I like to occasionally use this blog to react to things I hear a lot in my personal conversations with people. And I’ve been hearing two topics mentioned a lot recently: (1) the need to use international military intervention to bring Joseph Kony to justice, and (2) how this quest to be rational is cool and all, but life isn’t all about rationality, and maybe rationality isn’t for everybody and every situation.
Surprisingly, these two stories are very related. And it all culminates in a tale about how rationality is essential not only to our personal lives, but to saving the lives of others, and how if we applied the lessons we need to apply to rationality, we would recognize that Joseph Kony is evil, but not the biggest priority for our government or our personal checks. Here’s my telling of that tale.
Who is Joseph Kony?
Joseph Kony is the head of the Lord’s Resistance Army, commonly abbreviated as LRA, which is a Ugandan guerilla group aimed to use military force to turn Uganda into a Christian theocracy. To create his army, he orders the abduction of children — the females are sold into sexual slavery and the males are made into child soldiers. Kony has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes since 2005, but has evaded capture.
Early this month (March 2012), Kony was the target of the Kony 2012 Campaign by Invisible Children, a non-profit organization dedicated to creating awareness about African child soldiers. This campaign was launched with a half-hour long advocacy video which advocated that if only we made Joseph Kony famous, there would be pressure for the government to get him caught, and the threat of child soldiers would be greatly reduced. With 75 million YouTube views via viral social media campaign, it’s safe to say they’ve succeeded in making him famous.
But will they succeed in capturing Kony? Is this cause the kind of cause we want to support? Is there even a way for certain causes to be better than others, or are all causes equal? Perhaps its even offensive to the work of Invisible Children to ask these questions! To answer these questions, we’ll have to turn to rationality. Bear with me.
Say No to the Straw Vulcan: What Rationality is Not
But what is rationality? First, we’ll look at what rationality is not: everything embodied by Spock, the Vulcan from Star Trek: The Original Series. On this show, Spock embodies “rationality” and “being locigal”, but ends up getting everything wrong and screwing up his relationships, which ends up proving that emotion and irrationality really were the better bet in the end!
But this is a straw man, a sham argument built specifically to be torn down. In reality, rationality means none of these things. But Spock isn’t rational at all! Instead, Spock is what Julia Galef calls a “Straw Vulcan”.
- When Spock acts, he assumes everyone else around him to be perfectly logical too, despite facing numerous examples that this is not the case!
- Spock waits until he has all the information before making a decision, even when it’s important to make the decision as fast as possible, and the information he’s waiting for isn’t relevant!
- Spock will never rely on intuition, even if intuition is his best bet for getting the correct answer!
- Spock will never be emotional, even if emotions are our only way to actually be motivated to do things and enjoy life!
- Spock will only value quantifiable things like money or efficiency, even if we get our biggest joy from emotions like love where measuring quantity is irrelvant!
- Spock will never accept a short-term disadvantage, even if accepting that disadvantage is the only way to succeed!
- Spock will never act creatively, even if creative solutions will be the most successful!
In short, Spock is one of the most irrational, illogical characters on the show! In the end of her talk, Galef admonishes Spock:
“If you think you’re acting rationally but you consistently keep getting the wrong answer, and you consistently keep ending worse off than you could be, then the conclusion you should draw from that is not that rationality is bad, it’s that you’re bad at rationality. In other words, you’re doing it wrong!
Say Yes to Accuracy and Goals: What Rationality Is
So if rationality is not Spock, what is it? Most simply, rationality is the study of two things: how to have accurate beliefs, and how to create plans that successfully attain your goals. If you want accurate beliefs and want to be successful, it behooves you to study rationality.
But why not just go it alone? It turns out that sometimes our thinking hijacks our accuracy, and makes us end up with terrible plans, and this is because we have errors in our thinking. For example, consider this question: “A bat and ball together cost $1.10. If the bat costs $1 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?” You might jump to think the bat costs $1 and the ball costs $0.10, but then the bat only costs 90 cents more than the ball, not a dollar! The correct answer was the ball costs $0.05. (See Kanheman and Frederick 2002).
For another example, consider the story of Linda, who is thirty-one years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in antinuclear demonstrations. Now which is more likely: that Linda is a bank teller, or that Linda is a bank teller and active in the feminist movement?
When this test was given to students, they constantly answered that Linda was a bank teller and active in the feminist movement (Kahneman and Tversky 1983). Yet, this is a violation of probability, for the probability of being a bank teller cannot be lower than the probability of being a bank teller AND the probability of being a feminist, because P(A) > P(A)*P(B).
Now why does it matter that people fail simple math questions and probability tests? It’s because these errors can actually matter! As Luke Muelhauser mentions in “The Crazy Robot’s Rebellion”, our mind goes crazy in many other ways!
- It turns out that while people would be willing to pay $80 on average to save two thousand birds from being covered in oil, people would only spend $88 on average to save two hundred thousand birds. This is because people think about saving birds by imagining the suffering of one bird, and are completely unable to multiply that by two hundred thousand. No one can. This is called scope insensitivity (see Johnson et al 2002).
- People frequently rate a disease that kills 1286 people out of every 10000 as far more dangerous than a disease that has a 24.14% chance of killing each of the 10000 people infected, even though the amount of people killed by the second disease is double. This is called the affect heuristic (see Yamagishi, K. 1997).
- Stores can frequently get people to buy more groceries than they otherwise would if they advertise “Limit 12 per customer” or offer “$5 for 10 deals”. This is called the anchoring effect (see Wansink et al 1998).
- People told to remember the World Trade Center attacks were far more likely to give George W. Bush a high approval rating than those asked to remember something entirely unrelated. This is called the priming effect (see Landau et al 2004).
- Most worringly, people are frequently far more skeptical about arguments made by people they disagree with compared to arguments made by people they agree with (disconfirmation bias, see Lord et al 1974), are far more likely to search out for information that confirms their opinion rather than challenges it (confirmation bias, see Snyder and Cantor 1979). And the cherry on top is that people who know about these biases are far more likely to accuse their opponents of falling prey to these while thinking themselves immune (sophistication effect, see see Taber and Lodge 2006)!
Malaria 2012: Make it Famous, Get it Cured
While there is no doubt that Joseph Kony is as malevolent as they come and the world would be emphatically better off if he were captured, the criticism of the Kony 2012 movement has been rather strong within the greater current of the movement. And a lot of the criticism tends to unfairly denigrate the Invisible Children organization and make them out to be worthless profiteers out to syphon money from donations and make Africa worse. Obviously this isn’t the case, but that doesn’t mean the skepticism isn’t warranted.
Instead, it turns out that Joseph Kony is just one small fish among the LRA who is just one small player in child soldiers, and has been targeted by the US since 2011. Furthermore, it seems that going after Kony borders on excessive colonialism, might make things worse… especially because Kony is likely not in Uganda anymore! And on top of that, the video gets quite a few facts wrong, and Invisible Children does turn out to not be the most transparent, well-run charity after all.
Again, this is not to character assassinate Invisible Children and the awareness they’ve been doing. I love that they’ve inspired people to action. But while I’m mad at Kony, I agree with Holden in saying that I’m mad at malaria even more. For all the doubt involved in Kony 2012, there is none in curing malaria. Malaria does indeed persist because people simply aren’t caring enough!
Malaria is responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of children a year, whereas Kony is said to only have captured 30,000 children over his two decade campaign.
Insectide-treated nets are proven time and time again to dramatically reduce malaria, both large scale and small scale, time and time again — they’re safe, proven, and save lives. The only thing missing is money! This is truly a case of doing more with less, pure and simple.
The same simply can’t be said about Kony. While stopping Kony is a good cause, stopping malaria is a better cause in every way — larger impact, more proven methods, cheaper prevention… Why can’t we have a massive campaign to stop malaria? Malaria 2012!
Rationality Saves Lives
So what goes wrong here? Why target Kony and not malaria? The answer, according to Small et al 2007 and several other studies, is that people identify with causes emotionally, by making personal connections. People give more money to causes when the victims are identified by last name, and give even more money when given a picture of the person in need. Furthermore, a picture of many people suffering is actually less effective than a picture of a single person. This is just how we make empathetic connections.
Think back to the scope insensitivity and the birds covered in oil: we just can’t multiply by the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by malaria, and can’t make an emotional connection with such a vague and amorphous disease. The Kony story has a definite villan and an easily imaginable endgame that sounds simple, even if it isn’t.
When lives are at stake, we can’t just choose the cause we feel the best about, or the cause that makes us look the best in front of our friends. When lives are at stake, we can’t say that all causes are created equal, or insist that we donate because it’s a good cause. When lives are at stake, and we can do the best by donating toward one cause instead of another, it’s not mean or offensive to go with the better cause.
Only through serious, critical, deep thinking can we overcome our emotions here and make the smart choice that saves more lives. While emotion is necessary and important, it sometimes gets in the way. This is just one example of how rationality saves lives.
The Moral of The Story
Because of these systematic errors, people don’t see malaria as the cause to donate, and instead rush to donate to Kony 2012. They don’t even put in the time to research the cause and make sure their money is going to something proven and effective.
I don’t think the problem here is slacktivism, as many seem to denigrate the movement. It’s just that people honestly don’t know better. You shouldn’t expect giving well to be simple just because there are so many causes, and not all causes are created equal — the wrong donation can accomplish nothing, though with a little bit of study your donation can change someone’s life. Just make sure to maximize your donation by funding the right program.
I’ve personally done my job by donation to the Against Malaria Foundation, recommended by Givewell. All I had to do was go to http://www.againstmalaria.com/donate.aspx, enter in some simple information, and presto! I made a $10 donation! I figured that if I would spend $10 at a restaurant, the least I could do is spend $10 to help save a life from malaria.
(And the research shows that telling you that I made this donation isn’t bragging, but rather a way to make it more likely you’ll donate. There’s more rationality for you.)
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