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How to take a scientific approach to charity

How to take a scientific approach to charity


This video is my entry for Project for Awesome,
an annual charity event on Youtube where we raise money and vote for our favourite nonprofits
to give that money to. I’ll reveal which organisation I’m supporting
in a few minutes. First though, let me tell you a story about
how powerful the scientific method can be. In the late 90s, the Harvard professor Michael
Kremer, was interested in improving education in Kenya. Instead of starting an education nonprofit,
like you might expect, he decided to do a series of Randomised Control Trials. This is what they entailed: he randomly split
up the schools he was studying in Kenya into two groups. One group would continue with their schooling
as usual, and the other group would receive the new interventions like more textbooks
and more teachers. Finally he’d compare the outcomes of the
students, and, provided the sample was big enough, could conclude that any differences
between the groups were due to the intervention. As you probably know, this sort of Randomised
control trial is exactly how we test if a medicine is effective, but up until this point
they were unheard of in the not for profit sector. For obvious reasons, of course this intervention
is going to be effective- why should someone waste precious resources testing that? Well Kremer’s idea was not to test all the
different interventions at once, but to test them all in separate trials, to figure which
was the most effective at improving the outcomes for the students. To his surprise, one of these factors worked
ridiculously well. First they tested giving out more textbooks,
then providing flipcharts for the teachers use, and then improving the teacher to student
ratio. Before I tell you the results, I want you
to take 10 seconds to guess which of these you think was most effective. Which one would you have funded, if you had
to choose? Ok, let’s go through them. Surprisingly, the extra textbooks seemed to
have no real effect. A possible explanation is that these textbooks
were too high level for the student anyway, especially since they were written in English,
the student’s third language. So then they tried the flipcharts, reasoning
that the teachers could tailor the lesson to the students ability this way. Again though, for whatever reason, this had
no discernible effect in the sample they trialled. Then they tried simply having more teachers,
but again, there was no effect. Frustrated that none of these had worked,
Kremer decided to try a crazy suggestion he’d received. His team gave the children medicine in school
that prevented them from getting stomach worms. Stomach worms are something many of us aren’t
familiar with, because they’re fairly rare in developed countries. But they’re devastating to a person’s
health, and far too common in some developing countries. It turned out, many children in Kenya at the
time were missing school because they were sick with worms. What they found in the trial was that students
who’d got the treatment missed school far less, and as a result did far better. In fact, when researchers followed up with
the students a whole 10 years later, those who’d been treated were earning 20% more
than those who hadn’t been. For just 50c per a child per a year, this
intervention had had a massive impact on their lives. The scientific method tells us that we should
make hypothesis about the world but then we need to test them. If they don’t hold up, no matter how much
it seems like it should be true, we need to abandon the theory and start the process again. And in this case you can see how powerful
this process can be. Some nonprofit interventions really are a
lot more effective than others, so it’s worth doing this sort of rigorous analysis
to find them. To put this into perspective, here’s some
really mind bending data. This study compared 108 health interventions
in developing countries. To measure how successful a health intervention
is, you want to look at how many extra healthy years of life it gives someone. 1 extra year of health is what we’ll call
a DALY. This study looked at how many DALYs $1000
spent on an intervention could buy. What they found was, half the 108 interventions
saved people 5 years or less of life for that cost. In other words, 5 years was the median value
in the study. So you might expect the best interventions
save around 10-15 years. That’s what I would have guessed. But actually, a whole bunch of the remaining
half fall between 5 years all the way up to 100, which is great. But amazingly, there are 5 interventions out
of the 108 that do even better. The best one saved 300 years for every $1000
spent, A massive bargain, compared to the median of just 5 years. The majority of these intervention work just
ok, some a few of these interventions work amazingly well. So doesn’t it make sense to find these and
fund them? That’s where GiveWell, the not for profit
I’m supporting, comes in. They do extensive research on these sorts
of interventions, and if you donate to them, they give that money to their top rated initiatives. At the moment that includes several organisations
focussed on deworming treatments. But GiveWell apply the scientific mindset
that we should always be updating our beliefs based on the best new evidence. That’s why they reassess their choices for
top non-profits every year, and are very transparent about how they come to their conclusions. If you want to support this sort of evidence
based giving, there’s two simple things you can do: one, vote for them on the project
for awesome website. The link is in the description. Share this video, because a lot of people
have the idea that charity is useless and corrupt. I hope this video convinced you that it certainly
doesn’t have to be this way. Charity can be an effective way to help those
most in need.

  • how did you not notice you wrote "invention"? 😛
    also, minor philosophical gripe: what do you dislike about the utilitarian approach(desc)? does it not cooperate very well with this scientific approach? what other moral theory would you even apply? few focus so extensively on outcomes, which is what can be scientifically investigated well, as does utilitarianism.

  • Wow! Didn't see this one coming! :p Awesome! And So Nice You've used your Very Skills to Help Others 🙂 👏👏👏👏 I go to like of course and very probably, make a Donation 😉 Best Regards dear Looking Glass Universe 🙂

  • I guess we really need a superintelligent AI to fix how our society works. I can't even imagine how we can all by ourselves figure out all impacts these seemingly small changes have

  • Nice video.

    Though I'll have to draw attention to the fact that aids to corrupted places (especially warzones) empowers the local corrupted ruling class and helped them maintain their rules for longer.

    Aid to a warzone goes to guys with guns first. Aid workers become unsuspecting logisticians of fighters. Instead of the war resolving quickly (because of exhaustion), they drags on for years and years.

  • Thanks for the video. This really gives you hope when you start to doubt whether doing charity will ever be effective. I hope I will be able to apply this.

  • I donate to Wikipedia. I doubt if studies can evaluate its worth in DALYs, but it sure as hell makes the world an even playing-field.

  • i lived in africa for quite a while, what i saw was: almost all of the funds given to help was diverted to someone's pocket, there aren't enough schools for the first school years which makes it impossible for teachers to fail students, thus they pass without knowing, then by the time they reach 8th grade there is a country wide test, which most of them fail, then they pass by a slim margin in the next year but because their foundation is shaky they never actually learn as much as they should, also i saw much less parents talking to their children and playing with them there, which also has an effect on the development of children.
    the teachers aren't bad but because most don't have books the students endup spending too much time just writing which means they get bored quickly.

  • Thanks for this…

    Am someone who never donates because I believed its corrupt and simply lines the pockets of degenerates.

  • Direct charity (giving directly to beggars) only builds dependence, keeping them begging instead of building useful skills. Instead, give to a charity that provides support in a specific area, such as food, housing, training, etc.

  • I was a little surprised to see that Give Directly is still amoung the most effective uses of charity money in terms of DALYs.
    The charity Give Directly, just literally gives people money to do with as they see fit, and then checks in with them later to see how they are doing.

    And guess what, for the poorest people in the poorest countries, they are usually smart enough to spend their 1000$ more effectively than most charities do, in spending the money on their behalf instead.

  • This is awesome. Thanks for letting everyone know about the existence of this. It would be great if GiveWell expands to encourage other charities to adopt this. Testing could be part of the guidelines, but that'd be expensive

    Great video, as always!
    Also, Alice in Red is a wonderful character design!

  • Givewell and effective altruism has a huge blindspot

    They still didn't fully absorb why nuclear power is so valuable to stop climate change and even more important than wind and solar.

  • "best possible utilization of available resources for betterment of humanity", the essence of charity is realizable through this idea of scientific intervention. but only glitch that i find here is that rating agencies should never indulge in accepting donations for charities this can have some negative out come in long run. Fully support you and every body involve in charity,, Jazak-Allah

  • Charity is not useless of course and it would be the only thing to to were there nothing else to to do in this wretched world. However charity is not efficient at all compared to what financing anti-imperialist groups would achieve. We need to stop exploiting and waging wars to the 3rd world. Direct wars, proxy wars or even interventionist groups of agitation and destabilisation. If we stop imperialism, malaria is a done thing of the past. Every country that became socialist and thus truly independent from the US/EU was able to see its DALYs rise incredibly.

    Imagine what would happen now to Cuba for instance if the US was to find a way to topple the socialist government and put a capitalist pro-US dictator/president there, do you think Cuba would still have the record 15% of GDP in education or the highest doctor/patient ratio of the world? It would certainly not, it would be like any other Caribbean or Central American nation that is subjected to US capitalist rule : miserable and unhealthy with a shitty education.

    So charity is nice when you want band-aid solutions that do nothing to solve deeper problems, socialism or at least anti-imperialist is what you need.
    Btw before you tax any of this as nonsense propaganda, most of this is admitted one way or the other by the World bank, the WHO or even the CIA.

  • This has to be taught in schools. It might help the current "it must be true, because I believe so much in it" sentiment.

  • LOL, I was really surprised when the only choices were the 3 you gave. Maybe it's because I lost hope in the education system, or maybe because I learned that the best way to help people succeed in becoming educated is helping them improve internally, like giving them confidence, making them healthy, and personally teaching them how to organize time and work well.

  • do you have discord an email? somewhere were we could talk?
    I think I've been led to a way of disproving quantum mechanics randomness based on multiverse (which is still not forensics but at least something worth to be said)

  • This has nothing to do directly with this video, I just decided to post this general comment to your most recent video: I absolutely love the tone and production style of your videos. Your explanations are very thoughtful and have some really refreshing originality to them. I can tell you naturally think a lot about how you would explain things to yourself and then make an admirable effort to bring yourself down to the level of a hypothetical newcomer when writing your scripts. I think it really shows and it benefits the people seeing these topics for the first time. I'm actually currently a math PhD student myself, and my research is also in quantum computing! I don't know about you but I'm the only person really doing quantum at my school's math department, so it's really interesting to hear how eerily similar your way of thinking about things is to my own. Are you in a math department or a physics department?

  • Somebody found 80000hours.org haha. Good stuff. Lots of work to do out there. Lots of ways we can elevate each other. Good on you using your platform for such a bold call to action.

    Have you given much thought to the ethical arguments against charity: that donating to a cause that has a systemic solution obviates the need to implement that solution?
    I only began to think of it when evaluating charities to fight homelessness, and a large portion of the money raised is spent raising more money. Homelessness is an issue with uncertainty at its core, and a charity that relies on the capricious nature of donors is doomed on principle. A more stable (and almost certainly government implemented) system would be needed, but nothing would likely happen before the problem reached a boiling point. The theory then is that charity ameliorates the issue just to the point that it doesn't boil over, helping people in the short term, but preventing permanent change. Sorry, I'm rambling now.
    Love the vids, physics and otherwise!
    -Shawn

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