Monday, August 18, 2014

Thoughts on the Criticisms of the Ice Bucket Challenge

The Ice Bucket Challenge, a grassroots social media effort to raise funds and awareness for ALS, has spread beyond anyone's expectations. And with popularity comes criticism. I have heard and read the criticism and, to be honest, find it largely unconvincing. Below I will discuss each of the primary critiques.

1. Dumping ice over one's head has nothing to do with ALS.
This critique takes many forms, but the gist is that we don't learn anything from watching people dump ice over their heads. The thing is that more traditional ways of getting people to learn about ALS are expensive, in part because ALS is not (or at least was not) at the center of the public view -- last year, attempts to educate the public about ALS consumed 32% of the ALS Association's expenses. True, you don't learn about ALS from the exercise, but it has led people to seek out information about ALS. As Adweek notes, searches about ALS are up since the challenge started (and more so than searches for the Ice Bucket Challenge itself). A look at Google Trends reveals a similar feature: public curiosity about ALS is way up and more prevalent than curiosity about the Ice Bucket Challenge.

2. The Ice Bucket Challenge is Slacktivism and Doesn't Help the Cause.
This was an early critique, that most people were just posting videos and not actually doing anything to help. It is exemplified by this Huffington Post article. Data has already debunked this one. Sure, not everyone is donating, but a lot of people are.  As of August 18, the ALS Association had raised $15.6 million in donations from 307,598 new donors since the Ice Bucket Challenge began, and both figures are sure to rise. For some context, note that unrestricted contributions to the ALS Association from the general public accounted for $5.8 million for the entire fiscal year 2013.

3. The Ice Bucket Challenge is Taking Funds from other Organizations.
In contrast to the previous one, this complaint is basically that the Ice Bucket Challenge is raising too much money.  The concern, as expressed by William MacAskill in Quartz, is a bit more subtle in that it argues that people giving as a result of the challenge are less motivated to give elsewhere. Rooted in the notion of "moral licensing", the idea is that people feel good about their gift to the cause and thus feel less of a need to do other good things. Besides presenting a rather depressing "zero-sum" view of kindness and charity, it also is applying an experimental result in one setting with the presumption it works in this one. I, for one, know that my giving to other organizations has not been affected by my giving in the Ice Bucket Challenge, and I suspect others feel the same. Even if it is true, it is worth noting that ALS is not a disease that typically lends itself to an enthusiastic public response and for which fundraising is otherwise very hard. So, if it is taking some from other, more visible, causes who will surely return to the center of public view, perhaps that's an acceptable tradeoff.

4. The Ice Bucket Challenge Wastes Water.
Yes, some have even complained that it is a waste of water. Sure, I guess that water is not being used for drinking, but we do plenty of things with water that are not necessary. I would find this view convincing only if those espousing it were protesting water parks and swimming pools too.

In short, I know the persistent ice bucket videos filling your newsfeed can be annoying. However, they are resulting in positive things in the fight against ALS. And, not to worry, in a couple of weeks your newsfeed will return to being filled with arguments about politics and quizzes about which Game of Thrones character you are.