Context: My understanding is that CEA (EVF now?) gave a grant for a small team of EAs to work on a documentary about the role of the EA and rationalist community in covid forecasting. I think the team was two people. The team was paid monthly and got some other support. This sounded liked a fine project to me. A bunch of work was done but the project never finished for various reasons. I might be remembering some of this context wrong but thats not the most important. 

Here are some messages I exchanged with the person in charge of the project:

Given that the EA is community is potentially rethinking some of its internal structure it feels important to share this sort of thing even though it breaks existing norms. My personal opinion is EA has a pretty serious culture of silence because annoying the EA leadership will get you blacklisted in various ways. But due to said culture of silence it is hard to talk about this stuff publicly or substantiate accusations. No one wants to go on record. For example I think the EA leadership has acted very unfairly adversarially to both the EA hotel and the predecessor to Rethink Priorities (and possibly early rethink). However it's hard to get the whole story. On the other hand it seems extremely hard to justify excluding either Zvi or Zeynep. Both did great work!

EA really does feel like it has a pretty toxic internal climate and its very hard to discuss why. I will also note that a lot of this is plausibly 'invisible' if you are in very strong alignment with the leadership. 




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(I wrote this comment in a personal capacity, intending only to reflect my own views / knowledge.)


In 2021, the EA Infrastructure Fund (which is not CEA, though both are supported and fiscally sponsored by Effective Ventures) made a grant for preparatory work toward potentially creating a COVID-related documentary.[1] I was the guest fund manager who recommended that grant. When I saw this post, I guessed the post was probably related to that grant and to things I said, and I’ve now confirmed that.

This post does not match my memory of what happened or what I intended to communicate, so I'll clarify a few things:

  • The EA Infrastructure Fund is not CEA, and I’m just one of its (unpaid, guest) fund managers. So what I said shouldn’t be treated as “CEA’s view”. 
  • The EAIF provided this grant in response to an application the grantseekers made, rather than “commissioning” it. 
  • When evaluating this grant, I consulted an advisor from the COVID forecasting space and another from the biosecurity space. They both flagged one of the people mentioned in the title of this post as seeming maybe unwise to highlight in this documentary. 
    • But I don’t recall this having been about that person having disagreed with authorities. 
      • Instead, my notes confirm that one of the advisors solely mentioned that that person’s work hadn’t been very impactful, since it was principally used just by the EA and rationality communities for their own benefit (rather than having impact at a larger scale). 
      • And my rough memory (but I lack clear notes in this case) is that the other advisor basically thought this person’s work had made overly strong claims overly confidently and that this didn’t seem like good epistemics to highlight. (As opposed to the worry being that the person was overly divisive or controversial.)
    • I passed a summarized version of those thoughts on to the grantseekers, along with various other bits of tentative feedback/advice.
    • I didn’t make the grant conditional on excluding anyone. And if I recall correctly, I didn’t feel very confident about whether and how to feature specific people in the documentary and I explicitly communicated that I was giving various bits of input merely as input and I want the grantees to make their own decisions. 
      • (Though this post makes me think that I failed to adequately emphasize that this was just input, and that therefore in this case it may have been better to not give the input at all. I now intend to adjust my future communications in light of that.) 
  • I don’t immediately recognize the other two names in the title of this post, and couldn’t find any comments from me about those people in my main grant evaluation notes doc or a few other related docs. So I don’t know why they’re mentioned in the title or screenshot. 

[1] The grant is described in one of EAIF’s public payout reports. But it doesn’t seem productive to name the grantees here. 

(EDIT: I wrote this and hit publish before seeing Rachel also commented shortly beforehand. Her comment does not match my memory of events in a few ways additional to what I noted in this comment. I might say more on that later, but I'd guess it's not very productive to discuss this further here. Regardless, as noted in my comment, it does seem to me that in this case I failed to adequately emphasize that my input was intended just as input, and I regret that.)

Thank you, Michael - this helps me better understand what occurred from your perspective. As mentioned in my post, it had become difficult to ask for clarification regarding the issue at hand, which is why I had not mentioned the outcome to you until now, and that is one of the ways I mentioned I would love to see improvements made in communications at large. I don't have any ill will towards you.

(I've now responded via email.)

Hi, I am the person who Sapphire chatted with. I worked on the documentary discussed with Larissa Schiavo. Our grant was evaluated by EA Infrastructure Fund in August 2021. I want to be clear that I don't speak for Larissa, and she had no knowledge of my conversation with Sapphire until now.

This post caught me by surprise, Sapphire did not communicate her intent with me prior to publication. I would have rather it came out differently. However,  I agree substantially with Sapphire's position with regards to leadership communication being frustrating and secretive. I think the example of what happened around the incident alluded to does provide some ideas for directions EA organization's leaderships could take in changing  in their communications styles and the style they telegraph to others to take. I will explain this in detail, but first want to clear up some misconceptions and misinterpretations.

  • First, Larissa and I were jointly responsible for the project at the time, and now she is the sole director. I have never represented myself as "the person in charge" of the project. 
  • Second, Larissa and I were neither asked to exclude Zeynep Tufekci nor Helen Chu from our project, nor did we ever consider rescinding our requests to interview either of them as a result of the conversations that we did have with grantmakers. I will explain why I mentioned them in that text exchange later.

What did happen?

During the grantmaking process, Larissa and I were in fact asked to consider excluding Zvi Mowshowitz from being interviewed for the documentary project. All the communication we had received from EAIF so far emphasized the need for discretion, and this was one of a couple off-record requests.  Of the three reasons I referenced to Sapphire (low visibility, unclear record, lack of politesse), the third was most relevant. Zvi had been consistently vitriolic and unpleasant in his blog posts towards the CDC, FDA, and other public health entities. As CEA and other EA orgs have working relationships with those entities, our grant advisor at EAIF wanted us to mind the potential harm to CEA from association with Zvi's on-record statements via their funding of our project. After some debate between ourselves, we took this suggestion. Zvi was aware that this was the given reason for his exclusion. 

(I want to thank Zvi for helping get the project off the ground, and also for continuing to advise the project after we uninvited him from being interviewed.)

The debate between Larissa and I about ultimately stemmed from a disagreement about how seriously to take funder suggestions, and also the consequences of doing so. As a grantee, it is hard to tell the difference between mere suggestions and implicit commands based on suggestions. As the grant advisor is in a relatively powerful position, and conflict is asymmetrically costly, the payoff matrix is weighted more towards following the grant advisor's suggestions than not. It is still unclear to me whether our grant advisor was telling us "maybe not" or "definitely not", and whether they themselves were taking advice from someone who was telling them "maybe not" or "definitely not" - their payoff matrix is the same as ours, relative to people in positions of power over them. More on this in suggestions.

With regards to consequences, I thought there was more cost to taking the suggestion onboard than Larissa did. I thought that Zvi was only saying a more extreme version of what other interviewees had to say, as in late 2021 it was not exactly brave or controversial to say the FDA and CDC fucked up early pandemic response in the US, and the WHO globally. Zeynep and Helen were people who were on record saying this sort of thing quite loudly, and early, at professional risk to themselves. Would the same exclusion rules apply to them? I personally thought that including such matter was important to the story that we were trying to tell, about the motivations that inspired impactful actions, and excluding it would fail to tell the most insight-generating parts of the story. 

Larissa disagreed, and felt that a perfectly good film could still be made excluding such statements. I realized that she was right, but that one of my key personal motivations for the project was to say things like what Zvi had to say, and I would value the result a lot less without it. This explains my frustration as expressed to Sapphire with regards to what I perceived as attention to politesse rather than to impact, and the risk-aversion that this entailed. More on that in suggestions.

I eventually left the project in April 2022 when Larissa asked me to because I was depressed and distracted and thought I wasn't doing anything really valuable anymore, and recognized that I was being disrespectful to Larissa by being an absentee co-director when she still saw value in the project and wanted to complete it. I wish we parted on better terms, I am grateful to her for incredible generosity and hospitality which I have never repaid sufficiently. 

Suggestions for improvement

I want to be clear that I do not want to assign blame to EA-sphere communications norms for a value conflict between Larissa and I, or how it was handled. Where communications norms came into play was whether or not to ask our grant advisor for clarification.

All the communication we had received from EAIF so far emphasized the need for discretion, and this was one of a couple off-record requests. Larissa and I did not realize that we had interpreted our grant adviser's off-record words differently until after the meeting was over. Larissa felt it was bad form to ask for clarification, and I did not want to do so unilaterally. Different communication norms could have defused this portion of our debate. So I have a few suggestions. 

  • The first is to defuse the risk of grantees or reports appearing insubordinate by not taking suggestions that are actually meant as suggestions by giving more explicit credences on suggestions, especially those given orally. On the other hand, implicit requests should not be phrased as suggestions. I am planning on writing a separate post on this on LW. 
    • I give a 70% chance probability that this makes communication around suggestions better if implemented, and we don't all just go up one more simulacrum level. 
    • 20% this actually catches on. 
    • At any rate, something about how to telegraph suggestions versus requests should be  part of the norms around internal communications to make this more clear for both parties.
  • The second is to give grantees explicit ways to follow up on off-records conversations like the one we had with our grant advisor. If more grant advisors were aware of this issue, and could clarify that "if you have any confusion about what we discussed, please please please ask me" written explicitly in a followup email, then grantees might feel able to request clarification more easily. 
    • 90% this would have made it easier to ask for clarification. 
    • 70% asking for clarification would have helped. 
  • Thirdly, where uncertain, it would be good to delineate at what points in the process oversight is to occur. Both Larissa and I understood that EAIF (and by implication CEA) getting final say was a condition of the grant funding. It was unclear how much permission we would have to request from EAIF and the parties they worked with in order to tell this story, with or without Zvi. It would have been easier if we had known more explicitly what was wanted, rather than ultimately feel forced to choose the more risk-averse route. 
    • 20% we would have made different decisions as a result of more clarity here. Still would have made a difference.
    • 90% sure our grant advisors also weren't sure what the appropriate oversight steps would have been for this project - something that could have used further discussion. 

I think that if what happened in our case is typical, it helps to explain the culture of secrecy and risk-aversion. Because of EA's increasing proximity to external power, like major governmental entities such as the FDA and CDC, potential political conflicts become key considerations in decisionmaking. This means people interfacing with them want to be less open and less risk averse in order to minimize the damage from mistakes they might make, but their doing so ends up causing other people in EA orgs to have do the same at all levels. It is SUCH a rationalist trope to blame everything on mysterious inadequate equilibria but is what I am going to do here! I hope that we actually exchange this equilibria for a better one rather than just acknowledge it sadly. Some final points towards that goal.

Overall, I think my vision of what I'd like EA-sphere communications to be like is most similar to Oli Habryka's vision - more transparency, less party line. Some elements of that: 

  • More unscripted public discussion between respected figures in EA, rather than only after everyone has agreed. 
  • Major EA orgs find ways to publicly voice disagreements with each other and still cooperate effectively on projects. 
  • Major EA orgs reorient their strategic vision so that they do not depend on other EA orgs having positive PR. Currently, the risk of negative PR to any major org is a situation which forces cooperation between all major orgs on communications objectives. 
  • Associated with that, less focus on PR, especially damage control. Damage control fosters secrecy. 
  • More forum discussion like this.
  • More focus on the individual problems in the world outside EA-sphere, rather than meta-EA. Yes, I know I am not contributing to the solution here! 

I do not know if this is the direction which leads EA to the most success, but it is the one which I'd feel most comfortable with. I wish I'd submitted some of this to the redteaming contest. 

This is a really confusing post. I think if you are going to make an allegation, you should give a bit more context, and be a bit more specific as to what you are accusing CEA of. Do you mean Zvi Mowshowitz and Zeynep Tufekci? Both seem like well respected people? Are you sure that it wasn’t ultimately at the documentary makers discretion? Are these just off hand remarks by someone who works at CEA?

I understand wanting the impulse to bring things to light, but I have no idea reading this what is going on here.

I replied to this in a longer comment. It was in fact at our discretion, we only received a suggestion from EAIF, and only applied to Zvi. However, I think a bunch of expectations set by communications norms affected how we made our decision, which is the substance of my comment.

I'm sure unless I was just being lied to? I was talking to the film maker directly in the screenshot. We talked in person about this at length as well. I find it pretty hard to understand why CEA would want to exclude Zvi or Zeynep. But I'm pretty sure this happened. I'm aware of a lot of hard to explain behavior. but I gave this example because Im pretty sure I correctly understand what happened and can substantiate the claims.

Sorry, it’s not clear  what the screenshot even implies?

 If the film maker asked a person at CEA,Do you think X would be a good fit for the documentary” and they said “No, I don’t think so” and gave substantive reasons (“not really having a social impact beyond our circle”) that doesn’t even necessarily imply the single person didn’t want them in the documentary (could be a casual judgement), much less the institution of CEA didn’t want X in the documentary. And given the filmmaker says “might not include Zvi” presumably his inclusion was still up to them!

Did you ask them why?

My friend? Yes. CEA? No.

I dont actually think there exists a genuinely good record to exclude them.

I meant CEA. Thank you for the response.

Hey, I'd like to look into this but I'm having a hard time figuring out who might have given this kind of feedback to the documentary maker, or what part of CEA might have been advising on the project. DMing you.

Would it be a good norm that people contact organizations they plan to criticise before publishing such posts? I can only think of this as beneficial when the post is based on not easily verifiable, private information. While it is legitimate to use such information as basis for criticism, there are usually two sides to a story.

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