Slatestarcodex had an interesting post regarding the equal application of rigor in philosophy. This principle can be applied in a practical sense to effective altruist interventions as well.
Unlike in previous years, we decided in 2020 to consider multiple different cause areas, which leaves more room for cause comparison. We think that generally, both entrepreneurs and donors have specific cause areas in mind when they attend or support our program. However, some have asked us for a sense of how the different cause areas, and more importantly, charities within them, compare.
We think each area has its strengths and weaknesses and at this level, it's hard to reliably compare because many assumptions (both ethical and epistemic) need to be made. This article offers a starting point for such comparisons. First we show roughly how our 2020 cause areas compare, and then we look back at and compare our recommended interventions from research done in 2019.
In 2019, our research focused on interventions for animals and within global health. As of 2020, we are considering the following four cause areas:
Why is some research conducted with very high quality, yet it does not affect decisions on where to direct our time and money? What makes research relevant, important, and ultimately lead to positively impacting the world? A considerable portion of resources aimed at doing good at the world goes towards conducting research. In just the animal advocacy space (often considered one of the least research-heavy causes), about $9 million and 40 full-time researchers in the past five years went to work. That number is growing. With increasingly more organizations focusing on research, the importance of designing an effective research agenda is also growing. With so much attention on research, there is a high degree of importance on creating an impactful research agenda. In this post, I will present one meta-method for improving the impact of a research agenda. This post starts by explaining the importance of the theory of change for your research and then elaborates on a method to involve decision-makers in the process of creating your research agenda to maximize the impact of research.
Over the past few months, Charity Entrepreneurship has dedicated hours of work to researching ideas for potential animal charities that we believe could have uniquely high positive-impact. Our ask reports cover the impact of many different components of charitable interventions (for example, which animals to focus on). However, all of these reports are done only in the context of founding a new charity.
The following is a fictional story to illustrate a point.
The two interventions were both urgent. Animal Issues - Canada had been considering which of the two to pick for months. Jeremy thought that they should work on geese, as they had a significantly lower welfare standard than other in Canada. It looked clear to him that they should move the majority of their resources onto campaigns aimed at increasing the welfare of geese. However, his co-director disagreed. Jenny had been researching ducks and thought they were even more important than geese, since the ducks were slightly more numerous, although slightly better treated than the geese. It was a hard call, and so they chose to flip a coin. Both interventions were good, and flipping a coin seemed like a fair way of deciding, but both Executive Directors agreed that whatever the outcome, they would dedicate themselves to the issue.
But the coin betrayed them.
Scale, or importance, is held as one of the 3 criteria to consider when evaluating an intervention for promisingness. With the idea being that large scale problems might suggest which area will be more effective to work on, assuming it also scores well on the other criteria. Some interventions are predicated on very strong scale arguments, such as far future or wild animal suffering. However, we have found that scale specifically is quite a poor indicator of the promisingness of an area.
Written by: Joey Savoie
Time capping can be defined as fixing the number of hours for a certain task, research project or decision, and keeping our research within those bounds. Most tasks can be completed at different levels of depth and research itself is never-ending - a single topic could be researched in an hour, or could equally be the subject of an entire PhD. The same applies to website design, outreach, polishing or to the many other tasks that an organization engages in. Given tasks that are not time capped, people will generally spend more time doing what they find fun or intriguing, instead of what is best to put hours into in the long run. By setting a time cap on a task, we pre-determine how important that task is relative to other counterfactual tasks. This approach often gets more done, albeit at some cost of depth – often 90% of the value of tasks is captured by the first 10% of the effort.
Animal advocacy is a huge area and there are thousands of possible ideas to investigate, which could all be the basis for forming charities. Our research process goes through multiple steps to compare and consider areas and ideas to help found the most effective charities.
The research process involves multiple steps of differing breadth and depth. It would be impossible to go in depth with thousands of ideas; and while it would be possible to cover a huge number of ideas very shallowly, this would most likely not provide enough detailed information on whether a new charity in the area would be effective. Many research processes, including ours, thus involve varying levels of depth.
Is it better to be a wild rat or a factory farmed cow? A systematic method for comparing animal welfare.
TLDR: We looked at a lot of different systems to compare welfare and ended up combining a few common ones into a weighted animal welfare index (or welfare points for short). We think this system captures a broad range of ethical considerations and should be applicable across a wide range of both farm and wild animals in a way that allows us to compare interventions.
Some of the books I read to get a sense of animals' lives from different perspectives.
I have been a vegan for 8 years and have been semi-actively involved in animal rights for the past 5 years. Despite this, I have realized that my understanding of many aspects of the lives of animals is surprisingly narrow, and I think this is fairly common for activists in animal advocacy (or any movement, really). As the project I am now working on is recommending charities that should be founded in the animal advocacy movement and providing an incubation camp for them, I feel the need to broaden my understanding of these issues.
We have completed our second phase of research which was to narrow a list of about thirty charity ideas to a more concise list of five top prospects worth further exploration. Below is a chart comparing these five possibilities. The rankings are relative to each other, not absolute and based on a primary and time limited review of the data on these causes.
If you want to create an effective charity, how do you know if it is effective?
A very common answer is, by doing detailed measurement and evaluation. But this is harder than it sounds. While research is hard to get right in general, the difficulty starts just with the measurement… which metric should you measure?
Two months ago, we set out to identify possibilities for future GiveWell top charities, with the intention to start one ourselves. We started out by looking at the GiveWell priority program list and added a few more interventions we thought could be promising as we conducted our initial research. We ended up with a list of 28 target interventions to research further.
After two months of research, we have now reviewed all our target interventions, ranking each on eight key criteria (from low to high) and producing overall scores (out of ten). Here are our results:
We researched each intervention for about fifty hours each, producing over 900 pages of notes. We already explained the interventions that didn’t make the cut and why. Over the next month, we will be posting many blog posts explaining our thinking on these criteria and outlining our research on six interventions that did make the cut. We will also eventually start posting our ideas about which concrete charities we think may be high value and why.
We wanted to publish a quick update of a summary timeline and broad phases of our project. All these numbers are tentative, and we expect they will change as we conduct the research and get a better sense of each step. Throughout this whole process there will also be ongoing logistical and meta-work to support these main activities.
Currently there is almost no research in the area, so you would have to narrow it down using heuristics.
The Old Way
Last year, I somewhat informally narrowed down the options until I chose to run a study on handing out educational leaflets. The rough steps I followed were to: