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conerns about SCI

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  • Aaron Swartz
    In GiveWell s recent update about SCI, they write
    Message 1 of 7 , Nov 14, 2012
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      In GiveWell's recent update about SCI, they write:

      In one report, SCI stated that it had spent $27,000 on the DRC program on laboratory material.... In its spending report for the first eight months of 2012, SCI reported that it had spent £1,329 (about $2,100) in DRC.... When we asked SCI to clarify, ...SCI replied, "a typo – there should have been a 7 – $27,100".... However, the figure SCI had provided was in pounds, which we converted to dollars, so a missing ‘7’ could not account for the discrepancy.

      I found this particular mistake rather concerning -- it made me wonder SCI was being intentionally dishonest or unusually careless. Either way, it's the kind of thing that would make me very concerned about naming it a top charity until I got to the bottom of it.

      The risks strike me as asymmetric here. If it was an honest mistake by SCI and GiveWell didn't recommend them, then some money would instead be given to charities that GiveWell expects to be either slightly more or less effective than SCI. But if there is a serious underlying problem with SCI, and GiveWell does recommend them, it'd be a major scandal. Scandals receive orders of magnitude more press than normal events, which means such a scandal could deal a huge blow to GiveWell's reputation, and possibly the reputation of optimal philanthropy in general.

      Given my prior, I suppose the most likely explanation is still that SCI is a somewhat-shambolic operation (an impression reinforced by the other mistakes you identified) and they carelessly confabulated an explanation for the discrepancy. But the combination of errors and communication issues is also a pattern commonly caused by people who are trying to cover something up. As a donor, I'd like to see GiveWell put some resources into figuring out which is the case before recommending them.
    • Holly Morgan
      Perhaps the person who gave the figure in £s had received it in $s from someone else, and this latter person had made the typo? -- Please excuse brevity; this
      Message 2 of 7 , Nov 14, 2012
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        Perhaps the person who gave the figure in £s had received it in $s from someone else, and this latter person had made the typo?

        --

        Please excuse brevity; this message has been sent from my mobile phone.

        Holly Morgan | Executive Director | The Life You Can Save
        thelifeyoucansave.com | holly.morgan@ thelifeyoucansave.com
        +44 7910 094 247 | Skype: hollyrebeccamorgan

        The Life You Can Save is part of the Centre for Effective Altruism, a charitable company limited by guarantee registered in England and Wales, number 7962181.

        Centre for Effective Altruism, Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, Littlegate House, St Ebbes Street, Oxford OX1 1PT, UK

        On 14 Nov 2012 19:47, "Aaron Swartz" <me@...> wrote:
         

        In GiveWell's recent update about SCI, they write:


        In one report, SCI stated that it had spent $27,000 on the DRC program on laboratory material.... In its spending report for the first eight months of 2012, SCI reported that it had spent £1,329 (about $2,100) in DRC.... When we asked SCI to clarify, ...SCI replied, "a typo – there should have been a 7 – $27,100".... However, the figure SCI had provided was in pounds, which we converted to dollars, so a missing ‘7’ could not account for the discrepancy.

        I found this particular mistake rather concerning -- it made me wonder SCI was being intentionally dishonest or unusually careless. Either way, it's the kind of thing that would make me very concerned about naming it a top charity until I got to the bottom of it.

        The risks strike me as asymmetric here. If it was an honest mistake by SCI and GiveWell didn't recommend them, then some money would instead be given to charities that GiveWell expects to be either slightly more or less effective than SCI. But if there is a serious underlying problem with SCI, and GiveWell does recommend them, it'd be a major scandal. Scandals receive orders of magnitude more press than normal events, which means such a scandal could deal a huge blow to GiveWell's reputation, and possibly the reputation of optimal philanthropy in general.

        Given my prior, I suppose the most likely explanation is still that SCI is a somewhat-shambolic operation (an impression reinforced by the other mistakes you identified) and they carelessly confabulated an explanation for the discrepancy. But the combination of errors and communication issues is also a pattern commonly caused by people who are trying to cover something up. As a donor, I'd like to see GiveWell put some resources into figuring out which is the case before recommending them.
      • rnoble@sas.upenn.edu
        I had wondered if there is reluctance to communicate with GiveWell because GiveWell may have developed a reputation for being harsh on charities. I m not
        Message 3 of 7 , Nov 14, 2012
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          I had wondered if there is reluctance to communicate with GiveWell
          because GiveWell may have developed a reputation for being harsh on
          charities. I'm not saying they shouldn't be, but I wonder if there is
          an evitable natural tension given the nature of what GiveWell does
          that creates problems.



          Quoting Holly Morgan <hollyrebeccamorgan@...>:

          > Perhaps the person who gave the figure in £s had received it in $s from
          > someone else, and this latter person had made the typo?
          >
          > --
          >
          > Please excuse brevity; this message has been sent from my mobile phone.
          >
          > Holly Morgan | Executive Director | The Life You Can Save
          > thelifeyoucansave.com | holly.morgan@ thelifeyoucansave.com
          > +44 7910 094 247 | Skype: hollyrebeccamorgan
          >
          > The Life You Can Save is part of the Centre for Effective Altruism, a
          > charitable company limited by guarantee registered in England and Wales,
          > number 7962181.
          >
          > Centre for Effective Altruism, Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics,
          > Littlegate House, St Ebbes Street, Oxford OX1 1PT, UK
          > On 14 Nov 2012 19:47, "Aaron Swartz" <me@...> wrote:
          >
          >> **
          >>
          >>
          >> In GiveWell's recent update about SCI, they
          >> write<http://www.givewell.org/international/top-charities/schistosomiasis-control-initiative/updates/November-2012>
          >> :
          >>
          >> In one report, SCI stated that it had spent $27,000 on the DRC program on
          >>> laboratory material.... In its spending report for the first eight months
          >>> of 2012, SCI reported that it had spent £1,329 (about $2,100) in DRC....
          >>> When we asked SCI to clarify, ...SCI replied, "a typo – there should have
          >>> been a 7 – $27,100".... However, the figure SCI had provided was in pounds,
          >>> which we converted to dollars, so a missing ‘7’ could not account for the
          >>> discrepancy.
          >>>
          >>
          >> I found this particular mistake rather concerning -- it made me wonder SCI
          >> was being intentionally dishonest or unusually careless. Either way, it's
          >> the kind of thing that would make me very concerned about naming it a top
          >> charity until I got to the bottom of it.
          >>
          >> The risks strike me as asymmetric here. If it was an honest mistake by SCI
          >> and GiveWell didn't recommend them, then some money would instead be given
          >> to charities that GiveWell expects to be either slightly more or less
          >> effective than SCI. But if there is a serious underlying problem with SCI,
          >> and GiveWell does recommend them, it'd be a major scandal. Scandals receive
          >> orders of magnitude more press than normal events, which means such a
          >> scandal could deal a huge blow to GiveWell's reputation, and possibly the
          >> reputation of optimal philanthropy in general.
          >>
          >> Given my prior, I suppose the most likely explanation is still that SCI is
          >> a somewhat-shambolic operation (an impression reinforced by the other
          >> mistakes you identified) and they carelessly confabulated an explanation
          >> for the discrepancy. But the combination of errors and communication issues
          >> is also a pattern commonly caused by people who are trying to cover
          >> something up. As a donor, I'd like to see GiveWell put some resources into
          >> figuring out which is the case before recommending them.
          >>
          >>
          >



          Ronald Noble, Ph.D.
          University of Pennsylvania
        • Ben Hoskin
          A similar thing occurs with public companies in immature markets becoming very emotional about stockbrokers, often completely shutting them out after a sell
          Message 4 of 7 , Nov 14, 2012
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            A similar thing occurs with public companies in immature markets becoming very emotional about stockbrokers, often completely shutting them out after a 'sell' recommendation. If the general level of competance in charities is much lower (most are a 'sell'), we only want to buy a couple, and charities aren't used to external evaluation, it's easy to see how they could have a similar response.

            NB: I have no reason to suppose this applies to SCI, who seemed quite fond of GiveWell when I spoke to Alan.

            On Wed, Nov 14, 2012 at 6:14 PM, <rnoble@...> wrote:
             



            I had wondered if there is reluctance to communicate with GiveWell
            because GiveWell may have developed a reputation for being harsh on
            charities. I'm not saying they shouldn't be, but I wonder if there is
            an evitable natural tension given the nature of what GiveWell does
            that creates problems.



            Quoting Holly Morgan <hollyrebeccamorgan@...>:

            > Perhaps the person who gave the figure in £s had received it in $s from
            > someone else, and this latter person had made the typo?
            >
            > --
            >
            > Please excuse brevity; this message has been sent from my mobile phone.
            >
            > Holly Morgan | Executive Director | The Life You Can Save
            > thelifeyoucansave.com | holly.morgan@ thelifeyoucansave.com
            > +44 7910 094 247 | Skype: hollyrebeccamorgan
            >
            > The Life You Can Save is part of the Centre for Effective Altruism, a
            > charitable company limited by guarantee registered in England and Wales,
            > number 7962181.
            >
            > Centre for Effective Altruism, Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics,
            > Littlegate House, St Ebbes Street, Oxford OX1 1PT, UK
            > On 14 Nov 2012 19:47, "Aaron Swartz" <me@...> wrote:
            >
            >> **

            >>
            >>
            >> In GiveWell's recent update about SCI, they
            >> write<http://www.givewell.org/international/top-charities/schistosomiasis-control-initiative/updates/November-2012>

            >> :
            >>
            >> In one report, SCI stated that it had spent $27,000 on the DRC program on
            >>> laboratory material.... In its spending report for the first eight months
            >>> of 2012, SCI reported that it had spent £1,329 (about $2,100) in DRC....
            >>> When we asked SCI to clarify, ...SCI replied, "a typo – there should have
            >>> been a 7 – $27,100".... However, the figure SCI had provided was in pounds,
            >>> which we converted to dollars, so a missing ‘7’ could not account for the
            >>> discrepancy.
            >>>
            >>
            >> I found this particular mistake rather concerning -- it made me wonder SCI
            >> was being intentionally dishonest or unusually careless. Either way, it's
            >> the kind of thing that would make me very concerned about naming it a top
            >> charity until I got to the bottom of it.
            >>
            >> The risks strike me as asymmetric here. If it was an honest mistake by SCI
            >> and GiveWell didn't recommend them, then some money would instead be given
            >> to charities that GiveWell expects to be either slightly more or less
            >> effective than SCI. But if there is a serious underlying problem with SCI,
            >> and GiveWell does recommend them, it'd be a major scandal. Scandals receive
            >> orders of magnitude more press than normal events, which means such a
            >> scandal could deal a huge blow to GiveWell's reputation, and possibly the
            >> reputation of optimal philanthropy in general.
            >>
            >> Given my prior, I suppose the most likely explanation is still that SCI is
            >> a somewhat-shambolic operation (an impression reinforced by the other
            >> mistakes you identified) and they carelessly confabulated an explanation
            >> for the discrepancy. But the combination of errors and communication issues
            >> is also a pattern commonly caused by people who are trying to cover
            >> something up. As a donor, I'd like to see GiveWell put some resources into
            >> figuring out which is the case before recommending them.
            >>
            >>
            >

            Ronald Noble, Ph.D.
            University of Pennsylvania


          • Natalie Stone Crispin
            Hi Holly, SCI provided the spending figure to us in pounds (£1,329), and we converted these to the dollar figure that we then asked SCI about ($2,100). The
            Message 5 of 7 , Nov 15, 2012
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              Hi Holly,

              SCI provided the spending figure to us in pounds (£1,329), and we converted these to the dollar figure that we then asked SCI about ($2,100). The document they sent us is http://www.givewell.org/files/DWDA%202009/SCI/SCI%20expenditures%20Jan%20-%20Aug%202012.xls (as noted in the document, we added lines 21 and 23 after later communication with SCI).

              The spending figure for DRC did turn out to be close to $27,000, but we do not believe that the reason we received the £1,329 figure at first was due to a typo. SCI later told us about a second outlay of funds to DRC that brought the total up to £16,701.

              Since SCI is a London-based charity, I think it is unlikely that they converted from pounds to dollars back to pounds before reporting the figure to us.

              Best,
              Natalie

              On Wed, Nov 14, 2012 at 2:21 PM, Holly Morgan <hollyrebeccamorgan@...> wrote:
               

              Perhaps the person who gave the figure in £s had received it in $s from someone else, and this latter person had made the typo?

              --

              Please excuse brevity; this message has been sent from my mobile phone.

              Holly Morgan | Executive Director | The Life You Can Save
              thelifeyoucansave.com | holly.morgan@ thelifeyoucansave.com
              +44 7910 094 247 | Skype: hollyrebeccamorgan

              The Life You Can Save is part of the Centre for Effective Altruism, a charitable company limited by guarantee registered in England and Wales, number 7962181.

              Centre for Effective Altruism, Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, Littlegate House, St Ebbes Street, Oxford OX1 1PT, UK

              On 14 Nov 2012 19:47, "Aaron Swartz" <me@...> wrote:
               

              In GiveWell's recent update about SCI, they write:


              In one report, SCI stated that it had spent $27,000 on the DRC program on laboratory material.... In its spending report for the first eight months of 2012, SCI reported that it had spent £1,329 (about $2,100) in DRC.... When we asked SCI to clarify, ...SCI replied, "a typo – there should have been a 7 – $27,100".... However, the figure SCI had provided was in pounds, which we converted to dollars, so a missing ‘7’ could not account for the discrepancy.

              I found this particular mistake rather concerning -- it made me wonder SCI was being intentionally dishonest or unusually careless. Either way, it's the kind of thing that would make me very concerned about naming it a top charity until I got to the bottom of it.

              The risks strike me as asymmetric here. If it was an honest mistake by SCI and GiveWell didn't recommend them, then some money would instead be given to charities that GiveWell expects to be either slightly more or less effective than SCI. But if there is a serious underlying problem with SCI, and GiveWell does recommend them, it'd be a major scandal. Scandals receive orders of magnitude more press than normal events, which means such a scandal could deal a huge blow to GiveWell's reputation, and possibly the reputation of optimal philanthropy in general.

              Given my prior, I suppose the most likely explanation is still that SCI is a somewhat-shambolic operation (an impression reinforced by the other mistakes you identified) and they carelessly confabulated an explanation for the discrepancy. But the combination of errors and communication issues is also a pattern commonly caused by people who are trying to cover something up. As a donor, I'd like to see GiveWell put some resources into figuring out which is the case before recommending them.


            • Holly Morgan
              Ah fair enough, thanks Natalie -- Please excuse brevity; this message has been sent from my mobile phone. Holly Morgan | Executive Director | The Life You Can
              Message 6 of 7 , Nov 15, 2012
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                Ah fair enough, thanks Natalie

                --

                Please excuse brevity; this message has been sent from my mobile phone.

                Holly Morgan | Executive Director | The Life You Can Save
                thelifeyoucansave.com | holly.morgan@ thelifeyoucansave.com
                +44 7910 094 247 | Skype: hollyrebeccamorgan

                The Life You Can Save is part of the Centre for Effective Altruism, a charitable company limited by guarantee registered in England and Wales, number 7962181.

                Centre for Effective Altruism, Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, Littlegate House, St Ebbes Street, Oxford OX1 1PT, UK

                On 15 Nov 2012 20:05, "Natalie Stone Crispin" <natalie@...> wrote:
                 

                Hi Holly,


                SCI provided the spending figure to us in pounds (£1,329), and we converted these to the dollar figure that we then asked SCI about ($2,100). The document they sent us is http://www.givewell.org/files/DWDA%202009/SCI/SCI%20expenditures%20Jan%20-%20Aug%202012.xls (as noted in the document, we added lines 21 and 23 after later communication with SCI).

                The spending figure for DRC did turn out to be close to $27,000, but we do not believe that the reason we received the £1,329 figure at first was due to a typo. SCI later told us about a second outlay of funds to DRC that brought the total up to £16,701.

                Since SCI is a London-based charity, I think it is unlikely that they converted from pounds to dollars back to pounds before reporting the figure to us.

                Best,
                Natalie

                On Wed, Nov 14, 2012 at 2:21 PM, Holly Morgan <hollyrebeccamorgan@...> wrote:
                 

                Perhaps the person who gave the figure in £s had received it in $s from someone else, and this latter person had made the typo?

                --

                Please excuse brevity; this message has been sent from my mobile phone.

                Holly Morgan | Executive Director | The Life You Can Save
                thelifeyoucansave.com | holly.morgan@ thelifeyoucansave.com
                +44 7910 094 247 | Skype: hollyrebeccamorgan

                The Life You Can Save is part of the Centre for Effective Altruism, a charitable company limited by guarantee registered in England and Wales, number 7962181.

                Centre for Effective Altruism, Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, Littlegate House, St Ebbes Street, Oxford OX1 1PT, UK

                On 14 Nov 2012 19:47, "Aaron Swartz" <me@...> wrote:
                 

                In GiveWell's recent update about SCI, they write:


                In one report, SCI stated that it had spent $27,000 on the DRC program on laboratory material.... In its spending report for the first eight months of 2012, SCI reported that it had spent £1,329 (about $2,100) in DRC.... When we asked SCI to clarify, ...SCI replied, "a typo – there should have been a 7 – $27,100".... However, the figure SCI had provided was in pounds, which we converted to dollars, so a missing ‘7’ could not account for the discrepancy.

                I found this particular mistake rather concerning -- it made me wonder SCI was being intentionally dishonest or unusually careless. Either way, it's the kind of thing that would make me very concerned about naming it a top charity until I got to the bottom of it.

                The risks strike me as asymmetric here. If it was an honest mistake by SCI and GiveWell didn't recommend them, then some money would instead be given to charities that GiveWell expects to be either slightly more or less effective than SCI. But if there is a serious underlying problem with SCI, and GiveWell does recommend them, it'd be a major scandal. Scandals receive orders of magnitude more press than normal events, which means such a scandal could deal a huge blow to GiveWell's reputation, and possibly the reputation of optimal philanthropy in general.

                Given my prior, I suppose the most likely explanation is still that SCI is a somewhat-shambolic operation (an impression reinforced by the other mistakes you identified) and they carelessly confabulated an explanation for the discrepancy. But the combination of errors and communication issues is also a pattern commonly caused by people who are trying to cover something up. As a donor, I'd like to see GiveWell put some resources into figuring out which is the case before recommending them.


              • Holden Karnofsky
                Hi all, thanks for the thoughts. A few responses: 1. We really appreciate Aaron s raising this concern. In general, we encourage people to raise any issues
                Message 7 of 7 , Nov 15, 2012
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                  Hi all, thanks for the thoughts. A few responses:

                  1. We really appreciate Aaron's raising this concern. In general, we encourage people to raise any issues they see with the content we publish on top charities. 

                  2. Regarding Ron's and Ben's points, I don't think this concern applies to SCI. SCI is one of our top-rated charities and we have communicated closely with it throughout the year. I also don't think that "reluctance to communicate" would be a good way to explain inaccurate communications. 

                  (On the more general point of whether charities are reluctant to engage with us, I think this is sometimes the case, but has become less true over time and generally will become less true as (and if) our "money moved" rises. I don't believe that we're missing out on opportunities to recommend proven, cost-effective, scalable charities due to this dynamic, though I could be wrong.)

                  3. We believe it is legitimate to be concerned about the incident Aaron mentioned, but we place substantially less weight on this incident than Aaron does. Our guess is that the person we corresponded with saw this as a minor detail and took their best guess as to what accounted for the discrepancy, without confirming that this was correct. While not ideal, this is a long way from purposeful deception about core issues, something we've never had any reason to suspect. We did ultimately nail down all of the figures in question.

                  4. We don't want to be risk-averse in our charity recommendations. If we started recommending charities with lower "expected good accomplished per marginal dollar donated," on the basis that they had a lower chance of embarrassing us from a PR perspective, we'd no longer be delivering on our commitment to recommend the best giving opportunities we can (irrespective of how these recommendations make GiveWell look, now or in the future). That, I think, would ultimately be worse for our brand than the kind of incident Aaron fears, given the audience we have.

                  Best,
                  Holden




                  On Thu, Nov 15, 2012 at 3:04 PM, Natalie Stone Crispin <natalie@...> wrote:
                   

                  Hi Holly,


                  SCI provided the spending figure to us in pounds (£1,329), and we converted these to the dollar figure that we then asked SCI about ($2,100). The document they sent us is http://www.givewell.org/files/DWDA%202009/SCI/SCI%20expenditures%20Jan%20-%20Aug%202012.xls (as noted in the document, we added lines 21 and 23 after later communication with SCI).

                  The spending figure for DRC did turn out to be close to $27,000, but we do not believe that the reason we received the £1,329 figure at first was due to a typo. SCI later told us about a second outlay of funds to DRC that brought the total up to £16,701.

                  Since SCI is a London-based charity, I think it is unlikely that they converted from pounds to dollars back to pounds before reporting the figure to us.

                  Best,
                  Natalie

                  On Wed, Nov 14, 2012 at 2:21 PM, Holly Morgan <hollyrebeccamorgan@...> wrote:
                   

                  Perhaps the person who gave the figure in £s had received it in $s from someone else, and this latter person had made the typo?

                  --

                  Please excuse brevity; this message has been sent from my mobile phone.

                  Holly Morgan | Executive Director | The Life You Can Save
                  thelifeyoucansave.com | holly.morgan@ thelifeyoucansave.com
                  +44 7910 094 247 | Skype: hollyrebeccamorgan

                  The Life You Can Save is part of the Centre for Effective Altruism, a charitable company limited by guarantee registered in England and Wales, number 7962181.

                  Centre for Effective Altruism, Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, Littlegate House, St Ebbes Street, Oxford OX1 1PT, UK

                  On 14 Nov 2012 19:47, "Aaron Swartz" <me@...> wrote:
                   

                  In GiveWell's recent update about SCI, they write:


                  In one report, SCI stated that it had spent $27,000 on the DRC program on laboratory material.... In its spending report for the first eight months of 2012, SCI reported that it had spent £1,329 (about $2,100) in DRC.... When we asked SCI to clarify, ...SCI replied, "a typo – there should have been a 7 – $27,100".... However, the figure SCI had provided was in pounds, which we converted to dollars, so a missing ‘7’ could not account for the discrepancy.

                  I found this particular mistake rather concerning -- it made me wonder SCI was being intentionally dishonest or unusually careless. Either way, it's the kind of thing that would make me very concerned about naming it a top charity until I got to the bottom of it.

                  The risks strike me as asymmetric here. If it was an honest mistake by SCI and GiveWell didn't recommend them, then some money would instead be given to charities that GiveWell expects to be either slightly more or less effective than SCI. But if there is a serious underlying problem with SCI, and GiveWell does recommend them, it'd be a major scandal. Scandals receive orders of magnitude more press than normal events, which means such a scandal could deal a huge blow to GiveWell's reputation, and possibly the reputation of optimal philanthropy in general.

                  Given my prior, I suppose the most likely explanation is still that SCI is a somewhat-shambolic operation (an impression reinforced by the other mistakes you identified) and they carelessly confabulated an explanation for the discrepancy. But the combination of errors and communication issues is also a pattern commonly caused by people who are trying to cover something up. As a donor, I'd like to see GiveWell put some resources into figuring out which is the case before recommending them.



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