Department of Self-Presentation: The GiveWell Mistakes Page

The GiveWell website has a page (“Our Shortcomings”) that is a list of mistakes.  A good idea, sure, what about execution?

It starts badly. Here is the stated reason for the page:

Because we are a startup organization working in areas we have little experience with, it is particularly important that we constantly recognize and learn from our shortcomings. We make this log public so as to be up front with any potential supporters about ways in which we need to improve.

The second sentence alone would have been fine.

The first item is called “overaggressive and inappropriate marketing.” I’d call it “dishonest marketing”.

I once attended a short talk, before PowerPoint, in which the speaker, Herb Terrace, a Columbia University psychology professor, put a slide in backwards. He struggled to fix it. It was funny and memorable.  Maybe I should make similar mistakes on purpose, I thought. I have no idea if the GiveWell mistakes page is a reasonable summary of their mistakes. As Renata Adler pointed out, the New York Times corrects trivial mistakes and leaves major blunders uncorrected (“there are, as a rule, no genuine corrections. These departments are cosmetic”). But the GiveWell mistakes page does three things well. (a) It’s a readable summary of what they do and their goals. In contrast, I found  their “About” pages unhelpful. (b) It makes them more attractive. As confessions of difficulties and problems and weaknesses usually do. (c) It draws attention to them. It is an original and thought-provoking thing to do. The next time I teach a class, should I include “mistakes I made last time I taught this class”? Maybe.