Comment author: zdgroff 20 December 2017 03:55:22AM *  7 points [-]

Here's mine, copied and pasted from my blog :

1) The importance of artificial general intelligence:

I'd previously been dismissive of superintelligence as being something altruists should focus on, but that was in large part motivated reasoning. I read books like Superintelligence and Global Catastrophic Risks, and I knew their theses were right initially but would not admit it to myself. With time, though I came to see that I was resisting the conclusion that superintelligence is an important priority mostly because it was uncomfortable. Now I recognize that it is potentially the most important problem and want to explore opportunities to contribute.

2) The economic argument for animal welfare reforms:

One of the reasons often given for supporting animal welfare reforms to those who want to see fewer (read: no) animals tortured for food is that welfare reforms make the industry less profitable, cutting down on the numbers of animals raised. I did not think this effect was strong enough to be worth the effort activists put into such reforms, but I've changed my mind significantly based on three pieces of evidence. The first was an analysis by economists Jayson Lusk and Conner Mullaly finding that Proposition 2 made a significant dent in egg production. The second was a write-up by Lewis Bollard at the Open Philanthropy Project on how the Sierra Club managed to shrink the coal industry through regulations and subsidies. The third was Sentience Institute's report on nuclear power and clean meat, which found that economic institutions can powerfully shape the success or failure of novel technologies. I now think the economic approach to animal advocacy is an exceptionally promising strategy.

3) The value of research for animal advocacy:

I've always thought animal advocates had a large research gap. When I look at the economic development world as an animal advocate, I feel envy. I'd previously thought that a lot of advocacy tactics simply could not be tested, but after looking around at datasets on social movements (for instance, Erica Chenoweth's dataset on the "Resistance"), reading the ingenious work of institutional economists on using instrumental variables to set up quasi-experimental studies, and reading about experimental work in political science and other disciplines, I think there's a lot more that can be done than has, enough for it to be one of the most promising routes for animal advocates.

4) The importance–and neglectedness–of social institutions:

This was a year when through reading, following the news, and personal experience, I saw how much rules, norms, and processes matter–and how forgotten this can be. I saw how charismatic men with easy scapegoats and enchanted people behind them can pervert and break important and worthwhile structures. At the same time, I saw how dissent and conviction can preserve and improve safeguards.

5) The interplay of protests and politics:

I fiercely avoided this conclusion until recently, but I now think that in situations without sufficient, actionable public support, protests do not mix well with politics. As I've concluded before, protests have two primary effects: growing a movement and pressuring institutions. As a movement grows in size and support, the most important effect of a protest should shift from the former to the latter. When a protest is raising awareness, and the public does not agree with the protesters, I think the protest should probably be largely separate from political campaigns.

6) The importance of wild animal suffering:

I've followed a similar path here to that on artificial intelligence. I avoided an uncomfortable conclusion, but I ended up having to accept it: that given the massive numbers of wild animals in the world (anywhere from 1,000 to 1,000,000,000 sentient wild animals for every human), figuring out what effect we do and can have on their suffering is of first order importance for animal advocates.

7) Religion, the internet, and social cohesion:

I've tended in the past to think that electronic communications are clearly positive, and I'm an atheist and have a staunch secularist streak. (Écrasez l'infame!) Nonetheless, various readings have moved me toward wondering if the Internet is creating an overly individualistic generation, and if we could use some institutions that resemble and replicate religion in some ways. I read up on the Bowling Alone theory and Cass Sunstein's #Republic. I think the health of civic society in the face of an increasingly atomistic world is a worthy concern.

8) How much cause there is for optimism:

I am a pessimist by nature but for a while have been a deliberate optimist. By poverty, violence, and oppression, I think it is hard to make the case that the broad sweep of history is negative. Even against that background, I end the year with more optimism about the causes that concern me. Most important, I am more hopeful that current animal advocacy strategies will put a massive dent in industry (see number 2). I am excited about the direction effective altruist organizations are going in, with Animal Charity Evaluators' research standards improving and groups like Sentience Institute carefully examining a broader body of evidence. I am more hopeful than ever that for most sentient beings, the future is growing brighter.


Updates Thread: How Have You Changed Your Mind This Year?

I recently went through the exercise on my blog of thinking through ways my mind has changed this year and wanted to start a thread for people to share significant updates they’ve made in the past year. A lot of EA organizations do this, but there's less of a space... Read More
Comment author: zdgroff 18 December 2017 10:02:21PM 0 points [-]

It would seem to throw a wrench into the discussion around the Against Malaria Foundation and GiveWell's recs:

Comment author: zdgroff 18 December 2017 10:00:36PM 1 point [-]

Thanks for writing this! This influenced me and my thoughts about donations.

Comment author: zdgroff 18 December 2017 09:52:22PM 4 points [-]

I'm not in the job market right now but am generally curious: to what degree might Founders Pledge venture into some of the weirder EA cause areas, like far future or animal causes (even things like wild animals)?

Comment author: zdgroff 15 December 2017 12:21:43AM 10 points [-]

I love the work you're doing. The anti-nuclear study was really thorough and well-written, and the research plans are basically exactly the sorts of things I think effective animal advocates need.

Comment author: zdgroff 01 November 2017 11:09:37PM 3 points [-]

Thanks for writing this–as basically everyone else has said, it's really beautifully written.

I share others' (cf. Claire Zabel's comment) gratitude for the distinction you make between publicly reporting one's inside view while privately acting on one's outside view. This seems to raise a serious question about what is public and what is private. For instance, donation decisions may seem like a very private decision (unless declared publicly), but as an organization starts to grow, people will interpret that as a signal of people's views, which can lead to double-counting. I think this is actually something worth worrying about: while I think the most vocal EAs lean too far toward immodesty in expression of attitudes, EAs writ large do seem to act to a serious degree based on others' actions (at least in animal advocacy). The methodological individualism of economics and other fields that guide EAs may cause people to systematically overestimate how private certain decisions are.

Another worry I have is that people may systematically confuse expert consensus as having a wider scope for the following reason: experts who study Y may pronounce an opinion not on Y but on 'Y given X' even though they have not studied X. Economists, for instance, will often make explicit or just-shy-of-explicit claims about whether a policy is good or not, but the goodness of policies typically depends on empirical facts that most economists are equipped to consider and normative claims that economists may not be equipped to consider. It strikes me that we need to have a fine scalpel to see that we should accept economists' consensus on the direction and magnitude of policies' effects but look to political philosophers or ethicists for judgments of those effects.

Comment author: zdgroff 30 October 2017 06:57:12PM 3 points [-]

Thanks for writing this up! I learned some things here even having managed press previously for Direct Action Everywhere.

One thing I'd note that might help with some bruised emails (and let me know if you disagree) is that this business is highly random. Getting an op-ed published depends entirely on the judgments of a small number of people.

Also, one comment:

Pitch the same piece to multiple outlets at once

This is definitely standard press advice, but I'm actually curious if this is wise. Given that (I think) it's more often than not the case that the chance of getting published is quite low, if a piece is time-sensitive, doesn't this dramatically lower your chances of getting published (many places don't notify of rejections), while if you submit to multiple, the most that happens is you burn someone who might not have been a good contact anyway? I've been wondering if the common wisdom is wrong here.

Comment author: DavidNash 27 October 2017 08:02:44PM 6 points [-]

Just in reply to the graph section - this post made me think about possible reasons for the discrepancy between computer science and law/medicine.

Comment author: zdgroff 29 October 2017 04:19:45AM 2 points [-]

Yeah, I've read that and think there are very good points in there. I think I'd actually thought the graph said "physics" rather than "physical sciences," so I now realize I misread it a bit. I do think that SSC piece leaves two questions open though:

First, do we think that EA should be more like physics or more like medicine? This probably speaks to the E vs. A question Kelly addressed above. I think EA could benefit from having more people in it emphasizing the A. This is something we should all talk about at length, though.

Second, even if there are gender differences in interest that mean that an equitable distribution in a field would be unequal, the gap may be larger than what the differences suggest. I think that's actually what we should expect: in fields that men are more interested in, the higher concentration of men should breed more sexism, and the gap should be inflated.

Comment author: zdgroff 27 October 2017 06:36:31PM *  7 points [-]

Your portrait of what the EA community could be is a beautiful one and made me tear up. You hit the nail on the head many times in this post on the subtle connections between things that I think can be hard to identify: the connection between heart and head, the E and the A, the overuse of jargon, and the hero worship, and so on. I have to say that as a fairly straight-passing gay man with immense amounts of privilege, even I feel many of these pressures and am often put off by the alpha-male machismo you often see in EA spaces.

I’ve witnessed discrimination and harassment, and heard of assault, in EA-ish spaces, and it seems pretty clear that this is contributing to the gender gap. I’ve definitely exhibited some of the combative and argumentative behaviors you mention. When I got into the EA community a few years ago, I began in global poverty and animal advocacy circles, and I found they were much better on these issues than the community is now, sadly. (That’s with both of those areas’ having plenty of problems.)

I think Kelly moved us toward a type of dialogue on this issue that is lacking in the world, and I hope we can have more of it. Right now, discussions around diversity and inclusion seem polarized between the sort of “rationalist” discussion that’s snarky and dismissive on the one hand and an ostracizing mob mentality on the other hand. I don’t want to say EA should chart a middle path, because I think we should lean toward being overly zealous on diversity and inclusion rather than away, but I think EA and its aligned movements (animal advocacy in my mind) would benefit from a conversation that is at the same time inclusive and data-based. I don’t think the world has that type of conversation very often.

The lack of conversations that are both inclusive and data-based seems to lead to pretty bad results, where diversity and inclusion are may not be promoted in the most effective ways, and people opposed to diversity and inclusion harbor suspicions about the world (e.g. that discrimination does not exist) that continue to fester unaddressed.

From my exploration of these matters, I’ve come to see that generally, when one reads about data on discrimination, differences between groups, etc. one finds that (a) discrimination exists and can be quite powerful; (b) there are differences between genders, but the differences are subtle and go in varied directions (e.g. men are more combative, and women are more collaborative, as Kelly notes); and (c ) these differences are not the reason for the vast majority of gaps that we see.

I think that because discussion about differences between genders is often consigned to the more diversity-hostile corners of the internet, though, ideas that would be proven wrong by the data go unchallenged. Again, I think if we were to have the right sort of conversation on these issues, we would find that discrimination is indeed the primary cause of the gender gap in EA, but without that conversation, people will not be convinced. (And if an honest conversation engaged with data and personal experiences came to the conclusion that this was not the case, that would probably be good information to have.)

For instance, I read the Damore memo, but then saw this graph which seems to be pretty good evidence that the vast majority of the gap in tech is not from biological differences (and so likely some iteration of discrimination, implicit or explicit). I don’t remember where I came across this graph, but it was very helpful to me. Without looking at the whole picture, though, one can look solely at the individual components of the picture (e.g. Damore’s arguments on specific gender differences) and come to conclusions that would be put in doubt with fuller information.

As an additional reason why I think EA is a movement that could have the right conversation on this, I think that EAs recognize a moral principle similar to equality of interests, where differences in personal traits do not lead to moral differences. It seems that in many diversity and inclusion conversations, both the right and the left consider personal trait differences to imply moral differences, and I think EAs can challenge and move beyond that assumption–though with care and only after we start improving on our demographics.

This is a very challenging issue because, as noted in a comment below, racism and sexism have long been motivated by biological essentialism, and it’s extremely disturbing to have people talk about a group you are a part of in this way. (As a Jew, I can say that I feel discomfort with the conversation about Jewish values below, for instance, though I don’t have a strong opinion on its propriety.) I think that the way to deal with this problem is to exercise caution when speaking about these sorts of things, to avoid casual discussion of them, and to have a higher evidence standard for when we talk about these things. I think that our community can learn the appropriate maturity to do that, though.

Anyway, all this is to say that I hope that as this conversation goes on, we can bring data to bear and recognize the implications of the way we speak for others in this community. Words and ideas do cause harm, and we should be utilitarians about the way we speak. With appropriate caution, though, I think that EAs can have a conversation that gets to the heart of the matter and offers a model for how these conversations can be had.


For those looking for examples of places where these discussions could be valuable, I have a few:

  • Gender and cosmopolitan values–The Better Angels of Our Nature cites feminism as one of the reasons for declines in all sorts of violence (war, sexual violence, torture), and I’ve seen enough data to match my intuition that feminism is also very good for animals. I think there are lots of things to explore empirically in this domain (that likely would have implications for the A vs. E debate), but they probably involve engaging with uncomfortable questions about where these gender differences arise.

  • On another note, animal advocates will often assert that if we focus on multiple causes, we will solve our diversity and inclusion problem. I think this is a very important claim to test, because focusing on multiple causes may be quite costly. I’m fully supportive of focusing on creating justice within our movements and groups, e.g. by aggressively fighting sexual assault and getting rid of income barriers, but I think the claim about movements’ outward focus is a debatable one that really needs to be empirically explored.

  • Similarly to the above note, animal advocates often work on issues to promote diversity and inclusion including things like fighting urban food deserts without looking into the evidence around them. This could not only hinder direct impacts but also create the impression that advocates’ diversity and inclusion efforts are an afterthought without the same rigor applied to it that advocates apply to work for animals.

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