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Dunja comments on Review of CZEA "Intense EA Weekend" retreat - Effective Altruism Forum

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Comment author: Dunja 06 April 2018 11:44:53AM *  2 points [-]

Thanks for this, great info and presentation and a very well planned event! That said, I'm in general rather skeptical of the impact such events have on anything but the fun of the participants :) I don't have any empirical data to back this claim (so I might as well be completely wrong), but I have an impression that while such events help like-minded people to get to know each other, in terms of an actual, long-term impact on the goals of EA they don't do much. And here is why: those who're enthusiastic about EA and/or willing to contribute in a certain way will do so anyway. For them online information, or a single talk may even be enough. And the other way around: those who aren't much into it will rarely become so via such an event.

I am aware that this may be quite an unpopular view, but I think it would be great to have some empirical evidence to show if it's really wrong.

My guess is that events organized for an effective knowledge-building in the given domain (including concrete skills required for a very concrete tasks in the given community, some of which were a part of your event) would be those that would make more of a difference. Say, an EA community realizes they lack the knowledge of gathering empirical data or the knowledge of spreading their ideas and attracting new members. In that case, one could invite experts on these issues to provide concrete intensive crash-courses, equipping the given community so that it can afterwards put these skills to action. This means a hard-working event, without much extra-entertainment activities, but with a high knowledge gain. I think networking and getting to know others is nice, but not as essential as the know-how and the willingness to apply it (which may then spontaneously result in a well networked community).

(Edit: I once again checked the primary goal of your event and indeed, if you want to provide a space for people to get to know one another, this kind of retreat certainly makes a lot of sense. So maybe my worries were misplaced given this goal, since I rather had in mind the goal of expanding the EA community and attracting new members).

Comment author: saulius  (EA Profile) 07 April 2018 02:58:01PM *  5 points [-]

I partially agree with you but I'll focus on what I disagree with :)

“those who're enthusiastic about EA and/or willing to contribute in a certain way will do so anyway. For them online information, or a single talk may even be enough.”

Personally, hanging out with EAs makes me A LOT more enthusiastic about EA and I work on my EA projects much more as a result. I basically forget about EA when I’m away from the community for long periods of time. I might be an outlier here but I’m sure that the same is true for others to a lesser degree. And it’s these kind of events that not only energise me but also help me find EA friends with whom I can hang out, co-work or even live. Which, by the way, makes such events more valuable when they are for people from one city.

Also, I know from first-hand experience that online information is not enough for cause prioritisation, making career decisions or deciding where to donate. I read a lot but when I started going to EA meetups some gaps in my knowledge and flaws in my thinking were soon exposed. Discussions hit diminishing returns after a while though.

But maybe both goals can be achieved with simple socials at a lesser cost.

Comment author: Dunja 07 April 2018 03:38:37PM *  5 points [-]

OK, I have to admit these are really good points :) I don't work in any direct way in the EA sector, but I can imagine that just like with any job, communication with others can kick-start new enthusiasm and even new projects.

Comment author: Jan_Kulveit 08 April 2018 12:25:36AM 6 points [-]

Effective altruism is kind of emotionally hard. Compared to some other forms of altruism It often does not give you the "warm glow" feelings, smiling child's eyes, etc.

This emotional feedback has to be supplied by the community. If it is missing, it has some unfortunate effects - it makes it harder to keep being an effective altruist - you get overrepresentation of people with less intense emotionality, people suppresing their emotions, etc.

Comment author: Evan_Gaensbauer 11 April 2018 03:32:43AM 3 points [-]

Personally, hanging out with EAs makes me A LOT more enthusiastic about EA and I work on my EA projects much more as a result. I basically forget about EA when I’m away from the community for long periods of time. I might be an outlier here but I’m sure that the same is true for others to a lesser degree. And it’s these kind of events that not only energise me but also help me find EA friends with whom I can hang out, co-work or even live. Which, by the way, makes such events more valuable when they are for people from one city.

This was true for me until hanging out with EAs worked so well I became an EA community organizer, and now I can't stop thinking about EA, because I'm always in touch with the community and am trying to constantly facilitate EA events.

Comment author: Evan_Gaensbauer 11 April 2018 03:31:01AM 4 points [-]

Are you skeptical of the impact of these retreat-style events, or large congregations of effective altruists in general? Conferences like EAG faced similar skepticism of their impact early on. While there is a sense of hype at EAG events, especially if they're primarily attended by fresher community members, the expected value of EAG events is high. The value per person is high-variance, and the median impact per attendee may be low, but the mean impact of EAG per attendee is high. This is because for those high-impact individuals who weren't connected to EA before attending an EAG conference who then got highly involved, they transform the movement. For example, I know several EAs who within a few months of attending EAG, and hardly having heard of EA before then, became key staffers at EA organizations. I expect several EA organizations could attest the same. Given surveys of EA organizations place the value of identifying and hiring the best candidate for a new position as equivalent to >$100k USD; each EAG event likely results in multiple such outcomes; and EAG events don't themselves cost that much, at the least I expect every EAG conference breaks even in expected value. That's not an impressive outcome, but the networking and coordination value EAGs add to the EA movement are a crucial institution. We haven't found an alternative process which satisfies the same goals as well. We can't predict very well in advance exactly which individuals will generate the greatest value by attending EAG events, but that from the pool of people who attend EAG tons of value is undeniably generated justifies the costs of organizing and hosting these events.

Of course EAG events are professional conferences the Centre for Effective Altruism and others optimize for maximizing impact as a result of networking between EAs. Local/regional EA retreats are a different kind of event: more casual, and less goal-oriented. I don't think local EA groups without the assistance of professional EA organizations often have the capacity to organize an event as big and impactful as an EAG conference.

So that leaves the question of the expected value of retreats, i.e., whether its worth local EA communities trying to host them. The direct financial costs (assuming the 75 Euro/person/weekend price is typical, that isn't high) aren't high, as the time spent organizing these events probably primarily comes from volunteers. I figure the primary cost of organizing EA retreats would be the opportunity cost. That is, could the time spent organizing a local EA retreat by all EAs involved be better spent on something else?

While I think local EA groups could identify better uses of their time, that's not the same as saying they will identify better uses of their time. If that's free time that'd otherwise go unused, I expect organizing retreats is worthwhile.

I hope these thoughts help frame thinking about evaluating the EV of EA retreats.

My guess is that events organized for an effective knowledge-building in the given domain (including concrete skills required for a very concrete tasks in the given community, some of which were a part of your event) would be those that would make more of a difference. Say, an EA community realizes they lack the knowledge of gathering empirical data or the knowledge of spreading their ideas and attracting new members. In that case, one could invite experts on these issues to provide concrete intensive crash-courses, equipping the given community so that it can afterwards put these skills to action. This means a hard-working event, without much extra-entertainment activities, but with a high knowledge gain. I think networking and getting to know others is nice, but not as essential as the know-how and the willingness to apply it (which may then spontaneously result in a well networked community).

As an aside, I've wanted to do more things like this with EAs in Canada, but there hasn't been a good opportunity to do so. A highly focused, goal-oriented retreat is something I hadn't thought of trying, but might be a great idea. Thanks for the inspiration.

Comment author: Dunja 14 April 2018 11:44:56AM *  0 points [-]

Thanks for this, Evan, I was primarily referring to smaller events which aren't primarily targeted at attracting new people. Though now that you mention it, I find the bigger events even worse haha! I was at one bigger EA event and while I perfectly understand it can introduce many people into the topic, and make people passionate about the cause, I haven't experienced the same mainly because I haven't learned much really. But this probably depends on personality traits, expectations etc. :) In general, your argument makes very much sense: if sufficiently many people are around, for some of them this will work (and the above post by Richenda shows there is even some empirical evidence for that). For me, forums like this are e.g. way more interesting ;) At the end of the day, it's probably the best if there is a variety of venues/platforms for different kind of people and interests.

Comment author: Richenda  (EA Profile) 13 April 2018 01:23:07AM 2 points [-]

Hi Dunja,

Actually there is empirical research on this! LEAN interviewed EA group organisers as part of the 2017 LEAN Impact Assessment, and actually face to face, in person experiences such as retreats and EAG frequently came up as the most significant, landmark influence for a fair few successful organisers in actually kick starting them into getting something going, and also giving them the confidence, reassurance and optimism to see it as a worthwhile investment of their time.

I was slightly surprised by how much of a big factor this was for people, but the evidence seems pretty strongly supportive at this stage.

https://rtcharity.org/2017-lean-impact-assessment-qualitative-findings/

Comment author: Dunja 14 April 2018 11:47:29AM 2 points [-]

Hi Richenda, great stuff, thanks for sharing the link! that's indeed a big impact and it's valuable to know for future events. It fits very well with what Evan and Jan have written below :)

Comment author: Jan_Kulveit 07 April 2018 11:35:09PM 1 point [-]

Actually I would love to have some RCT on the effects of retreats on EA groups :)

We don't have that, so we have to go by models, guesstimates, anecdotal personal experience, and expert opinion.

As the topic seems broad, I'll just state some points where our models possibly differ and we can try to find out where the crux is

I. - networks are extremely important and you do not assign them appropriate weight (as a network science student I may be biased in opposite direction) - in contrast to reading online material or attending a single talk by an external expert, the social network links provide people feedback, encourangement, early-stage developement of ideas, support, clarification of misunderstandings - in CZEA we want the more engaged members to actually work together on EA projects, rather than just donating together or learning from external sources. this creates a need for higher level of cooperation - practical benefit of strong links for cooperation is the people can model each other better, which makes everything more effective - people are social, emotional animals, mostly motivated not just to ideas, but also by other people

II. "events organized for an effective knowledge-building in the given domain" - I believe the the format taken is actually quite good for an effective knowledge-building and skills building in the domain of effective altruism - diagree with the implied opposition between "hard-working" and "fun". for many people working just on the edge of their capabilities is actually enjoyable

Comment author: Richenda  (EA Profile) 13 April 2018 01:26:47AM *  2 points [-]

We don't have that, so we have to go by models, guesstimates, anecdotal personal experience, and expert opinion.

There is some relevant social research on it: https://rtcharity.org/2017-lean-impact-assessment-qualitative-findings/

RCTs, in my view would be unsuited to measuring anything actually useful about groups, however tempting the idea is. There are so many variables muddying the water for such assessment that you would end up just fabricating without realising.