Robert_Wiblin comments on Some Thoughts on Public Discourse - Effective Altruism Forum

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Comment author: RomeoStevens 23 February 2017 10:25:12PM *  11 points [-]

I'm skeptical. The trajectory you describe is common among a broad class of people as they age, grow in optimization power, and consider sharp course corrections less. They report a variety of stories about why this is so, so I'm skeptical of any particular story being causal.

To be clear, I also recognize the high cost of public discourse. But part of those costs are not necessary, borne only because EAs are pathologically scrupulous. As a result, letting people shit talk various thing without response causes more worry than is warranted. Naysayers are an unavoidable part of becoming a large optimization process.

There was a thread on Marginal Revolution many years ago about why more economists don't do the blogging thing given that it seems to have resulted in outsize influence for GMU. Cowen said his impression was that many economists tried, quickly 'made fools of themselves' in some minor way, and stopped. Being wrong publicly is very very difficult. And increasingly difficult the more Ra energy one has acquired.

So, three claims.

  • Outside view says we should be skeptical of our stories about why we do things, even after we try to correct for this.
  • Inability to only selectively engage with criticism will lead to other problems/coping strategies that might be harmful.
  • Carefully shepherding the optimization power one has already acquired is a recipe for slow calcification along hard to detect dimensions. The principles section is an outline of a potential future straightjacket.
Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 23 February 2017 11:16:43PM *  10 points [-]

I don't find the view that publishing a lot of internal thinking for public consumption and feedback is a poor use of time to be implausible on its face. Here are some reasons:

  1. By the time you know enough to write really useful things, your opportunity cost is high (more and better grants, coaching staff internally, etc).
  2. Thoughtful and informative content tends to get very little traffic anyway because it doesn't generate controversy. Most traffic will go to your most dubious work, thereby wasting your time, other people's time and spreading misinformation. I've benefitted greatly from GiveWell/OpenPhil investing in public communication (including this blog post for example) but I think I'm in a small minority that arguably shouldn't be their main focus given the amount of money they have available for granting. If there are a few relevant decision-makers who would benefit from a piece of information, you can just quickly email it to them and they'll understand it without you having to explain things in great detail.
  3. The people with expertise who provide the most useful feedback will email you or meet you eventually anyway - and often end up being hired. I'd say 80% of the usefulness of feedback/learning I've received has come from 5% of providers, who can be identified as the most informed critics pretty quickly.
  4. 'Transparency' and 'engaging with negative public feedback' are applause lights in egalitarian species and societies, like 'public parks', 'community' and 'families'. No one wants to argue against these things, so people who aren't in senior positions remain unaware of their legitimate downsides. And many people enjoy tearing down those they believe to be powerful and successful for the sake of enforced egalitarianism, rather than positive outcomes per se.
  5. The personal desire for attention, and to be adulated as smart and insightful, already pushes people towards public engagement even when it's an inferior use of time.

This isn't to say overall people share too much of the industry expertise they have - there are plenty of forces in the opposite direction - but I don't come with a strong presupposition that they share far too little either.

Comment author: RomeoStevens 24 February 2017 02:27:03AM *  6 points [-]
  1. sharing more things of dubious usefulness is what I advocate.
  2. I am not advocating transparency as their main focus. I am advocating skepticism towards things that the outside view says everyone in your reference class (foundations) does specifically because I think if your methods are highly correlated with others you can't expect to outperform them by much.
  3. I think it is easy to underestimate the effect of the long tail. See Chalmers' comment on the value of the LW and EA communities in his recent AMA.
  4. I also don't care about optimizing for this, and I recognize that if you ask people to be more public, they will optimize for this because humans. Thinking more about this seems valuable. I think of it as a significant bottleneck.
  5. Disagree. Closed is the default for any dimension that relates to actual decision criteria. People push their public discourse into dimensions that don't affect decision criteria because [Insert Robin Hanson analysis here].

I'm not advocating a sea change in policy, but an increase in skepticism at the margin.

Comment author: Larks 02 March 2017 06:29:11AM 3 points [-]

See Chalmers' comment on the value of the LW and EA communities in his recent AMA.


Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 01 March 2017 11:30:32PM *  1 point [-]

I think it is easy to underestimate the effect of the long tail. See Chalmers' comment on the value of the LW and EA communities in his recent AMA.

Notably, it's easy for me to imagine that people who work at foundations outside the EA community spend time reading OpenPhil's work and the discussion of it in deciding what grants to make. (This is something that could be happening without us being aware of it. As Holden says, transparency has major downsides. OpenPhil is also running a risk by associating its brand with a movement full of young contrarians it has no formal control over. Your average opaquely-run foundation has little incentive to let the world know if discussions happening in the EA community are an input into their grant-making process.)