In response to Open Thread #36
Comment author: DiverWard 15 March 2017 10:10:36PM 3 points [-]

I am new to EA, but it seems that a true effective altruist would not be interested in retiring. When just a $1000 can avert decades of disability-adjusted life years (years of suffering), I do not think it is fair to sit back and relax (even in your 70's) when you could still be earning to give.

In response to comment by DiverWard on Open Thread #36
Comment author: Daniel_Dewey 16 March 2017 03:44:10PM 5 points [-]

Welcome! :)

I think your argument totally makes sense, and you're obviously free to use your best judgement to figure out how to do as much good as possible. However, a couple of other considerations seem important, especially for things like what a "true effective altruist" would do.

1) One factor of your impact is your ability to stick with your giving; this could give you a reason to adopt something less scary and demanding. By analogy, it might seem best for fitness to commit to intense workouts 5 days a week, strict diet changes, and no alcohol, but in practice trying to do this may result in burning out and not doing anything for your fitness, while a less-demanding plan might be easier to stick with and result in better fitness over the length of your life.

Personally, the prospect of giving up retirement doesn't seem too demanding; I like working, and retirement is so far away that it's hard to take seriously. However, I'd understand if others didn't feel this way, and I wouldn't want to push them into a commitment they won't be able to keep.

2) Another factor of your impact is the other people you influence who may start giving, and would not have done so without your example -- in fact, it doesn't seem implausible that this could make up the majority of your impact over your life. To the extent that giving is a really significant cost for people, it's harder to spread the idea (e.g. many more people are vegetarian than vegan [citation needed]), and asking people to give up major parts of their life story like retirement (or a wedding, or occasional luxuries, or christmas gifts for their families, etc.) comes with real costs that could be measured in dollars (with lots of uncertainty). More broadly, the norms that we establish as a community affect the growth of the community, which directly affects total giving -- if people see us as a super-hardcore group that requires great sacrifice, I just expect less money to be given.

For these reasons, I prefer to follow and encourage norms that say something like "Hey, guess what -- you can help other people a huge amount without sacrificing anything huge! Your life can be just as you thought it would be, and also help other people a lot!" I actually anticipate these norms to have better consequences in terms of helping people than more strict norms (like "don't retire") do, mostly for reasons 1 and 2.

There's still a lot of discussion on these topics, and I could imagine finding out that I'm wrong -- for example, I've heard that there's evidence of more demanding religions being more successful at creating a sense of community and therefore being more satisfying and attractive. However, my best guess is that "don't retire" is too demanding.

(I looked for an article saying something like this but better to link to, but I didn't quickly find one -- if anyone knows where one is, feel free to link!)

Comment author: Daniel_Dewey 13 March 2017 01:57:34PM 1 point [-]

Thanks for putting StrongMinds on my radar!

Comment author: Daniel_Dewey 07 March 2017 05:59:00PM 5 points [-]

Nice work, and looks like a good group of advisors!

Comment author: Daniel_Dewey 27 February 2017 05:39:29AM 7 points [-]

Re: donation: I'd personally feel best about donating to the Long-Term Future EA Fund (not yet ready, I think?) or the EA Giving Group, both managed by Nick Beckstead.

Comment author: Daniel_Dewey 13 February 2017 03:19:07PM *  5 points [-]

Thanks for recommending a concrete change in behavior here!

I also appreciate the discussion of your emotional engagement / other EAs' possible emotional engagement with cause prioritization -- my EA emotional life is complicated, I'm guessing others have a different set of feelings and struggles, and this kind of post seems like a good direction for understanding and supporting one another.

ETA: personally, it feels correct when the opportunity arises to emotionally remind myself of the gravity of the ER-triage-like decisions that humans have to make when allocating resources. I can do this by celebrating wins (e.g. donations / grants others make, actual outcomes) as well as by thinking about how far we have to go in most areas. It's slightly scary, but makes me more confident that I'm even-handedly examining the world and its problems to the best of my abilities and making the best calls I can, and I hope it keeps my ability to switch cause areas healthy. I'd guess this works for me partially because those emotions don't interfere with my ability to be happy / productive, and I expect there are people whose feelings work differently and who shouldn't regularly dwell on that kind of thing :)

Comment author: RyanCarey 13 January 2017 06:25:51PM 0 points [-]

"Though I'm about to respond with how I disagree, I appreciate you taking the critic's risk to help the community. Thank you!"

Not sure how much this helps because if the criticism is thoughtful and you fail to engage with it, you're still being rude and missing an opportunity, whether or not you say some magic words.

Comment author: Daniel_Dewey 14 January 2017 07:26:19PM *  0 points [-]

I agree that if engagement with the critique doesn't follow those words, they're not helpful :) Editing my post to clarify that.

Comment author: Daniel_Dewey 13 January 2017 04:08:31PM 0 points [-]

The pledge is really important to me as a part of my EA life and (I think) as a part of our community infrastructure, and I find your critiques worrying. I'm not sure what to do, but I appreciate you taking the critic's risk to help the community. Thank you!

Comment author: jsteinhardt 12 January 2017 07:19:44PM 19 points [-]

I strongly agree with the points Ben Hoffman has been making (mostly in the other threads) about the epistemic problems caused by holding criticism to a higher standard than praise. I also think that we should be fairly mindful that providing public criticism can have a high social cost to the person making the criticism, even though they are providing a public service.

There are definitely ways that Sarah could have improved her post. But that is basically always going to be true of any blog post unless one spends 20+ hours writing it.

I personally have a number of criticisms of EA (despite overall being a strong proponent of the movement) that I am fairly unlikely to share publicly, due to the following dynamic: anything I write that wouldn't incur unacceptably high social costs would have to be a highly watered-down version of the original point, and/or involve so much of my time to write carefully that it wouldn't be worthwhile.

While I'm sympathetic to the fact that there's also a lot of low-quality / lazy criticism of EA, I don't think responses that involve setting a high bar for high-quality criticism are the right way to go.

(Note that I don't think that EA is worse than is typical in terms of accepting criticism, though I do think that there are other groups / organizations that substantially outperform EA, which provides an existence proof that one can do much better.)

Comment author: Daniel_Dewey 13 January 2017 03:32:29PM *  5 points [-]

This is a great point -- thanks, Jacob!

I think I tend to expect more from people when they are critical -- i.e. I'm fine with a compliment/agreement that someone spent 2 minutes on, but expect critics to "do their homework", and if a complimenter and a critic were equally underinformed/unthoughtful, I'd judge the critic more harshly. This seems bad!

One response is "poorly thought-through criticism can spread through networks; even if it's responded to in one place, people cache and repeat it other places where it's not responded to, and that's harmful." This applies equally well to poorly thought-through compliments; maybe the unchallenged-compliment problem is even worse, because I have warm feelings about this community and its people and orgs!

Proposed responses (for me, though others could adopt them if they thought they're good ideas):

  • For now, assume that all critics are in good faith. (If we have / end up with a bad-critic problem, these responses need to be revised; I'll assume for now that the asymmetry of critique is a bigger problem.)
  • When responding to critiques, thank the critic in a sincere, non-fake way, especially when I disagree with the critique (e.g. "Though I'm about to respond with how I disagree, I appreciate you taking the critic's risk to help the community. Thank you! [response to critique]")
  • Agree or disagree with critiques in a straightforward way, instead of saying e.g. "you should have thought about this harder".
  • Couch compliments the way I would couch critiques.
  • Try to notice my disagreements with compliments, and comment on them if I disagree.


Comment author: jsteinhardt 13 January 2017 08:30:50AM 4 points [-]

I think parts of academia do this well (although other parts do it poorly, and I think it's been getting worse over time). In particular, if you present ideas at a seminar, essentially arbitrarily harsh criticism is fair game. Of course, this is different from the public internet, but it's still a group of people, many of whom do not know each other personally, where pretty strong criticism is the norm.

My impression is that criticism has traditionally been a strong part of Jewish culture, but I'm not culturally Jewish so can't speak directly.

I heard that Bridgewater did a bunch of stuff related to feedback/criticism but again don't know a ton about it.

Of course, none of these examples address the fact that much of the criticism of EA happens over the internet, but I do feel that some of the barriers to criticism online also carry over in person (though others don't).

Comment author: Daniel_Dewey 13 January 2017 03:15:33PM 3 points [-]


I think parts of academia do this well (although other parts do it poorly, and I think it's been getting worse over time). In particular, if you present ideas at a seminar, essentially arbitrarily harsh criticism is fair game. Of course, this is different from the public internet, but it's still a group of people, many of whom do not know each other personally, where pretty strong criticism is the norm.

One guess is that ritualization in academia helps with this -- if you say something in a talk or paper, you ritually invite criticism, whereas I'd be surprised to see people apply the same norms to e.g. a prominent researcher posting on facebook. (Maybe they should apply those norms, but I'd guess they don't.)

Unfortunately, it's not obvious how to get the same benefits in EA.

Comment author: Carl_Shulman 12 January 2017 07:52:49AM 17 points [-]

One bit of progress on this front is Open Phil and GiveWell starting to make public and private predictions related to grants to improve their forecasting about outcomes, and create track records around that.

There is significant room for other EA organizations to adopt this practice in their own areas (and apply it more broadly, e.g. regarding future evaluations of their strategy, etc).

I believe the incentive alignment is strongest in cases where you are talking about moving moderate to large sums of money per donor in the present, for a reasonable number of donors (e.g., a few dozen donors giving hundreds of thousands of dollars). Donors who are donating those large sums of money are selected for being less naive (just by virtue of having made that much money) and the scale of donation makes it worth their while to demand high standards. I think this is related to GiveWell having relatively high epistemic standards (though causality is hard to judge).

This is part of my thinking behind promoting donor lotteries: by increasing the effective size of donors, it lets them more carefully evaluate organizations and opportunities, providing better incentives and resistance to exploitation by things that look good on first glance but don't hold up on close and extended inspection (they can also share their findings with the broader community).

The story I want to believe, and that I think others also want to believe, is some version of a just-world story: in the long run epistemic virtue ~ success. Something like "Sure, in the short run, taking epistemic shortcuts and bending the truth leads to more growth, but in the long run it comes back to bite you." I think there's some truth to this story: epistemic virtue and long-run growth metrics probably correlate better than epistemic virtue and short-run growth metrics. But the correlation is still far from perfect.

The correlation gets better when you consider total impact and not just growth.

Comment author: Daniel_Dewey 12 January 2017 05:53:11PM 16 points [-]

Prediction-making in my Open Phil work does feel like progress to me, because I find making predictions and writing them down difficult and scary, indicating that I wasn't doing that mental work as seriously before :) I'm quite excited to see what comes of it.

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