Sarah H

Topic Contributions


Introducing Asterisk

Could you talk a little about how selections will be chosen? Will there be a peer review process?

Paul Farmer (1959 – 2022)

Thanks for sharing. He’s been one of my heroes for a long time, and I see him as having both strong overlap with certain EA ways of thinking and serious differences.

He was a person who had an unswerving commitment to justice and improving human flourishing. He recognized the utter injustice of health inequalities and was able to articulate that vision so that it could be understood by many folks who don’t typically care about the suffering of far-off people who look different than them. These ways of thinking are central to EA for me: the sense that we have no right to discount the suffering of far-off individuals, no matter who they are or what they look like; the sense that we have serious moral obligations that require serious commitment. 

He was also a person who situated medical problems within sociopolitical contexts, and who believed that comprehensive solutions (i.e., investing in health systems across the board) were far superior to targeted interventions (i.e., bed nets). He was critical of approaches focused on cost-effectiveness, arguing that they were morally abhorrent. In this sense, he is obviously taking a very different approach to the traditional EA approach. But I think that some of his arguments are valuable counters to the EA emphasis on targeted interventions,illustrating as they do that targeted interventions are subsidized by existing infrastructure, and that some initiatives–such as the Partners in Health campaign against multi-drug resistant TB in Peru–can be initially non-cost effective but eventually change market pressures and norms such that, in toto, they are incredibly cost-effective. Farmer’s work reminds us that assessments of cost-effectiveness must take into account that inputs are not stable, and that initiatives can be transformative, and that if we zealously focus on short-term effects, we will miss out on opportunities for transformative change.

I don’t agree with everything that Farmer stated or fought for. But I think the EA community would benefit from the insights from his life and work. Paul Farmer is worthy of the utmost respect for his unwavering commitment to improving the lives of marginalized people, and his death is a tragic loss.

We should consider funding well-known think tanks to do EA policy research

Thank you for sharing! This seems like a great idea. As Scronkfinkle states, there is indeed currently some EA funding going to existing think tanks through Open Phil--not sure about other large funders--but this definitely seems like an area where more funding may be highly beneficial.  

I particularly like your distinction between technical expertise and decision-making capability as well as your point that this is a promising avenue for spreading EA ideas. I share your concerns about EAs being overly siloed in EA orgs, and it seems like funding EA work at non-EA think tanks could be a good way to counteract some of those forces.

Get In The Van

Fellow UChicago alum here, also from a house with hardcore house culture (save Breckinridge!) and I think your comparison to house culture is useful in understanding some of the caveats of GITV moments. Being part of an intense, somewhat insular group with strong traditions and a strong sense of itself can be absolutely exhilarating and foster strong cohesion, as you say, but it also can be alienating to those who are more on the edges. Put differently, I absolutely think we should encourage GITV moments, but that spirit can go too far. Once you start saying "the people who don't get in the van aren't real members of [GROUP]," that starts pushing some people away. 

With EA as with house culture, I think it's important to find a balance between cultivating passionate intensity and acknowledging that folks have other things going on and can't always commit 100%; important to cultivate GITV moments but also acknowledge and build systems and traditions that acknowledge that you can't always get in the van--and, furthermore, that often folks with more privilege can more easily get in the van. If you have a shift at work or have to care for your kid, you can't go on spontaneous trips in the same way that a person with fewer obligations might. 

A Few Strategies for Increasing Productivity

Thanks for sharing these resources, Quinn! I like the discussion of the importance of agendas in the first link and the emphasis on taking notes in the second one; documentation can be so helpful both in the moment and looking back! Glad my writeup was helpful.

Suggestion: Effective Animal Advocacy forum

Thanks for sharing this. I've frankly been consistently surprised by the low proportion of content on the forum that currently relates to animal welfare. For example, most of the EAs I know--even those who aren't focused on animal advocacy as a cause area for activism/career--are vegetarian or vegan, yet I've only rarely encountered content here that's related to dietary choices. It seems to me that encouraging more engagement related to animal welfare and advocacy would be a great place to invest some time and energy! 

However, I'm not sure if a sub-forum would be the best approach to that. I'm not inherently opposed; rather, I'm not sure if it would be the ideal first step. I think it would come down to identifying why it is that there isn't more engagement: are online EAA discussions happening elsewhere, such as in FB groups? Is it a vicious cycle of the current lack of content furthering further disinterest/lack of engagement, as you suggest? A better sense of that could inform solutions: perhaps a sub-forum, as you suggest, or perhaps weekly posts on EAA topics, or concerted efforts to move discussions to here from existing forums. Just a few thoughts; thank you for raising this topic!

We are in triage every second of every day

The most common critique of effective altruism that I encounter is the following: it’s not fair to choose. Many people see a fundamental unfairness in prioritizing the needs of some over the needs of others. Such critics ask: who are we to decide whose need is most urgent? I hear this critique from some on the left who prefer mutual aid or a giving-when-asked approach; from some who prefer to give locally; and from some who are simply uneasy about the idea of choosing. 

To this, I inevitably reply that we are always choosing. When we give money only to those who ask as we walk down the street, we are choosing to prioritize their needs over the needs of those whose calls for help cannot or will not reach us. The choice not to choose is really a choice to leave the decision to external factors.

Resources are limited. We must choose. The question is how, and this is the role of effective altruism.

This post articulates an essential component of effective altruism in an elegant way. It provides a simple metaphor that is helpful both for adherents of the movement to reflect on what effective altruism involves and to communicate with the public about the ideas that undergird the movement. This simple, powerful metaphor renders this post deserving of lasting attention. 

The post itself could be stronger; I think there’s a reasonable argument that the post would be equally strong or stronger without the central example. An abbreviated version of the piece, consisting of the first full paragraph in conjunction with the final four, could serve as a brief overview of this sharp idea. However, that’s something of a quibble: the piece is well-written, and explores a brilliant idea. I'm grateful that I had the chance to read it, and I would highly recommend that others give it a read.

Annual Reviews Aren't Just for Organizations

I love this! I agree that checking in on whether your life is aligned with your values and aspirations is absolutely crucial. This looks like a promising way of doing it in a more structured way than is typically done. I do a weekly check-in that covers many of the categories you mention, and I’ve found it enormously valuable, but I hadn’t considered doing it for a longer timescale.

I think the closest mainstream American culture gets to something like this is New Year’s resolutions, but those are prospective rather than retrospective and don’t necessarily come with a lot of analytical rigor (speaking from personal experience…). I think most of us would be happier and more fulfilled, as well as better community members, if we did something like you suggest here, or perhaps a somewhat abbreviated version. Thanks for sharing!

Technical Updates to Our Global Health and Wellbeing Cause Prioritization Framework

Thank you for sharing, it's fantastic to see such a level of detail! Minor suggestion: it might be helpful for you to explicitly state that "we" = OpenPhil at the beginning of the post--that's not necessarily clear to folks who aren't as familiar with x-posts from the blog. 

What has helped you write better?

Aggressive editing, with an eye to intention, is the single biggest tool I use for improving my own writing. After I write a first draft, I review my draft with an eye for whether different stylistic choices would strengthen my argument. 

First, I consider the flow of my argument. Does it follow a logical structure, where each step is adequately justified? Is supporting evidence provided at the most advantageous moments? 

Then, I consider my stylistic choices on a number of levels: namely, word choice, sentence type, paragraph-level flow, and work-level flow. My goal is to express my argument in the most concise and persuasive way possible, and I review my stylistic aspects to see if they are supporting that goal. For example, I may have a paragraph where every sentence has the same structure (e.g., they're all only one clause). In that case, I would try to vary the sentence structure in order to make the reading experience more engaging. 

Finally, I review the text with an eye to removing extraneous words or sentences. I often begin that process feeling like there's nothing I can remove, but inevitably end up removing a substantial amount of unnecessary words and phrases. The more concise you are, the more persuasive your writing will be. It's that simple.

In terms of resources, I'd recommend Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. It's a classic for a reason. "Elementary Principles of Composition" and "An Approach to Style" are particularly valuable sections of the text.

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