommendation. EA organizations tend to disavow this narrative, but people seem to want to believe it anyway, strongly enough to project it onto organizations like GiveWell.

        I think that people who buy into the authority narrative become unwilling to trust or even generate their own EV calculations, and end up acting much more conservatively than they otherwise might, leaving a lot of potential good on the table.

        I'm curious how much of this you agree with. To summarize, my claims are:

        1. The authority narrative is common is EA.
        2. People who buy into it have less freedom of action.
        3. This is bad because it means people neglect high-EV actions they'd otherwise take.
        1. Alexander Gordon-Brown

          "...giving to a grab-bag charity like Oxfam is a bad idea relative to giving to GiveWell-audited charities."

          To be honest, while I think this is *probably* true, I would hardly describe it as obviously true. If rich world donations were already focused on Oxfam-or-better charities, I would probably still give to GW charities but I wouldn't push that option to anyone else. Note that:

          (a) Many EAs used to give to Oxfam before GW gained prominence*.
          (b) Some still do; AFAIK GWWC members have so far given more money to Oxfam than Deworm the World**!

          I mostly give to GW charities over Oxfam because I want to incentivise charities being transparent, talking to GW, investing in monitoring/evaluation, etc. by showing them that there's a big pool of money out there that cares about exactly that and will reward that behaviour. In a world where the vast majority of donors don't care about those things I think that's an important message to send. But it's a very second-order effect and far from uncontroversial.

          "I think the part of EA culture where people sketch out expected value arguments with explicit models, like you’ve done in your comment here, is basically healthy...I’m glad you’re motivated to give...on the basis of your own thinking."

          First off, while I did think of this argument independently, I feel obliged to point out that the framing I've used (particularly the 100x multiplier concept) could have been lifted almost verbatim from Doing Good Better. That leads into my second point, which is that I don't think every individual donor needs to do this work (they can and should just read DGB, read GWs blog posts, etc.), and in fact I think that if they do it's a huge over-duplication across the community and a huge waste.

          If I think that there's a person or group of people out there who have the same goals as me, and they spend their whole working life looking for good opportunities, while I maybe spend the equivalent of a day or two and have less aptitude in that area to begin with, why on earth should I take my opinion over theirs? In quite a few places***, I think including DGB but can't find it right now, I've seen giving to GW charities recommended as a baseline, 'index fund' approach, or an easy first action to take. But I've yet to see it described as the be-all-and-end-all. I'll push back *if* and when I do see that.

          "1.The authority narrative is common is EA.
          2.People who buy into it have less freedom of action.
          3.This is bad because it means people neglect high-EV actions they’d otherwise take."

          This argument I've heard echoes of before, and disagreed with before****. Unfortunately the Facebook thread about that post appears to have vanished, taking my comments with it. But to answer briefly, I'll believe this when I actually see someone who has both a significant amount of money to donate and a significant amount of time to spend on deciding where to donate blindly following GW's (or ACE's, or whatever) recommendations without doing some independent thought.

          I have yet to meet this person. Broadly speaking, people have quite an overly high opinion of their own abilities, and EAs are no exception (they might even be an anti-exception!).


        2. Michael Vassar

          The modest claim that developing world charities are underfunded requires that things like the Red Cross in Haiti fiasco be uncommon in relation to marginal funding.

        3. Carl Shulman

          "I’d still expect direct cash transfers from developed to developing to have a 100x multiplier from the perspective of world utility (as a very very approximate first pass) as a result. "

          As the footnote to that in Doing Good Better references, that assumes no natural flows around the world (trade, aid, etc) and ignores funding of non-consumption goods (like R&D by firms, science, etc) where we should expect minimal or even negative multipliers, as well as long-run effects and impacts on non-humans.


          1. Alexander Gordon-Brown

            (Apparently I need to more-strongly emphasize statements like 'as a very very approximate first pass'.)

            I'm not quite following your argument in this case. The blog post I think I can follow but seems like it's comparing 'interventions that boost world GDP' to 'interventions that target the poorest', rather than comparing 'rich country consumption' to 'poor country consumption' as I want to do.

            Or is your point that if I go and give to my rich-in-world-terms neighbors instead, then the natural flows mean that this will end up benefiting a much wider and on-average poorer group of people, narrowing the multiplier considerably?

          2. Carl Shulman

            "Or is your point that if I go and give to my rich-in-world-terms neighbors instead, then the natural flows mean that this will end up benefiting a much wider and on-average poorer group of people, narrowing the multiplier considerably?"

            Yes, the natural flows (including flows to things like technological improvement).

    3. Benquo Post author

      Vipul, my sense comes from the fact that Ozy said the EA case for deworming was unambiguous & this didn't feel to me like a surprising or unusual thing for an EA to say, a few other people said GW's blog post was surprising to them, and I've often heard people claim that GiveWell is about finding the charities that work w very high confidence. Most of these people are fairly well connected in the EA social network.

      Thank you for taking a look at the numbers to double check this patchy personal impression. Seems like it's true that this opinion is likely common, though also likely not a majority opinion.

  4. Anne C

    I am convinced by now that the Effective Altruism(tm) meme is overall socially harmful and the world would be a better place if people summarily rejected it and its associated status-grabbers.

    They can't handle criticism and they very definitely don't respect the dignity and autonomy of private people in other countries.

    Giving them money for free does not make the world a better place. Instead they should get money only if produce something of value that people actually want to buy, in a voluntary fashion. Don't donate to them.

    1. Benquo Post author


      Thanks for your response.

      On the "can't handle criticism" issue, I feel like I should point out that when I put up this critique of EA and some prominent EAs shared it on Facebook and started talking about it and a few of them engaged me here in the comments section with reasoned argument. I think some of the discussion missed the point, but don't think that "can't handle criticism" is a good description of EAs' behavior here.

      I'm not sure that the "EA" memeplex is net harmful all taken together, but I do agree that some of the narratives in the bundle are bad. I'm hoping that we can reduce the incidence of those, without throwing the baby out with the bathwater. A lot of people with cosmopolitan values (people far away are morally valuable), interested in helping others, moved by considerations of scope (it's good to look for ways to increase impact), and flexible about the exact methods used, have found each other and are trying to help each other help others. I think that if we can avoid the obvious traps this could become something incredibly good for humanity, relative to what everyone would have done on their own. I don't think that's a sure thing on net yet, though.

      I'm skeptical that abstractions like market incentives will do better, as I plan to lay out in a future post. I think there's really no substitute for thinking on one's own about the specific consequences of one's actions.

      1. Michael Vassar

        The reference class for coalitions that identify as cosmopolitan do-gooders who try to dio the most good possible and are flexible about methods appears to me to be a very bad reference class in terms of its historical precedents.

  5. Diego Caleiro

    Thanks for the enlightening reflection Ben.

    I wonder if you think the reason why EAs didn't update is also in part a generalized cooling of the annealing temperature, where most individuals have already consolidated their views and fallen into one or another attractor basin.

    Do I interpret correctly that you think there is a defense mechanism also playing a role?

    1. Benquo Post author

      "Defense mechanism" sounds close to what I mean, though I think "attachment" in the Buddhist sense is a bit more of a precise fit.

      I think that everyone's annealing temperature has dropped, but in many cases the relevant attractor isn't actually doing the most good, but a fairly indirect proxy for it - and I think many EAs can do *much* better than this proxy.

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  11. Eli Tyre

    > If we don't believe one of those things - and in general it seems bad practice to blithely assume that everyone else disagrees with you for one of those reasons

    I'm curious if you would still agree with this. I would characterize your view of the world as very close to "pretty much everyone and everything is evil, for systemic reasons."

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