Empathic communication and strategy for Effective Altruism, Part 1

by LucasNarukami24th Sep 201516 comments



Effective altruism continues to grow and seems to have a bright future ahead. However, we are facing problems when doing outreach that limit our capacity for growth and may even endanger the movement.

The way we currently present our ideas can sometimes generate resistance and negative associations. To solve this problem, we need to think about how to reframe our core ideas and about the language we use to communicate.

The following analysis will be based on:

  • Evolutionary Psychology

  • Group Psychology

  • Signaling Theory

  • Heuristic and Biases

  • And some other areas of psychology

The important insights that we can draw from these fields of knowledge are that:

  • Humans are cognitive misers. They avoid doing mental effort and rely heavily on heuristics, which often produce biases.

  • Humans care a lot about social status and determining who their allies and enemies are.

  • Humans are susceptible to priming and are heavily driven by chains of associations and meanings.

All of these claims are familiar to readers of Less Wrong, Overcoming Bias and books like Thinking and deciding, Thinking, Fast and Slow and books about Evolutionary psychology, among many others.

Based on these facts about human psychology, I make the following important claims:

1) While the quality and intellectual rigor of our arguments is important, the success of effective altruism depends even more on the things that people automatically associate with the movement.

2) To influence society, we have to be associated with very good things. The words “Effective altruism” should generate an automatic chain of positive associations and feelings.

We have to ask ourselves the following questions:

  • What kind of feelings does Effective altruism generate on newcomers?

  • How are we perceived by society?

And most importantly:

  • Can we reframe our arguments and change the presentation of our movement in such a way that we start generating the right kind of associations?

Effective altruism should retain a high level of intellectual rigor, while seeking ways to attract a broader public. At the very least, we should seek to be associated with positive words. To accomplish this, we don’t need to change our ideas or to simplify them. We just need to rewrite and reframe them in ways that are more adjusted to human psychology.


1) Effective altruism is currently associated with many negative adjectives.

We know that effective altruism has amazing people. There are many intelligent and altruistic persons in this movement. The quality of the people in our movement is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. But the important question is:

Does the average outsider know this?

I claim that they don’t. In fact, I think many outsiders will think the opposite about the members of this movement.

Effective altruism is currently being associated with the following negative adjectives and ideas:

  • Heartless

We are people that quantify and take decisions based on numbers, and this is seen as cold and heartless. We put emphasis on ignoring our emotions and gut-feelings when it comes to altruism. To top it off, we frequently talk about helping people in other countries and about ignoring our local communities and those close to us. We are seen as utility-maximizing machines.

We are seen as people opposed to warm human emotions.

  • Judgmental and narcissistic

We can come off as implying that any form of spending money that isn’t the ones we recommend is immoral. We are “effective altruists’’, and it may seem that we imply that everybody else is just wasting their time and being stupid. In fact, our logic seems to imply that everybody else is responsible for the death and the parasitic infections of countless humans.

This is unfortunate, because we don’t want to come off as moralistic and judgmental, but sometimes we do.

  • Insensitive to social justice

Judgmental, utility-maximizing machines in an ivory tower know nothing about the struggle of real people.

  • Many other associated negative adjectives.

You can find these negative adjectives in any critique of effective altruism. They are quite common. Even someone as nice as Julia Wise says that she was often categorized as “some kind of heartless utility-bot”.


But of course, all those negative adjectives aren’t accurate. For example, we aren’t heartless: our movement has some of the most compassionate people in the world, and we do the math because we care.

We just didn’t make a big effort to avoid these kinds of negative associations, which are completely understandable from the perspective of an outsider.

Even many smart people won’t stick long enough to read our rational arguments. They will briefly come in contact with us, some negative associations will be triggered because we are not framing our arguments correctly, and they will leave.

We can counter these kinds of negative associations if we change our strategy and pay attention. And we should really seek to do this. We will fail to gain support from very valuable people if we keep being associated with negative ideas.

Nobody wants to take a status hit by supporting a group that is seen in a negative light by the general public, even if said group is doing really important things.


2) Changing how effective altruism is perceived

Let’s look at this:

We use evidence and reason to ask "Where can a small set of individuals make the biggest difference?" We’re entrepreneurs and economists. CEOs and scientists. Students and philanthropists. And if you're ready to rethink social impact, you're ready to join us.

This description of the movement comes from the main effective altruism site. It’s the first thing that many people will see about our movement. We should ask ourselves “does this generate the right impression about our movement?”

I claim that it doesn’t. Let’s think in terms of Warm words and Cold words.

Evidence, Reason, Scientists, Entrepreneurs, CEOs and Social impact are all Cold words. They won’t generate many warm feelings in the general public, even if many of them are positive. We must use these Cold words to describe our project, but we must remember that these words can have a strong positive impact if they are close to Warm words.

Empathy, Heart, Compassion, Save, Connection and Kindness are all examples of Warm words. They generate good feelings in those that read them and improve how the words close to them are perceived.

How many Warm words do we have in the main description of Effective altruism? There are zero Warm words. Overlooking these kinds of things in the main description of our movement might be harmful over time.

We do this all the time. We throw ten cold words without using a single warm word. This is okay when we write about theory, but we should avoid this when we write for the general public.

We are warm people, so using more warm words also represents us more accurately. These changes aren’t about lying to the public, but about transmitting our genuine enthusiasm.

This isn’t the fault of the person that wrote the description. The fact is that many of us saw it and thought there wasn’t anything wrong with it (including myself). We are sometimes being blind to some important subtleties of human psychology.

Fixing this will go a long ways towards getting rid of the “heartless” association. We will create a better impression by using more Warm words. When journalists write about Effective altruism, they will use the same Warm words that we use, and they may even be more charitable with us when it comes to article titles.

Main takeaway: When writing for the general public, we should use more Warm words. Looking for the proportion of Cold words VS Warm words should be in the to-do list of any effective altruist that is writing for the general public. And remember that this isn’t just about persuasion. This is about also about being accurate. We are Warm people and we need to transmit that.


3) Critics say: ''On the utilitarian view, a pound spent without maximal effect is a pound spent immorally.''

This quote comes from a recent critique of effective altruism, which unfortunately plays up the more calculating side of effective altruism.

The implicit claim that the critic is making in that quote is that effective altruists think that any way of helping that is different from what they recommend is immoral.

The impression that this generates is that Effective altruists are judgmental and narcissistic.

We frequently critique charities that are worse than those we recommend. It’s not hard for critics to imagine that we spend all our time narcissistically talking about the immorality of those that don’t make the same choices that we do.

We must insist on the fact that some charities are better than others by a huge amount. We should never give up on that point, but we must say it in a different way.

Saying or implying that others are immoral and stupid can put the philanthropic sector against us, and generates exactly the wrong kind of associations in the general public.

Consider what this imaginary effective altruist said:  

“Every altruist is a kind, wonderful person trying to do something good for the world. All of them are my allies, but good could be done even better. We talk about effective altruism because we care deeply about the people, and we hope that altruists all over the world will join our movement and start thinking in terms of cost-effectiveness.”

This effective altruist doesn’t sound like a judgmental person or someone eager to critique bad charities or people that help others in stupid ways. On the contrary, he recognizes that every altruist is a colleague of his. Every altruist is a kind soul in this difficult world, trying to fix things. The fact that he talks about effective altruism seems linked to his big desire to help others, not with a desire to judge or to claim that others are immoral.

This is reframing. We are still saying that some ways of helping others are much better, but we are doing so in a way that cancels any kind of negative associations and triggers only good ones.

Main takeaway: We should never put emphasis on how immoral others are. Rather, we must focus on how much better it would be if they followed our recommendations and started thinking in terms of cost-effectiveness. We must show kindness towards every altruist, even if they aren’t effective at the moment.


4) Our readers are effective altruists

Almost every person that comes in contact with effective altruism will already think that:

  • Poverty is terrible and we should get rid of it.

  • We should help people if we can afford it.

  • It’s better to help as many people as possible.

Your readers are effective altruists already. Tell it to them! Show them that effective altruism is a natural consequence of their beliefs.

When we write for the general public, let’s stop for a second and remind the reader that our position is the same as theirs.

There aren’t many better ways to generate warm feelings and predispose our readers to be charitable towards us than showing them that we think the same that they do.

Main takeaway: Make the readers identify with the movement. Tell them that they already agree with what we propose.


5) A critic might say, “Your dollars might go further overseas, but if you send them there, you are heartless”

Are you blind to the plight of those around you? Are you so high up in your ivory tower that you can’t see that people close to you are suffering? How can you ignore them?

…But of course, we don’t ignore them, and we are not in an ivory tower. There is a limited amount of resources, and we can do more good if we focus on helping those in third world countries.

The problem is that the public isn’t well aware of this. They see that we reject the notion of helping those around us and they suspect. This is reasonable from their perspective. We can easily appear as cold, emotionally detached and robotic.

The previous advice goes a long way towards preventing this. But we can handle this specific problem even better.

Consider what this imaginary effective altruist said:

“We understand the drive to help those closer to us. We feel a strong connection to every person that is struggling in this world, and naturally the plight of those that we can see with our own eyes affects us deeply. The people that help locally are wonderful, and we completely share their feelings. But we also think of those that are far away.

It takes a lot of effort to put yourself in the place of someone you have never seen. But if you do, you will find that their lives are worth just as much as those close to us. And we can help them even more!”

Notice how this is framed in such a way that it implies that giving overseas requires even more empathy, while at the same time avoids putting those that help locally in a negative light. The high density of Warm words will also ensure that the point is accepted easily.

Main takeaway: being warm is especially important when you are making a point that may imply that effective altruism is “heartless” or “emotionally detached”.  Let the public know that our decisions are a consequence of our empathy.


We still have to think about many other topics linked to outreach, but if we remember the advice mentioned in this text, I think we will do great.

This is part 1 of a series of texts about strategic communication for effective altruism.

Thanks to Jacy Anthis and Claire Zabel for looking the text and offering valuable advice. They were wonderful and they helped me improve. Any possible remaining errors or weird ideas are mine.

16 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 11:14 AM
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I strongly agree with many points in the article. But I think the main think I want to call into question, though not necessarily disprove, is the thesis that "good associations" is equal to "warm words". And even going so far as suggesting that warm words might not be a good idea at all for Effective Altruism.

A good case to compare ourselves to here is Science, and its associative perception. Science is famous for lacking warm words in its language. If you go to the page of a research institute, or a scientific journal, you will be bombarded with cold and analytic words. The government is another interesting reference class. It uses no warm words, and avoided doing so from the very beginning. But Science and Government are probably the two most successful institutions that have arisen in the last thousand years. How come both of these institutions are so successful, even though they completely lack warmth in their presentation?

It is true that warm words can create positive associations, but so can cold words. The space of associations is large, and "warmth" is only one positive attribute that you can use. Equally important dimensions are "growth", "stability", "authority", "honesty", "wealth", "reliability" and "consistency" (and many more). An analysis that argues for using more warm words needs to make a more precise claim about why we should use warmth, in particular if warmth is often hard to combine with authority, ambitiousness and objectivity (as other commenters have noticed).

The second thing I want to highlight is the question of "what kind of person do we want to attract?". As EA, our goal is not to just grow, it is to create a healthy ecosystem in which ideas can thrive, projects can be started, and the climate of discussion is generally allowed to be friendly and at an intellectual high level (among many other things). In creating this ecosystem, the question of "will this keep some people from joining the movement?" is comparatively unimportant to the question of "how can we get the people that the current movement is lacking?".

And so I pose the question, "does using warm language, attract any groups of people that would significantly improve the health of the EA ecosystem?". To answer this question, we need to understand what kind of person is attracted by warm and compassionate language. And we need to understand what kinds of people we want to have more of in EA. To answer these sub-questions, we might want to start with looking at existing communities that use a warmer language than we do, and see whether having members migrate from there, and enter our community, would be a net improvement for the EA community.

This analysis would require a bit more space than I have in this comment, but looking at it from the outside, it isn't immediately clear to me that the communities that are known for warmth would be particularly valuable for EA. That said, communities that are slightly more associated with warmth, such as the education, biology and social science community, are indeed groups in which EA appears to be lacking, and might be valuable contributions to the EA ecosystem. It is not clear to me that growth from the social impact sector would be a strong improvement, which is also a community that emphasizes warmth more than we do (and would be compatible with other EA ideas).

In conclusion, I mostly want to highlight that using more warm language is not clearly a good choice, and might come with higher costs than naively expected. To answer that question I would love to see more analysis along the lines of this post, and this comment, by the broader EA community. I also want to emphasize that the language that we are using is a really important choice, and that almost every decision in this domain comes with tradeoffs. Emphasizing warmth will almost always mean a lower emphasis on the other attributes that we were highlighting previously. We need to be aware what those tradeoffs are, and choose our signaling carefully and consciously according to an analysis of what community we want to build. This is a difficult task, but with large potential payoffs.

This comment is very smart and important. You made me think a lot.

In the case of science, I think the example isn’t good for your point, but your point is perfect nonetheless. I will simplify, but the reason that I think that the example doesn’t work is because science has lost its battle with religion (warm language) for centuries, and only started gaining ground because it started producing really useful things. Religion produces very little and it still manages to put up a fight against Science. Science is successful despite the fact that it’s ''cold'' and counterintuitive, simply because it’s so useful. (In fact, science becomes more "persuasive" for the general public when popular intellectuals like Dawkins, Tyson or Feynman add a warm poetic spin to it).

“An analysis that argues for using more warm words needs to make a more precise claim about why we should use warmth, in particular if warmth is often hard to combine with authority, ambitiousness and objectivity (as other commenters have noticed).”

The reason that I argue in favor of using a warmer language, without giving up on rationality, is because some of our ideas can make us seem cold, while usually the opposite is true. I think that seeming heartless is a specific weakness of the EA movement, for some of the reasons that I elaborated on the article. There are a lot of critiques of effective altruism that constantly imply that effective altruists are cold.

We can cover this weakness by putting a greater effort in communicating our feelings and showing our enthusiasm. I don’t think we lose anything important by doing this, but I’m really open about it. It would be problematic if it draws undesirable people, but by retaining our emphasis in rationality that problem would be mostly solved.

All your concerns are very interesting and important, and I would definitely like to see more discussion about this topic. We are in a stage in which It’s really important to get these things right.

Edit: Thanks to this comment, I’ve been thinking more and more about the importance of showing strength, consistency and determination to achieve our goals. This was something that I really liked about Yudkowsky’s texts: He makes a great effort to transmit how important his goal is to him and why we should keep pushing forward and improving.

I’ve been writing a lot of roughly 500-word announcements for charity events trying to combine at least these two advantages. What I like to do there is to use warm language for the first and last sentence (the call to action) and write “normally” (for me) in the center. The idea is that when people are skimming they’ll read the first sentence or parts of it and will react to it more with System 1 than 2 to decide whether they want to read the rest, and if they do decide to read the rest, then I can trust them to assess it by the merits of its content, maybe.

Firstly, thanks for the post above! These are important questions to consider.

I think your main point in your post is that the misperception of EAs as cold is preventing growth, and that's why we'd want to correct it. Habryka replied that what really matters is 'are we growing the EA ecosystem in the right way?'. In your response to him, you say that you argue for warmer language because it corrects a false perception of us and that it's a common point of criticism.

But to reply to Habryka, a clearer argument is needed for saying why those things matter. It could be the case that we are warm, our language falsely makes us seem cold, but this isn't a problem because it doesn't adversely affect growing the EA ecosystem in a healthy way, even if there are people turned off by it.

Also, it might not be practical or worthwhile to defend against every criticism based on misrepresentations. This critique might not even be the critic's true rejection of EA. Defend against that one, and they'll generate new critiques based on other distortions of who we are. Is this a critique in particular which we need to defend against because it's damaging us, worse than the next critique they'll focus on?

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Yes, totally. The next post was going to consist of some ideas about the critics true rejections and how to deal with it.

The question about what would be a healthy EA ecosystem is really interesting and worth exploring. Somebody should write more about it. I may eventually do it.

My current intuition is that we need more people from diverse fields of knowledge and with diverse skills, since they can contribute to EA in unique ways, apart from donating. To gain this benefit, I think that it's worth losing a bit in other regards if we have to. I will think more about it though.

I am new to EA and I found this article very interesting. Thanks

Welcome, Alan! :)

Awesome, thank you!

Do you think this language is well-suited for any audience, for specific audiences, or should it just be the default when we don’t know the audience?

On the one hand, it seems plausible to me that we’re automatically using the sort of language we would feel drawn to. (And by “we” I’ll henceforth mean the people for whom this is actually true.) Since we’re the sort of people who got interested in EA, other people who are the same sort of people might also feel drawn to the same language. That may be because it signals scienciness, objectivity, etc. or because it distinguishes us from the average charity pamphlet.

On the other hand, that would limit us to just the people who are like us, greatly reducing our recall rate in society. There are surely great EAs who are very unlike us, and if millions of people slightly improve their giving, that would also have a great impact. This maybe comes down to what is more tractable, narrow and thorough or broad and light.

Thanks :)

I’m still thinking about what is the best public for effective altruism, what should be the size of the movement and so on. But the first thing that comes to mind based on many recent discussions is that we need more people doing Earning to Give and doing good Outreach. People that aren’t like us can also do those things really well, so It’s seems good to reach out to them using a language that is slightly different than the one we normally use.

We should never stop talking about rationality. It’s a really important component of effective altruism.

“Combining empathy and rationality to have a greater positive impact” seems like a decent slogan for effective altruism. I think It's desirable for EA to be automatically associate with both “empathy” and “rationality”. I think there aren’t many drawbacks to this, but I’m really open about it.

Yeah, “reason” might be an alternative for people that would understand rationality in an unintended (straw vulcan) way. “Prudence” maybe too, but it seems less specific.

This reminds me of something I've noticed in reading EA materials written by non-native English speakers. When writing in a language you're not extremely comfortable with, it's probably best to have a native speaker look over public-facing materials for tone. E.g. on the EA Switzerland site, the tagline "Using science and rational decision-making to help as many sentient beings as possible" strikes me as odd-sounding; "sentient beings" sounds like something Data (the robot) might say on Star Trek.

[-][anonymous]6y 4

Can we do a high-variance strategy (appealing strongly to the few humans who are already value-aligned) at the same time as we do a low variance strategy (appealing weakly to everyone using the same warm words as every other charity)?

What drew me to EA was its massive appeal to my utilitarian values and words like "evidence" and "rationality" just fuelled that appeal. I would hesitate to advocate communication strategies that could reduce this niche-market appeal.

This isn't a rebuke of your idea to use more warm words, I'm just emphasising one consideration amongst many. : ) Great article !

:) I agree with this.

I was drawn to EA because of people that combine compassion and rationality. Brian Tomasik and David Pearce come to mind. They often speak warmly. Even when they don't, it’s easy to tell that they are moved by strong feelings of empathy.

We should keep talking about evidence and rationality with all the audiences, but I think that making an effort to transmit our feelings to the general public is important and useful. A lot of the things that we promote are unusual and counter-intuitive, so we can easily be misunderstood.

I think that sometimes smart people avoid saying warm words because they don’t want to be underestimated. They want to signal that they are intelligent, so they limit themselves to a very formal language.

Formal language is perfect when we are doing theory, but when we want to communicate with a general audience, I think we should transmit our arguments carefully and rationally while connecting with the audience from the heart. For example, I wrote a text in Spanish that started by talking about the lives of the extreme poor. I wanted to make it real. I wanted to make people feel why solving this matters. Once they feel it, It's much easier to explain that rationality is necessary to solve important problems.

Most of us cried while thinking about all the suffering in the world. I’m not ashamed of it, and I think people will understand me more if I express it. I like talking openly about the enthusiasm that I feel for all that we can accomplish to improve the world.

Of course, each person has It's own style. Some aren't comfortable with talking about their feelings too much, and that is perfect.

This is great. I have a professional background in marketing and a PhD in behavioral economics/consumer psychology and would be happy to contribute some thoughts on this. Robert Cialdini's "Influence" is a great book about general communications. How can I help?

Lucas. I'm with you. I couldn't help but think about charting effective altruism on the following venn diagram. www.tiny.cc/stereotypes. I'm full of hope the benefit of conscious use of empathic communication outweighs the costs when it comes to perception and motivating persons to action. Why? I think present day neuroscience has grown robust enough to be anything but anecdotal about this subject. I also reason this science will only increase over time.

Present day cognitive neuroscience is quantifying how the average person can be consciously (or unconsciously) 'primed' by an auditory or visual exposure to a word or concept. (consider that current consensus is 98% of thinking is unconscious). Priming strengthens or atrophies neural networks for anxiety/empathy/concept etc.

I'm guessing you've read some George Lakoff when it comes to word use in morality/politics? If not, here's a couple representations of Lakoff's work. www.tiny.cc/lakoff www.tiny.cc/lakoff1

What fascinates me as of late is the intersection of cognitive neuro and behavioral neuro in how profound cognitive priming is when it comes to death concepts and nepotism/hostility towards outgroups. This has profound implications for effective altruism! Apparently, if you unconsciously (not even consciously) prime typical persons with an exposure involving a death concept, then minutes/hours following the exposure there is a 35% correlation of increased nepotism in the primed group vs the control group. That results in a lot of hoarding resources and blaming/punishing outgroups.

Here are a couple metastudies to that end. www.tiny.cc/meta1 (200 studies) www.tiny.cc/meta3 A layman's documentary about it can be seen in the first video here www.tiny.cc/betterworld. I'm ecstatic the second video eludes to emerging research into forms of communication that decrease nepotism and increase altruism. I've yet to encounter and eagerly await a metastudy about empathic communication.

Effective Altruism Community, Autism Spectrum, Strengths and Challenges… Preface…There is emerging research that on the whole (emphasis) of secular folks are a slight (emphasis) degree higher on the autism spectrum. I'm not suggesting the median secular person has Asperger's. That would be ridiculous. I'm just saying a smidge higher on the spectrum. www.tiny.cc/autismspectrum. Having that disposition isn't necessarily bad, just different. www.parents.com/print/69350

Now, I've only gone through a couple dozen behavioral neuroscience books. In that limited body of research, it seems logically consistent that on the whole (emphasis) of effective altruists (I among them) would be also be a smidge (emphasis) higher on the autism spectrum. What strengths and challenges might be inferred from this? For starters, on the whole, secular folks have higher IQs. www.tiny.cc/iqsecular

I'd bet good money, EA folks on the whole have higher IQs. Now of course IQ is just a measurement of logic centric intelligence, not the other seven intelligences like social adeptness. E.G. some Asperger's folks have higher IQs, yet lower social adeptness (struggle with social cues). Relating to www.tiny.cc/autismspectrum, on the whole my secular friends are most brilliant when it comes to logical intelligence, yet have opportunity to better commandeer their neural networks for empathic intelligence/social adeptness.

On the whole (emphasis) these friends are less disposed to place themselves 'in the shoes' of persons with supernatural beliefs. This disposition inhibits their persuasiveness a smidge in regards to the realization of the 'worm at the core,' that perhaps 1/3 supernatural belief is unconsciously motivated by death anxiety. (hundreds of studies indicate this) Alleviate the death anxiety and you decrease the nepotistic behavior and increase altruistic behavior towards outgroups.

If you don't have time to watch the layman's documentary, here's a 5 minute article that skims the surface. www.tiny.cc/nepotism The potency of which words or concepts people are exposed to (cognitive priming) does really have a profound (hugely statistically significant) influence on ensuing behavior.

I give the final example only because of its wealth sharing implications. I must emphasize cultural nepotism is part of the human condition and applies to ALL religious groups AND nationalities. Think about the following opportunity.

There are enclaves among our humanity with immense resources yet to a degree are driven more by unconscious anxiety than by conscious reasoning. www.tiny.cc/christianwealth I'll let you guys calculate the numbers, but I think 150M adult US Christians harbor something like $60T of wealth, whereas globally 2.9B worldwide Muslims and Hindus harbor only $21T of wealth…perhaps 60 times disproportionate per capita. If some of the forces driving Christian nepotism (e.g. death anxiety) are alleviated, how much compassion could be shown to our fellow gentile man? Are their resources great enough to learn the long term cognitive sticks and carrots that move them to assimilate effective altruism into their consciousness?

Scientists, CEOs and secular folks all have wealth. How much wealth? Someone will have to investigate it, but intuition tells me it pales in comparison to the demographic of religious folks. When targeting an audience more concentrated with scientists, CEOs and secular folks, non-emotional words is likely most effective. www.tiny.cc/empathicvariance. You guys are doing an amazing job! I'm new to this and haven't searched to see the target demographics of various EA orgs. However, science contends when separately going after a different animal like religious folks, different priming will render better results.

Thanks again Lucas! I think the opportunity and science behind all of this is more than robust enough to warrant further effort in the effective altruism community.