Friday November 28, 2014

Reason absent in ice bucket debate


Vacations can be a time for checking out and apparently I did just that. When I got back last Wednesday there was a press release on my desk about an ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) Ice Bucket Challenge scheduled for Thursday morning at Canadian Tire. Despite the fact this clever fundraiser had become just about the biggest viral sensation on the Internet and raised more than $90 million—almost 50 times last year’s result—since it started in late July, I had not heard one thing about it.

In case there are others equally oblivious to this ingenious scheme, the idea is that a person makes a donation to ALS research, has himself doused with a bucket of ice water, and challenges others to do the same.

It is a stunt tailor-made for a celebrity-driven Internet craze and local feel-good photo ops such as the one last week here in Yorkton.

Sounds like good fun for a good cause, but interestingly, the campaign has raised a fair bit of controversy. Specifically, I immediately came across an op-ed piece by Scott Gilmore, a former diplomat who writes for MacLean’s.

The gist of Gilmore’s argument is there are more deserving diseases and when deciding where to spend charity dollars people should consider three criteria: need, influence and urgency. He says ALS fails on all three counts as it affects relatively few people (roughly 6,000 per year in the U.S.), is already well-funded (attracting more than $3,000 per death compared to $90 per death for heart disease) and is far from a crisis compared to, for example, the refugee situation in Syria or the Ebola outbreak in Africa.  

His conclusion is encapsulated by the sub-headline of the article: “The ALS campaign may be a great way to raise money—but it is a horrible reason to donate it.”

He partially backs up this argument with an infographic that I also found kicking around Facebook and Twitter on posts that also decry the fadification of fundraising, if I may be so bold as to coin my own term for it.

He was, of course, viciously lambasted in the comments section.

I love a good controversy as much as the next guy, but I am not going to weigh in on whether Mr. Gilmore and many others, such as blogger Julia Bulluz—from whom the above-mentioned infographic originally came—have a point or whether all is fair in the accelerating race for charitable dollars.

Rather, there are two things that really bother me about this issue, the simplification of arguments and the vitriol of responses.

On the first point, trying to boil down the issue to a few simple statistics is misleading.

Bulluz’s chart—which is ostensibly developed from 2011 Centres for Disease Control (CDC) data although the fundraising events it cites are from 2012, 2013 and 2014—shows the money raised relative to U.S. deaths for various high profile diseases. Most striking among these is the comparison between breast cancer and heart disease. Breast cancer is, without question the most successful fundraising cause in history. Heart disease is, inarguably, the most prolific killer of human beings in the developed world.

In the Bulluz chart, breast cancer raised $258 million (2012 Komen Race for the Cure) compared to heart disease’s $54 million (2013 Jump Rope for Heart). Yet heart disease killed almost 600,000 people compared to only 41,000 for breast cancer.

The water is slightly muddied by the mixing of data sources, but the impact of such a comparison is visceral for many people. Is it relevant, though?

It is difficult to say, but what the chart and Gilmore’s fundraising dollars per death comparison do not take into account is how much money is actually available and/or spent on the various diseases. On top of whatever monies are raised by charitable organizations, almost immeasurable amounts of public and private money is devoted to heart disease and the other big killers, but not much on less common diseases such as ALS.

Also, why is the donated money needed? What is it used for? Is it research? Programs and services? Education? Quality of life measures? Some things cost more than others.

Finally, is there really an objective way to evaluate how an individual should prioritize her charitable giving? Gilmore suggests one strategy. Bulluz cites experts who suggest the impact of a dollar given to developing world charities can be up to 100 times that of a donation to developed world charities. Does any of that really matter, though, if what an individual really cares about is saving local dogs from abuse rather than preventing people from committing suicide, for example?

I am not going to try to answer these questions here, but even asking them quickly punches holes in the simplistic arguments raised against the ice bucket challenge.

Which brings me to my second point. It worries me that thoughtful people such as Gilmore and Bulluz are viciously attacked to a degree not remotely proportionate to the reasoned critique they presented.

Instead of engaging in measured civil discourse, it seems the largely anonymous denizens of the comment sections of web pages think it is okay to spout hatred and violence for the mere act of expressing a dissenting opinion.

Whether you agree or disagree with the specific objection to the ice bucket challenge, the authors make a salient general point that we should always be present in our decision-making process and not just cravenly following the social media herd.



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