Ever since I’ve been writing essays, I have always accumulated many more essay ideas than I end up actually writing. I frequently have an idea, write a paragraph or two, and then realize I have nothing left to say. Rather than leaving these unpublished, I am trying an experiment. This post contains a compilation of some of these ideas that were too short for essays.

In this issue, we discuss:

  • putting your money where your mouth is
  • the linguistics of swear words
  • cause prioritization
  • religion
  • more cause prioritization, because that’s obviously been my favorite topic recently

People should make bets on charities

It’s really important that we make good decisions about which charities to support and how to direct our altruistic endeavours. Unlike in the for-profit sector, we have no direct incentives to make optimal donation decisions1, so we have to hope that we come up with the right thing to do just by trying really hard.

Sometimes we can improve our incentives by putting our money where our mouths are. We obviously can’t make bets about which charity will do the most good because we have no direct way to measure that, but we can make related predictions. Some examples of useful bets one could make:

People should make bets because:

  1. If you make bets on outcomes that relate to charities’ effectiveness, you have direct personal incentives to get the answers correct. I bet with Nick Beckstead on clean meat technology because I believe he’s overly pessimistic, and I want him to have a personal stake in the matter since he has the power to provide the field with millions of dollars of funding. At the same time, I’m funding an organization that supports clean meat (among other things), so I should have a personal stake in the matter as well.
  2. Winning a bet provides (weak) evidence that you have a stronger ability to make predictions. If donors make bets with each other, over time the best predictors will make the most money. Better predictors probably make better donation decisions on average (although other factors, like personal values, matter a lot too), which means money gets donated more effectively overall.

On “Bullshit”

As far as I can tell, “bullshit” is the only swear word with a unique meaning.

Take the word “fuck”. There are certainly situations where you’d rather use the word “fuck” than any other word because it’s more emphatic; but you could always replace it with another word without much changing the meaning of the statement. When you’re using it as a verb you can usually replace it with “screw”. If you use “fucking” for emphasis, you can replace it with “freaking” or “damn” or “bloody”. A lot of times “fuck” merely serves as a stronger version of an alternative phrase, e.g., “What the hell?” -> “What the fuck?” or “I don’t give a damn” -> “I don’t give a fuck”.

But “bullshit” refers to a certain specific type of lying and there’s no other word that means the same thing. In Harry Frankfurt’s book “On Bullshit”, he initially talks about “bullshit” and then says in the interest of professionalism he will refer to it as “humbug” instead. But if he had a book called “On Humbug”, nobody would know what he was talking about because humbug is a weird word that nobody uses (except for Scrooge, I guess). Heck, he wrote a professional work of philosophy that’s titled “On Bullshit” because that’s the best way to describe what the book is about2. In contrast, there’s no reason why a philosophy book ever needs to say “fuck” in the title (unless it’s about the work “fuck” itself).

Some notes I took at Effective Altruism Global 2016

These are comments various other people made that I found insightful.

  • People can become influential by being the first to make a novel attempt at something, even if the attempt is rough.
  • Many effective organizations don’t need funding right now because they’re scaling up, but they will need more funding in 2-3 years.
  • The best way to debias is to practice.
  • We need to improve the quality of questions but we haven’t figured out how.
  • At large events, we should assign a designated critic who is responsible for criticizing everyone else’s ideas.
  • It’s likely easier to shift the probability of outcomes with near 0.5 probability than outcomes with probability close to 0 or 1.

On religious agnosticism

Some people say that no one should call themselves atheists–they should call themselves agnostics, because they can’t know for sure that there is no god.

When I say “There is no god”, I don’t know that there’s no god, in the sense that I’m not 100% certain that I’m correct. But I shouldn’t feel the need to tell anyone that, because of course I’m not 100% certain. When I say “I had cereal for breakfast this morning”, I’m not totally certain that I did: maybe I’m misremembering, or maybe what I thought was cereal was actually really weird tiny waffles. There is no need to qualify my statement as “Perhaps I had cereal for breakfast this morning, but no one can ever truly know such a thing.” For the same reasons, I can reasonably claim without qualification that that there is no god (and especially that the gods of the major religions do not exist).

You should give either all or none of your money to mainstream politics

Altruists should maximize expected value. That means we shouldn’t diversify our donations for the sake of reducing risk; we should only diversify if we can extract more expected value by donating to multiple causes, perhaps because we fund one cause until it has enough funding and no longer looks like the best place to donate, and then switch to a different cause. (I discuss similar ideas in a previous essay.)

If you have lots of money, you might want to give to multiple causes because you fill the most important funding gaps in one cause and then move on to the next one. But if you can’t fill the funding gap for the best cause, you should give all your money to it.

Some people give money to mainstream politics because they believe it’s the most effective cause. Some people give money to mainstream politics and also to global poverty charities like GiveDirectly with lots of ability to absorb funding. But mainstream politics3 also has lots of ability to absorb funding. If you prefer donating to political campaigns over GiveDirectly, it’s really unlikely that you could donate enough money to politics to make GiveDirectly look better on margin, and vice versa. Therefore, if you want to do the most good with your donations, you should probably only donate to one or the other, not both4.

Notes

  1. Or decisions about which charities to work for, or to volunteer for, or to do whatever else we do that benefits them.

  2. On the other hand, it probably wouldn’t be as well-known if he had called it “On A Particular Specific Type of Lying” or whatever. On the other other hand, he’s not particularly well-known among lay audiences anyway.

  3. I distinguish mainstream politics from niche politics because niche politics may have limited room for more funding, so the same reasoning doesn’t always apply.

  4. The United States has individual campaign contribution limits, but you can get around these by donating to many campaigns or by donating to PACs.