Widgets Magazine


Straw man critiques are, unsurprisingly, not useful

Everyone who has ever had an opinion knows what it feels like for someone to put words in your mouth.

Last quarter, a fellow Daily columnist published a critique, “Ethical Snake Oil,” on a social movement called “Effective Altruism.” This movement apparently encourages members to “put thoughts of ethics on autopilot and to recede comfortably into willful ignorance on the impact of their actions as long as they donate to GiveWell’s (a charity evaluator) top five charities at the end of the month.” So long as you have the right donor habits, you can ignore any other ethical obligations you might have, including coming by money scrupulously. For instance, according to the article, this movement would endorse “cutting unfair deals” or “skirting [banking] regulations” to donate more.

It’s not that I disagree with the author’s condemnations. Clearly, any movement endorsing the above positions would be terrible and ridiculous. However, the author had not made a good-faith effort to research and understand what she was critiquing before writing her critique, and as a result, had no idea what she was talking about.

Effective Altruism, or EA for short, is a global movement based around using evidence and reason to find an answer to the question: ‘How can we use our resources to help others the most?’ and then acting on an answer to the best of one’s ability.

One of the many plausible paths to doing good advocated by members of this community is “earning to give,” that is, deliberately taking a higher-earning career with the aim of donating a significant proportion of your income to an organization that does good work. The reasoning is that if you earn a lot of money, you might be able to donate enough to fund more work than you would be able to accomplish yourself. To help donors choose among the thousands of existing charities, EA-aligned organizations such as GiveWell and Giving What We Can recommend what they perceive to be the most effective anti-poverty programs based on strong evidence and a straightforward, documented case for impact, sometimes in the form of evidence from randomized control trials (RCTs) like those used to prove the efficacy of drugs.

So earning to give to RCT-backed anti-poverty charities definitely qualifies as an EA thing to do. However, something the community shares is a near universal acknowledgement that the world’s problems are diverse and complex, and that solving them will require a combination of funding, advocacy, direct action and research. Only a small subsection of these problems are addressed by GiveWell’s top charities, and the question of whether one should earn to give depends largely on personal fit and whether one has the opportunity to do something better. At the recent EA Global conference in Berkeley, panels discussed topics as diverse as reducing the suffering of factory-farmed animals, encouraging international cooperation, and even working to ensure human survival into the far future.

So reading a piece based entirely on a caricature of this movement was frustrating and not particularly useful.

My point is not so much about EA in general but about the “straw man fallacy,” the reasoning error of inventing a weaker version of someone else’s position and proceeding to critique your version, not theirs. Straw-manning is ubiquitous in political journalism. Writing about “identity politics” in December, The Daily’s Lily Zheng pointed out that most online critiques on the subject were “unimpressive at best and incoherent at worst” because they seemed to lack a reasonable understanding of what proponents of identity politics really wanted and why.

Straw-manning is good for point-scoring. It is, unfortunately, even persuasive. However, we need to ask “what is the point of critiquing ideas?” I think the answer must ultimately be to make things better. We need to know what we’re doing first and avoid making it even worse along the way, and for this to happen, we need to be able to discard our bad ideas and refine our good ones. So all ideas, particularly EA, need criticism. It just has to be useful criticism based on an informed, intellectually honest representation of an idea as it actually is, not a caricature.

As writers engaged in the world of ideas, we need to welcome criticism. I am genuinely unsure of many of the things I believe, and to better myself, I need others to tell me which beliefs are wrong. I can’t do this if someone tells me “this belief of yours is wrong,” but I have to respond “but I don’t hold that belief.” So when we take on the role of critics, it’s worth first asking proponents of an idea, “Is this what you really believe?” Because anything less than that, and you’re just making noise.


Contact Nick Pether at npether ‘at’ stanford.edu.