Infected versus Infectious

As I said in my post Frequent, Fast, and Cheap is Better than Sensitive we shouldn’t be comparing virus tests head-to-head, as if all tests serve the same purpose. Instead, we should recognize that tests have comparative advantages and a cheap, fast, frequent testing regime can be better in some respects than a slow, infrequent but more sensitive testing regime. Both regimes can be useful when used appropriately and especially when they are used in combination.

Eric Topol has a good graphic.

Image

As Topol also notes:

In order to get this done, we need a reboot at @US_FDA, which currently requires rapid tests to perform like PCR tests. That’s wrong. This is a new diagnostic category for the *infectious* endpoint, requiring new standards and prospective validation.

The FDA has sort-of indicated that they might be open to this.

Much, much too slow, of course. Matching a virus that grows exponentially against a risk-averse, overly-cautious FDA has been a recipe for disaster.

The Power of Vaccines

Most people understand the basic idea of a traditional live-attenuated or killed vaccine–the vaccine gives the body’s immune system a sneak peek at the virus so that when a wild type attacks, the body’s immune system has been trained to fight. It’s less well understood, however, that the newer, designed vaccines, can be better than traditional vaccines and better even than immunity from exposure to the wild virus because a vaccine can now be designed to target the immune system on the weakest part of the virus:

NYTimes: One beauty of vaccines — and one of their great advantages over our body’s natural reaction to infections — is that their antigens can be designed to focus the immune response on a virus’s Achilles heel (whatever that may be).

…The immune response generated against a virus during natural infection is, to some degree, at the mercy of the virus itself. Not so with vaccines.

Since many viruses evade the innate immune system, natural infections sometimes do not result in robust or long-lasting immunity. The human papillomavirus is one of them, which is why it can cause chronic infections. The papillomavirus vaccine triggers a far better antibody response to its viral antigen than does a natural HPV infection: It is almost 100 percent effective in preventing HPV infection and disease.

Bezo’s Statement

Jeff Bezo’s statement to the Judiciary committee is excellent. Here’s one of many quotable parts:

Amazon’s success was anything but preordained. Investing in Amazon early on was a very risky proposition. From our founding through the end of 2001, our business had cumulative losses of nearly $3 billion, and we did not have a profitable quarter until the fourth quarter of that year. Smart analysts predicted Barnes & Noble would steamroll us, and branded us “Amazon.toast.” In 1999, after we’d been in business for nearly five years, Barron’s headlined a story about our impending demise “Amazon.bomb.” My annual shareholder letter for 2000 started with a one-word sentence: “Ouch.” At the pinnacle of the internet bubble our stock price peaked at $116, and then after the bubble burst our stock went down to $6. Experts and pundits thought we were going out of business. It took a lot of smart people with a willingness to take a risk with me, and a willingness to stick to our convictions, for Amazon to survive and ultimately to succeed.

Read the whole thing.

Frequent, Fast, and Cheap is Better than Sensitive

A number of firms have developed cheap, paper-strip tests for coronavirus that report results at-home in about 15 minutes but they have yet to be approved for use by the FDA because the FDA appears to be demanding that all tests reach accuracy levels similar to the PCR test. This is another deadly FDA mistake.

NPR: Highly accurate at-home tests are probably many months away. But Mina argues they could be here sooner if the FDA would not demand that tests for the coronavirus meet really high accuracy standards of 80 percent or better.

A Massachusetts-based startup called E25Bio has developed this sort of rapid test. Founder and Chief Technology Officer Irene Bosch says her firm has field-tested it in hospitals. “What we learned is that the test is able to be very efficient for people who have a lot of virus,” she says.

The PCR tests can discover virus at significantly lower concentration levels than the cheap tests but that extra sensitivity doesn’t matter much in practice. Why not? First, at the lowest levels that the PCR test can detect, the person tested probably isn’t infectious. The cheap test is better at telling whether you are infectious than whether you are infected but the former is what we need to know to open schools and workplaces. Second, the virus grows so quickly that the time period in which the PCR tests outperforms the cheap test is as little as a day or two. Third, the PCR tests are taking days or even a week or more to report which means the results are significantly outdated and less actionable by the time they are reported.

The fundamental issue is this: if a test is cheap and fast we shouldn’t compare it head to head against the PCR test. Instead, we should compare test regimes. A strip test could cost $5 which means you can do one per day for the same price as a PCR test (say $35). Thus, the right comparison is seven cheap tests with one PCR test. So considered a stylized example. If a person gets infected on Sunday and is tested on Sunday then both tests will likely show negative. With the PCR test the infected person then goes to work, infecting other people throughout the week before being the person is tested again next Sunday. With the cheap test the person gets tested again on Monday and again comes up negative and they go to work but probably aren’t infectious. They are then tested again on Tuesday and this time there is enough virus in the person’s system to show positive so on Tuesday the infected person stops going to work and doesn’t infect anyone else. Score one for cheap tests. Now consider what happens if the person gets tested on another day, say Tuesday? In this case, both tests will show positive but the person doesn’t get the results of the PCR test until next Tuesday and so again goes to work and infects other people throughout the week. With the cheap test the infected person learns they are infected and again stops going to work and infecting other people. Score two for cheap tests.

Indeed, when you compare testing regimes it’s hard to come up with a scenario in which infrequent, slow, and expensive but very sensitive is better than frequent, fast, and cheap but less sensitive.

More details in this paper.

Moskos on Surging Crime in NYC

Peter Moskos warns about rising crime in NYC in the NYDaily news.

Violence in New York is up….In the last 28 days (through July 12), compared to last year, shootings have more than tripled (318 vs. 97). Last week was even worse. If the last 28 days become the new normal, 2021 will have more than 4,100 shootings, a level not seen in well over 20 years.

Undoubtedly bail reform, protests, looting, COVID-19, and the release of prisoners because of COVID all play a role, though how much is debate. What’s less known is how the NYPD has been methodically declawed by design.

Years of political advocacy have resulted in the intentional erosion of legal police authority. There is less prosecution. Most miscreant activities have been decriminalized. The city survived and even benefited from many reforms, but now the camel’s back is breaking.

…For many, this is a feature, not a flaw. A new breed of progressive prosecutors has battled to see who can prosecute the least. As a result, arrests in 2019 decreased 35% from 2016. Reducing incarceration is desirable, and New York has been doing so literally for decades without jeopardizing public safety.

More recently, since November, because of bail reform and COVID releases, the number of jailed inmates dropped another 40%. People are coming out of jail, and few are going in. Many applaud this because incarceration disproportionately affects Black and Brown people.

But so does non-enforcement and the rise in violence. In 2018 (the latest year with published data), 95.7% of shooting victims in New York City are Black or Hispanic. Just 4.3% of victims are white or Asian. When violence goes up, more Black and Hispanic people are shot.

COVID‐19 Pandemic Imperils Weather Forecast

Who would guess that a virus could reduce the accuracy of weather forecasts? Nevertheless, because of knock-on effects from a reduction in aircraft traffic it appears to be true.

Weather forecasts play essential parts in daily life, agriculture and industrial activities, and have great economic value. Meteorological observations on commercial aircraft help improve the forecast. However, the global lockdown during the COVID‐19 pandemic (March‐May 2020) chops off 50‐75% of aircraft observations. Here, we verify global weather forecasts (1‐8 days ahead) against the best estimates of atmospheric state, and quantify the impact of the pandemic on forecast accuracy. We find large impacts over remote (e.g., Greenland, Siberia, Antartica and the Sahara Desert) and busy air‐flight regions (e.g., North America, southeast China and Australia). We see deterioration in the forecasts of surface meteorology and atmospheric stratification, and larger deterioration in longer‐term forecasts. This could handicap early warning of extreme weather and cause additional economic damage on the top of that from the pandemic itself. The impacts over Western Europe are small due to the high density of conventional observations, suggesting that introduction of new observations would be needed to minimize the impact of global emergencies on weather forecasts in future.

From Ying Chen, COVID‐19 Pandemic Imperils Weather Forecast.

Hat tip: Kevin Lewis. Yes, the excellent one.

Oxford’s Jenner Institute to Prepare for Challenge Trials for COVID-19

I am one of the signatories to an open letter from 1DaySooner on challenge trials sent to Dr. Francis Collins at NIH. A major development announced with the letter is that 1Day Sooner and Oxford’s Jenner Institute are collaborating to prepare viral production for use in challenge trials.The Jenner Institute is the creator of the AstraZeneca produced vaccine, the vaccine farthest along in development.

A key goal of the letter is to encourage the NIH to start its own preparation for challenge trials:

The undersigned urge the U.S. government…its allies, international funders, and world bodies (e.g. the World Health Organization), to undertake immediate preparations for human challenge trials, including supporting safe and reliable production of the virus and any biocontainment facilities necessary to house participants.

Among the signatories are 15 Nobel prize winners including Oliver Hart and Al Roth, Molecular geneticist Mario Capecchi, professor of medicine William G. Kaelin and physician Barry Marshall (who knows a thing or two about volunteer trials.)

As I discussed earlier, since challenge trials restrict the volunteers to be young and healthy, you can’t apply their results directly to the sick and elderly (the external validity problem) but “challenge trials could help us whittle down [candidate vaccines]… to the best two to three, substantially speeding up the vaccine discovery process.” You could also use challenge trials to help figure out the right dosing which is unusually important in the current situation because if a vaccine can work with .5ml instead of 1ml that’s equivalent to doubling the available supply. The Director of the Jenner Institute, Adrian Hill, agrees writing:

We see considerable potential in the use of human challenge studies to accelerate COVID-19 vaccine development, down-select and help validate the best candidate vaccines, and optimise vaccination approaches.

You can read the whole letter here.

Fight the Virus! Please.

One of the most confounding aspects of the pandemic has been Congress’s unwillingness or inability to spend to fight the virus. As I said in the LA Times:

If an invader rained missiles down on cities across the United States killing thousands of people, we would fight back. Yet despite spending trillions on unemployment insurance and relief to deal with the economic consequences of COVID-19, we have spent comparatively little fighting the virus directly.

Economists Steven Berry and Zack Cooper have run the numbers:

By our calculations, less than 8 percent of the trillions in funding that Congress has allocated so far in response to the virus has been for solutions that would shorten or mitigate the virus itself: measures like increasing the supply of PPE, expanding testing, developing treatments, standing up contact tracing, or developing a vaccine. A case in point is the most recent House Covid-19 package. It calls for $3 trillion in spending; less than 3 percent of that total is allocated toward Covid testing. As Congress considers next steps, it’s imperative to shift priorities and direct more funding and effort toward actually ending the pandemic.

Berry and Copper point to the vaccine plan that I am working on as an example of smart spending:

…a group of prominent economists, including Nobel Laureate Michael Kremer, has proposed spending a $70 billion dollar vaccine effort. The proposed expenditure is both much larger than anything proposed by the White House or Congress and also quite cheap compared to the potential benefits.

…[Similarly] Nobel Laureate Paul Romer and the Rockefeller Foundation have each sketched out $100 billion plans to increase testing. We say: Let’s fund both, allocating half the funds directly to states, who can spend to activate the vast capacity of university labs, and also fund Romer’s plan to scale up $10 instant tests for true mass testing. We could create a $50 billion dollar challenge prize that rewards the first 10 firms that develop effective treatments for Covid-19 — $5 billion each. We could fund Scott Gottlieb and Andy Slavitt’s bipartisan $50 billion contact tracing proposal. We could allocate $100 billion to fund the libertarian leaning Mercatus Center’s proposal for advanced purchase contracts to procure massive quantities of PPE.

What makes this all the more confounding is that spending to defeat the virus will more than pay for itself! As I said in my piece in the Washington Post (with Puja Ahluwalia Ohlhaver):

Economists talk about “multipliers” — an injection of spending that causes even larger increases in gross domestic product. Spending on testing, tracing and paid isolation would produce an indisputable and massive multiplier effect.

Who gains by killing the economy and letting people die? Yes, it’s possible to spin some elaborate conspiracy about someone, somewhere benefiting. But in talking with people in Congress the message I hear is not that there’s a secret cabal with a special interest in economic collapse and dying constituents. In a way, the message is worse. Multiple people have told me that things move slowly, no one is stepping up to the plate, leadership is absent. “Who is John Galt?,” they sigh. Ok, they don’t literally say that, but that sigh of resignation is what it feels like in the United States today at the highest levels of government.

Pooled Testing is Super-Beneficial

Tyler and I have been pushing pooled testing for months. The primary benefit of pooled testing is obvious. If 1% are infected and we test 100 people individually we need 100 tests. If we split the group into five pools of twenty then if we’re lucky, we only need five tests. Of course, chances are that there will be some positives in at least one group and taking this into account we will require 23.2 tests on average (5 + (1 – (1 – .01)^20)*20*5). Thus, pooled testing reduces the number of needed tests by a factor of 4. Or to put it the other way, under these assumptions, pooled testing increases our effective test capacity by a factor of 4. That’s a big gain and well understood.

An important new paper from Augenblick, Kolstad, Obermeyer and Wang shows that the benefits of pooled testing go well beyond this primary benefit. Pooled testing works best when the prevalence rate is low. If 10% are infected, for example, then it’s quite likely that all five pools will have at least one positive test and thus you will still need nearly 100 tests (92.8 expected). But the reverse is also true. The lower the prevalence rate the fewer tests are needed. But this means that pooled testing is highly complementary to frequent testing. If you test frequently then the prevalence rate must be low because the people who tested negative yesterday are very likely to test negative today. Thus from the logic given above, the expected number of tests falls as you tests more frequently (per test-cohort).

Suppose instead that people are tested ten times as frequently. Testing individually at this frequency requires ten times the number of tests, for 1000 total tests. It is therefore natural think that group testing also requires ten times the number of tests, for more than 200 total tests. However, this estimation ignores the fact that testing ten times as frequently reduces the probability of infection at the point of each test (conditional on not being positive at previous test) from 1% to only around .1%. This drop in prevalence reduces the number of expected tests – given groups of 20 – to 6.9 at each of the ten testing points, such that the total number is only 69. That is, testing people 10 times as frequently only requires slightly more than three times the number of tests. Or, put in a different way, there is a “quantity discount” of around 65% by increasing frequency.

Peter Frazier, Yujia Zhang and Massey Cashore also point out that you could also do an array-protocol in which each person is tested twice but in two different groups–this doubles the number of initial tests but limits the number of false-positives (both tests must be positive) and the number of needed retests. (See figure.).

Moreover, we haven’t yet taken into account the point of testing which is to reduce the prevalence rate. If we test frequently we can reduce the prevalence rate by quickly isolating the infected population and by reducing the prevalence rate we reduce the number of needed tests. Indeed, under some parameters it’s possible to increase the frequency of testing and at the same time reduce the total number of tests!

We can do better yet if we group individuals whose risks are likely to be correlated. Consider an office building with five floors and 100 employees, 20 per floor. If the prevalence rate is 1% and we test people at random then we will need 23.2 tests on average, as before. But suppose that the virus is more likely to transmit to people who work on the same floor and now suppose that we pool each floor. Holding the total prevalence rate constant, we are now likely to have a zero prevalence rate on four floors and a 5% prevalence rate on one floor. We don’t know which floor but it doesn’t matter–the expected number of tests required now falls to 17.8.

The authors suggest using machine learning techniques to uncover correlations which is a good idea but much can be done simply by pooling families, co-workers, and so forth.

The government has failed miserably at controlling the pandemic. Tens of thousands of people have died who would have lived under a more competent government. The FDA only recently said they might allow pooled testing, if people ask nicely. Unbelievably, after telling us we don’t need masks (supposedly a noble lie to help limit shortages), the CDC is still disparaging testing of asymptomatic people (another noble lie?) which is absolutely disastrous. Paul Romer is correct, testing capacity won’t increase until we put soft drink money behind advance market commitments and start using techniques such as pooled testing. Fortunately or sadly, depending on how you look at it, it’s not too late to do better. Some universities are now proposing rapid, frequent testing using pooling. Harvard will test every three days. Cornell will test frequently. Delaware State will test weekly. Lets hope the idea spreads from the ivory tower.

The Seen and Unseen: Rajagopalan and Tabarrok

On my recent trip to India, just before the world went into lockdown and disarray, Shruti Rajagopalan and I visited Amit Varma’s studio in Delhi to record an episode of his podcast, The Seen and the Unseen. Our paper, Premature Imitation and India’s Flailing State served as the jumping off point but we discussed a host of topics. I was pretty good. Shruti was on fire! Many important insights.

The Seen and the Unseen is one of my favorite podcasts. Amit is a brilliant raconteur and excellent interviewer. The episodes and books listed as relevant to our episode would form an good education in development economics. Other excellent interviews, to mention only a handful, include historian Manu Pillai on Kerala and the Ivory Throne and the Rebel Sultans of the Deccan, Madhavi Menon on the History of Desire in India and Anup Malani on Covid in India and the Lockdown.

The Deleted Clause of the Declaration of Independence

When Thomas Jefferson included a passage attacking slavery in his draft of the Declaration of Independence it initiated the most intense debate among the delegates gathered at Philadelphia in the spring and early  summer of 1776.  Jefferson’s passage on slavery was the most important section removed from the final document.  It was replaced with a more ambiguous passage about King George’s incitement of “domestic insurrections among us.”  Decades later Jefferson blamed the removal of the passage on delegates from South Carolina and Georgia and Northern delegates who represented merchants who were at the time actively involved in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.  Jefferson’s original passage on slavery appears below.

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.  This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain.  Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce.  And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

From Blackpast.  Kevin Kallmes at Notes on Liberty has more details.

Hat tip: Brandon C.

When Police Kill

When Police Kill is the 2017 book by criminologist Franklin Zimring. Some insights from the book.

Official data dramatically undercount the number of people killed by the police. Both the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ Arrest-Related Deaths and the FBI’s Supplemental Homicide Reports estimated around 400-500 police kills a year, circa 2010. But the two series have shockingly low overlap–homicides counted in one series are not counted in the other and vice-versa. A statistical estimate based on the lack of overlap suggests a true rate of around 1000 police killings per year.

The best data come from newspaper reports which also show around 1000-1300 police killings a year (Zimring focuses his analysis on The Guardian’s database.) Fixing the data problem should be a high priority. But the FBI cannot be trusted to do the job:

Unfortunately, the FBI’s legacy of passive acceptance of incomplete statistical data on police killings, its promotion of the self-interested factual accounts from departments, and its failure to collect significant details about the nature of the provocation and the nature of the force used by police suggest that nothing short of massive change in its orientation, in its legal authority to collect data and its attitude toward auditing and research would make the FBI an agency worthy of public trust and statistical reliability in regard to the subject of this book.

The FBI’s bias is even seen in its nomenclature for police killings–“justifiable homicides”–which some of them certainly are not.

The state kills people in two ways, executions and police killings. Executions require trials, appeals, long waiting periods and great deliberation and expense. Police killings are not extensively monitored, analyzed or deliberated upon and, until very recently, even much discussed. Yet every year, police kill 25 to 50 times as many people as are executed. Why have police killings been ignored?

When an execution takes place in Texas, everybody knows that Texas is conducting the killing and is accountable for its consequences. When Officer Smith kills Citizen Jones on a city street in Dallas, it is Officer Smith rather than any larger governmental organization…[who] becomes the primary repository of credit or blame.

We used to do the same thing with airplane crashes and medical mistakes–that is, look for pilot or physician error. Safety didn’t improve much until we started to apply systems thinking. We need a systems-thinking approach to police shootings.

Police kill males (95%) far more than females, a much larger ratio than for felonies. Police kill more whites than blacks which is often forgotten, although not surprising because whites are a larger share of the population. Based on the Guardian data shown in Zimring’s Figure 3.1, whites and Hispanics are killed approximately in proportion to population. Blacks are killed at about twice their proportion to population. Asians are killed less than in proportion to their population.

A surprising finding:

Crime is a young man’s game in the United States but being killed by a police officer is not.

The main reason for this appears to be that a disproportionate share of police killings come from disturbance calls, domestic and non-domestic about equally represented. A majority of the killings arising from disturbance calls are of people aged forty or more.

The tendency  of both police and observers to assume that attacks against police and police use of force is closely associated with violent crime and criminal justice should be modified in significant ways to accord for the disturbance, domestic conflicts, and emotional disruptions that frequently become the caseload of police officers.

A slight majority (56%) of the people who are killed by the police are armed with a gun and another 3.7% seemed to have a gun. Police have reason to fear guns, 92% of killings of police are by guns. But 40% of the people killed by police don’t have guns and other weapons are much less dangerous to police. In many years, hundreds of people brandishing knives are killed by the police while no police are killed by people brandishing knives. The police seem to be too quick to use deadly force against people significantly less well-armed than the police. (Yes, Lucas critique. See below on policing in a democratic society).

Police kill more people than people kill police–a ratio of about 15 to 1–and the ratio has been increasing over time. Policing has become safer over the past 40 years with a 75% drop in police killed on the job since 1976–the fall is greater than for crime more generally and is probably due to Kevlar vests. Kevlar vests are an interesting technology because they make police safer without imposing more risk on citizens. We need more win-win technologies. Although policing has become safer over time, the number of police killings has not decreased in proportion which is why the “kill ratio” has increased.

A major factor in the number of deaths caused by police shootings is the number of wounds received by the victim. In Chicago, 20% of victims with one wound died, 34% with two wounds and 74% with five or more wounds. Obvious. But it suggests a reevaluation of the police training to empty their magazine. Zimring suggests that if the first shot fired was due to reasonable fear the tenth might not be. A single, aggregational analysis:

…simplifies the task of police investigator or district attorney, but it creates no disincentive to police use of additional deadly force that may not be necessary by the time it happens–whether with the third shot or the seventh or the tenth.

It would be hard to implement this ex-post but I agree that emptying the magazine isn’t always reasonable, especially when the police are not under fire. Is it more dangerous to fire one or two shots and reevaluate than to fire ten? Of course, but given the number of errors police make this is not an unreasonable risk to ask police to take in a democratic society.

The successful prosecution of even a small number of extremely excessive force police killings would reduce the predominant perception among both citizens and rank-and-file police officers that police have what amounts to immunity from criminal liability for killing citizens in the line of duty.

Prosecutors, however, rely on the police to do their job and in the long-run won’t bite the hand that feeds them. Clear and cautious rules of engagement that establish bright lines would be more helpful. One problem is that police are protected because police brutality is common (somewhat similar to my analysis of riots).

The more killings a city experiences, the less likely it will be that a particular cop and a specific killings can lead to a charge and a conviction. In the worst of such settings, wrongful killings are not deviant officer behavior.

…clear and cautious rules of engagement will …make officers who ignore or misapply departmental standards look more blameworthy to police, to prosecutors, and to juries in the criminal process.

Police kill many more people in the United States than in other developed countries, even adjusting for crime rates (where the U.S. is less of an outlier than most people imagine). The obvious reason is that there are a lot of guns in the United States. As a result, the United States is not going to get its police killing rate down to Germany’s which is at least 40 times lower. Nevertheless:

[Police killings]…are a serious problem we can fix. Clear administrative restrictions on when police can shoot can eliminate 50 to 80 percent of killings by police without causing substantial risk to the lives of police officers or major changes in how police do their jobs. A thousand killings a year are not the unavoidable result of community conditions or of the nature of policing in the United States.

How to Live in a World Gone Mad?

A long-time reader asks for advice:

I’ve been a MR reader for years. It sounds like you’re concerned about cancel culture and the associated political situation. I’m from eastern europe and caught the tail end of communism. What’s happening now in the US terrifies me. It seems like every week I learn that someone I respect is being tried in a court of public opinion for crimes that didn’t exist six months ago.

I’m in Silicon Valley, and realistically it’s impossible to operate here without lying. And I’m not right wing either, I’ve always considered myself a liberal! Some people seem to be dealing with it all right, but having to maintain a facade really eats at me. I effectively have to self-quarantine in a political closet. I hate it. I never could have imagined that I would need to choose between truthful expression and career/friendships in America. There’s always some finesse in human interaction of course, but this is so qualitatively different it may as well be another country altogether.

Do you have any advice for how to act, survive, and thrive in this political climate? I don’t know how to navigate this at all.

Social media has messed with our minds. The madness of crowds used to be limited by geography, time, and transaction cost–all of which have been lessened by social media. As a result, the crowds are now bigger and madder. And our brains, which are finely tuned to listen to the crowd (meaning the tribe or village ala Dunbar’s number), are overwhelmed when the crowd is in the thousands or millions. We should discount signals which come at the cost of a tweet but we can’t and so the pressures to conform are intense. If your job isn’t protected, stay off social media or at least use a pseudonym. Even if you do nothing today, the crowd may come after you years later so you can never feel safe.

I wish I had better answers. Readers?

Can Philosophy Make People Generous?

Schwitzgebel and Rust famously found that professors of ethics are no more ethical than other professors. Peter Singer being perhaps a famous exception to the rule. In follow-up research Schwitzgebel and psychologist Fiery Cushman tried to find philosophical arguments to change people’s willingness to donate to charity. They were unable to find any. But perhaps they just weren’t good at coming up with effective philosophical arguments. Thus, they challenged moral philosophers and psychologists to a contest:

Can you write a philosophical argument that effectively convinces research participants to donate money to charity?

By a philosophical argument they meant an argument and not an appeal to pity or emotion. No pictures of people clubbing baby seals. The contest had 100 entrants which were winnowed down in a series of tests.

The test had people read the arguments and then decide how much of a promised payment they would they like to give to charity. An average of $2.58 was contributed to charity (of $10) in the control group (no argument). The best argument increased giving by 54% to $3.98. Not bad.

Here’s the argument which won:

Many people in poor countries suffer from a condition called trachoma. Trachoma is the major cause of preventable blindness in the world. Trachoma starts with bacteria that get in the eyes of children, especially children living in hot and dusty conditions where hygiene is poor. If not treated, a child with trachoma bacteria will begin to suffer from blurred vision and will gradually go blind, though this process may take many years. A very cheap treatment is available that cures the condition before blindness develops. As little as $25, donated to an effective agency, can prevent someone going blind later in life.

How much would you pay to prevent your own child becoming blind? Most of us would pay $25,000, $250,000, or even more, if we could afford it. The suffering of children in poor countries must matter more than one-thousandth as much as the suffering of our own child. That’s why it is good to support one of the effective agencies that are preventing blindness from trachoma, and need more donations to reach more people.

Now here’s the kicker. The winning argument was submitted by Peter Singer and Matthew Lindauer. Singer is clearly screwing with Schwitzgebel’s research!

You can read some of other effective arguments here. I don’t think it’s an accident that the winning argument was the shortest and also the least purely philosophical. I’m not saying Singer and Lindauer cheated, but compared to the other arguments the Singer-Lindauer argument is concrete and by making people think of their own children, likely to arouse emotion. That too is a lesson.