The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge isn't going away

Clearly this fad has outlasted just about all expectations. It’s almost as though it were invented in some kind of viral factory. (I count 41 BuzzFeed posts on the subject and rising.) It has celebrity and built-in virality (“tagging” friends) and wet T-shirts and humor (all those #fail videos)—and, crucially, it has a random Good Cause attached. Even if you think the whole fad is incredibly stupid and/or dangerous, it has become de rigueur to say that if you don’t want to pour ice water all over yourself, it’s still important to donate to ALS.

“Turning a pointless viral meme to noble ends can only be a good thing,” wrote Will Oremus in Slate, praising all the good that the money will do for “the 12,000 Americans who have the disease, and for their families and future generations.”

But giving money to a disease-specific charity is a very odd, and peculiarly ineffective, way of spending your philanthropic dollar—especially when your donation is a one-off thing. What is the ALS Association going to do with all this money? They haven’t said. The organization’s primary focus is scientific: They fund research into the disease and potential cures. ALS is a tough nut to crack, however: After 30 years of work, we don’t seem to be any closer to finding a cure. And there’s no particular reason to believe that we’re $100 million away from finally getting somewhere. Even if a million Americans donate $100 each to ALS, the net positive effect on the world might well be very small indeed.