On being welcoming

May 2015

Note: this should probably not be the first thing you read about effective altruism. It’ll give you a pretty biased impression! If that’s you, try something from the reading list I compiled instead.

the joke in the effective altruist movement that it contains “all kinds of people–mathematicians, economists, philosophers, and computer scientists”

–Scott Alexander

We’re entrepreneurs and economists. CEOs and scientists. Students and philanthropists.

effectivealtruism.org

I’ve met exactly one person over 50 who’s active in the EA community. (It’s Peter Singer.)

I know maybe two political conservatives. Three non-philosophy liberal arts majors. One artist. One lawyer. Two journalists. One person who’s active in politics. One teacher. Maybe five people total in the 25 largest US occupations.

And I know I’m missing out because of it. Those three liberal arts majors are some of my favorite people to talk to about effective altruism–because they’re not predictable! I already know the utilitarian-computer-programmer answer to most conversations about effective altruism (being one myself). Whereas my friends who have studied history or English or social studies have read things I haven’t and thought in ways I haven’t. Absorbing their view of the world gives me new ways to think about things in ways that Utilitarian Computer Programmer #1,001 just can’t.

The numbers I listed above are pretty abysmal, but you’d think it wouldn’t be hard to improve them. For instance, about half of GiveWell’s staff have liberal arts degrees (though most of them don’t engage that much with the broader EA community). The top 25 occupations make up a third of the workforce–50 out of 150 million. So what gives? Why are we doing so abysmally at piquing the interest of anyone different from us?


Though I may be able to understand it, there’s no way I can go to a town hall meeting talking about “Utilitarians”. Somebody would thunder punch me in the throat mid-sentence.

–Facebook poster

I’m sorry to say that I don’t feel welcome at EA Global. And sadly, I didn’t feel very welcome at the EA conference last year either.

This actual question on the application to attend is one of many things that has stuck me as elitist, exclusive, and unfamiliar:

“Describe some non-technical system you’ve hacked and how you hacked it.”

–Facebook poster

Nobody is trying to make people feel unwelcome. But that’s not enough. Even if we don’t consciously exclude people, we fall into patterns of in-group jargon, we steer the conversation towards our favorite subjects, we let the newbies sit quietly in a corner at meetups. We talk about how low-socioeconomic-status people “aren’t valuable recruits” or have barbecue-themed EA meetups or have only tech CEOs and Peter Singer featured in the advertisement for our annual mega-meetup.

I emphatically don’t mean that the people who did these things were bad people with bad ideas. In fact, the problem is precisely that they weren’t. This is the kind of thing that happens by default, unless we think carefully about how we’ll be interpreted–not just by people who think like us, but by people who think very differently.

As you can tell, I’m not a philosophy student (one of the reasons I rarely post in this space).

–Facebook poster

Speaking from my own introduction to EA, at first touch the feel of “the EA community” was very exclusive and hostile, because even though I was already essentially a consequentialist and already wanted to have a high positive impact in the world, I hadn’t thought through what most of the “EAs” I was meeting had spent months or years thinking about already, and even if something made sense as soon as I heard it and considered it, I felt negatively judged for not having already thought of it just because I hadn’t happened to have previously had any prompting to consider that specific thing from any of the conditions of my life up until then.

–EA Forum poster


Okay, so what can we actually do? Here are some non-exhaustive suggestions.

Editor’s note: The comment thread stopped being useful. Further comments on this post will be deleted with extreme prejudice.

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Anonymous

a) liberal arts majors include computer science

b) make your blog more welcoming. What percent of the population knows what a convex combination is?

c) people tend to have homogeneous friends. you need a different technique to add diversity to your meetings

d) non-philosophy liberal arts majors are still not that different than you. they are probably rich and white also.


Ben

Anon (c,d): I know, but you have to start somewhere. Do you have other suggestions? I’m all ears, these were just the ones that occurred to me.


Ben

And for the record, one of them is working-class! ;-) (But again, that example is there to start small, not because I think being welcoming ends with liberal-arts majors.)


Tom Ash

What sort of topics do you (or anyone) find that people new to and unfamiliar with EA (particularly with different backgrounds) find interesting, at meetups and elsewhere?


Julia Wise

Tom - charity interventions. I’ve found people are pretty interested in how charities like Give Directly and Development Media International actually work. Some interesting things about them - how do you pick people in a village that are really poor? How do you write a radio jingle that persuades people to sleep under a bednet? Is it more effective to test which kids need deworming or just treat everyone?


Anonymous

I think some of this might have to do with the career advice that is commonly given out. I felt the need to morph my abilities into an “EA

approved” area when I first joined in order to feel like I was legitimately contributing. In reality, EA is probably overlooking some career areas due to the streetlight effect (there, I squeezed in some jargon :) .

It’s almost to the point where I think career advice should only be given through 1 on 1 sessions, where the adviser can carefully consider the skillset of the advisee along with the context they’re coming from.


Anonymous

I think this is a great post, but find it ironic that you start with a quote from one of the least welcoming people I’ve encountered in the movement. Being a woman I find it pretty alienating to read posts that talk about ‘the already thin line between feminism and literally being Voldemort’, and the more often I see his vitriolic posts about feminism being endorsed by people in EA the more I question whether I can stay in the movement.


Anon 1

To expand on what I wrote above, I am especially concerned about accidentally convincing an outlier person into earning to give. By focusing too much on maximizing individual impact, we might be reducing group impact substantially.

Whenever I read biographies of successful people, I’m always struck with how fragile their path was at certain points. Considering an earning to give counterfactual might increase a person’s risk aversion at just the wrong time. Advisers can help with this, but I’m not certain about their ability to recognize outliers.


Ben

@Anon:

I think this is a great post, but find it ironic that you start with a quote from one of the least welcoming people I’ve encountered in the movement.

Sorry about that! Scott was actually referencing a post I wrote which as far as I know was when the “old joke” first made it onto the Internet, but I didn’t want to quote myself. I didn’t realize that quoting that throwaway line would come off as endorsing the whole post (which I don’t)! I’ll remove the link, at least.

@Other anon: you’re definitely onto something with the career advice thing. On the other hand, I don’t think hearing about earning to give increases people’s risk aversion so much as gives them an outlet for it. The real reason for the risk aversion is that it’s higher-status to be a moderately successful EtGer than to try and fail at a bunch of ambitious things. And that needs a deeper fix (and a deeper understanding of what makes people likely to be outlierish).

Keep in mind also that when you think about how to produce more outliers, you also need to include the people who fail to become outliers, which is hard because of survivorship bias. I think that at least in some cases there are enough failed outlier-attempts that the costs outweigh the benefits of having that one person actually achieve outlier status.


Anonymous 3

OP: I know maybe two political conservatives.

Commenter: the more often I see his vitriolic posts about feminism being endorsed by people in EA the more I question whether I can stay in the movement.

This seems to highlight a problem…


Ben

@Anon 3: I actually wouldn’t describe Scott as conservative. Also, a number of political conservatives (probably the majority of those who would be interested in EA) don’t think the line between feminism and literally being Voldemort is that thin.


Anon 1

@Ben: Yeah you’re right risk aversion would stay constant. And I guess the tradeoff isn’t between earning to give and being an outlier, as many people earning to give are trying to be outlier entrepreneurs! But that tradeoff definitely exists, and by increasing the return of the lower risk option you’d expect more people to go that route if their risk aversion is held constant (especially if taking risks isn’t given the same respect premium that society often gives). Whether or not this is a good thing depends on the industry/field of study, and the cost of the failed outliers as you note. Maybe the benefits outweigh the costs in high growth industries or new academic fields? Perhaps this has been discussed elsewhere, and 80k probably thought a lot about it, I just haven’t read anything specifically discussing this.

I just have a hard time believing it will lead to better outcomes if EAs take fewer risks than the general population, especially when I think the general population doesn’t take enough risks already due to low R&D funding.


Anonymous 3

The claim isn’t that Scott is conservative (I agree that he isn’t).

The point is that when you have people in the already overwhelmingly liberal/progressive EA community threatening to leave because some people in the community endorse posts by someone like Scott, this suggests a none-too-accepting attitude towards conservatives, and something of an incompatibility between having more of a political mix and satisfying people like the above commenter that EA is sufficiently uniformly pro-feminist.

I have a couple of responses to the suggestion that a number/a majority of conservatives wouldn’t be put off by this strong rejection of any suggestions of antifeminism.

-Firstly, it doesn’t seem adequate to what attitudes to feminism are like in the real world. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest vary widespread hostility towards “feminism” among women, let along conservatives. If this strikes you as other than obvious, it may be you just live in a progressive bubble.

-Secondly, doesn’t it strike you as suspicious that you’re saying “probably the majority of those [conservatives] who would be interested in EA”? Isn’t the assumption that conservatives who aren’t pro-feminist won’t be interested in EA anyway exactly the kind of thing that would exclude people with different political views? Is the idea that we’re totally open to conservatives, just so long as they’re pro-feminist conservatives? That doesn’t seem that open, and I think it’s optimistic to describe this as really being open to conservatives.

-Thirdly, the original anon and you both quote Scott’s quip about blurring “the line between feminism and literally being Voldemort”from Scott’s post criticising bullying by feminist activists (and plainly not criticising rights for women or anything of the sort). Taken out of context the phrase suggests someone who thinks that all the positive social changes we might associate with feminism (votes for women, women not consigned to the kitchen, opposition to sexual harassment etc.) are all bad. But it’s hard to think of any concrete feminist positions Scott could actually be impugned for rejecting. So the suggestion that he’s some kind of beyond the pale hardliner, even by the standards of conservatives, doesn’t seem plausible to me.

It just seems to me like if Scott is the edge of the EA Overton window, such that people threaten to walk out if people in the community express support for his posts, then I don’t think we can really wonder about whether we’re welcoming to conservatives or people with diverse views.


Ben

@Anonymous 3: I didn’t say I thought that most conservatives were 100% ok with all of feminism. I said I thought most conservatives would acknowledge a line between feminism and literally being Voldemort–or more broadly, would be more able to have a calm and levelheaded discussion about feminism than Scott is. I think this is a pretty reasonable guess; Scott is unusually bad at having such calm discussions and I personally know a number of people who are better than he is at raising similar points. Of course, part of this is due to my filter bubble filtering for calm and levelheaded people, but–as is not true for political ideology–being able to not gratuitously piss people off is kind of important for being part of a community, and seems like the kind of thing I’d be relatively ok filtering people for.

I don’t think Scott’s typical post is at the edge of the Overton window, but maybe one in every ten of his posts he ends up getting really pissed off and going wide of the mark, and I think it’s fair for people to complain about this when it happens. I’m less certain about what to do if people feel like they have to leave because other folks approve of things that Scott says that aren’t vitriolic over-generalizations. (I think you interpreted the original anon as falling into this category–i.e., being opposed to all expressions of disagreement with feminism–and I interpreted them more narrowly as their biggest issue being Scott being a jerk about it. I’m not sure which interpretation is right.) I agree with you that it would be pretty bad for ideological diversity if we had to censor polite expressions of disagreement or people would leave, so I’m hoping that the more narrow interpretation is correct, and that the solution I took above–reassuring people that I don’t endorse the vitriolic over-generalizations–is ok.


Anonymous 3

OK, it seems like unfortunately we have an intractable factual disagreement. You say “Scott is unusually bad at having such calm discussions.”I think, and the people I speak to about him think, even by the standards of EAs, Scott is an exemplar of charitable discussion. Certainly compared to the prominent EAs to criticise him in public, he’s several leagues above for calm reasonableness.

Point of clarification re. “I think you interpreted the original anon as falling into this category—i.e., being opposed to all expressions of disagreement with feminism—and I interpreted them more narrowly as their biggest issue being Scott being a jerk about it.”

I’ve actually observed cases (using identical phrasing and examples to the other ‘Anon’) objecting to other, completely unrelated, not-about-social-justice posts by Scott being endorsed, because they’re by Scott who ostensibly once said feminism was like Voldemort.

“I don’t think Scott’s typical post is at the edge of the Overton window, but maybe one in every ten of his posts he ends up getting really pissed off and going wide of the mark, and I think it’s fair for people to complain about this when it happens.”

People can “complain” if this means engage in first-order political disagreement. If it means threaten to leave the community if some people endorse some of Scott’s posts (even the most ‘extreme’ ones) even while the community is overwhelmingly progressive, then I think this exemplifies the problem perfectly. It’s also hard to imagine this policy surviving a reversal/symmetry test: no-one would countenance a similar response to feminist articles which address “conservatives” in as “jerky” a way as Scott does (if we did, I feel like we might most political discourse might fail the test).

(Except for what it’s worth, I doubt it would even come up, because if someone wrote a post criticising Men’s Rights Activists for numerous examples of bullying innocent women under cover of only criticising “Nice Girls (TM)”, and said “the people who do this are blurring the already rather thin line between “Men’s Rights Activism” and “literally Voldemort” I doubt anyone would fail to understand that this was calling out bullying that travels under the banner “Men’s Rights Activism.”)


Anon 2

Ben, your interpretation of my comment is correct: my reaction is specifically to the posts where Scott is (confessedly and intentionally [eg “This topic is personally enraging to me and I don’t promise I can treat it fairly”]) vitriolic about feminists and feminism.

Anon 3 I find it curious how many people try to defend Scott’s ‘Voldemort’ claim by asserting it was about specific narrow group within feminism and not the movement or philosophy in general, when in that very article he devotes an entire section to explaining why his allegations cover all mainstream feminism and the quote itself in full is alleging that specific narrow group within feminism‘who talk about “Nice Guys” – and the people who enable them, praise them, and link to them – are blurring the already rather thin line between “feminism” and “literally Voldemort”.’ That quote in full in no way distances his Voldemort description from feminism in general.

Personally I see no reason why the response to such an article should pass a reversal test when the whole point of the discourse of feminism is continuing structural inequality. (See also: reverse racism is not a thing).

Finally, Anon 3, I while I acknowledge that not having frequent hostility towards “feminism” (your scare quotes) or overt misogyny in my everyday life does represent something of a ‘bubble’, you may need to examine the bubble of ‘not being a woman on the internet’. Looking at how women - when they are identified as such in mixed groups - are frequently treated in internet based discussion might give you some insight into why women might choose not to interact in a place where Scott’s standard of discourse about feminism is enough to make him”an exemplar of charitable discussion.”

My statement that I don’t want to be part of such a community is not ‘threat’: it is an honest response to Ben’s sincere post, and a consideration that is becoming more and more of a concern to the women I know participating in the online EA community. Strange how concerns for a diversity of political ideology are so strong that we apparently have to accept people being jerks about other human beings, but not strong enough that we should care why there are so few women around.


Aceso Under Glass

Another suggestion: deemphasize money. Every non-programmer who has been to the Seattle meetings has told me they felt alienated by the emphasis on earning to give and choosing charities, because they could afford to donate so little. We’re still figuring out what to add in, but I’ve been told even the attempts are appreciated.


Anonymous 4

One thing that this discussion has shown is that any reputation of being “evenhanded” or “levelheaded” or “charitable” or “welcoming” is ultimately unstable. Eventually you will piss someone off, just by chance if nothing else, and at that point you will be permanently labeled as a member of their political outgroup.

The experience here of seeing Scott Alexander, of all people, labeled as “vitriolic”, with the hypothesis of his being a conservative discussed as if under serious consideration, and earnestly cited as one of the “least welcoming people” in some – whatever – movement, is nothing short of surreal.

Ben, I can only, sadly, predict that this will happen to you, too, some day. No matter how welcoming you try to be, eventually someone is going to write about you as if it went without saying that you were an ogre. I don’t even know what “side” of what dispute it will be – I only know that it will happen (if, indeed, it hasn’t already).

(This is not to say that I don’t encourage you – or Scott – to keep trying as hard as you can.)


Peace Out Anon

Here is Scott on what he thinks of one of his own feminist rants:

Some of the things [my post] said needed to be said, but I probably didn’t say them in the most productive way and probably am not the person who can do so.

There’s a really unfortunate dynamic where online discussions tend to laud attention on the most vitriolic participants, regardless of which side they’re on. Insofar as Scott has highlighted vitriolic feminists as representative of mainstream feminist thought, I think it’s likely that he’s fallen prey to this phenomenon. There’s lots of thoughtful feminist writing out there, e.g. here or here, but it typically doesn’t get as much attention as the vitriol. And there’s lots of thoughtful writing on Scott’s blog, but it typically doesn’t get as much attention as the vitriol either. (Case in point: the sentence quoted above by an anon is probably one of the more vitriolic things he’s said. I wouldn’t be surprised if he would disclaim it if you brought it up with him in person; his former girlfriend is a nonbinary feminist. I recommend his top posts page for a representative sample of his writing–most is really good stuff that’s not about feminism.)

Given that online discussions about feminism seem to frequently become dysfunctional, I’m in favor of preferentially discussing feminism in person, if EAs feel it needs to be discussed at all. I don’t think this issue needs to be an intransigent one. All the evidence I’ve seen indicates that talking about these issues in person goes dramatically better.

Speaking more broadly, I think we’ve got room for a wide range of political orientations in the EA movement. There used to be a norm that you don’t discuss religion or politics in polite company, and that might be a good rule of thumb for the EA movement. If we ever do some kind of “effective politics” thing, getting a bunch of informed and reflective people from a broad range of political orientations in the same room to talk to each other and find issues no one is paying attention to seems like the way to go.


Ben

@Anon 4: Nobody in this discussion actually thought Scott was a conservative, or that he was vitriolic in general as a person, only occasionally while talking about feminism. Meanwhile, as Peace Out Anon points out, Scott sometimes agrees that his posts on feminism cross a line. So I’m not sure why you think this discussion is surreal. (I agree with your general point that it’s probably impossible to be welcoming to everyone though.)

@Peace Out Anon: Thanks! Deferring those discussions to in-person is a great idea when that can happen (although sometimes the people who are available to talk in-person aren’t the people who most need to talk about it, unfortunately).


Anonymous 5

Ben, you claim that “Scott is unusually bad at having such calm discussions and I personally know a number of people who are better than he is at raising similar points.”

This is pretty much the opposite of what I think. Indeed, I think Scott is one of the most calm and reasonable people in the EA community; he exhibits a level of charitableness I rarely see in other people’s work.

I would also like to know who is better at raising similar points; I find Scott’s most polarizing posts (as well as his regular ones) to consistently be some of the most superb and insightful on the internet, and I seriously doubt this is an isolated judgment; Scott is increasingly regarded by many people I’ve encountered as one of the most effective communicators around or indeed the most effective.

I suspect part of the reason why his posts provoke hostility is precisely because they are spot-on. I find it puzzling it’s taken for granted that he goes “wide of the mark” in these instances, rather than it being the case that he may simply be right.

Later, you say that “maybe one in every ten of his posts he ends up getting really pissed off and going wide of the mark, and I think it’s fair for people to complain about this when it happens.”

I think I just flatly disagree with this characterization, as stated above. Scott has become for me, and many I have spoken to, a sanity check against the threat of a groupthink in the EA community that more or less necessitates specific ideological outlooks on various movements and issues.

Indeed, not only is Scott not unwelcoming from my perspective, he is a sort of lifeline that keeps me tethered to and hopeful for the EA community. Many of those who become so routinely upset about Scott’s posts are ironically precisely those people I find the least welcoming, insofar as they openly express a hostility towards a diversity of thought about various issues tangential to the movement. I do not want to be part of a group that holds membership hostage on ideological grounds in ways that undermine the effectiveness of the movement.

Finally, you say that “Meanwhile, as Peace Out Anon points out, Scott sometimes agrees that his posts on feminism cross a line.”

I don’t know if I trust Scott’s motivation for making these remarks after the fact as accurate reflections; he may simply feel bad about the number of people he upsets. I think I would, and might have moments of regret even if I do endorse what I initially stated. In spite of Scott’s own remarks, which strike me more as expressions of humility rather than optimally calibrated evaluations of his own accuracy, I do find the remarks in this comment section surreal. Scott has a leg up on virtually everyone I know for charitableness and welcomingness. Scott makes me feel validated, given the host of medical and personal conditions I have dealt with, whereas the communities he’s been critical of have consistently been deeply unwelcoming to me, and even actively hostile.


Elissa Fleming

Can I just say that what makes me feel most inclined to give up on the EA community is the amount of time we’ve recently spent on questions like “Social justice feminism: Best Thing or Worst Thing?” and even better “Scott Alexander: Scary Antifeminist or Precious Paragon?”Like, I am sincerely not sure this is a fixable problem.


Kelsey Piper

I agree with Elissa, though I definitely won’t give up on EA, and I feel very alienated by any community that doesn’t welcome conservative members and that characterizes anti-feminism as anti-woman.


Ben

Thanks for pointing out that pattern, Elissa. It does seem like there’s a fair amount of strawmanning/misinterpretation going on here (on many sides), so the thread has probably outlived its usefulness.

I think I’m going to take to heart Peace Out Anon’s suggestion to prefer talking about these things in person, and delete any subsequent comments.