A cause can be too neglected

Effective Altruism movement often uses a scale-neglectedness-tractability framework. As a result of that framework, when I discovered issues like baitfish, fish stocking, and rodents fed to pet snakes, I thought that is an advantage that they are almost maximally neglected (no one is working on them). Now I think it is a disadvantage because there are high set-up costs. For example:

  • To start working on the cause, you first have to bridge the knowledge gap. There are no shoulders of giants you can stand on, you have to build knowledge from scratch.
  • Then you probably need to start a new organisation 
  • In the new organisation, all employees will be beginners, no one will know what they are doing, because no one has worked on this issue before. It takes a while to build expertise, especially when there are no mentors who really understand the issue.
  • If you need support, you usually have to somehow make people care about a problem they never heard before. And it’s probably a problem which only a few types of minds are passionate about because it was neglected all this time (e.g. insect suffering). If you talk about a widely known problem, it’s easier to make people understand what you are doing, and probably easier to get funding.

Now imagine that instead of a new exotic and neglected cause, we considered doing Trap-Neuter-Release (TNR) programs for cats. They try to solve the problem of stray cats. I think that TNR is done a pretty big scale in many parts of the world, so the intervention is not neglected. However, there are plenitude of stray cats that are not neutered, so they could be expanded. I estimated their effectiveness some years ago here, and they seem to be somewhat cost-effective, thought I’d like to research it further. Note that it was easy to make that cost-effectiveness estimate because there is a lot of literature about these programs. For the sake of argument, let’s imagine that we figured out that these programs were very cost-effective. We wouldn’t have any of the problems outlined above: We could simply fund existing organisations that do these programs, or we could found new organisations that would be easy to fundraise for from non-EA sources because people care about cats. There are many veterinarians who already know how to neuter cats and can be hired, and they can train other people to do it. All these benefits come from the fact that the cause and intervention is not neglected. Note that we can still use EA-style thinking we could make twists on the interventions to make them more cost-effective. E.g. do TNR programs in islands where they can be used to eliminate stray cat populations.

I think that having neglectedness criterion made EAs think more creatively, and consider more causes, which is great. Furthermore, when you try to tackle neglected areas, there can be more learning value. But I’d rather we also invested more into analyzing which interventions that people are already doing are cost-effective and could be further scaled up with more money easily. I’m afraid that having neglectedness as a criterion prevents this and creates blind spots for the EA.

The only reason to care about neglectedness I’ve heard is that usually there are diminishing returns. This is almost always true when it comes to research topics. But sometimes there are no diminishing returns (e.g. TNR programs) and sometimes there are accelerating returns. Of course, for any problem there is some amount of investment after which returns will be diminishing but this amount can be very big. 

Finally, there might be a good reason why the problem is neglected. Tackling neglected causes increases the chance of falling for a unilateralist’s curse. I think this is a weak argument though.

Note that I did not read other posts on this topic, which include

Hence my understanding of the topic is incomplete. And it will remain incomplete because I don’t think this is important. 

By the way, the post Why we look at the limiting factor instead of the problem scale shows why problem scale can be a misleading criterion as well. Consequently, I don’t think that I will continue thinking in terms of this framework. I think it obscures my thinking about making an impact rather than making it easier.

One thought on “A cause can be too neglected

  1. Will MacAskill made a similar point on an 80,000 podcast (https://80000hours.org/podcast/episodes/will-macaskill-paralysis-and-hinge-of-history/#implications-for-the-effective-altruism-community-25003): “But I think that’s evidence of why diminishing marginal returns is not exactly correct. It’s actually an S curve. I think if there’d never been any like investment and discussion about AI and now suddenly we’re like, “Oh my God, AI’s this big thing”. They wouldn’t know what to do on Earth about this. So there’s an initial period of where you’re getting increasing returns where you’re just actually figuring out like where you can contribute. And that’s interesting if you get that increasing returns dynamic because it means that you don’t want really spread”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s