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CarlShulman comments on Another Critique of Effective Altruism - Less Wrong

20 Post author: jsteinhardt 05 January 2014 09:51AM

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Comment author: CarlShulman 05 January 2014 06:19:14PM *  27 points [-]

GiveWell, for example, has explicitly distanced themselves from numerical calculations (albeit recently) and several EAs have called into question the usefulness of cost-effectiveness estimates, a charge that was largely lead by GiveWell.

I'll speak up on this one. I am a booster of more such estimates, detailed enough to make assumptions and reasoning explicit. Quantifying one's assumptions lets other challenge the pieces individually and make progress, where with a wishy-washy "list of considerations pro and con" there is a lot of wiggle room about their strengths. Sometimes doing this forces one to think through an argument more deeply only to discover big holes, or that the key pieces also come up in the context of other problems.

In prediction tournaments training people to use formal probabilities has been helpful for their accuracy.

Also I second the bit about comparative advantage: CEA recently hired Owen Cotton-Barratt to do cause prioritization/flow-through effects related work. GiveWell Labs is heavily focused on it. Nick Beckstead and others at the FHI also do some work on the topic.

It seems like the EA mainstream either agrees with many of your critiques already (and therefore you're just trying to convince EAs to adopt the mainstream)

I think that on some of these questions there is also real variation in opinion that should not simply be summarized as a clear "mainstream" position.

Comment author: JonahSinick 06 January 2014 07:43:21AM 2 points [-]

The question to my mind is whether the value of attempting to make such estimates is sufficiently great so that time spent on them is more cost-effective than just trying to do something directly.

Can you give recent EA related examples of exercises in making quantitative estimates that you've found useful?

To be clear, I don't necessarily disagree with you (it depends on the details of your views on this point). I agree that laying out a list of pros and cons without quantifying things suffers from vagueness of the type you describe. But I strain to think of success stories.

Comment author: peter_hurford 06 January 2014 02:31:29AM 2 points [-]

I'll speak up on this one. I am a booster of more such estimates, detailed enough to make assumptions and reasoning explicit.

I generally agree. But I think there's a large difference between "here's a first-pass attempt at a cost-effectiveness estimate purely so we can compare numbers" and "this is how much it costs to save a life". Another problem is that I don't think people take much into account when comparing figures (e.g., comparing veg ads to GiveWell) is the differences in epistemic strength behind each number, so that could cause a concern.

~

I think that on some of these questions there is also real variation in opinion that should not simply be summarized as a clear "mainstream" position.

I don't know how much variation there is. I don't claim to know a representative sample of EAs. But I do think there's not much variation among the wisdom of EA orgs on these issues of which I proclaim mainstream.

Which positions are you thinking of?

Comment author: CarlShulman 06 January 2014 05:44:43AM *  9 points [-]

But I think there's a large difference between "here's a first-pass attempt at a cost-effectiveness estimate purely so we can compare numbers" and "this is how much it costs to save a life".

You still have to answer questions like:

  • "I can get employer matching for charity A, but not B, is the expected effectiveness of B at least twice as great as that for A, so that I should donate to B?"
  • "I have an absolute advantage in field X, but I think that field Y is at least somewhat more important: which field should I enter?"
  • "By lobbying this organization to increase funds to C, I will reduce support for D: is it worth it?"

Those choices imply judgments about expected value. Being evasive and vague doesn't eliminate the need to make such choices, and tacitly quantify the relative value of options.

Being vague can conceal one's ignorance and avoid sticking one's neck out far enough to be cut off, and it can help guard against being misquoted and PR damage, but you should still ultimately be more-or-less assigning cardinal scores in light of the many choices that tacitly rely on them.

It's still important to be clear on how noisy different inputs to one's judgments are, to give confidence intervals and track records to put one's analysis in context rather than just an expected value, but I would say the basic point stands, that we need to make cardinal comparisons and being vague doesn't help.

Comment author: peter_hurford 06 January 2014 03:14:05PM *  1 point [-]

Like I said to Ishaan:

I agree magnitude is important, for more than just a PR perspective. But it's possible to compare magnitudes without using figures like "$3400.47". I think people go a lot less funny in the head when thinking about "approximately ten times better".

Though I think I agree with [you] that producing figures like "$3400.47" is important for calibration, I don't think our goal should be to equate the lowest estimated figure with the highest impact cause or even automatically assume that a lower estimated figure is a better cause (not that [you] would say that, of course).

Comment author: Ishaan 06 January 2014 04:08:51AM *  2 points [-]

I think there's a large difference between "here's a first-pass attempt at a cost-effectiveness estimate purely so we can compare numbers" and "this is how much it costs to save a life"

Note: I do want to know how much it costs to save a life (or QALY or some other easy metric of good). I'd rather have a ballpark conservative estimate than nothing to go off of.

Back when AMF was recommended, I considered the sentence: "we estimate the cost per child life saved through an AMF LLIN distribution at about $3,400.47" to be one of the most useful in the report, because it gave an idea of an approximate upper bound on the magnitude of good to be done and was easy to understand. Sure, it might not be nuanced - but there's a lot to be said for a simple measure of magnitude that helps people make decisions without large amounts of thinking.

When considering altruism (in the future - I don't earn yet) I wouldn't simply have a charity budget which simply goes to the most effective cause - I'd also be weighing the benefit to the most effective cause against the benefit to myself.

That is to say, if i find out that saving lives (or some other easy metric of good) is cheaper than I thought, that would encourage me to devote a greater proportion of income to said cause. The cheaper the cost of good, the more urgent it becomes to me that the good is done.

So it's not enough to simply compare charities in a relative sense to find the best. I think the magnitude of good per cost for the most efficient charity, in an absolute sense, is also pretty important for individual donors making decisions about whether to allocate resources to altruism or to themselves.

Comment author: peter_hurford 06 January 2014 03:12:33PM 0 points [-]

That is to say, if I find out that saving lives (or some other easy metric of good) is cheaper than I thought, that would encourage me to devote a greater proportion of income to said cause. The cheaper the cost of good, the more urgent it becomes to me that the good is done.

This sort of makes sense to me, but it also doesn't. My view is that even if causes were way worse than I currently think they are, they'll still be much more important from an utilitarian perspective than spending on myself. Therefore, I do just construct a charity budget out of all the money I'm willing to give up. I can get the sense of feeling like it is even more urgent that you give up resources, but it already was tremendously urgent in the first place...

But, hey, as long as you're doing altruistic stuff, I'm not going to begrudge you much!

~

So it's not enough to simply compare charities in a relative sense to find the best. I think the magnitude of good per cost for the most efficient charity, in an absolute sense, is also pretty important for individual donors making decisions about whether to allocate resources to altruism or to themselves.

I agree magnitude is important, for more than just a PR perspective. But it's possible to compare magnitudes without using figures like "$3400.47". I think people go a lot less funny in the head when thinking about "approximately ten times better".

Though I think I agree with Carl Shulman that producing figures like "$3400.47" is important for calibration, I don't think our goal should be to equate the lowest estimated figure with the highest impact cause or even automatically assume that a lower estimated figure is a better cause (not that Shulman would say that, of course).

Comment author: Ishaan 06 January 2014 06:30:20PM *  1 point [-]

I'm still a student and am only planning how i might spend money when i have it (it seems like a good idea to have a plan for this sort of thing). Thus far I've been looking at both effective altruism and financial independence (mostly frugality+low risk investment) blogs as possible options. It's quite possible that once money is actually in my hands and I'm actually in the position of making the trade-off, I'll see the appeal of the "charity budget" method...or I might discover that my preferences are less or more selfish than I originally thought, etc.

Right now though...suppose the rate was 5$ a life. If I was going to go out and buy a 10$ sandwich instead of feeding myself via cheaper means for 5$, i'd be weighing that sandwich against one human life. I would be a lot more frugal and devote a greater portion of my income to charity, if reality was like that. I'd be relatively horrified by frivolous spending.

On the other extreme, if it costed a billion dollars to save a single life, I could spend all my days being frugal and giving to charity and probably wouldn't significantly help even one person. I'd fulfill more of my preferences by just enjoying myself and not worrying about altruism beyond the interpersonal level.

More realistically, If it costs $2000 to save a life, buying a sandwich at the opportunity cost of saving <1% of a life ... it's still sort of selfish to choose the sandwich, but I'm simply not that good of a person that I wouldn't sometimes trade 1/100th of a strangers life for a small bit of luxury. But I'd certainly think about getting, say, a smaller house if it meant I could save an additional 1-2 people a year.

Of course, the "charity budget" model is simple and makes sense on a practical level when the good / dollar rate remains relatively constant - as I suppose it generally does. But I wouldn't actually know how large to make my charity budget, unless I had a sense of how much good I could potentially do.

Comment author: peter_hurford 06 January 2014 11:23:44PM 0 points [-]

I'm also a student about to graduate and have looked a lot at both EA and financial independence. I think you're thinking about things correctly.