Around 90 health workers were murdered while delivering polio vaccines to children in 2014. Other people have attacked schools, ancient ruins, and mid-level science professors. We can conclude that everything is controversial to someone. We could do better than this if we had a way to measure controversy. First, what is "tractability"?

tractability: how easy something is to solve - for instance, how much can
you get done for a given amount of money?

My question is How can we get a good number to represent the size of a political controversy? The conflict that comes with controversy is a large drag on what you can get done (tractability). (It's a particularly big problem for anything which wants to use government resources.)

Consider giving out free birth control in a highly religious country.

The tractability of doing good by giving out birth control depends on: the cost of buying and shipping and how easy it is to get evidence about the disease situation and your own operation against them. (Evidence like how well similar work has gone, and or how easy it is to track results.) But it also depends heavily on social factors like controversy and conflict. So tractability numbers obtained without at least trying to guess these factors is shaky - "asocial", you could call it. It's not all bad. A positive social factor would be the reputation and social connections of the people giving out the condoms. This can be guessed by things like "number of politicians known", but really it is itself a hidden factor - one which you might use the efficiency of previous work to guess.

Conflict causes delays, extra costs (for lawyers, negotiators, marketers, security, and insurance), and might reduce the number of people willing to use the product, or to volunteer. This all reduces efficiency and tractability.

One result of conflict is direct action: e.g. people actively working against your medicine drop. As well as inspiring direct action against your medicine drop, controversy would also make politicians and other organisations less likely to help you.

We can make a first guess at what controversy 'really is' by saying "take the size of the group that is against condom distribution, and add a multiplier for the extent to which their government is to be involved with the plan".

In later versions you'd want to take account of the media's role in spreading controversy and fake controversy, and of how weird the goal is among recipients. (For instance, acting to reduce the suffering of animals in the wild is weird in every country in the world, except maybe parts of Tibet.)

This is no doubt an incomplete picture, and it's hard to measure basically every factor mentioned. But the value of getting imperfect guesses could still be high, especially if the work can't be done in an uncontroversial way (e.g. if we tried to get a law passed).

Things to find out

I’m not sure how to put a value on setting a good example (in the face of popular opposition), compared to the straightforward model where you only count the direct effects of your actions. I’m not sure how much moral weight we should give to people getting annoyed by our helping others - especially since we are only getting a rough measure of their actual annoyance, through how they express their disapproval. I’m not sure how to separate people being annoyed by 1) work on a cause, 2) a particular action towards that cause, and 3) the people taking the action.

I am not sure how much weight to put on particular cases of controversy and overcoming it, relative to a machine that guesses the present situation based on social media data. I’m not sure how well Twitter chatter really suggests real opposition.

About 90 health workers were murdered while delivering polio vaccines to children in 2014. 1 Violent campaigns have also been waged against schools, ancient ruins, and mid-level STEM professors recently.

We can conclude that everything is controversial to someone. We can do better than this vague shrug if we form a metric for political controversy.

My questions are How can we estimate political controversy? and How can we relate this to the tractability of interventions in any social situation? Intuitively, controversy - or, rather, the associated social or political resistance to interventions - is a negative term in any equation for tractability. Obstructionism is a dominating factor for any intervention requiring state approval, state resources, or law enforcement. It manifests as delays, negotiation & PR costs, extra legal costs (lobbying, litigation), hazard insurance, or reduced social trust and thus reduced volunteering and local uptake.

With these as outputs, what inputs are most relevant? Naı̈vely, the relation would involve at least the following terms:

$$ \text{tractability} = \Large{f}\left( \normalsize{\substack{\text{asocial}\\\text{cost:benefit}}, \substack{\text{social capital of}\\\text{ intervening party }}} \right) - \normalsize{\text{obstruction}} $$
$$ \text{obstruction} = \Large{f} \left(\,\, \normalsize{ \text{counter-activism, controversy }} \right) $$ $$ \text{ counter-activism } = \Large{f} \left( \normalsize{ \text{ controversy}, \substack{\text{social capital}\\\text{of opponents}} , \text{P(violence)} } \right) $$ $$ \text{controversy} = \substack{\text{\% population}\\\text{opposed}} \times \left( 1 \,+\, \substack{\text{extent of state}\\ \text{involvement}}\right) $$

Asocial cost:benefit ?

$$ \text{asocial cost:benefit} = \Large{f}\left(\,\normalsize{ \substack{\text{prima facie}\\\text{cost:benefit}} \,,\,\, \substack{\text{intervention}\\\text{track record}} , \substack{\text{theoretical}\\\text{strength}} , \substack{\text{measurability}} }\, \right) $$

Prima facie cost:benefit ?

i.e. the in ceteris paribus efficiency, where other interest groups and obstructions are held equal: $$ \substack{\text{prima facie}\\\text{cost:benefit}} = \text{estimated benefits} - \text{estimated costs} $$

Even more speculatively

something more involved like:
$$ \text{controversy} = \left( \substack{\text{\% population}\\\text{opposed}} \times \left( 1 \,+\, \substack{\text{extent of state}\\ \text{involvement}}\right) + \,\substack{\text{weirdness}\\ \text{of cause}} \right) \times \substack{\text{media}\\ \text{coverage}} $$

Certainly nonlinear, but perhaps not an indeterminable mess.


To date, EA community attention has been focussed on low-controversy Pareto improvements. The proposed work is important because much potential value lies in controversial areas: for instance, state intervention offers vast resources and irreplaceable co-ordination power, but using these is often defeated by controversy and its entailed lobbying.

Also - within limits - controversy is a proxy for harm: the harm of mass preference violation. It can, then, subtract from net impact as well as from tractability.

One month's work should allow for:

  1. clarification of the relations 3;
  2. ranking of exemplar controversies;
  3. data collection and scoring, maybe for a controversy classifier;
  4. coefficient estimates for some cause (e.g. birth control is data-rich and controversial enough).

Sub-questions, for years of work

  • How to quantify political resistance?
    (e.g. via historical studies: How much progress per million dollars on a cause? How often does violence attend work on it?)

  • What predicts political controversy?
    (Leads: social media sentiment analysis, news density, bipartisan lobbyist spending, legislation density, psychological availability, religious edicts.)

  • If equations are helpful, what are appropriate forms?

  • What level of controversy precludes effective intervention?

  • How does controversy accumulate and decay on an organisation like CEA?
    A movement like EA? What are its long-term effects?


I'm not sure whether this research is best aimed at quantitative estimates of present controversies, a predictive model for identifying future ones, or as groundwork for some unfeasibly ambitious future simulation.

I’m not sure how to square the value of countercyclical moral leadership with the 'Impact-Neglectedness-Tractability' (INT) model. I’m not sure how much moral weight to give preference violation, or its proxy, expressed disapproval. 2 I’m not sure how to disaggregate cause controversy, intervention controversy, and actor controversy.

I am not sure how much weight to put on historical case studies, relative to a classifier based on chatter. I’m not sure of the predictive power of my proxies, especially sentiment intensity.

One weak source of validation would be 80,000 Hours' estimates of cause effectiveness, on a simple 1-5 scale. (Note that the lowest tractability causes there, immigration reform and catastrophic risks, are indeed the most politically involved causes.)

Tractability, Formally

Cotton-Barrett has (tentatively) characterised tractability as either: the effort elasticity of a solution, where S = solvedness, W = total work completed: $$ \frac{ dS/S }{ dW/W } $$ or as the probability of success weighted by inertia of effort, p = the likelihood of eventual success: $$ k = p / ln(\frac{\text{marginal resources}}{ \text{total resources spent}}) $$ These are the senses I would investigate in relation to obstruction.


  1. Re: "Around 90":

    Estimate quality: OK, a Spiegelhalter (3*). (No data, no names given.)
    Source: Newsweek.
    Importance to argument: Low.
  2. Though detailed precursors exist in the abstract, e.g. Social Choice theory.
  3. e.g.: Sources of political controversy:

    • Asymmetric information. Spurious controversies, based in error - as plausibly occurred when Boko Haram killed polio health workers on suspicion of being American spies. We might think that the sustainable strategy is simple: do not compromise, but spread the truth.

    • Bias (thick empirical judgments). People will endorse different empirical claims according to their ideology. A major obstacle to working in controversial cause areas is, then, what Dan Kahan calls the "politically motivated reasoning paradigm", an apparently increasing tendency for people to interpret evidence in favour of their political side (especially highly educated people, he claims).

    • Irreconcilable value pluralism. The least tractable of all: options are convert or overrule.
  4. Where ‘Counter-activism’ is to be understood as effective obstruction, not just noise.
  5. Controversy appears again in the obstruction equation, to model sensitivity to bad PR in politicians and NGOs.


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Tags: cause-prioritisation, effective-altruism, quantification


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