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JBeshir comments on Building Cooperative Epistemology (Response to "EA has a Lying Problem", among other things) - Effective Altruism Forum

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Comment author: JBeshir 11 January 2017 07:47:21PM 4 points [-]

Copying my post from the Facebook thread:

Some of the stuff in the original post I disagree on, but the ACE stuff was pretty awful. Animal advocacy in general has had severe problems with falling prey to the temptation to exaggerate or outright lie for a quick win today. especially about health, and it's disturbing that apparently the main evaluator for the animal rights wing of the EA movement has already decided to join it and throw out actually having discourse on effectiveness in favour of plundering their reputation for more donations today. A mistake is a typo, or leaving something up accidentally, or publishing something early by accident, and only mitigation if corrective action was taken once detected. This was at the minimum negligence, but given that it's been there for years without making the trivial effort to fix it should probably be regarded as just a lie. ACE needs replacing with a better and actually honest evaluator.

One of the ways this negatively impacted the effectiveness discourse: During late 2015 there was an article written arguing for ethical offsetting of meat eating (http://slatestarcodex.com/.../vegetarianism-for-meat-eaters/), but it used ACE's figures, and so understated the amounts people needed to donate by possibly multiple orders of magnitude.

More concerning is the extent to which the (EDIT: Facebook) comments on this post and the previously cited ones go ahead and justify even deliberate lying, "Yes, but hypothetically lying might be okay under some circumstances, like to save the world, and I can't absolutely prove it's not justified here, so I'm not going to judge anyone badly for lying", as with Bryd's original post as well. The article sets out a pretty weak case for "EA needs stronger norms against lying" aside for the animal rights wing, but the comments basically confirm it.

I know that answering "How can we build a movement that matches religious movements in output (http://lesswrong.com/.../can_humanism_match_religions.../), how can we grow and build effectiveness, how can we coordinate like the best, how can we overcome that people think that charity is a scam?" with "Have we considered /becoming pathological liars/? I've not proven it can't work, so let's assume it does and debate from there" is fun and edgy, but it's also terrible.

I can think of circumstances where I'd void my GWWC pledge; if they ever pulled any of this "lying to get more donations" stuff, I'd stick with TLYCS and a personal commitment but leave their website.

Comment author: Ben_West  (EA Profile) 12 January 2017 01:34:42AM 7 points [-]

apparently the main evaluator for the animal rights wing of the EA movement has already decided to join it and throw out actually having discourse on effectiveness in favour of plundering their reputation for more donations

This seems like an exaggerated and unhelpful thing to say.

Comment author: JBeshir 12 January 2017 01:46:17PM 1 point [-]

Perhaps. It's certainly what the people suggesting that deliberate dishonesty would be okay are suggesting, and it is what a large amount of online advocacy does, and it is in effect what they did, but they probably didn't consciously decide to do it. I'm not sure how much credit not having consciously decided is worth, though, because that seems to just reward people for not thinking very hard about what they're doing, and they did it from a position of authority and (thus) responsibility.

I stand by the use of the word 'plundering'- it's surprising how some people are willing to hum and har about maybe it being worth it, when doing it deliberately would be a very short-sighted, destroy-the-future-for-money-now act. It calls for such a strong term. And I stand by the position that it would throw out actually having discourse on effectiveness if people played those sorts of games, withheld information that would be bad for causes they think are good, etc, rather than being scrupulously honest. But again to say they 'decided' to do those things is perhaps not entirely right.

I think in an evaluator, which is in a sense a watchdog for other peoples' claims, these kind of things really are pretty serious- it would be scandalous if e.g. GiveWell were found to have been overexcited about something and ignored issues with it on this level. Their job is to curb enthusiasm, not just be another advocate. So I think taking it seriously is pretty called for. As I mentioned in a comment below, though, maybe part of the problem is that EA people tried to take ACE as a more robust evaluator than it was actually intending to be, and the consequence should be that they shift to regarding it as a source for pointers whose own statements are to be taken with a large grain of salt, the way individual charity statements are.

Comment author: Ben_West  (EA Profile) 13 January 2017 12:38:47AM 10 points [-]

ACE's primary output is its charity recommendations, and I would guess that it's "top charities" page is viewed ~100x more than the leafleting page Sarah links to.

ACE does not give the "top charity" designation to any organization which focuses primarily on leafleting, and e.g. the page for Vegan Outreach explicitly states that VO is not considered a top charity because of its focus on leafleting and the lack of robust research on that:

We have some concerns that Vegan Outreach has relied too heavily on poor sources of evidence to determine the effectiveness of leafleting as compared to other interventions... Why didn’t Vegan Outreach receive our top recommendation? Although we are impressed with Vegan Outreach’s recent openness to change and their attempts to measure their effectiveness, we still have reservations about their heavy focus on leafleting programs

You are proposing that ACE says negative things on its most prominent pages about leafleting, but left some text buried in a back page that said good things about leafleting as part of a dastardly plot to increase donations to organizations they don't even recommend.

This seems unlikely to me, to put it mildly, but more importantly: it's incredibly important that we assume others are acting in good faith. I disagree with you about this, but I don't think that you are trying to "throw out actually having discourse on effectiveness". This, more than any empirical fact about the likelihood of your hypothesis, is why I think your comment is unhelpful.

Comment author: JBeshir 13 January 2017 10:08:12AM *  4 points [-]

This definitely isn't the kind of deliberate where there's an overarching plot, but it's not distinguishable from the kind of deliberate where a person sees a thing they should do or a reason to not write what they're writing and knowingly ignores it, though I'd agree in that I think it's more likely they flinched away unconsciously.

It's worth noting that while Vegan Outreach is not listed as a top charity it is listed as a standout charity, with their page here: https://animalcharityevaluators.org/research/charity-review/vegan-outreach/

I don't think it is good to laud positive evidence but refer to negative evidence only via saying "there is a lack of evidence", which is what the disclaimers do- in particular there's no mention of the evidence against there being any effect at all. Nor is it good to refer to studies which are clearly entirely invalid as merely "poor" while still relying on their data. It shouldn't be "there is good evidence" when there's evidence for, and "the evidence is still under debate" when there's evidence against, and there shouldn't be a "gushing praise upfront, provisos later" approach unless you feel the praise is still justified after the provisos. And "have reservations" is pretty weak. These are not good acts from a supposedly neutral evaluator.

Until the revision in November 2016, the VO page opened with: "Vegan Outreach (VO) engages almost exclusively in a single intervention, leafleting on behalf of farmed animals, which we consider to be among the most effective ways to help animals.", as an example of this. Even now I don't think it represents the state of affairs well.

If in trying to resolve the matter of whether it has high expected impact or not, you went to the main review on leafleting (https://animalcharityevaluators.org/research/interventions/leafleting/), you'd find it began with "The existing evidence on the impact of leafleting is among the strongest bodies of evidence bearing on animal advocacy methods.".

This is a very central Not Technically a Lie (http://lesswrong.com/lw/11y/not_technically_lying/); the example of a not-technically-a-lie in that post being using the phrase "The strongest painkiller I have." to refer to something with no painkilling properties when you have no painkillers. I feel this isn't something that should be taken lightly:

"NTL, by contrast, may be too cheap. If I lie about something, I realize that I'm lying and I feel bad that I have to. I may change my behaviour in the future to avoid that. I may realize that it reflects poorly on me as a person. But if I don't technically lie, well, hey! I'm still an honest, upright person and I can thus justify visciously misleading people because at least I'm not technically dishonest."

The disclaimer added now helps things, but good judgement should have resulted in an update and correction being transparently issued well before now.

The part which strikes me as most egregious was in the deprioritising of updating a review on what was described in a bunch of places as the most cost effective (and therefore most effective) intervention. I can't see any reason for that, other than that the update would have been negative.

There may not have been conscious intent behind this- I could assume that this was as a result of poor judgement rather than design- but it did mislead the discourse on effectiveness, that already happened, and not as a result of people doing the best thing given information available to them but as a result of poor decisions given this information. Whether it got more donations or not is unclear- it might have tempted more people into offsetting, but on the other hand each person who did offsetting would have paid less because they wouldn't have actually offset themselves.

However something like this is handled is also how a bad actor would be handled, because a bad actor would be indistinguishable from this; if we let this by without criticism and reform, then bad actors would also be let by without criticism and reform.

I think when it comes to responding to some pretty severe stuff of this sort, even if you assume the people made them in good faith and just made some rationality failings, more needs to be said than "mistakes were made, we'll assume you're doing the best you can to not make them again". I don't have a grand theory of how people should react here, but it needs to be more than that.

My inclination is to at the least frankly express how severe I think it is- even if it's not the nicest thing I could say.

Comment author: Ben_West  (EA Profile) 13 January 2017 11:48:35PM 2 points [-]

Thanks for the response, it helps me understand where you're coming from.

I agree that the sentence you cite could be better written (and in general ACE could improve, as could we all). I disagree with this though:

However something like this is handled is also how a bad actor would be handled, because a bad actor would be indistinguishable from this; if we let this by without criticism and reform, then bad actors would also be let by without criticism and reform.

At the object level: ACE is distinguishable from a bad actor, for example due to the fact that their most prominent pages do not recommend charities which focus on leafleting.

At the metalevel: I don't think we should have a conversational norm of "everyone should be treated as a bad actor until they can prove otherwise". It would be really awful to be a member of a community with that norm.

All this being said, it seems that ACE is responding in this post now, and it may be better to let them address concerns since they are both more knowledgeable and more articulate than me.

Comment author: Peter_Hurford  (EA Profile) 13 January 2017 08:04:42PM 2 points [-]

in particular there's no mention of the evidence against there being any effect at all.

To be clear, it's inaccurate to describe the studies as showing evidence of no effect. All of the studies are consistent with a range of possible outcomes that include no effect (and even negative effect!) but they're also consistent with positive effect.

That isn't to say that there is a positive effect.

But it isn't to say there's a negative effect either.

I think it is best to describe this as a "lack of evidence" one way or another.

-

I don't think it is good to laud positive evidence but refer to negative evidence only via saying "there is a lack of evidence", which is what the disclaimers do

I don't think there's good evidence that anything works in animal rights and if ACE suggests anything anywhere to the contrary I'd like to push against it.

Comment author: Peter_Hurford  (EA Profile) 11 January 2017 08:03:33PM 9 points [-]

I'm involved with ACE as a board member and independent volunteer researcher, but I speak for myself. I agree with you that the leafleting complaints are legitimate -- I've been advocating more skepticism toward the leafleting numbers for years. But I feel like it's pretty harsh to think ACE needs to be entirely replaced.

I don't know if it's helpful, but I can promise you that there's no intentional PR campaign on behalf of ACE to over-exaggerate in order to grow the movement. All I see is an overworked org with insufficient resources to double check all the content on their site.

Judging the character of the ACE staff through my interactions with them, I don't think there was any intent to mislead on leaflets. I'd put it more as negligence arising from over-excitement from the initial studies (despite lots of methodological flaws), insufficient skepticism, and not fully thinking through how things would be interpreted (the claim that leafleting evidence is the strongest among AR is technically true). The one particular sentence, among the thousands on the site, went pretty much unnoticed until Harrison brought it up.

Comment author: JBeshir 11 January 2017 10:21:28PM 7 points [-]

Thanks for the feedback, and I'm sorry that it's harsh. I'm willing to believe that it wasn't conscious intent at publication time at least.

But it seems quite likely to me from the outside that if they thought the numbers were underestimating they'd have fixed them a lot faster, and unless that's not true it's a pretty severe ethics problem. I'm sure it was a matter of "it's an error that's not hurting anyone because charity is good, so it isn't very important", or even just a generic motivation problem in volunteering to fix it, some kind of rationalisation that felt good rather than "I'm going to lie for the greater good"- the only people advocating that outright seem to be other commenters- but it's still a pretty bad ethics issue for an evaluator to succumb to the temptation to defer an unfavourable update.

I think some of this might be that the EA community was overly aggressive in finding them and sort of treating them as the animal charity GiveWell, because EA wanted there to be one, when ACE weren't really aiming to be that robust. A good, robust evaluator's job should be to screen out bad studies and to examine other peoples' enthusiasm and work out how grounded it was, with transparent handling of errors (GiveWell does updates that discuss them and such) and updating in response to new information, and from that perspective taking a severely poor study at face value and not correcting it for years, resulting in a large number of people getting wrong valuations was a pretty huge failing. Making "technically correct" but very misleading statements which we'd view poorly if they came from a company advertising itself is also very bad in an organisation whose job is basically to help you sort through everyone else's advertisements.

Maybe the sensible thing for now is to assume that there is no animal charity evaluator that's good enough to safely defer to, and all there are are people who may point you to papers which caveat emptor, you have to check yourself, for now.

Comment author: DavidNash 12 January 2017 12:24:45PM 5 points [-]

Maybe I'm being simple about this, but I find it's helpful to point people towards ACE because there doesn't seem to be any other charity researchers for that cause.

Just by suggesting people donate to organisations that focus on animal farming, that seems like it can have a large impact even if it's hard to pick between the particular organisations.