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Ah fair call I can see how my comment was nitpicky

I am still concerned about the promotion of the (well-intentioned) RCT post that seemed to undervalue integrity processes for doing RCTs on vulnerable people (in my view). But I appreciate I could have misinterpreted this.

In any case, I can also see that my comment could be experienced as stressful or judgey by the Forum team AND author of the RCT post. I'm genuinely really sorry if this has happened. I appreciate you've taken on difficult and important tasks and trust you have the best of intentions with them :) Thanks for your efforts and I'll keenly be more tactful in future.

I think high ethical standards for RCTs in developing countries are important for:

  • Trust: RCTs facilitate less or no benefits if desired research users do not trust the RCTs and researchers that facilitated them
  • Social licence to operate: insensitive RCTs can 'burn bridges' that constrain future RCTs from being permitted. It's not a trivial ask for governments to permit foreign researchers to do experiments on vulnerable people in their countries, especially those with colonial histories.
  • Mitigating direct harm: moral uncertainty makes this important, even if there is an envisioned greater good. Empirical uncertainty also makes mitigating direct harm important because envisioned greater good ≠ greater good.

I hold this view as someone enthusiastic about the potential benefits of RCTs, having recently contributed to one in Bihar (India)

I found the ideas in the post/comments clarifying and appreciate the considered, collaborative and humble spirit with which the post and most, if not all, comments were written. In alignment with the post's ideas, I hope this doesn't come across as over-attribution of impacts to individuals! I just appreciate the words people added here, the environment supporting them, and the people that caringly facilitated both

This might be a bit cute but I reckon the 1970 song 'Strangers' by 'The Kinks' illustrates some of the points in the post/comments quite nicely (explained by the songwriter here)

I'm skeptical that Shapley values can practically help us much in addressing the 'conceptual problem' raised by the post. See critique of estimated Shapley values in another comment on this post

Thanks for the considered and considerate discussion

Wouldn't estimating Shapley values still miss a core insight of the post - that 'do-gooding' efforts are ultimately co-dependent, not simply additive?

EXAMPLE: We can estimate the Shapley values for the relative contributions of different pieces of wood, matches, and newspaper to a fire. These estimated Shapley values might indicate that biggest piece of wood contributed the most fire, but miss three critical details:

  1. The contribution of matches and newspaper was 'small' but essential. This didn't come up in our estimated Shapley values because our dataset didn't include instances where there was no matches or no newspaper
  2. Kindling was also an essential contributor but was not included in our calculations
  3. The accessibility of fire inputs had their own interacting inputs, e.g. a trusting social and economic system that enabled us to access the fire inputs

We also make the high-risk assumption that the fire would be used and experienced beneficially

INTERPRETED IMPLICATION: estimated Shapley values still miss, at least in part, that outcomes from our efforts are co-dependent. We therefore still mislead ourselves by attempting to frame EA as an independent exercise?

(I'm not confident on this and would be keen to take on critiques)

Perhaps we could promote the questions:

  • 'How can I help facilitate the most good?', or
  • 'How can I support the most good?'

and not the question:

  • 'How can I do the most good?'

Similar reframes might acknowledge that some efforts help facilitate large benefits, while also acknowledging all do-gooding efforts are ultimately co-dependent, not simply additive*? I like the aims of both of you, including here and here, to capture both insights.

(*I'm sceptical of the simplification that "some people are doing far more than others". Building on Owen's example, any impact of 'heavy lifting' theoretical physicists seems unavoidably co-dependent on people birthing and raising them, food and medical systems keeping them alive, research systems making their research doable/credible/usable, people not misusing their research to make atomic weapons, etc. This echos the points made in the 'conceptual problem' part of the post)

Five reasons why I think it's unhelpful connecting our intrinsic worth to our instrumental worth (or anything aside from being conscious beings):

  1. Undermines care for others (and ourselves): chickens have limited instrumental worth and often do morally questionable things. I still reckon chickens and their suffering are worthy of care. (And same argument for human babies, disabled people and myself)
  2. Constrains effective work: continually assessing our self-worth can be exhausting (leaving less time/attention/energy for actually doing helpful work). For example, it can be difficult to calmy take on constructive feedback (on our work, or instrumental strengths or instrumental weaknesses) when our self-worth is on the line.
  3. Constrains our personal wellbeing and relationships: I've personally found it hard to enjoy life when continuously questioning my self-worth and feeling guilty/shameful when the answer seems negative
  4. Very hard to answer: including because the assessment may need to be continuously updated based on the new evidence from each new second of our lives
  5. Seems pointless to answer (to me): how would accurately measuring our self-worth (against a questionable benchmark) make things better? We could live in a world where all beings are ranked so that more 'worthy' beings can appropriately feel superior, and less 'worthy' beings can appropriately feel 'not enough'. This world doesn't seem great from perspective

Despite thinking these things, I often unintentionally get caught up muddling my self-worth with my instrumental worth (can relate to the post and comments on here!) I've found 'mindful self-compassion' super helpful for doing less of this

Three well-intentioned critiques of improving agricultural productivity in Sub-Saharan Africa as a poverty intervention:

  • Income from smallholder cereal farming has a low ceiling (as noted by Hannah): the average maize farmer in Malawi (2.6 tonnes/hectare and 0.7 hectares) will earn an extra 4.9 USD per day (for the whole family) if they triple their yields (assuming zero costs for accessing required seeds, labour, fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, credit and government farm-gate price of 0.49 USD per kg of maize)
  • Pursuing higher yields can increase risk for farmers: higher yields generally require more investment (and credit can be very expensive for smallholder farmers). This makes crop failures even more harmful for poor farmers, and climate change makes crop failures more likely.
  • Commercial productivity metrics neglect other (perhaps much larger) benefits of smallholder farming: rural poor people often value their farms for resilience more than revenue (such as subsistence, housing, balanced nutrition, culture/lifestyle, income diversification, backup asset). In view of this, many smallholder farming families might be uninterested or harmed by interventions to aggregate farms for higher agricultural productivity.

Perhaps a more effective cause framing would be around creating off-farm income/resilience opportunities for farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa? This might improve incomes while indirectly improving agricultural productivity (as farms naturally become bigger and more productive with marginal farmers proactively move away from farming)

I was still excited to see this podcast episode as carefully-targeted agricultural interventions can be really beneficial across many areas (food security, poverty, emissions reductions etc) and seem neglected by EA community (from my perspective). I'd be very happy to informally support anyone working on this (I'm a PhD student specializing in scalable farmer communication and Nitrogen productivity of rice farms in South Asia)

Cheers Helene!

Fertilizer subsidy cost-effectiveness: I agree - fertilizer subsidies could be cost-effective in principle. I guess I see reducing subsidy costs as more of a potential co-benefit of increasing returns from fertilizer. Specifically, growing more food with less fertilizer could alleviate the need for food and fertilizer subsidies (improving the cost-effectiveness and political feasibility of redirecting resources to other government services)

Why subsidies politicized: I guess a large part is the proportion of voters employed in agriculture (in South Asian democracies compared to western democracies). Also, South Asian governments commonly resist foreigners influencing government policies (partially because of colonization). This paper provides a neat introduction to fertilizer subsidies and their politicization in South Asia

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