What are the 'PlayPumps' of cause prioritisation?

post by DavidZhang · 2021-06-23T10:23:14.373Z · EA · GW · 31 comments

This is a question post.

I am co-authoring a book introducing EA to a Christian audience. The concept is quite straightforward, essentially a Doing Good Better with Bible verses and stories from Christian tradition to emphasise that Christians can be EAs too. 

There will be a chapter on cause prioritisation, and I am looking for a case study which has the same intuitive appeal as PlayPumps, but illustrates the importance of prioritising between causes rather than between interventions. The ideal example would be one where there is a lot of hype and interest around a particular cause area which ends up being a bit of a waste of time, or at least obviously less pressing than other cause areas. 

It would be even better if we had examples of people pursuing that cause area effectively, to illustrate the difference between an intervention which achieves its goals well and goals that are actually worth achieving. This would make the point about cause prioritisation nicely. 

Some imperfect possibilities we've thought of so far: plastic waste, heritage conservation, university scholarships, funding alma maters, arts & culture stuff. As you can tell, none of these are great examples as many readers will believe these to be good things to fund (sometimes with good reason), whereas few people would defend PlayPumps once they realise how they (don't) work.

Grateful for any suggestions, however niche!


answer by Tsunayoshi · 2021-06-23T23:16:58.137Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I like the example of the anti-overpopulation movement of the 1960s and 70s. It involved good intentions, but its predictions and fears (e.g. widespread famines) were completely unfounded from today's perspective. It also produced some very unfortunate policies in developing countries: 

"Millions of people were sterilized, often coercively, sometimes illegally, frequently in unsafe conditions, in Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Indonesia and Bangladesh." This article seems like a good starting point.

comment by EricHerboso · 2021-06-25T15:17:22.984Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

There was good reason back then to believe that overpopulation was a real problem whose time would come relatively soon. If it wasn't for technological breakthroughs with dwarf wheat and IR8 rice variants, spearheaded by Norman Borlaug and others, our population would have seriously passed our ability to grow food by this point -- the so-called Malthusian trap.

Using overpopulation as an example here would be akin to using something like global climate change as an example in the present, if it turns out that a technological breakthrough in the next 5-10 years completely obviates the need for us to be careful about greenhouse gas release in the future.

Because of this, I don't think overpopulation as a cause area would make for the best example that you're trying to make here.

comment by DavidZhang · 2021-06-24T07:43:39.073Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks so much - someone else suggested China's One Child Policy and I think this or a more general point on overpopulation might be where we end up! Really great suggestion. The sterilisation stories are harrowing and I think could really bring the point home.

comment by DavidZhang · 2021-06-24T07:46:25.258Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I guess one question I would have is whether the campaigners at the time were using good reason and evidence. It's possible that the information we have now was not available to them, and it's also possible that it's a legitimate cause area (i.e. overpopulation is a real concern) even if the means (sterilisation etc.) are clearly wrong. I'm not an expert on this at all but will read up on more recent literature on overpopulation!

Replies from: --alex--
comment by --alex-- · 2021-06-27T16:06:16.706Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Forced sterilization in India: https://www.vox.com/future-perfect/2019/6/5/18629801/emergency-in-india-1975-indira-gandhi-sterilization-ford-foundation

Family and Sanctity of life are probably good frames for a Christian audience. As is the way we treat the poorest, most downtrodden: whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me (from Matthew 25:40).

Relating back to cause prioritization: a cause that treats people as a problem will always be inherently flawed.

answer by Larks · 2021-06-24T02:48:45.488Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think plastic straws are likely to be your best bet, but here are some alternatives. In each case I'm aiming for popular causes (not just individual laws or the like) where your readers should be able to see why people thought it was a good idea, even if ultimately unsuccessful:

  • Prohibition
  • Liberia
  • Opposition to GMOs
  • Opposition to Nuclear Power
  • US anti-war activism prior to Pearl Harbour
  • Western pro-Soviet activism before their atrocities were well known.
comment by DavidZhang · 2021-06-24T07:36:29.052Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Prohibition is a super interesting one I hadn't considered, thanks! 

GMOs/nuclear power are interesting but I'd suspect it's unlikely to engage readers' emotions much. I.e. I doubt they'll leave thinking 'wow, what a waste of time to oppose GMOs!' because there is something quite intuitively unappealing about them. Might be worth a mention though, even if not as the key case study.

The others feel a little bit politicised, even though I agree!

Replies from: Sjlver, Larks
comment by Sjlver · 2021-06-24T08:33:15.884Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I've seen this comment after writing my answer on GMOs... sorry for duplicating that idea.

That said, I totally think that opposing GMOs is not just a waste of time, it's actually harmful. One of the striking examples is https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golden_rice , where delays in approval probably caused thousands of deaths from vitamin A deficiency.

comment by Larks · 2021-06-27T18:02:37.094Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I'm surprised you would think that the support for the USSR and WWII isolationism, positions endorsed by no major western political parties today, are more political than GMOs and nuclear power, which are still opposed by major groups, but happy to help!

I actually thought the USSR example might be especially palatable to your audience given the communists' historical persecution of Christians.

Replies from: DavidZhang
comment by DavidZhang · 2021-06-27T18:50:40.301Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Fair point - political wasn't the right word. I guess it's more about those issues being about particular countries' interests in particular historical contexts, whereas nuclear and GMOs feel more like classic cause areas (and are still very live today). Also, I don't think nuclear and GMOs fall along party political lines. 

I guess your point about the USSR raises a question about this example which has been explored in other threads: I don't think the ideal example is one where the cause is obviously bad (like persecuting Christians), I think it's something which initially seems good to people reading, but after they find out about what happens when the cause is pursued, they realise it's wrong. Hence why plastic straws is probably a better example than religious persecution / Communism, because people are unlikely to have a priori negative opinions about it. 

comment by --alex-- · 2021-06-27T16:14:27.900Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Prohibition is a great example. It covers:






It might be a good idea to have some restrictions on some of these!


A key insight from PlayPumps is that the details matter -- kids did not enjoy the "Play" part of the pumping system. It seems a little odd (almost Orwellian) the inventor/promoter ignored this

answer by Denkenberger · 2021-06-25T07:03:38.411Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Opposing the Green Revolution in Africa here:

"Borlaug's initial efforts in a few African nations have yielded the same
rapid increases in food production as did his initial efforts on the 
Indian subcontinent in the 1960s. Nevertheless, Western environmental 
groups have campaigned against introducing high-yield farming techniques to Africa, and have persuaded image-sensitive organizations such as the Ford Foundation and the World Bank to steer clear of Borlaug."

The Green Revolution wasn't even GMOs - just dwarf crop varieties, fertilizers, and pesticides. Not only did opposition to this mean many more people dying of malnutrition, but also more rainforest cut down, so more loss of biodiversity and climate change. 

comment by MaxRa · 2021-06-26T09:21:14.231Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Great share. Really hurt to read, oh man.

Here some more details from the article that I found interesting, too:

Nonetheless, by the 1980s finding fault with high-yield agriculture had become fashionable. Environmentalists began to tell the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations and Western governments that high-yield techniques would despoil the developing world. As Borlaug turned his attention to high-yield projects for Africa, where mass starvation still seemed a plausible threat, some green organizations became determined to stop him there. "The environmental community in the 1980s went crazy pressuring the donor countries and the big foundations not to support ideas like inorganic fertilizers for Africa," says David Seckler, the director of the International Irrigation Management Institute.

Environmental lobbyists persuaded the Ford Foundation and the World Bank to back off from most African agriculture projects. The Rockefeller Foundation largely backed away too—though it might have in any case, because it was shifting toward an emphasis on biotechnological agricultural research. "World Bank fear of green political pressure in Washington became the single biggest obstacle to feeding Africa," Borlaug says. The green parties of Western Europe persuaded most of their governments to stop supplying fertilizer to Africa; an exception was Norway, which has a large crown corporation that makes fertilizer and avidly promotes its use. Borlaug, once an honored presence at the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, became, he says, "a tar baby to them politically, because all the ideas the greenies couldn't stand were sticking to me."

Borlaug's reaction to the campaign was anger. He says, "Some of the environmental lobbyists of the Western nations are the salt of the earth, but many of them are elitists. They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things."

answer by BrianTan · 2021-06-23T11:14:06.573Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Maybe ALS, as exemplified by the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge? It is a problem, but probably didn't need an ice bucket challenge to focus on it, vs. a malaria ice bucket challenge for example.

Just linking two relevant resources - I assume you're familiar with the 2nd one:

What are the "PlayPumps" of Climate Change? [EA · GW]

Looking for more 'PlayPumps' like examples [EA · GW]

The first one might help you generate some ideas on sub-causes of climate change that are too much hype, such as the hype around lessening usage of straws/plastic bags in the West.

comment by DavidZhang · 2021-06-23T11:39:38.707Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks, ALS is a good suggestion (and I could imagine us using it) but I don't think it quite meets the 'PlayPump' test, in that I doubt readers would go away thinking that ALS is a bad cause area, in the same way that they would think PlayPumps are actually bad. It's possible that the bar I'm setting is too high, but ideally I want a cause area which people reflect on and think 'wow, what a waste  of time, that's not worth pursuing at all!' - but perhaps all the main causes which people focus on are at least somewhat good. 

Replies from: alexrjl
comment by alexrjl · 2021-06-23T11:51:35.902Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think plastic straws are a v good option here, when you consider that:

  • paper straws are just a worse experience for ~everyone
  • metal/glass arguably worse for the environment given number of uses and resources required to produce (see also reusable bags)
  • Some disabled people rely on straws and paper replacements terrible for them


This is certainly closer to the playpumps [actively harmful once you think properly about it] than the ALS [not a huge issue but it's not like stopping ALS would be actually bad in a vacuum].

Replies from: DavidZhang
comment by DavidZhang · 2021-06-23T15:19:26.146Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks - do you know of any analysis / data behind your three bullet points which I could point to? Instinctively I agree that the costs almost certainly outweigh the benefits, but I anticipate scepticism from readers!

Replies from: Punty
comment by Punty · 2021-06-24T15:14:43.108Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Obviously not directed at me, but the findings of this study did the rounds a few years ago in the media:

Life Cycle Assessment of grocery carrier bags

I'm not endorsing any position here. All I personally took from this study was to ensure to re-use my canvas bags and that plastic pollution is likely more significantly mitigated by further economic growth in less-developed nations (with little evidence and, suspiciously conveniently, fitting in with my pre-existing world view).

answer by Aaron Gertler · 2021-06-23T19:48:14.246Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Not sure where this falls on the "cause vs. intervention" spectrum, but protests against nuclear energy are a clear example of people doing something net-negative according to their own values (by reducing the amount of safe, clean energy that the world can produce).

I'm confused by the fact that you want to show "prioritization between causes" but also that you want to show effective and ineffective examples of people working in a single cause area. If you're just looking for cause areas where some ideas were overhyped and effective ideas didn't get enough support, there are a lot of examples out there. A few that I had time to look up:

comment by DavidZhang · 2021-06-24T07:32:31.209Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks. The nuclear one is a great example. 

We want examples of both prioritisation between causes and prioritisation between interventions, but cases of the latter are far easier to find - like PlayPumps the examples you give.  I actually think the former is a more important EA insight: it would probably be more valuable for the world for people/resources to focus on the most pressing cause areas, rather than to do what we currently do more (locally) effectively.

answer by MaxRa · 2021-06-23T12:06:24.606Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Maybe some historic examples could be something where readers can look back and all agree that it was a cause where focusing on it made the world worse? Some random ideas:

  • witch hunts
  • appeasing vengeful gods with human sacrifice (ofc you might want to tread carefully around religious topics)
  • the Shoa is a very horrific example of an anti-semitic ‚cause‘ (maybe still too emotional and politically charged, but maybe another genocidal movement could be used as a thing depressingly many people got behind)
  • homosexual conversion movements (maybe also hits too close to home for some readers)
  • „female sexual purity“ as a cause that led to norms of female genital mutilation and honor killings?
  • some sects that predicted the apocalypse and did a lot of harm to their members with their preparations?
comment by Punty · 2021-06-23T14:28:47.992Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

My initial reaction was "plastic straws/bags" as well, but the approach from 'meerpirat' now seems like the obvious way to go. I don't know anything on the topic, but there must be some clearly successful religious crusades that would be widely accepted as harmful now?

I'm trying to think of a more modern example that readers are more likely to find intuitively relatable, but run into the problem like you say in comment above "perhaps all the main causes which people focus on are at least somewhat good." I think the best bet if you are to stick with more relatable causes is to  highlight a cause that you can convince readers is clearly not as good . For example, poverty/health concerns of developed nations vs developing nations). You might hit a snag with many readers who have strong "charity begins at home" intuitions but it would be food for thought at least, and persuasive on readers you are likely targeting.

edit: I prefer 'alexrjl's plastic straws example, as has reasons for why it is likely actually bad.

comment by DavidZhang · 2021-06-23T15:18:12.922Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

These are great ideas and exactly along the right lines of what I was looking for. I agree the religious aspect is tricky to navigate, but perhaps being somewhat close to home is useful for readers (i.e. I expect many readers will believe in the apocalypse, but very few would endorse sects who predict specific dates. 

Someone on Facebook has also suggested China's One Child Policy, which is a nice contemporary example, not least because it was reversed this year!

answer by Sebastian Schwiecker · 2021-06-25T06:49:29.610Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Great project. Really looking forward to it.

One example that came to mind is this old blog post by GiveWell comparing "saving a child’s life in Africa to that of helping improve a child’s education in the New York City": https://blog.givewell.org/2007/12/19/all-causes-are-not-created-equal/

answer by Sjlver · 2021-06-24T08:26:24.151Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

There are a lot of good ideas in the other comments already!

To add one more: Fighting Genetically Modified Organisms (plants specifically). There are of course valid concerns about the technology. However, most of the concerns that I hear (and believed for a long time) are motivated by hearsay and by religion. Many Christian friends share a feeling that we shouldn't "pretend to be God" and interfere with his creation. On the other hand, many people lack knowledge about the benefits of GMOs.

The podcast episode that radically changed my thinking about GMOs is https://erklaermir.simplecast.com/episodes/167 (in German unfortunately, but highly recommended.)

By the way: you've probably heard about Bruce Wydick's book "The Shrewed Samaritan"? Its goals sound similar to those of your book.

answer by WilliamKiely · 2021-06-24T15:43:27.048Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Cause Area A: Blindness in the United States

Cause Area B: Blindness in the developing world

From Peter Singer's TED Talk:

Take, for example, providing a guide dog for a blind person. That's a good thing to do, right? Well, right, it is a good thing to do, but you have to think what else you could do with the resources. It costs about 40,000 dollars to train a guide dog and train the recipient so that the guide dog can be an effective help to a blind person. It costs somewhere between 20 and 50 dollars to cure a blind person in a developing country if they have trachoma. So you do the sums, and you get something like that. You could provide one guide dog for one blind American, or you could cure between 400 and 2,000 people of blindness. I think it's clear what's the better thing to do.

comment by DavidZhang · 2021-06-25T12:53:40.223Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks! I had considered things like this, but I'm not sure how well it illustrates the cause prioritisation point as in many ways these feel like the same cause (blindness) but different interventions, one of which is more effective than the other. I.e. it feels a bit more like a standard PlayPumps case, rather than highlighting the importance of picking the right cause? 

Feel free to push back if you disagree - I'm not too sure how tightly defined a 'cause area' is, but my general presumption is that it refers to addressing a distinct problem. 

answer by Tsunayoshi · 2021-06-23T23:07:59.527Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Not sure if it fits what you are looking for, but colonialism? A somewhat underappreciated aspect of it was that the belief that spreading Western civilization would make indigenous people better off, see e.g. White man's burden. Also, the Western powers were obviously very effective at colonizing. On the other hand, it somewhat lacks the part of the "play pump" example where everybody agrees that the responsible people had good intentions. Maybe it could be adapted to tales of Christian proselytizing in Africa, which would be relevant for your audience. 

comment by DavidZhang · 2021-06-24T07:38:10.184Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Interesting. Without reading into it, I've always assumed that Western defences of colonialism (incl. White Man's Burden) were somewhat disingenuous, i.e. defending something they knew was wrong, or was at least controversial, and the motivations were not altruistic. The ideal case is one where people are being genuinely altruistic but completely miss the mark. 


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comment by Neel Nanda · 2021-06-23T20:40:48.682Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This seems like an awesome project!

I'm curious why you're emphasising 'it needs to be obvious, after some thought, that this cause is not worth pursuing at all' as a criteria here. To me, it doesn't really feel like cause prioritisation to first check whether your cause is even helpful. I feel that the harder but more important insight is that 'even if your cause is GOOD, some other causes can be better. Resources are scarce, and so you should focus on the causes that are MORE good'.

To me, one of the core ideas of EA is trying to maximise the good you do, not just settling for good enough. And that's something I'd want to come across in an introductory work. Though it's much harder to make this intuitive, obviously!

Replies from: DavidZhang
comment by DavidZhang · 2021-06-24T07:41:26.850Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

So I guess the reason is that the example illustrates the importance of cause prioritisation more strongly. It's the same with PlayPumps: MacAskill could have picked a much better charitable intervention and yet still argued for effectiveness, but this wouldn't powerfully demonstrate just how important it is to get the intervention right. 

I completely agree with your overall point about maximising the good we can do, and other parts of the book will emphasise how important it is to not just settle for 'good enough'!