Giving with Humility (and where I donated to last year)

Humility is hard. Humility with money is especially hard. We like to hold our money close to our chest. So close that our financial decisions are rarely discussed. Allowing other people to choose what happens with our money is even more taboo. Over the last few years, I have been questioning this paradigm.

Sometimes, showing a bit of humility pays. Consider this: if you were to invest your money in stocks, you broadly have two options:

  1. Invest in individual stocks,
  2. Invest in an investment fund.

The general advice for all but the most expert investors is to choose option 2. The motivation for this is that it’s very unlikely that you will select the optimum choice of stocks unless you are an expert. Rather, you are very likely to lose money investing in this way. Instead of choosing stocks yourself, get an expert to do it for you. Acknowledging that experts can make better decisions than you, then deferring investment decisions to them, will get you a higher return. This is financial humility. And it pays.

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The Reducetarian Solution: a review

Why eat #lessmeat?

I have properly changed my mind twice in my lifetime. I don't just mean this morning I planned to have soup for dinner, now I want have stir fry instead. I mean properly changed my mind.

The first led me to change what I wear, what I eat, and how I perceive animals. The second led me to change how much I donate, where I donate to, and what career I will follow.

It has become clear that the vast amounts of meat, dairy, and eggs that are consumed is a large contributor to climate change, animal suffering, the obesity epidemic, antibiotic overuse, deforestation, species extinction, ocean acidification, and inefficiencies in the food system leading to world hunger. Learning about the destruction caused by the animal agriculture has influenced my purchasing decisions significantly over the last few years. I would like other people to take similar steps. What I really want to find is a book that I can recommend to people which gives a summary of the main ideas, including ethical, environmental, health, and efficiency issues causes by animal product consumption. That's why my interest was piqued towards The Reducetarian Solution by Brian Kateman.

One candidate is Peter Singer's Animal Liberation. This is the book that changed my worldview more than just about any other. It convinced me that speciesism - the commonly held belief that different animals, including humans, deserve different moral value purely based on species - is wrong and is one of the motives behind the huge amount of suffering humans inflict on non-human animals through their actions. The first chapter of this book is one I would recommend to anyone. If you are interested in the philosophical underpinnings of veganism then that is a good place to learn from. However, published in 1975, the rest of the book shows its age. It's descriptions of industrial practices from the mid-1900s and mainly focussing on US agriculture makes it easily dismissed by those resistant to changing their destructive habits.

Peter Singer also restricts his focus to just one aspect of the animal story - animal suffering - at the expense of other destructive aspects such as its contribution to climate change and human disease. Finally, it takes an abilitionist approach to the problem of animal liberation. Whilst I agree that abolition of animal exploitation for culinary entertainment, non-culinary entertainment, and researchFOOTNOTE!!! is the appropriate end goal, it has been shown many times that taking a more pragmatic approach - such as asking people to eat meat only for 3 days a week, rather than asking them to abstain from all meat, dairy, and eggs - is more effective.

Contradictory- meat is subsidised and externalised costs. But then you can save money by eating less meat? Yes, both are true! But this just gives readers a basis for doubt. Chpt 10 7:00. Organ donation stats: surely 71 percentage points not percent. Chpt 23: meat eating and christianity. Irrelevant to unreligious and not very hard hitting even for religious. V bitty book. Chpt 25: effective reducetarianism. For reducing suffering, stop eating chicken, then eggs, then pork (didn't include fishor environmental effects). “Just as science consists of the honest and impartial attempt to find the truth, and a commitment to believe the truth, whatever that may be, effective altruism is the honest and partial attempt to work out what's best for the world, and a commitment to doing what's best, whatever that turns out to be.” Chpt 27: speciesism, surprising and counter to what our instinct and upbringing tells us, but logically consistent Chpt 32: intuitive eating. “Maybe you need more animal protein in winter, that's ok”. No it's not, and its not even true. Chpt 33: only 10% of cells in our bodies are human, rest are microbes Chpt 51 salad bars open up a whole new world of experiences for kids. Nah, their just healthy, shit tasting food. Chpt 54 36% of worlds crops are used as farm animal food, yet animal product account for 12% of calories. Food conversion ratio is 2/1 for chicken, 9/1 for pigs and 25/1 for cows. Chpt 62 if a tap was on filling up a bucket and it was overflowing and getting your shoes wet, you would turn the tap off, not redesign the bucket or your shoes. Chpt 63 gips and manuhs - barbaric alien civilisation, actually pigs and humans. Of course we wouldn't eat aliens, especially if they were as intelligent as the animals on earth, so why do we eat earth's animals? Just a list of short essays written by people trying to sell their own book

New publication: Magneto-acoustic modes of an asymmetric slab embedded in a magnetic environment

Magnetic bright point

Noémi Kinga Zsámberger, Robertus Erdélyi, and I have recently published a paper in The Astrophysical Journal analysing a further generalisation to the asymmetric slab waveguide model, now with an asymmetric magnetic field in the external plasma environment. We focus on potential application to oscillations of elongated magnetic bright points in inter-granular lanes, where even a small asymmetry in the parameters of the neighbouring granules could manifest itself as significant asymmetry in magneto-acoustic mode propagation. This analysis paves the way for development of magneto-seismology techniques that diagnose the magnetic field in structures where the magnetic field strength is traditionally difficult to directly measure. (Watch this space! We have upcoming research developing these magneto-seismology techniques in the works as I write this)

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What can a student do to reduce global suffering? Part II

If you haven’t read the first post in this short series, then stop what you are doing and read this first.

Time: our most valuable asset. When you have it, you don’t realise it, and when you realise it, it’s too late. As a young person, you have a brilliant opportunity: time is on your side.

Changes made now can have a large impact because there will be many future years for that change to have an effect. Moreover, young people tend to have fewer responsibilities and a greater affinity for risk-taking, so high-risk high-reward (altruistic reward, that is) paths can be tested without serious repercussions. Students and young people are in a disproportionately good position to start thinking about doing the most good they can do.

UK income by age and gender

Here are 5 more ways to make an evidence-based large positive impact on those most in need:

1. Work hard at your studies

While it may not at first seem like this is an effective altruistic thing to do, improving your expected lifetime earnings, life satisfaction, and knowledge will allow you to donate significantly more (and more effectively) in the future.

Graduates with a 2:2 or Third class degree may earn nearly £8,000 p.a. less than their peers who go into the job market with a First or 2:1, a gap of £300,000 over their working lives - Adzuna.
That extra hour per week put into effective studying could facilitate an extra six figure donation to the most effective charities over your lifetime.

2. Make contacts

Networking - it used to bug me that people can get a job over someone more suitable and skilled due to knowing someone in the company/organisation/group. I have come to realise that networking is a skill in itself. Networking will improve chances of successful employment (and therefore potential future donations) and also give you an idea as to what career you would like to follow/to see if you would be a good fit for success in that field. Additionally, if you don’t get along with the people in your potential career, then that career is probably not a good fit for you, therefore you probably wouldn’t succeed in it.

3. Try out different career options

As a young person, you likely have less to lose. Having few personal and professional responsibilities, it is a good time to try a few different career paths. You can do this by taking , for example, internships, summer placements, research projects, casual work, using your free time for writing, coding, or whatever else you think might be a viable and effective career choice.

Research suggests that the age-old advice of “follow your passion” to find a job that you love is not the best advice. Those who take a more pragmatic approach have higher job satisfaction. Don’t try to find the job you are good at, instead work on becoming good at a career that has a large positive impact on the world, and you will likely develop a passion for it, and if you don’t, you can move on to something else.

Think back to what you were most interested in five years ago, and you’ll probably find that it’s pretty different from what you’re interested in today... We’re bad at knowing what really makes us happy. - 80,000 Hours.

4. Work hard on yourself.

This can be both personal and professional development. Making yourself more employable will increase your expected earnings and therefore ability to donate more to effective charities or increase you ability to work successfully in a role with large direct impact. Things to consider include learning or improving a skill such as programming, writing, or creating an online/social media presence.

Making personal improvements is equally valuable for creating a future you who is able to make a huge positive impact on the world. Perhaps the most important things to consider are maintaining good mental and physical health - being unhappy or unhealthy will have a large detrememntal effect to your ability to succeed in almost any field.

5. Volunteer effectively

Treat this suggestion with caution! The effective altruists reading this might be a little surprised that volunteering is in this list, and everyone else might be surprised that it is not number one.

Generally volunteering does not have a high impact. This is because volunteering opportunities are often over-subscribed, they give relatively little career capital gain, and require large administrative costs to manage, so the net impact is often neutral or negative. There are more than enough of these anecdotes to take caution when thinking about volunteering as a way to do good.

That being said, there do exist at least some effective volunteering opportunities. Just like the fact that most charities are not worth donating to, but the existence of some very highly effective charities makes donating to those charities very worthwhile, most volunteering opportunities are a waste of time if the aim is to actually do good, but the existence of a few very effective volunteering opportunities means that it can be a highly effective thing to do.

Effective altruism organisations would be a good place to start. Local EA groups and larger EA organisations and effective charities provide a way to volunteer in a way that provides a significant positive contribution to the least fortunate. Secondly, and very importantly, volunteering can only be effective if you have a particular skill that is in shortage in the community or charity or social intervention that you think are worth volunteering for, e.g. programming, charity effectiveness consulting, or writing. You could voluntarily donate your time on an ad hoc basis to people in the EA community, or those who are doing significant good in the world, so that they can have a greater impact. More info can be found here.

Two take-away messages:

Think long term.

Maximise your total lifetime impact, not just your impact over the next week, month, or year. A lifetime of doing \(x\) amount of good per year is much better than doing \(5x\) for one year and nothing for the rest of your life. Initiate a sustainable and regular donation to a few effective causes. This will have a far larger impact than donating a larger lump sum to an average charity.

Don’t do something because it seems like it will help people, do something because there is clear evidence that it will help people.

Not only that, do the things that the evidence says helps people most effectively. Humans are bad at thinking rationally and are influenced hugely by cognitive biases. These make us arrive at the wrong conclusion about things that may seem obvious. Instead, we should follow a pragmatic approach and ask yourself not ‘does this sound like it helps people?’, but ‘is the evidence clear that this helps people more than anything else?’.

Let’s use our privileged position in the developed world to reduce the ridiculous wealth disparity and help those most in need in the most effective ways.

What can a student do to reduce global suffering? Part I

As a student or young person, it is easy to get caught up in your local bubble and forget the most important issues. And even then, it’s easy to feel powerless to do anything about them because we are poor, busy, and underqualified.

During my first few years at university, I felt like this too. But taking a pragmatic approach to doing good has showed me just how much of an impact you can have as a student.

Maths teacher

Effectiveness: the forgotten criterion in the not-for-profit sector. The most effective ways to reduce suffering in the world are many orders of magnitude more effective than others. This isn't because not-for-profits are ill-intentioned, it's just that they very often don't have counterfactual impact assessments based on evidence. It's no longer sufficient just to think you're making a difference - you must know you are making a difference, and if there is something you can do to have a greater impact, you should do that thing.

Here is a list of evidence-based actions that a student can take to most effectively help make the world a better place.

1. Vote

In particular, vote in general elections and referenda. This might not at first seem like a particularly effective thing to do given that it is very unlikely that your vote will actually sway the result. However, the amount of impact that you would have if your vote is the one to sway it is huge!

If you think there is a large difference between the top candidates then this can outweigh the small probability of your vote swaying the decision. In the case of important votes such as general elections it has been shown that your vote can have somewhere between £1,000 and £10,000 worth of expected impact. Therefore, you should invest as much time into deciding which party to vote for as you would when deciding how to spend £1,000 - £10,000 on anything else such as a car, a phone, or a computer. It is worth your time to learn about the candidates, read local and national manifestos, and vote wisely.

Most importantly, don’t just vote for a government that will improve your life, but vote for a government that will improve the lives of those most in need.

2. Learn about charity effectiveness

Find a charity or charities that you are confident will have a huge positive impact. Cost-effectiveness is key. We put in time to decide the best car we can get for our money so we should put in time deciding which charity will give us the most bang for our buck, i.e. the largest impact. The effectiveness of a charity

3. Donate effectively

Even though it might feel like you don’t have much money to donate, it is likely that you are in the top 5 - 10% of wealthiest people globally, with around 10 times the spending money of the global average (see where you fit into the world's wealth distribution here).

However, don’t just donate and expect that you are making an impact. Doing this would very likely lead to donating to a cause or charity that does relatively little in tangible impact – and it could actually be causing harm to the cause you are trying to support! Instead, donate to effective charities. Donating to GiveWell's recommended charities is a great place to start. They assess charities based on the amount of positive impact they have, not just unimportant things like overhead costs. Check out my previous post about what actually makes a charity effective and a cause worthwhile. GiveWell use these ideas when they assess charities.

4. Discuss your donations and ethical decisions with others

Make giving normal. Make ethical considerations about purchases and decisions normal. Foster a culture of altruism.

We are socially influenced creatures. However much we feel like we have ownership over our decisions, ultimately the status quo has a huge impact on what we do. If we don’t see other people giving money to those in need, we won’t either. If we don’t see other people considering the ethical and moral repercussions of their actions, we won’t either. Unfortunately, altruistic actions such as charity donations are seldom discussed. We can help change the status quo by discussing our (effective) altruistic actions. I have written more about this here.

Bear in mind however that too much of this could be seen as virtue signalling; that is, doing altruistic deeds for the social credit, even when that is not your motivation. It’s a fine line.

5. Reduce the harm you cause

The net positive impact you have on the world is the positive impact of your good actions minus the negative impact of your actions. It is easy to be blissfully (and sometimes wilfully) unaware of the damage we cause by our choices. Three of the biggest culprits are diet, transport, and waste.

Consider reducing the amount of suffering you cause to hundreds of sentient animals by reducing your meat, fish, dairy, and egg consumption and progress towards a vegetarian or vegan diet. Train instead of plane, cycle instead of drive. Recycle as much as possible and choose products with little to no non-recyclable packaging. A good rule of thumb is that if you’re throwing away more than you are recycling, you should think about changing up your purchasing habits.

Bear in mind that these lifestyle choices have vastly different magnitudes of harm. For example, when it comes to reducing harm caused through contribution to climate change switching your TV off rather than on standby when not in use is hardly worth bothering with, but reducing your meat, dairy, and egg consumption would cut your contribution to climate change (not to mention rainforest deforestation, species extinction, water use, and livestock antibiotic overuse) drastically.

Many of these lifestyle changes, in particular reducing animal product consumption, will incur no extra financial cost, and could cost you significantly less - in which case it's a win-win situation. However, if making a positive lifestyle change is costing you significantly more, then consider the comparative marginal impact that not making the lifestyle change, but instead donating the money you save to the most effective charities. This stratergy can have a much larger impact, and is very much worth considering - see William MacAskill's Doing Good Better for more information on this kind of difficult, but worthwhile comparison.

Keep an eye out for my next blog post with 5 more things to consider when trying to maximise your positive impact in the world.

Giving what I can

On 15th May 2017, I decided to make a change in my life that will have a small impact on me but a large impact on some people I have never met. I am really excited about this opportunity and want to share it with you.

The ongoing struggle of the poorest people in the world rarely gets a mention on the news or in national political decisions, even though it outweighs the suffering in many of the more publicised stories. Yet there is no moral difference between the value of a child in Burundi and a stranger you meet in the UK.

If you could save a stranger's life in the street but it meant you had to ruin your new shoes or break your phone, you would still do it, because we put moral value on strangers' lives. So if we would sacrifice a small amount to save someone whose life was in jeopardy before our very eyes, shouldn't we save someone's life 10,000 miles away if we could at a similar cost? Of course we should. The reality is that we have the opportunity to do this everyday! We have a wonderful opportunity to make a huge difference to the lives of hundreds of people who are most in need.

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The good, the bad, and the ugly of altruism

Charities are certainly not all equal. We've seen what makes a charity effective or not - if you missed this, check it out here. But is there really a big difference between them? Is it worth the money/time/effort required to determine the more effective charities, when we could just give that to any old charity? The answer to both of these is, without doubt, YES!

We find that the difference between the most effective charities and typical charities is around a factor of 1000.[1] That is, donating £1 to the most effective charities is equivalent to donating £1000 to a typical one. Therefore it is of utmost importance that we take into account the effectiveness of the charities we donate to, something that very few people do. I certainly want the impact of my donations to be the largest it can be, especially now I know that the most effective charities can have such a large impact with each donation. To understand what types of charities are the most and least effective, here is the good, the bad, and the ugly of altruism. Or, rather, the ugly, the bad, and the good - everyone loves a happy ending!

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