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Ice Bucket Challenge
“Doing the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge” by slgckgc courtesy of Wikimedia CC.

Is the Ice Bucket Challenge going to cure ALS?

Yankees’ first baseman Lou Gehrig is remembered today mostly for the disease that ended his career—amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also called Lou Gehrig’s Disease. In a passionate goodbye to the sport he loved, Gehrig said, “I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”

If only Lou had lived to see the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Apparently we can cure this disease simply by dumping buckets of ice water on our heads! If only Lou had known, he could have arranged to be the coldest and wettest man on earth, then played for a few more years.

The Ice Bucket Challenge is an online video craze where people dump ice water on their heads, then challenge others to do the same within 24 hours or donate $100 to ALS research. Several things about this puzzle me:


  • Why don’t more people make donations? The people in the videos are getting soaked to avoid making a donation. How does that help? Maybe the creators of this craze should have called it “The $100 donation challenge” (although this would obviously not be as popular on YouTube).
  • What does ice water have to do with ALS? Should we be pouring ice water on people with ALS? Does pneumonia somehow displace ALS? The videos rarely explain how all of this helps cure the disease.
  • How did extortion become an act of charity? The soggy participants challenge others, basically demanding, “Your money or your warmth!”


It’s true that the challenge seems to have spurred giving to ALS research. Donations are up, as are new donors. Awareness has soared, thanks to a viral video campaign that has been called the “Harlem Shake” of 2014 (“Harlem Shiver?”). The charity that is the main beneficiary reports an additional $100 million in donations as a result of the craze.

Still, funding cannibalism is a concern. A dollar donated to Cause A is a dollar that’s not available to Cause B. The Ice Bucket Challenge could hurt rather than help if it steers giving away from more worthy causes. Is ALS research the best use of charitable dollars? If a goofy video is the best way to determine what medical research gets funded, maybe it’s time for some other diseases to step up with their own video challenges. Fill your pants with Jell-O to fight mumps? Eat a cockroach to battle lymphoma? It makes just as much sense.

ALS is a terrible disease but is responsible for only about two deaths per 100,000 people. Compare that to malaria, which has death rates 80 times higher in parts of the world, and can be substantially reduced with simple measures like mosquito nets and insect repellant.

Heart disease takes 130 times more lives. Stroke 45 times more. Even colorectal cancer causes five times as many deaths (we can only hope that we don’t start seeing videos of celebrity colonoscopies on YouTube).

Hats off to those ice bucket folks who also make a donation. But studies find only a small percentage do so. The others, at best, have raised awareness of ALS. The people watching the videos have done even less. It’s an example of what some critics call “slacktivism”—replacing genuine involvement with a goofy stunt, or with a simple click to “like” a video. The danger is that it makes us feel we’ve done something worthwhile and can therefore check “something worthwhile” off our to-do list.

There’s a corporate version that is on my current pet peeve list. Increasingly, when I’m paying for a purchase I’m confronted by a clerk who asks if I’d like to donate a dollar to the organization designated. I just want to buy my gas or burger—not wrestle with choices regarding charitable giving.

I’ve started asking if the company is going to match my donation. If they are, I might consider a gift of my own. But if the company’s idea of charitable behavior is just to turn their minimum-wage employees into panhandlers …, I’ll pass.

There are many worthwhile ways to donate your time and money and make the world a better place. But if you think pouring ice water over your head is going to cure a disease, you’re all wet.

Doug Trouten


— by Doug Trouten

Trouten is a professor of communications at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul.