Sunday, July 24, 2016

Throwing cold water on those who threw cold water

Recall the ice-bucket challenge?  I do.  I declined the challenge. And blogged (here, here, for instance) about why those stunts of feel-goodism are distractions.

Now, James Surowiecki writes in the New Yorker that people like me are mistaken.

But, I am not discouraged that I might be wrong.  This, too, is an example of what I love about the honest intellectual life--we constantly evaluate our own convictions with logic and evidence.  And then we let the proverbial chips fall where they may.  Btw, do not confuse this approach with the demagoguery behind changing one's position depending on the political fortunes.

Surowiecki writes:
Critics fretted that the exercise amplified people’s tendency to donate for emotional reasons, rather than after careful evaluation of where money can do the most good. Some argued that it would divert donations from diseases that afflict many more people than the six thousand who receive a diagnosis of A.L.S. every year. People even attacked ice-bucketeers for wasting water.
Yes, I was one of them.  Well, except that I did not complain about wasting water.

So, two years after the summer of people posting videos of pouring ice-cold water on themselves, Surowiecki reminds people like me:
All these critiques had the same underlying theme: the faddishness of the challenge undermined its value. This makes intuitive sense, but is it true? Actually, no. Silly though the Ice Bucket Challenge may seem now, it had far-reaching effects. 
Really?  I understand if money was raised in plenty for ALS research and other activities.  But, it didn't decrease contributions to other causes?
If the success of the challenge had come at the expense of other charities, ambivalence might be justified. But there’s almost no evidence that this was the case. According to Giving U.S.A., individual donations in the U.S. rose almost six per cent in 2014, which doesn’t suggest any cannibalization effect. Indeed, it’s likely that the very nature of the challenge, which belongs to a category known to anthropologists as “extreme ritual,” made people more openhanded. 
So, other giving continued on unaffected? Hey, I am relieved and excited.  One of the ways in which this human attribute was understood will interest Indian readers more than the rest, I would think:
Dimitris Xygalatas, an anthropologist at the University of Connecticut who has studied the effects of such rituals, ran a fascinating experiment with people who were undergoing kavadi—a Hindu ritual that commonly involves piercing the skin with sharp objects and then making a long procession while carrying heavy objects. Xygalatas found that people who did kavadi, and even people who just joined in the procession, donated more to charity than people in a control group. And those who gave the most painful descriptions of the experience donated the most. As a result, Xygalatas has suggested that the Ice Bucket Challenge, far from stealing from other charities, almost certainly increased the total size of the pie.
Imagine that!

If the ice-bucket challenge was successful in making people open-fisted, then how come we have not more such efforts towards charitable giving?
The campaign’s critics implied that, had people not been dumping freezing water over their heads, they would have been working to end malaria instead. But it’s far more likely that they would have been watching cat videos or, now, playing Pokémon Go. The problem isn’t that the Ice Bucket Challenge was a charity fad. It’s that it was a charity fad that no one has figured out how to duplicate.
Hmmm ... so, does it mean that we humans would be a lot more giving if it were not for wasteful distractions like Pokémon Go and cat videos?

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