Inclusivity is a Trade Off

[Content Note: talking about talking about sexual assault][not a typo]

A few years ago I was an extremely active member of a martial arts studio.  Martial arts has risks, and this school chose to take more than the bare minimum- sparring involved head shots and take downs.  I was willing to accept the risks of this with most people at the dojo, because I knew they were acting with my safety in mind and the risks were worth the benefits, but there was one guy, Snotlout, who did not pass that test.

An artist's rendering of Snotlout
Snotlout is a psuedonym

Where most people will aim to hit near your face, so a mistake means you get a tap, Snotlout aimed to hit you, and the failure mode was hitting your face really hard.  He took blind kicks at full power and blamed you for not getting out of the way.  He once flipped a child flat on their back and his first concern was letting us know how lightly he had touched them.

The school wouldn’t kick him out, wouldn’t even really place restrictions on him.  When I complained to the de facto leadership it was always redirected to what I could do to take care of myself, but when I did so (e.g. insisting on slow motion sparring), I got push back from other de facto leadership.  No one would kick him out or place the necessarily level of restrictions on him, apparently out of fear those restrictions might drive him to leave.  If I really pushed, the people who would talk to me about it would say that they or someone they loved was that dangerous when they came in, and they wanted to give that guy the same chance.  Which is a beautiful thought, except that I know at least three people for whom he was a contributing factor in leaving the school.  Where was the inclusivity for us?*

It's not only morally wrong that Astrid has to keep fighting off Snotlout, it's bad for the tribe's survival.  Between the two of them, she's clearly the one to bet on.
Where would Berk be if Snotlout had driven out Astrid?

Last year Seattle Effective Altruists had a member who brought up sexual assault a lot, in ways that made it clear it was personally relevant to her.  This made me really uncomfortable, but I was aware of how often rape victims are silenced and how damaging that is, so I didn’t say anything.  What occurred to me much later was that statistically there was at least one other victim of sexual assault in room, probably more, and they might find also find it uncomfortable.**  The choice wasn’t “do I silence this rape victim or not?”, it was “who do I make/let be uncomfortable?”, even if I didn’t know who the other person was.  Obviously a trauma victim discussing work with personal meaning to them is in no way equivalent to a jackass endangering people’s safety in order to prove how awesome he is, but that is part of my point: even actions with very good motivations have costs.

Back to martial arts.  Notice that I said de facto leadership?  The problem wasn’t that someone calculated Snotlout vs. [me, the two people I know about, and unknown number of others he drove away] and chose him.  It was that no one did the calculation and no one was responsible for making sure it was done.  There wasn’t even anyone I could negotiate with to ensure my personal safety; a plan I worked out with one senior student would be publicly ridiculed by another.*** No one had ownership of student safety so there was no one to turn a pile of individual complaints into “wow, that guy is dangerous and we should do something”.  To this day I’m not sure why “we have to be welcoming” meant “you have to let him hit you in the face over and over”, and everyone I asked described it as a decision made by someone else.  I don’t even think this worked out particularly well for that guy, because while no one was willing to restrict him, a lot of people would have been happier if he just left, and it showed up in petty things like him never quite getting added to the parking mailing list.  Eventually, after driving out who knows how many people, he screwed up so badly the school had to put severe restrictions on him.  He never came back.

In the real world bullies rarely improve their behavior without seeing its consequences.
An unanticipated struggle to find parking rarely inspires the kind of self reflection that leads to redemption or dragon riding.

Back to EA.  My eventual solution to the “how to talk about rape” problem was to simultaneously ask the woman to tone down the sexual assault talk in meetings where it wasn’t relevant and host her own meeting on the topic.  Unfortunately she left for other reasons before I could implement this.  But if I’d had the chance, it only would have worked because I was empowered as an organizer to do both of those things.  If I’d approached her as a peer, the request to limit talk about sexual assault would have had less heft, and a dedicated meeting would have been a suggestion, not an offer.  But it probably wouldn’t even have gone that far, because it wouldn’t have felt like my place to do it.  That leaves the hypothetical assault victim that didn’t want to constantly hear about rape to defend themselves by approaching her directly, and possibly requiring they disclose their history to see results, which they shouldn’t have to do.  In order to be truly welcoming to them**** , someone had to proactively make the space safe.

There have been other, less fraught trade offs.  One person’s friendly debate is another’s attack, and a third person’s derail.   I think one of my major contributions to the group has been not the decisions we made on these (although those were awesome), but that we made decisions at all, and worked out how to implement them.

If you are an organizer, for EA or something else, these are my recommendations:

  • Have a small, identifiable group with whom the buck ultimately stops.  Individual meetings in Seattle are run mostly on a who-is-excited-about-this system, but there are three people explicitly in charge of the administrative stuff, including disputes.
  • Make explicit decisions about your norms, share them, and enforce them.
  • Explicit is not the same as fixed.  I’m extremely excited about our plans to experiment with different norms at specific meetings, even if some of the norms would make me miserable as a participant.  Not every meeting needs to be for every person.
  • There’s a fine line between overpreparing and sticking your head in the sand until something blows up.  Some of our best decisions are “let X keep going unless Y happens, and then figure out a plan.”

*See also: Geek Social Fallacy #1.

**Much later still I would learn I was right.

***10 minutes before the same guy started quoting The Gift of Fear on listening to your instincts, and specifically leaving situations where you felt afraid.  I walked out.

****Or people who were uncomfortable talking about sexual assault for other reasons, or people who just wanted to talk about the planned topic.

Links 5/22/15

Effective Social Justice Interventions: this is a great example of using EA as a technique to address areas the EA-as-philosophy sphere hasn’t touched.

The Last Day of Her Life:  a psychology researcher’s decision to and process of ending her life as her Alzheimer’s progresses.   Fun fact: state-sanctioned euthanasia requires you be mentally competent and have less than six months to live.  Alzheimer’s patients are mentally incompetent years before they die of the disease.

The (crime-related) Broken Window Theory states that low level visible crime (graffiti, litter) leads to more crime, of all varieties. It is most famous for being Rudy Guilani’s method for reducing crime in New York City.  My understanding was that that had been debunked, and NYC’s drop is crime was caused mostly by demographic trends.  But some researchers did some fairly rigorous tests of it and it held up.  Caveat: they tested visible crime’s evidence on other crimes of similar magnitude, not escalations like theft.

This week’s “beautiful theory killed by an ugly gang of facts” award goes to the meditation chapter of The Willpower Instinct, which promises fantastic benefits from the very beginning.  In fact it says that meditating badly is in some ways better for you than meditating well, because it is the practice of refocusing yourself after you become distracted that is so beneficial.  Unfortunately none of the studies cited show that exact things, and what they do show is a small effect on a noisy variable, in a small sample.

[I don’t want to be too hard on The Willpower Instinct.  It encourages you to do your own experiments and stick with what works, I found some of it helpful, and it’s good for getting yourself into a willpower mindset.  It’s just scientifically weaker than it would have you believe.]

Sine Rider: if xkcd was a video game.

Map of Open Spaces in Effective Altruism

Effective altruism is really extraordinarily good at telling people where to give money, and pretty okay at telling people how to create less animal suffering.  Guidance on how to do anything else is substantially more opaque, because EA discourages a lot of traditional volunteering (at least as a way of improving the world.  As a hobby most people are still okay with it).  That’s a shame, because there’s a lot left to do.

There are an enormous number of unsolved problems in effective altruism, and philanthropy in general.  And there’s actually a fair amount of support for you, if you want to research or attempt a solution.  But the support is not very discoverable.   A lot of the information spreads via social osmosis, and if you’re more than two degrees out from one of the big EA hubs the process is slow and leaky.   It’s not always obvious from the outside how approachable many people and organizations in EA are, or what problems are waiting for solutions.  But once you have that knowledge, it’s really hard to remember what it was like when you didn’t, which makes it hard to figure out what to do about the problem.

This is my attempt to address that.  Below I have listed info on the major EA organizations, with emphasis on what problems they are interested in, how to learn more about them, and what kind of contact they encourage.   I would be surprised if this was enough to enable someone to go from 0-to-implementation on its own, but my hope is that it will provide some scaffolding that speeds up the process of learning the rest of it.

Institutions: did I get something about you wrong?  Miss you entirely?  Please let me know and I will update, I want this to be as accurate as possible.


  • GiveWell ‘s most public work focuses on identifying the best charities working on third world poverty, but they have spun off a subgroup called the Open Philanthropy Project.  OPP investigates not just specific interventions, but causes, trying to determine which areas have the crucial combination of importance, tractability, and neglected-ness.  The good news is that you can read about it in detail on their blog.  The bad news is that you can read about a great many things in a great deal of detail on their blog, so if you’re looking for a particular thing it can be hard to find.  To that end, here are some links to get you started
  • Centre for Effective Altruism has spun off or collaborated with a number of important projects in EA: Giving What We Can, 80,000 hours, Animal Charity Evaluators, Life You Can Save, Global Philanthropy Project, EA Ventures…  all of which I have included in this document.   Their current plan appears to be that, plus some outreach.
  • EA Ventures is a new agency dedicated to matching up people with EA projects, people with money, and people with relevant skills.  EAV’s official areas of interest are the effective altruism trinity: global poverty, animal suffering, and existential risk, and a lot of the things on the list of community suggestions they solicited fall into those three + meta-EA work.   And yet, the list is almost 10 pages long.  Even within those spaces (one of which the rest of the world already looks at pretty closely), there are a lot of ideas.  I’m also heartened to see “mental welfare” as a category, even if it’s empty.  Next time, EA Ventures, next time.
  • .impact started as a combination of “The Volunteer Committee to Spread and Improve Effective Altruism” and a platform to publicize and network for your own projects.  They have just started branching out into more direct support with a slush fund to help people put the finishing touches on their projects.  If you want to get involved formally, there are biweekly meetings with agendas and people leaving with action items and everything, but you’re also encouraged to just make a wiki page for your project and announce it on the facebook group.  Presumably because you’re looking for comments or help, but it doesn’t obligate you to the formal group in any way.  They maintain a list of projects, most of which are related to movement building, but Tom Ash has confirmed that’s a matter of circumstance, not policy.  This seems like a great resource if you want to invest some time, but not necessarily a whole job’s worth of time, in EA, or if you’re looking for learning projects.  One thing I particularly appreciate about the list is that it calls out useful practice problems; if you’re going to learn Ruby Python, it might as well be while patching up
  • Technically out of scope but potentially still useful: If you have an idea for an EA Project and need some advice or particular expertise, check out skillshare, which is a more direct skill matching website.
  • Also just slightly out of scope: 80,000 Hours, an organization dedicated to helping people choose the most effective career for them.  The input they most solicit is career decision case studies, but they also take new ideas through their forum.
  • Animal Charity Evaluators is a good example of a narrow cause focus still having a lot of room for innovation.   Their planned research includes the very specific (“how does viewing a video on animals affect diet in the medium term”), but also the very broad (“How to measure animal welfare?”, which is itself at least five different questions, and “How have other social justice movements done things?  How would those things work for us?”, which is several graduate thesises all on its own).   They actively encourage people with ideas in these spheres to contact them.
  • Your local EA org. You can find these on EAhub, or Meetup, or Facebook.  I can only speak authoritatively about Seattle’s, where most of the work is “coordinate and talk at meetings”, and I think we do a great job of letting people do as much of that as they want without pressuring them to do more.  Also, it is a great place to discuss economics with people who aren’t assholes.

Existential Risk

I struggled a bit writing this section.  The whole point of this exercise is helping people figure out where their idea falls in EA and who might want to hear them.  Existential risk is pretty much the definition of unknown unknowns, and while I understand the broad strokes, I’m not at all confident I can place boundaries without cutting off interesting and relevant work.  The best I can do is tell you where to look.

  • Machine Intelligence Research Institute: What happens when we create self-improving artificial intelligence? How do we make sure a small difference in values doesn’t lead to something undesirable?  It’s a dense subject, but MIRI makes it as accessible as it can, with a full page devoted to how to how to learn more (in great detail) and how to work with them.  I know at least one person has followed their idea for a journal club because they did it in Seattle.
  • Future of Humanity Institute (Oxford).  FHI is an academic institute dedicated to academic investigation of big picture questions.  You know how humans have a tendency to just apply new technology and work out the consequences by seeing them?  FHI is attempting to get ahead of that.  They’re concerned about malicious AI, but also the more mundane potential problems like technology induced systemic unemployment and Big Brother.    You can read about their research here.  They appear to be operating on academic-style collaboration rules, which mean you have to talk to the individual person you want to work with.
  • Global Priorities Project is a collaboration between FHI and CEA, and its goal is to bring their academic work to governments and industry.   It focuses specifically on prioritization of competing proposals, including research into how to prioritize when there are so very many unknowns.  You can read about their research here.  They have an active interest in collaboration or helping people (especially government and industry) use their results.
  • Center for Study of Existential Risk (Cambridge).  Did you expect Cambridge to let Oxford have something they didn’t?  CSER is attempting to develop a general structural framework for evaluating and mitigating extreme risk regardless of field.  And malicious AI.  Per Sean Holden’s comments on EA forum, they are not currently looking for volunteers but if you want to be considered in the future you can e-mail with your availability and the specifics of the skills you are offering, or keep your eyes open for requests on EA Facebook group/LessWrong/EA Forum itself.
  • Future of Life Institute:  Organizations that focus on existential risk tend to be affiliated with big institutions, which tells you something about the problem space.  In contrast, FLI is an all volunteer org and has open applications for both volunteers and grants on their website (although the deadline has passed for the first round of grants).  Their immediate focus appears to also be malicious AI, but they’re also interested in bio-, nano-, and nuclear tech, environmental catastrophes, and ???.


This is a super important category that I am so, so glad other people are handling, because asking people for money is not in my core skill set.  Left to my own devices I would do research (you know, like this) and then hope money appears.  In my defense, that’s working very well for GiveWell.  But I’m really glad there are other people working on more direct, asking-for-money type projects.

  • Giving What We Can is dedicated to upping and maintaining the level of commitment of people already into effective altruism, primarily asking people to pledge to give 10% of their income to charity forever.  The GWWC pledge originally specified 3rd world poverty charities only, but now includes whatever the signer believes will be most effective.  If you want to get involved with GWWC, the obvious thing to do is sign the pledge.  If you want to do more than that you can found or contribute to your local GWWC chapter.  They’re also open to volunteers in other areas.  They offer charity recommendations, which are based primarily but not exclusively on GiveWell’s work.
  • Life You Can Save: takes a different tact, offering a pledge for a much smaller amount (1% of income, or personal best) but marketing it to a wider variety of people.   This may be working, since 17x as many people have taken the LYCS pledge as the GWWC pledge (although we don’t know which moves more money without knowing their incomes).  Their primary request is for people to run Giving Games, but they will also at least talk to people who want to volunteer in other ways.
  • Charity Science is an effective altruist non-profit that focuses on raising money for GiveWell-recommended charities by exploring any fundraising methods. There are several opportunities for individuals to raise money with them, via things like birthday fundraisers or the $2.50/day challenge.  This is where I would send people that want to invest their time in EA on a well defined path.  They also research the effectiveness of various methods of fundraising, and solicit volunteer assistance, which is a much more INTJ-friendly project.   You can get more info via their newsletter.  If you have an idea for a new kind of fundraiser these are the people I would approach.  Specifically I would talk to Tom Ash, because he is exceptionally open to talking to people.

Thanks to John Salvatier and Jai Dhyani for comments on earlier drafts of this post, Ben Hoffman for the original idea, and Tom Ash for answering questions on .impact and Charity Science.

T-Shirt Fundraisers Less Dumb Than Previously Thought

I had always assumed t-shirt based fundraisers raised absolutely nothing, because t-shirts are so expensive.  I knew because I ran my old dojo’s zazzle store, and to keep the prices even vaguely plausible I had to keep our profit margin below 10%.  Throw in the time to administer them, and they’re basically a wash, right? Turns out, nope t-shirts are extremely profitable.  A $4 shirt to let you signal virtue seems like a reasonable trade for $65 cash.

The good news is that the bullshit floor for t-shirt fundraisers is actually much lower than we thought (although bad organizations can still dilute their effectiveness, and cash is still better).  I thought the bad news was we were all overpaying for novelty nerd t-shirts, but it turns out prices on those have come down substantially since I left the market.  I guess capitalism worked?

Effective Actions Post-Mortem

Last week Sydney and I organized a meetup/presentations on accessible effective actions.  Overall: it was a good idea, but the wrong audience for it.  Signs of this include people saying “but if you’re giving up some meats why not just give up all of them?” in the talk on reducatarianism and “signing up to be a marrow donor is really easy” in the blood donation section.  Meanwhile we totally forgot that not everyone spent five years reading academic research and wishing for a charity that did direct cash transfers, so we were not prepared to explain GiveDirectly as much as it needed to be.  Which is not to say we didn’t try.  When a new person asked “but isn’t giving cash directly to people bad?”, the room almost cracked with the energy of six people preparing to explain that no, it was actually the best idea ever.  This turns out to be not nearly as good as one person preparing to explain it ahead of time.

There were also concerns it ran long, but we didn’t time it, so the lesson there is “time your presentations.”

My Suggestions For Studying Vegan Advocacy

So if the current studies on leafleting effectiveness are unhelpful, what would be better?

First, we need a better way to determine what people are eating.  People are notoriously terrible at remembering exactly how often they did a common thing over a prolonged time period, even if there’s no social pressure to answer a particular way. Possible solutions:

  • Ask people what they ate yesterday.
  • Monitor food consumption directly.
    • Bring people into the lab and observe what they eat.
    • Track dietary choices at individual level via dining cards (probably requires more detail than those cards currently provide)
    • Track dietary choices at population level by measuring total consumption in the cafeteria.
  • Give surveys asking people would like to eat, out of N specific options.  Make all answers equally appetizing.  Frame as cafeteria planning to avoid social pressure towards veg*n answers.
  • Use various established tricks for mitigating social desirability bias

Another difficulty with the leafleting studies is that it is very difficult to asses who was in the treatment group 2-3 months later.  Possible solutions:

  • Track individuals who received your pamphlet (and a control group).
    • At a college where you can track purchases by dining card: deliver pamphlets by mail to a randomly chosen half of your sample.
    • Use control and treatment colleges or dormsrather than individuals.  Will require finagling to avoid other confounds.
  • Hand out pamphlets in front of cafeteria or restaurant, see how consumption patterns change that night.
  • Have pamphlets be a call to action to something trackable, such as visiting a website,  requesting a free veganism kit, or attending an on-campus event.  Number who visit or call is an upper bound on number of people influenced by pamphlet.
  • Humane League is apparently trying this with facebook ads: I predict I will find that data much  more compelling.

While we are at it, here are some interventions I think would work better than leafleting at reducing total meat consumption (although not necessarily the number of self-identified vegans or vegetarians):

  • Pay-per-click ads.  To the extent “it’s super cheap and it has to convince someone” applies, it has to apply here too, and this way you’re not paying for pamphlets that go straight in the trash.  Also I expect vegans to care a little more about paper waste.
  • Host discussion groups where brainstorm how to reduce meat consumption.  In WW2 this worked much better than lectures on increasing consumption of organ meat.  This could focus on vegan meals, or even Asian-style cooking where meat is a supplement rather than the focus.
  • Lobby colleges to provide attractive no-animal-product options.  This reduces meat consumption even among people with no ideological commitment to doing so.  It also helps college students build a palate for vegan options that may continue into adulthood.
  • Host low meat/veg*n meals yourself.  College students love free food.  At a minimum, that’s one meal’s worth of animal you’ve saved.  Plus the palate building benefits of the cafeteria option.
  • Talk to the food science people and steal their secrets for making food appetizing.

Leaflets are Ineffective, Tell Your Friends

7679534638_59865527ef_oSomehow the meme got established in Effective Altruism communities that convincing people to go vegetarian or vegan is cheap and easy, and the only question is whether doing so as a substitute for reducing consumption yourself was ethical.  Me, John, Jai, and one shy friend dug deep into the research and discovered so many problems with the design of the studies showing this that we wrote them off entirely.  I wrote up a whole blog post explaining how Animal Charity Evaluator’s analysis was wrong, and leafleting was not effective.  In an act of thoroughness I would soon be very grateful for, I went to ACE’s website to make sure I was representing the studies exactly right.  Turns out ACE made essentially the same criticisms we did, and also concluded the studies were insufficient to show any net effect from leafleting.  If you go to the slate star codex link and follow the link to his sources, one has since renounced his math and the other says that his numbers are not meant so much to be “true” as to be “motivating in their concreteness”.

I did eventually find some organizations claiming leafleting was genuinely effective.  Vegan Outreach cites Farm Sanctuary, which uses the exact study Animal Charity Evaluators criticized.  ACE doesn’t go quite as far as I would: they note the 95% confidence interval of the effect and then the systemic biases of the study, whereas I would say “if you can’t get an effect size bigger than .001 in a study so egregiously biased towards your view, there is no effect.”  But the criticisms have always been there.

It’s not like anyone’s default belief is “lots of humans can be convinced to make enormous  permanent changes by one glossy 8.5×11 piece of paper,” so how this belief become established with so little data?  How did I dig into ACE’s data deeply enough to understand the design flaws myself without noticing they saw the flaws too? (partial answer: their calculator still shows leafleting having an effect ).  Unless there’s data I don’t know about, there doesn’t appear to be any support for the idea that leafleting reduces animal suffering.  We really need to figure out how this spread in a movement dedicated to quantification so we can fix the systemic issue.

EDIT: I’ve had a couple of requests to include the specific criticisms.  I originally didn’t because it felt mean to rehash ACE’s criticisms, but since the whole point is you can read their documentation without realizing them, that reasoning seems dumb now.

Everyone knows there’s a social desirability bias (reporting converting to veg*nism when you haven’t).  This is especially an issue for the people who report reducing but not eliminating animal products- it’s easy to lie about that, to yourself or others.  But the denominator (how many people received flyers total) is also unreliable, because there are a lot of reasons people who received a pamphlet will report they didn’t when asked two months later.  Maybe they threw it out without looking at it.  Maybe they read it and forgot.  Maybe they totally remember it and realize that if they say yes to the surveyor there will be a long conversation that implies they torture animals, and they would like to not do that.

We don’t have to assume this is a problem: one of ACE’s studies attempted to use a control group, and flat out couldn’t, because no one reported receiving the control flyer.  The lack of control group is a big problem, because it means you will give flyers credit for people that would have gone veg*n anyway.

Then you have to predict how long they stay veg*n.  ACE’s numbers are outlined here, and there’s several problems.  There’s social desirability bias again, and the samples are representative neither of the population at large or the population being leafleted.  I have a strong prior that people who make changes based on a flyer are less likely to stick with them than the general population

This is minor, but ACE doesn’t count the value of the leafleters time when calculating effectiveness.  Even if they’re volunteers, you need to consider the value of what else they could be doing with that time.

More ways to make to the world better

Seattle Effective Altruists just got a bunch of new potential members from the very different spheres of “Peter Singer’s talk” and “the Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality wrap party”.  I am planning an event targeted at these new people, with the dual goals of “make them slightly more effective even if they never come back” and “induce them to learn and do more about effective altruism”.  The specific plan is to present actions one can do right now to make the world a better place.  “Donating to GiveWell” will be there, but so will donating blood.  I am looking for things that run the full spectrum of cheap/expensive, difficult/easy, time consuming/not, so that everyone has something that is doable for them.  That especially means not having too many things that run on money, because not everyone has a lot of money to spare and we already spend a great deal of time on options for those that do.  Any other suggestions for what to include?  The list so far is:

  • Have you considered just giving money?
  • Use Amazon smile and a Charity Science referral link to buy from Amazon
  • Hold a birthday fundraiser
  • Donate blood, sign organ donor card
  • Reduce animal consumption/buy humane animal products.

I’ll add more as suggestions come in.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Effectiveness

The biological/scientific definitions of heredity and heritable differ slightly from the popular usage.  Lay people tend use it  to mean “how much is this caused by genes?”  In science, heredity is how closely people resemble their parents, divided by the total variation in the population.  Biological sex has almost zero heritability because knowing someone’s parents sex does not allow you to predict their own sex.*  Number of arms is barely heritable, because there’s almost no variation in number of arms among humans, and what variation exists is overwhelmingly caused by environment, not genetics.

A corollary to this is that a measure of heredity is only valid for the exact environment you measured it in.  If you plant a variety of seeds in identical pots and give them identical water and supplements, most variation will be due to genetics, and a small amount to chance (which will be counted as environment), so traits like height and time to flower will be highly heritable.  If you plant those same seeds in widely varying pots and vary the water and nutrients they get, a lot of the variation will be due to environment, and the heredity values of the same traits will be much lower.  Skin color in Norway is more heritable in the winter than in the summer, because teenagers deliberately tan more than their parents.

I have struggled before to make effectiveness estimates when the intervention’s usefulness depends on multiple factors.  Blood for car accident victims is only helpful in the context of emergency rooms and medical schools and sterile gauze.  Suicide hotlines require phones and electricity and suicidal people at a bare minimum, and active rescues require police and mental hospitals and often pharmaceutical research.  I think I’m just going to have to put effectiveness in the same category as heredity: the quantification is only valid for the environment in which it is measured.

I’ve worried before about Effective Altruism’s tendency to take the existing system as a given.  That was a reasonable simplification when the movement was first starting, and there was plenty of low hanging fruit that didn’t require more sophisticated analysis.  But I’m really happy to see organizations like the Open Philanthropy Project branch into studying how to change systems and how to measure the effectiveness of attempts to do so.

*Intersexuality confounds this a little but my impression is it’s mostly not a genetic issue, in part because intersex people generally have difficulty reproducing.

Is Blood Donation Effective? (Yes)

Seattle is apparently not the only Effective Altruism group to talk about doing volunteering meetings, only to remember that the traits that make volunteering useful are almost antithetical to the traits that make it fun and doable to for a group on a drop-in basis.  I am kind of hoping that blood donation can bridge that gap.  So here’s my math on how effective donating blood is.  The Red Cross estimates a single donation can save three people, but what they mean is “a single donation can go to three different people.”  To get the actual value we need to see how many units of blood were donated and how many deaths they prevented.

The most recent data I could find was the 2011 National blood Collection and Utilization Survey Report (PDF), which couldn’t make it harder to do this kind of calculation if it tried.  They were extremely loose with what “unit” referred to, so I’m going to stick with the whole and red blood cell transfusions, so my numbers are consistent.  There were 15,721,000 units collected, of which 14,589,000 were deemed usable.  13,785,000 were used, of which 37,000 were directed to a specific patient, and 65,000 were self-donations, which are less effective for various reasons.  The collections numbers don’t call out general vs. specific donations and the numbers are small, so I’ll just use the total number used.  If some blood donations are also generating plasma and white cells in addition to the red blood cells counted here, that would only increase effectiveness.

A single donation is one pint.  Health and Human Services fails to define what they mean by unit, but it appears to mean “whatever you get from one donation after some filtering“, so let’s assume it’s 1:1.  The average recipient receives 2.75 units.  If you assume each person who received a transplant would otherwise die (supported by this sourceless FAQ), that means each donation saves ~1/3 of a life (discounting for donations that are rejected).  Using GiveWell’s $5,000/life number, that’s still equivalent to donating $1,667.   That is overstating the case, because some portion of recipients (I can’t find out how many) have diseases like sickle cell anemia that require chronic transfusions, and the fair thing is to count their lifetime transfusion count, not their per treatment count.  To get an upper bound I’ll use the Red Cross’s number that a car accident victim can use up to a 100 pints of blood, which means each donor saves 1% of that life, which is equivalent to $50 to an extremely effective charity.

But the question isn’t “what is the average value of donated blood?” but “what is the marginal value of your potential donation?”  I can’t find any direct numbers for this, but we have the following evidence:

  • Very little blood is thrown out.
  • People are spending lots of time and money developing artificial blood substitutes.  Despite this there are no generally accept substitutes for blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity.
  • The Red Cross spends a lot of time and money harassing people to donate.  They called my parents’ house for years after my one donation (I’m O-).
  • Some blood is able to reach the “too old” state, but then used to ill effect, indicating lumpy supply or demand.  Unless you can predict demand spikes you should use the average efficacy.  If you can predict demand spikes, there are probably more effective things to do with that power.

So I’m just going to use the average effectiveness as the marginal effectiveness for now.

What are the costs to the donor of donating?  The one time I donated it was high because I slept for the next two days.  If you’re my friend Elena who went into shock after donating, it cost you days and several thousand dollars in ER visits.  So it is probably not worth it for either of us to donate.  But for a typical person with no side effects, it’s plausibly useful.  If it’s replacing work time, then effectiveness depends on their hourly wage.  Multiple websites list the time to donate as 60-90 minutes, which translates to a minimum psuedowage of $33/hour and a maximum of $1667.  The average hourly American wage is $24/hour, although I would estimate the average wage of people earning to give as somewhat higher than that.  So that’s extremely plausible on its face.  But if the time isn’t coming out of work, and is made rewarding to the participant, blood donation is hugely effective.  This suggestions that an event that induced people to donate without replacing work would be effective, more so if it could be made into a positive experience.  So a blood donation event could be a huge win for an EA event.

[Side note: if you decide to do this yourself, I would recommend donating anywhere but the Red Cross if at all possible.  I’m going to try for Bloodworks NW, because if I get enough people they will send a truck and we can make it an actual party]

Bloody cupcakes
Do not GIS “blood donation party” with safesearch off