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EA Diversity: Unpacking Pandora's Box

Introduction

I hate talking about diversity. I hate watching other people talk about diversity more*. My first reaction to the (most) recent thread in the EA Facebook group about diversity was 'oh God, not this again'**. So I have a lot of sympathy for the view, most commonly expressed by social conservatives, that as a society we should spend a whole lot less time thinking and talking about diversity and a whole lot more time deciding on merit. On a purely selfish level, I would enjoy life more that way.

The reasons why I hate this topic are varied, and some of them are too petty or personal to be worth expressing here, but a few of the more intellectual reasons are relevant:

  • This whole area is a communication minefield; words like 'diversity', 'political correctness', and 'social justice' mean dramatically different things to different people. Without active efforts to avoid said mines, participants in such a debate are likely to end up disputing definitions.
  • The Mind Projection fallacy is deadly on a topic where views tend to be both strongly entrenched and strongly based on (divergent) personal experiences. Large gaps in experience lead to large inferential distances, and large inferential distances make persuasion difficult. That is, it is difficult even when you know they exist, never mind when you don't.
  • The above combine in a nasty way. Opaque or incomplete arguments can get uncritical support from those who agree with the conclusions, partly because their knowledge or experience allow them to unconsciously 'fill in the blanks' and partly because of the halo effect. And lots of arguments, in any debate, on any side, are opaque or incomplete. The danger is that you end up with two groups talking past each other, neither of them having the ability and willingness to bridge the gap, yet both increasingly confident in 'their' position as they are reinforced by 'their' group. Which in all probability they just shouldn't be.

Reading the above, you could reasonably ask: why am I of all people writing a post about diversity? Because at some point I looked at the world and considered the evidence. Unfortunately for me, my best guess is that diversity is rather important. In particular, I think that it is too important to be left to the type of discussion I just described, and I want to make the case for why it deserves at least some of our attention.


Getting it clear

As noted, diversity can mean a variety of different things. The different things have different upsides. I'm going to non-exhaustively focus on four types:

  1. Diversity of talent.
  2. Diversity of experience.
  3. Diversity of opinion.
  4. Diversity of appearance.

I want to talk about:

  • What does this mean? Why does it matter?
  • How are we doing?
  • What could we do better?

I certainly do not think I have all the answers, especially to the last of those. My hope is that by approaching things in this way we will at least be asking the right (well-defined, relevant, interesting) questions.

Finally, I want to pre-empt the obvious response that these are interlinked; in particular your experiences are linked to your talents, opinions, and appearance. My point is that different types of diversity have different upsides, and that while you can get multiple types at once, you often will not. So I still think they're worth considering separately.


Talent

If you want to get things done and done well, you need a variety of types of people to get there. You need the analytically-minded. You need organisers. You need leaders. You need communicators. And so on. People have widely differing skills and knowledge, and we achieve more by complementing each other, allowing each of us individually to focus on what we're really good at. This idea appears in economics at the country level, in the form of comparative advantage. On the level of small groups, the concept of varying skills meaning more productivity has a long history, in business and out.

EA is heavy on mathematicians, programmers, economists and philosophers. Those groups can get a lot done, but they can't get everything done. If we want to grow, I think we could do with more PR types. Because we're largely web-based, people who understand how to make things visually appealing also seem valuable. My personal experience in London is that we would love more organisers, though I can imagine this varying by location.

With that said, this is not an area I'm too worried about in the medium term. We're doing pretty well at elite universities. Elite universities score poorly on the other types of diversity I mentioned, but they do turn out people who go into a variety of fields with a variety of strengths; they are diverse in this sense. Just expanding our recruitment there would fix this problem. On a more personal level, I haven't had any difficulty talking about EA to my non-quantitative, non-analytical friends...from elite universities. I think that's because communication barriers are more often to do with differing experiences than differing talents (see next section).


Experience

Different people have different past experiences. Those experiences are often critical in deciding what you find intuitive, who you can relate to, and how you approach the world. Trying to persuade someone of a new idea is hard anyway, and if you have highly divergent past experiences it is doubly hard. The things you believe immediately might be a big leap for them, and vice-versa; once again inferential distances loom large. If we want to expand, we need varying experiences so that we can communicate effectively with a variety of people. Even once people with differing experiences have reached very similar conclusions, those different routes provide ample opportunities for learning and deeper understanding. On the flip side, homogeneous experiences can easily lead to poor evaluation of the choices and opportunities available to those with different experiences.

In my opinion, this is where EA is weakest. We're overwhelmingly young, overwhelmingly well-educated, and very well-off even by the standards of our WEIRD base. We lack parents, we lack people with years of experience in business, public service or charity, and for the most part we lack people for whom money or education or both has been a real struggle. At the risk of stating the obvious, it would be very bad if we ended up unintentionally excluding all of these groups.

Some of these issues (parents, age, experience) will plausibly fix themselves over time, because current EAs will enter those groups. Sometimes we might need to do a little work to ensure that people don't drop out of EA as they drop in to one of these categories. Other issues, like different backgrounds, require more thought, and I'd welcome ideas others have on what can be done here. It might be as simple as re-framing our arguments depending on the audience, or it might be more fundamental.


Opinion

Different people believe different things. To an extent, we expect homogeneous views within a group of people who were brought together by their shared goals; this is true in spite of the fact that Effective Altruism is a question. But it should still be possible to have a lot of thought diversity; most EAs are irreligious, but our popular 10% idea has its roots in tithes. Going further down that line, religious people are more likely to give to charity (though the relevance of this is disputed) and could be considered a natural target for Singer's arguments. In a similar vein, most EAs are utilitarian, but there's nothing uniquely utilitarian about the idea of EA; you can get to much the same conclusion via the Golden Rule. In so far as it is possible, we should want thought diversity, because the evidence suggests that it allows groups to find and correct errors more quickly. Another way of framing the same thing is that high thought diversity makes it easier to distinguish between facts and ideology, because ideologies will have their counter-ideologies expressed within the group.

I'm more optimistic about this area. We have a good variety views on economics, a noticeable but not overwhelming bias against religion, and a lot of healthy debate within the community generated by differing opinions on many other questions. Perhaps more importantly, I think the broad community already recognises our ability to 'agree-to-disagree' on these areas as a Good Thing. This should allow us to continue in this way and not fall victim to evaporative cooling.

Our biggest blind spots are probably that we're short on social conservatives and overwhelmingly cosmopolitan. Perhaps these are just too core to allow compromise on (in which case we might want to reconsider that 'Effective Altruism is not an ideology' claim). But I think that people who are not on board with these views could easily still be on board with EA. For instance, there's no necessary conflict between feeling more attached to those in one's own country, as a non-cosmopolitan might, and donating to charities in other countries, especially when the effectiveness gap appears to be at least an order of magnitude. Certainly my greater attachment to my near and dear doesn't stop me donating to effective charities. I sometimes think we give up a little too easily and say 'well, people with That Particular View are never going to be on board with EA'. Personally, I have more confidence in our ideas than that.


Appearance

This is where most debates about diversity start, and sadly where many of them finish, which is why I've left it to last. I am mostly talking about race and gender here, but the same argument could apply to any quickly identifiable characteristic. For example. it probably also applies to groups of highly-educated people, who are often identifiable by the way they speak rather than look. What I'm not going to talk about is discrimination on an individual level. An understated point in this debate is that you don't particularly need racists or sexists to have virtual segregation on race or gender. This is in spite of the fact that Schelling's work on this is almost 5 decades old. I'll let Tim Harford (see link) talk for me here:

Now these brown eggs aren't extreme racists; they're happy to live in a mixed neighbourhood. But they don't want their white neighbours to outnumber their brown neighbours by more than two-to-one...even a mild preference for the colour of your neighbour can lead to extreme segregation...although we as individuals may be rational and we may be tolerant, the society that we produce together may be neither rational nor tolerant.

How we are doing here seems incredibly variable by location, so I don't want to generalize too much. One sense in which I think we are arguably doing badly is that many people aren't aware of the Schelling's work and also don't intuitively think in those terms. If someone is a visible minority-of-one in a group, a Good Bayesian should expect that to be contributing to them feeling uncomfortable, even if nobody is actually doing anything to make them uncomfortable. That person also becomes more valuable in the group, because their very presence makes the next person 'like them' feel more comfortable, and so on. Note how superficial this arguably is compared to other things I've described; merely sharing a race should give you less in common with someone than sharing experiences. But the speed of being able to identify your unusualness matters; first impressions matter.


Further discussion

Are there other types of diversity I haven't mentioned, that you think are worthy of note?

How would you tackle these issues?

Are they even worth tackling?


*Denise Melchin can surely vouch for this.

**The thread isn't actually that bad. As I said, this was my first reaction, and it was before there were many comments.

Comments (7)

Comment author: kellyatlas 01 February 2015 01:44:28AM 9 points [-]

Thank you for this. One potentially crucial thing worth factoring into the appearance-diversity consideration is that because of that Schelling effect, we could be losing really impactful people if they don't happen to feel at home in the white male-dominated upper-middle class category. (So maybe encouraging ambassador EAs who are part of currently EA-marginalized communities to host EA events and do EA outreach in those communities would be very valuable.)

Experience and opinion really have to be worked on more. Speaking from my own introduction to EA, at first touch the feel of "the EA community" was very exclusive and hostile, because even though I was already essentially a consequentialist and already wanted to have a high positive impact in the world, I hadn't thought through what most of the "EAs" I was meeting had spent months or years thinking about already, and even if something made sense as soon as I heard it and considered it, I felt negatively judged for not having already thought of it just because I hadn't happened to have previously had any prompting to consider that specific thing from any of the conditions of my life up until then.

(And yes, this was absolutely augmented by the male dominance -- which may actually be the entire cause of the sensation of being "judged" -- and it required the birth of close friendships for me to stomach sticking around and to learn to spend more time deconstructing my biases and assessing how to maximize my positive impact.)

Maybe EA needs some sociability coaches who can teach us (especially any of us positioned to help with the Schelling issue) how to build a sense of community with potential recruits, and how to start talking with those people about doing altruism effectively from where they are.

Comment author: AGB 01 February 2015 12:39:42PM 5 points [-]

"So maybe encouraging ambassador EAs who are part of currently EA-marginalized communities to host EA events and do EA outreach in those communities would be very valuable."

We sort-of implemented this in EA London after noticing an uptick in non-white attendees at a meet-up where I was the 'official' host (I'm not white). We could probably do it more systematically.

Comment author: ruthie 01 February 2015 02:26:23AM 3 points [-]

I really like the suggestion of encouraging people from minority groups to host events and do outreach. In general, making these people more visible might help combat the perception that they are absent from EA, so it might make sense to encourage them to, for instance, blog, post on the forum, or speak at EA events they aren't hosting.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 01 February 2015 08:56:48AM *  2 points [-]

...I hadn't thought through what most of the "EAs" I was meeting had spent months or years thinking about already, and even if something made sense as soon as I heard it and considered it, I felt negatively judged for not having already thought of it just because I hadn't happened to have previously had any prompting to consider that specific thing from any of the conditions of my life up until then.

This does sound rather obnoxious. Especially considering that ideas like earning to give weren't invented independently by everyone in the EA movement; most EAs heard about earning to give from someone else, just like you.

Maybe one way to think about this is that anyone encountering EA will experience an overall friendliness vibe that subconsciously impacts their decision to be part of the movement or not. People who are part of underrepresented demographics will see their subconscious perceived friendliness vibe take a hit, because similar people naturally seem more friendly. But the way to counteract this may not be to take targeted action for underrepresented demographics; it might be better to just work on being friendlier overall. This strategy seems less likely to backfire and helps with recruiting in general. Friendly, diverse religious groups like evangelical christians could be seen as evidence that it works.

Comment author: Robert_Wiblin 01 February 2015 11:33:51AM 0 points [-]

Second this.

Comment author: tomstocker 01 February 2015 01:04:11AM 3 points [-]

Think you've covered this really well.

I think it would be interesting to target groups of people that might have other reasons to be EA than because it's rational, and see what happens. Religious groups with an effectiveness/altruistic bent, and people that you might think are looking for meaning in their lives might be a good start?

Comment author: RyanCarey 01 February 2015 09:22:08AM 1 point [-]

This strikes me as a particularly helpful post, thanks Alex.