Some charities are thousands of times better than others

What do The American Cheese Society, Oxfam, and Homeopaths Without Borders have in common? The answer is that they’re all non-profit organisations.


‘Homeopaths Without Borders’ has provided ‘treatment’ and ‘education’ in a number of countries, including Haiti after the 2010 earthquake there. There is little reason to believe this intervention can be beneficial (beyond, perhaps, a placebo effect) and good reason to believe it may deter vulnerable people on the ground from seeking genuine medical attention if they believe homeopathy can somehow cure a range of deadly diseases such as cholera and malaria.


Hopefully most readers of this article are knowledgeable enough not to support such a charity. But some charities provide interventions that, on the face of it, sound like fantastic ideas. It’s only when you look at the details that the flaws emerge.


For example, Playpumps International were a charity that received millions of dollars from the US government, as well as celebrity backing, in order to help developing countries improve their access to clean water. The idea was simple: as children play on a merry-go-round they pump water from an underground water source into a storage tank.


Yet the pumps were criticised by other water charities for being far more expensive and complicated (and therefore harder to repair) than conventional pumps. To pump the amount of water that the charity claimed it could provide, it would require children to be ‘playing’ on them for 27 hours a day. Playpumps may well have diverted funds that could have been used to provide water for many more people.


Most charities probably don’t directly cause harm. But even amongst charities that support worthy causes, there are good reasons to favour certain charities over others. Why?


Firstly, some problems are more serious than others. Cancer is worse than the common cold. Being one of the 19,000 children who die every day from mostly preventable disease is worse than being an artisan American cheese manufacturer in need of promotion.


Secondly, some interventions simply cost more to achieve a similar outcome. This means that £1 given to one charity might do as much good as giving £1000 to another.


Giving What We Can point out that if you want to help blind people, you could spend $40,000 training a guide dog to help one person in the US or UK. Or, using the same money, you could cure more than 2,000 people of blindness by paying for surgeries to reverse the effects of trachoma in developing countries. There are similarly impressive differences in the cost-effectiveness of interventions to prevent the spread of HIV; education works out as much better value than anti-retroviral therapy.


This is the rationale behind the ‘effective altruism’ movement, which includes groups such as GiveWell and Giving What We Can (who have a chapter at the University of York). By researching charities to find those that provide the biggest impact for each donation, by ensuring that the charity’s work is backed up by independent evidence, and by demanding openness and transparency, we can support the interventions that help improve the world the most.


We should not merely seek out and support good charities: we should support the best.


(article originally poster on The Yorker)


Riding a horse is as dangerous as taking heroin

What’s wrong with the following argument?


P1. In the UK, heroin is a Class A drug.

P2. Ecstasy is also a Class A drug.

P3. The classification of a drug represents the level of harm it causes to individuals and society.

P4. Horse riding causes at least as much harm as ecstasy.

C. Therefore, horse riding is as harmful as heroin.


Suddenly, I have a new-found respect for Britain’s successful Olympic horse-dancing team. Who knew they were taking such risks?

The problem with the above argument is at premise 3.  The classification of a drug is supposed to represent the level of harm it causes, but in practice it doesn’t. Why not? Primarily because politicians ignore scientific evidence on drugs. They prefer to appear tough on drugs, in order to please the tabloids. The tabloids in turn significantly under-report deaths from drugs such as paracetemol (reporting approx 1 in every 250 deaths) compared to ones like ecstasy (reporting almost every single death).

This means the classification of a drug loses any value as a signal as to how harmful it is. You might as well take a Class A drug, because being Class A says nothing about how harmful it is.

Some people argue that no matter how harmful something is, as long as people are aware of the risks, then we should be allowed do whatever we want to our own bodies. This is a view I am sympathetic towards. However, as long as governments take the view that they should tell us what we can or cannot put in our bodies because of the harm it causes, at the very least they have a duty to ensure the law is consistent with such harm.

The Eugenic Self-Extinction of Social Conservatism

A recent book by Chris Mooney argues that there is a neurological basis as to why many supporters of the American Republican Party seem to “believe more wrong things; appear more likely than Democrats to oppose new ideas and less likely to change their beliefs in the face of new facts; and sometimes respond to compelling evidence by doubling down on their current beliefs.”

I have not yet read this book. As such, I may be misrepresenting the views of the author, but based on the book description, it seems to me that his arguments are primarily targetted at the social conservatives in the Republican Party, rather the economic conservatives whose concern is limiting the size of the state (i.e what those outside the US would call supporters of economic liberalism).

This distinction is important. Economics is not a science; it is an art. There is no clear consensus on what is the best economic theory, partly because what one considers ‘best’ depends on your values. But even if one shares the same values, one can disagree with the means of promoting them. Strong rational arguments can be put forward for both reducing state investment and increasing it, if your agreed aim is promote economic growth. But interpretation of economic evidence is often confounded by too many variables to support one economic theory over another, at least not with the same level of confidence as one would need to reasonably support a scientific theory.

Mooney’s arguments may extend to more extreme economic theories. The book description claims he considers “why Republicans reject the widely accepted findings of mainstream science, economics, and history”. But non-mainstream economic theories exist at both ends of the economic-political spectrum. I suspect many Marxists are “less likely to change their beliefs in the face of new facts” just as much as many libertarians. (Though it should be said that someone adhering to non-mainstream economic theories does not necessarily mean they dogmatically ignore new facts. They could be right, and it’s actually the mainstream who have overlooked/ignored some essential facts).

Eugenics then. Where does this come into it? Well, let’s assume that Mooney is correct in claiming that there is a neurological/psychological basis for our political beliefs. Apparently “people more wedded to certainty tend to become conservatives; people craving novelty, liberals”. If one’s neurology influences one’s political outlook, it seems reasonable to infer there is also a genetic influence of one’s political outlook. I am not suggesting that anyone is born a Tory, Democrat, Liberal, Republican, Socialist etc. Clearly, one’s education, experience and upbringing play a hugely significant role. But genes will play a part too. [UPDATE: On his blog, Mooney does indeed list studies that suggest a varying degree of genetic influence on political preference]

Over the next few decades, it is possible that parents will, to an extent, be able to choose certain characteristics of their children. This could be done by using pre-implantation genetic screening of IVF embryos and selecting those embryos with the desired traits. Or it could be done by genetically engineering one embryo and inserting the genes for the traits the parents desire, rather than selecting from a group of embryos.

Social liberals are, apparently, more likely to “crave novelty”. Social conservatives are more likely to be “wedded to certainty”*. Historically, this can especially been seen with regards to changing attitudes towards sexuality and new reproductive technologies: consider the different stances on contraception, homosexuality, IVF, abortion. Thus, it seems likely that most social conservatives will strongly oppose using genetic engineering or embryo selection. Social liberals may be more willing to use it. If so, and they are able to select traits that they find valuable, they may seek to select genes that will encourage a socially liberal outlook. This could involve selecting genes that boost intelligence, since it appears that low intelligence, mediated via socially conservative ideology, predicts greater racism. But it could also mean selecting genes that directly influence one’s political leanings. Perhaps the genes involved in ‘craving novelty’ or being ‘wedded to uncertainty’ are related to having an appropriate development of fear responses; i.e not fearing someone merely because they belong to a new group whose clothes/language/culture/sexuality is unknown to you.

If this sort of selection occurs, then social liberals will essentially be self-promoting, and will thus increase their way of thinking within the population by having kids that are genetically inclined to think their way. Social conservatives, who won’t select for traits they desire because they generally have more ‘fear/distrust’ of the technology, will not enhance the social conservative genetic mindset. Any children they have will not deliberately be selected for conservative thinking. Thus, such children may grow up in a society that is increasingly overwhelmingly socially liberal. The liberal mindset will become the new social norm and any such children of conservatives will increasingly accept the liberal ‘status quo’; including the use of genetic technologies, perpetuating the selection of liberal ideals. Social conservatism as we know it will be extinct.


*Socially conservative attitudes can occur across the economic political spectrum. For example, I suspect there are a number of socialists who would oppose any reform or reduction of the welfare state or (in the UK) of the privatisation of the National Health Service, even if there was strong evidence that such reform would benefit those who use such services.  This can be considered socially conservative just as much as those who consider themselves to be politically right-wing and are socially conservative in a religious or cultural sense.