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This post is easily the weirdest thing I've ever written. I also consider it the best I've ever written - I hope you give it a chance. If you're not sold by the first section, you can safely skip the rest.


Imagine an alternate version of the Effective Altruism movement, whose early influences came from socialist intellectual communities such as the Fabian Society, as opposed to the rationalist diaspora. Let’s name this hypothetical movement the Effective Samaritans.

Like the EA movement of today, they believe in doing as much good as possible, whatever this means. They began by evaluating existing charities, reading every RCT to find the very best ways of helping.

But many effective samaritans were starting to wonder. Is this randomista approach really the most prudent? After all, Scandinavia didn’t become wealthy and equitable through marginal charity. Societal transformation comes from uprooting oppressive power structures.

The Scandinavian societal model which lifted the working class, brought weekends, universal suffrage, maternity leave, education, and universal healthcare can be traced back all the way to 1870’s where the union and social democratic movements got their start.

In many developing countries wage theft is still common-place. When employees can’t be certain they’ll get paid what was promised in the contract they signed and they can’t trust the legal system to have their back, society settles on much fewer surplus producing work arrangements than is optimal.

Work to improve capacity of the existing legal structure is fraught with risk. One risks strengthening the oppressive arms used by the ruling and capitalist classes to stay in power.

A safer option may be to strengthen labour unions, who can take up these fights on behalf of their members. Being in inherent opposition to capitalist interests, unions are much less likely to be captured and co-opted. Though there is much uncertainty, unions present a promising way to increase contract-enforcement and help bring about the conditions necessary for economic development, a report by Reassess Priorities concludes.

Compelled by the anti-randomista arguments, some Effective Samaritans begin donating to the ‘Developing Unions Project’, which funds unions in developing countries and does political advocacy to increase union influence.

A well-regarded economist writes a scathing criticism of Effective Samaritanism, stating that they are blinded by ideology and that there isn’t sufficient evidence to show that increases in labor power leads to increases in contract enforcement.

The article is widely discussed on the Effective Samaritan Forum. One commenter writes a highly upvoted response, arguing that absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. The professor is too concerned with empirical evidence, and fails to engage sufficiently with the object-level arguments for why the Developing Unions Project is promising. Additionally, why are we listening to an economics professor anyways? Economics is completely bankrupt as a science, resting on empirically false ridiculous assumptions, and is filled with activists doing shoddy science to confirm their neoliberal beliefs.


I sometimes imagine myself trying to convince the Effective Samaritan why I’m correct to hold my current beliefs, many of which have come out of the rationalist diaspora.

I explain how I’m not fully bought into the analysis of labor historians, which credits labor unions and the Social Democratic movements for making Scandinavia uniquely wealthy, equitable and happy. If this were a driving factor, how come the descendants of Scandinavians who migrated to the US long before are doing just as well in America? Besides, even if I don’t know enough to dispute the analysis, I don't trust labor historians to arrive at unbiased and correct conclusions in the first place.

From my perspective, labor union advocacy seems as likely to result in restrictions of market participation as it is to encourage it. Instead, I’m more bullish for charter cities to bring institutional reform and encourage growth.

After all, many historical analyses by economic historians of the Chinese economic miracle would credit Deng Xiaoping’s decision to open four “special economic zones” inside of China with free-market oriented reforms, as the driving factor.

But the Effective Samaritan is similarly skeptical of the historical evidence I present suggesting charter cities to be a worthwhile intervention. “Hasn’t every attempt at creating a charter city failed?” they ask.

“A real charter city hasn’t been tried!” I reply. “The closest we got was in Honduras, and it barely got off the ground before being declared illegal by the socialist government. Moreover, special economic zones jump started the Chinese economic miracle, even if not exactly a charter city that’s gotta count for something!”

“Real socialism hasn’t been tried either!” the Effective Samaritan quips back. “Every attempt has always been co-opted by ruling elites who used it for their own ends. The closest we’ve gotten is Scandinavia which now has the world’s highest standards of living, even if not entirely socialist it’s gotta count for something!”

“Don’t you find it mighty suspicious how your intervention is suspiciously lacking in empirical evidence, and is held up only by theoretical arguments and the historic hand waving of biased academics?” We both exclaim in unison.

For every logical inference I make, they make the opposite. Every thoughtful prior of mine, they consider to be baseless prejudice. My modus ponens, their modus tollens.

It’s clear that we’re not getting anywhere. Neither one of us will change the other’s mind. We go back to funding our respective opposing charities, and the world is none the better.



In 2016 I was skipping school to compete in Starcraft tournaments. A competitive Starcraft match pits two players against each other, each playing one of the game’s three possible factions: Terran, Protoss or Zerg. To reach the level of competitive play, players opt to practice a single faction almost exclusively.

This has led to some fascinating dynamics in the Starcraft community.

At age 12 I began focusing on the Terran faction. At 16, I had racked up over ten thousand matches with the Terran faction. Over thousands of matches, you get to experience every intricate and quirky detail exclusive to your faction. I would spend hours practicing my marine-splits, a maneuver only my faction was required to do.

I experienced the humiliating defeat from a thousand dirty strategies available to my opponents’ factions, each more cheap and unfair than the last. Of course, they would claim my faction has cheap strategies too, but I knew those strategies were brittle, weak, and never worked against a sufficiently skilled player.

For as long as there have been forums for discussing Starcraft, they have been filled with complaints about the balance of the factions. Thousands of posts have been written presenting elaborate arguments and statistics, proving the very faction the author happens to play is, in fact, the weakest. The replies are just as thorough: “Of course if you look at tournament winnings in 2011-2012, Terran is going to be overrepresented, but that is due to a few outlier players who far outperformed everyone else. If you look at the distribution of grandmaster ranked players, terran underperforms!”

Like politics, the discussions can get heated, and it is not uncommon to see statements like: “How typical of you to say - Zerg players are all alike, always complaining about the difficulty of creep spreading, but never admitting their armies are much easier to control!”

There’s even a conspiracy theory currently circulating that a cabal of professional Zerg players sneakily are starting debates which pit Protoss and Terran players against one another to divert attention away from their faction’s current superiority.

Looking at it from a distance, it’s completely deranged. Why can’t anyone see the irony in the fact that everyone happens to think the very faction they play is the weakest?[1] Additionally, if they really believed it to be true, why doesn’t anybody ever switch to the faction they think is overpowered and start winning tournaments?

Moreover, the few people who do switch factions always end up admitting they were wrong. Their new faction is actually the most difficult! The few people who opt to play each match with a randomly selected faction mostly say the three factions are about equally difficult. But if there is one thing players of all three factions can agree on, it is that players who pick random are deceitful and not to be trusted.

I am aware of all these facts, it’s been almost a decade since I stopped competing, yet to this very day I remain convinced that Terran, the faction I arbitrarily chose when I was 12, was in fact the weakest faction during the era I played. Of course I recognize that the alternate version of me who picked a different faction, would have thought differently, but they would have been wrong.

My priors are completely and utterly trapped. Whatever opinion I hold of myself as a noble seeker of truth, my beliefs about Starcraft prove me a moron beyond any reasonable doubt.

My early intellectual influences were rationalists or free-market leaning economists, such as Scott Alexander and Robin Hanson. When I take a sincere look at the evidence today and try my very hardest to discern what is actually true from false, I conclude they mostly are getting things right.

But already in 7th grade, I distinctly remember staunchly defending my belief in unregulated biological modification and enhancement, much to the dismay of my teacher who in disbelief burst out that I was completely insane.

Of all the possible intellectuals I was exposed to, surely it is suspicious that the ones whose conclusions matched my already held beliefs were the ones who stuck. But what should I have done differently? To me, their arguments seemed the most lucid and their evidence the most compelling.

Why was my very first instinct as a seventh grader to defend bioenhancement and not the opposite? Where did that initial belief come from? I couldn’t explain to you basic calculus, yet I could tell you with unfounded confidence that bioenhancement would be good for humanity.

Like my beliefs about Starcraft, it seems so arbitrary. Had my initial instinct been the opposite, maybe I would have breezed past Hanson’s contrarian nonsense to one day discover truth and beauty reading Piketty.


I wake up to an email, thanking me and explaining how my donation has helped launch charter cities in two developing countries. Of course getting the approvals required some dirty political maneuvering, but that is the price of getting anything done.

I think of the Effective Samaritan, who has just woken up to a similar thankful email from the Developing Unions Project. In it, they explain how their donation helped make it possible for them to open a new branch of advocacy, lobbying to shut down two charter cities whose lax regulations are abused by employers to circumvent union agreements. It will require some dirty political maneuvering to get them shut down, but the ends will justify the means.

Yet, the combined efforts of our charity has added up to exactly nothing! I want to yell at the Samaritan whose efforts have invalidated all of mine. Why are they so hellbent on tearing down all the beauty I want to create? Surely we can do better than this.

But how can I collaborate with the Effective Samaritan, who I believe has deluded themselves into thinking outright harmful interventions are the most impactful?

We both believe in doing the most good, whatever that means, and we both believe in using evidence to inform our decision making. What evidence we can trust is contentious. And of the little evidence we both trust, we draw opposite conclusions!

For us to collaborate we need to agree on some basic principles which, when followed, produces knowledge that can fit into both our existing worldviews. We first try explicitly defining all our bayesian priors to see where they differ. This quickly proves tedious and intractable. The only way we can find to move forward is to take out priors from the equation entirely.

Simply run experiments and accept every result as true if the probability of it occurring by random chance falls below some threshold we agree on. This will lead us terribly astray every once in a while if we are not careful, but it also enables us to run experiments whose conclusions both of us can trust.[2]

To minimize the chance of statistical noise or incorrect inference polluting our conclusions, we create experiments with randomly chosen intervention and control groups, so we are sure the intervention is causally connected to the outcome.

As long as we follow these procedures exactly, we can both trust the conclusion. Others can even join in on the fun too.

Together we arrive at a set of ‘randomista’ interventions we both recognize as valuable. Even if we each have differing priors leading us to opposing preferred interventions, pooling our money together on the randomista interventions beats donating to causes which cancel each other out.

The world is some the better.


  1. ^

     I sometimes think about this when listening in on fervent debates over which gender has it better

  2. ^

     I don’t think it’s a coincidence frequentism came to dominate academia





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Good post.

Economics is completely bankrupt as a science

His thesis still irritates me. Lukeprog claims philosophers are doing shoddy work, and he can e.g. solve meta-ethics all by himself. He starts writing his meta-ethics sequence and it has just the basic intro stuff, but nonetheless since he claimed he could solve it, it gets promoted to one of the few curated sequences on Less Wrong. And then he just...stops, he never gets even close to solving meta-ethics and it remains in the Less Wrong curated sequences. It's been 6 years since the last post Lukeprog, where is the solution to meta-ethics?

My early intellectual influences were rationalists or free-market leaning economists, such as Scott Alexander and Robin Hanson. When I take a sincere look at the evidence today and try my very hardest to discern what is actually true from false, I conclude they mostly are getting things right.

I think the difference with star-craft is that with altruistic interventions there is less of a blatant self interest to believe a certain thing, which means it's easier to shift over time. I started out also reading Scott Alexander etc (and still do) but over time also added academic texts and my beliefs shifted to the left, even though I don't have a strong self interested reason to believe in either of them. If academia was also split into equal factions like the star-craft community we would have to be more worried that interventions from each faction would cancel each other out (like your pro-charter city anti-charter city example), instead we see that academia mostly converges on leftwing ideas, even across different countries, different demographics and different generations. If everyone switches to one 'concession' intervention the smaller group (in this case the rightwing) benefits more.

Maybe instead we can match people up, so the large general group has an equal number of people donating to 'concession' interventions as there are in the non-general group, who all give to 'concession'. If there is a lot of convergence there is little concession, if academia is almost perfectly split there's almost only concessions.

The real problem is that people like you, me, and academics (researchers) are not really the people with the power to decide which interventions get money. That's mostly decided by non-researchers who spend their lives focussing on accruing political or economic capital, rather than knowledge about altruistic interventions. We can make cooperation mechanisms to match our donations all we want, but a random billionaire can just decide to donate billions of dollars, more money than we will ever see, to the museum next to his house. It may be wise to do this kind of monetary coordination at the federal level aka taxes and subsidies.

To minimize the chance of statistical noise or incorrect inference polluting our conclusions, we create experiments with randomly chosen intervention and control groups, so we are sure the intervention is causally connected to the outcome.

The problem with RCT's is that they are expensive and measure narrow, direct, continuous effects, while they're unpractical for broad, indirect, or discontinuous effects. Which means those interventions privilege the status-quo. I don't see why we should limit ourselves to only randomized controlled trials. Case-control studies are cheaper and can be done by individual researchers or small teams. The fact that they have less statistical power is irrelevant when we have literally zero studies about so many things. The same thing can be said for cohort studies. If we find an intervention with orders of magnitude more impact than others through a cohort study, I'm not going to wait for an RCT (If that would even happen because in practice not everything is measurable with RCTs) before I start donating.

I essentially agree with the basic point of this post - and think it was a great post!

I have some what feel like nitpicks about the specific story that you told that and I'm sort of confused about how much they matter. My guess is that this actually is a counterargument to the point being made in the post and imply that trapped priors are less of a problem than the example used in the post would imply. 

I think that the broadly libertarian view and Scandinavian-style social democracy views are much more similar than this post gives them credit for. In particular, they agree on the crucial importance of liberal democracy that prevents elites (in the 19th-century traditional agricultural elites) from using the state to engage in rent-seeking. I remember reading a list of demands of the German Social Democratic party in the 1870s (before it had moderated) that read a list of liberal democratic demands - secret ballot, free speech, expansion of the power of democratically elected Reichstag etc.  These two strands of modern liberal thought also agreed on a liberal epistemology that should be used to try to systematically improve society from a broadly utilitarian perspective - the London School of Economics was founded by 4 Fabian Society members to further this aim! 

I think this cashes out in the Effective Samaritans and the Libertarian side of EA (although the Libertains side of EA is pretty unusually libertarian) pursuing pretty similar projects when trying to use non-randomista means for development. For instance, my guess is that both would support increasing state capacity in low-income countries to improve the basic nightwatchman functions of the state, reducing corruption, protecting liberties and the integrity of elections, and removing regulation that that represent elite rent-seeking. Of course they'll be some differences in emphasis - the Effective Samarations might have a particular theory of change around using unions to coordinate labour to push for political change - but these seem relatively minor compared to the core things both agree are important. Byran Caplan and Robin Hanson are genuinely unusually libertarian even amongst broadly free-market economists, but typically both utilitarian-motivated libertarians and social democrats would be interested in building at least a basic welfare state in low-income countries. 

I think we actually in practice see this convergence between liberal social democrats and broadly utilitarian libertarians in the broadly unified policy agendas of Ezra Klien's abundance agenda and lots of EA-Rationalist adjacent Libertarians like a focus on making it easier to build houses in highly productive cities, reducing barrier to immigration to rich countries, increased public funding of R&D and improving state capacity, particularly around extremely ambitious projects like operation warp speed. 

FWIW I don't think these are nitpicks -- I think they point to a totally different takeaway than Mathias suggests in his (excellent) post. If there are political reforms that the various (smart, altruistically-motivated, bias-aware) camps can agree on, it seems like they should work on those instead of retreating to totally uncontroversial RCT-based interventions. Especially since the set of interventions that can be tested in RCTs doesn't include the interventions that either group thinks are most impactful. 

More to the point: it seems like both the camps Mathias describes, the EA libertarians and the Effective Samaritans, would agree that their potential influence over how political economy develops over time has much higher stakes (from a cosmopolitan moral perspective) than their potential influence over the sorts of interventions that are amenable to RCTs. It seems far from obvious that they should do the lower-stakes thing, instead of trying to find some truth-tracking approach to work on the higher-stakes thing. (E.g. only pursue the reforms that both camps want; or cooperate to build institutions/contexts that let both camps compete in the marketplace of ideas in a way that both sides expect to be truth-tracking, or just compete in the existing marketplace of ideas and hope the result is truth-tracking, etc.) 

Similarly, it seems like AI accelerationists and AI decelerationists would both agree that their potential influence over how AI plays out has much higher stakes (from a cosmopolitan moral perspective) than their potential influence over the sorts of interventions that are amenable to RCTs. So it's far from obvious that it would be better for them to do the lower-stakes thing instead of trying to find some truth-tracking approach to do the higher-stakes thing.

TBC I think Mathias' post is excellent. I myself work partly on GHW causes, for mostly the reasons he gestures at here. Still, I wanted to spell out the opposing case as I see it.

I'm grappling with this exact issue. I think AI is the most important technology humanity will event, but I'm skeptical of the EV of much work on the technology. Still it seems that it should be the only reasonable thing to spend all my time thinking about, but even then I'm not sure I'd arrive at anything useful.

And the opportunity cost is saving hundreds of lives. I don't think there is any other question that has cost me as much sleep as this one.

Yeah I think this is a good take and a better article would take this on board. There are a number of things that these groups could agree on and maybe we should attempt to do so.

To add to your suggestions, we could forecast what we expected to happen in various countries and see if the EA or ES group performed better.

I agree with this comment.

If EA and ES both existed, I expect the main focus areas to be very different (e.g. political change is not a main focus area in EA, but would be in ES), but (if harmfull tribalism can be avoided) the movements don't have to be opposed to each other. 

I'm not sure why ES would be against charter cities. Are charter cities bad for unions? 

Scandinavia didn’t become wealthy and equitable through marginal charity. Societal transformation comes from uprooting oppressive power structures.

I expect a serious intellectual movement, that aims to uplift the world to Scandinavian standards, to actually learn about Scandinavian society, and what makes it work. 

“Real socialism hasn’t been tried either!” the Effective Samaritan quips back. “Every attempt has always been co-opted by ruling elites who used it for their own ends. The closest we’ve gotten is Scandinavia which now has the world’s highest standards of living, even if not entirely socialist it’s gotta count for something!”

I'm guessing that "socialism" hear means something like Marxism? Since this is the type of socialism that "has not been really tried" according to some, and also the typ of socialism that usually end up with dictatorship. 

Scandinavian socialism did not come from Marxism. 
Source: How Denmark invented Social Democracy (youtube.com)

I'm not a historian, and I have not fact checked the above video in any way. But if fits with other things I've heard, and my own experience of Swedish v.s. US attitudes. 

I like making a distinction between superficial beliefs and deeply held beliefs which are often entirely subconscious. You have a superficial belief that Starcraft is balanced but a deeply held belief that your faction is the weakest. 

For another example, my dad lived all his life in a world where alcohol was socially acceptable, while everyone agreed that all other drugs were the worst thing ever, quickly leading to addiction, etc. He once even remarked how if alcohol was invented today, it would surely be illegal because it has so many negative consequences, even compared to some other drugs. But it’s just a funny thought to him. He offers me a drink whenever I come to visit him, but he got immediately very concerned when I mentioned that I’ve tried cannabis. He can’t just suddenly rewire his brain to change the associations he has with something like cannabis. Even if I tell him about some studies about cannabis not being that harmful, especially when used rarely, in his subconsciousness, there might barely be a difference between cannabis and drugs like heroin. Maybe he could rewire his subconscious reaction by going through all his memories where he was told something bad about drugs and reinterpreting them in the face of the new evidence. But ain’t nobody has time for that. 

Well, it’s worth trying to rewire yourself about deeply held beliefs that really harm you like “I am unlovable”, "I don't deserve happiness", "I can't trust anyone", etc. This is a big part of what therapy does, I think. But for most topics like Starcraft factions, we just have to accept that there will always be a mismatch between superficial beliefs and deeply held beliefs.

Sounds broadly like the belief vs alief distinction.

Executive summary: The author argues that people's prior beliefs and ideological influences can lead to intractable disagreements and wasted efforts, but a "randomista" approach focused on empirical experiments can enable collaboration and progress.

Key points:

  1. The author imagines an alternate "Effective Samaritan" movement influenced by socialist thought, in contrast to the rationalist-influenced Effective Altruism movement, to illustrate how prior beliefs shape people's preferred interventions.
  2. The author's experience with the game Starcraft, where players tend to believe their chosen faction is the weakest, is used as an analogy for how people's early influences arbitrarily shape their beliefs in a way that is hard to overcome.
  3. The author and the hypothetical Effective Samaritan end up donating to opposing charities that cancel out each other's efforts, illustrating the problem of people working at cross purposes due to differing priors.
  4. To enable collaboration, the author proposes a "randomista" approach of relying on empirical experiments with random control groups, which can generate knowledge that fits into both worldviews.
  5. By focusing on interventions validated by randomized experiments, people with differing priors can pool their resources and make progress together.



This comment was auto-generated by the EA Forum Team. Feel free to point out issues with this summary by replying to the comment, and contact us if you have feedback.

I came to EA from the rationalshpere, and I find all the first part both untrue for me, and worrying. It's important part of my life to not be a person like that.  and indeed, I had instinctive (or maybe socialstinctive) opinion pro-socialism as a child, and I changed her when I encountered evidence. 

In a similar way, I just fail to imagine how can you believe you faction is the weakestin Starcraft. like, you already said it's not! It's obvious! I can understand aliefing it, but not believing it. and there is a difference, and big one.

and it's not even what happening in EA. what I see happening is people look on the evidence, and change their mind. (when there are factions of EA that behave in mindkilled way I find it deeply concerning.)

so, the way I observe EA work in practice, and way I expect it to work in this toy example, is the same  - EA will start with the believe that their favorite politic idea is most effective, then go and search for evidence, not find good enough evidence, and go for global health and not torturing animals and not destroying all humanity and maybe AI (this actually look like historical incident to me, but even that is contestable - It's not an accident that the same sort of people that interested in AI is interested in EA. there is a  thoughts generator that generate both).

I see this post as giving up on some really basic rationality skill, with the implicit claim it's impossible to do. when people in real life have this skill and use it all the time! 

so while I support tugging sideways, I find this post worrying. EA is based on having better judgment, not on giving up or claiming it's impossible to have better judgment. especially in a world where the possibility was proven again and again. be more ambitious! what you implicitly claim is impossible look like pretty basic skill for me, and one that really worth acquiring. ES are much worst then EA as it exist today.

Great post, and an interesting counterfactual history!

Hooray for moral trade.

Evolutionary debunking arguments feel relevant re the causal history of our beliefes.

Interesting post. I've always wondered how sensitive the views and efforts of the EA community are to the arbitrary historical process that led to its creation and development. Are there any in-depth explorations that try to answer this question? 

Or, since thinking about alternative history can only get us so far, are there any examples of EA-adjacent philosophies or movements throughout history? E.g. Mohism, a Chinese philosophy from 400 BC, sounds like a surprisingly close match in some ways.

Some part of me wants to do this as an interview. Get a leftist EA to pretend to be a world where they believe the same things but everyone agrees with them and then get a more mainstream EA to pretend that their arguments are generally not considered as good.

Loved this post! 

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