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.

Comment author: Buck 26 October 2017 08:25:26PM 8 points [-]

We also have way more trans women than society at large.

Comment author: zdgroff 27 October 2017 03:32:01AM *  2 points [-]

I think there are some varied skews here. It seems that we do well on representation of trans people generally and queer women relative to the total number of women, but not on queer men relative to the number of men. I think there are probably more political queer men (rejection of gay/straight binary sort of thing) than in most communities, but not many men who regularly sleep or seek to sleep with men. I know I was in the community for years before meeting one.

So yes, I think the skew is toward straight, white dudes, and I'll say I do find the machismo off-putting even as a fairly straight-passing gay man.

Comment author: nonzerosum 17 October 2017 06:48:23PM *  3 points [-]

Interesting post.

The first thought that came to my mind is related to the other post on this forum about psychedelics.

My interpretation is therapeutic psilocybin experiences can create a feeling of all being part of the same team / global interconnectedness. I wonder if this would lead to less tribalism. It seems like it very well may.

"In 6-month follow-up interviews, participants were asked: ‘Did this treatment work for you, and if so how?’ and responses were analysed for consistent themes (Watts et al. 2017). Of the 17 patients who endorsed the treatment’s effectiveness, all made reference to one particular mediating factor: a renewed sense of connection or connectedness. This factor was found to have three distinguishable aspects: connection to (1) self, (2) others and (3) the world in general (Watts et al. 2017)."

References via a friend.

Comment author: zdgroff 20 October 2017 05:25:41PM 0 points [-]

I would worry that the "feeling of all being part of the same team" could just as likely lead to more tribalism as to less. It's a question of who "all" refers to. Reminds me of discussions around empathy and compassion–if our other-regarding behaviors are strengthened toward those close to us, it can actually make us worse to those further away (even if only because of resource constraints).

Comment author: DavidNash 19 October 2017 12:40:30PM 4 points [-]

I think most people that write about this subject don't take a step back and look at the historical context and general trends in society, which makes it really hard to work out what's going on.

It's hard to tell from just observing the news how views/public opinion are trending, if the number of the KKK has gone from 3000 to 300, but we only start interviewing and televising them at the 300 level, it will appear as if they are more present in society than in the past.

One study of polarisation (which in some ways is similar to tribalism) shows that polarisation could be increasing the most in older generations, who use the internet least. This might suggest that as people come online, we're hearing more from a more polarised generation, who before the internet, wouldn't be letting people know about their views as much.

Here is another post about how we may start to interpret events in one way even if it doesn't match trends. It seems like a lot of people are now focused on the far right/extremism and tribalism, when they weren't before the election.

Comment author: zdgroff 19 October 2017 07:38:08PM 0 points [-]

Wow, the older generation thing is really interesting. Definitely giving that paper a read.

Re: interpretation of events, yeah, that makes sense. I just find it alarming that Trump could get 30%+, or Brexit.

Comment author: zdgroff 18 October 2017 08:47:46PM 0 points [-]

I've had this instinct myself for a while and blogged about it today ( I'm quite sympathetic to Pinker's thesis but becoming less sympathetic with each passing day. (Maybe I just need to reread the book.)

Do you think tribalism is indeed getting better, and even if so, do you think its rate of decrease might be slowing given the rise of far right populism and leftist identity politics? Articles like this make me worried:

Comment author: RyanCarey 10 October 2017 02:18:07AM 6 points [-]

Hey Zack,

I agree that we lose a bunch by moving our movement's centre of gravity away from poverty and development econ. But if we do the move properly, we gain a lot on the basis of the new areas we settle in. What rigor we lost, we should be able to patch up with Bayesian rationalist thinking. What institutional capital we might have lost from World Bank / Gates, we might be able to pick up with RAND/IARPA/Google/etc, a rather more diverse yet impressive group of possible contributors. For organization, yes a lot of experience, like that of Evidence Action, will be lost, but also much will be gained, for example, by working instead at technology think tanks, and elsewhere.

I don't think your conclusion that people should start in the arena of poverty is very well-supported either, if you're not comparing it to other arenas that people might be able to start out in. Do you think you might be privileging the hypothesis that people should start in the management of poverty just because that's salient to you, possibly because it's the status quo?

Comment author: zdgroff 10 October 2017 05:23:14PM 2 points [-]

There's definitely general intellectual rigor to be gained in the new areas the movement is drifting for, but it's not applied to doing good. That is, Google has great methods for maximizing efficiency, but thinking rigorously about doing good is different in significant ways, and the poverty world has been diligently working on that for a long time.


The Hidden Cost of Shifting Away from Poverty

    The Center for Effective Altruism and effective altruists active in online spaces have for a while now been shifting away from a focus on poverty toward a focus on the far future and meta-level work (and if not that, animal advocacy). Interestingly, the rank and file of effective... Read More

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