It’s been a rough few months, hasn’t it?
Recent events, including the FTX collapse and the Bostrom email/apology scandal, have led a sizeable portion of EAs to become disillusioned with or at least much more critical of the Effective Altruism movement.
While the current crises have made some of our movement’s problems more visible and acute, many EAs have become increasingly worried about the direction of EA over the last few years. We are some of them.
This document was written collaboratively, with contributions from ~10 EAs in total. Each of us arrived at most of the critiques below independently before realising through conversation that we were not “the only one”. In fact, many EAs thought similarly to us, or at least were very easily convinced once thoughts were (privately) shared.
Some of us started to become concerned as early as 2017, but the discussions that triggered the creation of this post happened in the summer of 2022. Most of this post was written by the time of the FTX crash, and the final draft was completed the very day that the Bostrom email scandal broke. Thus, a separate post will be made about the Bostrom/FLI issues in around a week.
A lot of what we say is relevant to the FTX situation, and some of it isn’t, at least directly. In any case, it seems clear to us that the FTX crisis significantly strengthened our arguments.
We reached the point where we would feel collectively irresponsible if we did not voice our concerns some time ago, and now seems like the time where those concerns are most likely to be taken seriously. We voice them in the hope that we can change our movement for the better, and have taken pains to avoid coming off as “hostile” in any way.
Experience indicates that it is likely many EAs will agree with significant proportions of what we say, but have not said as much publicly due to the significant risk doing so would pose to their careers, access to EA spaces, and likelihood of ever getting funded again.
Naturally the above considerations also apply to us: we are anonymous for a reason.
This post is also
quite very long, so each section has a summary at the top for ease of scanning, and we’ll break this post up into a sequence to facilitate object-level discussion.
Finally, we ask that people upvote or downvote this post on the basis of whether they believe it to have made a useful contribution to the conversation, rather than whether they agree with all of our critiques.
- The Effective Altruism movement has rapidly grown in size and power, and we have a responsibility to ensure that it lives up to its goals
- EA is too homogenous, hierarchical, and intellectually insular, with a hard core of “orthodox” thought and powerful barriers to “deep” critiques
- Many beliefs accepted in EA are surprisingly poorly supported, and we ignore entire disciplines with extremely relevant and valuable insights
- Some EA beliefs and practices align suspiciously well with the interests of our donors, and some of our practices render us susceptible to conflicts of interest
- EA decision-making is highly centralised, opaque, and unaccountable, but there are several evidence-based methods for improving the situation
As committed Effective Altruists, we have found meaning and value in the frameworks and pragmatism of the Effective Altruism movement. We believe it is one of the most effective broadly-focused social movements, with the potential for world-historical impact.
Already, the impact of many EA projects has been considerable and inspiring. We appreciate the openness to criticism found in various parts of the EA community, and believe that EA has the potential to avoid the pitfalls faced by many other movements by updating effectively in response to new information.
We have become increasingly concerned with significant aspects of the movement over our collective decades here, and while the FTX crisis was a shock to all of us, we had for some time been unable to escape the feeling that something was going to go horribly wrong.
To ensure that EA has a robustly positive impact, we feel the need to identify the aspects of our movement that we find concerning, and suggest directions for reform that we believe have been neglected. These fall into three major categories:
- Expertise & Rigour
- Governance & Power
We do not believe that the critiques apply to everyone and to all parts of EA, but to certain – often influential – subparts of the movement. Most of us work on existential risk, so the majority of our examples will come from there.
Not all of the ~10 people that helped to write this post agree with all the points made within, both in terms of “goes too far” and “doesn’t go far enough”. It is entirely possible to strongly reject one or more of our critiques while accepting others.
In the same vein, we request that commenters focus on the high-level critiques we make, rather than diving into hyper-specific debates about one thing or another that we cited as an example.
Finally, this report started as a dozen or so bullet points, and currently stands at over 20,000 words. We wrote it out of love for the community, and we were not paid for any of its writing or research despite most of us either holding precarious grant-dependent gig jobs or living on savings while applying for funding. We had to stop somewhere. This means that many of the critiques we make could be explored in far, far more detail than their rendition here contains.
If you think a point is underdeveloped, we probably agree; we would love to see others take the points we make and explore them in greater depth, and indeed to do so ourselves if able to do so while also being able to pay rent.
We believe that the points we make are vital for the epistemic health of the movement, that they will make it more accessible and effective, and that they will enhance the ability of EA as a whole to do the most good.
- Some of the issues we describe are based on personal experience and thus cannot be backed by citations. If you doubt something we assert, let us know and we’ll give as much detail as we can without compromising our anonymity or that of others. You can also just ask around: we witnessed most of the things we mention on multiple independent occasions, so they’re probably not rare.
- This post ties a lot of issues together and is thus necessarily broad, so we will have to make some generalisations, to which there will be exceptions.
Epistemic health is a community issue
Summary: The Collective Intelligence literature suggests epistemic communities should be diverse, egalitarian, and open to a wide variety of information sources. EA, in contrast, is relatively homogenous, hierarchical, and insular. This puts EA at serious risk of epistemic blind-spots.
EA highly values epistemics and has a stated ambition of predicting existential risk scenarios. We have a reputation for assuming that we are the “smartest people in the room”.
Yet, we appear to have been blindsided by the FTX crash. As Tyler Cowen puts it:
Hardly anyone associated with Future Fund saw the existential risk to… Future Fund, even though they were as close to it as one could possibly be.
I am thus skeptical about their ability to predict existential risk more generally, and for systems that are far more complex and also far more distant. And, it turns out, many of the real sources of existential risk boil down to hubris and human frailty and imperfections (the humanities remain underrated). When it comes to existential risk, I generally prefer to invest in talent and good institutions, rather than trying to fine-tune predictions about existential risk itself.
If EA is going to do some lesson-taking, I would not want this point to be neglected.
So, what’s the problem?
EA’s focus on epistemics is almost exclusively directed towards individualistic issues like minimising the impact of cognitive biases and cultivating a Scout Mindset. The movement strongly emphasises intelligence, both in general and especially that of particular “thought-leaders”. An epistemically healthy community seems to be created by acquiring maximally-rational, intelligent, and knowledgeable individuals, with social considerations given second place. Unfortunately, the science does not bear this out. The quality of an epistemic community does not boil down to the de-biasing and training of individuals; more important factors appear to be the community’s composition, its socio-economic structure, and its cultural norms.
- Along essentially all dimensions, from cultural background to disciplinary/professional training to cognition style to age
- People must feel able to speak up (and must be listened to if they do)
- Dominance dynamics amplify biases and steer groups into suboptimal path dependencies
- Leadership is typically best employed on a rotating basis for discussion-facilitation purposes rather than top-down decision-making
- Avoid appeals and deference to community authority
- Openness to a wide variety of sources of information
- Generally high levels of social/emotional intelligence
- This is often more important than individuals’ skill levels at the task in question
However, the social epistemics of EA leave much to be desired. As we will elaborate on below, EA:
- Is mostly comprised of people with very similar demographic, cultural, and educational backgrounds
- Places too much trust in (powerful) leadership figures
- Is remarkably intellectually insular
- Confuses value-alignment and seniority with expertise
- Is vulnerable to motivated reasoning
- Is susceptible to conflicts of interest
- Has powerful structural barriers to raising important categories of critique
- Is susceptible to groupthink
Decision-making structures and intellectual norms within EA must therefore be improved upon.
What actually is “value-alignment”?
Summary: The use of the term “value-alignment” in the EA community hides an implicit community orthodoxy. When people say “value-aligned” they typically do not mean a neutral “alignment of values”, nor even “agreement with the goal of doing the most good possible”, but a commitment to a particular package of views. This package, termed “EA orthodoxy”, includes effective altruism, longtermism, utilitarianism, Rationalist-derived epistemics, liberal-technocratic philanthropy, Whig historiography, the ITN framework, and the Techno-Utopian Approach to existential risk.
The term “value-alignment” gets thrown around a lot in EA, but is rarely actually defined. When asked, people typically say something about similarity or complementarity of values or worldviews, and this makes sense: “value-alignment” is of course a term defined in reference to what values the subject is (un)aligned with. You could just as easily speak of alignment with the values of a political party or a homeowner’s association.
However, the term’s usage in EA spaces typically has an implicit component: value-alignment with a set of views shared and promoted by the most established and powerful components of the EA community. Thus:
Value-alignment = the degree to which one subscribes to EA orthodoxy
EA orthodoxy = the package of beliefs and sensibilities generally shared and promoted by EA’s core institutions (the CEA, FHI, OpenPhil, etc.)
- These include, but are not limited to:
- Effective Altruism
- i.e. trying to “do the most good possible”
- i.e. believing that positively influencing the long-term future is a (or even the) key moral priority of our time
- Utilitarianism, usually Total Utilitarianism
- Rationalist-derived epistemics
- Most notably subjective Bayesian “updating” of personal beliefs
- Liberal-technocratic philanthropy
- A broadly Whiggish/progressivist view of history
- Best exemplified by Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now”
- Cause-prioritisation according to the ITN framework
- The Techno-Utopian Approach to existential risk, which includes for instance, and in addition to several of the above:
Defining “existential risk” in reference to humanity’s “long-term potential” to generate immense amounts of (utilitarian) value by populating the cosmos with vast numbers of extremely technologically advanced beings
A methodological framework based on categorising individual “risks”, estimating for each a probability of causing an “existential catastrophe” within a given timeframe, and attempting to reduce the overall level of existential risk largely by working on particular “risks” in isolation (usually via technical or at least technocratic means)
A willingness to seriously consider extreme or otherwise exceptional actions to protect astronomically large amounts of perceived future value
- Effective Altruism
- There will naturally be exceptions here – institutions employ many people, whose views can change over time – but there are nonetheless clear regularities
- These include, but are not limited to:
Note that few, if any, of the components of orthodoxy are necessary aspects, conditions, or implications of the overall goal of “doing the most good possible”. It is possible to be an effective altruist without subscribing to all, or even any, of them, with the obvious exception of “effective altruism” itself.
However, when EAs say “value-aligned” they rarely seem to mean that one is simply “dedicated to doing the most good possible”, but that one subscribes to the particular philosophical, political, and methodological views packaged under the umbrella of orthodoxy.
We are incredibly homogenous
Summary: Diverse communities are typically much better at accurately analysing the world and solving problems, but EA is extremely homogenous along essentially all dimensions. EA institutions and norms actively and strongly select against diversity. This provides short-term efficiency at the expense of long-term epistemic health.
The EA community is notoriously homogenous, and the “average EA” is extremely easy to imagine: he is a white male in his twenties or thirties from an upper-middle class family in North America or Western Europe. He is ethically utilitarian and politically centrist; an atheist, but culturally protestant. He studied analytic philosophy, mathematics, computer science, or economics at an elite university in the US or UK. He is neurodivergent. He thinks space is really cool. He highly values intelligence, and believes that his own is significantly above average. He hung around LessWrong for a while as a teenager, and now wears EA-branded shirts and hoodies, drinks Huel, and consumes a narrow range of blogs, podcasts, and vegan ready-meals. He moves in particular ways, talks in particular ways, and thinks in particular ways. Let us name him “Sam”, if only because there’s a solid chance he already is.
Even leaving aside the ethical and political issues surrounding major decisions about humanity’s future being made by such a small and homogenous group of people, especially given the fact that the poor of the Global South will suffer most in almost any conceivable catastrophe, having the EA community overwhelmingly populated by Sams or near-Sams is decidedly Not Good for our collective epistemic health.
As noted above, diversity is one of the main predictors of the collective intelligence of a group. If EA wants optimise its ability to solve big, complex problems like the ones we focus on, we need people with different disciplinary backgrounds, different kinds of professional training, different kinds of talent/intelligence, different ethical and political viewpoints, different temperaments, and different life experiences. That’s where new ideas tend to come from.
Worryingly, EA institutions seem to select against diversity. Hiring and funding practices often select for highly value-aligned yet inexperienced individuals over outgroup experts, university recruitment drives are deliberately targeted at the Sam Demographic (at least by proxy) and EA organisations are advised to maintain a high level of internal value-alignment to maximise operational efficiency. The 80,000 Hours website seems purpose-written for Sam, and is noticeably uninterested in people with humanities or social sciences backgrounds, or those without university education. Unconscious bias is also likely to play a role here – it does everywhere else.
The vast majority of EAs will, when asked, say that we should have a more diverse community, but in that case, why are only a very narrow spectrum of people given access to EA funding or EA platforms? There are exceptions, of course, but the trend is clear.
It’s worth mentioning that senior EAs have done some interesting work on moral uncertainty and value-pluralism, and we think several of their recommendations are well-taken. However, the focus is firmly on individual rather than collective factors. The point remains that one cannot substitute a philosophically diverse community for an overwhelmingly utilitarian one where everyone individually tries to keep all possible viewpoints in mind. None of us are so rational as to obviate true diversity through our own thoughts.
EA is very open to some kinds of critique and very not open to others
Summary: EA is very open to shallow critiques, but not deep critiques. Shallow critiques are small technical adjustments written in ingroup language, whereas deep critiques hint at the need for significant change, criticise prominent figures or their ideas, and can suggest outgroup membership. This means EA is very good at optimising along a very narrow and not necessarily optimal path.
EA prides itself on its openness to criticism, and in many areas this is entirely justified. However, willingness to engage with critique varies widely depending on the type of critique being made, and powerful structures exist within the community that reduce the likelihood that people will speak up and be heard.
Within EA, criticism is acceptable, even encouraged, if it lies within particular boundaries, and when it is expressed in suitable terms. Here we distinguish informally between “shallow critiques” and “deep critiques”.
Shallow critiques are often:
- Technical adjustments to generally-accepted structures
- “We should rate intervention X 12% higher than we currently do.”
- Changes of emphasis or minor structural/methodological adjustments
- Easily conceptualised as “optimising” “updates” rather than cognitively difficult qualitative switches
- Written in EA-language and sprinkled liberally with EA buzzwords
- Not critical of capitalism
Whereas deep critiques are often:
Suggestive that one or more of the fundamental ways we do things are wrong
- i.e. are critical of EA orthodoxy
- Thereby implying that people may have invested considerable amounts of time/effort/identity in something when they perhaps shouldn’t have
Critical of prominent or powerful figures within EA
Written in a way suggestive of outgroup membership
- And thus much more likely to be read as hostile and/or received with hostility
- Or more precisely: of a different politics to the broadly liberal-technocratic approach popular in EA
EA is very open to shallow critiques, which is something we absolutely love about the movement. As a community, however, we remain remarkably resistant to deep critiques. The distinction is likely present in most epistemic communities, but EA appears to have a particularly large problem. Again, there will be exceptions, but the trend is clear.
The problem is illustrated well by the example of an entry to the recent Red-Teaming Contest: “The Effective Altruism movement is not above conflicts of interest”. It warned us of the political and ethical risks associated with taking money from cryptocurrency billionaires like Sam Bankman-Fried, and suggested that EA has a serious blind spot when it comes to (financial) conflicts of interest.
The article (which did not win anything in the contest) was written under a pseudonym, as the author feared that making such a critique publicly would incur a risk of repercussions to their career. A related comment provided several well-evidenced reasons to be morally and pragmatically wary of Bankman-Fried, got downvoted heavily, and was eventually deleted by its author.
Elsewhere, critical EAs report having to develop specific rhetorical strategies to be taken seriously. Making deep critiques or contradicting orthodox positions outright gets you labelled as a “non-value-aligned” individual with “poor epistemics”, so you need to pretend to be extremely deferential and/or stupid and ask questions in such a way that critiques are raised without actually being stated.
At the very least, critics have learned to watch their tone at all costs, and provide a constant stream of unnecessary caveats and reassurances in order to not be labelled “emotional” or “overconfident”.
These are not good signs.
Why do critical EAs have to use pseudonyms?
Summary: Working in EA usually involves receiving money from a small number of densely connected funding bodies/individuals. Contextual evidence is strongly suggestive that raising deep critiques will drastically reduce one’s odds of being funded, so many important projects and criticisms are lost to the community.
There are several reasons people may not want to publicly make deep critiques, but the one that has been most impactful in our experience has been the role of funding.
EA work generally relies on funding from EA sources: we need to pay the bills, and the kinds of work EA values are often very difficult to fund via non-EA sources. Open Philanthropy, and previously FTX, has/had an almost hegemonic funding role in many areas of existential risk reduction, as well as several other domains. This makes EA funding organisations and even individual grantmakers extremely powerful.
Prominent funders have said that they value moderation and pluralism, and thus people (like the writers of this post) should feel comfortable sharing their real views when they apply for funding, no matter how critical they are of orthodoxy.
This is admirable, and we are sure that they are being truthful about their beliefs. Regardless, it is difficult to trust that the promise will be kept when one, for instance:
Observes the types of projects (and people) that succeed (or fail) at acquiring funding
- i.e. few, if any, deep critiques or otherwise heterodox/“heretical” works
Looks into the backgrounds of grantmakers and sees how they appear to have very similar backgrounds and opinions (i.e they are highly orthodox)
Experiences the generally claustrophobic epistemic atmosphere of EA
Hears of people facing (soft) censorship from their superiors because they wrote deep critiques of the ideas of prominent EAs
- Zoe Cremer and Luke Kemp lost “sleep, time, friends, collaborators, and mentors” as a result of writing Democratising Risk, a paper which was critical of some EA approaches to existential risk. Multiple senior figures in the field attempted to prevent the paper from being published, largely out of fear that it would offend powerful funders. This saga caused significant conflict within CSER throughout much of 2021.
Sees the revolving door and close social connections between key donors and main scholars in the field
Witnesses grantmakers dismiss scientific work on the grounds that the people doing it are insufficiently value-aligned
- If this is what is said in public (which we have witnessed multiple times), what is said in private?
Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that if you want to get funding from an EA body, you must not only try to propose a good project, but one that could not be interpreted as insufficiently “value-aligned”, however the grantmakers might define it. If you have an idea for a project that seems very important, but could be read as a “deep critique”, it is rational for you to put it aside.
Given this level of clustering, it is reasonable to believe that if you admit to holding heretical views on your funding application, word will spread, and thus you will quite possibly never be funded by any other funder in the EA space, never mind any other consequences (e.g. gatekeeping of EA events/spaces) you might face. For a sizeable portion of EAs, the community forms a very large segment of one’s career trajectory, social life, and identity; not things to be risked easily. For most, the only robust strategy is to keep your mouth shut.
Grantmakers: You are missing out on exciting, high potential impact projects due to these processes. When the stakes are as high as they are, verbal assurances are unfortunately insufficient. The problems are structural, so the solutions must be structural as well.
We can’t put numbers on everything…
Summary: EA is highly culturally quantitative, which is optimal for some problem categories but not others. Trying to put numbers on everything causes information loss and triggers anchoring and certainty biases. Individual Bayesian Thinking, prized in EA, has significant methodological issues. Thinking in numbers, especially when those numbers are subjective “rough estimates”, allow one to justify anything comparatively easily, and can lead to wasteful and immoral decisions.
From the EA Forum wiki: “The expected value of an act is the sum of the value of each of its possible outcomes multiplied by their probability of occurring.” Bayes’s theorem is a simple mathematical tool for updating our estimate of the likelihood of an event in response to new information.
Individual Bayesian Thinking (IBT) is a technique inherited by EA from the Rationalist subculture, where one attempts to use Bayes’ theorem on an everyday basis. You assign each of your beliefs a numerical probability of being true and attempt to mentally apply Bayes’ theorem, increasing or decreasing the probability in question in response to new evidence. This is sometimes called “Bayesian epistemology” in EA, but to avoid confusing it with the broader approach to formal epistemology with the same name we will stick with IBT.
There is nothing wrong with quantitative thinking, and much of the power of EA grows from its dedication to the numerical. However, this is often taken to the extreme, where people try to think almost exclusively along numerical lines, causing them to neglect important qualitative factors or else attempt to replace them with doubtful or even meaningless numbers because “something is better than nothing”. These numbers are often subjective “best guesses” with little empirical basis.
For instance, Bayesian estimates are heavily influenced by one’s initial figure (one’s “prior”), which, especially when dealing with complex, poorly-defined, and highly uncertain and speculative phenomena, can become subjective (based on unspecified values, worldviews, and assumptions) to the point of arbitrary. This is particularly true in existential risk studies where one may not have good evidence to update on.
We assume that, with enough updating in response to evidence, our estimates will eventually converge on an accurate figure. However, this is dependent on several conditions, notably well-formulated questions, representative sampling of (accurate) evidence, and a rigorous and consistent method of translating real-world observations into conditional likelihoods. This process is very difficult even when performed as part of careful and rigorous scientific study; attempting to do it all in your head, using rough-guess or even purely intuitional priors and likelihoods, is likely to lead to more confidence than accuracy.
This is further complicated by the fact that probabilities are typically distributions rather than point values – often very messy distributions that we don’t have nice neat formulae for. Thus, “updating” properly would involve manipulating big and/or ugly matrices in your head. Perhaps this is possible for some people.
A common response to these arguments is that Bayesianism is “how the mind really works”, and that the brain already assigns probabilities to hypotheses and updates them similarly or identically to Bayes’ rule. There are good reasons to believe that this may be true. However, the fact that we may intuitively and subconsciously work along Bayesian lines does not mean that our attempts to consciously “do the maths” will work.
In addition, there seems to have been little empirical study of whether Individual Bayesian Updating actually outperforms other modes of thought, never mind how this varies by domain. It seems risky to put so much confidence in a relatively unproven technique.
The process of Individual Bayesian Updating can thus be critiqued on scientific grounds, but there is also another issue with it and hyper-quantitative thinking more generally: motivated reasoning. With no hard qualitative boundaries and little constraining empirical data, the combination of expected value calculations and Individual Bayesian Thinking in EA allows one to justify and/or rationalise essentially anything by generating suitable numbers.
Inflated EV estimates can be used to justify immoral or wasteful actions, and somewhat methodologically questionable subjective probability estimates translate psychological, cultural, and historical biases into truthy “rough estimates” to plug into scientific-looking graphs and base important decisions upon.
We then try to optimise our activities using the numbers we have. Attempting to fine-tune estimates of the maximally impactful strategy is a great approach when operating within fairly predictable, well-described domains, but is a fragile and risky strategy when operating in complex and uncertain domains (like existential risk) even when you have solid reasons for believing that your numbers are good – what if you’re wrong? Robustness to a wide variety of possibilities is typically the objective of professionals in such areas, not optimality; we should ask ourselves why.
Such estimates can also trigger the anchoring bias, and imply to lay readers that, for example, while unaligned artificial intelligence may not be responsible for almost twice as much existential risk as all other factors combined, the ratio is presumably somewhere in that ballpark. In fact, it is debatable whether such estimates have any validity at all, especially when not applied to simple, short-term (i.e. within a year), theoretically well-defined questions. Indeed, they do not seem to be taken seriously by existential risk scholars outside of EA. The apparent scientific-ness of numbers can fool us into thinking we know much more about certain problems than we actually do.
This isn’t to say that quantification is inherently bad, just that it needs to be combined with other modes of thought. When a narrow range of thought is prized above all others, blind spots are bound to emerge, especially when untested and controversial techniques like Individual Bayesian Thinking are conflated (as they sometimes are by EAs) with “transparent reasoning” and even applied “rationality” itself.
Numbers are great, but they’re not the whole story.
…and trying to weakens our collective epistemics
Summary: Overly-numerical thinking lends itself to homogeneity and hierarchy. This encourages undue deference and opaque/unaccountable power structures. EAs assume they are smarter/more rational than non-EAs, which allows us to dismiss opposing views from outsiders even when they know far more than we do. This generates more homogeneity, hierarchy, and insularity.
Under number-centric thinking, everything is operationalised as (or is assigned) some value unless there is an overwhelming need or deliberate effort to think otherwise. A given value X is either bigger or smaller than another value Y, but not qualitatively different to it; ranking X with respect to Y is the only possible type of comparison. Thus, the default conceptualisation of a given entity is a point on a (homogenous) number line. In a culture strongly focused on maximising value (that “line goes up”), one comes to assume that this model fits everything: put a number on something, then make the number bigger.
For instance, (intellectual) ability is implicitly assumed within much of EA to be a single variable, which is simply higher or lower for different people. Therefore, there is no need for diversity, and it feels natural to implicitly trust and defer to the assessments of prominent figures (“thought leaders”) perceived as highly intelligent. This in turn encourages one to accept opaque and unaccountable hierarchies.
This assumption of cognitive hierarchy contributes to EA’s unusually low opinion of diversity and democracy, which reduces the input of diverse perspectives, which naturalises orthodox positions, which strengthens norms against diversity and democracy, and so on.
Moreover, just as prominent EAs are assumed to be authoritative, the EA community’s focus on individual epistemics leads us to think that we, with our powers of rationality and Bayesian reasoning, must be epistemically superior to non-EAs. Therefore, we can place overwhelming weight on the views of EAs and more easily dismiss the views of the outgroup, or even disregard democracy in favour of an “epistocracy” in which we are the obvious rulers.
This is a generator function for hierarchy, homogeny, and insularity. It is antithetical to the aim of a healthy epistemic community.
In fact, work on the philosophy of science in existential risk has convincingly argued that in a field with so few independent evidential feedback loops, homogeneity and “conservatism” are particularly problematic. This is because unlike other fields where we have a good idea of the epistemic landscape, the inherently uncertain and speculative nature of Existential Risk Studies (ERS) means that not only are we uncertain of whether we have discovered an epistemic peak, but what the topography of the epistemic landscape even looks like. Thus, we should focus on creating the conditions for creative science, rather than the conservative science that we (i.e. the EAs within ERS) are moving towards through our extreme focus on a narrow range of disciplines and methodologies .
The EA Forum structurally discourages deep critique
Summary: The EA Forum gives more “senior” users far more votes and hides unpopular comments. This combines with cultural factors to silence critics and encourage convergence on orthodox views.
The EA Forum is interesting because it formalises some of the maladaptive trends we have mentioned. The Forum’s karma system ranks comments on the basis of user popularity, and comments below a certain threshold are hidden from view. This greatly reduces the visibility of unpopular comments, i.e. those that received a negative reaction from their readers.
Furthermore, the greater a user’s overall karma score, the more impactful their votes, to the point where some users can have 10x or even 16x the voting power of others. Thus, more established, popular, engaged users are able to give their preferred comments a significant boost, and in some cases unilaterally drop comments they dislike (e.g. from their critics) below the threshold past which a comment is hidden from view and thus not seen by most people.
Due to popularity feedback loops present on internet fora (where low-karma comments are likely to be further downvoted and vice versa) as well as the related issues of trust and deference, these problems are likely to be magnified over the course of a discussion.
New users, who reasonably expect voting to be one-person-one-vote, can mistakenly believe that a comment with -5 karma from 15 votes represents 10 downvotes and 5 upvotes, when it could just as easily be a result of 13 upvotes being overruled by strong downvotes from a couple of members of the EA core network.
These arrangements give more orthodox individuals and groups disproportionate power over online discourse, and can make people feel less comfortable sharing critical views. It is a generator function for groupthink.
Some admirable work has been done to improve the situation, for instance the excellent step to separate karma and agreement ratings, but this is not enough to solve the problem.
The most important solution is simple: one person, one vote. Beyond that, having an option to sort by controversial, not hiding low-karma comments, having separate agreement karma for posts as well as comments, and perhaps occasionally putting a low-ranking comment nearer the top when one sorts comments by “top scoring” so critical comments don’t get buried all seem like good ideas.
Expertise & Rigour
We need to value expertise and rigour more
Summary: EA mistakes value-alignment and seniority for expertise and neglects the value of impartial peer-review. Many EA positions perceived as “solid” are derived from informal shallow-dive blogposts by prominent EAs with little to no relevant training, and clash with consensus positions in the relevant scientific communities. Expertise is appealed to unevenly to justify pre-decided positions.
There are many very enthusiastic EAs who have started studying existential risk recently, which includes several of the authors of this post. This is a massive asset to the movement. However, given the (obviously understandable) inexperience of many newcomers, we must be wary of the power of received wisdom. Under the wrong conditions, newcomers can rapidly update in line with the EA “canon”, then speak with significant confidence about fields containing much more internal disagreement and complexity than they are aware of, or even where orthodox EA positions are misaligned with consensus positions within the relevant expert communities.
More specifically, EA shows a pattern of prioritising non-peer-reviewed publications – often shallow-dive blogposts – by prominent EAs with little to no relevant expertise. These are then accepted into the “canon” of highly-cited works to populate bibliographies and fellowship curricula, while we view the topic as somewhat “dealt with”'; “someone is handling it''. It should also be noted that the authors of these works often do not regard them as publications that should be accepted as “canon”, but they are frequently accepted as such regardless.
This is a worrying tendency, given that these works commonly do not engage with major areas of scholarship on the topics that they focus on, ignore work attempting to answer similar questions, nor consult with relevant experts, and in many instances use methods and/or come to conclusions that would be considered fringe within the relevant fields. These works do not face adequate scrutiny due to the aforementioned issues with raising critique as well as (usually) an extreme lack of relevant expertise in the EA community caused by its disciplinary homogeneity
Elsewhere, ideas like the ITN framework and differential technological development are taken as core parts of EA orthodoxy, even being used to make highly consequential funding and policy decisions. This is worrying given that both are problematic (the ITN framework, for example, neglects co-benefits, response risks, and tipping points) and neither have been subjected to significant amounts of rigorous peer review and academic discussion.
This is not at all to say that Google Docs and blogposts are inherently “bad”: they are very good for opening discussions and providing preliminary thoughts before in-depth studies. In fact, one thing EA does much better than academia is its lower barrier to entry to important conversations, which is facilitated by things like EA Forum posts. This is a wonderful force for scientific creativity. However, the fact remains that these posts are simply no substitute for rigorous studies subject to peer review (or genuinely equivalent processes) by domain-experts external to the EA community.
Moreover, there seem to be rather inconsistent attitudes to expertise in the EA community. When Stuart Russell argues that AI could pose an existential threat to humanity, he is held up as someone worth listening to –”He wrote the book on AI, you know!” However, if someone of comparable standing in Climatology or Earth-Systems Science, e.g. Tim Lenton or Johan Rockström, says the same for their field, they are ignored, or even pilloried. Moderate statements from the IPCC are used to argue that climate change is “not an existential risk”, but given significant expert disagreement among experts on e.g. deep learning capabilities, it seems very unlikely that a consensus-based “Intergovernmental Panel on Artificial Intelligence” would take a stance anything like as extreme as that of most prominent EAs. This seems like a straightforward example of confirmation bias to us. To the extent that we defer to experts, we should be consistent and rigorous about how it is done.
Finally, we sometimes assume that somebody holding significant power must mean that their opinions are particularly valuable. Sam Bankman-Fried, for instance, was given a huge platform to speak both on behalf of and to the EA movement, e.g. a 3.5-hour interview on 80,000 Hours. He was frequently asked to share his beliefs on a range of complex topics, from AI safety to theories of history, even though his only distinction was (as we know now, fraudulently) making lots of money in crypto. To interview someone or to invite them to speak about a given topic implies that they are someone whose views are particularly worth listening to compared to others. We should be critical about how we make that judgement, especially given the seniority-expertise confusion we discussed above.
Neither value-alignment nor seniority are equivalent to expertise or skill, and our assessments of the quality of research works should be independent of the perceived value-alignment and name-recognition of their authors. We’re dealing with really big problems: let’s make sure we get it right.
We should probably read more widely
Summary: EA reading lists are typically narrow, homogenous, and biased, and EA has unusual social norms against reading more than a handful of specific books. Reading lists often heavily rely on EA Forum posts and shallow dives over peer-reviewed literature. EA thus remains intellectually insular, and the resulting overconfidence makes many attempts by external experts and newcomers to engage with the community exhausting and futile. This gives the false impression that orthodox positions are well-supported and/or difficult to critique.
EA reading lists are notorious for being homogenous, being populated overwhelmingly by the output of a few highly value-aligned thinkers (i.e. MacAskill, Ord, Bostrom, etc.), and paying little attention to alternative perspectives. Whilst these thinkers are highly impactful, they aren’t (and don’t claim to be) the singular authorities on the issues EAs are interested in.
This, plus our community’s general intellectual insularity, can cause new EAs to assume that little of worth has been said on some problems outside of EA. For instance, it is not uncommon for an EA that is very interested in existential risk to have never heard of many of the key papers, concepts, or authors in Existential Risk Studies, which is unsurprising when most of our reading lists ignore almost all academic papers not written by senior members of the Future of Humanity Institute.
Conversely, our insularity plus the resistance to “deep critiques” causes people with expertise in neglected fields to either burn out and give up in exhaustion after a while, or avoid engaging in the first place. We are personally familiar with innumerable examples of this, from senior academics to 18-year-old undergraduates. Since they either avoid EA after brief exposure or have their contributions ignored or downvoted into the ground, we don’t even notice how much we are losing out on and how many opportunities we are missing.
Our problems concerning outside expertise and knowledge are compounded by EA’s odd cultural relationship to books: student groups are given money to bulk-order EA-friendly books and hand them out for free, but otherwise there seems to be a general feeling that reading books is rarely a good use of time in comparison to reading (EA-aligned) blogposts. This issue reached its extreme in Sam Bankman-Fried. From a now-deleted article in Sequoia:
“Oh, yeah?” says SBF. “I would never read a book.”
I’m not sure what to say. I’ve read a book a week for my entire adult life and have written three of my own.
“I’m very skeptical of books. I don’t want to say no book is ever worth reading, but I actually do believe something pretty close to that,” explains SBF. “I think, if you wrote a book, you fucked up, and it should have been a six-paragraph blog post.”
Most people don’t write blogposts, and some (most?) arguments are too complex and detailed to fit into blogposts. However, blogposts are very popular in the tech/rationalist spheres EA emerged from, and are extremely popular within EA. Thus, cultural forces once again push people away from potentially valuable outside ideas.
When those from outside EA have contributed to existential risk discussions, they have often had useful and insightful contributions. Thus, it is probably a good idea to assume that a lot of work outside of EA may have useful applications in an EA context. We are trying to deal with some of the most important issues in the world. We can't afford to assume that our little ecosystem has all the answers, because we don’t!
Luckily, there are expert opinion aggregation tools to rigorously combine the positions of many scholars. For instance, under the Delphi method, rounds of estimation and explanation are iterated in order to produce more reliable predictions. Participants are kept anonymous, and each participant does not know who made any given estimate or argument. This can counteract the negative impacts of experts’ personal or public stakes in certain ideas, and encourage participants to update their views freely. If we want to find the best available answers for our questions, we should look into the best-supported methods for generating bases of knowledge.
Other communities have been working on problems like the ones we focus on for decades: let’s hear what they have to say.
We need to stop reinventing the wheel
Summary: EA ignores highly relevant disciplines to its main area of focus, notably Disaster Risk Reduction, Futures Studies, and Science & Technology Studies, and in their place attempts to derive methodological frameworks from first principles. As a result, many orthodox EA positions would be considered decades out of date by domain-experts, and important decisions are being made using unsuitable tools.
EA is known for reinventing the wheel even within the EA community. This poses a significant problem given the stakes and urgency of problems like existential risk.
There are entire disciplines, such as Disaster Risk Reduction, Futures Studies, and Science and Technology Studies, that are profoundly relevant to existential risk reduction yet which have been almost entirely ignored by the EA community. The consequences of this are unsurprising: we have started near to the beginning of the history of each discipline and are slowly learning each of their lessons the hard way.
For instance, the approach to existential risk most prominent in EA, what Cremer and Kemp call the “Techno-Utopian Approach” (TUA), focuses on categorising individual hazards (called “risks” in the TUA), attempting to estimate the likelihood that they will cause an existential catastrophe within a given timeframe, and trying to work on each risk separately by default, with a homogenous category of underlying “risk factors” given secondary importance.
However, such a hazard-centric approach was abandoned within Disaster Risk Reduction decades ago and replaced with one that places a heavy emphasis on the vulnerability of humans to potentially hazardous phenomena. Indeed, differentiating between “risk” (the potential for harm), “hazards” (specific potential causes of harm) and “vulnerabilities” (aspects of humans and human systems that render them susceptible to the impacts of hazards) is one of the first points made on any disaster risk course. Reducing human vulnerability and exposure is generally a far more effective method of reducing risk posed by a wide variety of hazards, and far better accounts for “unknown unknowns” or “Black Swans”.
Disaster risk scholarship is also revealing the growing importance of complex patterns of causation, the interactions between threats, and the potential for cascading failures. This area is largely ignored by EA existential risk work, and has been dismissed out of hand by prominent EAs.
As another example, Futures & Foresight scholars noted the deep limitations of numerical/probabilistic forecasting of specific trends/events in the 1960s-70s, especially with respect to long timescales as well as domains of high complexity and deep uncertainty, and low-probability high-impact events (i.e. characteristics of existential risk). Practitioners now combine or replace forecasts with qualitative foresight methods like scenario planning, wargaming, and Causal Layered Analysis, which explore the shape of possible futures rather than making hard-and-fast predictions. Yet, EA’s existential risk work places a massive emphasis on forecasting and pays little attention to foresight. Few EAs seem aware that “Futures Studies” as a discipline exists at all, and EA discussions of the (long-term) future often imply that little of note has been said on the topic outside of EA.
These are just two brief examples. There is a wealth of valuable insights and data available to us if we would only go out and read about them: this should be a cause for celebration!
But why have they been so neglected? Regrettably, it is not because EAs read these literatures and provided robust arguments against them; we simply never engaged with them in the first place. We tried to create the field of existential risk almost from first principles using the methods and assumptions that were already popular within our movement, regardless of whether they were suitable for the task.
We believe there could be several disciplines or theoretical perspectives that EA, had it developed a little differently earlier on, would recognise as fellow travellers or allies. Instead, we threw ourselves wholeheartedly into the Founder Effect, and in our over-dependence on a few early canonical thinkers (i.e. MacAskill, Ord, Bostrom, Yudkowsky etc.), we thus far lost out on all that they have to offer.
This expands to a broader question: if we were to reinvent (EA approaches to) the field of Existential Risk Studies from the ground up, how confident are we that we would settle on our current way of doing things?
The above is not to say that all views within EA ought to always reflect mainstream academic views; there are genuine shortcomings to traditional academia. However, the sometimes hostile attitude EA has to academia has hurt our ability to listen to its contributions as well as those of experts in general.
Some ideas we should probably pay more attention to
Summary: Taster menu of topics directly applicable to existential risk work that EA pays little attention to: Vulnerability & Resilience, Complex (Adaptive) Systems, Futures & Foresight, Decision-Making under Deep Uncertainty/Robust Decision-Making, Psychology & Neuroscience, Science & Technology Studies, and the Humanities & Social Sciences in general.
So what are some areas that EA should take a greater notice of? Our list is far from exhaustive and is heavily focused on global catastrophic risk, but it seems like a good starting point. Naturally we welcome both suggestions for and constructive debates on the below.
Vulnerability and Resilience
Most communities trying to reduce risk focus on reducing human vulnerability and increasing societal resilience, rather than trying to fine-tune predictions of individual hazards, especially in areas full of unknown unknowns. It is possible that reducing the likelihood and magnitude of particular hazards may sometimes be the most effective way of reducing overall risk, but this should only be concluded after detailed assessment, rather than assumed a priori. In fact, our priors should be strongly against this claim given that it would imply that hazard-centric approaches are most suitable for existential risk scenarios (i.e. the areas of deepest uncertainty and highest complexity) which is the opposite of the trend seen in disaster/catastrophe risk more generally.
The principles of resilience include maintaining redundancy, diversity, and modularity, and ensuring that excessive connectivity doesn’t allow failures to cascade through a system (“systemic risk”). This is often achieved through self-organisation (as seen everywhere from ecosystems to democratic success stories) and institutional learning. Resilience is typically enhanced by popular participation in decision-making (consistent with collective intelligence, skin in the game, and the wisdom of the crowd), and enabling subsidiarity (making decisions closest to where their impacts are, and where local knowledge can be effectively utilised). Such multilevel governance, taking local knowledge into account, may be particularly valuable given our aforementioned problems around insularity and the dominance of the Global North. Consulting more widely, especially in areas of real vulnerability, may improve mitigation and adaptation strategies with respect to existential risk.
It is worth noting that the FTX crash is a perfect example of the fulfilment of a systemic, cascading risk that was unforeseen by EA and which EA was highly vulnerable to.
Complex (Adaptive) Systems
The siloed approach to existential risk, where the overwhelming majority of work focuses on reducing risk from one of the Big 4 Hazards in isolation neglects emergent behaviour, feedback loops, interactions between cause areas, cascade/contagion effects, and the properties of complex adaptive systems more broadly. This is concerning because the likelihoods, magnitudes, and qualities of global catastrophic scenarios are determined by the structure of the current world-system, which is usefully conceptualised as a (staggeringly) complex adaptive system. Recent work from Len Fisher and Anders Sandberg, for example, highlights the advantages of analysing catastrophic threats as complex adaptive networks, work by Lara Mani, Asaf Tzachor, and Paul Cole has shown the issues with neglecting cascading catastrophic risk from volcanoes, and systems approaches are on the rise in Existential Risk Studies generally.
Complexity science has seen particularly extensive application in ecology and earth system science, where inherently interconnected systems vulnerable to tipping points, cascades, and collapse are common. Here, phenomena like temperature increases are best analysed as perturbations to the overall system state; one cannot simply add up the individual impacts of a predefined set of hazards.
For instance, recent work on catastrophic climate risk highlights the key role of cascading effects like societal collapses and resource conflicts. With as many as half of climate tipping points in play at 2.7°C - 3.4°C of warming and several at as low as 1.5°C, large areas of the Earth are likely to face prolonged lethal heat conditions, with innumerable knock-on effects. These could include increased interstate conflict, a far greater number of omnicidal actors, food-system strain or failure triggering societal collapses, and long-term degradation of the biosphere carrying unforeseen long-term damage e.g. through keystone species loss.
Futures & Foresight
As mentioned above, foresight exercises – especially those conducted in groups – are the bread and butter of futures professionals. The emphasis is generally on qualitative or even narrative explorations of what the future might hold, with quantitative forecasting playing an important but not central role. You can’t put a probability on something if you don’t think of it in the first place, and qualitative analysis often reveals that the something you were going to put a probability on isn’t a single distinct “something” at all. In most cases, putting meaningful probabilities on events is impractical, and unnecessary for decision-making.
Futures Studies also includes large bodies of work on utopianism and socio-technical imaginaries, which seem vital given how much of EA’s existential risk work is premised on longtermism, a broadly utopian philosophy based on a particular image of the future.
Decision-Making under Deep Uncertainty/Robust Decision-Making
Robust decisions are designed to succeed largely independently of how the future plays out; this is achieved by preparing for things we cannot predict. When futures and risk professionals try to plan for an uncertain future, they typically do not try to perform fine-grained expected value calculations and optimise accordingly – “Predict and Act” – but construct plans that are robust to a wide variety of possible futures – “Explore and Adapt” – using simulations to explore the full parameter space and seeking agreement among stakeholders on particular decisions rather than particular models of the world. This approach vastly improves one’s performance when faced with Black Swans and unknown unknowns, and is much better at taking into account the positions of multiple stakeholders with differing value systems. These approaches are policy-proven (see the Colorado River Basin and Dutch “Room for the River” examples) and there is a wealth of literature on the subject, starting here and here.
Psychology and Neuroscience
By understanding the psychological processes that drive people’s behaviour, effective altruists and existential risk researchers can better predict how people will respond to various interventions and develop strategies that will be more likely to succeed. Additionally, psychology can provide valuable insights into how people perceive and respond to risk, which can help us better understand our audience and create effective strategies to reduce risk.
Elsewhere, neuroscientific studies have revealed the value of holistic/anti-reductionist thinking and embodied cognition, as well as significant areas in which EA’s Kahneman-derived emphasis on cognitive biases and dismissal of intuitive decision-making is misplaced.
Science and Technology Studies
Science and Technology Studies (STS) investigates the creation, development, and consequences of technologies with respect to history, society, and culture. Particularly relevant concepts include the “Risk Society”, which addresses how society organises itself in response to risk, and “Normal Accidents”, which contends that failures are inherent features of complex technical systems. Elsewhere, constructivist or co-productionist approaches to technology would provide valuable counterpoints to the implicit technological determinism of a large fraction of longtermist work.
The Humanities and Social Sciences
They exist! And are valuable!
Understanding how social change occurs will naturally be key to reducing risk, both in general (e.g. how do we build towards social tipping points, or communicate effectively?) and from ourselves (what risks are associated with utopian high-modernist movements? How do socio-economic conditions affect ideas about what counts as “rational” or “scientific”?).
Understanding how people have historically failed at the task of profoundly improving the world is vital if we want to avoid replicating those failures at larger scales.
Elsewhere, philosophies like critical realism may provide different epistemological and ontological bases for studying existential risk, and Kuhn-descended discussions of scientific paradigms helpfully highlight the contingent, cultural, and sometimes limited nature of science.
Using the right (grantmaking) tools for the right (grantmaking) jobs
Summary: EA grantmaking methods have many advantages when applied to “classic” cause areas like endemic disease. However, current methods have significant methodological issues, and over-optimise in complex and uncertain environments like global catastrophic risk where robustness should be the primary objective. EA grantmaking should thus be decentralised and pluralised. Different methods should be trialled and rigorously evaluated.
Funding has a central role within EA, and a large proportion of EA institutions and projects would collapse if they were unable to secure funding from EA sources.
Open Philanthropy (OpenPhil) is by far the most powerful funding organisation in EA, so its cause prioritisations and decision-making frameworks have an extremely large influence on the direction of the movement.
We applaud essentially all of the cause areas OpenPhil funds and the people we know at OpenPhil are typically intelligent, altruistic, and diligent.
Regardless of this, we will be using OpenPhil as a case study to explore two major problems with EA funding, both because of OpenPhil’s centrality, and because OpenPhil’s perspectives and practices are common across much of the rest of our movement, e.g. EA Funds.
The problems are:
- Our funding frameworks sometimes use inappropriate goals and tools
- It is socially and epistemically unhealthy for a movement to cultivate such a huge concentration of (unaccountable, opaque) power
We will discuss the former here, and explore the latter in subsequent sections.
The focus will be on the cause area of global catastrophic risk/existential risk/longtermism for two reasons: it’s the area most of us know the most about, and it’s where the issues we describe are most visible & impactful.
OpenPhil’s global catastrophic risk/longtermism funding stream is dominated by two hazard-clusters – artificial intelligence and engineered pandemics – with little affordance given to other aspects of the risk landscape. Even within this, AI seems to be seen as “the main issue” by a wide margin, both within OpenPhil and throughout the EA community.
This is a problematic practice, given that, for instance:
There is significant second-order uncertainty around the relevant risk estimates
The ITN framework has major issues, especially when applied to existential risk
It is extremely sensitive to how a problem is framed, and often relies on rough and/or subjective estimates of ambiguous and variable quantities
- This poses serious issues when working under conditions of deep uncertainty, and can allow implicit assumptions and subconscious biases to pre-determine the result
- Climate change, for example, is typically considered low-neglectedness within EA, but extreme/existential risk-related climate work is surprisingly neglected
- What exactly makes a problem “tractable”, and how do you rigorously put a number on it?
It ignores co-benefits, response risks, and tipping points
It penalises projects that seek to challenge concentrations of power, since this appears “intractable” until social tipping points are reached
It is extremely difficult and often impossible to meaningfully estimate the relevant quantities in complex, uncertain, changing, and low-information environments
It focuses on evaluating actions as they are presented, and struggles to sufficiently value exploring the potential action space and increasing future optionality
The current model neglects areas that do not fit [neatly] into the two main “cause areas”, and indeed it is arguable whether global catastrophic risk can be meaningfully chopped up into individual “cause areas” at all
A large proportion (plausibly a sizeable majority, depending on where you draw the line) of catastrophic risk researchers would, and if you ask, do, reject:
- The particular prioritisations made
- The methods used to arrive at those prioritisations, and/or
- The very conceptualisation of individual “risks” itself
It is the product of a small homogenous group of people with very similar views
There are important efforts to mitigate some of these issues, e.g. cause area exploration prizes, but the central issue remains.
The core of the problem here seems to be one of objectives: optimality vs robustness. Some quick definitions (in terms of funding allocation):
- Optimality = the best possible allocation of funds
- In EA this is usually synonymous with “the allocation with the highest possible expected value”
- This typically has a unstated second component: “assuming that our information and our assumptions are accurate”
- Robustness = capacity of an allocation to maintain near-optimality given conditions of uncertainty and change
In seeking to do the most good possible, EAs naturally seek optimality, and developed grantmaking tools to this end. We identify potential strategies, gather data, predict outcomes, and take the actions that our models tell us will work the best. This works great when you’re dealing with relatively stable and predictable phenomena, for instance endemic malaria, as well as most of the other cause areas EA started out with.
However, now that much of EA’s focus has turned on to global catastrophic risk, existential risk, and the long-term future, we have entered areas where optimality becomes fragility. We don’t want most of our eggs in one or two of the most speculative baskets, especially when those eggs contain billions of people. We should also probably adjust for the fact that we may over-rate the importance of things like AI for reasons discussed in other sections
Given the fragility of optimality, robustness is extremely important. Existential risk is a domain of high complexity and deep uncertainty, dealing with poorly-defined low-probability high-impact phenomena, sometimes covering extremely long timescales, with a huge amount of disagreement among both experts and stakeholders along theoretical, empirical, and normative lines. Ask any risk analyst, disaster researcher, foresight practitioner, or policy strategist: this is not where you optimise, this is where you maintain epistemic humility and cover all your bases. Innumerable people have learned this the hard way so we don’t have to.
Thus, we argue that, even if you strongly agree with the current prioritisations / methods, it is still rational for you to support a more pluralist and robustness-focused approach given the uncertainty, expert disagreement, and risk management best-practices involved.
As well as a general diversification of the grantmaking community and a deliberate effort to value critical and community-external projects, a larger number and variety of funding sources and methods would likely be a good idea, especially if this was used as an opportunity to evaluate a range of different options.
There have been laudable efforts to decentralise grantmaking, e.g. the FTX Future Fund’s re-granting scheme. However, regrantors were picked by the central organisation (and tended to subscribe to all or most of EA orthodoxy), and even then grants still required approval from the central organisation. An admirable step in the right direction, to be sure, but in our view there is room to take several more.
One interesting route for us to explore might be lottery funding, where projects are chosen at random after an initial pass to remove bad-faith and otherwise obviously low-quality proposals. This solves a surprisingly large number of problems in grantmaking and science funding (eliminating bias and scientific conservatism, for example), and has been supported by multiple philosophers of science in existential risk.
OpenPhil’s and wider EA’s funding practices have many advantages: for instance, they require far less admin than conventional scientific funding, which accelerates progress and maximises the time researchers spend researching rather than applying for the opportunity to do so. This is great, but there is room for improvement, largely boiling down to our aforementioned problems with intellectual openness and wheel-reinventing, where we instinctively use the (grantmaking) tools that we have lying around when we enter a field rather than taking a step back and asking what the best way forward is in our new environment.
On another note, there does not seem to be any good information on whether grantmakers are effective or improving at forecasting the success of projects. Given that this is an extremely difficult and impactful task, it seems reasonable that there should be a significant level of oversight and transparency.
The councillor comes with his battered old suit
And his head all filled with plans
Says "It's not for myself, nor the fame or wealth
But to help my fellow man."
Fist in the air and the first to stand
When the Internationale plays
Says "We'll break down the walls of the old Town Hall,
Fight all the life-long day!"
Ten years later, where is he now?
He's ditched all the old ideas
Milked all the life from the old cash cow
Now he's got a fine career
Now he's got a fine career.
A Fine Career – Chumbawamba
Governance & Power
We align suspiciously well with the interests of tech billionaires (and ourselves)
Summary:  EA is largely reliant on the goodwill of a small number of tech billionaires, and as a result fails to question the practice of elite philanthropy as well as the ways by which these billionaires acquired their wealth. Our cause prioritisations align suspiciously well with the interests and desires of both tech billionaires and ourselves. We are not above motivated reasoning.
EA is reliant on funding, and the vast majority of funds come from a handful of tech billionaires: Dustin Moskowitz and Cari Tuna got most of their wealth through Facebook (now Meta) and Asana, Vitalik Buterin has Ethereum, and Sam Bankman-Fried had FTX.
Elite philanthropy has faced numerous criticisms, from how it boosts and solidifies the economic and political power of the ultra-wealthy to the ways in which it undermines democracy and academic freedom. This issue has been studied and discussed at extreme length, so we will not expand further on the basic point, but recent events strongly suggest that EA should re-examine its relationship to the practice and seriously consider other sources of funding.
Furthermore, becoming a billionaire often involves a lot of unethical or risk-seeking behaviour, and according to some ethical codes the very act of being a billionaire is immoral in itself. The sources of EA funds in particular can sometimes be morally questionable. Cryptocurrency is of debatable social value, is full of money laundering, fraud and scams, and has been created and promoted as a deliberate political project to dodge taxes, concentrate power in the hands of the ultra-wealthy, and financialise an ever-growing proportion of human life. As for Facebook, there is unfortunately an abundance of evidence that its impact on the world is likely to be net-negative.
The Effective Altruism movement is not above conflicts of interest. Relying on a small number of ultra-wealthy members of the tech sector incentivises us to accept or even promote their political, philosophical, and cultural beliefs, at the expense of the rigorous critical examination EA prides itself on. This may undermine even the most virtuous movement over the long term. Indeed, EA institutions and leaders rarely if ever interrogate the processes and structures that donors rely upon (digital surveillance, “Web 3.0”, neoliberal capitalism, and so on). The question of whether, for instance, making large quantities of money in the tech industry should give somebody the right to exercise significant control over the future of humanity is answered with an implicit but resounding “Yes.”
Our models sometimes even assume that (an American corporation) creating an “aligned” AGI, the fulfilment of Silicon Valley’s (not to mention much of the Pentagon’s…) collective dreams, will solve all other major problems.
Indeed, it is possible that certain members of the EA leadership were aware of Sam Bankman-Fried’s unethical practices some time ago and were seemingly unable or unwilling to do anything about it. Additionally, Bankman-Fried is not the only morally questionable billionaire to have been courted by EA (e.g. Ben Delo).
It is worth noting that the areas EA focuses on most intensely (the long-term future and existential risk, and especially AI risk within that) align remarkably well with the sorts of things tech billionaires are most concerned about: longtermism is the closest thing to “doing sci-fi in real life”, existential catastrophes are one of the few ways in which wealthy people could come to harm, and AI is the threat most interesting to people who made their fortunes in computing.
Most of the proposed interventions also reflect the interests of Silicon Valley. Differential technological development, energy innovation, and high-tech solutions to pandemics are all favoured a priori. There is little to no support for bans on AGI projects, nor moratoria on Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems, facial recognition, or new fossil fuel infrastructure. Similarly, priority concerns for the long-term future focus on economic elite interest areas like technological progress and GDP growth over other issues that are at least as critical but would undermine the power and/or status of wealthy philanthropists, like workplace democratisation or wealth redistribution. Again, it is not that any of these positions are inherently wrong because they align with elite interests, just that this is a bias we really need to be aware of.
Contrast the AI situation to climate change, routinely dismissed in EA, where the problems are messy, often mundane, predominantly political, and put the very concept of economic growth under debate, and where the greatest risk is posed to poor people from the Global South. Compare also with issues like global poverty, which very few people within EA are directly affected by (and which the funders are not by definition!) and which has come to be deemed “lower impact” within some of EA.
Interestingly, a huge proportion of EA’s intellectual infrastructure can be traced back to the academic climate of the USA during the Cold War, where left-wing thinkers were eradicated from (analytic) philosophy by McCarthyist purges, Robert McNamara pushed for “rationalisation” and quantification throughout the US establishment, and the RAND Corporation developed concepts like Rational Choice Theory, Operations Research, and Game Theory. Indeed, the current President and CEO of RAND, Jason Matheny, is a CSET founder and former FHI researcher. Aside from the Silicon Valley influences (from which we get the blogposts, Californian Ideology, and most of the technofetishism), EA’s intellectual heritage is largely one of philosophy and economics intentionally stripped of their ability to challenge the status quo. As ever, that’s not to say that things like analytic philosophy or Game Theory are inherently evil or anything – they’re really quite good for some things – just that they are the tools we have for specific historical and political reasons, they are not the only ones available, and we should be critical of how and where we employ them.
The relative prioritisations we describe also fit rather well with the disciplinary and cultural backgrounds of us EAs. It seems that our subjectively-generated quantifications just so happened to have led us to conclude that the best way to improve (or even save) the world is to pay analytic philosophers and computer scientists like us large sums of money to work on the problems we read about in our favourite sci-fi novels.
It is possible that this truly is a coincidence and that our current prioritisations are correct, but we should seriously consider what other factors might have been at play, especially given the potential for motivated reasoning embedded in our shared methods of thought.
On the topic of motivated reasoning, EA has been criticised in the past for being wasteful with its funds. Examples include buying Wytham Abbey (which was on the market for £15,000,000), networking retreats taking place in the Bahamas, and funding for undergraduates to get their laundry done for them because their time is too valuable for them to do it themselves. A focus on frugality in service of others has evolved to incorporate generous expense accounts and all-expenses-paid trips to international EAGs.
Community builders are paid extremely high salaries despite these often being undergraduate students (or recent graduates) running student societies – something students generally do for free. To our knowledge there has not been a public explanation for how these numbers were reached, nor one for whether this is the most effective use of money.
There is also the problem of financial robustness. EA projects are highly dependent on the fortunes of a handful of people in two closely intertwined industries (tech and crypto). Such a small number of points of failure create serious resilience issues, as we saw during the FTX collapse. It is easier said than done, of course, but we strongly suggest that EA makes an effort to diversify its funding sources.
We are members of a movement dedicated to altruism, and we want to do what’s best for the world. That doesn’t mean that we are immune to (unconscious) bias, cultural influence, or motivated reasoning. If we want to do the most good, we need to closely examine why our authentic beliefs about “doing the most good” are so similar to the ones we and our financiers would like us to have, and which just so happen to involve ourselves living very comfortable and interesting lives.
Decentralised in theory, centralised in practice
Summary: The EA movement does not have a formal “CEO”, but the vast majority of power is held by a small number of unaccountable individuals. The movement is also centralised around a tight cluster of social and professional ties, creating issues around conflicts of interest.
The Effective Altruism movement is formally decentralised but informally centralised. We have no official “leader” nor a movement-wide formal hierarchical structure, but:
The vast majority of funding in EA is controlled by a very small number of people
- Specifically Open Philanthropy, which is led by Holden Karnofsky and Alexander Berger, and overwhelmingly funded by tech billionaire couple Dustin Moskowitz and Cari Tuna
- Almost all EA organisations began with or were scaled by funding from OpenPhil (CEA, 80k, CSET, GPI, Longview, MIRI, etc.), and many (likely most) other EA grantmaking bodies themselves receive a significant proportion of their funding from OpenPhil
- Formerly, we also had Sam Bankman-Fried and the FTX Foundation, which was run by a small team led by Nick Beckstead
- Specifically Open Philanthropy, which is led by Holden Karnofsky and Alexander Berger, and overwhelmingly funded by tech billionaire couple Dustin Moskowitz and Cari Tuna
Access to the main EA Global event (a key networking opportunity) is also controlled by a very small number of people
- Admission to locally-organised EAGx events is more decentralised
Media engagement and community health/training is mostly handled by a small number of people at the CEA, and almost all media appearances are made by a smaller number still (Will MacAskill, to a lesser degree Toby Ord, and until recently Sam Bankman-Fried)
- Keynotes and “fireside chats” at EA events are disproportionately filled by MacAskill, Ord, and senior grantmakers/funders
EA’s two major book projects of recent times (i.e. _The Precipice _and What We Owe the Future) were written by members of the top leadership (i.e. Toby Ord and Will MacAskill)
- The (truly formidable and well-funded) press push for the latter book tightly focused on Will as a personality
A very, very small number of people are on the boards of a massive proportion of major EA institutions (most notably Will MacAskill)
The social circles of EA’s upper rungs are incredibly tight, and many of the most powerful people within EA are current or former close friends, flatmates, or romantic partners. This phenomenon is replicated to a lesser extent at the lower rungs, as many community groups serve as social hubs for their members.
Relatedly, EA organisations are very tightly interconnected, both by funding (notably via OpenPhil) and by people. Luke Muelhauser, for example, left his role as Director of MIRI to join OpenPhil in May 2015. Less than two years later, MIRI received a $500,000 grant from OpenPhil, with donations to date totalling over $14 million. Helen Toner worked at GiveWell, then OpenPhil, then GovAI, then CSET. Both GovAI and CSET receive OpenPhil funding, with CSET having received close to $100 million. Six OpenPhil staff (approximately 10%) previously worked at the FHI, and many others have either worked at other EA orgs or have close friends who do. To be clear, we are not accusing Luke, Helen, or anyone else of any kind of malpractice, they simply illustrate a revolving door that is not healthy in any social system.
Such a closely wound social-professional network is bound to create issues, especially conflicts of interest, as the probability increases that a grantmaker will be friends or otherwise connected with potential grantees. This came to a head in August 2019, when conflict of interest statements revealed that several grants made by the Long-Term Future Fund were made to housemates and personal friends of grantmakers. Later posts indicated that there would be stricter rules around conflicts of interest in future, but the LTFF appears to have discontinued public conflict of interest reporting after August 2019.
The Effective Altruism movement gained size, funding, and influence very quickly, and it shows the signs of that experience. We still act like a new movement or a startup in many ways, with (often informal) decisions being heavily reliant on social ties and personal trust. There are strengths to this, but ultimately large movements and organisations must necessarily create formal structures to ensure that they operate effectively and ethically. EA should not excise all its social qualities – we are a movement, not a corporation, and we are not arguing that EA should become any kind of anonymous bureaucracy – but public reporting of important information, formal and transparent governance structures, and stringent conflict of interest regulations seem like reasonable suggestions for a movement containing thousands of people and billions of dollars.
Deciding together better
Summary: Decision-making within EA is currently oligarchic, opaque, and unaccountable. Empirical and theoretical research as well as numerous practical examples indicate that deliberative mechanisms can measurably improve on important aspects of decision-making, but even small experiments have been rejected by the leadership without explanation.
Despite exercising significant power over the direction of a large and influential movement, none of the people or groups we listed in the previous section are in any meaningful sense accountable to the EA membership, and the decisions they make are overwhelmingly made behind closed doors. The rank-and-file is welcome to contribute to discussions, e.g. through EA Forum posts, but decision-making is essentially oligarchic, that is, “rule by a few”. The leaders do not have to justify any decisions or answer any questions they don’t want to.
This centralisation of power reached a flashpoint when Will MacAskill tried to broker a deal between Sam Bankman-Fried and Elon Musk over the purchase of Twitter. Given that Bankman-Fried had committed his wealth to EA, this action, had it succeeded, would have taken large amounts of money from other EA projects. However, it is unclear how or why buying a stake in Twitter would be an optimal (or even good) use of money, and the decision was seemingly made by Will and Sam alone.
Will’s intentions here were undoubtedly good, but that is not enough to justify one or two men taking what could have been the most consequential decision ever made in the name of EA with little, if any, discussion or consent.
No matter how altruistic or intelligent one is, no single person is objective or immune to the corrupting influence of power. In fact, there is good evidence that power makes you both overconfident and less empathetic, which poses obvious issues when making highly impactful decisions about altruism. To make a perhaps unnecessary statement, opaque and unaccountable decisionmaking by a small unelected elite does not have a good historical track record.
EA has passed its startup phase and grown into a mature movement with considerable influence: we have a duty to be responsible with how our movement evolves, and take care not to lock in suboptimal or dangerous values. Power pools when left on its own, if for no other reason than the process of preferential attachment, and organisations need active and powerful countermeasures to avoid gradually concentrating more and more power in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Insofar as people are given power, a system of transparency and accountability is vital to ensure that actions taken on behalf of a movement are indeed the actions of that movement .
The issues of transparency and accountability become especially problematic when dealing with tasks as huge as eradicating poverty or preventing human extinction: these are communal projects, with stakeholders numbering in the billions. We cannot be so arrogant as to assume that we, the “epistemically superior” elite of wealthy white dudes, should simply impose our preferred solutions from the top down. Projects with the aim of doing the most good should be embarked upon in cooperation and consultation with the people affected. We should be transparent about what our interests are, how our decisions are made, and where our money comes from.
Even beyond ethical considerations, as long as decisions are made behind closed doors the community is only able to criticise them after they have been made. This is an inefficient and generally ineffective process that does not allow errors to be corrected before their negative consequences materialise. Inclusive, transparent decisions will naturally be epistemically superior because they receive greater, more diverse input from the start. In fact, we have good reasons to believe that democratic decisions outperform other kinds, in large part due to the collective intelligence properties we mentioned in previous sections. If the question of the Twitter purchase had been put to the membership or a representatively-sampled assembly of members, what would the outcome have been?
There are plenty of methods for us to choose from in crafting better decision-making structures, often supported by a wealth of research and real-world success stories.
Consensus building tools gather the views of many people, identify cruxes, and help build consensus. Pol.is, for instance, has seen significant success when implemented in Taiwan, even on deeply polarised issues. EA could easily employ tools such as these to discover what the membership really believes about certain issues, create better-informed consensus on key issues, and rigorously update our views. Indeed, certain community members have already started doing this.
Elsewhere, sortition assemblies (also known as “citizen juries”) have shown promise. Here, a representative random sample of a population is presented with the best-quality evidence on a topic, given time to discuss and deliberate, and asked to produce collective decisions or recommendations. Such methods have an excellent track-record, where from Ireland to Mongolia they have allowed major political decisions to be made in a consensual and evidence-led way. We believe that these hold great potential for EA, especially with regard to major strategic decisions, big-picture funding-allocation questions, and navigating the crises/soul-searching we are currently embroiled in.
Furthermore, there is no particular reason why EA institutions shouldn’t be run by their members. Worker self-management has been shown to be effective, durable, and naturally better suited to collaborative, mission-oriented work than traditional top-down rule. We are not suggesting that everyone becomes part-time managers – there is certainly a role for operations and coordination specialists – but big-picture decisions about the strategy and funding of an organisation should be made by the people that create and maintain it.
Ultimately, what fits our specific context will likely be determined by experimentation. Zoe Cremer provides an excellent plan of action for funding decisions:
- Within 5 years: EA funding decisions are made collectively
- First set up experiments for a safe cause area with small funding pots that are distributed according to different collective decision-making mechanisms
- Subject matter experts are always used and weighed appropriately in this decision mechanism
- Experiment in parallel with: randomly selected samples of EAs are to evaluate the decisions of one existing funding committee - existing decision-mechanisms are thus ‘passed through’ an accountability layer
- All decision mechanisms have a deliberation phase (arguments are collected and weighed publicly) and a voting phase (majority voting, quadratic voting...)
- Depending on the cause area and the type of choice, either fewer (experts + randomised sample of EAs) or more people (any EA or beyond) will take part in the funding decision .
- First set up experiments for a safe cause area with small funding pots that are distributed according to different collective decision-making mechanisms
Some of the benefits of deliberation and democracy have been noted in EA’s Improving Institutional Decision-Making community, and indeed deliberative democracy itself has roots in attempts to avoid “strategic” reasoning that have profound similarities to EA’s preferred epistemic approaches.
If EA wants to improve its ability to identify, prioritise, and solve problems, it should arrange itself optimally for that task. EA is full of incredible people with diverse expertise; we ought to harness that.
We are not suggesting that everyone in EA votes on every decision any EA institution makes. That would be silly. We are suggesting that the decision-making process itself is democratised, with individual decisions being made on the appropriate level. For instance, how a particular organisation is run should be up to the members of that organisation, and larger movement-wide decisions should be decided by assemblies or polls of members.
This isn’t just democracy for democracy’s sake: democratic structures would play an important epistemic (and thus instrumental) role in improving our impact on the world. Democratic reforms would also help protect against conflicts of interest as well as stemming the tide of disillusionment in the movement, helping EA to retain talent.
This is not far-flung utopianism or ivory-tower theory, it is how millions of people have successfully lived and worked across the world for hundreds of years, plausibly for as long as humans have existed.
Even movements that are (at best) agnostic on the subject of democracy, for instance Marxist-Leninist political parties, frequently have votes on constitutional and strategic issues, as well as leaders that are both elected and recallable by the membership. It is possible to have doubts about substantial democratising reforms without wishing to retain the overly top-down status quo.
Thus, the final point. We can talk all we like, but at the moment we have the system that we have, and solving structural problems will require the consent of those most empowered by those structures.
Therefore, the final part of this section is addressed directly to them.
Most of the people with power in the EA movement have been pivotal in building it. They have expanded EA from a basement in Oxford to the vibrant global community we see today. They are genuine inspirations to many of us (even when we disagree with some of their decisions) and some of us joined the movement as a direct result of the examples they set. But what worked before doesn’t work now, and we have tools at our disposal that are better-suited to the situation EA now finds itself in.
We now have a movement of thousands of smart, passionate, and dedicated people who often make considerable personal sacrifices in order to do as much good as possible. Our views matter as well.
We need to take full advantage of our greatest source of judgement and insight: ourselves. If we don’t, we risk condemning our movement to a slow calcification and decline. This is how we build a sustainable, dynamic, and mature movement.
If you believe in this community, you should believe in its ability to make its own decisions.
The Effective Altruism movement has already contributed to major improvements in the world and to humanity’s trajectory going forward. However, our current impact pales in comparison to the enormous potential EA has to change the world for the better over the coming years. To do this, EA must be able to accurately analyse the world and act accordingly. Important steps have been made towards this goal already, but they are not enough.
As it stands, EA neglects the importance of collective epistemics and overemphasises individual rationality, and as a result cultivates a community that is homogenous, hierarchical, and intellectually insular. EA is overwhelmingly white, male, upper-middle-class, and of a narrow range of (typically quantitative) academic backgrounds. EA reading lists and curricula over-emphasise a very narrow range of authors, which are assumed to be highly intelligent and thus to be deferred to. This narrows the scope of acceptable thought, and generates path dependencies and intellectual blind-spots.
The term “value-alignment” often hides an implicit community orthodoxy: a commitment to a particular package of views, including not just effective altruism but also longtermism, utilitarianism, Rationalist-derived epistemics, liberal-technocratic philanthropy, Whig historiography, the ITN framework, and the Techno-Utopian Approach to existential risk. Subscription to this package is a very different thing to being committed to “doing the most good”, but the two are treated as interchangeable. Hiring and funding practices that select for “value-aligned” individuals thus cultivate a homogenous and orthodox community.
EA is very open to “shallow” technical critiques. “Deep” critiques, in contrast, can dispute core EA beliefs and practices, criticise prominent EAs, and even question capitalism. These are much more likely to be rejected out of hand or treated as hostile, and EA has a suite of rhetorical and structural methods for dismissing them. These problems are magnified by the structure of the EA Forum, which gives some (typically quite senior and/or orthodox) community-members far more voting power than others.
The power of a small number of comparatively orthodox grantmakers makes raising important concerns dangerous for one’s career and community membership. Given how EA dominates many members’ career trajectories, social lives, and identities, making such “deep critiques” is simply not worth the risk. EA loses out on many valuable projects and updating opportunities due to the consequent chilling effect.
EA’s focus on the quantitative is powerful when addressing problems suitable for quantification, but can cause serious inaccuracy and overconfidence in others. This is particularly visible in grantmaking, where problems range from the blindspots generated by siloed thinking to multiple methodological issues associated with the ITN framework.
The major issue, however, is how we over-optimise interventions on the basis of doubtful numerical estimates made in inappropriate information environments, which is highly concerning due to the stakes involved. Characteristics of existential risk – deep uncertainty, high complexity, long timelines, poorly-defined phenomena, and low-probability high-impact events – are just those in which robustness-focused strategies outperform optimising ones.
There is a wealth of available material on how to act under such circumstances, from foresight methodologies to vulnerability reduction practices to robust decision-making tools, but these are neglected because of EA’s intellectual insularity as well as the Founder Effect. There are many other disciplines and practices that would be valuable to EA, but the above social-epistemic problems as well as narrow and homogenous reading lists and media diets cause them to be unknown to or ignored by much of the community.
EA can confuse value-alignment and seniority with expertise. Orthodox EA positions on some highly consequential issues are derived from unrigorous blogposts by prominent EAs with little or no relevant training. They use methods and come to conclusions that would be considered fringe by the relevant expert communities, but this is not adequately questioned because of (1) EA’s disciplinary homogeneity and intellectual insularity preventing EAs from coming across opposing perspectives, and (2) inappropriate deference and unwarranted assumptions about the superiority of EA rationality (and thus EA competence) causing external expert perspectives to be dismissed. Elsewhere, expertise is appealed to inconsistently to justify pre-decided positions, and powerful people are treated as authorities on topics for which they have no relevant qualifications or experience.
Our intellectual insularity, narrow conception of “good thinking”, and overconfidence can make engagement with EA difficult and exhausting for domain-experts , and they often withdraw quickly, seeing EAs as “weird” people “doing their own thing, I guess”, or burning themselves out trying to be heard. This encourages further overconfidence and allows us to believe orthodox views are better-substantiated than they actually are.
Several viewpoints common within EA, including liberal-technocratic politics, a preference for speculative technofixes, and a belief in the overwhelming importance of AI alignment align suspiciously well with the interests and desires of both our tech-billionaire donors and ourselves. EA institutions fail to critique the ethical and political implications of our donors’ wealth and power, and what used to be a movement based on frugality has evolved into one in which we receive very healthy salaries as well as enviable benefits. This raises the spectre of motivated reasoning, which we are particularly vulnerable to as a result of our heavy reliance on sometimes controversial or untested quantitative tools like Individual Bayesian Thinking. Subjectively-generated, empirically un-bounded quantifications make it easy to rationalise and/or justify anything by coming up with appropriate “rough estimates'' of incredibly uncertain values.
Our movement, while not formally hierarchical, vests the vast majority of power in the hands of a small number of individuals within a tight cluster of social and professional networks. This makes us particularly susceptible to revolving-door dynamics and conflicts of interest.
Decision-making is opaque, unaccountable to the membership, and almost invariably top-down. This pattern of decision-making is associated with a wealth of ethical, psychological, and historical problems, and has already incurred serious risks to the movement.
There are several techniques for increasing deliberation and democracy within the movement, including consensus-building tools, sortition assemblies, and employee self-management. These are very well supported by empirical and theoretical research as well as numerous practical examples, and are likely to instrumentally improve decision-making outcomes.
As long as the problems we describe remain in place, EA will continue to alienate newcomers and limit its impact. Feedback loops may cause EA to become ever-more homogenous, hierarchical, insular, and narrow, locking us onto an ever-more rigid trajectory. Solving many of these problems will require the consent of those most empowered by them.
History holds many examples of organised groups of intelligent, well-educated, well-intentioned people causing considerable amounts of harm, from liberal eugenics to Marxism-Leninism. EA has already been involved in a number of scandals, and we have the potential to cause tremendous harm given our growing power, from playing down the importance of climate change to speeding up AGI development, from legitimising, empowering, and funding “Agents of Doom” to undercutting movements for social change.
If we are to hold power, we need to be able to wield it wisely.
The FTX crash was a shock to all of us, and we have to use this painful but valuable opportunity to change our movement for the better. We may not get a chance like this again.
There are thousands of people alive today who wouldn’t be if it wasn’t for EA. There are millions of animals in better living conditions because of our community. Risks that threaten the very existence of our species are on the global agenda thanks in part to our movement.
A few thousand people, dedicated, energetic and caring, have done this. If we play our cards well and choose the right path now, this may only be the beginning.
We need to choose carefully, though: countless people, innumerable animals, and perhaps even the future of our species may depend on it.
We have grown and gained power before we have gained wisdom. It is now time for us to mature as we grow and age. Things won’t be easy, but change is not just possible, but necessary.
One step, then another, then another.
Below, we have a preliminary non-exhaustive list of suggestions for structural and cultural reform that we think may be a good idea and should certainly be discussed further.
It is of course plausible that some of them would not work; if you think so for a particular reform, please explain why! We would like input from a range of people, and we certainly do not claim to have all the answers!
In fact, we believe it important to open up a conversation about plausible reforms not because we have all the answers, but precisely because we don’t.
Italics indicates reforms strongly inspired by or outright stolen from Zoe Cremer’s list of structural reform ideas. Some are edited or merely related to her ideas; they should not be taken to represent Zoe’s views.
Asterisks (*) indicate that we are less sure about a suggestion, but sure enough that we think they are worth considering seriously, e.g. through deliberation or research. Otherwise, we have been developing or advocating for most of these reforms for a long time and have a reasonable degree of confidence that they should be implemented in some form or another.
Timelines are suggested to ensure that reforms can become concrete. If stated, they are rough estimates, and if there are structural barriers to a particular reform being implemented within the timespan we suggest, let us know!
Categorisations are somewhat arbitrary, we just needed to break up the text for ease of reading.
- EAs must be more willing to make deep critiques, both in private and in public
- You are not alone, you are not crazy!
- There is a much greater diversity of opinion in this community than you might think
- Don’t assume that the people in charge must be smarter than you, and that you must be missing something if you disagree – even most of them don’t think that!
- EA must be open to deep critiques as well as shallow critiques
- We must temper our knee-jerk reactions against deep critiques, and be curious about our emotional reactions to arguments – “Why does this person disagree with me? Why am I so instinctively dismissive about what they have to say?”
- We must be willing to accept the possibility that “big” things may need to be fixed and that some of our closely-held beliefs are misguided
- Our willingness to consider a critique should be orthogonal to the seniority of the authors of the subject(s) of that critique
- When we reject critiques, we should present our reasons for doing so
- EAs should read more deep critiques of EA, especially external ones
- EA should cut down its overall level of tone/language policing
- Norms should still be strongly in favour of civility and good-faith discourse, but anger or frustration cannot be grounds for dismissal, and deep critique must not be misinterpreted as aggression or “signalling”
- Civility must not be confused with EA ingroup signalling
- Norms must be enforced consistently, applying to senior EAs just as much as newcomers
- EAs should make a conscious effort to avoid (subconsciously/inadvertently) using rhetoric about how “EA loves criticism” as a shield against criticism
- Red-teaming contests, for instance, are very valuable, but we should avoid using them to claim that “something is being done” about criticism and thus we have nothing to worry about
- “If we are so open to critique, shouldn’t we be open to this one?”
- EAs should avoid delaying reforms by professing to take critiques very seriously without actually acting on them
- EAs should state their reasons when dismissing critiques, and should be willing to call out other EAs if they use the rhetoric of rigour and even-handedness without its content
- EAs, especially those in community-building roles, should send credible/costly signals that EAs can make or agree with deep critiques without being excluded from or disadvantaged within the community
- EAs should be cautious of knee-jerk dismissals of attempts to challenge concentrations of power, and seriously engage with critiques of capitalist modernity
- EAs, especially prominent EAs, should be willing to cooperate with people writing critiques of their ideas and participate in adversarial collaborations
- EA institutions and community groups should run discussion groups and/or event programmes on how to do EA better
- Employees of EA organisations should not be pressured by their superiors to not publish critical work
- Funding bodies should enthusiastically fund deep critiques and other heterodox/“heretical” work
- EA institutions should commission or be willing to fund large numbers of zero-trust investigations by domain-experts, especially into the components of EA orthodoxy
- EA should set up a counter foundation that has as its main goal critical reporting, investigative journalism and “counter research” about EA and other philanthropic institutions [within 12 months]*
- This body should be run by independent people and funded by its own donations, with a “floor” proportional to other EA funding decisions (e.g. at least one researcher/community manager/grant program, admin fees in a certain height)
- If this foundation is established, EA institutions should cooperate with it
- EA institutions should recruit known critics of EA and offer them e.g. a year of funding to write up long-form deep critiques
- EA should establish public conference(s) or assemblies for discussing reforms within 6 months, with open invitations for EAs to attend without a selection process. For example, an “online forum of concerns”:
- Every year invite all EAs to raise any worries they have about EA central organisations
- These organisations declare beforehand that they will address the top concerns and worries, as voted by the attendees
- Establish voting mechanism, e.g. upvotes on worries that seem most pressing
- EA institutions should establish clear mechanisms for feeding the results of red-teaming into decision-making processes within 6 months
- Red teams should be paid, composed of people with a variety of views, and former- or non-EAs should be actively recruited for red-teaming
- Interesting critiques often come from dissidents/exiles who left EA in disappointment or were pushed out due to their heterodox/”heretical” views (yes, this category includes a couple of us)
- The judging panels of criticism contests should include people with a wide variety of views, including heterodox/”heretical” views
- EA should use criticism contests as one tool among many, particularly well-suited to eliciting highly specific shallow critiques
- EAs should see EA as a set of intentions and questions (“What does it mean to ‘do the most good’, and how can I do it?”) rather than a set of answers (“AI is the highest-impact cause area, then maybe biorisk.”)
- EA should study social epistemics and collective intelligence more, and epistemic efforts should focus on creating good community epistemics rather than merely good individual epistemics
- As a preliminary programme, we should explore how to increase EA’s overall levels of diversity, egalitarianism, and openness
- EAs should practise epistemic modesty
- We should read much more, and more widely, including authors who have no association with (or even open opposition to) the EA community
- We should avoid assuming that EA/Rationalist ways of thinking are the only or best ways
- We should actively seek out not only critiques of EA, but critiques of and alternatives to the underlying premises/assumptions/characteristics of EA (high modernism, elite philanthropy, quasi-positivism, etc.)
- We should stop assuming that we are smarter than everybody else
- When EAs say “value-aligned”, we should be clear about what we mean
- Aligned with what values in particular?
- We should avoid conflating the possession of the general goal of “doing the most good” with subscription to the full package of orthodox views
- EAs should consciously separate:
- An individual’s suitability for a particular project, job, or role
- Their expertise and skill in the relevant area(s)
- The degree to which they are perceived to be “highly intelligent”
- Their perceived level of value-alignment with EA orthodoxy
- Their seniority within the EA community
- Their personal wealth and/or power
- EAs should make a point of engaging with and listening to EAs from underrepresented disciplines and backgrounds, as well as those with heterodox/“heretical” views
- The EA Forum should have its karma/commenting system reworked to remove structural forces towards groupthink within 3 months. Suggested specific reforms include, in gently descending order of credence:
- Each user should have equal voting weight
- Separate agreement karma should be implemented for posts as well as comments
- A “sort by controversial” option should be implemented
- Low-karma comments should not be hidden
- Low-karma comments should be occasionally shunted to the top
- EA should embark on a large-scale exploration of “theories of change”: what are they, how do other communities conceptualise and use them, and what constitutes a “good” one? This could include:*
- Lectures from domain-experts
- Panel discussions
- Series of forum posts
- Hosting of experts by EA institutions
- EAG framed around these questions
- When EA organisations commission research on a given question, they should publicly pre-register their responses to a range of possible conclusions
Ways of Knowing
- EAs should consider how our shared modes of thought may subconsciously affect our views of the world – what blindspots and biases might we have created for ourselves?
- EAs should increase their awareness of their own positionality and subjectivity, and pay far more attention to e.g. postcolonial critiques of western academia
- History is full of people who thought they were very rational saying very silly and/or unpleasant things: let’s make sure that doesn’t include us
- EAs should study other ways of knowing, taking inspiration from a range of academic and professional communities as well as indigenous worldviews
- EAs should not assume that we must attach a number to everything, and should be curious about why most academic and professional communities do not
- We should study cost-benefit trade-offs of quantification (e.g. ease of comparison/analysis vs information loss & category errors) and learn from other communities about how to best integrate numerical data with other kinds of information
- Bayes’ theorem should be applied where it works
- EA institutions should commission studies (preferably by independent statisticians, psychologists, philosophers of probability, etc.) into the circumstances under which individual subjective Bayesian reasoning actually outperforms other modes of thought, by what criteria, and how this varies by subject/domain
- Until (and indeed after) the conclusions of these studies are published, EAs should be aware of the criticisms of such techniques, and should not confuse the use of a particular (heavily contested) thinking-tool with “transparent reasoning”, and certainly not with the mere application of “rationality” itself
- Important decisions should not be based upon controversial yet-to-be-proven techniques, especially under conditions that current evidence suggests they are ill-suited to
- EAs should explore decision theories beyond expected value reasoning, as well as other ways of acting optimally in different environments
- The goal of maximising value is orthogonal to scientific claims about our ability to actually accurately predict levels of value under particular conditions
- When EAs make numerical estimates or forecasts, we should be wholly transparent about the reasoning processes, data, and assumptions we used to generate them
- We should avoid uncritically repeating the estimates of senior EAs, especially when such transparency of reasoning is not present
- We should be very specific about the events our probabilities actually refer to, given sensitivities to problem-framing
- Where phenomena remain poorly-defined, they should be clarified (e.g. through foresight exercises) as a matter of priority, rather than generating a probability anyway and labelling it a “rough estimate”
- EAs should be wary of the potential for highly quantitative forms of reasoning to (comparatively easily) justify anything
- We should be extremely cautious about e.g. high expected value estimates, very low probabilities being assigned to heterodox/“heretical” views, and ruin risks
- We should look into methods of putting hard ethical and theoretical boundaries on numbers, e.g. refusing to undertake actions with a ruin risk above x%, regardless of the results of expected value calculations
- We should use Bayesian reasoning where it works (see above)
- EA institutions should select for diversity
- With respect to:
- Hiring (especially grantmakers and other positions of power)
- Funding sources and recipients
- Community outreach/recruitment
- Along lines of:
- Academic discipline
- Educational & professional background
- Personal background (class, race, nationality, gender, etc.)
- Philosophical and political beliefs
- Naturally, this should not be unlimited – some degree of mutual similarity of beliefs is needed for people to work together – but we do not appear to be in any immediate danger of becoming too diverse
- With respect to:
- Previous EA involvement should not be a necessary condition to apply for specific roles, and the job postings should not assume that all applicants will identify with the label “EA”
- EA institutions should hire more people who have had little to no involvement with the EA community providing that they care about doing the most good
- People with heterodox/“heretical” views should be actively selected for when hiring to ensure that teams include people able to play “devil’s advocate” authentically, reducing the need to rely on highly orthodox people accurately steel-manning alternative points of view
- Community-building efforts should be broadened, e.g. involving a wider range of universities, and group funding should be less contingent on the perceived prestige of the university in question and more focused on the quality of the proposal being made
- EA institutions and community-builders should promote diversity and inclusion more, including funding projects targeted at traditionally underrepresented groups
- A greater range of people should be invited to EA events and retreats, rather than limiting e.g. key networking events to similar groups of people each time
- There should be a survey on cognitive/intellectual diversity within EA
- EAs should not make EA the centre of their lives, and should actively build social networks and career capital outside of EA
- Most challenges, competitions, and calls for contributions (e.g. cause area exploration prizes) should be posted where people not directly involved within EA are likely to see them (e.g. Facebook groups of people interested in charities, academic mailing lists, etc.)
- Speaker invitations for EA events should be broadened away from (high-ranking) EA insiders and towards, for instance:
- Subject-matter experts from outside EA
- Researchers, practitioners, and stakeholders from outside of our elite communities
- For instance, we need a far greater input from people from Indigenous communities and the Global South
- External speakers/academics who disagree with EA should be invited give keynotes and talks, and to participate in debates with prominent EAs
- EAs should make a conscious effort to seek out and listen to the views of non-EA thinkers
- Not just to respond!
- EAs should remember that EA covers one very small part of the huge body of human knowledge, and that the vast majority of interesting and useful insights about the world have and will come from outside of EA
Expertise & Rigour
- Work should be judged on its quality, rather than the perceived intelligence, seniority or value-alignment of its author
- EAs should avoid assuming that research by EAs will be better than research by non-EAs by default
- EAs should place a greater value on scientific rigour
- We should use blogposts, Google Docs, and similar works as accessible ways of opening discussions and providing preliminary thoughts, but rely on peer-reviewed research when making important decisions, creating educational materials, and communicating to the public
- When citing a blogpost, we should be clear about its scope, be careful to not overstate its claims, and not cite it as if it is comparable to a piece of peer-reviewed research
- EAs should perform proper literature reviews, situate our claims within pre-existing literature, and when we make claims that deviate from expert consensus/norms we should explicitly state and justify this
- The most valuable fringe ideas are extremely high-impact, but the mean fringe idea is likely to be net-negative
- EA institutions should commission peer-reviewed research far more often, and be very cautious of basing decisions on shallow-dives by non-experts
- For important questions, commission a person/team with relevant expertise to do a study and subject it to peer review
- For the most important/central questions, commission a structured expert elicitation
- Insofar as a “canon” is created, it should be of the best-quality works on a given topic, not the best works by (orthodox) EAs about (orthodox) EA approaches to the topic
- Reading lists, fellowship curricula, and bibliographies should be radically diversified
- We should search everywhere for pertinent content, not just the EA Forum, LessWrong, and the websites of EA orgs
- We should not be afraid of consulting outside experts, both to improve content/framing and to discover blind-spots
- EAs should see fellowships as educational activities first and foremost, not just recruitment tools
- EAs should continue creating original fellowship ideas for university groups
- EAs should be more willing to read books and academic papers
- EAs should consider the impact of EA’s cultural, historical, and disciplinary roots on its paradigmatic methods, assumptions, and prioritisations
- What are the historical roots of our current cause prioritisations and preferred methodologies?
- Why are we, for instance, so instinctively reductionist?
- If existential risk and/or EA were to be reinvented from the ground up, what methods, disciplines, prioritisations, etc. would we choose?
- EAs should value empiricism more, and be cautious of assuming that all important aspects of a topic can be derived from first principles through the proper application of rationality
- EAs should be curious about why communities with decades of experience studying problems (similar to the ones) we study do things the ways that they do
- EAs, especially those working in existential risk, should draw from the disciplines listed above:
- Disaster Risk Reduction
- Resilience Theory
- Complex Adaptive Systems
- Futures & Foresight
- Decision-Making under Deep Uncertainty and Robust Decision-Making
- Psychology & Neuroscience
- Science & Technology Studies
- The Humanities and Social Sciences in general
- EAs should re-examine the siloing of issues under specific “cause areas”, and avoid relegating non-specific-hazard-focused existential risk work to a homogenous and de-valued “misc and meta” category
- Often separation of causes is warranted (shrimp welfare advocacy is unlikely to have a major impact on AI risk), but our desire to categorise and understand the world can lead us to create artificial boundaries
Experts & Expertise
- EAs should deliberately broaden their social/professional circles to include external domain-experts with differing views
- EAs should be be consistent when appealing to expertise, and be cautious of subconsciously using it selectively to confirm our biases
- EA institutions should have their policy recommendations vetted by external experts and/or panels of randomly-selected EAs before they are promoted by the Centre for Long-Term Resilience, Simon Institute, etc.*
- When hiring for research roles at medium to high levels, EA institutions should select in favour of domain-experts, even when that means passing over a highly “value-aligned” or prominent EA
Funding & Employment
- EAs should take care not to confuse the total net worth of EA donors with the actual resources of the EA community, especially given how much net worth can vary with e.g. share values
- Donors should commit a large proportion of their wealth to EA bodies or trusts controlled by EA bodies to provide EA with financial stability and as a costly signal of their support for EA ideas
- Funding bodies should be far more selective of donors, based on:
- Their personal ethics records
- The ethical consequences and implications of their work
- Their personal trustworthiness and reliability
- The likely stability of their wealth
- Funding bodies should within 6 months publish lists of sources they will not accept money from, regardless of legality
- Mass surveillance?
- Arms manufacturing?
- Fossil fuels?
- Funding bodies should take advice on how to avoid inadvertently participating in “ethics-washing”, and publish the policies that result
- The big funding bodies (OpenPhil, EA Funds, etc.) should be disaggregated into smaller independent funding bodies within 3 years
- EA institutions should each reduce their reliance on EA funding sources and tech billionaires by 50% within the next 5 years
- This ensures you need to convince non-members that your work is of sufficient quality and relevance
- This also greatly increases the resilience of the EA movement, as institutions would no longer all be dependent on the same small number of funding sources
- Grantmakers should be radically diversified to incorporate EAs with a much wider variety of views, including those with heterodox/”heretical” views
- Funding frameworks should be reoriented towards using the “right tool for the right job”
Optimisation appears entirely appropriate in well-understood, predictable domains, e.g. public health interventions against epidemic diseases
But robustness is far superior when addressing domains of deep uncertainty, areas of high complexity, low-probability high-impact events, long timescales, poorly-defined phenomena, and significant expert disagreement, e.g. existential risk
Optimising actions should be taken on the basis of high-quality evidence, e.g. meta-reviews or structured expert elicitations, rather than being used as the default or even the only mode of operation
- Grantmaking organisations should commission independent external evaluations of the efficacy of their work (e.g. the success rates of grantmakers in forecasting the impact or success of projects) within 6 months, and release the results of any internal work they have done to this end
- Within 5 years, EA funding decisions should be made collectively
- First set up experiments for a safe cause area with small funding pots that are distributed according to different collective decision-making mechanisms
- For example rotating panels, various forms of lottocracy
- Subject matter experts are always used and weighed appropriately
- Experiment in parallel with randomly selected samples of EAs evaluating the decisions of one existing funding committee
- Existing decision-mechanisms are thus ‘passed through’ an accountability layer
- All decision mechanisms should have a deliberation phase (arguments are collected and weighed publicly) and a voting phase (majority voting, quadratic voting, etc.)
- Depending on the cause area and the type of choice, either fewer (experts + randomised sample of EAs) or more people (any EA or beyond) should take part in the funding decision
- First set up experiments for a safe cause area with small funding pots that are distributed according to different collective decision-making mechanisms
- A certain proportion EA of funds should be allocated by lottery after a longlisting process to filter out the worst/bad-faith proposals*
- The outcomes of this process should be evaluated in comparison to EA’s standard grantmaking methods as well as other alternatives
- Grantmaking should require detailed and comprehensive conflict of interest reporting
- Funding bodies should not be able to hire researchers who have previously been recipients in the last e.g. 5 years, nor should funders be able to join recipient organisations within e.g. 5 years of leaving their post
- More people working within EA should be employees, with the associated legal rights and stability of work, rather than e.g. grant-dependent “independent researchers”
- EA funders should explore the possibility of funding more stable, safe, and permanent positions, such as professorships
Governance & Hierarchy
- EAs should avoid hero-worshipping prominent EAs, and be willing to call it out among our peers
- We should be able to openly critique senior members of the community, and avoid knee-jerk defence/deference when they are criticised
- EA leaders should take active steps to minimise the degree of hero-worship they might face
- For instance, when EA books or sections of books are co-written by several authors, co-authors should be given appropriate attribution
- EAs should deliberately platform less well-known EAs in media work
- EAs should assume that power corrupts, and EAs in positions of power should take active steps to:
- Distribute and constrain their own power as a costly signal of commitment to EA ideas rather than their position
- Minimise the corrupting influence of the power they retain and send significant costly signals to this effect
- Fireside chats with leaders at EAG events should be replaced with:
- Panels/discussions/double-cruxing discussions involving a mix of:
- Prominent EAs
- Representatives of different EA organisations
- Less well-known EAs
- External domain-experts
- Discussions between leaders and unknown EAs
- Panels/discussions/double-cruxing discussions involving a mix of:
- EA institutions should see EA ideas as things to be co-created with the membership and the wider world, rather than transmitted and controlled from the top down
- The community health team and grantmakers should offer community groups more autonomy, independence, and financial stability
- Community-builders should not worry about their funding being cut if they disagree with the community health team or appear somewhat “non-value-aligned”
- EA media engagement should be decentralised
- Community-builders and researchers should be offered media training, rather than being told to never speak to the press and always forward journalists to the CEA
- EA institutions should implement clear and accessible democratic mechanisms for constitutional change within 12 months
- EA leadership figures should be democratically accountable to the membership, including mechanisms for the membership able to elect them on a regular basis and to recall them if they underperform
- EA institutions should be democratised within 3 years, with strategic, funding, and hiring policy decisions being made via democratic processes rather than by the institute director or CEO
- EAs should be more open to institutions and community groups being run democratically or non-hierarchically
- One experienced person and three comparatively inexperienced people will probably produce better answers together than the experienced person would alone
- EA institutions should consider running referenda for the most consequential decisions (e.g. a large fraction of EA funds being used to help buy a social networking site)
- EA institutions should consider having AGMs where the broader EA community can input into decision making
Transparency & Ethics
- EAs should expect their institutions to be transparent and open
- EAs should make an effort to become more aware of EA’s cultural links to eugenic, reactionary and right-wing accelerationist politics, and take steps to identify areas of overlap or inheritance in order to avoid indirectly supporting such views or inadvertently accepting their framings
- EA institutions should make their decision-making structures transparent within 6 months, and be willing to publicly justify their decisions
- EA institutions should list all of their funding sources (past and present) on their websites, including how much was received from each source, within 6 months
- The minutes of grantmaker meetings should be made public*
- There should be a full public mapping of all EA institutions
- Who works or has worked at which organisations
- Which organisations fund or have funded which others, when, and how much
- Who is or has been on which boards of directors
- Which organisations are or have been subsidiaries of other organisations
- EA institutions should increase transparency over
- Who gets accepted/rejected to EAG and similar events and why
- Leaders/coordination forums
- EA institutions should set up regular independent audits and assessments within 12 months
- We’re a movement that grew out of evaluating charities, it’s only fair we hold ourselves to the same standards
- Quality journalists should be given full access to EA institutions to investigate*
- EA institutions should set up whistleblower protection schemes for members of EA organisations within 6 months
- Legal, financial and social support for those who want to come forward to make information public that is in the public interest
- EA should explore the pros and cons of appointing an independent ombudsman, and the results of this exploration should be published within 12 months*
- EA organisations should enable vetting and oversight by people external to the EA community, and be accountable to the wider public more generally. This could be achieved through, for instance:
- Providing clear statements about how decisions/funding allocations were/are made
- Taking advice on how this is done outside the EA community, e.g. in academia, industry, and NGOs
- EAs should practise moral uncertainty/pluralism as well as talking about it
- EAs who advocate using ethical safeguards such as “integrity” and “common-sense morality” should publicly specify what they mean by this, how it should be operationalised, and where the boundaries lie in their view
- EA institutions that subscribe to moral uncertainty/pluralism should publish their policies for weighting different ethical views within 12 months
Let us know anything that needs explaining or clarifying, and especially which high-impact changes we have missed!
If you have any questions or suggestions about this article, EA, or anything else, feel free to email us at concernedEAs@proton.me
At least, it was supposed to be the final draft. ↩︎
In general, we think most of our points apply to most of EA, but far more to the longtermist side than the global poverty/animal welfare communities. ↩︎
Indeed, there is significant doubt about whether awareness of cognitive biases actually reduces one’s susceptibility to them. ↩︎
This imbalance is interesting given the popularity of “Superforecasting'' within EA, where the vital importance of collaboration and the social organisation of that collaboration is well known, as well as the value assigned to improving institutional decision-making. ↩︎
There is also a lot of relevant work in social epistemics and the philosophy of science. See, for instance, Longino’s (1990) criteria for objectivity in scientific communities: (1) recognised avenues of criticism, (2) shared standards, (3) community responsiveness to criticism, and (4) equality of intellectual authority. We contend that EA is much better at (1) and (2) than (3) and (4). ↩︎
We’ve seen the term “heretical” used to describe beliefs (held by EAs) that significantly deviate from EA orthodoxy. ↩︎
Defined by Toby Ord in The Precipice as a “mechanism for destroying humanity or our potential”, and including artificial intelligence, engineered pathogens, climate change, nuclear war, and so on. The closest term in Disaster Risk Studies would be “hazard”, but the usage of the word in The Precipice and beyond also seems to cover clusters of hazards, threats, drivers of vulnerability, indirect causes of hazard occurrence (artificial intelligence can’t kill you by itself, it needs “hands” as well as a “brain”), and several other concepts, few of which could be considered “mechanisms” in and of themselves. ↩︎
We should remember that EA is sometimes worryingly close to racist, misogynistic, and even fascist ideas. For instance, Scott Alexander, a blogger that is very popular within EA, and Caroline Ellison, a close associate of Sam Bankman-Fried, speak favourably about “human biodiversity”, which is the latest euphemism for “scientific” racism. [Editor’s note: we left this in a footnote out of fear that a full section would cause enough uproar to distract from all our other points/suggestions. A full-length post exploring EA’s historical links to reactionary thought will be published soon]. ↩︎
Several of the authors of this post fit this description eerily well. “Dan”, “Tom”, and “Chris” were other close contenders. ↩︎
Many of the authors have backgrounds in the humanities and social sciences, and we see it as no coincidence that the issues we identify were noticed by people trained in modelling socio-cultural systems, critiquing arbitrary categorisations, and analysing structures of power. ↩︎
From Zoe Cremer’s Objections to Value-Alignment Among Effective Altruists: “Intellectual homogeneity is efficient in the short-term, but counter-productive in the long-run. Value-alignment allows for short-term efficiency, but the true goal of EA – to be effective in producing value in the long term – might not be met.“ ↩︎
With the exception of (orthodox) economics and analytic philosophy. Note also that certain STEM areas have historically been neglected, even including (hardware) engineering until very recently. The “core” EA subjects are at once highly formal (i.e. mathematical/pure-logical), relatively un-empirical, and (typically) reductionist. There do not, for instance, seem to be very many EA anthropologists, historians, or social theorists, especially within the leadership. Perhaps if we had a few then the issues we describe would have been raised a long time ago. ↩︎
Furthermore, diversity has a limited impact on decision-making if it is not combined with democracy; if EA was diverse but the leadership remained homogenous, there would still be problematic dynamics. ↩︎
There is no one “EA response to critique” as each person is different, and nor is there one perfect classification scheme. This is simply a useful tool for thinking with. Alternatives welcome. ↩︎
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” - Upton Sinclair ↩︎
In the broad political sense, rather than the American sense of “left of conservative”. ↩︎
To, and including, us. ↩︎
Beyond simple downvoting, EA has developed its own rhetoric for subtly brushing off criticism: deep critiques are “poorly argued” or “likely net-negative” proposals made by people with “bad epistemics”. These and similar utterances, often simply asserted without any supporting argumentation, make dismissals seem intelligent and even-handed, even in cases where they are used as little more than EA code for “I disagree with this argument and I don’t like the author very much.” Elsewhere, critiques from outgroup writers are “bad optics”; PR problems to be solved rather than arguments to be engaged with. None of this is to say that the phrases are bad in themselves or that they are always used inappropriately, just that they should be used within logical arguments rather than as substitutes for them. ↩︎
We have no idea how much of an impact this might have had on Sven Rone (the pseudonymous author of “The Effective Altruism movement is not above conflicts of interest”): theirs is an illustrative example, not a pillar of our argument. ↩︎
The paper went through 27 revisions and almost as many reviewers to make sure it was written in a sufficiently conciliatory fashion to be taken seriously by EAs, but the authors faced accusations of being too “combative”, “uncharitable”, and “harsh” regardless, and were accused by some of “courage-signalling” or otherwise acting in bad faith. ↩︎
Old Boy’s Network (British): “An exclusive informal network linking alumni of a particular (generally elite) school, or members of a social class or profession or organisation, in order to provide connections, information, and favours.” ↩︎
Potential but speculative feedback loop: the longer you are in EA,the higher you are likely to climb, and the higher the risk of questioning orthodoxy, thus the more you tend to the EA mean, thus the more narrow and orthodox EA becomes. ↩︎
The expected impact of deep critiques is further reduced by the fact that the leadership seems to rarely engage with them. In the case of Democratising Risk, leaders made a point of publicly stating that such critical work was valuable, but since then have not appeared to consider or discuss the content of the paper in any detail. Criticism can be de facto neutralised if those with power simply ignore it. ↩︎
The vast majority of researchers, professionals, etc. do not try to quantitatively reason from first principles in this way. There seems relatively little consideration within EA of why this might be. ↩︎
That is, into the probability of making a given observation assuming that the hypothesis in question is true: P(E|H). ↩︎
“There is no evidence that geopolitical or economic forecasters can predict anything ten years out." – Phillip Tetlock ↩︎
The conclusions of what is by far the most comprehensive and rigorous study of quantification in existential risk (Beard, Rowe, and Fox, 2020) is that all the methods we have at the moment are rather limited or flawed in one way or another, that the most popular methods are also the least rigorous, and that the best route forward is to learn from other fields by transparently laying out our reasoning processes for others to evaluate. ↩︎
To clarify, we’re not saying that this sort of hierarchical sensibility is purely due to number-centric thinking: other cultural and especially class-political factors are likely to play a very significant role. ↩︎
Informal observation also strongly suggests selective employment of civility norms: it seems you can get away with much more if you are well-known and your arguments conform to EA orthodoxy. ↩︎
Sometimes performed in 30 hours of research or less. ↩︎
This is not to say that we are wholly opposed to these ideas, just that there is surprisingly little academic scruitny and discussion of these ideas given their importance to our movement. ↩︎
EA also seems to have a general hostility toward the Planetary Boundaries framework that is rarely explained or justified, and climate risk claims in general are subjected to a far higher burden of proof than claims about e.g. AI risk. We do not all agree with Lenton or Rockström, but are rather highlighting inconsistencies. ↩︎
Many members of Existential Risk Studies are not EAs, or are somewhat heterodox/”heretical” EAs. Given our occasional tendency to conflate the value-alignment of an author with the value of their work, it is unfortunately not surprising that the outputs of less ideologically selective institutes like the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk or the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute (never mind those of authors not working at EA-linked bodies at all) can be ignored or dismissed at times. ↩︎
See footnote . ↩︎
We are aware of one young EA with a background in Disaster Risk Reduction who, after expressing an interest in existential risk, was repeatedly told by EAs to leave DRR and go into AI alignment. ↩︎
Defined by the DMDU Society as when “parties to a decision do not know, or cannot agree on, the system model that relates action[s] to consequences, the probability distributions to place over the inputs to these models, which consequences to consider[,] and their relative importances.” EA has developed a remarkably similar concept called “cluelessness”. ↩︎
This is particularly problematic given that current discussions of the importance of future generations are due in significant part to the tireless work of indigenous communities and climate justice activists – i.e. groups almost entirely excluded and/or devalued by EA. ↩︎
Another: technological determinism, implicit in most longtermist work, is largely dismissed and derided within Science & Technology Studies. It’s not completely fringe, but it’s definitely a minority position, yet EA seems to have never explored any alternatives, e.g. constructivist or co-productionist approaches to technology. ↩︎
Note the probable link to Silicon Valley “disruptor” culture. ↩︎
AI, engineered biology, climate change, and nuclear war, in steeply descending order of (perceived) importance. ↩︎
Though still far outnumbered by TUA-aligned works due to the hegemonic power of EA orthodoxy and funding. ↩︎
Given that the ecological crisis is a wicked problem requiring complex systems analysis it is unsurprising that the IPCC has outlined the necessity for systemic changes across a huge variety of domains (or what we might call “cause areas”), from land use, food production, and energy, to carbon capture technologies and institutional adaptations. ↩︎
We do not know of any EA that put a probability on an FTX collapse, never mind one with anything like the consequences EA faced as a result of the one we witnessed. ↩︎
An interesting exercise: consider an extinction scenario, work back through the chain of causation in as detailed a fashion as you can, consider all the factors at play and their interrelation, and ask yourself how productive it is to label the initial scenario as e.g. “extinction from synthetic biology”. ↩︎
As well as growing the EA community itself. ↩︎
cf. EA’s implicit commitment to liberal technocracy. ↩︎
Only a narrow possibility space can be explored if one needs to roughly align with preferences of funders, e.g. for particular methods. In general, monist, hegemonic funding structures promote scientific conservativism. ↩︎
Note that this is despite the fact that the field of global catastrophic risk is rather small and homogenous in itself, though by definition less homogenous than global catastrophic risk within EA. ↩︎
“Predict and Act” vs “Explore and Adapt” again. ↩︎
Inclusive “we”: the authors of this text are also not immune to this either. ↩︎
There’s an antisemitic element to this as well: crypto’s history is intimately bound up in far-right desires to create digital “sound money” to undermine the power of central banks, because in their eyes, (central) banks = Jews. Peter Thiel is also in the mix, as always. ↩︎
This doesn’t discredit longtermism, and many of the authors are sympathetic to longtermism. ↩︎
Like most EAs- including us! ↩︎
At a minimum, poverty reduction has been dismissed as being “near-termist”, despite the descendents of people currently in poverty being far more likely to live in poverty themselves, and the fact that there is no guarantee that AI or other future technologies will actually reduce poverty (particularly as existing AI typically perpetuates or increases inequality). Several of us also wonder what evaluations of global poverty work would look like if they considered interventions that targeted the underlying causes of poverty rather than treating the symptoms. ↩︎
We’re not trying to dismiss AI risk here – several of us work on AI risk – we just question why it is given such a huge emphasis. ↩︎
Since this was initially written, there has been a lot of discussion about Wytham Abbey on the EA Forum. The purchase has been justified by the project leader, Owen Cotton-Barratt, who says that calculations were made which, depending on the numbers and analysis, may mean that this was a wise investment, as external conferences are expensive, and Effective Ventures could sell the abbey further down the line and potentially recoup a significant portion of the initial investment. However, we just don’t know: we have not seen the original numbers or a cost effectiveness analysis. Given the response, it is clear that many people believe Wytham Abbey to be a frivolous purchase, which is not unsurprising. There should have been a more transparent and proactive justification of the benefits of the purchase and why those benefits justified the high cost. ↩︎
MacAskill has expressed concern about hero-worship within EA, but we have not been able to find any instances where he has made a concerted effort to reduce it. ↩︎
We have lost track of how often we have made or been asked to make significant purchases using our personal accounts on the verbal assurance that we will be reimbursed at some point in the future. ↩︎
Or reverse it after it has already happened. ↩︎
Our problem isn’t with the leaders, but rather the structures that give them large amounts of unaccountable power. If we were in the same position, we are sure we would need just as much accountability and transparency to ensure we were doing a good job. ↩︎
Postcolonial perspectives within the fields of Public Health and Development Studies will hold most of the answers to these questions as far as Global Health & Wellbeing is concerned. Existential risk is another problem entirely, and figuring out how to make the task of existential risk reduction a democratic one sounds like a good project if anyone is looking for ideas. There’s already been some work on “participatory futures”, for example the list at the bottom of this page. ↩︎
At the very least, Annual Gathering Meetings that allow for broad community input would be a step in the right direction. ↩︎
This in particular has been the experience of certain authors of this post. Being confidently dismissed by people you know to have negligible knowledge of your area of expertise gets tiring very quickly. ↩︎
At least, as far as we know: few of us have much expertise in this domain ↩︎
We may update the list of reforms in response to suggestions from others. ↩︎