Comment author: Peter_Hurford  (EA Profile) 15 February 2017 09:39:46PM 1 point [-]

Would it make sense to donate to the LJAF for promoting open science?

Comment author: Carl_Shulman 15 February 2017 10:06:19PM 2 points [-]

If you were trying to mimic them, I'd give more to some of their grantees, like METRICS or COS.

Comment author: BenHoffman 15 February 2017 06:27:59PM *  1 point [-]

This seems like evidence for a combination of the second and third possibilities in the trilemma. Either GiveWell should expect to be able to point to empirical evidence of dramatic results soon (if not already), or it should expect to reach substantially diminishing returns, or both.

I agree that there are lots of practical reasons why you can't just firehose this stuff - that's part of the diminishing returns story!

I could imagine a scenario that slips in between 2 and 3, like you don't hit substantially diminishing returns on malaria until the last 1% of incidence, but is there reason to think that's the case?

Comment author: Carl_Shulman 15 February 2017 09:57:54PM 2 points [-]

I could imagine a scenario that slips in between 2 and 3, like you don't hit substantially diminishing returns on malaria until the last 1% of incidence, but is there reason to think that's the case?

I suggest reading about the Gates malaria eradication plans, including the barriers to that which lead Gates to think ITINs alone can't achieve eradication.

Comment author: BenHoffman 15 February 2017 04:27:09PM *  0 points [-]

GBD 2015 estimates that communicable, maternal, neonatal, and nutritional deaths worldwide amount to about 10 million in 2015. And they are declining at a rate of about 20% per decade. If at current cost-effectiveness levels, top charities could scale up to solve that whole problem, then if we assume a cost of $5,000 per life saved, the whole thing would cost $50 billion/yr. That's more than Good Ventures has on hand - but it's not an order of magnitude more. It's not more than Good Ventures and its donors and the Gates foundation ($40 billion) and Warren Buffett's planned gifts to the Gates Foundation add up to - and all of those parties seem to be interested in this program area.

That's an extreme upper bound. It's not limited to the developing world, or to especially tractable problems. You almost certainly can't scale up that high at current costs - after all, the GiveWell top charities are supposed to be the ones pursuing the most important low-hanging fruit, tractable interventions for important but straightforward problems. But then, how high can you scale up at similar cost-effectiveness numbers? Can you do a single disease? For one continent? One region? One country? Now, we're getting to magnitudes that may fall well within Good Ventures's ability to fund the whole thing. (Starting with a small area where you can show clear gains is not a new idea - it's the intuition behind Jeffrey Sachs's idea of millennium villages.) And remember that once you wipe out a communicable disease, it's much cheaper to keep it away; when's the last time people were getting smallpox? Similarly, nutritional interventions such as food fortification tend to be permanent. There's a one-time cost, and then it's standard practice.

GBD 2015 estimates that there are only about 850,000 deaths due to neglected tropical diseases each year, worldwide. At $5,000 per life saved, that's about $4.2 billion to wipe out the whole category. Even less if you focus on one continent, or one region, or one country. To name one example, Haiti is a poor island with 0.1% of the world's population; can we wipe out neglected tropical diseases for $4.2 million there? $40 million?

Comment author: Carl_Shulman 15 February 2017 06:01:06PM 2 points [-]

I don't think linear giving opportunities closely analogous to bednets will take $10BB without diminishing returns (although you might be able to beat that with R&D, advocacy, gene drives, and other leveraged strategies for a longer period). But I think this is a flawed argument.

If at current cost-effectiveness levels, top charities could scale up to solve that whole problem, then if we assume a cost of $5,000 per life saved, the whole thing would cost $50 billion/yr. That's more than Good Ventures has on hand - but it's not an order of magnitude more. It's not more than Good Ventures and its donors and the Gates foundation ($40 billion) and Warren Buffett's planned gifts to the Gates Foundation add up to - and all of those parties seem to be interested in this program area.

The original text strongly suggested a one-time cost, not a recurring annual cost. When you have diminishing returns in a single year (especially as programs are scaled up; BMGF has ramped up its spending over time), the fact that they don't spend everything in a firehose in a single year is far from shocking (note BMGF has spent a lot on US education too, it's not a pure global poverty focus although that is its main agenda).

GWWC's FAQ claims:

The Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation estimated that between 2000 and 2014 the $73.6 billion spent on child health by donors (including both private and public) averted the death of 14 million infants and children. This is in addition to the $133 billion spent on child health by low- and middle-income country governments, which is estimated to have averted the deaths of 20 million children.

The annual figure for this is ~$14 billion (and not all spent where the evidence is best, including corruption, etc).

Gates Foundation spending is several billion dollars per year spread across a number of areas.

Total spending in these areas is not so large that a billion dollars a year is a drop in the bucket, and theses diseases have been massively checked or reduced (e.g. malaria, vaccinations, slowing HIV infections, smallpox eradication, salt iodization, etc).

And we haven't explicitly talked about possible leverage from R&D and advocacy in poverty.

Starting with a small area where you can show clear gains is not a new idea - it's the intuition behind Jeffrey Sachs's idea of millennium villages

Those were criticized at the time for spending so much on the same people, including less well-supported interventions and over diminishing returns, rather than doing more cost-effective interventions across a larger number of people. Local effectiveness of medical interventions is tested in clinical trials.

And remember that once you wipe out a communicable disease, it's much cheaper to keep it away; when's the last time people were getting smallpox?

Smallpox was a disease found only in humans with a highly effective vaccine. Such diseases are regularly locally extirpated, although getting universal coverage around the world to the last holdout regions (civil war, conspiracy theories about the vaccinations) can be very hard, as in polio eradication, and infectious diseases can quickly recolonize afterwards (malaria rebounded from the 60s failed eradication effort in places without continuing high quality prevention). But polio eradication is close and is a priority of e.g. Gates Foundation funding. It's also quite expensive, more than $10 billion so far. For harder to control diseases without vaccines like malaria, even moreso (and you couldn't just spend more in a big bang one year and be sure you haven't missed a spot).

Comment author: BenHoffman 14 February 2017 06:32:59PM *  1 point [-]

If a substantial share of other donors were already observed defecting, that seems like it would be the single most important consideration to mention in the 2015 post explaining splitting, and I am baffled as to why it was left out.

It seems like genuinely unfriendly behavior on the part of other donors and it would have been a public service at that time to call them out on this.

Comment author: Carl_Shulman 15 February 2017 04:33:16AM *  6 points [-]

that seems like it would be the single most important consideration to mention in the 2015 post explaining splitting, and I am baffled as to why it was left out.

Ben, you have advocated just giving to the best thing at the margin, simply. Doing that while taking room for more funding into account automatically results in what you are calling 'defecting' here in this post (which I object to, since the game theoretic analogy is dubious, and you're using it in a highly morally charged way to criticize a general practice with respect to a single actor). That's a normal way of assessing donations in effective altruism, and common among strategic philanthropists.

The 'driving away donors' bit was repeatedly discussed, as was the routine occurrence of such issues in large-scale philanthropy (where foundations bargain with each other over shares of funding in areas of common interest).

Comment author: RobBensinger 14 February 2017 04:40:53PM *  4 points [-]

Thanks for summarizing this, Ben!

First, the adversarial framing here seems unnecessary. If the other player hasn’t started defecting in the iterated prisoner’s dilemma, why start?

I might be getting this wrong, but my understanding is that a bunch of donors immediately started 'defecting' (= pulling out of funding the kinds of work GV is excited about) once they learned of GV's excitement for GW/OPP causes, on the assumption that GV would at some future point adopt a general policy of (unconditionally?) 'cooperating' (= fully funding everything to the extent it cares about those things).

I think GW/GV/OPP arrived at their decision in an environment where they saw a non-trivial number of donors preemptively 'defecting' either based on a misunderstanding of whether GW/GV/OPP was already 'cooperating' (= they didn't realize that GW/GV/OPP was funding less than the full amount it wanted funded), or based on the assumption that GW/GV/OPP was intending to do so later (and perhaps could even be induced to do if others withdrew their funding). If my understanding of this is right, then it both made the cooperative equilibrium seem less likely, and made it seem extra important for GW/GV/OPP to very loudly and clearly communicate their non-CooperateBot policy lest the misapprehension spread even further.

I think the difficulty of actually communicating en masse with smaller GW donors, much less having a real back-and-forth negotiation with them, played a very large role in GW/GV/OPP's decisions here, including their decision to choose an 'obviously arbitrary' split number like 50% rather than something more subtle.

It also assumes that people are taking the cost-per-life-saved numbers at face value, and if so, then GiveWell already thinks they’ve been misled.

I'm not sure I understand this point. Is this saying that if people are already misled to some extent, or in some respect, then it doesn't matter what related ways one's actions might confuse them?

(Disclaimer: I work for MIRI, which has received an Open Phil grant. As usual, the above is me speaking on my own behalf, not on MIRI's.)

Comment author: Carl_Shulman 15 February 2017 04:26:13AM *  3 points [-]

Cross-posted from Ben's blog:

if Good Ventures committed to fully funding the GiveWell top charities, other donors might withdraw funding to fund the next-best thing by their values, confident that they’d be offset. A commitment to “splitting” would prevent this...

I have two main objections to this. First, the adversarial framing here seems unnecessary. If the other player hasn’t started defecting in the iterated prisoner’s dilemma, why start?

If GV fully funded the top charities, and others also funded them, then they would be overfunded by GV's lights. if A and B both like X (and have the same desired funding level for it), but have different second choices of Y and Z, the fully cooperative solution would not involve either A or B funding X alone.

[CoI notice: I consult for OpenPhil.]

Comment author: erikaalonso 13 January 2017 12:38:41AM *  21 points [-]

Hi everyone! I’m here to formally respond to Sarah’s article, on behalf of ACE. It’s difficult to determine where the response should go, as it seems there are many discussions, and reposting appears to be discouraged. I’ve decided to post here on the EA forum (as it tends to be the central meeting place for EAs), and will try to direct people from other places to this longer response.

Firstly, I’d like to clarify why we have not inserted ourselves into the discussion happening in multiple Facebook groups and fora. We have recently implemented a formal social media policy which encourages ACE staff to respond to comments about our work with great consideration, and in a way that accurately reflects our views (as opposed to those of one staff member). We are aware that this might come across as “radio silence” or lack of concern for the criticism at hand—but that is not the case. Whenever there are legitimate critiques about our work, we take it very seriously. When there are accusations of intent to deceive, we do not take them lightly. The last thing we want to do is respond in haste only to realize that we had not given the criticism enough consideration. We also want to allow the community to discuss amongst themselves prior to posting a response. This is not only to encourage discussion amongst individual members of the community, but also so that we can prioritize responding to the concerns shared by the greatest number of community members.

It is clear to us now that we have failed to adequately communicate the uncertainty surrounding the outcomes of our leafleting intervention report. We absolutely disagree with claims of intentional deception and the characterization of our staff as acting in bad-faith—we have never tried to hide our uncertainty about the existing leafleting research report, and as others have pointed out, it is clearly stated throughout the site where leafleting is mentioned. However, our reasoning that these disclaimers would be obvious was based on the assumption that those interested in the report would read it in its entirety. After reading the responses to this article, it’s obvious that we have not made these disclaimers as apparent as they should be. We have added a longer disclaimer to the top of our leafleting report page, expressing our current thoughts and noting that we will update the report sometime in 2017.

In addition, we have decided to remove the impact calculator (a tool which included an ability to enter donations directed to leafleting and receive estimates of high and low bounds of animals spared) from our website entirely until we feel more confident that it is not misleading to those unfamiliar with cost effectiveness calculations and/or an understanding of how the low/best/high error bounds exemplify the uncertainty regarding those numbers. It is not typical for us to remove content from the site, but we intend to operate with abundant caution. This change seems to be the best option, given that people believe we are being intentionally deceptive in keeping them online.

Finally, leadership at ACE all agree it has been too long since we have updated our Mistakes page, so we have added new entries concerning issues we have reflected upon as an organization.

We also notice that there is concern among the community that our recommendations are suspect due to the weak evidence supporting our cost-effectiveness estimates of leafleting. The focus on leafleting for this criticism is confusing to us, as our cost-effectiveness estimates address many interventions, not only leafleting, and the evidence for leafleting is not much weaker than other evidence available about animal advocacy interventions. On top of that, cost-effectiveness estimates are only a factor in one of the seven criteria used in our evaluation process. In most cases, we don’t think that they have changed the outcome of our evaluation decisions. While we haven’t come up with a solution for clarifying this point, we always welcome and are appreciative of constructive feedback.

We are committed to honesty, and are disappointed that the content we've published on the website concerning leafleting has caused so much confusion as to lead anyone to believe we are intentionally deceiving our supporters for profit. On a personal note, I’m devastated to hear that our error in communication has led to the character assassination not only of ACE, but of the people who comprise the organization—some of the hardest working, well-intentioned people I’ve ever worked with.

Finally, I would like everyone to know that we sincerely appreciate the constructive feedback we receive from people within and beyond the EA movement.

*Edited to add links

Comment author: Carl_Shulman 24 January 2017 03:13:27AM *  8 points [-]

After reading the responses to this article, it’s obvious that we have not made these disclaimers as apparent as they should be...until we feel more confident that it is not misleading to those unfamiliar with cost effectiveness calculations

When there are debates about how readers are interpreting text, or potentially being misled by it, empirical testing (e.g. having Mechanical Turk readers view a page and then answer questions about the topic where they might be misled) is a powerful tool (and also avoids reliance on staff intuitions that might be affected by a curse of knowledge). See here for a recent successful example.

Comment author: Carl_Shulman 15 January 2017 08:12:21PM 4 points [-]

Looks like Tim Telleen-Lawton won, as the first ten digits of the beacon at noon PST were 0CF7565C0F=55689239567. Congratulations to Tim, and to all of the early adopters.

Comment author: Carl_Shulman 15 January 2017 08:09:04PM *  11 points [-]

Looks like Tim Telleen-Lawton won, as the first ten digits of the beacon at noon PST were 0CF7565C0F=55689239567. Congratulations to Tim, and to all of the early adopters.

Comment author: vipulnaik 12 January 2017 06:24:38AM 13 points [-]

The post does raise some valid concerns, though I don't agree with a lot of the framing. I don't think of it in terms of lying. I do, however, see that the existing incentive structure is significantly at odds with epistemic virtue and truth-seeking. It's remarkable that many EA orgs have held themselves to reasonably high standards despite not having strong incentives to do so.

In brief:

  • EA orgs' and communities' growth metrics are centered around numbers of people and quantity of money moved. These don't correlate much with epistemic virtue.
  • (more speculative) EA orgs' donors/supporters don't demand much epistemic virtue. The orgs tend to hold themselves to higher standards than their current donors.
  • (even more speculative; not much argument offered) Even long-run growth metrics don't correlate too well with epistemic virtue.
  • Quantifying (some aspects of) quality and virtue into metrics seems to me to have the best shot at changing the incentive structure here.

The incentive structure of the majority of EA-affiliated orgs has centered around growth metrics related to number of people (new pledge signups, number of donors, number of members), and money moved (both for charity evaluators and for movement-building orgs). These are the headline numbers they highlight in their self-evaluations and reports, and these are the numbers that people giving elevator pitches about the orgs use ("GiveWell moved more than $100 million in 2015" or "GWWC has (some number of hundreds of millions) in pledged money"). Some orgs have slightly different metrics, but still essentially ones that rely on changing the minds of large numbers of people: 80,000 Hours counts Impact-Adjusted Significant Plan Changes, and many animal welfare orgs count numbers of converts to veganism (or recruits to animal rights activism) through leafleting.

These incentives don't directly align with improved epistemic virtue! In many cases, they are close to orthogonal. In some cases, they are correlated but not as much as you might think (or hope!).

I believe the incentive alignment is strongest in cases where you are talking about moving moderate to large sums of money per donor in the present, for a reasonable number of donors (e.g., a few dozen donors giving hundreds of thousands of dollars). Donors who are donating those large sums of money are selected for being less naive (just by virtue of having made that much money) and the scale of donation makes it worth their while to demand high standards. I think this is related to GiveWell having relatively high epistemic standards (though causality is hard to judge).

With that said, the organizations I am aware of in the EA community hold themselves to much higher standards than (as far I can make out) their donor and supporter base seems to demand of them. My guess is that GiveWell could have been a LOT more sloppy with their reviews and still moved pretty similar amounts of money as long as they produced reviews that pattern-matched a well-researched review. (I've personally found their review quality improved very little from 2014 to 2015 and much more from 2015 to 2016; and yet I expect that the money moved jump from 2015 to 2016 will be less, or possibly even negative). I believe (with weaker confidence) that similar stuff is true for Animal Charity Evaluators in both directions (significantly increasing or decreasing review quality won't affect donations that much). And also for Giving What We Can: the amount of pledged money doesn't correlate that well with the quality or state of their in-house research.

The story I want to believe, and that I think others also want to believe, is some version of a just-world story: in the long run epistemic virtue ~ success. Something like "Sure, in the short run, taking epistemic shortcuts and bending the truth leads to more growth, but in the long run it comes back to bite you." I think there's some truth to this story: epistemic virtue and long-run growth metrics probably correlate better than epistemic virtue and short-run growth metrics. But the correlation is still far from perfect.

My best guess is that unless we can get a better handle on epistemic virtue and quantify quality in some meaningful way, the incentive structure problem will remain.

Comment author: Carl_Shulman 12 January 2017 07:52:49AM 16 points [-]

One bit of progress on this front is Open Phil and GiveWell starting to make public and private predictions related to grants to improve their forecasting about outcomes, and create track records around that.

There is significant room for other EA organizations to adopt this practice in their own areas (and apply it more broadly, e.g. regarding future evaluations of their strategy, etc).

I believe the incentive alignment is strongest in cases where you are talking about moving moderate to large sums of money per donor in the present, for a reasonable number of donors (e.g., a few dozen donors giving hundreds of thousands of dollars). Donors who are donating those large sums of money are selected for being less naive (just by virtue of having made that much money) and the scale of donation makes it worth their while to demand high standards. I think this is related to GiveWell having relatively high epistemic standards (though causality is hard to judge).

This is part of my thinking behind promoting donor lotteries: by increasing the effective size of donors, it lets them more carefully evaluate organizations and opportunities, providing better incentives and resistance to exploitation by things that look good on first glance but don't hold up on close and extended inspection (they can also share their findings with the broader community).

The story I want to believe, and that I think others also want to believe, is some version of a just-world story: in the long run epistemic virtue ~ success. Something like "Sure, in the short run, taking epistemic shortcuts and bending the truth leads to more growth, but in the long run it comes back to bite you." I think there's some truth to this story: epistemic virtue and long-run growth metrics probably correlate better than epistemic virtue and short-run growth metrics. But the correlation is still far from perfect.

The correlation gets better when you consider total impact and not just growth.

In response to High Impact Science
Comment author: LaurenMcG  (EA Profile) 11 January 2017 06:22:18PM 0 points [-]

Amazing article! Are there any resources available to help identify, prioritise and facilitate opportunities for high-impact science? I'm currently researching cause prioritisation of, and within, biotechnology - especially it's positive applications. Any ideas would be greatly appreciated :)

In response to comment by LaurenMcG  (EA Profile) on High Impact Science
Comment author: Carl_Shulman 11 January 2017 07:42:52PM 1 point [-]

You might be interested in reading the Open Philanthropy Project's published science investigations, or 80000 Hours' write-ups on biomedical research, but I'm afraid they may not be developed enough for your purposes.

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