I'm Donating 90% of my Recent Income to Slime Mold Time Mold

Since quitting my job to blog full time, I didn’t make a lot of money until recently. As of last month, some readers are paying me to advise/edit their new blog, and the Center for Effective Altruism is paying me to write the EA Newsletter.

So far, I’ve made $1890, with another $1200 due soon. Of the $3090 total, I’m donating $2800 to Slime Mold Time Mold to support their research agenda on the environmental contaminant theory of obesity.

I plan to continue donating 90% of my income to this research until either:
A) The authors are funded by a billionaire patron
B) The authors are funded by a grant endowed by a billionaire patron
C) The authors tell me they don’t need any more money

If you would like to join me, you can get in contact with me at applieddivinitystudies@gmail.com, with the authors directly at slimemoldtimemold@gmail.com, make a recurring donation on Patreon, or make a one time donation through Paypal.

Some of you might ask “why are you giving money to obesity research? Shouldn’t you be spending it on bednets or AI safety, or at least on Give Directly?”

First of all, I’m not giving my money to obesity research in the abstract, which I agree is quite low impact. I’m giving it to specific people (Slime Mold Time Mold) to pursue a specific research agenda (the contamination theory of obesity).

Second, though I’ve previously expressed some doubts about the impact of donations to EA causes already funded by large foundations, I agree that Give Directly is a pretty safe bet to achieve fairly massive impact at a very low cost. There are many very poor people, and transfering wealth to them (either through health interventions or direct giving) is still incredibly low hanging ethical fruit.

Having said all that, at this particular margin, I genuinely think that donating to Slime Mold Time Mold is more important. It’s not just the obesity research, it’s the opportunity to see a genuine scientific revolution play out in real time, and I would pay just about anything to get a front row seat.

[EDIT 01/18/2022] In an earlier version, I included my estimates that the SMTM theory is actually correct. I ommited them for brevity, but it has been recommended that I include them here. So okay:

In 2021, The NIH spent around $1.2 billion on obesity research, with another $280 million on childhood obesity research. By one esimates, the US spends $190 billion on obesity-related health care expenses. And that’s just direct financial costs! That’s not even indirect costs from lost life, or lost happiness or anything else.

So extrememy back of the napkin, the SMTM research is probably worth funding, compared to an NIH baseline, if it has something like a 0.1% chance of resulting in a breakthrough at a cost of under $10 million. Where “breakthrough” basically means that it becomes the dominant paradigm and enables future NIH spending to be much more effective.

Having said that, we should be cautious of pascalian arguments, and I would not fund SMTM if I thought they only had a 0.1% chance of success. My actual view is that the odds of their theory (or something close to it) being correct are around 10%. That’s not exceptionally high, but it’s 100x higher than it needs to be.

What about using Give Directly as a baseline and looking at QALYs instead of financial costs? This depends a lot on how much you think your donation counterfactually enables more research from SMTM. But okay, say 3 million people “die from obesity” each year, such that ending the obesity epidemic a year earlier is worth 3 million QALYs. It’s probably more because you don’t just buy an extra year, but let’s be conservative.

Off the top of my head, the minimal cost per life saved is ~$5000, which is supposed to be equivalent to 35 QALYs, so that’s $143/QALY. But I have some concerns about crowding out large donors, so say I donate to GiveDirectly instead, which is more like $1000/QALY.

So the opportunity cost of $100k is 100 QALYs. Which means to justify a donation of that size to SMTM, we would have to believe that they’ll accelerate the end of the obesity epidemic by… about 15 minutes.

Seriously, that’s how the math works out. It’s 3M QALYs per year, which is 8,200 QALYs per day, or 340 per hour, so 100 QALYs is about 15 minutes. Alternatively, you have to believe that there’s a 0.1% chance that the donation will accelerate the end by about two weeks.

Obviously this is all absurdly abstracted, and you should’t wake QALY estimates too literally and so on. I’m just saying, we should at least try to make up numbers, and when we do so, we get that my decision is not obviously wrong.