Joseph Kony and Malaria: Why Rationality Matters

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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I now blog at EverydayUtilitarian.com. I hope you'll join me at my new blog! This page has been left as an archive.

On 12 Mar 2012 in All, Optimal Philanthropy, Rationality, Utilitarianism. 14 Comments.

14 Comments

  1. #1 Stephen R. Diamond says:
    19 Mar 2012, 2:23 pm  

    This numerical comparison of benefits strikes me as one of the worst ramifications–even if inessential–of utilitarianism. The immediate, palpable good that a movement produces is usually a minor part of its importance. And to leverage effectiveness in the big matters, you must consider the movement’s potential appeal. Malaria doesn’t get its “due” not just because the people who are helped are unknown. (Same with Kony, after all–he being the villain, not the victim.) Also, its stopgap character is part of the reason for its lack of potential. The movement won’t, after all, stop malaria; unless I’m mistaken, if the contributions lag, it would come back. People tend to want a goal with potential finality. In that sense, calling it “stop malaria” is a tad disingenuous.

  2. #2 joseph says:
    19 Mar 2012, 3:02 pm  

    You might be able to produce a variety of mosquito that doesn’t carry malaria….!

  3. #3 Stephen R. Diamond says:
    19 Mar 2012, 3:14 pm  

    The proposal on the table is for nets, not biological engineering. Or am I wrong?

  4. #4 joseph says:
    19 Mar 2012, 3:33 pm  

    You’re right Stephen R. Diamind, but this was too fascinating not to mention:

    http://m.smartplanet.com/blog/science-scope/how-engineering-malaria-resistant-mosquitoes-could-save-millions-of-lives/2995

  5. #5 Peter Hurford (author) says:
    29 Mar 2012, 8:48 pm  

    This numerical comparison of benefits strikes me as one of the worst ramifications–even if inessential–of utilitarianism.

    That’s not really the point. Malaria is just a far more certain intervention and thus a relatively better use of our money at the time, given altruistic ends.

    The movement won’t, after all, stop malaria; unless I’m mistaken, if the contributions lag, it would come back. People tend to want a goal with potential finality. In that sense, calling it “stop malaria” is a tad disingenuous.

    Maybe. “Stop malaria” is for rhetorical effect, sure. While we have been able to successfully eradicate diseases before, funding mosquito nets won’t do it. What it will, however, do is save a bunch of lives with much higher certainty. That’s the point.

  6. #6 Stephen R. Diamond says:
    29 Mar 2012, 10:20 pm  

    You seem to be missing my point, which is that, even given altruistic ends, counting up the number of lives directly save is a poor way to measure the impact of the campaign.

  7. #7 cl says:
    6 Apr 2012, 1:46 pm  

    I wholly endorse Stephen R. Diamond’s criticisms in this thread.

    Peter Hurford,

    Malaria is just a far more certain intervention and thus a relatively better use of our money at the time, given altruistic ends.

    That strikes me as another one of your “gut feeling” claims. If it is not, can you share the evidence that supports your conclusion that fighting malaria is “better” than routing Kony?

  8. #8 Stephen R. Diamond says:
    10 Apr 2012, 3:40 pm  

    Peter,

    Between anti-Kony and malaria nets, for me that’s a no-brainer, as I’m against the Kony movement as portending neocolonialist intervention.

    But let’s do something a little harder. What’s better: avoiding tainted animal flesh or donating to fighting malaria what you save by not avoiding said flesh?

  9. #9 Peter Hurford (author) says:
    13 Apr 2012, 2:04 am  

    Stephen R. Diamond: You seem to be missing my point, which is that, even given altruistic ends, counting up the number of lives directly save is a poor way to measure the impact of the campaign.

    Of course, and I would never advocate only counting up the number of lives saved. But if I were interested in what I wanted to do personally (given altruistic ends), what should I do now? And that answer seems to be donate to malaria prevention instead of donating to help catch Kony.

    I agree that the Kony campaign may have impact in improving lives beyond merely saving them. But it also seems likely that it could actually make some people’s lives worse.

    ~

    Cl: If it is not, can you share the evidence that supports your conclusion that fighting malaria is “better” than routing Kony?

    Re-read the subsection “Malaria 2012: Make it Famous, Get it Cured” of this essay, taking special note to the resources I link to. If you find them inadequate, explain why, and then we can talk.

    ~

    Stephen R. Diamond: But let’s do something a little harder. What’s better: avoiding tainted animal flesh or donating to fighting malaria what you save by not avoiding said flesh?

    This is definitely a genuinely difficult dilemma that I think we may not have the information to effectively sort out. However, in my personal experiences, being vegetarian has been cheaper than eating meat anyway, so you could win-win by avoiding tainted animal flesh and donating the money saved by not eating meat to fight malaria.

  10. #10 Stephen R. Diamond says:
    13 Apr 2012, 3:34 pm  

    However, in my personal experiences, being vegetarian has been cheaper than eating meat anyway, so you could win-win by avoiding tainted animal flesh and donating the money saved by not eating meat to fight malaria.

    Oh, I hadn’t realized you went vegetarian; rather, I thought you procured untainted animal flesh, i.e., animals raised in a humane fashion before slaughter.

  11. #11 Peter Hurford (author) says:
    14 Apr 2012, 6:37 pm  

    Yeah, I try to be as vegan as possible and donate as much of my income to the best charities I can find. I’m not exceptionally good at either, but I’m working on it (I’m almost always a vegetarian and I try to avoid eggs; I now donate roughly 8% of my meager college student income). More of my personal journey will be revealed as my morality series unfolds.

    But speaking of dilemmas, I think there are some really good ones that stump me. One of my favorite dilemmas is from Peter Singer: You find that a cashier accidentally gave you $5 more in change than you were supposed to receive, from an $100 transaction. Do you point out the error and give the $5 back, or do you pocket the $5 and donate it to a highly effective charity (malaria relief)?

    Eventually, this can even get into evaluating the Robin Hood scenarios: should you steal from the rich in order to fund malaria relief? Would you approve of Bernard Madoff if he donated the $17 billion he stole to… say… the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation?

    As you know, I highly doubt there are objectively-true-for-everyone answers to these questions, but I think there are true-for-me answers to these, given the values I hold. I just don’t know what they are on either issue.

    But what I do think is that people don’t think that clearly enough about what they actually value, and thus don’t donate accordingly. Hence I advocate for more rationality where it counts: evaluating what to do with our money in general, or the money we allocate to donations specifically.

  12. #12 Stephen R. Diamond says:
    14 Apr 2012, 7:15 pm  

    Hence I advocate for more rationality where it counts: evaluating what to do with our money in general, or the money we allocate to donations specifically.

    Is how we spend our money really where it counts? This is where a narrowly empiricist approach, in my opinion, diverts one from the larger questions. To me, the idea that how we spend our money is what’s important is a meme that reinforce a politically conservative agenda. We don’t need government services at home or massive *collective* efforts to help third-world countries (or even to stop imposing wars and embargoes on them); we need for people to make the most socially conscious decisions in disposing of their income.

  13. #13 Stephen R. Diamond says:
    14 Apr 2012, 8:49 pm  

    As you know, I highly doubt there are objectively-true-for-everyone answers to these questions, but I think there are true-for-me answers to these, given the values I hold. I just don’t know what they are on either issue.

    What I then wonder is what must you believe about values that leads you to this conclusion, as I don’t reach it when I self-apply your thinking. What would these values have to consist of–if not a belief that you know certain moral truths. Why else would you want to identify yourself so strongly with a particular set of values–unless you believed those values corresponded with truths?

    If my theory is accurate, then you should (as a matter of practical reason) adopt values that practice moral habits useful to your practical goals. For me, the hypothetical is easy, in that it’s more important (for my practical concerns) that I be honest than that I be altruistic. These needs may vary. They may change within my life. You see values as irrevocable commitments–unless you got them wrong, that is–something you should get right, right for you. (This _is_ a relativist position, you know.) But what are they based on. What *makes* these values important to *you*? What *could*, except another value? Why do you adopt whatever “ultimate” value you do?

  14. #14 Peter Hurford (author) says:
    28 May 2012, 4:47 pm  

    Is how we spend our money really where it counts? This is where a narrowly empiricist approach, in my opinion, diverts one from the larger questions. To me, the idea that how we spend our money is what’s important is a meme that reinforce a politically conservative agenda. We don’t need government services at home or massive *collective* efforts to help third-world countries (or even to stop imposing wars and embargoes on them); we need for people to make the most socially conscious decisions in disposing of their income.

    What I mean here is that, on the “what can I, personally, do” level, how I spend my money counts a lot as a means to achieving my goals. I definitely think that collective efforts are entirely necessary, and could be made more effective, and would consider advocating for that something I can personally do. But as for making an immediate difference, donations remain pretty important. Very little else I do seems like it matters nearly as much for helping other people live better lives.

    ~

    Me: As you know, I highly doubt there are objectively-true-for-everyone answers to these questions, but I think there are true-for-me answers to these, given the values I hold.

    Stephen: What would these values have to consist of–if not a belief that you know certain moral truths. Why else would you want to identify yourself so strongly with a particular set of values–unless you believed those values corresponded with truths?

    It depends on what you call “moral”. I think I do know certain truths about what I am personally motivated to do, what gives my life a feeling of a “purpose” I can be proud of, etc. I identify strongly with these values because… well… I value them a lot. I also want other people to come to value them.

    ~

    You see values as irrevocable commitments–unless you got them wrong, that is–something you should get right, right for you. (This _is_ a relativist position, you know.)

    I don’t deny that my position is relativist. I do, however, deny that my position is irrevocable. It’s not that I could be wrong about what I want to do, but also that what I want to do could change later down the road. I don’t think values are immutable.

    ~

    But what are they based on. What *makes* these values important to *you*? What *could*, except another value? Why do you adopt whatever “ultimate” value you do?

    I’m not entirely sure, that’s part of my curiosity regarding ethics to figure out. All I can say right now is that I do indeed value them, and they have a high degree of motivational force for me. But I’m not a full-time utilitarian — I also value blogging, learning, and buying chocolate even if that isn’t the best way to spend my money relative to the goal of helping everyone.

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