Crackers and Dip: Sharing Effective Altruism

By Kyle Scott

On May 22nd and 23rd I held a workshop on Effective Altruism, open to Whitman students and the Walla Walla community. Each day ran for about three hours. My primary goal for the workshop was to give students a space and framework for thinking about the impact they make in the world.

Effective Altruism and Whitman

Susan Buchanan, who served as the college’s career counselor for the past 15 years, told me that the majority of students who visited her are seeking value-driven work. She usually references them to idealist.org, a network of job opportunities and organizations driven to do good in the world.

But which organizations are more effective than the others?

At Whitman, we’re inspired to think critically. Inevitably, if faced with the decision of working at one of many well-intentioned organizations, recent graduates will wonder how to determine the better choice. The effective altruism community tries to address that problem by providing a framework for determining the efficacy of organizations, and the effect that you can have working for them.

Do people want to learn about effective altruism (EA)?

100% of attendees who replied to a post-workshop survey indicated that they would like to see EA programming held again, and would recommend it to their peers. Of course, my respondent pool was small and not controlled, but it’s a start. EA organizations are similarly experiencing growth, with many people significantly changing their career plans due to EA coaching.

Discovering Effective Altruism

I first found effective altruism in 2013 through Lesswrong, “a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality”. I was particularly compelled by the contributions of Luke Melhauser, who showed me that the conceptual analysis I had leveraged as a student was not necessarily the best epistemology around. Even after a four year degree, I was ignorant of basic cognitive biases like anchoring and hindsight bias.

Biases are boring

As an avid philosophy major, the analytical underpinnings and bias exploration of the EA movement were what originally attracted me to the community. However, I quickly learned that this isn’t the case for everyone.

Crackers and Dip: Lessons from my workshop

The most popular activity in my workshop was based around the blog post “Social interventions Gone Wrong” at 80,000 Hours. Participants had to predict whether or not various social interventions had been successful. Those examples gave students a concrete foundation and desire to learn more about the conceptual underpinnings of the EA movement. Let’s call this the ‘cracker and dip’ strategy (which I now realize is essentially project-based learning). You need a practical experience (cracker) upon which you can base more fluid abstractions (dip).

Drowning in dip

My first workshop day was centered on concepts at the foundation of effective altruism: technical rationality, cognitive biases, and cause prioritization. I thought it was important to understand the fundamental concepts before playing around with real-world examples. Participants expressed their feedback in the form of a sharp attendance drop on the second day of the workshop.

Some biscuits with that?

Feedback indicates that students want more EA programming, and they want it over a longer period with hands-on activities. The Student Engagement Center is well situated to address this, but why not include academic departments like Philosophy, Psychology, and Economics? In the end, it will be up to students and individuals to spearhead demand for more content addressing the efficacy of value-driven work.

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