Why a Smart Skeptic Applies the Idea of Falsifiability to Charity Too

Falsifiability is a big problem in areas like religion, vaccinations, supernatural claims, and many other areas of pseudoscience, but one area people do not think to apply it to is charity. I want to show you that:

  1. You can generalize this concept to charity,
  2. If you don’t, you’ll very likely waste your money, and
  3. If you do, you can change people’s lives.

What is falsifiability?

Falsifiability means you can prove something wrong. The classic example of an unfalsifiable claim is when someone tells you that they have a dragon in their garage. When you go in and don’t see it, they say it’s invisible. When you ask if you could throw flour over it to see its contours, they say it cannot be felt, and so it goes, with them adding never-ending reasons for your complete inability to detect its presence.

You would not believe such a person because a world where the dragon exists would look exactly the same as a world in which it didn’t exist. This argument is usually used to explain why arguments saying that you can’t disprove God shouldn’t be taken seriously, and likewise, you should not let the charities fool you with the equivalent of an invisible dragon.

How can a charity be unfalsifiable?

Almost all charities would be falsifiable if they were intellectually honest. The way they usually avoid being falsified is by ignoring all of the evidence against their effectiveness or explaining it away with post hoc rationalizations.

For example, many studies have shown that microloans don’t increase people’s income, and that it’s better to just give them money directly, no strings attached. However, microloan charities either ignore this evidence, or say that the real point of microloans is to increase women’s empowerment. When more evidence comes out casting doubt on whether they are even successful at that, they say that the point of their services is to smooth out income fluctuations. This claim might be true, but at this stage we might smell a rat - we’d need to wait to find evidence supporting this, and it’s starting to look like microloans are not all they’re cracked up to be.

What’s the problem with unfalsifiable charities?

Unfalsifiable charities are operating blind. They can make zero progress for decades without ever realizing it. Imagine how far science would have gone if scientists could never admit that any of their theories were false. We would never have left the Stone Age. Likewise, charities can never improve the world if they refuse to see any evidence showing that what they’re doing isn’t working.

How could a charity be falsifiable?

Charities can be more falsifiable in three main ways:

  • Being more transparent so that donors can find out when something goes wrong.
  • Making a clear definition of success and failure, so they cannot weasel out of failures by saying that they were trying to accomplish something different anyway.
  • Countering confirmation bias by actively trying to prove their intervention wrong.

Take GiveDirectly as an example of a charity which is as falsifiable as they come. They give money to the poorest people in Kenya and Uganda, no strings attached. There are 11 randomized controlled trials proving that this intervention improves people’s long term income, empowers women, and makes people happier, which is the ultimate metric of success in charity.

Not only that, but one of the studies was run by GiveDirectly themselves, and they publicly pre-committed to what would count as success or failure, how they would analyze the data, and publishing the results regardless. This was a bold and admirable move. They could easily have found that the data didn’t confirm their intervention’s success.

You can see their dedication to transparency even in their marketing. In one of their social media campaigns, they told stories about what people spent the money on. Unlike 99.9% of all other charities though, they did not cherry-pick the most compelling stories. They randomly selected them, so that you got a truly representative feel for what people use the money for.

This all means that GiveDirectly is one of the few charities which is both possible to falsify and also goes to great lengths to test itself. The natural result is that you can trust that they are actually doing what they say they are.

What can you do?

You can support charities which:

  • Make clear distinctions between success and failure.
  • Are transparent about both their successes and their failures.
  • Run experiments which could find that their intervention doesn’t work.

You can also reward charities for being transparent when they make a mistake (as long as they learn from it). Most charities live in perpetual fear that their donors will find out that they did something wrong and then stop supporting them. But the important thing is that all charities make mistakes - what matters is that they improve based on what they learned from it.

You can find charities that fit all of these criteria at Charity Science, which lists the most evidence-based and cost-effective nonprofits out there. If you change where you give to reflect your intellectual values as well as your compassion, you’ll not only be being more true to yourself, but you’ll also help dozens or hundreds of times more people than you would have helped otherwise. Not to mention that you will certainly help more than those who insist on giving based on religion and intuition.

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