It doesn't only matter what you say, it matters how you say it. This is just as true when trying to persuade others to moral action. In this two-part series Yuan Yang will highlight the importance of conveying information persuasively when discussing moral issues. In her first post, you can read about how framing determines the moral content of your message, and why this matters for the DALYs per Dollar debate. Keep an eye out for Yuan's next post where she'll discuss representing statistics and the international Dollar vs real Dollar question.
To change the world, your words must be read and understood. Unfortunately, attention is a very limited resource - the attention of important decision-makers especially so. To make sure that our research on cost effectiveness is itself effective we need to write for our audience in the following ways:
A failure to do these things can cause good research to go unread and fail to contribute to a better world. 80% of your impact may come from a glossy executive summary, so it deserves a great deal of attention.
When we attempt to persuade others to moral action, the way we convey information matters - this we all know. However, moral persuasion is not just a matter of making information easy to understand, but also being aware of the moral values you convey in the way you write.
When we write coherently, we cannot help but present our reader with a narrative, or what the professor of political communication, Jim Kuypers, calls a ‘frame’. "Framing is a process whereby communicators, consciously or unconsciously, act to construct a point of view that encourages the facts of a given situation to be interpreted by others in a particular manner. Frames operate in four key ways: they define problems, diagnose causes, make moral judgments, and suggest remedies. Frames are often found within a narrative account of an issue or event, and are generally the central organizing idea." (from Kuypers’ “Rhetorical Criticism: Perspectives in Action”.) Effective and ethically sound writing requires us to consciously choosing our frame and take responsibility for our rhetoric.
Let’s illustrate this with an example. Say you are showcasing three charities (A, B, and C working in the field of Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs), and you have DALY cost-effectiveness data on each of them. You are trying to convey two messages at the same time: firstly, that charity A and B are incredibly cost-effective compared to C, so you should prioritise A and B over C (the “effectiveness” message); secondly, that A and B are so cost-effective for achieving moral ends, that you ought to consider giving money to them (the “ethical impact” message). How do you prioritise these messages, and how do you convey them using your data?
When you present cost-effectiveness data, your choice of how to frame your data reflects your prioritisation of these messages, which in turn reflects moral values that will be implicitly understood by the reader. Consider the following:
“Charity A’s intervention costs $200 per DALY. You can find a brief explanation of DALYs here. However, Charity B costs $250, and Charity C costs $20,000.”
This dollar-per-DALY framing of the information concentrates the reader’s attention on the dollar cost of DALYs saved. The problem with doing so is that it works for the reader who is straightforwardly minimising their expenditure per DALY, and just needs to see the smallest figure to decide where to give money. Most readers outside of the Giving What We Can community are not doing this.
“For $1,000, Charity A can save 5 DALYs. In comparison, Charity B can save 4 DALYs - but Charity C only saves 0.05 of a DALY.”
This DALY-per-dollar framing concentrates the reader’s attention on what it is the charities are doing - saving lives. This framing appeals to a reader who, like all of us, have money they could use in a variety of ways, but did not consider or realise the impact they could have by spending money on this particular charity.
Your aim should be to leave the reader feeling more optimistic about their ability to affect the world around them, and empowered to make decisions with better information; not harangued or guilty. Thus framing the information in terms of maximising a positive thing - the effect one can have - rather than minimising a negative thing - the cost of doing good in the world - emphasises the power of action. The problem with emphasising the “effectiveness” message is that it is implicitly appealing to only one moral intuition - some form of consequentialism. One does not have to be a consequentialist to think critically about where one’s money goes and what it does. No effective campaign for charitable giving should turn away non-consequentialists.
The DALY-per-dollar framing also avoids another illusion. Imagine you are comparing between three different projects, one that achieves $1/DALY, a second that achieves $3/DALY and a third that achieves $7/DALY. When comparing projects in $/DALY it is natural to think that the difference in value between the second and third (apparently $4/DALY) is more important than the difference in value between the first and second (just $2/DALY). In fact the opposite is the case, as revealed by their respective values in DALY averted per $1000 spent: 1000, 333 and 143. The difference in the good done between the first two options is 3.5 times larger than the difference between the second and third! A DALY/$ measure understates the real-world importance of apparently ‘small’ differences in cost effectiveness among the best options.
Keep an eye out for Yuan's next post where she'll discuss representing statistics in graphs and whether it is better to use international dollars or real dollars as your metric. (Ed.)
Image credit: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Snapsi42