19

Jay_Shooster comments on How valuable is movement growth? - Effective Altruism Forum

You are viewing a comment permalink. View the original post to see all comments and the full post content.

Comments (21)

You are viewing a single comment's thread.

Comment author: Jay_Shooster 17 May 2015 07:10:55PM *  9 points [-]

I'm so excited by all the recent public discussion about movement building. It's really encouraging to see so many brilliant people investing their time and energy into this neglected area.

That being said, I am concerned that we are reinventing the wheel, and ignoring a substantial body of empirical and theoretical work that has already been done on the subject.

Why are we starting from scratch and developing novel theories of social change? Why are we focusing on mathematics and philosophy instead of academic sociology research? I'm not an expert but, I'm familiar enough to know that lots of other smart people have studied the issues addressed in this paper. Lots of people are interested the growth and strategy of social movements.

If we were talking about ending global poverty, we would not be postulating new models of economic development. Why should we demand any less empirical/academic rigor in the context of movement building? Why are we so willing to trust our intuitions here?

I think there are two common reasons for ignoring academic sociology research here (but both of them are pretty weak): 1. The research on movement building is extremely shallow and of poor quality 2. The EA commitment to cause neutrality is so unique that analogies to other movements (and to existing academic research) are not very useful

To address the first point, I think that we have to consider "EA expert overconfidence" bias. As Rob Wiblin has pointed out, people who are experts in one area are often radically overconfident in other areas. I think EAs succumb to this pretty severely: we are all so shocked (rightly so) at how much cause prioritization is neglected by smart people that we think we have to basically do everything from scratch. But this isn't quite right. We need to distinguish between "effective means" and "effective ends." EA's might be world leaders when it comes to thinking about effective ends (i.e. worthwhile causes like global poverty, animal suffering, far future suffering etc.) but we have no reason to think we are superior when it comes to effective means. Smart people have been trying to understand the spread of ideas and the grow movements for a long time. We should be shocked if there isn't at least some good work done on the subject. My own shallow research has left me convinced that there is a lot of good stuff out there. Even though sociology has the reputation for being less rigorous than economics, there is a lot of serious, rigorous empirical and theoretical work out there.

I think the second point is also not a huge issue. First, lots of other social movements have faced the problem of maintain a broad base of support in the face of ever-changing goals/priorities (political parties and religions seem like good examples). But more importantly, even if we are unique in this regard, it seems that many of the big questions in movement building apply equally well to either case.

Ultimately, if I was GPP, I would try to convene a working group of non-EA academic experts on social movements before trying to do any more original thinking on the issue.

Comment author: Jess_Riedel 24 May 2015 07:40:00PM 4 points [-]

I mostly agree with this. No need to reinvent the wheel, and armchair theorizing is so tempting, while sorting through the literature can be painful. But I will say your reason #1 (the typical sociological research is of very poor quality) leads to a second effect: scouring the literature for the useful bits (of which I am sure there is plenty) is very difficult and time consuming.

If we were talking about ending global poverty, we would not be postulating new models of economic development. Why should we demand any less empirical/academic rigor in the context of movement building?

I can tell you that when financial quants want to make money, they spend some time reading the academic literature on the market, but they are often very critical of its quality and usefulness for real-life decisions.

So what we really need are people to say "this particular topic was already addressed by this particular reference". Too often, the criticism to reinventing the wheel is "you should just read this vaguely defined body of work, most of which is inapplicable".

Comment author: Owen_Cotton-Barratt 17 May 2015 09:02:21PM 3 points [-]

Note that we're not planning for this to be a focus area for GPP. We saw an opportunity to do something fairly quickly as it was based on existing insights that have come up in a few areas (the natural length of the paper expanded as I wrote it, and it ended up taking probably one to two weeks).

The main aim of this work was to give people in this community better tools for thinking about the counterfactual value of marginal movement-growing efforts. It should be complementary to empirical work; it might both help to interpret data, and to identify valuable information to seek out. I've been in quite a few conversations where people were unsure about how to count the value of attracting someone to the movement, even in principle. (There is also quite a lot of speculation in Part 2 of the paper, clearly flagged as such -- this was expanded because readers of earlier drafts wanted more examples of how to interpret the concepts.)

I think it's plausible this is covered in existing research, and would be very happy to discover it if so. I did look, but not deeply; I also spoke to people at EAO who had looked into more of the literature on social movements and were still wondering about these questions. I wouldn't be shocked if it isn't, though. I think EAs are unusually consequentialist, so the question they want to answer is "what's the (expected) total long-run effect of a bit more of this today?". This is not an easy question to get data on. Most academic areas rightly spend time exploring under the streetlight, because we can actually learn there, and the lessons may be transferable to darker regions. The literature on movement building seems to focus on shorter-term effects, presumably because you can get better answers there. I think such work is very valuable and worth paying attention to for finding out the relationship between interventions and short-term effects. I was trying to fill a gap by talking about how short-term effects translate into long-term effects, and therefore which short term effects are worth targeting.

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 04 December 2016 02:42:30PM 1 point [-]

I am concerned that we are reinventing the wheel, and ignoring a substantial body of empirical and theoretical work that has already been done on the subject.

I share this concern, and believe that EAs are often guilty of ignoring existing fields of research from which they could learn a lot. I'm not sure whether this concern applies in this particular case, however. I spent several days looking into the sociological literature on social movements and didn't find much of value. Have you stumbled across any writings that you would recommend?