Hide table of contents

Robert Stern, who gave a talk on 'Effective Climate Activism' at EAGxBerlin, wrote the following article. 

It was a talk that I sensed created quite some frustration amongst the audience members, but for those who stuck around it certainly generated a lot of discussion. I think the tension came from the content not adhering to the usual data-driven and evidence-based takes that EA is so accustomed to. Yet, that was exactly the point for me - successful storytelling does not tend to start with the facts. 

In the end, trying to talk about climate activism and the importance of storytelling at the same time may have proved to be too tall an order, but I still think it's important to hear Robert's account of what it was like to experience the effective altruism community at a main event like a conference without any pre-existing affiliation or association.


What we learned from our invitation to EAGx Berlin, and what the Dickens we think Effective Altruism could learn from us

Executive Summary:

This article ends with a pithy Executive Summary. You’re welcome to scroll straight down to the bottom. But – and this is rather our point – why not enjoy the journey, not just focus on the destination?

Speaking of long journeys…

Fish out of water

There’s nothing like two days driving home on Northern Europe’s arrow-straight motorways, autoroutes, autowegs, and autobahns and motorways to give you time to ponder, reflect, and analyse.

What follows are See Through News’s ponderings, reflections and analysis following our three days at the Effective Altruism Global x (EAGx)conference, held in Berlin Sept 16-18 2022.

It ends with a listicle of Nine Things we think Effective Altruism can improve on, but we hope you won’t be too impatient to get there.

We’ve tried to make the journey as entertaining, and instructive, as we can. In so doing, we’re trying to demonstrate what we think Effective Altruism is missing.

One spoiler – we had fun and met loads of interesting new people at EAGx Berlin. This defines a successful conference. So we’d like to start this Open Letter with a big thank you to EA for inviting us, and covering our costs.

We appreciate that Effective Altruism took a punt in inviting See Through News. Listicle time:

Top 3 Ways See Through News is Atypical

  1. STN has no Effective Altruism affiliation, association, funding or track record
  2. 2/3 of STN’s team had children older than most delegates
  3. 1/3 of STN’s team was a dog

More significantly for the purposes of of this open letter, See Through News was:

  • the only speaker whose primary focus was storytelling to the broad public

To be clear, no one asked us to write this Open Letter. We’re writing it because, well, communication is what we do, we’d like to bring both See Through News and Effective Altruism to broader attention, but mainly because our experience of EA suggests some people would be happy to have these things said.

Sometimes it’s easier to hear things, and circulate them, from people who aren’t paying you, or being paid.

We’ll come on to that, but first…

Give us your best shot. Please.

When booking us, the Berlin conference organisers half promised, half warned, us Effective Altruism delegates pull no punches. They gave a warning litany that sounded like an advance apology given to all EA outsiders.

This lot loves evidence, we were told.

That’s why they’re part of such a data-driven organisation, they said.

Expect an EA audience to examine every sub-clause and footnote of the See Through News concept, methodology and practice, we were told.

Several Effective Altruism insiders explained this was what Effective Altruism does – subject everything to intense and probing scrutiny.

Fine by us, we said. Bring it on.

See Through News also digs constant self-criticism, dynamic reflection, trial-and-error, evidence-based analysis, and ruthless interrogation. After decades in journalism, we think we’re used to it.

The other advice we received was to read up on ‘EA literature’. Get to know our specific terminology, learn EA-speak, get to grips with the EA code.

This is basic due diligence for anyone, not just journalists, preparing for a public speaking event. We were intrigued why Effective Altruism was so insistent on the matter.

More than that, this evoked a journalistic spider sense. Where had we heard these kind of words before…? What kind of people say these kinds of things?

The answer forms one of the criticisms made later on, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

We accepted the invitation to expose ourselves to EA’s robust analysis as an excellent opportunity to road-test See Through News’s approach to effective climate action.

For it was this very topic, Effective Climate Action, on which Effective Altruism had invited See Through News to speak.

Whoah there – Effective What and See Through Who?

Before delivering our verdict on Effective Altruism and its conference, here’s some context for those who are only familiar with one, the other, or neither.

If you’re completely au fait with both EA and STN, by all means skip this bit, but we suspect there won’t be many of you…

See Through News and Effective Altruism share a pragmatic, data-driven, utilitarian approach to activism, but as neither of us had heard of the other a year ago, it’s hardly reasonable to expect you to have.

Effective Altruism was only founded at Oxford University a decade or so ago. In recent years, the introduction of some serious Silicon Valley spondulix has turbocharged EA into a global movement.

See Through News was only founded in March 2021, based on radical transparency, open source, and zero budget, sustained by street smarts and an international volunteer network.

See Through News ducks and dives, mixing high concept with low cunning. We blend hi-tech social media and Old-School storytelling to ju-jitsu the ‘free’ infrastructure created by our Silicon Valley Overlords to reduce, rather than increase, carbon.

It’s early days, but we’re accumulating numbers that support our hunch. More volunteers are joining up, and pitching in, every day, mainly because they’re convinced:

  1. our approach is worth a shot
  2. no one else is trying it

We know 2) because after 6 months of development, we soft launched See Through News at COP26 to find out. We spent a fortnight in Glasgow releasing three projects into the wild, and seeing what happened.

We’ve since added a dozen more projects to our roster. All follow the same model of being designed to measurably reduce carbon, but not obviously so at first glance.

We’ve written elsewhere about our COP26 adventures, and there are detailed posts about the three projects we deployed there, what was to become The Think Game, our Superhero & Supervillain Drawing Competition, and our first Event, Concert in the Key of C.

Suffice to say, they convinced us that no one else was doing what we were doing, and that what we were doing worked.

Transparent Trojan Horses

Our COP26 pilot projects provided a model for all our subsequent projects. They all:

  1. Attracted people: at COP26, climate activists, working-class Glaswegians and primary school kids alike all had fun with our projects.
  2. Created Interest: the world’s most active climate activists, having sensitive antennae, asked us more questions about what we were doing and why than average, but everyone asked something.
  3. Evoked a Desire: in some cases, to volunteer, in others, to do exactly what we’d hope and progress to step 4..
  4. Lead to effective climate Action: for some this meant volunteering their skills and time to test the limits of our storytelling methodology, for others, following the path toward measurable carbon reduction.

Even those who stopped at Interest confirmed that STN’s approach was, if nothing else, original. Those who, having had some fun, were curious enough to ask us Why & How, reckoned our approach was feasible and worth trying.

You see, these Glasgow players of our games ‘got’ the concept, by recognising they’d been ‘got’ themselves.

They understood that See Through News projects were real-world, real-time demonstrations of the very manipulative methodology we were proposing. They clocked that they’d been attracted to our honeypot, and were now asking us the very questions we intended them to ask, but without handing them yet a flyer.

Everyone’s pockets, backpacks and briefcases at COP26 were stuffed with them. Many more littered the streets. Most never got read.

‘OK, we see’, they said, reflecting on what they’d just experienced. ‘You’ve just got me to ask you to tell us exactly what you would have printed on those flyers, haven’t you?’.

Yup, we grinned. Welcome to See Through News’s world of transparent Trojan Horses, and the dark arts of AIDA.

AIDA

If you’ve not heard the phrase, AIDA is the storyteller’s trick on which See Through News’s approach is based.

We don’t usually go on about much about AIDA, as it’s so integral to storytelling, but we found it was new to just about everybody we encountered at EAGx Berlin. If something evokes such nodding, teeth-sucking and note-taking, it may be worth explaining.

We didn’t invent AIDA. Indeed, it’s precisely AIDA’s tried-and-tested nature that makes us so confident that, if executed with sufficient guile and cunning, it will work. AIDA is an old huckster’s hustle, a conman’s schtick, an ad-man”s trick, familiar to cult recruiters and crowd-rousing demagogues alike.

Advertisers, who favour snappy acronyms, are the ones who came up with AIDA:

  • Attention
  • Interest
  • Desire
  • Action

Or, working backwards from the Goal of (say, Effective Climate) Action:

  • If I want you to take Action, I first need to create your Desire
  • To create Desire, I need to stimulate your Interest.
  • Your Interest requires me to first attract your Attention.

If AIDA sells i-Phones, cigarettes and soap powder, why not climate action? They’re just storytelling tricks, after all.

AIDA is a neutral tool, like a hammer, or AI, neither intrinsically good nor evil. As we like to say at STN, you can use a hammer to tap in the final, hand-hewn sustainable wooden peg in a no-nail eco-lodge, or to smash in a stranger’s skull. It’s just a hammer.

Advertising platforms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter use AIDA to increase carbon, by selling us more stuff we don’t need. For all their jargon, lofty slogans, and cutting-edge tech, our Silicon Valley Overlords are glorified advertisers. Follow the money, and examine their business models.

See Through News’s Glasgow experiments in applying AIDA to reduce carbon are how we ended up speaking at EAGx Berlin.

It’s time to mention See Through News’s other superpower, from which EA can take whatever lessons it likes.

No money.

Effective Climate Activism without even a shoestring

EAGx was appropriately unflashy and modest, but the fact it hired a major Berlin venue to host 900 people over a weekend speaks much of the resources Effective Altruism now has at its disposal, and how it chooses to spend them.

What follows is a complementary counterpoint, not a hidden critique.

Staging conferences like EAGx is an excellent use of funds, if you have funds.

But there’s lots you can do without it, too.

In November 2021, See Through News tested its zero-budget, volunteer-driven approach with a soft launch at COP26 in Glasgow.

With no more than a couple of thousand quid from its Founder to cover everything, STN beta-tested three pilot projects:

Cost: £0.00 including VAT, plus a bit of mutual back-scratching. We’ve described details elsewhere, but we mention this not (just) to swank about See Through News’s trickster street smarts, but to illustrate a critical feature that distinguishes STN from most other climate activist groups: zero budget.

Money is power, but if you have a plan and a goal people believe in, no-money can also be pretty powerful. This is our cautionary tale for Effective Altruism, as it’s showered with Silicon Valley money.

Funding makes some things easy, but always comes at a price. Absence of money doesn’t necessarily mean things are impossible, only that they might require different solutions.

Money lubricates, but is also sludge. It can accelerate, but it also acts as a brake. Acquiring money takes time, and diverts energy. It always comes with a price tag. Attached strings require compromising your original goals, and spending yet more time – and money – documenting how it was spent.

AIDA works in any context, and can have unexpected outcomes.

For example, when a tall German bloke sportingly agreed to do the first foreign-language version of The Think Game, we had no notion that 10 months later, it would lead to us being invited to EAGx Berlin.

He hadn’t even done it in German.

How Effective Altruism ended up inviting us to EAGx Berlin

EAGx was a conventional convention; sessions, power points, break-out groups, one-to-one areas. Beanbags.

The Think Game, however, looks different.

It’s an impressive bit of street theatre: two chairs, one in front of a pull-up STN logo, separated from the other chair by a professional-looking camera and microphones. Standing by, authoritative-looking people in STN hi-vis jackets, holding clipboards.

We took this to Berlin, but this was the honeypot we used in Glasgow to attract the Attention of the climate activists. They could hardly miss us, as they had to pass us to enter and exit the building. Even those in a hurry would pause to eavesdrop, or ask what we were doing. AIDA.

Many ended up playing The Think Game, happy to give us permission to upload their videos to our YouTube channel to share it with friends back home, and show to others they met. AIDA.

Among the venue volunteers, handing out flyers, was a Chinese student taking time off from her Masters in Sustainable Finance. Before long, she started chatting with one of the authoritative-looking people by the camera, with branded hi-vis jacket and clipboard.

It was See Through News founder Robert Stern. He speaks Chinese, and by chance, many of the experiences that helped him come up with The Think Game a couple of weeks before were China-related; consultant for a company selling entertainment formats to Chinese broadcasters, co-presenting a game show in Mandarin Chinese seen by 100 million Chinese viewers, helping a British AI start-up stage a show that won a competition for hi-tech start-ups shown on Chinese TV.

But Robert didn’t mention this. The conversation switched from English to Chinese, and before long the volunteer asked Robert about See Through News.

AIDA time. Instead of telling you, Robert said, why don’t I show you? She played The Think Game, and STN now had another player delighted to share her video with friends and family, and asking the Why and How questions on which we’d saved so much money by not printing flyers.

So far, so routine, but a couple of hours later, out of the blue, the thing that got us to Berlin happened.

This Chinese volunteer approached Robert accompanied by a tall German called Mo. She’d just met Mo, and discovering another Chinese-speaking foreigner, wanted to introduce them. She now basked in a rare experience for a Chinese person, eavesdropping on two foreigners conversing in Chinese.

Before long, Mo asked about See Through News. AIDA time again. Instead of telling you, why don’t I show you…but this time, Robert spent a few minutes giving the Chinese volunteer a brief training session in game show host technique, and drawing up a list of questions Mo and a Chinese audience might know.

That’s how the first-ever foreign-language version of The Think Game happened.

The First Ever Chinese Language Version of The Think Game

And a few months later, Mo was selected by Effective Altruism to produce the Berlin conference. Remembering The Think Game, he set up a call between See Through News and his colleague in charge of inviting speakers.

She could only spare 15 minutes, so Mo advised STN to get its elevator pitch in shape.

The call ended up lasting 90 minutes. AIDA.

In return for an hour-long talk, Effective Altruism would cover the non-inconsiderable costs of transporting and accommodating our team.

So that’s how we ended driving two days each way to Berlin, with a car packed with camera gear, gazebo, and a dog.

Our Berlin Experience

EAGx Berlin proved to be highly stimulating, and, from our perspective, at least, well worth the trip.

Over three days, we had dozens of 1-on-1 meetings, spontaneous and scheduled, formal and informal. Then there was our talk, right at the end of the conference. We filmed it – you can see Robert’s talk on the See Through News YouTube channel.

No one present knew how to connect the speakers, so we had to change our plans on the hoof, but if you’ve done a live interview on Japanese TV, in Japanese, on the ethnic complexities of Israeli demographics, coping with no audio is relatively straightforward.

The Live interactive version of The Think Game had to go, and we had to do a live narration of The Three-Headed Beasts video. Via a laptop after the Q&A, we eventually told the story of The Tallest Woman in Mongolia, and explained how, like all our 14 projects, it measurably reduces carbon.

To find out for yourselves, jump to the end of the talk, when we get round to editing it for our YouTube channel, or go to around 8min into this final episode of Series 1 of our podcast, The Truth Lies in Bedtime Stories: The Story of Ganbaatar, the only deep sea navigator in Mongolia. It’s all entirely true, almost.

As forewarned, the Q&A from the Effective Altruism crowd was intense and sustained. Just as well, as we’d left most of the session for this purpose.

We hope what follows is taken as intended, as our reciprocal thank-you present, delivered in the same spirit of helpful critique.

Here, then, is our robust and frank analysis of what we made of Effective Altruism, based on our EAGx Berlin experience.

First, Don’t Sound Like a Cult

At first, we pussy-footed around the C-word.

But when so many Effective Altruism folk spontaneously used it when explaining EA to us, we began to figure that if we advise you not to sound like a cult , we won’t be taken the wrong way.

First, to be clear, we don’t think Effective Altruism is a cult. Cults require central dominant personalities who obsessively control every last aspect of its operations. We’ve never met William Macaskill, but nothing we’ve heard or read about him suggests he’s a cult leader, or has any aspiration to becoming one.

But we have met other cult leaders. Journalists often come across them, and STN Founder Robert Stern covered both the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway, and the Falun Gong protests and crackdown in Beijing four years later, amongst others.

A common feature of cults is the use of jargon, in-group code with special meaning to the initiated. From Scientology’s Operating Thetan levels, to the othering, sub-Pentecostal manipulations of Jim Jones’s People’s Temple, cults have used their special codes to keep insiders in, and outsiders out.

In this respect – and again we emphasise only in this respect – Effective Altruism has the hallmarks of a cult.

‘Read our texts’, ‘understand our terminology’, ‘learn EA language’, we were told.

What we were thinking is ‘Just listen to yourselves’. If it’s really so important to know your ‘tail-risk’ from your ‘tractability’, how are you ever going to reach a broader audience?

We’ll leave the question of whether EA does actually want to reach a broader audience to the end of this letter, as that’s really the biggest question of all.

It’s a question that Effective Altruism founder Wiiliam Macaskill appears to have on his mind. Why else would he have just published his second book What We Owe The Future?

The credits alone suggest Macaskill himself had little interest in being a cult leader. Cult leaders typically claim all the credit, and divert all the blame. Macaskill makes a point of acknowledging error, crediting others and focusing on objective truth over personal revelation.

What We Owe The Future is also a deeply impressive philosophical work, kicked off by a blockbuster of a thought experiment, with a wide range of reference, clearly expressed in readable, accessible, jargon-free language.

The fact that he just published it suggests he may be all too aware of the issues we’re raising here.

Watch your language

Use of language reveals deep truths that can be hidden to the people speaking it.

Our sense that communication wasn’t EA’s strong card was confirmed by a couple of events leading up to the conference.

In our pre-EAGx newsletter (sign up on the home page of this website, if you’d like to keep abreast of STN developments), we characterised the movement as follows:

If Effective Altruism is yet to cross your radar, they’re worth checking out. EA members are typically highly educated, highly motivated, highly skilled graduates with strong moral and social sense of duty.

In an evidence-based, pragmatic, rational manner that aligns with our own, EA folk ask themselves a simple question – how can I do the most good for current and future generations? Having assessed the data, they do a cost-benefit analysis, and act accordingly.

From The See Through News Newsletter #71

No sooner had the newsletter gone out, than an EAGx conference organisers who’d subscribed to our Newsletter, took time from their hectic schedule to email us:

‘Very well-written summary of what EA is – I will use your description in the future.’

A nice compliment, but – really? With all Effective Altruism’s resources, brains and powers of analysis, you’ve not managed to come up with a better way yourselves to describe yourselves to out-groupers?

To be fair, it sometimes takes an outside, non-expert eye, to state the obvious in everyday terms. Woods for the trees and all that.

Ordinary people being better at expressing complex ideas is the intelligent, ethical justification for using vox pop (=person-on-the-street) interviews. As we highlight in our Vox Pox project – one of our 6 Media-targeted projects, this staple of journalism, TV news and documentaries is widely abused and misunderstood.

But, really. If you want to control your message outside the Effective Altruism tent, you shouldn’t need the likes of See Through News to come up with your strap line.

Learn how to speak everyone else’s language, instead of getting them to learn yours.

See Through News isn’t the only one to spot this, of course. Once we got to Berlin, many of the more senior EA people we met raised the issue spontaneously, when they discovered STN’s expertise was in storyotelling.

But we were already aware of this. As invited guests, curious people, and investigative journalists, we did our due diligence before our phone call with the EAGx meeting programme manager.

As this growing global movement of highly-educated young people with a social conscience has grown over recent years, there’s been plenty of online criticism growing with it.

For smart people, you can be quite dumb

Did you find this a gratuitously provocative, tabloid-style sub-heading?

But hey, you’re reading this, so it’s done its job. See what we did there? It works much better than an EA jargon term like ‘tractability’. If it works, why not use it to reach a few more people? You can be accessible without compromising your message. You even find that simplifying your message clarifies it in your own mine. We know it has for us.

Wikipedia’s brief ‘Criticism’ section on Effective Altruism doesn’t mention the ‘C-word’, but it touches on EA’s introverted nature:

Critics of effective altruism argue that the movement does not address the institutional change necessary to properly improve the lives of the global poor. Rather, they say, effective altruism simply addresses symptoms (e.g. parasitic worm infections) rather than the root problem of poverty.[6] Some also argue that no movement can succeed in changing the world by focusing exclusively on individual human behavior.[7] Advocates of effective altruism respond that the movement is not committed to any particular method of improving the world. As a result, they say, effective altruism will favor interventions that target the root causes of a problem when doing so is judged to be more cost-effective than addressing its symptoms.[8]

Criticism’ Section of Wikipedia’s Effective Altruism entry

This ‘head-in-the-clouds’, ivory-tower critique reflects our own direct experience at Berlin, but again, was also a criticism expressed to us by many of the delegates.

To be fair, and statistically accurate, this would only have been a dozen or so out of 900. On the other hand, more people we met said it than didn’t say it, and none were prompted to say it…

Those in Effective Altruism who aspire to the movement being more than a global Nerd Club might be interested to know that the delegates who were attracted to See Through News tent, and who ended up spending the most time talking to us, shared the following characteristics:

  • they were older, more experienced, with broader life experiences
  • they were not narrowly focused on the existential threat posed by robots taking over the world
  • they were predominantly either from the developing nations/global south, or from autocratic countries where the mainstream media is most obviously captured/owned by the ruling politicians

Here are some of the comments we received:

  • ‘I keep coming back to the See Through News tent because I feel safe and understood.’
  • ‘You’re the only people here who seem to have practical, feasible ways to address my reality, or the real issues facing my home nation.’
  • ‘Can I pet your dog?’

These reactions could in part be put down to the fact that 66% of the See Through News Berlin team had children of around the same age, or older, than most of the delegates. And the other 33% were 100% cockerpoo.

But why was See Through News such an outlier at an Effective Altruism conference? So far as we could tell, we were the only non-EA insiders, or EA-connected, to be invited.

Effective Altruism members are smart enough to know all about the dangers of groupthink, in-group psychology and confirmation bias. You’re also big fans, and practitioners, of constant self-criticism.

Don’t only talk to yourselves at your conferences.

One well-attended conference session confirmed this paradox – very smart, highly-educated people with a blind spot when it comes to communication.

We attended a session on EA and Journalism, hoping it would help us get to know what an EA audience is like, to triangulate where to pitch our own upcoming talk on Effective Climate Activism.

The fact that it was in a big room, and mostly full, suggested EA delegates felt that communications was an important issue. The speaker was evidently an accomplished,experienced journalist/communicator, and very familiar with an EA crowd.

At first, we were surprised at how basic her presentation was – real rudimentary stuff. Surely an EA crowd was more sophisticated than this, we thought. Until the Q&A, which included questions like ‘can you list 5 things we can do to do better interviews?’.

It turned out the speaker knew her audience very well. This crowd, for all its university education, really did need remedial comms education.

Let me tell you a story about Effective Altruism

Our talk was scheduled for the final slot of the last day, so See Through News had 3 days to tune into the Effective Altruism zeitgeist.

The first rule of comms is to know your audience, the second to adjust your message to that audience. So we did a lot of people-watching, eavesdropping and ear-wigging.

Five minutes observation would leave most people concluding typical EA delegates are:

  • young
  • neurodivergent
  • seeking something

Should we adapt our messaging, we wondered? Maybe re-write our website FAQs, currently written in the comic catechism style of Flann O’Brien. This great Irish writer and comic genius isn’t well-known outside Effective Altruism circles. We weren’t getting the vibe he was a big name inside them.

See Through News has often been complimented on its FAQs, but would an EA audience find them the ‘best-written, most amusing and impactful FAQs I’ve ever read’?

Eavesdropping suggested Effective Altruism delegates appeared more likely to quote Star Trek or Harry Potter than Flann O’Brien. Would our stuff land?

It was a relief when a couple of Effective Altruism youngsters mentioned how refreshing and stimulating they found our FAQs. Thanks, Flann, we’ll raise a pint of porter to you next time.

This not (just) a humblebrag about our FAQs. We raise it to highlight the communications blind spot we found in Effective Altruism in general.

By all means speak in your in-group code at home, even when delivering talks to each other at your conferences – but if you have any aspiration to reach beyond your charmed circle, you gonna hafta talk different.

By all means quote Ord, Singer and Macaskill, but if you only ever quote Star Trek, you’ll only attract or make sense to Trekkers.

Reference The Simpsons and The Big Bang Theory, and you’re getting warmer, but you’re still making it hard for the huge numbers of people who are unfamiliar with your references to catch your drift.

Don’t just quote or cite. Tell stories.

What the Dickens?

How about quoting a Dickens character? We’re about to, but first we’re going to tell you why.

Having been reassured by a rather jaded Effective Altruism veteran that ‘there’s nothing an EA crowd likes more than having a joke explained to them’, we’ll risk telling you why you should at least consider quoting Dickens. Consider:

  • People haven’t changed much since Victorian Britain. Dickens nailed just about every possible human flaw and virtue with an accuracy, humour and impact few others will ever approach, and we’re the same ‘bloody ignorant apes‘ as we ever were. That was a quote from Samuel Becket, incidentally.
  • Loads of non-EA people know loads of Dickens characters. Even if they don’t, they’ve at least heard of Dickens, and know him as a trusted source when it comes to illustrating human frailty. And even if they’ve never heard of Dickens, they probably know of his characters. Every day, people dismiss misers as Scrooges, diagnose hoarders with Miss Havisham syndrome, or call tricksters Artful Dodgers, unaware that Dickens created all these characters.

If you find deploying references to Slytherin, Sorting Hats and Muggles is effective in your peer group, you’ll know the shorthand power of great names that nail common human traits.

So even if you’ve not read Bleak House, or have yet to come across Mrs. Jellyby, does Dicken’s description of this deluded philanthropist ring a bell?:

‘a pretty, very diminutive, plump woman, of from forty to fifty, with handsome eyes, though they had a curious habit of seeming to look a long way off. As if…they could see nothing nearer than Africa’.

Mrs. Jellyby would now be called a ‘virtue signaller’. Her filthy, chaotic London home is filled with her own neglected children, who get covered in ink, go hungry, and tumble down staircases while she pursues her obsession with saving the poor and starving children of Africa.

Dickens, never one to use one word when a dozen are better, observes that Mrs. Jellyby surrounds herself with other deluded obsessives, equally incapable of perceiving problems under their own noses:

One other singularity was, that nobody with a mission—except Mr Quale, whose mission, as I think I have formerly said, was to be in ecstasies with everybody’s mission—cared at all for anybody’s mission. Mrs Pardiggle being as clear that the only one infallible course was her course of pouncing upon the poor, and applying benevolence to them like a strait-waistcoat; as Miss Wisk was that the only practical thing for the world was the emancipation of Woman from the thraldom of her Tyrant, Man. Mrs Jellyby, all the while, sat smiling at the limited vision that could see anything but Borrioboola-Gha.

Bleak House, by Charles Dickens.

Post-colonial critics sometimes cite passages like this as evidence Dickens cared nothing for distant brown people, but in so doing they’re exemplifying the true, and much more profound and enduring target of his satire – how your own personal obsessions can blind you to much more pressing problems on your doorstep.

So. Why do you think we just spent the last few paragraphs discussing Dickens?

If you’ve spent any time explaining how humanity’s most urgent existential threat is AI Alignment to an EA delegate from Mexico, Pakistan, The Philippines, Hungary or Brazil, we suggest reading more Dickens.

Oh, and maybe start listening harder to your Global South delegates.

Beware the Tyranny of Choice, Money Sludge & Navel-Gazing

Tyranny of Choice

‘Lost’, is the one-word epithet one EA-outsider used to describe Effective Altruism folk after a few minutes delegate-watching.

Certainly, there was a strong sense of young people looking for something to give meaning to their own lives, and the lives of others.

From a See Through News perspective, this was very encouraging. Our Goal is to help the Inactive Become Active, but what does the fact that all these lost souls gathered in Berlin for an Effective Altruism conference tell us about the movement itself?

In one sense, it reflects very well on it. EA members remind us of Extinction Rebellion activists – characteristically questioning, independent-minded, with no monogamous affiliation to a single movement, open to all offers.

Like many XR members, many EA members appear to treat the movement as a part-support group, part-dating app, part-shop window. Meet like-minded fellow-travellers. Find an organisation you might like to take home with you. This openness is a further reason why EA is not a cult.

But the Tyranny of Choice is another form of the Tyranny of Inaction. As people who use online dating sites know, if you spend all your time picking and choosing, waiting for the Right Project to come along, rather than just taking a punt, you can end up never even trying. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Maybe it was because See Through News so obviously had real-world experience, but we found many of the younger delegates, whether at the Opportunity Fair or in 1-to-1 meetings, asked See Through News for careers advice.

In nearly every case, having listened to their situation, our advice was to just do something. Anything. If you want to be a writer, start writing. If you want to know how to make videos, start making videos. If you’re wondering where to volunteer, just pick a charity and start volunteering. There was definitely a general tendency to look for further qualifications, or courses, or teachers, rather than taking the plunge and learning from experience.

When you lack experience, it’s all the more important to gain it. It’s like dating. You may quickly discover this person/organisation/charity/employer isn’t for you, but at least you now know. It might even help you pick the next one.

Just do it – indecision guarantees you’ll never find out.

But we also found this hesitancy to commit, this reluctance to leave comfort zones, indicated a deeper issue, both for individuals attracted to Effective Altruism conferences, and surely therefore to the movement itself.

Money Sludge

Our founding allegory of the Three-Headed Beasts places the obstacles to carbon drawdown in The Money Mire.

Money is what connects Beast to Beast, and creates the sludge that slows down Carbon Drawdown.

Amongst other things, this is what makes See Through News very wary of money, and why we want to see how far we can get without it.

So far so good. The reason See Through News has developed 14 projects so quickly is because we’ve not been distracted. Not one second has been spend applying for funding, justifying our spend, or engaging in all the proper, but time-consuming and energy-sucking checks-and-balances that funding demands.

We’ve been astonished, frankly, at how much we’ve managed to do so quickly without any money.

The volunteers who’ve developed the various See Through News projects tend to fall into one of these four categories:

  • financially comfortable professionals in well-paid, high-status jobs, who want to do something more meaningful in their spare time
  • experienced professionals who’ve given up trying to make a living in creative industries that have been destroyed by the internet, as the money taps once controlled by the pre-Internet gatekeepers – publishers, music labels, galleries, commissioning editors etc. – have run dry
  • time-rich, experience-poor young people at the start of their careers, who see mentoring and resume-building benefits of volunteering for See Through News, in addition to Doing Good
  • people committed to one particular area (education, community, building, games etc.) who see our projects as being intrinsically interesting or worthwhile, even without the carbon drawdown goal.

We expect that before long we’ll come across some challenge, or grow to a scale, that demands we scrape together at least some money.

We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

In the meantime, our zero-budget approach is not only highly effective in itself, as it permits us to work so friction-free, but it’s also the ultimate expression of our sincerity.

When we approach people with our open source, free of charge projects, we’re often greeted with suspicion. This is frustrating. It’s why Robert Stern awards himself the title of ‘Gift Horse Distributor’ on his name cards, rather than Founder.

But given the number of scams out there, things that at first appear to be free, but turn out to be too good to be true, such suspicion is a perfectly reasonable, as well as understandable, response.

Effective Altruism hasn’t always had loads of money, but it sure does now. So far as we can tell, EA is spending its new millions well – this Berlin conference, at least, was an excellent use of funds.

All we’re saying is – beware of money’s seduction, distraction and friction.

The more ‘senior’ EA people we met, the more they, one way or another, depended on the EA payroll. However independent you may be, or feel, being paid by someone inevitably means you’re obliged to suppress and compromise what you might otherwise choose to do.

We heard plenty of such observations from EA insiders, their intensity growing in proportion to the seniority and amounts of money involved.

Implicit in the Wikipedia critique of Effective Altruism quoted above is the consequences of the ‘lack of commitment’ mentioned. We’ll risk opprobrium by being more explicit.

We do so only too aware of potential ‘OK Boomer’ responses, and of the sensitivities inevitable when the neurotypical remark on the neurodivergent, but we think it’s important, so here goes.

Stop navel-gazing. It’s Inactive. If you want to be effective activists, on climate or otherwise, make your Action about more than just yourself. Aspire to use your skills, passion and energy to leverage change on a bigger scale.

That Archimedes quote “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world. ” is more than mere physics, it’s a call to action.

Intellectually, you have all the gear, but no idea of how to use it. A great idea, unarticulated, won’t spread.

This criticism is not limited to the attendees, though. We felt it ran much deeper in EA.

When asked what the highlight of the opening speech was, more than one attendee told us it was the off-the-cuff history of the venue delivered by the person introducing the session. If your keynote speakers can’t put on a show to the converted, what chance to you have of moving the people See Through News targets, the vast majority of the human species who are Unwilling Inactivists?

In for a penny, in for a pound – we may as well go the whole hog and include William Macaskill here too.

The theme of his wonderfully readable new book, and the direction in which he appears to want to nudge Effective Altruism, is ‘Longtermism’.

Longtermism is Mackaskill’s way of adding the unborn to the utilitarian balance sheet, of tipping the cost-benefit analysis by including ‘the Silent Billions’. Chapter 1, ‘The Case for Longtermism’ starts with the words:

Future people count. There could be a lot of them. We can make their lives go better. This is the case for longtermism in a nutshell.

What We Owe The Future: a million-year view, William Macaskill, 2022

Hard to argue with this, but isn’t it a bit…Jellyby-ish?

Dickens skewered Mrs. Jellyby for ignoring problems under her nose in favour of distant African problems. Isn’t longtermism doing the same in time, rather than space?

How comfortable would you be to make these abstract arguments to Effective Altruism delegates from Pakistan, where floods have left tens of millions homeless, or Brazil, struggling to stem the Amazon deforestation encouraged by their populist leader, or any number of Global South nations faced with imminent immolation or inundation?

We’re not saying anything you’re saying is wrong, just that you might still be saying it as the waters creep up your ivory tower.

Don’t be Mrs. Jellyby.

Yours sincerely

So there you have it, our sincere impression of Effective Altruism following out first interaction with it. We hope it won’t be our last, as there’s a huge overlap both in terms of our data-driven approach, and the supply-demand matchup between See Through News’s zero-budget projects and Effective Altruism’s highly-talented, highly-skilled, highly-motivated followers.

Feel free to dismiss our well-intentioned critiques as superficial, or misguided, but for better or worse they’re honest and delivered with no agenda other than your own. We too are into rigorous cost-benefit analysis.

These observations don’t include any numbers, partly because we don’t have them, but mainly because we suspect you do, so you’ll be able to use them to rigorously test our conclusions.

Here’s the Executive Summary for those far too busy to be distracted by discursive discussion of The Tallest Woman in Mongolia, or resistant to the charms of cockerpoos:

  1. Don’t sound like a cult
  2. Learn how to speak everyone else’s language, instead of getting them to learn yours
  3. Don’t only talk to yourselves at your conferences.
  4. Don’t just quote and cite. Tell stories.
  5. Start listening harder to your Global South delegates.
  6. Just do it – indecision guarantees you’ll never find out.
  7. Stop navel-gazing
  8. Beware of money’s seduction, distraction and friction.
  9. Don’t be Mrs. Jellyby.

12

0
0

Reactions

0
0

More posts like this

Comments7
Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 2:04 PM

I felt this critique missed the mark, especially where it says EA hasn't done anything - if nothing else, the sheer numbers of lives saved through bednets funded by the EA community is a compelling counterexample!

Also thought it was ironic that their argument for why we should focus more on the Global South rather than the future was comparing us to a character that Dickens skewers for, well, caring too much about the Global South rather than her own neighbourhood.

Yeah this is the problem with reasoning on vibes and righteous indignation and literary analogies instead of using your brain (which I have also been guilty of in the recent past). Morality is hard. Just repeating catcheisms of your preferred ideology is not a reliable way to make progress.

I enjoyed reading this take from Robert! It's a sincerely fun, refreshing, and erudite perspective. I am grateful to him for putting in the time to write such a thoughtful account.

I resonate with his points, especially his observations about many EAs being "young and lost". I found EA at a time when I was soul searching, and its frameworks helped me identify what impact could mean. But I don't fit the college EA group demographic, and I notice that some younger EAs struggle with self-assuredness. So it makes me happy that people approached the tent and attended the talk at the conference. Robert & Co's comms experience would no doubt be alluring and helpful.

As exub2a writes in ep 3 of his Catastrotivity podcast: when a benevolent, friendly critic gives you advice, listening can only help you. Robert strikes me as one of these true allies in the fight to make the world a better place.

I recommend a substantially more informative title than "Open Letter to EA." This is the type of title that simultaneously attract readers' attention and does them a disservice by making it hard to figure out if it's actually relevant to them.

Minor formatting thing: you might add some kind of line where your intro stops and  Robert's post begins?

Good call - fixed, thanks!

I think this post makes many correct observations about the EA movement, but it draws the wrong conclusions.

For example, it's true that EAs will sometimes use uncommon phrases like "tail-risk" and "tractability". But that's because these are important concepts! Heck,  just "probability" is a word that might scare off most people too. But it would be a mistake to water down one's language to attract as many people as possible.

More generally, the EA movement isn't trying to grow as fast as possible. It's not trying to get everyone's attention. Instead, it's trying to specifically reach those people who are sympathetic to an evidence-based approach to helping others. Bare emotional appeals risk attracting the wrong kind of people and misrepresent what EA is all about.

There's a place for stories to motivate and inspire, but if they're divorced from engagement with data and careful reasoning, EA stops being EA.