RandomEA comments on Against neglectedness - Effective Altruism Forum

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Comment author: RandomEA 08 November 2017 05:28:23PM *  1 point [-]

I certainly don’t think, for example, that Givewell’s recommendations for combating various neglected tropical diseases are based (even in significant fraction) on them being neglected, that ACE recommend factory farming campaigns because so few animal welfare charities address them, or that FHI are so concerned about AI because other academics weren’t.

A few brief thoughts:

1) My understanding is that there are two different prioritization frameworks: the 80,000 Hours framework (for cause areas) and the GiveWell framework (for measurable interventions). The 80,000 Hours framework looks at how much good would be done by solving a problem (scale), how much of the problem would be solved by doubling the money/talent currently going towards it (tractability), and how much money/talent is currently going towards it (neglectedness). The GiveWell framework looks at whether there is strong evidence that an intervention has a positive impact (evidence of effectiveness), how much you have to spend on the intervention to have some standardized unit of impact such as saving a life (cost effectiveness), and whether additional donations would enable the charity to expand its implementation of the intervention (room for more funding). The GiveWell framework does not seem to explicitly consider any of the 80,000 Hours factors: if there is an intervention that is evidence-based and cost effective that is in need of more funding, then it does well under the GiveWell framework even if there are significant resources going towards the underlying problem (i.e. it is not neglected), the problem as a whole is relatively unimportant (i.e. it is small in scale), or the portion of the problem that would be solved is relatively small (i.e. it is not tractable in the 80,000 Hours sense). However, if an intervention performs poorly on all three 80,000 Hours factors (i.e. it is relatively unimportant, doubling the resources going towards it would not solve a substantial portion of it, and it would take significantly more resources to achieve that doubling), then it is unlikely to be considered cost effective by GiveWell.

2) Neglectedness is generally important for two reasons. The first is room for more funding: if there is already enough funding to implement an intervention to the maximum extent feasible given other constraints, then additional donations will either be diverted to a different intervention or will be spent on the intervention only after some delay. In both cases, there is a significant opportunity cost if there is a comparably effective alternative intervention with room for more funding. The second is diminishing marginal returns: an intervention will generally be implemented first in settings where it has a higher impact, which means that as more is spent on an intervention, the intervention tends to expand to settings where it is less effective.

3) GiveWell implicitly considers diminishing marginal returns as part of its cost effectiveness factor. For example, in its cost effectiveness estimate for bednets, it looks at baseline malaria rates in countries where the Against Malaria Foundation (AMF) operates (see A6 and A13 of this spreadsheet). As AMF expands to countries with lower malaria rates, GiveWell will increase its cost per life saved estimate for AMF (if other factors remain the same). In addition to its implicit consideration of diminishing marginal returns, GiveWell explicitly considers room for more funding.

4) By contrast, the 80,000 Hours framework does not appear to take into account diminishing marginal returns or room for more funding. To see this, consider the following example. Suppose that there is a village of people living in poverty. Any person in that village who receives cash transfers gains additional utility as follows:

Total Cash Received............... Total Additional Utility

$1000........................................... 5

$2000........................................... 9

$3000........................................... 12

$4000........................................... 14

$5000........................................... 15

Currently each person is receiving $2,000, which means that each of them is gaining 9 additional units of utility. You are considering transferring an extra $1,000 to each of them. Under the 80,000 Hours framework, you would start by calculating how much good would be done by solving the problem (scale). In this case, eliminating poverty would result in 15 additional units of utility per person. (I am including the impact of the first $2,000.) The next step is to look at the portion of the problem that would be solved by doubling spending (tractability). In this case, if spending were doubled to $4,000 per person, then each person would gain 5 additional units of utility (since they would go from having 9 additional units of utility to having 14 additional units of utility). Thus, doubling spending would result in solving 1/3 of the problem being solved (gaining 5 additional units of utility out of 15 possible additional units). The last step is to determine how far your money would go towards the doubling (neglectedness). In this case, donating $1,000 to each person would take you half way to the doubling (which would require $2,000 per person). Multiplying the three factors together, you get that your donation of $1,000 to each person would result in a gain of 2.5 additional units of utility per person (15 additional units scale x 1/3 tractability x 1/2 neglectedness). However, your donation will actually result in a gain of 3 additional units of utility per person (12 additional units compared to 9 additional units). Why does the 80,000 Hours formula give a lower number? Because it assumes that the average per dollar impact of the money needed to double spending (in this case $2,000 per person) is as large as the average per dollar of impact of a smaller amount of money (in this case $1,000 per person). In other words, it assumes constant marginal returns (rather than diminishing marginal returns). (The same issue exists with respect to room for more funding: if in doubling spending, you fill the entire funding gap for the most effective intervention and have to spend the remainder of the money on a less effective intervention, then the average effectiveness of the money spent doubling will be less than the average effectiveness of money used to fill the funding gap.)

5) ACE's focus on factory farming is in fact based partly on neglectedness (see here and here).

Note: I am not affiliated with GiveWell or 80,000 Hours, so nothing in this comment should be taken as an official description of their frameworks.