ChemaCB comments on The Effective Altruism Newsletter & Open Thread – September 2016 - Effective Altruism Forum

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Comment author: ChemaCB 22 September 2016 01:44:28PM 3 points [-]

Hello all,

I'm new to the forum, and not sure if this is a an abuse of the open thread so please tell me if so. (ps. really enjoyed the Sam Harris podcast)

Can anyone help point me in the direction of academic papers using economic models for cause prioritization or other EA related pursuits?

Quick background: 80000hours.org inspired me to study economics, not because I know much about what it's like to be an economist, but mainly because I like math, I like freakonomics radio, and I want to maximize my beneficial impact.

My situation: I'm beginning my senior research project (which I hope to lead me into graduate work), and my advisors don't seem to think that EA or cause prioritization research is economic in nature. Setting aside the likely possibility that I have simply failed to adequately explain EA to them, I think what they mean is that they don't see how it could make use of economic models.

Solicitation of advice: The reason I'm reaching out is because I don't actually know what economic EA research looks like. One idea I had for my project (based in pure ignorance, I should remind you) was to do a sensitivity analysis of a cause prioritization rubric to changes in moral frameworks. In other words, if you have different moral views (which is reasonable) how different will your cause priorities be? What do you think of this research question? Surely any organization doing CPR would have already done this analysis right? Why can't I find any published literature?

Do cause prioritization researchers use models? My advisors seem to think that it's more likely to be economic pontification than modeling that dictates prioritization. Please defend my honor. :-P

Thank you so much for your time!

Comment author: technicalities 16 October 2016 04:11:03PM *  1 point [-]

Hello ChemaCB,

I had a look around and couldn't find too many full peer-reviewed models. (Yet: it's a young endeavour.) This is probably partially a principled reaction to the hard limits of solely quantitative approaches. Most researchers in the area are explicitly calling their work "shallow investigation": i.e. exploratory and pre-theoretical. To date, the empirical FHI papers tend to be piecemeal estimates and early methodological innovation, rather than full models. OpenPhil tends towards prior solicitation from experts and do causes one at a time so far. GiveWell's evaluations are all QALY based and piecemeal, though there's non-core formal stuff on there too.

There's hope: what modelling has been done is always done with economic methods. Michael Dickens has built a model which strikes me as an excellent start, but it's not likely to win over sceptical institutional markers, because it is ex nihilo and doesn't cite anyone. (C++ code here, including weights.) Peter Hurford lists many individual empirical models in footnote 4 here. Here's Gordon Irlam's less formal one, with a wider perspective. Here's a more formal one just for public policy.

To win them over, you could frame it as "social choice theory" rather than cause prioritisation. So for the goal of getting academic approval, Sen, Binmore and Broome are your touchstones here, rather than Cotton-Barrett, Beckstead, and Christiano.

Your particular project proposal seems like an empirical successor to MacAskill's PhD thesis; I'd suggest looking for leads directly in the bibliography there.

I hope you see the above as evidence for the importance of your proposed research, rather than a disincentive to doing it.

Also, welcome!

Comment author: arunbharatula 10 November 2016 09:39:37AM *  0 points [-]

I think this is a really good question and I have been asking it myself from from a different angle. Firstly I want to point out that finding the right literature may not so much be because of an absence of that literature - but that you may be searching for terms which are used in EA circles when the academic community uses different terms. And, different disciplines use different terms for the same or similar concepts even - further complicating things.

I'll share some of my experience and I hope others can contribute here too.

I did some RA work for an econometrician on cost-effectiveness project in a health policy, programs and economics centre at my university. It was based in the school of population health, not the business school. From my impression it is health economists (welfare economists too?) who do the closest stuff to cause prioritisation. There are established priority setting is health priority setting. And, my supervisor worked on the Global Burden of Disease project. So, you may have to find suitable supervisors working on the most cause-prioritisation-ey projects who may very well not be available at your university.

I just finished a MSc (epidemiology). Even though I ended up doing research projects with health psychologists I found that cause prioritization stuff fits better into the way epidemiology papers tend to be written than economics/econometrics papers. My supervisors did raise their eyebrows when originally cited the Open Philanthropy Project (asking what credentials they had to set the agenda in their field - given they hadn't heard of them before) but were overall open-minded. I would expect that public policy or international development papers may be even more fitting for that kind of thinking.

Comment author: arunbharatula 23 November 2016 10:04:25AM 0 points [-]