Comment author: Michelle_Hutchinson 13 September 2018 03:56:06PM 14 points [-]

There do seem to be some strong arguments in favour of having a cause prioritisation journal. I think there are some reasons against too though, which you don't mention:

  • For work people are happy to do in sufficient detail and depth to publish, there are significant downsides to publishing in a new and unknown journal. It will get much less readership and engagement, as well as generally less prestige. That means if this journal is pulling in pieces which could have been published elsewhere, it will be decreasing the engagement the ideas get from other academics who might have had lots of useful comments, and will be decreasing the extent to which people in general know about and take the ideas seriously.

  • For early stage work, getting an article to the point of being publishable in a journal is a large amount of work. Simply from how people understand journal publishing to work, there's a much higher bar for publishing than there is on a blog. So the benefits of having things looking more professional are actually quite expensive.

  • The actual work it is to set up and run a journal, and do so well enough to make sure that cause prioritisation as a field gains rather than loses credibility from it.

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: Michelle_Hutchinson 09 September 2018 11:46:06AM 13 points [-]

It sounds like AEF is doing a fantastic job of ensuring rigour in its messaging!

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.

I think in cases where there is little primary research, it's all the more important to ensure that discourse remain not merely polite, but friendly and kind. Research isn't easy at the best of times, and the animal space has a number of factors making it harder than others like global poverty (eg historic neglect and the difficulty of understanding experiences unlike our own). In cases like this where people are pushing ahead despite difficulty, it is all the more important to make sure that the work is actively appreciated, and at baseline that people do not end up feeling attacked simply for doing it. Criticisms that are framed badly can easily be worse than nothing, in leading those working in this area to think that their work isn't useful and they should leave the area, and by dissuading others from joining the area in the first place.

This makes me all the more grateful to John for being so thoughtful in his feedback - suggesting improvements directly to ACE in the first instance, running a public piece by them before publishing, and for highlighting reasons for being optimistic as well as potential problems.


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Comment author: Dunja 01 August 2018 12:41:09PM *  -1 points [-]

Couldn't agree more. What is worse, (as I mention in another comment) university grants were disqualified for no clear reason. I don't know which university projects were at all considered, but the underlying assumption seems to be that irrespective of how good they would be, the other projects will perform more effectively and more efficiently, even if they are already funded, i.e. by giving them some more cash.

I think this a symptom of an anti-academic tendencies that I've noticed on this form and in this particular domain of research, which I think would be healthy to discuss. The importance of the issue is easy to understand if we think of any other domain of research: just imagine that we'd start arguing that non-academic climate research centers should be financed instead of the academic ones. Or that research in medicine should be redirected from academic institutions towards non-academic ones. I'd be surprised if anyone here would defend such a policy. There are good reasons why academic institutions --with all their tedious procedures, peer-review processes, etc.-- are important sources of reliable scientific knowledge production. Perhaps we are dealing here with an in-group bias, which needs an open and detailed discussion.

Comment author: Michelle_Hutchinson 01 August 2018 10:52:07PM 17 points [-]

I'm Head of Operations for the Global Priorities Institute (GPI) at Oxford University. OpenPhil is GPI's largest donor, and Nick Beckstead was the program officer who made that grant decision.

I can't speak for other universities, but I agree with his assessment that Oxford's regulations make it much more difficult to use donations get productivity enhancements than it would be at other non-profits. For example, we would not be able to pay for the child care of our employees directly, nor raise their salary in order for them to be able to pay for more child care (since there is a standard pay scale). I therefore believe that the reason he gave for ruling out university-based grantees is the true reason, and one which is justified in at least some cases.

Comment author: Milan_Griffes 23 July 2018 08:50:29PM 3 points [-]

provided we found someone with suitable qualifications.

Could you sketch out what "suitable qualifications" for the fund manager role look like, roughly?

Comment author: Michelle_Hutchinson 25 July 2018 10:44:24AM *  16 points [-]

I don't know what others think about the qualifications needed/desired for this, but as a donor to these EA Funds, some of the reasons I'm enthusiastic to give to Nick's funds are:

  • His full-time day job is working out which organisations will do the most good over the long run (especially of those seeking to grow the EA movement), and how much funding they need.

  • He does that alongside extremely smart, well-informed colleagues with the same aims, giving him lots of opportunities to test and improve his views

  • He has worked formally and informally in this area for coming on for ten years

  • He's consistently shown himself to be smart, well-informed and to have excellent judgement.

I've been very grateful to be able to off-load where/when/how to donate optimally to him, and hope if/when a new fund manager is found, they share at least some of the above qualities.

[Disclaimer: I used to work for CEA]

Comment author: Michelle_Hutchinson 04 June 2018 03:39:39PM *  5 points [-]

Thanks for writing a summary of your progress and learnings so far, it's so useful for the EA community to share its findings.

A few comments:

You might consider making the website more targeted. It seems best suited to undergraduate theses, so it would be useful to focus in on that. For example, it might be valuable to increase the focus on learning. During your degree, building career capital is likely to be the most impactful thing you can do. Although things like building connections can be valuable for career capital, learning useful skills and researching deeply into a topic are the expected goals a thesis and so what most university courses give you the best opportunity to do. Choosing a topic which gives you the best opportunity for learning could mean, for example, thinking about which people in your department you can learn the most from (whether because the best researchers, or because they are likely to be the most conscientious supervisors), and what topic is of interest to them so that they'll be enthusiastic to work with you on it.

People in academia tend to be sticklers wrt writing style, so it could be worth getting someone to copy edit your main pages for typos.

Coming up with a topic to research is often a very personal process that happens when reading around an area. So it could be useful to have a page linking to recommended EA research / reading lists, to give people an idea of where they could start if they want to read around in areas where ideas are likely to be particularly useful. For example you might link to this list of syllabi and reading lists Pablo compiled.

Comment author: Halstead 29 May 2018 01:34:38PM *  2 points [-]

Here are my less rushed thoughts on why this line of thought is mistaken. Would have been better to do this as a comment in the first place - sorry about that.

This is a shorter and less rushed version of the argument I made in an earlier post on counterfactual impact, which could have been better in a few ways. Hopefully, people will find this version clearer and more convincing.

Suppose that we are assessing the total lifetime impact of two agents: Darren, a GWWC member who gives $1m to effective charities over the course of his life; and GWWC, which, let’s assume in this example, moves only Darren’s money to effective charities. If Darren had not heard of GWWC, he would have had zero impact, and if GWWC had not had Darren as a member it would have had zero impact.

When we ask how much lifetime counterfactual impact someone had, we are asking how much impact they had compared to the world in which they did not exist. On this approach, when we are assessing Darren’s impact, we compare two worlds:

Actual world: Darren gives $1m to GWWC recommended charities.

Counterfactual worldD: Darren does not exist and GWWC acts as it would have if Darren did not exist.

In the actual world, an additional $1m is given to effective charities compared to the Counterfactual WorldD. Therefore, Darren’s lifetime counterfactual impact is $1m. Similarly, when we are assessing GWWC’s counterfactual impact, we compare two worlds:

Actual world: GWWC recruits Darren ensuring that $1m goes to effective charities

Counterfactual worldG: GWWC does not exist and Darren acts as he would have done if GWWC did not exist.

In the actual world, an additional $1m is given to effective charities compared to the Counterfactual WorldG. Therefore, GWWC’s lifetime counterfactual impact is $1m.

This seems to give rise to the paradoxical conclusion that the lifetime counterfactual impact of both GWWC and Darren is $2m, which is absurd as this exceeds the total benefit produced. We would assess the lifetime counterfactual impact of both Darren and GWWC collectively by comparing two worlds:

Actual world: GWWC recruits Darren ensuring that $1m goes to effective charities
Counterfactual worldG&D: GWWC does not exist and Darren does not exist.

The difference between the Actual world and the counterfactual worldG&D is $1m, not $2m, so, the argument goes, the earlier method of calculating counterfactual impact must be wrong. The hidden premise here is:

Premise. The sum of the counterfactual impact of any two agents, A and B, taken individually, must equal the sum of the counterfactual impact of A and B, taken collectively.

In spite of its apparent plausibility, this premise is false. It implies that the conjunction of the counterfactual worlds we use to assess the counterfactual impact of two agents, taken individually, must be the same as the counterfactual world we use to assess the counterfactual impact of two agents, taken collectively. But this is not so. The conjunction of the counterfactual worlds we use to assess the impact of Darren and GWWC, taken individually, is:

Counterfactual worldD+G: GWWC does not exist and Darren acts as he would have done if GWWC did not exist; and Darren does not exist and GWWC acts as it would have done if Darren did not exist.

This world is not equivalent to Counterfactual worldD&G. Indeed, in this world Darren does not exist and acts as he would have done had GWWC not existed. But if GWWC had not existed, Darren would, ex hypothesi, still have existed. Therefore, this is not a description of the relevant counterfactual world which determines the counterfactual impact of both Darren and GWWC. This shows that you cannot unproblematically aggregate counterfactual worlds, it does not show that we assessed the counterfactual impact of Darren or GWWC in the wrong way.

To reiterate this point, when we assess Darren’s lifetime counterfactual impact, we ask: “what would have happened if Darren only hadn’t existed?” When we assess Darren and GWWC’s lifetime counterfactual impact, we ask “what would have happened if Darren and GWWC hadn’t existed?” These questions inevitably produce different answers about what GWWC would have done: in one case, we ask what GWWC would have done if Darren hadn’t existed, and in another we are assuming GWWC doesn’t even exist. This is why we get surprising answers when we mistakenly try to aggregate the counterfactual impact of multiple agents.

Comment author: Michelle_Hutchinson 31 May 2018 10:35:57AM 2 points [-]

I agree with you that impact is importantly relative to a particular comparison world, and so you can't straightforwardly sum different people's impacts. But my impression is that Joey's argument is actually that it's important for us to try to work collectively rather than individually. Consider a case of three people:

Anna and Bob each have $600 to donate, and want to donate as effectively as possible. Anna is deciding between donating to TLYCS and AMF, Bob between GWWC and AMF. Casey is currently not planning to donate, but if introduced to EA by TLYCS and convinced of the efficacy of donating by GWWC, would donate $1000 to AMF.

It might be the case that Anna knows that Bob plans to donate the GWWC, and therefore she's choosing between a case of causing $600 of impact or $1000. I take Joey's point not to be that you can't think of Anna's impact as being $1000, but to be that it would be better to concentrate on the collective case than the individual case. Rather than considering what her impact would be holding fixed Bob's actions ($1000 if she donates to TLYCS, $600 if she gives to AMF), Anna should try to coordinate with Bob and think about their collective impact ($1200 if they give to AMF, $1000 if they give to TLYCS/GWWC).

Given that, I would add 'increased co-ordination' to the list of things that could help with the problem. Given the highlighted fact that often multiple steps by different organisations are required to achieve particular impact, we should be thinking not just about how to optimise each step individually but also about the process overall.

Comment author: MichaelPlant 24 May 2018 10:18:05PM *  0 points [-]

Ah, I wondered if anyone was going to spot this Easter egg! Yeah, the list isn't public. This might sound outrageously petty, but having spend so long compiling it, I feel strange about giving it away or making it freely available for other people to copy.

I've trying to work out what to do with it and the rest of the algorithm I designed. If I wasn't so un-enthused about start ups I'd want to build something that just randomly gave you one of the suggestions (the suggestions are just text) as that seems to be the easiest version to do. Maybe that will happen at some point. Honestly I'm not sure what to do.

Comment author: Michelle_Hutchinson 25 May 2018 10:13:54AM 0 points [-]

If you want to make something to randomise the text suggestions, you might be able to do it pretty quickly and easily with Guided Track. Personally, I think I would find it more helpful looking at the whole list than being given a random suggestion from it. If you wanted to give people that option without making it publicly available for free, you could put the list on the private and unsearchable Facebook group EA self help, with a request not to share.

Comment author: Benito 05 April 2018 12:52:10AM *  5 points [-]

Note: EA is totally a trust network - I don't think the funds are trying to be anything like GiveWell, who you're supposed to trust based on the publicly-verifiable rigour of their research. EA funds is much more toward the side of the spectrum of "have you personally seen CEA make good decisions in this area" or "do you specifically trust one of the re-granters". Which is fine, trust is how tightly-knit teams and communities often get made. But if you gave to it thinking "this will look like if I give to Oxfam, and will have the same accountability structure" then you'll correctly be surprised to find out it works significantly via personal connections.

The same way you'd only fund a startup if you knew them and how they worked, you should probably only fund EA funds for similar reasons - and if the startup tried to make its business plan such that anyone would have reason to fund it, the business plan probably wouldn't be very good. I think that EA should continue to be a trust-based network, and so on the margin I guess people should give less to EA funds rather than EA funds make grants that are more defensible.

Comment author: Michelle_Hutchinson 08 April 2018 10:14:15PM 3 points [-]

This strikes me as making a false dichotomy between 'trust the grant making because lots of information is made public about its decisions' and 'trust the grant making because you personally know the re-granter (or know someone who knows someone etc)'. I would expect this is instead supposed to work in the way a lot of for profit funds presumably work: you trust your money to a particular fund manager because they have a strong history of their funds making money. You don't need to know Elie personally (or know about how he works / makes decisions) to know his track record of setting up GW and thereby finding excellent giving opportunities.

Comment author: Michelle_Hutchinson 05 February 2018 02:48:52PM 2 points [-]

[Note: It is difficult to compare the cost effectiveness of developed country anti-smoking MMCs and developing country anti-smoking MMCs because the systematic review cited above did not uncover any studies based on a developing country anti-smoking MMC. The one developing country study that it found was for a hypothetical anti-smoking MMC. That study, Higashi et al. 2011, estimated that an anti-smoking MMC in Vietnam would result in one DLYG (discount rate = 3%) for every 78,300 VND (about 4 USD). Additionally, the Giving What We Can report that shows tobacco control in developing countries being highly cost effective is based on the cost-effectiveness of tobacco taxes, not the cost-effectiveness of anti-smoking MMCs, and the estimated cost-effectiveness of tobacco taxes is based on the cost to the government, not the cost to the organization lobbying for a tobacco tax.]

This report briefly discusses MMCs as well as tax increases. It mentions MMCs are likely to be much more effective than those in the UK, due to the comparatively far lower awareness of the harms of smoking in developing countries, and far higher incidences in smoking. I wonder if we could learn more about the potential efficacy of such campaigns by comparing them to campaigns to try to lower road traffic injury? My impression is that in the latter case there has been a bit more study done specifically in developing world contexts.

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