Invisible effects, invisible causes

I spent Tuesday at a fascinating conference* in Silicon Valley, which came complete with roughly the level of inchoate enthusiasm about things like blockchain technology that you might expect. (Note to techno-utopians: No, bitcoin is not obviously helpful in Venezuela right now. Even if everybody in the country had a bitcoin wallet, they still couldn’t import or buy anything. When you’re starving to death, you can’t eat bitcoin.)

I was pleasantly surprised, however, at how little talk there was about the importance of setting audacious goals like curing all disease, or about the way that philanthropy is uniquely well placed to head off disastrous low-probability events like meteor strikes or deadly self-aware artificial intelligences. And there wasn’t even a peep about contributing further to the Stanford endowment.

Instead, there was a lot of talk about invisible causes and effects. For instance: the world is a much, much better place today than it has been at any point in human history, and yet the number of people who believe that fact is distressingly tiny. (I’d urge you to take the Gapminder test; if you get more than half the questions right, you’re doing well.)

Part of the reason is that improvements in things like girls’ education, or vaccination rates, or even just the 250,000 people who exit extreme poverty every day, are invisible: they exist at the level of aggregate statistics, but are hard to see. Another part of the reason is that human beings are problem-solvers at heart, who tend to concentrate on problems and their solutions than they do on past successes. In terms of global development, there is much to be done; naturally, then, public officials and nonprofit leaders will spend much more time communicating the scale of the problems than they will talking about all the good stuff which is now in the past.

That’s as it should be. The global refugee population is at record highs, and the global malnourishment problem is getting worse rather than better. Add to that the problems of conflict, violent crime, and global climate change, and it’s clear that we’re a very, very long way from declaring victory on just about anything.

So what’s the best way to direct philanthropic capital to alleviate important and urgent problems? Again, there’s a visibility problem. High-visibility problems – a hurricane, an earthquake, a war – are something people viscerally react to, and want to do something about. And as nonprofit organizations through the decades will tell you, pictures of ill or dying children are undeniably effective in persuading people to act, in a way that statistical facts are not.

But there are huge and tractable problems out there which have much lower visibility and equal if not greater importance. I love some of the projects that Bloomberg Philanthropies are engaging in when it comes to public health, for instance: drowning causes some 360,000 deaths per year, during which time 1.2 million people will die in traffic crashes. Making a dent in these numbers is not all that hard, and can easily save hundreds of thousands of lives. But it’s impossible to point to someone who didn’t drown, or who didn’t die in a car crash, and say “I saved your life”. And for that reason, these issues tend not to get a lot of traction among the general public.

So if you’re looking for places to target your money and your efforts which might be neglected due to their lack of sex appeal, something like road safety is a great place to start. Campaigns can take time, but they can also work wonders: 95% of motorcycle riders in Vietnam now wear helmets, for instance, thereby preventing tens of thousands of deaths and severe brain injuries.

Or: give out IUDs and other long-acting forms of contraception to teen girls. They’re just more reliable and more effective, and they effectively reduce unwanted pregnancies.

Or: make relatively small improvements in the way that people cook! Almost half of the world’s population cooks over dung or wood or coal, causing 4 million preventable deaths a year from respiratory illness and other effects of dirty cooking. That includes more than half of the children under 5 dying of pneumonia. Cleaner stoves save lives.

Finding causes like this isn’t hard, but there’s often something unsatisfyingabout supporting them. That girl you gave the IUD to probably wouldn’t have gotten pregnant, that van you put a seatbelt into was never going to crash. The lives saved are statistical inferences, the good done is prophylactic rather than heroic.

There’s just very little salience when talking about people you will never see, never touch, never talk to – people who, indeed, can never be identified. Philanthropy can make life worth living, for the giver just as much as for the recipient, but you do need to be something of a data geek to get a huge amount of personal pleasure out of a statistical downtick in road deaths. Especially when there’s no particular reason to believe that your particular intervention was the reason for the change.

In these days of #resistance, giving has become especially performative, a way of demonstrating to yourself and others who you are and what you believe in. The ACLU might not particularly need your money, but you give them money anyway, because doing so helps define who you are, in a good way. Similarly, it feels really good to hand over food to a person in Brooklyn who is going to try to send it to a ravaged Puerto Rico. When you give money to a cause, you often feel like you need to be able to identify with that cause in some way. You want to be able to talk to your friends and say something like “this is a cause I deeply believe in”.

As a result, invisible causes are always going to be underfunded, and/or funded overwhelmingly by governments and large institutions. I’d still love for them to be more popular, though. Because that really would make the world a much better place.

*The conference was called Power of Progress, and while it doesn’t have a website so I can’t link to anything, it was put on by the Pritzker Innovation Fund, The Breakthrough Institute, The Observer Research Foundation, Third Plateau, and Our World in Data.

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