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

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Comment author: erikaalonso 13 January 2017 12:38:41AM *  21 points [-]

Hi everyone! I’m here to formally respond to Sarah’s article, on behalf of ACE. It’s difficult to determine where the response should go, as it seems there are many discussions, and reposting appears to be discouraged. I’ve decided to post here on the EA forum (as it tends to be the central meeting place for EAs), and will try to direct people from other places to this longer response.

Firstly, I’d like to clarify why we have not inserted ourselves into the discussion happening in multiple Facebook groups and fora. We have recently implemented a formal social media policy which encourages ACE staff to respond to comments about our work with great consideration, and in a way that accurately reflects our views (as opposed to those of one staff member). We are aware that this might come across as “radio silence” or lack of concern for the criticism at hand—but that is not the case. Whenever there are legitimate critiques about our work, we take it very seriously. When there are accusations of intent to deceive, we do not take them lightly. The last thing we want to do is respond in haste only to realize that we had not given the criticism enough consideration. We also want to allow the community to discuss amongst themselves prior to posting a response. This is not only to encourage discussion amongst individual members of the community, but also so that we can prioritize responding to the concerns shared by the greatest number of community members.

It is clear to us now that we have failed to adequately communicate the uncertainty surrounding the outcomes of our leafleting intervention report. We absolutely disagree with claims of intentional deception and the characterization of our staff as acting in bad-faith—we have never tried to hide our uncertainty about the existing leafleting research report, and as others have pointed out, it is clearly stated throughout the site where leafleting is mentioned. However, our reasoning that these disclaimers would be obvious was based on the assumption that those interested in the report would read it in its entirety. After reading the responses to this article, it’s obvious that we have not made these disclaimers as apparent as they should be. We have added a longer disclaimer to the top of our leafleting report page, expressing our current thoughts and noting that we will update the report sometime in 2017.

In addition, we have decided to remove the impact calculator (a tool which included an ability to enter donations directed to leafleting and receive estimates of high and low bounds of animals spared) from our website entirely until we feel more confident that it is not misleading to those unfamiliar with cost effectiveness calculations and/or an understanding of how the low/best/high error bounds exemplify the uncertainty regarding those numbers. It is not typical for us to remove content from the site, but we intend to operate with abundant caution. This change seems to be the best option, given that people believe we are being intentionally deceptive in keeping them online.

Finally, leadership at ACE all agree it has been too long since we have updated our Mistakes page, so we have added new entries concerning issues we have reflected upon as an organization.

We also notice that there is concern among the community that our recommendations are suspect due to the weak evidence supporting our cost-effectiveness estimates of leafleting. The focus on leafleting for this criticism is confusing to us, as our cost-effectiveness estimates address many interventions, not only leafleting, and the evidence for leafleting is not much weaker than other evidence available about animal advocacy interventions. On top of that, cost-effectiveness estimates are only a factor in one of the seven criteria used in our evaluation process. In most cases, we don’t think that they have changed the outcome of our evaluation decisions. While we haven’t come up with a solution for clarifying this point, we always welcome and are appreciative of constructive feedback.

We are committed to honesty, and are disappointed that the content we've published on the website concerning leafleting has caused so much confusion as to lead anyone to believe we are intentionally deceiving our supporters for profit. On a personal note, I’m devastated to hear that our error in communication has led to the character assassination not only of ACE, but of the people who comprise the organization—some of the hardest working, well-intentioned people I’ve ever worked with.

Finally, I would like everyone to know that we sincerely appreciate the constructive feedback we receive from people within and beyond the EA movement.

*Edited to add links

Comment author: Carl_Shulman 24 January 2017 03:13:27AM *  9 points [-]

After reading the responses to this article, it’s obvious that we have not made these disclaimers as apparent as they should be...until we feel more confident that it is not misleading to those unfamiliar with cost effectiveness calculations

When there are debates about how readers are interpreting text, or potentially being misled by it, empirical testing (e.g. having Mechanical Turk readers view a page and then answer questions about the topic where they might be misled) is a powerful tool (and also avoids reliance on staff intuitions that might be affected by a curse of knowledge). See here for a recent successful example.

Comment author: EricHerboso  (EA Profile) 13 January 2017 01:14:52AM 5 points [-]

Well said, Erika. I'm happy with most of these changes, though I'm sad that we have had to remove the impact calculator in order to ensure others don't get the wrong idea about how seriously such estimates should be taken. Thankfully, Allison plans on implementing a replacement for it at some point using the Guesstimate platform.

For those interested in seeing the exact changes ACE has made to the site, see the disclaimer at the top of the leafleting intervention page and the updates to our mistakes page.

Comment author: JBeshir 13 January 2017 09:55:36AM *  2 points [-]

Thank you for the response, and I'm glad that it's being improved, and that there seems to be a honest interest in doing better.

I feel "ensure others don't get the wrong idea about how seriously such estimates should be taken" is understating things- it should be reasonable for people to ascribe some non-zero level of meaning to issued estimates, and especially it should be that using them to compare between charities doesn't lead you massively astray. If it's "the wrong idea" to look at an estimate at all, because it isn't the true best reasoned expectation of results the evaluator has, I think the error was in the estimate rather than in expectation management, and find the deflection of responsibility here to the people who took ACE at all seriously concerning.

The solution here shouldn't be for people to trust things others say less in general.

Compare, say, GiveWell's analysis of LLINs (http://www.givewell.org/international/technical/programs/insecticide-treated-nets#HowcosteffectiveisLLINdistribution); it's very rough and the numbers shouldn't be assumed to be close to right (and responsibly, they describe all this), but their methodology makes them viable for comparison purposes.

Cost-effectiveness is important- it is the measure of where putting your money does the most good and how much good you can expect to do, and a fully inclusive of risks and data issues cost effectiveness estimate is basically what one is arriving at when one determines what is effective. Even if you use other selection strategies for top charities, incorrect cost effectiveness estimates are not good.

Comment author: EricHerboso  (EA Profile) 13 January 2017 07:30:50PM *  7 points [-]

I agree: it is indeed reasonable for people to have read our estimates the way they did. But when I said that we don't want others to "get the wrong idea", I'm not claiming that the readers were at fault. I'm claiming that the ACE communications staff was at fault.

Internally, the ACE research team was fairly clear about what we thought about leafleting in 2014. But the communications staff (and, in particular, I) failed to adequately get across these concerns at the time.

Later, in 2015 and 2016, I feel that whenever an issue like leafleting came up publicly, ACE was good about clearly expressing our reservations. But we neglected to update the older 2014 page with the same kind of language that we now use when talking about these things. We are now doing what we can to remedy this, first by including a disclaimer at the top of the older leafleting pages, and second by planning a full update of the leafleting intervention page in the near future.

Per your concern about cost-effectiveness estimates, I do want to say that our research team will be making such calculations public on our Guesstimate page as time permits. But for the time being, we had to take down our internal impact calculator because the way that we used it internally did not match the ways others (like Slate Star Codex) were using it. We were trying to err on the side of openness by keeping it public for as long as we did, but in retrospect there just wasn't a good way for others to use the tool in the way we used it internally. Thankfully, the Guesstimate platform includes upper and lower bounds directly in the presented data, so we feel it will be much more appropriate for us to share with the public.

You said "I think the error was in the estimate rather than in expectation management" because you felt the estimate itself wasn't good; but I hope this makes it more clear that we feel that the way we were internally using upper and lower bounds was good; it's just that the way we were talking about these calculations was not.

Internally, when we look at and compare animal charities, we continue to use cost effectiveness estimates as detailed on our evaluation criteria page. We intend to publicly display these kinds of calculations on Guesstimate in the future.

As you've said, the lesson should not be for people to trust things others say less in general. I completely agree with this sentiment. Instead, when it comes to us, the lessons we're taking are: (1) communications staff needs to better explain our current stance on existing pages, (2) comm staff should better understand that readers may draw conclusions solely from older pages, without reading our more current thinking on more recently published pages, and (3) research staff should be more discriminating on what types of internal tools are appropriate for public use. There may also be further lessons that can be learned from this as ACE staff continues to discuss these issues internally. But, for now, this is what we're currently thinking.

Comment author: Telofy  (EA Profile) 14 January 2017 11:09:53AM 5 points [-]

Fwiw, I’ve been following ACE closely the past years, and always felt like I was the one taking cost-effectiveness estimates too literally, and ACE was time after time continually and tirelessly imploring me not to.

Comment author: JBeshir 13 January 2017 09:30:39PM 4 points [-]

This all makes sense, and I think it is a a very reasonable perspective. I hope this ongoing process goes well.

Comment author: Raemon 13 January 2017 05:29:51AM 1 point [-]

Major props for the response. Your new social media policy sounds probably-wise. :)

Comment author: Brian_Tomasik 13 January 2017 12:04:10PM 9 points [-]

I find such social-media policies quite unfortunate. :) I understand that they may be necessary in a world where political opponents can mine for the worst possible quotes, but such policies also reduce the speed and depth of engagement in discussions and reduce the human-ness of an organization. I don't blame ACE (or GiveWell, or others who have to face these issues). The problem seems more to come from (a) quoting out of context and (b) that even when things are quoted in context, one "off" statement from an individual can stick in people's minds more strongly than tons of non-bad statements do. There's not an easy answer, but it would be nice if we could cultivate an environment in which people aren't afraid to speak their minds. I would not want to work for an organization that restricted what I can say (ignoring stuff about proprietary company information, etc.).

Comment author: Raemon 13 January 2017 12:15:00PM 1 point [-]

I agree that these are tradeoffs and that that's very sad. I don't have a very strong opinion on the overall net-balance of the policy. But (it sounds like we both agree?) that they are probably a necessary evil for organizations like this.

Comment author: Brian_Tomasik 13 January 2017 05:40:24PM 1 point [-]

I'm not sure what to do. :) I think different people/organizations do it differently based on what they're most comfortable with. There's a certain credibility that comes from not asking your employees to toe a party line. Such organizations are usually less mainstream but also have a more authentic feel to them. I discussed this a bit more here.

Comment author: erikaalonso 13 January 2017 07:53:05PM 5 points [-]

I share the same concerns about internal social media policies, especially when it comes to stifling discussion staff members would have otherwise engaged in. The main reason I rarely engage in EA discussions is that I'm afraid what I write will be mistaken as representative of my employer—not just in substance, but also tone/sophistication.

I think it's fairly standard now for organizations to request that employees include a disclaimer when engaging in work-related conversations—something like "these are my views and not necessarily those of my employer". That seems reasonable to include in the first comment, but becomes cumbersome in subsequent responses. And in instances where comments are curated without context, the disclaimer might not be included at all.

Also, I wonder how much the disclaimer helps someone distinguish the employee from the organization? For highly-visible people in leadership roles, I suspect their views are often conflated with the views of the organization.

Comment author: Brian_Tomasik 14 January 2017 07:36:08AM 4 points [-]

I agree with these concerns. :) My own stance on this issue is driven more by my personality and "virtue ethics" kinds of impulses than by a thorough evaluation of the costs and benefits. Given that I, e.g., talk openly about (minuscule amounts of) suffering by video-game characters, it's clear that I'm on the "don't worry about the PR repercussions of sharing your views" side of the spectrum.

I've noticed the proliferation of disclaimers about not speaking for one's employer. I personally find them cumbersome (and don't usually use them) because it seems to me rare that anyone does actually speak for one's employer. (That usually only happens with big announcements like the one you posted above.) But presumably other people have been burned here in the past, which is why it's done.

Comment author: Jeff_Kaufman 14 January 2017 04:30:27PM 1 point [-]

We have recently implemented a formal social media policy which encourages ACE staff to respond to comments about our work with great consideration, and in a way that accurately reflects our views (as opposed to those of one staff member).

Is this policy available anywhere? Looking on your site I'm finding only a different Social Media Policy that looks like maybe it's intended for people outside ACE considering posting on ACE's fb wall?