In thinking about my discussion last week based on the movie Selma, one question struck me later as obviously the natural question that I didn’t ask:
Why is activism dead?
In fact, the movie gives a striking example of activism working as it’s supposed to, and it isn’t far off from reality, insofar as the Selma marches did change the national consciousness and put political pressure on President Johnson.
And yet, as I wrote about last week, it doesn’t seem to be accomplishing as much today. This should be a bit puzzling: Surely it would be even more possible to organize protests with today’s social media. It’s easier than ever for great orators to put out content to attract others to their cause. In another part of the world, ISIS is literally taking over territory with recruits from all over the world. Take a moment to think about it, to notice your confusion (at least, if you’re as confused as I was): Why is protesting so ineffective?
The best explanation for this problem that I’ve come across is by Scott Alexander, called the Toxoplasma of Rage. It’s really an excellent article that I’d encourage you to read if you have the chance; Scott is a far better writer than I am. But if you don’t have the time, let me summarize it briefly here:
In today’s social media environment, the public’s attention is grabbed by whatever is the most controversial. As a result, honest and deliberate activism is effectively sidelined in favor of topics, arguments and strategies that are more likely to cause people to pick sides and argue incessantly.
Scott offers many well-known and more important examples of this:
I) PETA is controversial for their methods of promoting veganism, but everyone’s heard of them.
II) Three highly publicized rape allegations have not held up to closer scrutiny, despite only 2-8% of general rape allegations being false.
III) Michael Brown became the racially motivated police brutality case that everyone talked about instead of the much more clean-cut case of Eric Garner. The main effect of Ferguson on public opinion was not to increase the already high approval rate for police body cameras, but to make whites and blacks even more divergent on their opinion of the police.
IV) Scott’s own posts get much more viewership if they are about politics, race, and gender, especially if they are posts he’ll regret writing because they cause people to fight.
He then reminds us of the analogy that the label “viral” comes from. Some ideas are able to take us over, their hosts, and use our sharing and reblogging abilities to propagate themselves. If something ever tugs or screams at you saying that you have to pay attention to it and cause others to pay attention, that’s a virus at work.
Sometimes it can be oh so subtle, though. Back in September 2012, I got an e-mail from a friend advertising a “Bible Verse Exchange.”
We’re starting a collective, constructive, and hopefully uplifting Bible verse exchange. We hope you will participate. We have picked those we think would be faithful and make it fun. Please send an encouraging Bible verse to the person whose name is in position 1 (even if you don’t know him/her) and it should be a favorite verse that has lifted you when you were experiencing challenging times. Actually, the best one is the one you know in your head and can type right now.
Don’t agonize over it – it is one you reach for when you need it; or the one that you always turn to. After you’ve sent the verse to the person in position 1 below and only to that person, copy this letter into a new email, move my name to position 1 and put your name in position 2. Only my name and your name should show when you send your email.
Send to 10 friends BCC (blind copy). It’s fun to see where they come from. The turnaround is fast as there are only 2 names on the list and you only have to do it once.
May God bless you as you share God’s Word.
Two of my friends’ names followed (the second being the one who sent me the e-mail, of course). I thought that sounded like a decent idea, and starred it to get back to it later.
Then another friend sent me the same e-mail. And another. And another. Yes, I have a lot of Christian friends and Caltech is tight-knit. But then I realized that this was nothing more than a chain letter, cleverly disguised. It has all of the classic symptoms:
1) Guilt-tripping you into participating: “We have picked those we think would be faithful” suggests that those who don’t pass it on are unfaithful.
2) Short-circuiting you into responding quickly without noticing the chain letter format: “Actually, the best one is the one you know in your head and can type right now.”
3) And, of course, the pyramid scheme. By only sending one person a verse, you’ll get 100 in return! If you’re at the top of the pyramid, that is…
After some far-longer-than-productive discussions with friends (probably wasting more time than I would have by propagating it), I tried to vaccinate my friend network by posting a warning on Facebook which encapsulated what I was most concerned about.
Well, that warning wasn’t entirely effective, since a couple weeks later, I was able to observe a form that was even more virulent (new parts are in bold):
We’re starting a collective, constructive, and hopefully uplifting Bible verse exchange. We hope you will participate. We have picked those we think would be faithful and make it fun.
Please send an encouraging Bible verse to the person whose name is in position 1 (even if you don’t know him/her) and it should be a favorite verse that has lifted you when you were experiencing challenging times. Actually, the best one is the one you know in your head and can type right now. Don’t agonize over it- it is one you reach for when you need it; or the one that you always turn to.
After you’ve sent the verse to the person in position 1 below and only to that person, copy this letter into a new email, move my name to position 1 and put your name in position 2. Only my name and your name should show when you send your email. Send to 10 friends BCC (blind copy). If you cannot do this within 5 days, let us know so it will be fair to those participating. It’s fun to see where they come from. Seldom does anyone drop out because we all need new ideas and inspiration. The turnaround is fast as there are only 2 names on the list and you only have to do it once.
May God bless you as you share God’s Word.
Even with this more virulent version, I feel a bit bad criticizing this example. If somehow there formed a community of people simply sharing encouraging Bible verses with each other, it would be a good thing. Unfortunately, the world of memetics is regulated by survival of the fittest, which means that the viruses that spread are not the ones actually geared towards helping us so much as towards propagating themselves.
Scott personifies the coordination problems we face in his character of the demon Moloch, a name which he takes from the second part of Allan Ginsberg’s poem Howl. In Meditations on Moloch, he gives fourteen more examples of coordination problems, what he calls multipolar traps, that just leave me frustrated and partly surprised that the world is not in complete disarray.
Unfortunately, the problem is even bigger than that.
Let me summarize Scott’s diagnosis in these two articles about what is wrong with the world:
1) Multipolar traps (like the prisoner’s dilemma) encourage collectively irrational behavior while everyone is behaving rationally individually.
2) Topics and articles (and even dresses) that generate controversy rise to our collective attention much more frequently than topics on which collective discussion will actually make the world a better place.
What is Scott’s solution? Stop worrying about protesting and give money to charity instead (unless you believe that joining a protest will objectively make a bigger difference). Unfortunately, charity is susceptible to exactly the same problem.
It seems to me that there are two camps when it comes to talking about charity. There are the charity optimists like Scott, which I most frequently observe in the effective altruist community. They are very excited about the opportunity to change the world, frequently through donating money. They gather in organizations like Giving What We Can, and look to GiveWell for charity advice. Besides Peter Singer, perhaps one of the most well-publicized examples is Jason Trigg, a fellow math competitor whom I roomed with at the Math Olympiad Program a decade ago.
And then there are the charity pessimists, who tend to be a little bit older and more experienced with charities. One of journalist David Brooks’ Sidney Awards for this year went to Michael Hobbes for his excellent but troubling essay, “Stop Trying to Save the World.” Hobbes examines some of the highly publicized charity flops, like PlayPumps, the charity that was going to harness the energy of playing children to pump water up from wells, but wasn’t nearly as effective as expected. In doing so, he makes some pretty good points about how we can collectively suffer a winner’s curse of sorts: the charities with the largest effect sizes are actually just more likely to be either fraudulent or fluky. Perhaps it isn’t actually possible to save the world with one big idea?
What troubles me the most is that these two groups don’t seem to be talking to each other. The effective altruists agree that most charities are useless, but Hobbes spends a while criticizing the Deworm the World Initiative, one of GiveWell’s top recommended charities. I used to think that GiveWell was proud of how stingy it was, only marking four charities as its best (and encouraging people to give to those charities), among hundreds reviewed.
Yet when I look a little closer at Deworm the World Initiative, I see a charity that seems specifically bred to advertise itself to organizations like GiveWell. Even the name of the NGO sponsoring it, Evidence Action, suggests that they want to prominently advertise that their work is evidence-based. Being properly skeptical of memes, I would predict that they are probably overselling this point. Indeed, as Hobbes points out, the single study backing up their work was on a much smaller scale than their ambitious plans. Moreover, different parts of the world have different limiting problems, so deworming might indeed have been quite effective in Kenya but be completely useless in India.
Let me be clear: DtWI could end up being a very effective charity; GiveWell is probably right to sponsor it and from what I’ve seen, I’m sure they will provide some pressure on Evidence Action to do more follow-up studies. But something still gets lost in translation along the way. Lay effective altruists like myself see GiveWell’s pages and pages of research and think, “We must finally have found the good charities to give money to, based on evidenced approaches.” GiveWell sees Evidence Action and maybe doesn’t entirely trust their results to fully generalize, but they’re clearly better than most other charities, so they earn a recommendation. What sometimes gets lost is that tentativeness, that we don’t really know how to save the world, and even if DtWI is right, we really only know how to prevent diseases like malaria and parasite infections.
So what is my solution to these problems? Since I’m a Christian, is this where I’m supposed to point to God?
Actually, that’s not too far off. I don’t mean to suggest that the answer is a Christian version of escapism, where we just resign ourselves to a hard life on earth and long for heaven. No, I’m of the school of thought that God is actively working through the church to redeem this world from its brokenness, even now.
Through the church? Yes, I mean that. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Pope Francis are very public examples, but most of the churches I’ve been to are actively involved in improving the world both locally and globally, and thinking carefully about how we do that. In the fall, I joined a financial discipleship group at my church that literally opened up our budgets to each other and discussed how much we could give and to where (among other topics), eventually supporting the Against Malaria Foundation and a guy in our church who needed our help. Churches provide the context and trust for opportunities like that.
More generally, the solution to problems of coordination has to take some form of centralization. In the simplest examples of multipolar traps like the tragedy of the commons, the standard solution is some kind of governmental regulation. In a world where most charities are much better at raising funds than using them effectively, the solution is to collectively channel a substantial fraction of those funds through organizations like GiveWell that do the due diligence.
Centralization isn’t perfect, of course. The church, government and GiveWell all have their own blind spots and are susceptible to corruption. But at least centralization adjusts the incentive schemes enough to discourage viral behavior.