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This past February, I traveled with my permaculture ecovillage VerdEnergia, to Envision, an alternative, transformational festival, located on a Pacific coast beach in Costa Rica. The vibe of the festival would feel familiar to anyone who has experienced the alternative festival circuit on the West Coast of the United States. Lucidity Festival is a pretty close comparison, and I was excited to attend Envision, although I was a bit skeptical of the quality of the workshops I would find. To my surprise, most of them were quite compelling, including Alex Lightman’s talk on energy and ketosis, Ian McKenzie and his partner’s vulnerable discussion of polyamorous and non-traditional relationships, Vicki Rox’s techniques to achieving effective connection and persuasion in business and personal settings (see photo below), amongst others.
But there was one workshop that terrified me in much the same way that a Jerry Falwell congregation would. Gwen Olsen, author of Confessions of an Rx Drug Pusher, gave a talk titled “Alternative Health Solutions”, which focused primarily on the dangers of prescription drug use and the moral bankruptcy of the pharmaceutical industry. Many valid criticisms and objections to our current culture of overprescribing arose, and I enjoyed hearing from someone who had years of experience inside the industry. However, when she opened up the discussion to the audience for questions, a woman asked about the link between vaccines and autism, and Olsen was unequivocal in her response that, despite all available scientific evidence to the contrary, vaccines do indeed cause autism. I somewhat naively expected that this claim would have roused significant controversy in the audience and prompted numerous follow-up questions, but literally no one else in the audience appeared to have any objection to the claim. While I am irritated by contrarians and pontificators, I am relentlessly disputatious, particularly when I suspect anti-science woo-woo quackery to be concealing a baseless belief. At first, I kept my questions somewhat indirect, first asking for specific evidence and scientific research that supported her claims that vaccines cause autism. She referenced Andrew Wakefield’s discredited MMR study, which quite ironically, given Olsen’s claims regarding the essentially exhaustive corruption of scientists by the pharmaceutical industry, was proven fabricated for the sake of financial interest. Undoubtedly, Olsen would argue that this debunking is itself an action initiated by pharmaceutical industries and executed by a bought-off scientific community.
It has thus dawned on me that despite the New Age Movement claims to openness, new ideas, and the questioning of authority, the movement is hugely distrustful of scientific research, organizations, and perhaps scientific methodology itself as “reductionist”. I asked Olsen whether she believed in the science behind climate change, given that there is similar consensus there as there is amongst the enormous benefits and hugely overblown risks of vaccination. She was suspiciously dodgy of the question, and seemed to hide behind ignorance of any such consensus, quite likely to disguise her climate change skepticism at an event that purports to believe in the necessity of combating climate change with changes in human behavior. She hinted at some kind of corporate conspiracy behind the movement for the carbon tax, despite the monstrous financial behemoths working to avoid just such a tax.
Upon later reflection, it became evident to me that Olsen and others at the event have little interest in scientific investigation and will believe anything that fits their narrative that everything released by major scientific and regulatory organizations is a lie, that we are all naively led astray by an unspeakably vast army of paid shills. To shield ourselves from these lies, we should instead ascribe to the naturalistic fallacy, the various dogmatisms of astrology, tarot card readings, chakras, positive thinking, tribalism, and all other baseless claims of New Age cults.
What I find far more disquieting than Olsen and other anti-vaxxers (she denied being an anti-vaxxer, but after refusing to acknowledge that vaccines have ever, in any case, been a net benefit to humanity, I think she’s earned the title) claims themselves is the mass of people who are ready to accept them as truths as undeniable as the roundness of the earth (I’ve met insufferable flat earth theorists in my time here as well). It is a disheartening irony that a culture that prides itself on its cool alternativeness, and its questioning of authority and the mainstream, peddles just as many mythologies and dogmatisms as the culture they claim to stand against. There was someone at Envision who referenced “The Age of Aquarius” as if it were a tautology like all bachelors are unmarried. Fortunately, the movement does possess a small minority with the self-awareness and modesty to realize that many of their claims lack evidence or a plausible correlation with reality.
While at first I believed that this New Age movement offered an alternative to the indoctrination of religion and mainstream thinking, much to my disappointment, I have just found it in another form. After many in this movement have assured me that I must distrust scientific research and conclusions of scientific organizations, I’ve asked them whom or what I should trust instead: myself, they say. Very well, but what of topics in which I have no expertise or experience, am I simply to believe whatever fits my preferred narrative? This is why we have science and why I will continue to believe in it, while yes, acknowledging its limitations and that scientists can be influenced by political and financial interests. Science has led to enormous improvements in the quality of human life, and is the best methodology we have ever come up with for disentangling our own biases and assumptions from the truth. As Freud put it nearly a century ago,
Charities ought to be evaluated primarily on their effectiveness, not merely on their financial health and administrative costs. We ought to care much more about how many are helped and how much they are helped than the charities allocation of resources used to achieve such help.
I have been extremely fortunate in my life and I make a decent living (I make a middle-class salary in the US, but since the US is so wealthy, I am ranked in the top 1% in the world based on my current income), so I give a portion of my income to charity every month. Like most people today, I am bombarded with requests for donations by various nonprofits, NGO's, and charities. Who we give to can seem arbitrary, and many people's attitude is that all giving should be commended and to question the choice of organization to which one is giving can be seen as any combination of miserly, cynical, and callous. This attitude strikes me and many in the effective altruism movement as irrational and harmful.
When we choose to invest in a company or buy a product, we are interested in its performance and impact, and we scrutinize its quality before making a decision. Why would a charity be any different? Don't we want to see the greatest possible impact for our dollar? Charity Navigator attempts to answer this question, but does a very poor job of doing so. While attempts to examine the financial health and overhead costs appear to stem from a reasonable position, this is the wrong metric to focus on. William MacAskill, in his new book, Doing Good Better, presents the scenario in which he creates a charity which gives donuts to hungry police officers, and manages to get the overhead down to 0.1% of the charities expenditures, which would earn it a high rating with Charity Navigator. This is of course absurd, since the charities mission is itself absurd, not to mention that no data is known about whether the donuts efficiently reach the donors, or more importantly, how the donuts impact their quality of life. Many people, including Charity Navigator, would conclude that comparing charities is impossible or meaningless, but this position is senseless. Research shows that U.S. citizens typically give about 3% of their annual income to charity, and people's total ability to donate is of course finite. Wouldn't it then make sense to ask whether it is better to donate $40,000 to teach a dog to assist a single blind person, or to distribute 16,000 insecticide-treated bed nets to prevent malaria in impoverished villages in Africa? Some might respond that both are good, or that society ought to encourage both, but we know that resources are finite and that a dollar donated to one charity is one less dollar donated to another. Thus, we are faced with a question of triage, whom should we help first? Any reasonable person would concede that the bed nets will have more impact, particularly given the strong evidence of their cost-effectiveness. It might seem strange to think of charities as competing, but they are after market share just like any for-profit business. And although Charity Navigator takes transparency and accountability into account in their ratings, they admit that, "The final limitation to our ratings is that we do not currently evaluate the quality of the results of the programs and services a charity provides." They present this limitation is if it were some minor omission, but this is much like evaluating Apple as a company by only focusing on it's financial health, not on how well its products work or how much they help people.
Givewell.org has a much more sensible approach to evaluating charities. It subjects charities to independent investigation and demands evidence-backed research from credible third parties. They provide rigorous analysis of top-performing charities and provide the highest quality evidence possible that their programs are not only effective, but extremely cost-effective. For instance, their top-rated charity, the Against Malaria Foundation, distributes insecticide-treated nets to some of world's poorest people, whose communities are often decimated by malaria. These nets cost $2.50 and GiveWell estimates that $3,000 in donations will save a life, and the evidence essentially assures that this is the case. Of course, the benefits of reducing the incidence of malaria go much further than saving lives, it prevents needless suffering and devastating economic damage, as well as many other benefits. When you compare these benefits to say, marginally improving the wing of a museum in an already wealthy community, the most basic moral assumptions should make this an easy choice.
While many will find this approach callous or unemotional, I insist that it be given a fair hearing. For those interested in learning more I highly recommend reading Doing Good Better for a far more thorough presentation of this argument. Or, for those looking to quickly gather some info on the effective altruism movement, you can check out their website.
For those interested in making a change, I thought I'd share a few of my misgivings with the environmental/vegan movement, and a few tips on how to move towards a less animal-intensive diet.Read More
Great analysis that goes outside mainstream commentary.
I had the pleasure to film David Casey's workshop on Project Nuevo Mundo at the Lucidity Festival this year. David has created a great website called NuMundo.org that's awesome to dig into if you're interested in volunteering/working in South America and want to verify what you'll really be getting yourself into before heading off. Also, I really recommend watching David Casey's full workshop at Lucidity Festival if you want to learn practical tips on volunteering or brining a vision to life, including pitfalls to avoid and stories of success. You can watch the full workshop here: vimeo.com/spensergabin/numundo
This spring I participated in AIDS/Lifecycle, a 545 mile bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. I arrived in Los Angeles last Saturday and I wanted to send a quick message (and video) highlighting how much I enjoyed and learned from this experience.
The event was extremely well-run and I felt taken care of and supported the whole way. With the small exception of a little inner knee pain on Day 2 and 3, my body felt good the entire time, and I was even able to get a free message about halfway through the ride!
The largest takeaway from me from the ride was just the stunning example of a community coming together to rally around a cause. I have done quite a few runs for different charities and events, but this was the best example I've ever seen of a well-organized and effective event. People maintained their passion and good spirits even while climbing up tough hills or battling rain and cold winds. The rest stops and food provided were outstanding and were probably the biggest thing that kept me from hitting the dreaded bonk.
There are a lot of problems in the world and reasons to feel cynical, but this was an authentic example of a good reason for hope. The ride was able to raise over 16 million dollars this year and that number is only likely to grow. I suspect one reason they are able to raise so much is because they treat their riders so well and they want to come back year after year, raising more each time. Although I haven't yet decided if I'll be riding again, I can definitely say that I absolutely would based on the quality of the event. AIDS/Lifecycle presents a shining example of how to build a community around a common goal and I hope that's something I'll be able to apply to future endeavors.
None of the lessons I learned, the people I met, the beauty I experienced, none of it would have happened without the support of my donors. AIDS/Lifecycle has given me tangible reasons to believe there is hope for the world and that we can change the world when we organize and come together.