Comment author: AdamShriver 14 September 2018 10:52:57AM 4 points [-]

I think the challenges inherent in evaluating animal charities go beyond even the difficult questions of animal sentience. Unlike in the case of direct health interventions, the impact of almost all of the activities by animal charities depends on extremely complicated facts about human psychology. Asking "how likely is leafletting to change behaviour," is more akin to asking "how likely is leafletting to change someone from a Republican to a Democrat" than it is to asking "how likely are bed nets to prevent malaria?"

Just a few of the complications of predicting long-term behaviour change through specific interventions:

-Unlike certain health risks which occur in specific types of situations, human psychology is extremely complicated and could in principle be influenced by events/conversations/memory recollections taking place at almost any moment throughout one's life.
-There are individual differences in how likely people are to be persuaded by particular tactics. So if only 2.5% of the population are even in principle persuadable by leaflets, and you happen to reach those 2.5% in an initial campaign (and, with perfect measurement, record the change), the prediction that a similar future campaign would cause change in 2.5% of the population would be completely wrong (because the 2.5% of reachable people would have already been reached). -Unlike in the case of health interventions, changing behaviour in relation to animals is taking place in direct opposition to a hugely powerful set of industries that are themselves spending millions of dollars trying to produce the exact opposite behaviour changes. So even if we discovered the holy grail intervention X that caused 100% of people to go vegan, Tyson foods would be busily working on messaging to convince people to eat more meat.

I'm not sure what the upshot of all of this is, but it does seem to me that influencing change in relation to animals is much more like running a political campaign. And people have been studying political tactics for thousands of years without developing any type of infallible playbook for winning. So while I think measuring animal charity effectiveness is extremely important and interesting, it also seems like it's a mistake to think that it could ever come close to reaching the type of reliability seen in other types of interventions.

Comment author: Jc_Mourrat 07 September 2018 06:44:33PM *  12 points [-]

I had arrived at similar conclusions. Lately we were busy preparing material to put up on our freshly minted website at EA France. When it comes to recommendations, we naturally turn to charities such as GiveWell or ACE and refer to their work. But before putting these recommendations onto our website, I wanted to double-check that the evaluations are sound, because I want that we be ready to back them up publicly with confidence. So I tried to locate contradicting voices. For GiveWell, I found out that they disagree with other organizations such as the Campbell institute or Cochrane on the effectiveness of deworming programs. So I spent quite a bit of time reading the arguments of each party, and after that I came out extremely impressed by the depth and seriousness of the analysis of GiveWell. Of course I did not check all of what they do, but this experience gave me very high confidence that they are doing an outstanding work.

Then I moved to ACE. I took Nathan's article as a starting point for the disagreeing voice. Of course I was appalled by some of the points raised there, in particular in relation with leafletting. Also, a friend at AEF dig up a Facebook thread that happened around the time of publication of this article, and my recollection is that half of the people discussing this where just busy explaining that Nathan was really a very very mean person that we could not possibly imagine talking to.

I understand that this is old news, but I want to pause for a moment and reflect on the bigger picture. On human poverty, GiveWell is one among several very serious actors. It engages very thoroughly in discussions and explanations when diverging views emerge. We can argue about whether Nathan was diplomatic enough, etc, certainly he did not take all the precautions that Halstead has taken when writing this piece. But we have to realize that when it comes to animal suffering, as far as I know ACE is the only game in town. In my opinion, this is a precarious state of affairs, and we should do our best to protect criticism of ACE, even when it does not come with the highest level of politeness. Of course, I do not mean that people at ACE have bad intentions, but checks and balances are important, we are all human beings, and right now there seems to be precious little of these.

And as it turns out, as pointed out here by Halstead, at least some of the criticism of Nathan was actually correct, and is now acknowledged on the website of ACE (e.g. on leafletting).

And then I must stay that I fell off of my chair when I looked up the evaluation of corporate outreach and found out that the single argument in support of cage-free reform was this paper by De Mol et al (2016). To give an element of context, I have no previous exposure to animal wellfare, and yet it jumped at me that this was very bogus. How can this possibly happen?? I know that now ACE changed their position about this, but how they could come up with that in the first place, and how on Earth can this argument be still available online completely eludes me. All this while, as far as I can tell, corporate outreach is one of the flagship interventions advocated by ACE.

But again, I want to pause and think about the bigger picture for a while. The fact is that at the time of writing this argument, the organisation Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) had put up a rather comprehensive report explaining that they had come up with the opposite conclusion! (That cage-free reform is actually detrimental to animal wellfare.) I will refrain from discussing it at length here because this comment is already long, but this report of DxE was, in my opinion, dismissed with precious little good argument.

So again I see a small dissenting voice in the otherwise rather monopolistic position of ACE which is being dismissed without due consideration. And of course I get more worried. (To be perfectly clear, my point has nothing to do with whether DxE's conclusions were right or not; only with the fact that they were dismissed without proper consideration.)

I know that ACE no longer considers the article of De Mol et al (2016) as relevant, and things are clearly moving in a positive direction. Yet my confidence in ACE's work is at an all-time low. For full disclosure, I was planning to propose to my colleagues at AEF that we spend some time doing a "case study" in relation with the recommendations of ACE (similarly to studying the controversy about deworming for GiveWell). The "case study" I have in mind is the comparative evaluations of the Good Food Institute vs. New Harvest (As a side remark, I am interested in any previous discussion about this point.)

To sum up, I want to stress that I write this with the best intentions, and I appreciate that ACE has been improving a lot on all the points I have raised so far. Also, I understand that we cannot "go meta" and ask for evaluators of evaluators, evaluators of evaluators of evaluators, etc. Yet it is my impression that when it comes to human poverty, the situation is much, much healthier. In this area, there are several influential actors that have their own decision processes, can then compare their conclusions, and engage in serious debate about them. For animal suffering, I think it would do us a lot of good to make sure that dissenting voices are heard and protected, and that ACE engages with their arguments with much greater consideration than has been the case so far.

Comment author: AdamShriver 14 September 2018 10:32:13AM 5 points [-]

The problem with HN's article wasn't just that it was "impolite" but that it mixed in a number of unfounded ad hominem attacks along with the more serious criticisms, arguments that implied people at ACE and other organisations were deliberately acting in bad faith. It seems to me that the proper way to respond to a mix of good arguments and bad arguments is to take the good arguments into account while dismissing the bad ones, and that seems to be what happened.

And just as a broader point, if someone regularly mixes ad hominem attacks with more serious points, it's not a good idea to signal boost the mixed arguments. If I say, "so-and-so is a liar and a thief who only cares about self-promotion, and also so-and-so incorrectly reported a particular study," the best response is to take the valid point about the study into consideration without promoting the argument as a whole.

Moreover, the methodological arguments put forward weren't entirely new; HL Lab director Harish Sethu's presentation at the EAA conference in Princeton, for example, had extremely detailed methodological criticisms that far surpassed the other criticisms I had seen to that point.

In other words, there's not a binary decision between ignoring the points altogether and praising the deeply flawed HN article. The good methodological points are being taken into consideration, as seen in some of the changes made and in this essay.