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

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Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 01 March 2017 11:52:33PM *  17 points [-]

Interesting post.

I wonder if it'd be useful to make a distinction between the "relatively small number of highly engaged, highly informed people" vs "insiders".

I could easily imagine this causal chain:

  1. Making your work open acts as an advertisement for your organization.

  2. Some of the people who see the advertisement become highly engaged & highly informed about your work.

  3. Some of the highly engaged & informed people form relationships with you beyond public discourse, making them "insiders".

If this story is true, public discourse represents a critical first step in a pipeline that ends with the creation of new insiders.

I think this story is quite plausibly true. I'm not sure the EA movement would have ever come about without the existence of Givewell. Givewell's publicly available research regarding where to give was a critical part of the story that sold people on the idea of effective altruism. And it seems like the growth of the EA movement lead to growth in the number of insiders, whose opinions you say you value.

I can easily imagine a parallel universe "Closed Philanthropy Project" with the exact same giving philosophy, but no EA movement that grew up around it due to a lack of publicly available info about its grants. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if many foundations already had giving philosophies very much like OpenPhil's, but we don't hear about them because they don't make their research public.

I didn't quite realize when I signed up just what it meant to read ten thousand applications a year. It's also the most important thing that we do because one of Y Combinator's great innovations was that we were one of the first investors to truly equalize the playing field to all companies across the world. Traditionally, venture investors only really consider companies who come through a personal referral. They might have an email address on their site where you can send a business plan to, but in general they don't take those very seriously. There's usually some associate who reads the business plans that come in over the transom. Whereas at Y Combinator, we said explicitly, "We don't really care who you know or if you don't know anyone. We're just going to read every application that comes in and treat them all equally."

Source. Similarly, Robin Hanson thinks that a big advantage academics have over independent scholars is the use of open competitions rather than personal connections in choosing people to work with.

So, a power law distribution in commenter usefulness isn't sufficient to show that openness lacks benefits.

As an aside, I hadn't previously gotten a strong impression that OpenPhil's openness was for the purpose of gathering feedback on your thinking. Givewell was open with its research for the purpose of advising people where to donate. I guess now that you are partnering with Good Ventures, that is no longer a big goal. But if the purpose of your openness has changed from advising others to gathering advice yourself, this could probably be made more explicit.

For example, I can imagine OpenPhil publishing a list of research questions on its website for people in the EA community to spend time thinking & writing about. Or highlighting feedback that was especially useful, to reinforce the behavior of leaving feedback/give examples of the kind of feedback you want more of. Or something as simple as a little message at the bottom of every blog post saying you welcome high quality feedback and you continue to monitor for comments long after the blog post is published (if that is indeed true).

Maybe the reason you are mainly gathering feedback from insiders is simply that only insiders know enough about you to realize that you want feedback. I think it's plausible that the average EA puts commenting on OpenPhil blog posts in the "time wasted on the internet" category, and it might not require a ton of effort to change that.

To relate back to the Y Combinator analogy, I would expect that Y Combinator gets many more high-quality applications through the form on its website than the average VC firm does, and this is because more people think that putting their info into the form on Y Combinator's website is a good use of time. It would not be correct for a VC firm to look at the low quality of the applications they were getting through the form on their website and infer that a startup funding model based on an online form is surely unviable.

More broadly speaking this seems similar to just working to improve the state of online effective altruism discussion in general, which maybe isn't a problem that OpenPhil feels well-positioned to tackle. But I do suspect there is relatively low-hanging fruit here.

Comment author: HoldenKarnofsky 07 March 2017 02:42:16AM *  5 points [-]

Hi John, thanks for the thoughts.

I agree with what you say about public discourse as an "advertisement" and "critical first step," and allude to this somewhat in the post. And we plan to continue a level of participation of public discourse that seems appropriate for that goal - which is distinct from the level of public discourse that would make it feasible for readers to understand the full thinking behind the many decisions we make.

I don't so much agree that there is a lot of low-hanging fruit to be had in terms of getting more potentially helpful criticism from the outside. We have published lists of questions and asked for help thinking about them (see this series from 2015 as well as this recent post; another recent example is the Worldview Diversification post, which ended with an explicit call for more ideas, somewhat along the lines you suggest). We do generally thank people for their input, make changes when warranted, and let people know when we've made changes (recent example from GiveWell).

And the issue isn't that we've gotten no input, or that all the input we've gotten has been low-quality. I've seen and had many discussions about our work with many very sharp people, including via phone and in-person research discussions. I've found these discussions helpful in the sense of focusing my thoughts on the most controversial premises, understanding where others are coming from, etc. But I've become fairly convinced - through these discussions and through simply reflecting on what kind of feedback I would be giving groups like GiveWell and Open Phil, if I still worked in finance and only engaged with their work occasionally - that it's unrealistic to expect many novel considerations to be raised by people without a great deal of context.

Even if there isn't low-hanging fruit, there might still be "high-hanging fruit." It's possible that if we put enough effort and creative thinking in, we could find a way to get a dramatic increase in the quantity and quality of feedback via public discourse. But we don't currently have any ideas for this that seem highly promising; my overall model of the world (as discussed in the previous paragraph) predicts that it would be very difficult; and the opportunity cost of such a project is higher than it used to be.

Comment author: MichaelPlant 05 March 2017 07:48:06PM 1 point [-]

I'd like to build on the causal chain point. I think there's something unsatisfying about the way Holden's set up the problem.

I took the general thought as: "we don't get useful comments from the general public, we get useful comments from those few people who read lots of our stuff then talk to us privately". But if the general way things work is 1. people read the OPP blog (public) then 2. talk to OPP privately (perhaps because they don't believe anyone takes public discourse seriously), but doing 2. means you are then no longer part of the general public, then almost by definition public discourse isn't going to be useful: those motivated enough to engage in private correspondence are now not counted as part of public discourse!

Maybe I've misunderstood something, but it seems very plausible to me that the public discourse generates those useful private conversations even if the useful comments don't happen on public forums themselves.

I'm also uncertain if the EA forum counts as public discourse Holden doesn't expect to be useful, or private discourse which might be, which puts pressure on the general point. If you typify 'public discourse' as 'talking to people who don't know much' then of course you wouldn't expect it to be useful.

Comment author: HoldenKarnofsky 07 March 2017 02:44:00AM 2 points [-]

Michael, this post wasn't arguing that there are no benefits to public discourse; it's describing how my model has changed. I think the causal chain you describe is possible and has played out that way in some cases, but it seems to call for "sharing enough thinking to get potentially helpful people interested" rather than for "sharing thinking and addressing criticisms comprehensively (or anything close to it)."

The EA Forum counts for me as public discourse, and I see it as being useful in some ways, along the lines described in the post.

Comment author: vipulnaik 02 March 2017 12:17:15AM *  1 point [-]

Great points! (An upvote wasn't enough appreciation, hence the comment as well).