This piece outlines the questions that caused a major decline in my career motivation that is reflected in my January 2018 letter. It doesn’t include the answer/potential answers that I arrived at. It doesn’t include how the situation improved since January. An upcoming piece will have a more positive slant to it.
In a nutshell, the thought that my work will yield a zero or negative impact kills me. The thought that my goal can be achieved in a more effective way than what I’m doing now also kills me.
Do we need to contribute to the world or de-clutter it?
Will your career clutter the world? There are so many amazing fantastic resources, institutions, professionals, books, schools of thought and thingies. Don’t we run a high risk of just adding mediocre stuff to the world by following any regular career path without thinking of the added value of that career? Wouldn’t the world be better served by just devoting your effort to spreading and implementing the excellent parts and reducing the mediocre stuff? For example, instead of becoming a writer/researcher in the field of poverty alleviation, why not just spread awareness of the effective altruism movement by sharing their links, books etc.… instead of starting something new from scratch?
Am I Just Being Hyper-Skeptical? Studies that Confirm My Fears of having a big possibility of Zero/Negative Impact
Watch this video about the “Reproducibility Crisis”. I’m just going to quote here one figure to whet your appetite. “More than 70% of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments, and more than half have failed to reproduce their own experiment”.
Continuing to shed more doubt on the impact of ….well… lots of things, David Anderson says: “The vast majority of social programs and services have not yet been rigorously evaluated, and…of those that have been rigorously evaluated, most (perhaps 75% or more), including those backed by expert opinion and less-rigorous studies, turn out to produce small or no effects, and, in some cases negative effects.” For more on this and its complications, visit this link
I have to also include the other stats that he mentioned about the efficacy of different interventions in different sectors. “In 2015, the Arnold Foundation published a survey of the literature on programmes that had been tested with randomized controlled trials (RCTs) as part of a request for funding proposals. It found the following:
Education: Of the 90 interventions evaluated in RCTs commissioned by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) since 2002, approximately 90% were found to have weak or no positive effects. Employment/training: In Department of Labor-commissioned RCTs that have reported results since 1992, about 75% of tested interventions were found to have found weak or no positive effects. Medicine: Reviews have found that 50-80% of positive results in initial (“phase II”) clinical studies are overturned in subsequent, more definitive RCTs (“phase III”). Business: Of 13,000 RCTs of new products/strategies conducted by Google and Microsoft, 80- 90% have reportedly found no significant effects.”
An Emphasis on “More Harm Than Good”
The super duper scary phrase here is “More harm than good”. Note that in the previous quote, Anderson says that there are some programs that yield negative results.
The 80,000hours.org website describes several of these negative programs. Let’s take one example, scared straight, which is a program that aimed to reduce crime by scaring juvenile delinquents. The site says:
Several randomized controlled trials have shown that Scared Straight had a negative effect. Going through Scared Straight made children more likely to commit crimes in the future (3). Fun fact: Scared Straight programs are still being run today (4), and people promote them as being effective, despite the fact that they are harmful (5).
You can read more about 80000hourse articles
Can you imagine that? Devoting your life by shedding sweat, tears and blood to help people but actually harming them in the end. And the harder you work, the more serious the harm.
Another example is stress and its relation to health. Does stress kill you? One of the major things we’re nowadays is that is bad for your health, but according to Kelly McGonigalii, Health psychologist, stress is good for you. What is bad for you is the belief that stress is bad for you. She spent 10 years of her life advocating the former views. She says in her talk
I’m a health psychologist and my mission is to make people happier and healthier but I fear that something I’ve been teaching for the last ten years is doing more harm than good.
One article led her to question the whole thing and made her eventually change her mind.
In case you feel that the world is not confusing enough, you get a somewhat different picture for the relationship between stress and health at Roman Duda says “We did a survey of the literature, and found that as is often the case, the truth lies in between (killing you vs saving your life). Stress can be good in some circumstances, but some of McGonigal’s claims also seem overblown.” So in a very ironic way, McGonigal’s talk could also be doing some harm if her audience decides take an extreme in embracing stress. I feel like I’m walking in a minefield. The question then becomes, how do we make sure that this does not happen to us?
About Hashem AlAssad
Hashem is a University of Toronto psychology graduate (Distinction with Honors). Using his research and analytical skills, he prepares content for Talentology Training’s services and products (workshops, lectures).