Some brief thoughts on Effective Altruism

So as you can probably tell I’ve been incredibly busy and distracted for the last 6 months. I am however back, with a number of blogs planned for the summer! Look out for one coming up soon discussing my second and third term at Oxford, Prelims, and generally how I’ve fared. I’m going to dedicate this post to a new and fascinating concept that I feel needs sharing. Effective Altruism.

A friend recommended to me during the summer of 2016 to read Doing Good Better by William MacAskill. She talked so passionately and knowledgeably about the book that I went onto Amazon and bought it there and then.  As I’m sure you can imagine books that I intend to read have been rapidly piling up on my desk, meaning I have only recently got around to reading it.

To summarize the book very briefly, many of the ways that we go about trying to make a difference can be incredibly ineffective. An example from MacAskill that sets the scene very well is that of Playpumps International (PI). PI’s initial idea was a piece of children’s play equipment that, while in use, would simultaneously draw water up from the ground for local villagers. The idea was to roll this out instead of the conventional pump, providing two distinct benefits to the receiving areas. At the time millions of pounds of charitable money was spent on this idea, and it received considerable charitable support. People were emotively drawn to the idea of sub-Saharan children playing, and enjoying themselves, while mothers eagerly accept water from the pump. Who wouldn’t want to bring about such a situation? You’re probably guessing what comes next… The effectiveness of the pumping capability of the Playpump turned out to be incredibly poor, while costing more than conventional pumps it returns considerably less water for communities. Children started to refuse to play on the pump, and needed to be made to spin on it by family members desperate for the water. From this I think we can see the core principle behind Effective Altruism, the need for us to think independently about altruism, putting aside emotional draws aside and acknowledging the need to statistically justify our decisions.

If someone truly wants to help make a difference then they must consider a number of different questions. A few summaries are here, more in MacAskill’s book?

  • How can I best make a difference? For some people this may be through working in the public sector, or for an NGO. But for many this may be through earning to give. This decision should be made will a through consideration of all of the possible outcomes, what skills do you have, where are you best suited, how easy is it to switch careers etc. (A chapter in the book is specifically focused on this question). Taking Bill Gates as an example, through setting up Microsoft and making money this way he and Melinda have together saved ~122 million lives. Realistically there are many career paths that he could have taken, he could have entered teaching, worked for an NGO, become a doctor… but by following his skill set and examining possible outcomes he entered a field in which he could make a truly extraordinary difference. We can all make a difference, we must just examine where we, and our skills are best focused.
  • If I earn to give, where should I donate? I don’t see there as being a clear cut charity that stands out as being “the go to charity to make a difference”.  Although statistics can be used to support our decision these need to be taken with a pinch of salt, both value judgments and our limited research in certain fields limit the trustworthiness of any definitive league table. I do however want to point to a few things. Many of the most effective charities are likely to be working within the developing world. This being because the 100x multiplier suggests that any donation made by us is likely to have 100 times the impact in the developing world over the developed world. This is examined further by MacAskill but ultimately it means that a donation of on average $3400 (£2610) can save a life in the developing world. From the money that I earn from my summer internship I could save a life, presuming I focus this donation on the the most in need causes within the developing world. A pretty scary thought. An important part of donating is finding the specific charity that you see as efficient, scale-able, underfunded etc. For help with this consider visiting GiveWell. I have personally settled on the Sichtosomiasis Control Initative (SCI) based at Imperial College London. They focus on the spread of intestinal worms within sub-Saharan Africa, and work on distributing the cheap, easily manufactured medicines that can stop this “Neglected Tropical Disease” (NTD). Current estimates have 200 million people, who are almost entirely living within the developing world as suffering from this. Sichtosomiasis can kill, lead to deformity and have a considerable disruption in the education of young people and to the workforce. So far SCI have reached 100 million children with their drugs, and hope to eradicate the entire disease by 2020. I personally want to help them achieve this.

My hope for this post, even if it doesn’t convert you to Effective Altruism, is to make you think about effectiveness more when donating to charity. Whether this be signing up with charities directly (avoiding commission the charity may pay to third parties), changing your choice of charity, considering earning to give, or any such action.

One final thing that MacAskill discussed that I found incredibly interesting was a concept called “Moral Licensing”. This is something that I had personally never thought of previously, and that can make us think more deeply about human actions. Broadly speaking Moral Licensing occurs where an individual making an active decision to do a good deed, for example become vegetarian, can liberate them to do negative deeds as a response. In the book this was discussed in the context of altruism, but it does make you think much more about the way that we act, and others. This is certainly going to be a topic of future reading.

“Loot” – an interesting new student banking proposal

A few months ago I read an interesting article about a new student banking experience for “millennials”. At the time the proposal, called Loot, was a start up seeking funding to try and get the concept off the ground. Without particularly thinking I went and added my name to the waiting list, and recently got a push notification letting me know that I could register! So far I’ve not seen very many reviews of this, and therefore plan to post a few updates of my experiences using this new app!

The process of registering was much less strenuous than that of a high street bank account. You have to scan your id and take a photo to verify your identity, and also enter a few details about yourself. After a couple of minutes you receive a sort code and account number, with a card put in the post for you…. The app offers you the ability to transfer in and out money straight away (theoretically), and also allows you to begin setting “budgets” and “goals”. The budget is a weekly limit on the amount that you can spend using the card, which can be adjusted when needed. Once a budget is set the app shows the amount that “you have left to spend today” (the weekly amount divided by 7). Goals can be created to set monetary targets of how much you want to save. The App lets you name them, assign a target amount and a date you wish to achieve it by. You can then transfer money between that which is on your loot card and that which is being saved. As a current, fiscally stretched, university student I can certainly see the use for all these features, and have been unimpressed with my current bank’s provision of these form of tools.

At the moment I have a few worries regarding the app. Firstly, the way that e-money apps are currently regulated mean that bankruptcy of the firm providing the account could lead to complete loss of any money saved. This is because the money is purely virtual and so the European Financial Compensation Scheme doesn’t cover it.  At least while the app is in start up phase I personally won’t be saving significant amounts of money through it. Secondly, the fee structure of the app seems to be (at least at the moment) questionable. At the moment, on my newly created account, the “Fees and Limits” tab is blank. This could very well be because my account is not completely enabled, I’ve tried transferring a small amount between banks accounts and this has yet to appear in the Loot app. The only clear area of this, from their website, is that there are a maximum of two free cash withdrawals a month. I will update this post below when I know more on this. My final current worry relates to the contactless nature of the Loot prepaid Mastercard. One of the biggest problems I currently have is that contactless transactions do not appear in my internet banking for a few days. This is because authorization is not instantly sought by the vendor for the goods. I feel that using the contactless feature may undermine my ability to budget daily by altering the date of purchases. This is something I will definitely test when my Loot card arrives!

I’m very excited to receive the card and see what I think of it! I’m also particularly interested in how the features of the app will change as it develops, and will be paying close attention to this. I will post again once I’ve suitably tested it to let you know what I think…

Michaelmas Week 7: This time last year…

Something that my economics tutor said in a class today triggered me to write this post. At the end of the class he moaned about how he was off to read the applications of and then subsequently invite to interview, PPE UCAS applicants. This has triggered me to think back to the position I was in this time last year, when I was one of those very applicants that an exasperated tutor would be deciding whether to interview or not.

I was not a “sure” PPE applicant by any extent of the word. When I applied I had GCSE grades that were way below average for PPE, contextually they were good but most students at elite private schools would put them to shame. I had just got my AS Level results which had disheartened me (AABB) and made me doubt whether I should even apply to Oxford University at all. I worked hard at my personal statement and sent my application off in early October. Very soon afterwards I was given an offer from the University of Bath for International Development with Economics, this was my reserve choice and I was very pleased to have this under my belt. However then, virtually instantaneously after receiving this offer I was rejected by the University of Warwick for PPE. This made me doubt whether I should even consider sitting the Thinking Skills Assessment at all, or whether my entire application was hopeless and that I should just withdraw it and go to Bath. Despite this I did end up sitting the Thinking Skills Assessment in November, in all the mock tests I’d done I’d never got above 59 (which is just below average), let’s just say I did not believe I would be interviewed at all.

But somehow, for some reason, I was contacted in late November just over a week before interviews began to be told I had been invited to interview. In some respects before receiving the email I just wanted the stresses of UCAS to be over, and had already convinced myself that I would not be invited to interview, and that I would be able to put in my UCAS firm and reserve choices and be over with it after receiving the rejection. But this was not to be. Instead in less than 2 weeks I would be staying for 3 nights at an Oxford College, interacting with other applicants and being interviewed by academics. Once the initial shock and elation elapsed, I became petrified. I was worried that I was going to arrive, as a token state school student, and be laughed out of the room by both other PPE applicants and tutors. One of my biggest worries was my Philosophy interview, in preparing for my application I had read a few basic Philosophy books but in the scheme of things I knew nothing. I hurriedly arranged 4 practice interviews with a variety of connections I had, both from Access projects (such as Oxford Brookes University’s Engage program and the Sutton Trust US Programme) and teachers at my school. Topics of discussion at these included The Trolley Problem, my view on an extract from the Economist magazine, current affairs including the refugee crisis, my view on other work of Dambisa Moyo (other than what was stated in my Personal Statement) and a number of other things. All of which I managed to cope with okay…

So then on the Sunday before interviews I arrived at college, a place I had only ever been once before. Instantly it seemed more imposing than I remembered. I was shown to my room by a friendly student helper, who told me the times that I could collect food from the hall, and showed me a few of the intricacies that the college had. Then I was left alone… Alone in a strange college, with no body that I knew and the weight of (at least) two impending interviews on my shoulders. Almost instantaneously, after dropping my suitcase off I left and walked around Oxford. Oxford is a city that I’ve lived in my entire life but on that day I felt like I was seeing it from a completely different viewpoint. It seemed menacing and cold, rather than the lively and vibrant place I was used to. I knew a few people who were also being interviewed at other colleges and so mainly kept myself to myself on the first night and morning before our “subject briefing”. This subject briefing was a chance for all the students being interviewed for PPE to meet each other and see the tutors who would be carrying out interviews. All in all there were about 25 or so people being interviewed (for 7 places). I got talking with two interesting people while waiting beforehand, an Austrian and a Bulgarian, who are now two course mates of mine. The meeting itself was as competitive and unfriendly as its possible to get, everyone was clearly trying to make good impressions and suck up to the tutors and didn’t really care about the other applicants which was sad.

The macho and egoistic atmosphere continued surrounding a large number of the PPEists. I remember comically being told by one applicant how he was “going to get an offer for sure”, because on sitting the TSA last year he had got one of the highest scores in the university, and how although he had missed the offer last time, that was because “he didn’t try for exams”. He also anecdoted about how he had met one of his interviewers on a train and they had said “he was the best student interviewed that year”. How much of this was macho bullshit and how much of it was correct I don’t know. All I do know is that he is not on my course. In the scheme of things all the PPE candidates who I instinctively didn’t like and found pretentious or patronizing didn’t get an offer. At the time however, I felt surrounded by all these self important and seemingly perfect students who were all competing for very few spaces. To see the content of my interviews themselves check out the Interviews page. But to conclude interviews, I left feeling that I almost definitely wouldn’t get an offer and if I did I would be around all the self important, egotists.

So in January, after a Christmas where I completely put the thought of Oxford out of my mind I found out that I had been given an offer and had completely mixed feelings about it. For a number of weeks I considered going to an alternative university that I thought might be more inclusive and friendly but in the end I firmed Oxford.  Let me tell you this, Interviews are no where near comparable to the Oxford experience. I have ended up with a PPE cohort that is amazing, I didn’t know who half of them were at interview but now we’re close knit and supportive.

The aim of this is to reinforce a few things. Firstly, a lot of aspects of the Oxford application process are luck, the fact my application was read by a tutor willing to overlook my AS grades and accept a mediocre TSA score, is luck. The fact that at the actual interviews a number of topics came up that I’m especially interested in (for example The Trolley Problem) was luck. Secondly Oxford is not the be all and end all of universities, and there are so many negatives, think I’m going to devote a post to them at some point! Thirdly, don’t let the people you meet at interview make your decision for you, many of them won’t get in and if they do there will be plenty of people you’ve not even met yet who are amazing! Finally, UCAS applications are a roller coaster ride, don’t obsess over them, at the end of the day what will be will be and there’s only a limited amount you can do about that!!

Michaelmas Week 5: Five weeks in… as a PPE Fresher

Okay, so in this post I hope to summarize my experiences in freshers and the weeks since. I came to Oxford with worries about elitism and “impostor syndrome”. Although I’ve experienced both of these in my time here so far, I’ve also had a brilliant time!

Freshers week is strange. By the end you’ll be sick of the questions, “What are you studying” and “Where are you from”, for life. You’ll see lots of people around college that you’ve spoken to but simply cannot remember the names of, and will probably get caught out not knowing someone’s name at least once (it happened to me a lot!). What freshers week does do however, is make you realize, that all these people that you may have spent along time worrying about meeting, are (almost always) normal and likeable people!! Everyone tends to be sufficiently unique and interesting that the awkwardness quickly diffuses. It’s quite likely you won’t meet or be friends with those people that you’ll spend the rest of the next 3 years with in freshers so don’t worry too much about this! Just enjoy it and appreciate how this is time in Oxford that you won’t spending worrying about getting an essay or problem sheet in on time!

Academically I personally feel a bit out of place with my course currently! It just seems that all the other PPE students are so so so clever and that I’m not, “impostor syndrome” is apparently very common, the way I think about it is that everyone was selected for different reasons, especially with a degree that has 3 different elements! They may already know more than you in certain topics but throughout your degree you’ll formally learn these things and so on! So far I’ve only had one tutorial that has gone badly, and in that I did get a lot of constructive feedback meaning that I can write a better essay and generally prepare better in the future. Most tutors don’t expect you to arrive perfect, and will support you in improving your knowledge and work, that is after all their job… Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

When it comes to my worries about elitism. I think that this is a factor that depends heavily on your college. I am lucky in the fact that the college I am currently at doesn’t have too much of this. However I have come across a small number of students who act and think in a way that I can’t particularly comprehend. One said to me openly that he believed that “there were too many poor people at Oxford”, while another said that Access work goes too far, and that if a student needs access work to support them getting in then they don’t deserve to be here. As someone who has been on the receiving end of numerous Access projects, I could not disagree with both of these statements more. However, as I’ve said these are a very small minority of the student population and I really wouldn’t worry too much about people like this if you’re considering applying!! If anything meeting them for me was more comical than anything else…

That’s all for this post, I’ll try and post again soon, whenever work permits!