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Effective Altruism

Most forms of do-gooding start out with a What (“I want to promote microfinance!”), move to a How (“maybe I should do a sponsored marathon?”) and simply take the Why for granted (“because of course microfinance is good!”).

Effective altruism, in contrast, starts with a Why and a How, and lets them determine the What. Let me explain:

The Why is to make the world as good a place as it can possibly be. Rather than merely aiming to make the world better than when we found it — “to make a difference” — we want to make the most difference. So, for example, rather than simply trying to find a development charity that “does good work”, Giving What We Can seeks to find those charities that do the very most to help people in developing countries with every pound or dollar they receive. In general, we seek out those activities that will do the most good with our time or money.

The How — how to find those activities that do the most good — is by using good evidence and good reasoning. Where a question concerns a matter of fact, we try to find the best empirical evidence that is relevant to that question. (An anecdote is bad, a double-blind randomized controlled trial is better, a well-performed meta-analysis is best.) Where a question concerns values, we use clear arguments, rational reflection, and the latest insights from ethics, economics, and psychology to help us come to the right view. So, for example, rather than going with feel-good slogans like “follow your passion”, or passing on anecdotes about specific people, at 80,000 Hours we’re busy digging into all the available academic research related to doing good through your career, and getting clear, conceptually, on what making a difference involves.

From these two ideas, the What follows. Effective altruists currently tend to think that the most important causes to focus on are global poverty, factory farming, and the long-term future of life on Earth. I’ll talk more about the reasons why these are generally thought to be the highest-impact cause areas in later posts, but in each case, the reasoning is that the stakes are very high, and there is the potential to make a lot of progress. Right now, within the Centre for Effective Altruism, the What consists of the organisations listed to the right: organisations that, for example, promote donating a good chunk of one’s income to the causes that most effectively fight global poverty (Giving What We Can and The Life You Can Save); or that advise individuals on which careers enable them to have the greatest positive impact (80,000 Hours); or that try to figure out how best to improve animal welfare (Effective Animal Activism). But these activities are just our current best guesses. If we had good evidence or arguments that showed that we could do more good by doing something else, then we’d do that instead.

For more information please visit

Thanks to Will MacAskill for writing this post originally at

Climate Science and Ideology

The public do not accept the ideology of some climate campaigners, and hence unconsciously reject the science of climate change

Cross-posted from Climatico

The more green groups ask us to “stop flying,” the less the public believes in man-made climate change. Niel Bowerman argues there is a link.

Today is the anniversary of “climategate”. It has damaged the credibility of the IPCC, and climate science in general, and yet scientists could not be clearer that the warming observed over the past century is largely man-made.  Is it time to ask why so many people dispute a scientific theory that the vast majority of climate scientists agree with?

Could it be that some of the public’s distrust of climate science comes not from qualms with methodologies for constructing temperature records, but rather from scepticism of the ideologies of the green groups that use climate science to reinforce their campaigns?

The UK’s recent prime-time Channel 4 documentary ‘What the Green Movement Got Wrong’ was criticised by many environmental groups, not least because it contained several inaccuracies.

Many greens rightly charged the documentary with being ideologically driven, while the documentary claimed “that by clinging to an ideology formed more than 40 years ago, the traditional green lobby has failed in its aims and is ultimately harming its own environmental cause.”  As with most debates, both arguments do contain an element of truth.

The documentary struck a chord with much of the public, who are sick of a bossy, lecturing, elitist and sometimes excessively ideological environmental movement.  Unfortunately this is likely to be one of the reasons for the drop in public belief in climate change. When green groups demand that people ‘stop flying now’ instead of also working to promote viable alternatives, the public begins to reject the science of climate change outright.

If we are to tackle climate change before it is too late, the climate movement must rapidly evolve from being seen as a lefty group taking part in self-deprivation.  Green groups must become part of a larger movement for positive change that spans political boundaries and seeks to inspire and empower, not just criticise and condemn.

Younger groups are already beginning to adopt this new approach.  Ben West, Communications Coordinator at the UK Youth Climate Coalition, said: “Many of us as young people, are excited about renewing the movement and in the possibility of creating something fit and ready to overcome the big challenges of the coming decades, rather than being stuck fighting the battles and stereotypes of our parent’s generation.”

Perhaps the American climate scientists who created their ‘rapid response unit’ would have more luck convincing the public on the science if they could persuade environmental groups to say, “We’re sorry if we sometimes lecture or sound bossy, that wasn’t our intention.  We’re just trying to create green jobs, ensure energy security, and build a clean energy future; would you like to help?”

Niel Bowerman is a research climate scientist at Oxford University, and a former executive director of Climatico.

Do we need to talk about ‘climate change’ more or less?

Do we need to talk about climate change more or less?
Does our communications strategy need to talk about 'climate change' more or less?

Bill McKibben, founder of, has written an inspiring call to arms over at  He argues that we need to build a much more active movement, and also that we need to change our communications strategy.  It is this latter point that I want to discuss here, as it is so fundamental to our long-term strategy. Bill McKibben wants us to start talking more about climate change, instead of avoiding the issue.

Step one involves actually talking about global warming.  For years now, the accepted wisdom in the best green circles was: talk about anything else — energy independence, oil security, beating the Chinese to renewable technology. I was at a session convened by the White House early in the Obama administration where some polling guru solemnly explained that “green jobs” polled better than “cutting carbon.”

No, really?  In the end, though, all these focus-group favorites are secondary.  The task at hand is keeping the planet from melting. We need everyone — beginning with the president — to start explaining that basic fact at every turn.

In the circles that I move in, people seem to be heading the opposite direction. After Copenhagen and Climate-gate, campaigners started talking about climate change less, not more.  We have The Great Power Race, the Energy Action Coalition, and the 10:10 campaign, which are all great projects, but aren’t built around the concept of talking about climate change.

I think that people have been focusing on changing strategy since Copenhagen, and so for groups that I’m involved in like the UK Youth Climate Coalition and the International Youth Climate Movement who have been talking climate change for a while, this means moving away from ‘climate change’ and towards ‘clean energy futures’.  Is this the right direction to be moving, or should the UKYCC be holding its ground and sticking with climate-related messaging? Could it even be argued that we youth groups are switching to a tried-and-failed tactic that was used before our time?

It’s clear that we need a movement, and that will have to be made up of groups that talk about climate change, and groups that don’t.  It must be made up of groups campaigning for high-speed rail, against road and airport expansion, for energy security, against wars for oil, as well as for cutting carbon emissions and against climate change. We need to make better links with diverse groups and ask not what these groups can do for the climate movement, but rather that the climate movement can do for them.  To do this we don’t need to stop talking about climate change, if anything we need to talk about it more and show how it relates to all of these other issues.

Let’s keep climate change as a common theme through all of our messaging, and make a better effort to reach out to diverse groups and help them out with their campaigns.

Climate Science Communications Reconsidered

Climate science has been subject to a media storm of stories since the CRU email hacks.  I have often wondered what we should be doing about this, and this wonder has lead me to learn about framing, messengers and messaging, and a whole host of other communications concepts.  As a climate scientist who occasionally with the media, I found the following articles particularly illuminating.

Hunter Cutting has a whole host of useful insights,  and I agree with his explanation of why the front line soldiers defending climate science in the media should not be climate scientists:

The Messenger

When audiences read news stories and attempt to make out the underlying issues, they take an important cue from the identity of the messengers. And currently, climate scientists are almost the sole messengers defending climate science. While this is problematic on a number of fronts, it is particularly challenging for the framing of the debate. Putting a scientist in the messenger role reinforces the notion that the fundamental issue is a question about the science. If scientists are doing the debating it is only natural to assume the science is debatable.

Beyond the question of identity, many scientists don’t make for a good messenger when the issue is politicized, such as with climate science. They are loath to call out the politics and step into a controversy outside their area of expertise.

Climate scientists must be joined by other messengers who are willing to stand up and speak out against the attack on science: farmers whose children would inherit dust-bowl farms due to the delay urged by climate deniers, generals who understand the national security threat, and business leaders who understand that every year of delay in investing in clean energy costs the global economy hundreds of billions of dollars.

When climate scientists do find themselves giving media interviews, Susan Joy Hassol has some useful hints and tips for improving our communications skills.  As well as the more obvious comments about language and using metaphors, she explains how we need to answer more than just the question:


Rather than accepting the premise of a poorly framed question, reframe it. When people ask if global warming can be blamed for a particular hurricane, heat wave, fire, or flood, a simple “no” does not respond to the essence of the question. What they really want to know is whether global warming is having an effect on such events, and the science suggests that it is. You can reframe such questions to explain that global warming is increasing the chances of such events occurring, and you can also explain some of the connections.

This is an ongoing discussion, and one which is by no means settled.  As someone without expertise in communications, I would love to hear more views and opinions and how we can win back the climate change debate, and I hope to post more here soon.