Joel Tan

Founder @ CEARCH
1153 karmaJoined Aug 2022


Founder of the Centre for Exploratory Altruism Research (CEARCH), a Charity Entrepreneurship-incubated organization doing cause prioritization research.

Once a civil servant, and then a consultant specializing in political, economic and policy research. Recovering PPEist who overdosed on meta-ethics.


CEARCH: Research Methodology & Results


Topic Contributions

Thanks Aisling and team!

I'm generally a big fan of health policy interventions - for traffic regulation my main uncertainty is over whether speed limits are even binding, to make a difference in dense urban environments where terrible traffic jams occur anyway and enforcement is poor, such that changing the de jure policy may not do much. Any general thoughts on the issue?

I can speak mainly on cause/intervention prioritization research - the TLDR is all of us research organizations are pretty terrible at this (e.g. by last count I think at least 4 orgs have looked into hypertension/salt and have come to fairly similar conclusions). From various discussions, I think people are interested in increasing publication of internal research avoid this problem, but folks have also pointed out that duplication is beneficial - if a cause looks good when different organizations with different methodologies investigate it, that's a reliable sign that it really is good; and conversely, we don't want to permanently dismiss an idea just because a single shallow report (which may well be wrong) was negative on it.

FWIW, CEARCH keeps a longlist of causes, and we try to link to existing research where available, but it's not remotely close to comprehensive, except for CEARCH's and CE's output.

A couple of considerations I've thought about, at least for myself

(1) Fundamentally, giving helps save/improve lives, and that's a very strong consideration that we need equally strong philosophical or practical reasons to overcome.

(2) I think value drift is a significant concern. For less engaged EAs, the risk is about becoming non-EA altogether; for more engaged EAs, it's more about becoming someone less focused on doing good and more concerned with other considerations (e.g. status); this doesn't have to be an explicit thing, but rather biases the way we reason and decide in a way that means we end up rationalizing choices that helps ourselves over the greater good. Giving (e.g. at the standard 10%) helps anchor against that.

(3) From a grantmaking/donor advisory perspective, I think it's hard to have moral credibility, which can be absolutely necessary (e.g. advising grantees to put up modest salaries in their project proposals, not just to increase project runway but also the chances that our donor partners approve the funding request). And this is both psychologically and practically hard to do this if you're not just earning more but earning far more and not giving to charity! Why would they listen to you? The LMIC grantees especially may be turned off - disillusioned, by the fact that they have to accept peanuts while those of us with power over them draw fat stacks of cash! The least we can do is donate! Relatedly, I think part of Charity Entrepreneurship's success is absolutely down to Joey and co leading by example and taking low salaries.

(4) Runway is a legitimate consideration, especially since there are a lot of potentially impactful things one can do but which won't be funded upfront (so you need to do it on savings, prove viability and then get it funded). However, I don't think this is sufficient to outweigh points 1-3.

(5) In general, I think it's not useful at all to compare with how much others are earning - that only leads to resentment, unhappiness, and less impactful choices. For myself, the vast majority of my friends are non-EAs; we have similar backgrounds (elite education, worked for the Singapore government as policy officers/scholars at one point or another) and yet since leaving government I've had a riskier career, earn far less, have fewer savings, and am forced to delay having a family/kids because of all those reasons. All of this is downstream of choices I've made an EA, particularly in avoiding job offers that paid very well but which didn't have impact (or in fact, had negative impact). Is the conclusion I'm supposed to draw that I've made a mistake with my life? I don't think so, because statistically speaking, some random African kid out there is alive as a result of my donations (and hopefully, my work), and that's good enough for me.

Thanks for the write-up, Julia. I'll say that this dovetails with my experience working in the non-EA world, including in organizations where things went really, really bad.

My main recommendation is that, even if it is hard, staff stand up for themselves and their colleagues, and to push back against bad bosses - something that is necessary even if not sufficient. This goes double for those of us who are senior staff:

(1) You are harder to replace and your opinion carries more weight
(2) You have more working experience, and unlike your more junior colleagues, you know that what's happening isn't normal and isn't acceptable - something that isn't necessary obvious for someone for whom this is their first job our of university.
(3) You may be more financially secure, but this depends (e.g. new mortgages and kids, or being on a work visa make things harder).
(4) Your silence is tacit acceptance.

Answer by Joel TanNov 06, 202313

This doesn't help steelman, because I'm generally sympathetic to the concern that EA is too elitist. The case for elitism, I think, broadly rests on the idea that (a) elitism helps select for more intelligent/more able talent; and (b) this increase in intelligence/ability amongst the talents you recruit outweighs the overall smaller talent pool.)

I'm especially sceptical of (a), and I say that as someone who comes from a country where elitism is government policy; where meritocracy is the law of the land and intelligence the measure of a man. Given the global demographics, a lot of the smartest and more able people (in a vacuum) will just be random people in lower and middle income countries, and yet (i) poverty and a lack of access to education means they don't get to develop to their full potential; and (ii) the limited scope of existing selection systems (e.g. using top universities as a proxy, EA being a rich-world and indeed Anglosphere-focused phenomenon) means we don't get access to these people.

For (b), the only thing I will say is that it certainly doesn't hold in a lot of cases where we're looking to scale - and where greater ability obviously helps, but doubling personnel doubles output in a way that doubling salary to increase quality of personnel doesn't (e.g. doing mass outreach is a good example of this).

Perhaps more concerningly - and this is the deeper problem with EA - is that if you can't build popular support and hence a mass movement out of your ideas, it limits your ability to gain and hold political power, which is ultimately where the most impactful things can be done.

(Disclosure: Stan and I are colleagues, though we haven't discussed this issue before).

Hi Nick,


Thanks for sharing! I haven't looked much into this, but it does seem a puzzle. Gun to my head, I would hazard a guess that (a) probably a lot of studies are underpowered to detect the smaller non-diarrheal effect sizes, and (b) a plausible mechanisms that may be worth looking more at is the parental channel (e.g. if WASH interventions make parents less ill -> better care + more income and less malnutrition/access to healthcare for children).

Strongly agree. Given the question design ("Are you familiar with effective altruism?"), there's clear risk of acquiescence bias - on top of the fundamental social desirability bias of wanting to not appear ignorant to your interviewer.

Hi Bruno,

I think we briefly saw each other at the Effective Giving meetup in Boston, but didn't get the chance to chat.

Would love to discuss charity evaluation in Brazil with you at greater length, and especially to get a sense from you as to the charities/NGOs working in nutrition policy advocacy in Brazil, as that's an area we've found to be highly cost-effective (https://exploratory-altruism.org/research-findings/), and we're presently evaluating such charities with a view of circulating evaluations/recommendations to our interested grantmaking partners in end-Nov/early-Dec.

Feel free to drop me an email (https://exploratory-altruism.org/contact/) if this sounds interesting to you and you want to continue this discussion!


As mentioned to Daniel in the other thread: I think both of you are right on the averaging issue - in a number of other areas (e.g. calculating probabilities from a bunch of reference classes), we've tended to use the geomean, but that's for extrapolating from estimates to the true value, as opposed to true individual means to the true population means. The other related issue, however, is whether the sample is representative, and whether we think that highly educated people are more likely to report caring about abstract concerns. Again, will have to think about this, but grateful for the feedback!

Consolidating over the number of comments:

(1) Per the formula (1-ABS(((1000/(0.83*1.2))-(1000/0.83))/(1000/0.83)))^0.1, it would appear that we have 98.2% remaining freedom, and a 1.8% reduction?

(2) I think you're right on the averaging issue - in a number of other areas (e.g. calculating probabilities from a bunch of reference classes), we've tended to use the geomean, but that's for extrapolating from estimates to the true value, as opposed to true individual means to the true population means. The other related issue, however, is whether the sample is representative, and whether we think that highly educated people are more likely to report caring about abstract concerns. Will have to think about this, but thanks for the feedback!

(3) As to your larger point, I'm not sure if it's reasonable to interpret individual behaviour when it comes to trading off short term against long term gains as maximizing, given time inconsistent preferences (relative to valuing your welfare equally at all times), people just not thinking too much about daily choices, lack of awareness of the precise degree of risk (even if the risk were 10x or 0.1x, it's not like you would likely shift a meaningful shift in behaviour), and of course motivated reasoning.

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