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Added (11th Sept): Nonlinear have commented that they intend to write a response, have written a short follow-up, and claim that they dispute 85 claims in this post. I'll link here to that if-and-when it's published.

Added (11th Sept): One of the former employees, Chloe, has written a lengthy comment personally detailing some of her experiences working at Nonlinear and the aftermath.

Added (12th Sept): I've made 3 relatively minor edits to the post. I'm keeping a list of all edits at the bottom of the post, so if you've read the post already, you can just go to the end to see the edits.

Added (15th Sept): I've written a follow-up post saying that I've finished working on this investigation and do not intend to work more on it in the future. The follow-up also has a bunch of reflections on what led up to this post.

Added (12th Dec): Nonlinear has written a lengthy reply, which you can read here.


Epistemic status: Once I started actively looking into things, much of my information in the post below came about by a search for negative information about the Nonlinear cofounders, not from a search to give a balanced picture of its overall costs and benefits. I think standard update rules suggest not that you ignore the information, but you think about how bad you expect the information would be if I selected for the worst, credible info I could share, and then update based on how much worse (or better) it is than you expect I could produce. (See section 5 of this post about Mistakes with Conservation of Expected Evidence for more on this.) This seems like a worthwhile exercise for at least non-zero people to do in the comments before reading on. (You can condition on me finding enough to be worth sharing, but also note that I think I have a relatively low bar for publicly sharing critical info about folks in the EA/x-risk/rationalist/etc ecosystem.)

tl;dr: If you want my important updates quickly summarized in four claims-plus-probabilities, jump to the section near the bottom titled "Summary of My Epistemic State".


When I used to manage the Lightcone Offices, I spent a fair amount of time and effort on gatekeeping — processing applications from people in the EA/x-risk/rationalist ecosystem to visit and work from the offices, and making decisions. Typically this would involve reading some of their public writings, and reaching out to a couple of their references that I trusted and asking for information about them. A lot of the people I reached out to were surprisingly great at giving honest references about their experiences with someone and sharing what they thought about someone.

One time, Kat Woods and Drew Spartz from Nonlinear applied to visit. I didn't know them or their work well, except from a few brief interactions that Kat Woods seems high-energy, and to have a more optimistic outlook on life and work than most people I encounter.

I reached out to some references Kat listed, which were positive to strongly positive. However I also got a strongly negative reference — someone else who I informed about the decision told me they knew former employees who felt taken advantage of around things like salary. However the former employees reportedly didn't want to come forward due to fear of retaliation and generally wanting to get away from the whole thing, and the reports felt very vague and hard for me to concretely visualize, but nonetheless the person strongly recommended against inviting Kat and Drew.

I didn't feel like this was a strong enough reason to bar someone from a space — or rather, I did, but vague anonymous descriptions of very bad behavior being sufficient to ban someone is a system that can be straightforwardly abused, so I don't want to use such a system. Furthermore, I was interested in getting my own read on Kat Woods from a short visit — she had only asked to visit for a week. So I accepted, though I informed her that this weighed on my mind. (This is a link to the decision email I sent to her.)

(After making that decision I was also linked to this ominous yet still vague EA Forum thread, that includes a former coworker of Kat Woods saying they did not like working with her, more comments like the one I received above, and links to a lot of strongly negative Glassdoor reviews for Nonlinear Cofounder Emerson Spartz's former company “Dose”. Note that more than half of the negative reviews are for the company after Emerson sold it, but this is a concerning one from 2015 (while Emerson Spartz was CEO/Cofounder): "All of these super positive reviews are being commissioned by upper management. That is the first thing you should know about Spartz, and I think that gives a pretty good idea of the company's priorities… care more about the people who are working for you and less about your public image". A 2017 review says "The culture is toxic with a lot of cliques, internal conflict, and finger pointing." There are also far worse reviews about a hellish work place which are very worrying, but they’re from the period after Emerson’s LinkedIn says he left, so I’m not sure to what extent he is responsible he is for them.)

On the first day of her visit, another person in the office privately reached out to me saying they were extremely concerned about having Kat and Drew in the office, and that they knew two employees who had had terrible experiences working with them. They wrote (and we later discussed it more):

Their company Nonlinear has a history of illegal and unethical behavior, where they will attract young and naive people to come work for them, and subject them to inhumane working conditions when they arrive, fail to pay them what was promised, and ask them to do illegal things as a part of their internship. I personally know two people who went through this, and they are scared to speak out due to the threat of reprisal, specifically by Kat Woods and Emerson Spartz.

This sparked (for me) a 100-200 hour investigation where I interviewed 10-15 people who interacted or worked with Nonlinear, read many written documents and tried to piece together some of what had happened.

My takeaway is that indeed their two in-person employees had quite horrendous experiences working with Nonlinear, and that Emerson Spartz and Kat Woods are significantly responsible both for the harmful dynamics and for the employees’ silence afterwards. Over the course of investigating Nonlinear I came to believe that the former employees there had no legal employment, tiny pay, a lot of isolation due to travel, had implicit and explicit threats of retaliation made if they quit or spoke out negatively about Nonlinear, simultaneously received a lot of (in my opinion often hollow) words of affection and claims of familial and romantic love, experienced many further unpleasant or dangerous experiences that they wouldn’t have if they hadn’t worked for Nonlinear, and needed several months to recover with friends and family afterwards before they felt able to return to work.

(Note that I don’t think the pay situation as-described in the above quoted text was entirely accurate, I think it was very small — $1k/month — and employees implicitly expected they would get more than they did, but there was mostly not salary ‘promised’ that didn’t get given out.)

After first hearing from them about their experiences, I still felt unsure about what was true — I didn’t know much about the Nonlinear cofounders, and I didn’t know which claims about the social dynamics I could be confident of. To get more context, I spent about 30+ hours on calls with 10-15 different people who had some professional dealings with at least one of Kat, Emerson and Drew, trying to build up a picture of the people and the org, and this helped me a lot in building my own sense of them by seeing what was common to many people’s experiences. I talked to many people who interacted with Emerson and Kat who had many active ethical concerns about them and strongly negative opinions, and I also had a 3-hour conversation with the Nonlinear cofounders about these concerns, and I now feel a lot more confident about a number of dynamics that the employees reported.

For most of these conversations I offered strict confidentiality, but (with the ex-employees’ consent) I’ve here written down some of the things I learned.

In this post I do not plan to name most of the people I talked to, but two former employees I will call “Alice” and “Chloe”. I think the people involved mostly want to put this time in their life behind them and I would encourage folks to respect their privacy, not name them online, and not talk to them about it unless you’re already good friends with them.

Conversation with Kat on March 7th, 2023

Returning to my initial experience: on the Tuesday of their visit, I still wasn’t informed about who the people were or any details of what happened, but I found an opportunity to chat with Kat over lunch.

After catching up for ~15 mins, I indicated that I'd be interested in talking about the concerns I raised in my email, and we talked in a private room for 30-40 mins. As soon as we sat down, Kat launched straight into stories about two former employees of hers, telling me repeatedly not to trust one of the employees (“Alice”), that she has a terrible relationship with truth, that she's dangerous, and that she’s a reputational risk to the community. She said the other employee ("Chloe") was “fine”.

Kat Woods also told me that she expected to have a policy with her employees of “I don’t say bad things about you, you don’t say bad things about me”. I am strongly against this kind of policy on principle (as I told her then). This and other details raised further red flags to me (i.e. the salary policy) and I wanted to understand what happened.

Here’s an overview of what she told me:

  • When they worked at Nonlinear, Alice and Chloe had expenses covered (room, board, food) and Chloe also got a monthly bonus of $1k/month.
  • Alice and Chloe lived in the same house as Kat, Emerson and Drew. Kat said that she has decided to not live with her employees going forward. 
  • She said that Alice, who incubated their own project (here is a description of the incubation program on Nonlinear’s site), was able to set their own salary, and that Alice almost never talked to her (Kat) or her other boss (Emerson) about her salary.
  • Kat doesn’t trust Alice to tell the truth, and that Alice has a history of “catastrophic misunderstandings”.
  • Kat told me that Alice was unclear about the terms of the incubation, and said that Alice should have checked in with Kat in order to avoid this miscommunication.
  • Kat suggested that Alice may have quit in substantial part due to Kat missing a check-in call over Zoom toward the end.
  • Kat said that she hoped Alice would go by the principle of “I don’t say bad things about you, you don’t say bad things about me” but that the employee wasn’t holding up her end and was spreading negative things about Kat/Nonlinear.
  • Kat said she gives negative references for Alice, advises people “don't hire her” and not to fund her, and “she’s really dangerous for the community”.
  • She said she didn’t have these issues with her other employee Chloe, she said she was “fine, just miscast” for her role of “assistant / operations manager”, which is what led to her quitting. Kat said Chloe was pretty skilled but did a lot of menial labor tasks for Kat that she didn’t enjoy.
  • The one negative thing she said about Chloe was that she was being paid the equivalent of $75k[1] per year (only $1k/month, the rest via room and board), but that at one point she asked for $75k on top of all expenses being paid and that was out of the question.[2]

A High-Level Overview of The Employees’ Experience with Nonlinear

Background

The core Nonlinear staff are Emerson Spartz, Kat Woods, and Drew Spartz. 

Kat Woods has been in the EA ecosystem for at least 10 years, cofounding Charity Science in 2013 and working there until 2019. After a year at Charity Entrepreneurship, in 2021 she cofounded Nonlinear with Emerson Spartz, where she has worked for 2.5 years.

Nonlinear has received $599,000 from the Survival and Flourishing Fund in the first half of 2022, and $15,000 from Open Philanthropy in January 2022.

Emerson primarily funds the project through his personal wealth from his previous company Dose and from selling Mugglenet.com (which he founded). Emerson and Kat are romantic partners, and Emerson and Drew are brothers. They all live in the same house and travel across the world together, jumping from AirBnb to AirBnb once or twice per month. The staff they hire are either remote, or live in the house with them.

My current understanding is that they’ve had around ~4 remote interns, 1 remote employee, and 2 in-person employees (Alice and Chloe). Alice was the only person to go through their incubator program.

Nonlinear tried to have a fairly high-commitment culture where the long-term staff are involved very closely with the core family unit, both personally and professionally. However they were given exceedingly little financial independence, and a number of the social dynamics involved seem really risky to me.

Alice and Chloe

Alice travelled with Nonlinear from November 2021 to June 2022 and started working for the org from around February, and Chloe worked there from January 2022 to July 2022. After talking with them both, I learned the following:

  • Neither were legally employed by the non-profit at any point.
  • Chloe’s and Alice’s finances (along with Kat's and Drew's) all came directly from Emerson's personal funds (not from the non-profit). This left them having to get permission for their personal purchases, and they were not able to live apart from the family unit while they worked with them, and they report feeling very socially and financially dependent on the family during the time they worked there.
  • Chloe’s salary was verbally agreed to come out to around $75k/year. However, she was only paid $1k/month, and otherwise had many basic things compensated i.e. rent, groceries, travel. This was supposed to make traveling together easier, and supposed to come out to the same salary level. While Emerson did compensate Alice and Chloe with food and board and travel, Chloe does not believe that she was compensated to an amount equivalent to the salary discussed, and I believe no accounting was done for either Alice or Chloe to ensure that any salary matched up. (I’ve done some spot-checks of the costs of their AirBnbs and travel, and Alice/Chloe’s epistemic state seems pretty reasonable to me.)
  • Alice joined as the sole person in their incubation program. She moved in with them after meeting Nonlinear at EAG and having a ~4 hour conversation there with Emerson, plus a second Zoom call with Kat. Initially while traveling with them she continued her previous job remotely, but was encouraged to quit and work on an incubated org, and after 2 months she quit her job and started working on projects with Nonlinear. Over the 8 months she was there Alice claims she received no salary for the first 5 months, then (roughly) $1k/month salary for 2 months, and then after she quit she received a ~$6k one-off salary payment (from the funds allocated for her incubated organization). She also had a substantial number of emergency health issues covered.[3]
  • Salary negotiations were consistently a major stressor for Alice’s entire time at Nonlinear. Over her time there she spent through all of her financial runway, and spent a significant portion of her last few months there financially in the red (having more bills and medical expenses than the money in her bank account) in part due to waiting on salary payments from Nonlinear. She eventually quit due to a combination of running exceedingly low on personal funds and wanting financial independence from Nonlinear, and as she quit she gave Nonlinear (on their request) full ownership of the organization that she had otherwise finished incubating.
  • From talking with both Alice and Nonlinear, it turned out that by the end of Alice’s time working there, since the end of February Kat Woods had thought of Alice as an employee that she managed, but that Emerson had not thought of Alice as an employee, primarily just someone who was traveling with them and collaborating because she wanted to, and that the $1k/month plus other compensation was a generous gift.
  • Alice and Chloe reported that Kat, Emerson, and Drew created an environment in which being a valuable member of Nonlinear included being entrepreneurial and creative in problem-solving — in practice this often meant getting around standard social rules to get what you wanted was strongly encouraged, including getting someone’s favorite table at a restaurant by pressuring the staff, and finding loopholes in laws pertaining to their work. This also applied internally to the organization. Alice and Chloe report being pressured into or convinced to take multiple actions that they seriously regretted whilst working for Nonlinear, such as becoming very financially dependent on Emerson, quitting being vegan, and driving without a license in a foreign country for many months. (To be clear I’m not saying that these laws are good and that breaking them is bad, I’m saying that it sounds to me from their reports like they were convinced to take actions that could have had severe personal downsides such as jail time in a foreign country, and that these are actions that they confidently believe they would not have taken had it not been due to the strong pressures they felt from the Nonlinear cofounders and the adversarial social environment internal to the company.) I’ll describe these events in more detail below.
  • They both report taking multiple months to recover after ending ties with Nonlinear, before they felt able to work again, and both describe working there as one of the worst experiences of their lives.
  • They both report being actively concerned about professional and personal retaliation from Nonlinear for speaking to me, and told me stories and showed me some texts that led me to believe that was a very credible concern.

An assortment of reported experiences

There are a lot of parts of their experiences at Nonlinear that these two staff found deeply unpleasant and hurtful. I will summarize a number of them below.

I think many of the things that happened are warning flags, I also think that there are some red lines, I’ll discuss my thoughts on which are the red lines in my takeaways at the bottom of this post.

My Level of Trust in These Reports

Most of the dynamics were described to me as accurate by multiple different people (low pay, no legal structure, isolation, some elements of social manipulation, intimidation), leading me to have high confidence in them, and Nonlinear themselves confirmed various parts of these accounts.

People whose word I would meaningfully update on about this sort of thing have vouched for Chloe’s word as reliable.

The Nonlinear staff and a small number of other people who visited during Alice and Chloe’s employment have strongly questioned Alice’s trustworthiness and suggested she has told outright lies. Nonlinear showed me texts where people who had spoken with Alice came away with the impression that she was paid $0 or $500, which is inaccurate (she was paid ~$8k on net, as she told me). 

That said, I personally found Alice very willing and ready to share primary sources with me upon request (texts, bank info, etc), so I don’t believe her to be acting in bad faith.

In my first conversation with her, Kat claimed that Alice had many catastrophic miscommunications, but that Chloe was (quote) “fine”. In general nobody questioned Chloe’s word and broadly the people who told me they questioned Alice’s word said they trusted Chloe’s.

Personally I found all of their fears of retaliation to be genuine and earnest, and in my opinion justified.

Why I’m sharing these

I do have a strong heuristic that says consenting adults can agree to all sorts of things that eventually hurt them (i.e. in accepting these jobs), even if I paternalistically might think I could have prevented them from hurting themselves. That said, I see clear reasons to think that Kat and Emerson intimidated these people into accepting some of the actions or dynamics that hurt them, so some parts do not seem obviously consensual to me.

Separate from that, I think it’s good for other people to know what they’re getting into, so I think sharing this info is good because it is relevant for many people who have any likelihood of working with Nonlinear. And most importantly to me, I especially want to do it because it seems to me that Nonlinear has tried to prevent this negative information from being shared, so I am erring strongly on the side of sharing things.

(One of the employees also wanted to say something about why she contributed to this post, and I've put it in a footnote here.[4])

Highly dependent finances and social environment

Everyone lived in the same house. Emerson and Kat would share a room, and the others would make do with what else was available, often sharing bedrooms.

Nonlinear primarily moved around countries where they typically knew no locals and the employees regularly had nobody to interact with other than the cofounders, and employees report that they were denied requests to live in a separate AirBnb from the cofounders.

Alice and Chloe report that they were advised not to spend time with ‘low value people’, including their families, romantic partners, and anyone local to where they were staying, with the exception of guests/visitors that Nonlinear invited. Alice and Chloe report this made them very socially dependent on Kat/Emerson/Drew and otherwise very isolated.

The employees were very unclear on the boundaries of what would and wouldn’t be paid for by Nonlinear. For instance, Alice and Chloe report that they once spent several days driving around Puerto Rico looking for cheaper medical care for one of them before presenting it to senior staff, as they didn’t know whether medical care would be covered, so they wanted to make sure that it was as cheap as possible to increase the chance of senior staff saying yes.

The financial situation is complicated and messy. This is in large-part due to them doing very little accounting. In summary Alice spent a lot of her last 2 months with less than €1000 in her bank account, sometimes having to phone Emerson for immediate transfers to be able to cover medical costs when she was visiting doctors. At the time of her quitting she had €700 in her account, which was not enough to cover her bills at the end of the month, and left her quite scared. Though to be clear she was paid back ~€2900 of her outstanding salary by Nonlinear within a week, in part due to her strongly requesting it. (The relevant thing here is the extremely high level of financial dependence and wealth disparity, but Alice does not claim that Nonlinear failed to pay them.)

One of the central reasons Alice says that she stayed on this long was because she was expecting financial independence with the launch of her incubated project that had $100k allocated to it (fundraised from FTX). In her final month there Kat informed her that while she would work quite independently, they would keep the money in the Nonlinear bank account and she would ask for it, meaning she wouldn’t have the financial independence from them that she had been expecting, and learning this was what caused Alice to quit.

One of the employees interviewed Kat about her productivity advice, and shared notes from this interview with me. The employee writes:

During the interview, Kat openly admitted to not being productive but shared that she still appeared to be productive because she gets others to do work for her. She relies on volunteers who are willing to do free work for her, which is her top productivity advice.

The employees report that some interns later gave strongly negative feedback on working unpaid, and so Kat decided that she would no longer have interns at all.

Severe downsides threatened if the working relationship didn’t work out

In a conversation between Emerson Spartz and one of the employees, the employee asked for advice for a friend that wanted to find another job while being employed, without letting their current employer know about their decision to leave yet. Emerson reportedly immediately stated that he now has to update towards considering that the said employee herself is considering leaving Nonlinear. He went on to tell her that he gets mad at his employees who leave his company for other jobs that are equally good or less good; he said he understands if employees leave for clearly better opportunities. The employee reports that this led them to be very afraid of leaving the job, both because of the way Emerson made the update on thinking the employee is now trying to leave, as well as the notion of Emerson being retaliative towards employees that leave for “bad reasons”.

For background context on Emerson’s business philosophy: Alice quotes Emerson advising the following indicator of work progress: "How much value are you able to extract from others in a short amount of time?"[5] Another person who visited described Emerson to me as “always trying to use all of his bargaining power”. Chloe told me that, when she was negotiating salaries with external partners on behalf of Nonlinear, Emerson advised her when negotiating salaries, to offer "the lowest number you can get away with".

Many different people reported that Emerson Spartz would boast about his business negotiations tactics to employees and visitors. He would encourage his employees to read many books on strategy and influence. When they read the book The 48 Laws of Power he would give examples of him following the “laws” in his past business practices.

One story that he told to both employees and visitors was about his intimidation tactics when involved in a conflict with a former teenage mentee of his, Adorian Deck. 

(For context on the conflict, here’s links to articles written about it at the time: Hollywood ReporterJacksonvilleTechnology & Marketing Law Blog, and Emerson Spartz’s Tumblr. Plus here is the Legal Contract they signed that Deck later sued to undo.)

In brief, Adorian Deck was a 16 year-old who (in 2009) made a Twitter account called “OMGFacts” that quickly grew to having 300,000+ followers. Emerson reached out to build companies under the brand, and agreed to a deal with Adorian. Less than a year later Adorian wanted out of the deal, claiming that Emerson had made over $100k of profits and he’d only seen $100, and sued to end the deal. 

According to Emerson, it turned out that there’s a clause unique to California (due to the acting profession in Los Angeles) where even if a minor and their parent signs a contract, it isn’t valid unless the signing is overseen by a judge, and so they were able to simply pull out of the deal.

But to this day Emerson’s company still owns the OMGfacts brand and companies and Youtube channels.

(Sidenote: I am not trying to make claims about who was “in the right” in these conflicts, I am reporting these as examples of Emerosn’s negotiation tactics that he reportedly engages in and actively endorses during conflicts.)

Emerson told versions of this story to different people who I spoke to (people reported him as ‘bragging’).

In one version, he claimed that he strong-armed Adorian and his mother with endless legal threats and they backed down and left him with full control of the brand. This person I spoke to couldn’t recall the details but said that Emerson tried to frighten Deck and his mother, and that they (the person Emerson was bragging to) found it “frightening” and thought the behavior was “behavior that’s like 7 standard deviations away from usual norms in this area.”

Another person was told the story in the context of the 2nd Law from “48 Laws of Power”, which is “Never put too much trust in friends, learn how to use enemies”. The summary includes 

“Be wary of friends—they will betray you more quickly, for they are easily aroused to envy. They also become spoiled and tyrannical… you have more to fear from friends than from enemies.”

For this person who was told the Adorian story, the thing that resonated most when he told it was the claim that he was in a close, mentoring relationship with Adorian, and leveraged knowing him so well that he would know “exactly where to go to hurt him the most” so that he would back off. In that version of the story, he says that Deck’s life-goal was to be a YouTuber (which is indeed Deck's profession until this day — he produces about 4 videos a month), and that Emerson strategically contacted the YouTubers that Deck most admired, and told them stories of Deck being lazy and trying to take credit for all of Emerson's work. He reportedly threatened to do more of this until Deck relented, and this is why Deck gave up the lawsuit. The person said to me “He loved him, knew him really well, and destroyed him with that knowledge.”[6]

I later spoke with Emerson about this. He does say that he was working with the top YouTubers to create videos exposing Deck, and this is what brought Deck back to the negotiating table. He says that he ended up renegotiating a contract where Deck receives $10k/month for 7 years. If true, I think this final deal reflects positively on Emerson, though I still believe the people he spoke to were actively scared by their conversations with Emerson on this subject. (I have neither confirmed the existence of the contract nor heard Deck’s side of the story.)

He reportedly told another negotiation story about his response to getting scammed in a business deal. I won’t go into the details, but reportedly he paid a high-price for the rights to a logo/trademark, only to find that he had not read the fine print and had been sold something far less valuable. He gave it as an example of the "Keep others in suspended terror: cultivate an air of unpredictability" strategy from The 48 Laws of Power:

Be deliberately unpredictable. Behavior that seems to have no consistency or purpose will keep them off-balance, and they will wear themselves out trying to explain your moves. Taken to an extreme, this strategy can intimidate and terrorize.

In that business negotiation, he (reportedly) acted unhinged. According to the person I spoke with, he said he’d call the counterparty and say “batshit crazy things” and yell at them, with the purpose of making them think he’s capable of anything, including dangerous and unethical things, and eventually they relented and gave him the deal he wanted.

Someone else I spoke to reported him repeatedly saying that he would be “very antagonistic” toward people he was in conflict with. He reportedly gave the example that, if someone tried to sue him, he would be willing to go into legal gray areas in order to “crush his enemies” (a phrase he apparently used a lot), including hiring someone to stalk the person and their family in order to freak them out. (Emerson denies having said this, and suggests that he was probably describing this as a strategy that someone else might use in a conflict that one ought to be aware of.)

After Chloe eventually quit, Alice reports that Kat/Emerson would “trash talk” her, saying she was never an “A player”, criticizing her on lots of dimensions (competence, ethics, drama, etc) in spite of previously primarily giving Chloe high praise. This reportedly happened commonly toward other people who ended or turned down working together with Nonlinear. 

Here are some texts between Kat Woods and Alice shortly after Alice had quit, before the final salary had been paid.

A few months later, some more texts from Kat Woods.

(I can corroborate that it was difficult to directly talk with the former employee and it took a fair bit of communication through indirect social channels before they were willing to identify themselves to me and talk about the details.)

Effusive positive emotion not backed up by reality, and other manipulative techniques

Multiple people who worked with Kat reported that Kat had a pattern of enforcing arbitrary short deadlines on people in order to get them to make the decision she wants e.g. “I need a decision by the end of this call”, or (in an email to Alice) “This is urgent and important. There are people working on saving the world and we can’t let our issues hold them back from doing their work.” 

Alice reported feeling emotionally manipulated. She said she got constant compliments from the founders that ended up seeming fake. 

Alice wrote down a string of the compliments at the time from Kat Woods (said out loud and that Alice wrote down in text), here is a sampling of them that she shared with me:

“You’re the kind of person I bet on, you’re a beast, you’re an animal, I think you are extraordinary"

"You can be in the top 10, you really just have to think about where you want to be, you have to make sacrifices to be on the top, you can be the best, only if you sacrifice enough"

"You’re working more than 99% because you care more than 99% because you’re a leader and going to save the world"

"You can’t fail if you commit to [this project], you have what it takes, you get sh*t done and everyone will hail you in EA, finally an executor among us."

Alice reported that she would get these compliments near-daily. She eventually had the sense that this was said in order to get something out of her. She reported that one time, after a series of such compliments, the Kat Woods then turned and recorded a near-identical series of compliments into their phone for a different person.

Kat Woods reportedly several times cried while telling Alice that she wanted the employee in their life forever and was worried that this employee would ever not be in Kat’s life.

Other times when Alice would come to Kat with money troubles and asking for a pay rise, Alice reports that Kat would tell them that this was a psychological issue and that actually they had safety, for instance they could move back in with their parents, so they didn’t need to worry.

Alice also reports that she was explicitly advised by Kat Woods to cry and look cute when asking Emerson Spartz for a salary improvement, in order to get the salary improvement that she wanted, and was told this was a reliable way to get things from Emerson. (Alice reports that she did not follow this advice.)

Many other strong personal costs

Alice quit being vegan while working there. She was sick with covid in a foreign country, with only the three Nonlinear cofounders around, but nobody in the house was willing to go out and get her vegan food, so she barely ate for 2 days. Alice eventually gave in and ate non-vegan food in the house. She also said that the Nonlinear cofounders marked her quitting veganism as a ‘win’, as they thad been arguing that she should not be vegan.

(Nonlinear disputes this, and says that they did go out and buy her some vegan burgers food and had some vegan food in the house. They agree that she quit being vegan at this time, and say it was because being vegan was unusually hard due to being in Puerto Rico. Alice disputes that she received any vegan burgers.)

Alice said that this generally matched how she and Chloe were treated in the house, as people generally not worth spending time on, because they were ‘low value’ (i.e. in terms of their hourly wage), and that they were the people who had to do chores around the house (e.g. Alice was still asked to do house chores during the period where she was sick and not eating).

By the same reasoning, the employees reported that they were given 100% of the menial tasks around the house (cleaning, tidying, etc) due to their lower value of time to the company. For instance, if a cofounder spilled food in the kitchen, the employees would clean it up. This was generally reported as feeling very demeaning.

Alice and Chloe reported a substantial conflict within the household between Kat and Alice. Alice was polyamorous, and she and Drew entered into a casual romantic relationship. Kat previously had a polyamorous marriage that ended in divorce, and is now monogamously partnered with Emerson. Kat reportedly told Alice that she didn't mind polyamory "on the other side of the world”, but couldn't stand it right next to her, and probably either Alice would need to become monogamous or Alice should leave the organization. Alice didn't become monogamous. Alice reports that Kat became increasingly cold over multiple months, and was very hard to work with.[7]

Alice reports then taking a vacation to visit her family, and trying to figure out how to repair the relationship with Kat. Before she went on vacation, Kat requested that Alice bring a variety of illegal drugs across the border for her (some recreational, some for productivity). Alice argued that this would be dangerous for her personally, but Emerson and Kat reportedly argued that it is not dangerous at all and was “absolutely risk-free”. Privately, Drew said that Kat would “love her forever” if she did this. I bring this up as an example of the sorts of requests that Kat/Emerson/Drew felt comfortable making during Alice’s time there.

Chloe was hired by Nonlinear with the intent to have them do executive assistant tasks for Nonlinear (this is the job ad they responded to). After being hired and flying out, Chloe was informed that on a daily basis their job would involve driving e.g. to get groceries when they were in different countries. She explained that she didn’t have a drivers’ license and didn’t know how to drive. Kat/Emerson proposed that Chloe learn to drive, and Drew gave her some driving lessons. When Chloe learned to drive well enough in parking lots, she said she was ready to get her license, but she discovered that she couldn’t get a license in a foreign country. Kat/Emerson/Drew reportedly didn’t seem to think that mattered or was even part of the plan, and strongly encouraged Chloe to just drive without a license to do their work, so she drove ~daily for 1-2 months without a license. (I think this involved physical risks for the employee and bystanders, and also substantial risks of being in jail in a foreign country. Also, Chloe basically never drove Emerson/Drew/Kat, this was primarily solo driving for daily errands.) Eventually Chloe had a minor collision with a street post, and was a bit freaked out because she had no idea what the correct protocols were. She reported that Kat/Emerson/Drew didn’t think that this was a big deal, but that Alice (who she was on her way to meet) could clearly see that Chloe was distressed by this, and Alice drove her home, and Chloe then decided to stop driving.

(Car accidents are the second most common cause of death for people in their age group. Insofar as they were pressured to do this and told that this was safe, I think this involved a pretty cavalier disregard for the safety of the person who worked for them.)

Chloe talked to a friend of hers (who is someone I know fairly well, and was the first person to give me a negative report about Nonlinear), reporting that they were very depressed. When Chloe described her working conditions, her friend was horrified, and said she had to get out immediately since, in their words, “this was clearly an abusive situation”. The friend offered to pay for flights out of the country, and tried to convince her to quit immediately. Eventually Chloe made a commitment to book a flight by a certain date and then followed through with that.

Lax on legalities and adversarial business practices

I did not find the time to write much here. For now I’ll simply pass on my impressions.

I generally got a sense from speaking with many parties that Emerson Spartz and Kat Woods respectively have very adversarial and very lax attitudes toward legalities and bureaucracies, with the former trying to do as little as possible that is asked of him. If I asked them to fill out paperwork I would expect it was filled out at least reluctantly and plausibly deceptively or adversarially in some way. In my current epistemic state, I would be actively concerned about any project in the EA or x-risk ecosystems that relied on Nonlinear doing any accounting or having a reliable legal structure that has had the basics checked.

Personally, if I were giving Nonlinear funds for any project whatsoever, including for regranting, I’d expect it’s quite plausible (>20%) that they didn’t spend the funds on what they told me, and instead will randomly spend it on some other project. If I had previously funded Nonlinear for any projects, I would be keen to ask Nonlinear for receipts to show whether they spent their funds in accordance with what they said they would.

This is not a complete list

I want to be clear that this is not a complete list of negative or concerning experiences, this is an illustrative list. There are many other things that I was told about that I am not including here due to factors like length and people’s privacy (on all sides). Also I split them up into the categories as I see them; someone else might make a different split.

Perspectives From Others Who Have Worked or Otherwise Been Close With Nonlinear

I had hoped to work this into a longer section of quotes, but it seemed like too much back-and-forth with lots of different people. I encourage folks to leave comments with their relevant impressions.

For now I’ll summarize some of what I learned as follows:

  • Several people gave reports consistent with Alice and Chloe being very upset and distressed both during and after their time at Nonlinear, and reaching out for help, and seeming really strongly to want to get away from Nonlinear.
  • Some unpaid interns (who worked remotely for Nonlinear for 1-3 months) said that they regretted not getting paid, and that when they brought it up with Kat Woods she said some positive sounding things and they expected she would get back to them about it, but that never happened during the rest of their internships.
  • Many people who visited had fine experiences with Nonlinear, others felt much more troubled by the experience.
  • One person said to me about Emerson/Drew/Kat:
    • "My subjective feeling is like 'they seemed to be really bad and toxic people'. And they at the same time have a decent amount of impact. After I interacted repeatedly with them I was highly confused about the dilemma of people who are mistreating other people, but are doing some good."
  • Another person said about Emerson:
    • “He seems to think he’s extremely competent, a genius, and that everyone else is inferior to him. They should learn everything they can from him, he has nothing to learn from them. He said things close to this explicitly. Drew and (to a lesser extent) Kat really bought into him being the new messiah.”
  • One person who has worked for Kat Woods (not Alice or Chloe) said the following:
    • I love her as a person, hate her as a boss. She’s fun, has a lot of ideas, really good socialite, and I think that that speaks to how she’s able to get away with a lot of things. Able to wear different masks in different places. She’s someone who’s easy to trust, easy to build social relationships with. I’d be suspicious of anyone who gives a reference who’s never been below Kat in power.
    • Ben: Do you think Kat is emotionally manipulative?
    • I think she is. I think it’s a fine line about what makes an excellent entrepreneur. Do whatever it takes to get a deal signed. To get it across the line. Depends a lot on what the power dynamics are, whether it’s a problem or not. If people are in equal power structures it’s less of a problem.

There were other informative conversations that I won’t summarize. I encourage folks who have worked with or for Nonlinear to comment with their perspective.

Conversation with Nonlinear

After putting the above together, I got permission from Alice and Chloe to publish, and to share the information I had learned as I saw fit. So I booked a call with Nonlinear, sent them a long list of concerns, and talked with Emerson, Kat and Drew for ~3 hours to hear them out.

Paraphrasing Nonlinear

On the call, they said their primary intention in the call was to convince me that Alice is a bald-faced liar. They further said they’re terrified of Alice making false claims about them, and that she is in a powerful position to hurt them with false accusations.

Afterwards, I wrote up a paraphrase of their responses. I shared it with Emerson and he replied that it was a “Good summary!”. Below is the paraphrase of their perspective on things that I sent them, with one minor edit for privacy. (The below is written as though Nonlinear is speaking, but to be clear this 100% my writing.)

  • We hired one person, and kind-of-technically-hired a second person. In doing so, our intention wasn't just to have employees, but also to have members of our family unit who we traveled with and worked closely together with in having a strong positive impact in the world, and were very personally close with.
  • We nomadically traveled the globe. This can be quite lonely so we put a lot of work into bringing people to us, often having visitors in our house who we supported with flights and accommodation. This probably wasn't perfect but in general we'd describe the environment as "quite actively social".
  • For the formal employee, she responded to a job ad, we interviewed her, and it all went the standard way. For the gradually-employed employee, we initially just invited her to travel with us and co-work, as she seemed like a successful entrepreneur and aligned in terms of our visions for improving the world. Over time she quit her existing job and we worked on projects together and were gradually bringing her into our organization.
  • We wanted to give these employees a pretty standard amount of compensation, but also mostly not worry about negotiating minor financial details as we traveled the world. So we covered basic rent/groceries/travel for these people. On top of that, to the formal employee we gave a $1k/month salary, and to the semi-formal employee we eventually did the same too. For the latter employee, we roughly paid her ~$8k over the time she worked with us.
  • From our perspective, the gradually-hired employees gave a falsely positive impression of their financial and professional situation, suggesting they'd accomplished more than they had and were earning more than they had. They ended up being fairly financially dependent on us and we didn't expect that.
  • Eventually, after about 6-8 months each, both employees quit. Overall this experiment went poorly from our perspective and we're not going to try it in future.
  • For the formal employee, we're a bit unsure about why exactly she quit, even though we did do exit interviews with her. She said she didn't like a lot of the menial work (which is what we hired her for), but didn't say that money was the problem. We think it is probably related to everyone getting Covid and being kind of depressed around that time.
  • For the other employee, relations got bad for various reasons. She ended up wanting total control of the org she was incubating with us, rather than 95% control as we'd discussed, but that wasn't on the table (the org had $250k dedicated to it that we'd raised!), and so she quit.
  • When she was leaving, we were financially supportive. On the day we flew back from the Bahamas to London, we paid all our outstanding reimbursements (~$2900). We also offered to pay for her to have a room in London for a week as she got herself sorted out. We also offered her rooms with our friends if she promised not to tell them lies about us behind our backs.
  • After she left, we believe she told a lot of lies and inaccurate stories about us. For instance, two people we talked to had the impression that we either paid her $0 or $500, which is demonstrably false. Right now we're pretty actively concerned that she is telling lots of false stories in order to paint us in a negative light, because the relationship didn't work out and she didn't get control over her org (and because her general character seems drama-prone).

There were some points around the experiences of these employees that we want to respond to.

  • First; the formal employee drove without a license for 1-2 months in Puerto Rico. We taught her to drive, which she was excited about. You might think this is a substantial legal risk, but basically it isn't, as you can see here, the general range of fines for issues around not-having-a-license in Puerto Rico is in the range of $25 to $500, which just isn't that bad.
  • Second; the semi-employee said that she wasn't supported in getting vegan food when she was sick with Covid, and this is why she stopped being vegan. This seems also straightforwardly inaccurate, we brought her potatoes, vegan burgers, and had vegan food in the house. We had been advising her to 80/20 being a vegan and this probably also weighed on her decision.
  • Third; the semi-employee was also asked to bring some productivity-related and recreational drugs over the border for us. In general we didn't push hard on this. For one, this is an activity she already did (with other drugs). For two, we thought it didn't need prescription in the country she was visiting, and when we found out otherwise, we dropped it. And for three, she used a bunch of our drugs herself, so it's not fair to say that this request was made entirely selfishly. I think this just seems like an extension of the sorts of actions she's generally open to.

Finally, multiple people (beyond our two in-person employees) told Ben they felt frightened or freaked out by some of the business tactics in the stories Emerson told them. To give context and respond to that:

  • I, Emerson, have had a lot of exceedingly harsh and cruel business experience, including getting tricked or stabbed-in-the-back. Nonetheless, I have often prevailed in these difficult situations, and learned a lot of hard lessons about how to act in the world.
  • The skills required to do so seem to me lacking in many of the earnest-but-naive EAs that I meet, and I would really like them to learn how to be strong in this way. As such, I often tell EAs these stories, selecting for the most cut-throat ones, and sometimes I try to play up the harshness of how you have to respond to the threats. I think of myself as playing the role of a wise old mentor who has had lots of experience, telling stories to the young adventurers, trying to toughen them up, somewhat similar to how Prof Quirrell[8] toughens up the students in HPMOR through teaching them Defense Against the Dark Arts, to deal with real monsters in the world.
  • For instance, I tell people about my negotiations with Adorian Deck about the OMGFacts brand and Twitter account. We signed a good deal, but a California technicality meant he could pull from it and take my whole company, which is a really illegitimate claim. They wouldn't talk with me, so I was working with top YouTubers to make some videos publicizing and exposing his bad behavior. This got him back to the negotiation table and we worked out a deal where he got $10k/month for seven years, which is not a shabby deal, and meant that I got to keep my company!
  • It had been reported to Ben that Emerson said he would be willing to go into legal gray areas in order to "crush his enemies" (if they were acting in very reprehensible and norm-violating ways). Emerson thinks this has got to be a misunderstanding, that he was talking about what other people might do to you, which is a crucial thing to discuss and model.

(Here I cease pretending-to-be-Nonlinear and return to my own voice.)

My thoughts on the ethics and my takeaways

Summary of My Epistemic State

Here are my probabilities for a few high-level claims relating to Alice and Chloe’s experiences working at Nonlinear.

  • Emerson Spartz employs more vicious and adversarial tactics in conflicts than 99% of the people active in the EA/x-risk/AI Safety communities: 95%
  • Alice and Chloe were more dependent on their bosses (combining financial, social, and legally) than employees are at literally every other organization I am aware of in the EA/x-risk/AI Safety ecosystem: 85%[9]
  • In working at Nonlinear Alice and Chloe were both took on physical and legal risks that they strongly regretted, were hurt emotionally, came away financially worse off, gained ~no professional advancement from their time at Nonlinear, and took several months after the experience to recover: 90%
  • Alice and Chloe both had credible reason to be very scared of retaliation for sharing negative information about their work experiences, far beyond that experienced at any other org in the EA/x-risk/AI Safety ecosystem: 85%[10]

General Comments From Me

Going forward I think anyone who works with Kat Woods, Emerson Spartz, or Drew Spartz, should sign legal employment contracts, and make sure all financial agreements are written down in emails and messages that the employee has possession of. I think all people considering employment by the above people at any non-profits they run should take salaries where money is wired to their bank accounts, and not do unpaid work or work that is compensated by ways that don’t primarily include a salary being wired to their bank accounts.

I expect that if Nonlinear does more hiring in the EA ecosystem it is more-likely-than-not to chew up and spit out other bright-eyed young EAs who want to do good in the world. I relatedly think that the EA ecosystem doesn’t have reliable defenses against such predators. These are not the first, nor sadly the last, bright-eyed well-intentioned people who I expect to be taken advantage of and hurt in the EA/x-risk/AI safety ecosystem, as a result of falsely trusting high-status people at EA events to be people who will treat them honorably.

(Personal aside: Regarding the texts from Kat Woods shown above — I have to say, if you want to be allies with me, you must not write texts like these. A lot of bad behavior can be learned from, fixed, and forgiven, but if you take actions to prevent me from being able to learn that the bad behavior is even going on, then I have to always be worried that something far worse is happening that I’m not aware of, and indeed I have been quite shocked to discover how bad people’s experiences were working for Nonlinear.)

My position is not greatly changed by the fact that Nonlinear is overwhelmingly confident that Alice is a “bald-faced liar”. From my current perspective, they probably have some legitimate grievances against her, but that in no way makes it less costly to our collective epistemology to incentivize her to not share her own substantial grievances. I think the magnitude of the costs they imposed on their employees-slash-new-family are far higher than I or anyone I know would have expected was happening, and they intimidated both Alice and Chloe into silence about those costs. If it were only Alice then I would give this perspective a lot more thought/weight, but Chloe reports a lot of the same dynamics and similar harms.

To my eyes, the people involved were genuinely concerned about retaliation for saying anything negative about Nonlinear, including the workplace/household dynamics and how painful their experiences had been for them. That’s a red line in my book, and I will not personally work with Nonlinear in the future because of it, and I recommend their exclusion from any professional communities that wish to keep up the standard of people not being silenced about extremely negative work experiences. “First they came for the epistemology. We don't know what happened after that.

Specifically, the things that cross my personal lines for working with someone or viewing them as an ally:

  • Kat Woods attempted to offer someone who was really hurting, and in a position of strong need, very basic resources with the requirement of not saying bad things about her.
  • Kat Woods’ texts that read to me as a veiled threat to destroy someone’s career for sharing negative information about her.
  • Emerson Spartz reportedly telling multiple people he will use questionably legal methods in order to crush his enemies (such as spurious lawsuits and that he would hire a stalker to freak someone out).
  • Both employees were actively afraid that Emerson Spartz would retaliate and potentially using tactics like spurious lawsuits and further things that are questionably legal, and generally try to destroy their careers and leave them with no resources. It seems to me (given the other reports I’ve heard from visitors) that Emerson behaved in a way that quite understandably led them to this epistemic state, and I consider that to be his responsibility to not give his employees this impression.

I think in almost any functioning professional ecosystem, there should be some general principles like:

  • If you employ someone, after they work for you, unless they've done something egregiously wrong or unethical, they should be comfortable continuing to work and participate in this professional ecosystem.
  • If you employ someone, after they work for you, they should feel comfortable talking openly about their experience working with you to others in this professional ecosystem.

Any breaking of the first rule is very costly, and any breaking of the second rule is by-default a red-line for me not being willing to work with you.

I do think that there was a nearby world where Alice, having run out of money, gave in and stayed at Nonlinear, begging them for money, and becoming a fully dependent and subservient house pet — a world where we would not have learned the majority of this information. I think we're not that far from that world, I think a weaker person than Alice might have never quit, and it showed a lot of strength to quit at the point where you have ~no runway left and you have heard the above stories about the kinds of things Emerson Spartz considers doing to former business partners that he is angry with.

I’m very grateful to the two staff members involved for coming forward and eventually spending dozens of hours clarifying and explaining their experiences to me and others who were interested. To compensate them for their courage, the time and effort spent to talk with me and explain their experiences at some length, and their permission to allow me to publish a lot of this information, I (using personal funds) am going to pay them each $5,000 after publishing this post.

I think that whistleblowing is generally a difficult experience, with a lot riding on the fairly personal account from fallible human beings. It’s neither the case that everything reported should be accepted without question, nor that if some aspect is learned to be exaggerated or misreported that the whole case should be thrown out. I plan to reply to further questions here in the comments, I also encourage everyone involved to comment insofar as they wish to answer questions or give their own perspective on what happened.


Addendum

This is a list of edits made post-publication.

  1. "Alice worked there from November 2021 to June 2022" became "Alice travelled with Nonlinear from November 2021 to June 2022 and started working for the org from around February" 
  2. "using Lightcone funds" became "using personal funds"
  3. "I see clear reasons to think that Kat, Emerson and Drew intimidated these people" became "I see clear reasons to think that Kat and Emerson intimidated these people".
  1. ^

    In a later conversation, Kat clarified that the actual amount discussed was $70k.

  2. ^

    Comment from Chloe: 

    In my resignation conversation with Kat, I was worried about getting into a negotiation conversation where I wouldn’t have strong enough reasons to leave. To avoid this, I started off by saying that my decision to quit is final, and not an ultimatum that warrants negotiation of what would make me want to stay. I did offer to elaborate on the reasons for why I was leaving. As I was explaining my reasons, she still insisted on offering me solutions to things I would say I wanted, to see if that would make me change my mind anyway.  One of the reasons I listed was the lack of financial freedom in not having my salary be paid out as a salary which I could allocate towards decisions like choices in accommodation for myself, as well as meals and travel decisions. She wanted to know how much I wanted to be paid. I kept evading the question since it seemed to tackle the wrong part of the problem. Eventually I quoted back the number I had heard her reference to when she’d talk about what my salary is equivalent to, suggesting that if they’d pay out the 75k as a salary instead of the compensation package, then that would in theory solve the salary issue. There was a miscommunication around her believing that I wanted that to be paid out on top of the living expenses - I wanted financial freedom and a legal salary. I believe the miscommunication stems from me mentioning that salaries are more expensive for employers to pay out as they also have to pay tax on the salaries, e.g. social benefits, pension (depending on the country). Kat was surprised to hear that and understood it as me wanting a 75k salary before taxes. I do not remember that conversation concluding with her thinking I wanted everything paid for and also 75k.  

  3. ^

    Note that Nonlinear and Alice gave conflicting reports about which month she started getting paid, February vs April. It was hard for me to check as it’s not legally recorded and there’s lots of bits of monetary payments unclearly coded between them.

  4. ^

    Comment from one of the employees: 

    I had largely moved on from the subject and left the past behind when Ben started researching it to write a piece with his thoughts on it. I was very reluctant at first (and frightened at the mere thought), and frankly, will probably continue to be. I did not agree to post this publicly with any kind of malice, rest assured. The guiding thought here is, as Ben asked, "What would you tell your friend if they wanted to start working for this organization?" I would want my friend to be able to make their own independent decision, having read about my experience and the experiences of others who have worked there. My main goal is to create a world where we can all work together towards a safe, long and prosperous future, and anything that takes away from that (like conflict and drama) is bad and I have generally avoided it. Even when I was working at Nonlinear, I remember saying several times that I just wanted to work on what was important and didn't want to get involved in their interpersonal drama. But it's hard for me to imagine a future where situations like that are just overlooked and other people get hurt when it could have been stopped or flagged before. I want to live in a world where everyone is safe and cared for. For most of my life I have avoided learning about anything to do with manipulation, power frameworks and even personality disorders. By avoiding them, I also missed the opportunity to protect myself and others from dangerous situations. Knowledge is the best defense against any kind of manipulation or abuse, so I strongly recommend informing yourself about it, and advising others to do so too. 

  5. ^

    This is something Alice showed me was written in her notes from the time.

  6. ^

    I do not mean to make a claim here about who was in the right in that conflict. And somewhat in Emerson’s defense, I think some of people’s most aggressive behavior comes out when they themselves have just been wronged — I expect this is more extreme behavior than he would typically respond with. Nonetheless, it seems to me that there was reportedly a close, mentoring relationship — Emerson’s tumblr post on the situation says “I loved Adorian Deck” in the opening paragraph — but that later Emerson reportedly became bitter and nasty in order to win the conflict, involving threatening to overwhelm someone with lawsuits and legal costs, and figure out the best way to use their formerly close relationship to hurt them emotionally, and reportedly gave this as an example of good business strategy. I think this sort of story somewhat justifiably left people working closely with Emerson very worried about the sort of retaliation he might carry out if they were ever in a conflict, or he were to ever view them as an ‘enemy’.

  7. ^

    After this, there were further reports of claims of Kat professing her romantic love for Alice, and also precisely opposite reports of Alice professing her romantic love for Kat. I am pretty confused about what happened.

  8. ^

    Note that during our conversation, Emerson brought up HPMOR and the Quirrell similarity, not me.

  9. ^

    With the exception of some FTX staff.

  10. ^

    One of the factors lowering my number here is that I’m not quite sure what the dynamics are like at places like Anthropic and OpenAI — who have employees sign non-disparagement clauses, and are involved in geopolitics — or whether they would even be included. I also could imagine finding out that various senior people at CEA/EV are terrified of information coming out about them. Also note that I am not including Leverage Research in this assessment.

Comments499
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On behalf of Chloe and in her own words, here’s a response that might illuminate some pieces that are not obvious from Ben’s post - as his post is relying on more factual and object-level evidence, rather than the whole narrative.

“Before Ben published, I found thinking about or discussing my experiences very painful, as well as scary - I was never sure with whom it was safe sharing any of this with. Now that it’s public, it feels like it’s in the past and I’m able to talk about it. Here are some of my experiences I think are relevant to understanding what went on. They’re harder to back up with chatlog or other written evidence - take them as you want, knowing these are stories more than clearly backed up by evidence. I think people should be able to make up their own opinion on this, and I believe they should have the appropriate information to do so.

I want to emphasize *just how much* the entire experience of working for Nonlinear was them creating all kinds of obstacles, and me being told that if I’m clever enough I can figure out how to do these tasks anyway. It’s not actually about whether I had a contract and a salary (even then, the issue wasn’t the amount or even the legali... (read more)

I confirm that this is Chloe, who contacted me through our standard communication channels to say she was posting a comment today.

Thank you very much for sharing, Chloe.

Ben, Kat, Emerson, and readers of the original post have all noticed that the nature of Ben's process leads to selection against positive observations about Nonlinear. I encourage readers to notice that the reverse might also be true. Examples of selection against negative information include:

  1. Ben has reason to exclude stories that are less objective or have a less strong evidence base. The above comment is a concrete example of this.
    1. There's also something related here about the supposed unreliability of Alice as a source: Ben needs to include this to give a complete picture/because other people (in particular the Nonlinear co-founders) have said this. I strongly concur with Ben when he writes that he "found Alice very willing and ready to share primary sources [...] so I don’t believe her to be acting in bad faith." Personally, my impression is that people are making an incorrect inference about Alice from her characteristics (that are perhaps correlated with source-reliability in a large population, but aren't logically related, and aren't relevant in this case).
  2. To the extent that you expect other people to have been silenced (e.g. via antici
... (read more)

Emerson approaches me to ask if I can set up the trip. I tell him I really need the vacation day for myself. He says something like “but organizing stuff is fun for you!”.

[...]

She kept insisting that I’m saying that because I’m being silly and worry too much and that buying weed is really easy, everybody does it.

😬 There's a ton of awful stuff here, but these two parts really jumped out at me. Trying to push past someone's boundaries by imposing a narrative about the type of person they are ('but you're the type of person who loves doing X!' 'you're only saying no because you're the type of person who worries too much') is really unsettling behavior.

I'll flag that this is an old remembered anecdote, and those can be unreliable, and I haven't heard Emerson or Kat's version of events. But it updates me, because Chloe seems like a pretty good source and this puzzle piece seems congruent with the other puzzle pieces.

E.g., the vibe here matches something that creeped me out a lot about Kat's text message to Alice in the OP, which is the apparent attempt to corner/railroad Alice into agreement via a bunch of threats and strongly imposed frames, followed immediately by Kat repeatedly stat... (read more)

This sounds like a terribly traumatic experience. I'm so sorry you went through this, and I hope you are in a better place and feel safer now.

Your self-worth is so, so much more than how well you can navigate what sounds like a manipulative, controlling, and abusive work environment.

 

spent months trying to figure out how to empathize with Kat and Emerson, how they’re able to do what they’ve done, to Alice, to others they claimed to care a lot about. How they can give so much love and support with one hand and say things that even if I’d try to model “what’s the worst possible thing someone could say”, I’d be surprised how far off my predictions would be.

It sounds like despite all of this, you've tried to be charitable to people who have treated you unfairly and poorly - while this speaks to your compassion, I know this line of thought can often lead to things that feel like you are gaslighting yourself, and I hope this isn't something that has caused you too much distress.

I also hope that Effective Altruism as a community becomes a safer space for people who join it aspiring to do good, and I'm grateful for your courage in sharing your experiences, despite it (very reasonably!... (read more)

Wow. Sincere apologies you went through that. Even if Kat and Emerson thought they were being reasonable (no comment), and/or even if bad instances were few and far between (no comment), such instances would affect me and most people I know very deeply. Probably including the multi-month hangover and residual pain today. And that matters, and is something we need managers/bosses/colleagues to consider. Even if it was only painful at the time, that would matter. Really sorry. 

P.S. I previously put a "changed my mind" react to this comment, but I really meant "brought new things to mind". Put them in other comments

I hope this doesn't seem heartless, but: Given the degree of contested narratives in this affair, can someone not-anonymous with access to Chloe confirm that this account speaks for her?

(i think it probably does, to be clear, but also think it's worth checking)

Confirmed, this is Chloe.

8
Guy Raveh
@Ben Pace 

Thanks for sharing your story.

6
Chris Leong
I think it's brave for you to be coming forward and sharing your experiences. I'm really sorry this happened to you, but hopefully, we can learn from this as a community so that no one ends up in a situation like this again.
-10
Miguel

Zooming out from this particular case, I’m concerned that our community is both (1) extremely encouraging and tolerant of experimentation and poor, undefined boundaries and (2) very quick to point the finger when any experiment goes wrong. If we don’t want to have strict professional norms I think it’s unfair to put all the blame on failed experiments without updating the algorithm that allows people embark on these experiments with community approval.

To be perfectly clear, I think this community has poor professional boundaries and a poor understanding of why normie boundaries exist. I would like better boundaries all around. I don’t think we get better boundaries by acting like a failure like this is due to character or lack of integrity instead of bad engineering. If you wouldn’t have looked at it before it imploded and thought the engineering was bad, I think that’s the biggest thing that needs to change. I’m concerned that people still think that if you have good enough character (or are smart enough, etc), you don’t need good boundaries and systems.

I’m concerned that our community is both (1) extremely encouraging and tolerant of experimentation and poor, undefined boundaries and (2) very quick to point the finger when any experiment goes wrong.

Yep, I think this is a big problem.

More generally, I think a lot of EAs give lip service to the value of people trying weird new ambitious things, "adopt a hits-based approach", "if you're never failing then you're playing it too safe", etc.; but then we harshly punish visible failures, especially ones that are the least bit weird. In cases like those, I think the main solution is to be more forgiving of failures, rather than to give up on ambitious projects.

From my perspective, none of this is particularly relevant to what bothers me about Ben's post and Nonlinear's response. My biggest concern about Nonlinear is their attempt to pressure people into silence (via lawsuits, bizarre veiled threats, etc.), and "I really wish EAs would experiment more with coercing and threatening each other" is not an example of the kind of experimentalism I'm talking about when I say that EAs should be willing to try and fail at more things (!).

"Keep EA weird" does not entail "have low ethical standards... (read more)

Maybe I’m wrong— I really don’t know, and there have been a lot of “I don’t know” kind of incidents around Nonlinear, which does give me pause— but it doesn’t seem obviously unethical to me for Nonlinear to try to protect its reputation. That’s a huge rationalist no-no, to try to protect a narrative, or to try to affect what another person says about you, but I see the text where Kat is saying she could ruin Alice’s reputation as just a response to Alice’s threat to ruin Nonlinear’s reputation. What would you have thought if Nonlinear just shared, without warning Alice, that Alice was a bad employee for everyone’s information? Would Alice be bad if she tried to get them to stop?

My read on Alice’s situation was that she got into this hellish set of poor boundaries and low autonomy where she felt like a dependent servant on these people while traveling from country to country. I would have hated it, I already know. I would have hated having to fight my employer about not having to drive illegally in a foreign country. I am sure she was not wrong to hate it, but I don’t know if that’s the fault of Nonlinear except that maybe they should have predicted that was bad engineering that no one would like. Some people might have liked that situation, and it does seem valuable to be able to have unconventional arrangements.

EDIT: Sorry, it was Chloe with the driving thing.

Alice did not threaten to ruin Nonlinear's reputation, she went ahead and shared her impressions of Nonlinear with people. If Nonlinear responded by sharing their honest opinions about Alice with people, that would be fine. In fact, they should have been doing this from the start, regardless of Alice's actions. Instead they tried to suppress information by threatening to ruin her career. Notice how their threat reveals their dishonesty. Either Alice is a bad employee and they were painting her in a falsely positive light before, or she is a good employee and they threatened to paint her in a falsely negative light.

Maybe I’m wrong— I really don’t know, and there have been a lot of “I don’t know” kind of incidents around Nonlinear, which does give me pause— but it doesn’t seem obviously unethical to me for Nonlinear to try to protect its reputation. 

I think it's totally normal and reasonable to care about your reputation, and there are tons of actions someone could take for reputational reasons (e.g., "I'll wash the dishes so my roommate doesn't think I'm a slob", or "I'll tweet about my latest paper because I'm proud of it and I want people to see what I accomplished") that are just straightforwardly great.

I don't think caring about your reputation is an inherently bad or corrupting thing. It can tempt you to do bad things, but lots of healthy and normal goals pose temptation risks (e.g., "I like food, so I'll overeat" or "I like good TV shows, so I'll stay up too late binging this one"); you can resist the temptation without stigmatizing the underlying human value.

In this case, I think the bad behavior by Nonlinear also would have been bad if it had nothing to do with "Nonlinear wants to protect its reputation".

Like, suppose Alice honestly believed that malaria nets are useless for prev... (read more)

7
Holly_Elmore
Good points. I admit, I'm thinking more about whether it's justifiable to punish that behavior than about whether it's good or bad. It makes me super nervous to feel that the stakes are so high on what feels like it could be a mistake (or any given instance of which could be a mistake), which maybe makes me worse at looking at the object level offense. 
9
RobBensinger
I'd be happy to talk with you way more about rationalists' integrity fastidiousness, since (a) I'd expect this to feel less scary if you have a clearer picture of rats' norms, and (b) talking about it would give you a chance to talk me out of those norms (which I'd then want to try to transmit to the other rats), and (c) if you ended up liking some of the norms then that might address the problem from the other direction. In your previous comment you said "it doesn’t seem obviously unethical to me for Nonlinear to try to protect its reputation", "That’s a huge rationalist no-no, to try to protect a narrative", and "or to try to affect what another person says about you". But none of those three things are actually rat norms AFAIK, so it's possible you're missing some model that would at least help it feel more predictable what rats will get mad about, even if you still disagree with their priorities. Also, I'm opposed to cancel culture (as I understand the term). As far as I'm concerned, the worst person in the world deserves friends and happiness, and I'd consider it really creepy if someone said "you're an EA, so you should stop being friends with Emerson and Kat, never invite them to parties you host or discussion groups you run, etc." It should be possible to warn people about bad behavior without that level of overreach into people's personal lives. (I expect others to disagree with me about some of this, so I don't want "I'd consider it really creepy if someone did X" to shut down discussion here; feel free to argue to the contrary if you disagree! But I'm guessing that a lot of what's scary here is the cancel-culture / horns-effect / scapegoating social dynamic, rather than the specifics of "which thing can I get attacked for?". So I wanted to speak to the general dynamic.)

Can you give examples of EAs harshly punishing visible failures that weren't matters of genuine unethical conduct? I can think of some pretty big visible failures that didn't lead to any significant backlash (and actually get held up as positive examples of orgs taking responsibility). For example, Evidence Action discovering that No Lean Season didn't work and terminating it, or GiveDirectly's recent fraud problems after suspending some of their standard processes to get out money in a war zone. Maybe people have different standards for failure in longtermist/meta EA stuff? 

To add sources to recent examples that come to mind that broadly support MHR's point above RE: visible (ex post) failures that don't seem to be harshly punished, (most seem somewhere between neutral to supportive, at least publicly).

Lightcone
Alvea
ALERT
AI Safety Support
EA hub
No Lean Season

Some failures that came with a larger proportion of critical feedback probably include the Carrick Flynn campaign (1, 2, 3), but even here "harshly punish" seems like an overstatement. HLI also comes to mind (and despite highly critical commentary in earlier posts, I think the highly positive response to this specific post is telling).

============

On the extent to which Nonlinear's failures relate to integrity / engineering, I think I'm sympathetic to both Rob's view:

I think the failures that seem like the biggest deal to me (Nonlinear threatening people and trying to shut down criticism and frighten people) genuinely are matters of character and lack of integrity, not matters of bad engineering.

As well as Holly's:

If you wouldn’t have looked at it before it imploded and thought the engineering was bad, I think that’s the biggest thing that needs to change. I’m concerned that people still think that

... (read more)

I was thinking of murkier cases like the cancelation of Leverage and people taking small infractions on SBF's part as foreshadowing of the fall of FTX (which I don't think was enough of an indications), but admittedly those all involve parties that are guilty of something. Maybe I'm just trying too hard to be fair or treat people the way I want to be treated when I make a mistake. 

"I’m concerned that people still think that if you have good enough character (or are smart enough, etc), you don’t need good boundaries and systems."

I strongly agree with this.

I think EA fails to recognise that traditional professional boundaries are a safeguard against tail risks and that these tail risks still remain when people appear to be kind / altruistic / rational.

5
Sharmake
Even though I don't think EA needs to totally replicate outside norms, I do agree that there are good reasons why quite a few norms exist. I'd say the biggest norms from outside that EA needs to adopt are less porous boundaries on work/dating, and importantly actually having normalish pay structures/work environments.

I agree about the bad engineering. Apart from boundary norms we might also want to consider making our organizations more democratic. This kind of power abuse is a lot harder when power is more equally distributed among the workers. Bosses making money while paying employees nothing or very little occurs everywhere, but co-ops tend to have a lot less inequality within firms. They also create higher job satisfaction, life satisfaction and social trust. Furthermore, research has shown that employees getting more ownership of the company is associated with higher perception of fairness, information sharing and cooperation. It's no wonder then that co-ops have a lower turnover rate.

EDIT: After Ben's comment I changed 'raking in profits' to 'making money'. I do think this proposal is relevant for the conversation since the low pay, bad work environment and worsening mental health are a big part of the problem described in the post.

Concerns about "bosses raking in profits" seem pretty weird to raise in a thread about a nonprofit, in a community largely comprised of nonprofits. There might be something in your proposal in general, but it doesn't seem relevant here.

Thanks for writing this post. It looks like it took a lot of effort that could have been spent on much more enjoyable activities, including your mainline work.

This isn’t a comment on the accuracy of the post (though it was a moderate update for me). I could imagine nonlinear providing compelling counter evidence over the next few days and I’d of course try to correct my beliefs in light of new evidence.

Posts like this one are a public good. I don’t think anyone is particularly incentivised to write them, and they seem pretty uncomfortable and effortful, but I believe they serve an important function in the community by helping to root out harmful actors and disincentivising harmful acts in the first place.

lilly
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This situation reminded me of this post, EA's weirdness makes it unusually susceptible to bad behavior. Regardless of whether you believe Chloe and Alice's allegations (which I do), it's hard to imagine that most of these disputes would have arisen under more normal professional conditions (e.g., ones in which employees and employers don't live together, travel the world together, and become romantically entangled). A lot of the things that (no one is disputing) happened here are professionally weird; for example, these anecdotes from Ben's summary of Nonlinear's response (also the linked job ad):

  • "Our intention wasn't just to have employees, but also to have members of our family unit who we traveled with and worked closely together with in having a strong positive impact in the world, and were very personally close with."
  • "We wanted to give these employees a pretty standard amount of compensation, but also mostly not worry about negotiating minor financial details as we traveled the world. So we covered basic rent/groceries/travel for these people."
  • "The formal employee drove without a license for 1-2 months in Puerto Rico. We taught her to drive, which she was excited about. You mi
... (read more)

Vulnerable EAs also want to follow only good norms while disposing of the bad ones!

If you offer people the heuristic "figure out if it's reasonable and only obey it if it is" then often they will fail.

You mention clear-cut examples, but oftentimes they will be very grey, or they will seem grey while being inside them. There may be several strong arguments why the norm isn't a good one; the bad actor will be earnest, apologetic, and trying to let you have your norm even though they don't believe in it. They may seem like a nice reasonable person trying to do the right thing in an awkward situation.

Following every norm would be quite bad. Socially enforced gendered cosmetics are disgusting and polyamory is pretty nifty.

Nonetheless, we must recognize that the same process that produces "polyamory is pretty nifty" will also produce in many people: "there's no reason I can't have a friendly relationship with my employer rather than an adversarial one" (these are the words they will use to describe the situation while living in their employer's house) and "I can date my boss if we are both ethical about it."

We must not look down on these people as though we'd never fall for it - everyone... (read more)

If someone uses the phrase "saving the world" on any level approaching consistent, run.

I use this phrase a lot, so if you think this phrase is a red flag, well, include me on the list of people who have that flag.

  • If someone pitches you on something that makes you uncomfortable, but for which you can't figure out your exact objection - or if their argument seems wrong but you don't see the precise hole in their logic - it is not abandoning your rationality to listen to your instinct.

Agreed (here, and with most of your other points). Instincts like those can be wrong, but they can also be right. "Rationality" requires taking all of the data into consideration, including illegible hunches and intuitions.

  • If someone says "the reputational risks to EA of you publishing this outweigh the benefits of exposing x's bad behavior. if there's even a 1% chance that AI risk is real, then this could be a tremendously evil thing to do", nod sagely then publish that they said that.

Agreed!

Yeah a quick search finds 10,000+ hits for comments about "saving the world") on this forum, many of which are by me. 

I do think the phrase is a bit childish and lacks some rigor, but I'm not sure what's a good replacement. "This project can avert 10^-9 to 10^-5 dooms defined as unendorsed human extinction or worse at 80% resilience" just doesn't quite have the same ring to it.

I do think the phrase is a bit childish and lacks some rigor

I think the phrase is imprecise, relative to phrases like "prevent human extinction" or "maximize the probability that the reachable universe ends up colonized by happy flourishing civilizations". But most of those phrases are long-winded, and it often doesn't matter in conversation exactly which version of "saving the world" you have in mind.

(Though it does matter, if you're working on existential risk, that people know you're being relatively literal and serious. A lot of people talk about "saving the planet" when the outcome they're worried about is, e.g., a 10% loss in current biodiversity, rather than the destruction of all future value in the observable universe.)

If a phrase is useful and tracks reality well, then if it sounds "childish" that's more a credit to children than a discredit to the phrase.

And I don't know what "lacks some rigor" means here, unless it's referring to the imprecision.

Mostly, I like "saves the world" because it owns my weird beliefs about the situation I think we're in, and states it bluntly so others can easily understand my view and push back against it if they disagree.

Being in a situation... (read more)

7
orthonormal
I don't think the problem stems from how important an organization thinks their work is. Emerson's meme company had no pretense to be world-saving, and yet had toxic dynamics as well. The problem is that high stakes are not a reason to suspend ethical injunctions or personal boundaries; those provide more protective value when applied to something with genuinely high stakes.

not negotiating financial details with your employees, covering your employees' rent and groceries

My impression is that it's very normal for employees to expense food and living costs during business travel without any negotiation, and that there exist common jobs where free room and board are a part of the compensation (e.g. working at a resort or on an oil rig).

being in any way involved in your employees breaking the law

I think it's fairly common for companies to ask their employees to break the law. (Often a bad thing, from society's perspective. But common.) I was asked to do it multiple times a day at a previous job. (A good job, at a well-regarded company. I'm not sure they even knew they were breaking the law until I pointed it out. Eventually they changed their practices -- possibly because it made very little difference to the bottom line.)

With regard to weirdness in general: The biggest mistakes I see the EA movement making -- with harms I estimate as far larger than harms in the OP -- are a result of insufficient weirdness, not excess weirdness. So I don't like to discourage weirdness in a blanket sort of way.

It's easy with the benefit of hindsight to point out a bunch of things which might have created a bad situation. What we really need is the ability to forecast the effects of individual norms in advance.

My thoughts, for those who want them:

  • I don't have much sympathy for those demanding a good reason why the post wasn't delayed. While I'm generally quite pro sharing posts with orgs, I think it's quite important that this doesn't give the org the right to delay or prevent the posting. This goes double given the belief of both the author and their witnesses that Nonlinear is not acting in good faith.
  • There seem to be enough uncontested/incontestable claims made in this post for me to feel comfortable recommending that junior folks in the community stay away from Nonlinear. These include asking employees to carry out illegal actions they're not comfortable with, and fairly flagrantly threatening employees with retaliation for saying bad things about them (Kat's text screenshotted above is pretty blatant here).
  • Less confidently, I would be fairly surprised if I come out of the other end of this, having seen Nonlinear's defence/evidence, and don't continue to see the expenses-plus-tiny-salary setup as manipulative and unhealthy.
  • More confidently than anything on this list, Nonlinear's threatening to sue Lightcone for Ben's post is completely unacceptable, decreases my sympathy for them by
... (read more)
5
Emerson Spartz
The reason we urge everyone to withhold judgment is because even what currently look like "uncontested/incontestable claims" are, in fact, very much contestable. For example: "(Kat's text screenshotted above is pretty blatant here)."  I agree that it does indeed look blatant here. But when you see the full context - the parts Alice conspicuously did not include - the meaning will change radically, to the point where you will likely question Alice's other claims and 'evidence'.

The problem with Kat’s text is that it’s a very thinly veiled threat to end someone’s career in an attempt to control Nonlinear’s image. There is no context that justifies such a threat.

Just for the record, I think there are totally contexts that could justify that threat. I would be surprised if one of those had occurred here, but I can totally imagine scenarios where the behavior in the screenshot is totally appropriate (or at the very least really not that bad, given the circumstances).

I really respect that even in the middle of all this you (and other members of the LW team) still team leave comments like these. 

I think serious mistakes were made in how this situation was handled but I have never doubted that you guys are trying your best to help the community, and comments like this are proof of that.

Could any realistic scenario justify both the threat and not dishing on the employees bad behavior when asked about them, in order to stop the employee bad-mouthing you though? Presumably someone would have to have behaved incredibly badly before threatening their career could possibly be appropriate, but then you surely shouldn't be prepared to tell friends and acquaintances at allied orgs that the person is fine, or keep silent about their misbehavior when asked about them. 

I'm particularly interested in whether or not they were encouraged to break the law for people who had financial and professional power over them, which seems less nuanced than 'how threatening is or isn't this WhatsApp exchange'.

9
RobBensinger
I'm not sure I've imagined a realistic justifying scenario yet, but in my experience it's very easy to just fail to think of an example even though one exists. (Especially when I'm baking in some assumptions without realizing I'm baking them in.)

Could be! I might end up with egg on my face here, in which case I will do my best to admit it. That said, my most important claim is my last: if you wanted me and others to truly withhold judgement, you really shouldn't have threatened to sue.

6
Emerson Spartz
I appreciate your willingness to update if we provide sufficient evidence to do so!

I concur with David. Irrespective of the circumstances, the threat is unmistakably apparent. It appears that thus far, both of you have issued threats to individuals, either to tarnish their reputation or to initiate legal action against them. Regrettably, these actions are not enhancing your own reputation. In fact, they are casting a shadow of suspicion upon you.

I have no personal insight on Nonlinear, but I want to chime in to say that I've been in other communities/movements where I both witnessed and directly experienced the effects of defamation-focused civil litigation. It was devastating. And I think the majority of the plaintiffs, including those arguably in the right, ultimately regretted initiating litigation. I sincerely hope this does not occur in the EA community. And I hope that threats of litigation are also discontinued. There are alternatives that are dramatically less monetarily and time-intensive, and more likely to lead to productive outcomes. I think normalizing (threats of) defmation-focused civil litigation is extremely detrimental to community functioning and community health.

Can you say anything more about what the effects of this litigation were?

There are alternatives that are dramatically less monetarily and time-intensive, and more likely to lead to productive outcomes. 

 

Could you say more about the alternatives approaches?

1
TracingWoodgrains
This comment on the LessWrong forums strikes me as a compelling rebuttal here. I don't deny that the effects of defamation-focused civil litigation can be devastating, but the effects of defamation itself are often at least as bad. Before making this post, which caused enormous reputational damage to Nonlinear (a group I heard about only through this drama), Ben spent a total of three hours hearing their responses and refused to give them requested time to make more of their side clear in advance. Inasmuch as he got anything wrong in it, the errors are serious and have caused serious damage of precisely the sort that courts are a last-resort remedy for. People should not feel like they have no recourse beyond submitting to the court of public opinion, with all its flaws and biases. I'm mostly an outsider to the EA community, and while I respect the people within it as clear thinkers, I don't trust "keep it in the family" as the sole approach with EA more than I do in any other community. I believe that in a case like this, a threat of a defamation lawsuit should be seen not as a dramatic escalation, but as a predictable and proportionate response to a threat to destroy someone's reputation within their own community, independent of the merits of either party's claim. It's not straightforwardly clear to me that one causes more devastation than the other.

Some thoughts on the general discussion:

(1) some people are vouching for Kat's character. This is useful information, but it's important to note that behaving badly is very compatible with having many strengths, treating one's friends well, etc. Many people who have done terrible things are extremely charismatic and charming, and even well-meaning or altruistic. It's hard to think bad things about one's friends, but unfortunately it's something we all need to be open to. (I've definitely in the past not taken negative allegations against someone as seriously as I should have, because they were my friend).

(2) I think something odd about the comments claiming that this post is full of misinformation, is that they don't correct any of the misinformation. Like, I get that assembling receipts, evidence etc can take a while, and writing a full rebuttal of this would take a while. But if there are false claims in the post, pick one and say why it's false. 

This makes these interventions seem less sincere to me, because I think if someone posted a bunch of lies about me, in my first comments/reactions I would be less concerned about the meta appropriateness of the post having been post... (read more)

Just to clarify, nonlinear has now picked one claim and provided screen shots relevant to it, I’m not sure if you saw that.

I also want to clarify that I gave Ben a bunch of very specific examples of information in his post that I have evidence are false (responding to the version he sent me hours before publication). He hastily attempted to adjust his post to remove or tweak some of his claims right before publishing based on my discussing these errors with him. It’s a lot easier (and vastly less time consuming) to provide those examples in a private one-on-one with Ben than to provide them publicly (where, for instance, issues of confidentially become much more complicated, and where documentation and wording need to be handled with extreme care, quite different than the norms of conversation).

The easiest to explain example is that Ben claimed a bunch of very bad sounding quotes from Glassdoor were about Emerson that clearly weren’t (he hadn’t been at the company for years when those complaints were written). Ben acknowledged somewhere in the comments that those were indeed not about Emerson and so that was indeed false information in the original version of the post.

My understand... (read more)

Spencer -- good reply. 

The crux here is about 'how bad it is to make public, false, potentially damaging claims about people, and the standard of care/evidence required before making those claims'.

I suspect there are two kinds of people most passionately involved in this dialogue here on EA Forum: 

(1) those who have personally experienced being harmed by false, damaging claims (e.g. libel, slander) in the past (which includes me, for example) -- who tend to focus on the brutal downsides of reckless accusations that aren't properly researched, and 

(2) those who have been harmed by people who should have been called out earlier, but where nobody had the guts to be a whistle-blower before -- who tend to focus on the downsides of failing to report bad behavior in a quick and effective and public way.

I think if everybody does a little soul-searching about which camp they fall into, and is a little more upfront about their possible personal biases around these issues, the quality of discourse might be higher.

7
Rebecca
Glassdoor states that 14 of the reviews were about Emerson. I'm not able to view all the reviews to verify this myself. Are you able to confirm that none of those 14 reviews were about Emerson? If that's the case, it seems like an error that Emerson would benefit from trying to get fixed.

Hi Rebecca. To clarify: that’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that in the version Ben showed me hours before publication none of the disparaging Glassdoor comments he used in the post (that he claimed were all about Emerson) were actually about Emerson. He has acknowledged this point. Based on me pointing this out, he hastily fix these mistakes before releasing the public version, hence you won’t find this error in the version of his post above. I use this as an example of just one of a number of what I see as important errors (based on the evidence I have access to) in his draft that was shared with me right before publishing, which made me fear his research was done in a biased, sloppy and/or error prone way, with (from my point of view) not enough care being taken to avoid making false harmful claims.

6
Tiresias
I agree and disagree. I agree that making false claims is serious and people should take great care to avoid it. And your ultimate conclusion that we should reserve final judgment until we see counter evidence sounds right to me. But I disagree with holding all misconduct reports to incredibly high standards, such that in a report with as many allegations as this, people feel the report is basically wrong if it includes a few misinterpretations.  In an ideal world, yes, all summaries of patterns of misconduct would not contain any errors. But in reality, I've found that almost all allegations of behaviors that turn out to be -- for all intents and purposes -- true, contain some level of mistakes, misattributions, specific allegations that are overstated. People who allege misconduct are under intense scrutiny. And absolutely, scrutiny is warranted. But as someone who has reported misconduct and spoken to other people that report misconduct, the expectation of perfection is, to put it mildly, chilling. It means people do not come forward, it means people who do come forward are further traumatized, it means allegations that are 80% truthful are dismissed outright.  Does a third or more of what Ben wrote comport with your general understanding? If so, these allegations are still concerning to me. And on the Kat screenshots/food question, I do not think they delegitimize what Ben wrote here. At worst, Ben somewhat overstated the food situation. But, my overall impression from those screenshots was what Alice said was basically true. Kat's framing of what the screenshots say make me doubt Kat's account more, not less. I'll also say as someone who has experienced harassment, that people really underestimate how much bias they have towards their friends accused of misconduct. Friends of the harasser would say things to defend their friend that to most people would seem pretty obviously wrong, like "he probably wasn't going to follow through on the threat, so him mak

Thanks Tiresias for your thoughtful comments. I agree with much of what you say but I seemingly have a few important differences of opinion:


"I disagree with holding all misconduct reports to incredibly high standards, such that in a report with as many allegations as this, people feel the report is basically wrong if it includes a few misinterpretations. In an ideal world, yes, all summaries of patterns of misconduct would not contain any errors. But in reality, I've found that almost all allegations of behaviors that turn out to be -- for all intents and purposes -- true, contain some level of mistakes, misattributions, specific allegations that are overstated."

I agree. I don't think I was holding the report to an incredibly high standard though. When I read it I was immediately chagrined by the amount and severity of false information (i.e., false as far as I can tell based on the evidence I have access to). I was also distressed that Ben was not seeking out evidence he could have easily gotten from nonlinear.


"People who allege misconduct are under intense scrutiny. And absolutely, scrutiny is warranted. But as someone who has reported misconduct and spoken to other people that r

... (read more)

Hi Amber. We were working as fast as we could on examples of the evidence. We have since posted this comment here, demonstrating Alice claiming that nobody in the house got her vegan food when we have evidence that we did. 

The claim in the post was “Alice claims she was sick with covid in a foreign country, with only the three Nonlinear cofounders around, but nobody in the house was willing to go out and get her vegan food, so she barely ate for 2 days.”. (Bolding added)

If you follow the link, you’ll see we have screenshots demonstrating that:

1. There was vegan food in the house, which we offered her. 

2. I personally went out, while I was sick myself, to buy vegan food for her (mashed potatoes) and cooked it for her and brought it to her.

I have empathy for Alice. She was hungry (because of her fighting with a boyfriend [not Drew] in the morning and having a light breakfast) and sick. That sucks, and I feel for her. And that’s why I tried (and succeeded) in getting her food. 

I would be fine if she told people that she was hungry when she was sick, and she felt sad and stressed. Or that she was hungry but wasn’t interested in any of the food we had in th... (read more)

(2) I think something odd about the comments claiming that this post is full of misinformation, is that they don't correct any of the misinformation. Like, I get that assembling receipts, evidence etc can take a while, and writing a full rebuttal of this would take a while. But if there are false claims in the post, pick one and say why it's false. 

Seconding this. 

I would be pretty interested to read a comment from nonlinear folks listing out everything that they believe to be false in the narrative as stated, even if they can't substantiate their counter-claims yet.

I agree that if it were just a few disputed claims that would be a a reasonable thing to do, there are so many. And there is so much nuance.

Here is one example, however. This took us hours to prepare, just to rebut a single false claim:

https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/5pksH3SbQzaniX96b/a-quick-update-from-nonlinear

Crostposted from LessWong (link)

Maybe I'm missing something, but it seems like it should take less than an hour to read the post, make a note of every claim that's not true, and then post that list of false claims, even if it would take many days to collect all the evidence that shows those points are false.

I imagine that would be helpful for you, because readers are much more likely to reserve judgement if you listed which specific things are false. 

Personally, I could look over that list and say "oh yeah, number 8 [or whatever] is cruxy for me. If that turns out not to be true, I think that substantially changes my sense of the situation.", and I would feel actively interested in what evidence you provide regarding that point later.  And it would let you know which points to prioritize refuting, because you would know which things are cruxy for people reading.

In contrast, a generalized bid to reserve judgement because "many of the important claims were false or extremely misleading"...well, it just seems less credible, and so leaves me less willing to actually reserve judgement.

Indeed, deferring on producing such a list of claims-you-think-are-false suggests the possibi... (read more)

I would think you could go through the post and list out 50 bullet points of what you plan to contest in a couple of hours.

4
Ruby
Or if it's majority false, pick out the things you think are actually true, implying everything else you contest!
-19
Morpheus_Trinity

I've confirmed with a commenter here, whom left a comment positive of non-linear, that they were asked to leave that comment by nonlinear. I think this is low-integrity behaviour on behalf of nonlinear, and an example of brigading. I would appreciate the forum team looking into this. 

Edit: I have been asked to clarify that they were encouraged to comment ’by nonlinear, rather than asked to comment positively (or anything in particular).

I think asking your friends to vouch for you is quite possibly okay, but that people should disclose there was a request.

It's different evidence between "people who know you who saw this felt motivated to share their perspective" vs "people showed up because it was requested". 

Yeah, this seems right.

I'm not sure that should count as brigading or unethical in these circumstances as long as they didn't ask people to vote a particular way.

Remember that even though Ben is only a single author, he spent a bunch of time gathering negative information from various sources[1]. I think that in order to be fair, we need to allow them to ask people to present the other side of the story. Also consider: if Kat or Emerson had posted a comment containing a bunch of positive comments from people, then I expect that everyone would be questioning why those people hadn't made the comments themselves.

I think it might also be helpful to think about it from the opposite perspective. Would anyone accuse me of brigading if I theoretically knew other people who had negative experiences with Nonlinear and suggested that they might want to chime in?

If not, then we've created an asymmetry where people are allowed to do things in terms of criticism, but not in terms of defense, which seems like a mistake to me.

That said, it is useful for us to know that some of these comments were solicited.

Disclaimer: I formerly interned at Nonlinear. I don't want my meta-level stance to be taken as support of the actio... (read more)

9
ElliotJDavies
Said very quickly: I will defer to the EA Forum team on this. If anybody here was asked to comment by nonlinear, please let the forum team know so they can create decisions and norms around this. You can send a message to Lizka (choosing Lizka, because she's the most well recognised/trusted, you can also contact other members of the moderation team).  I am not sure if you're arguing: (1) that this is not brigading or (2) even if it is brigading, brigading is not detrimental. But I can go through both (1) There's been limited discussion on the EA forum about the concept of brigading, that mostly focused on "vote brigading". But if I point to a website that's more experienced in brigading being used to distort discussion, reddit, they consider leaving comments to be brigading:    (Bold is mine) I suspect most with reddit mod or admin experience would consider what happened to be brigading, because: A) You're over-representing a certain opinion. One might want to use the ratio of comments to quickly determine who is right/wrong, comment brigading distorts this metric. B) You're increasing the flow of team A people, on a team B post, leading to distorted voting, distorted replies (and as discussed, distorted comments)  You discuss whether it's acceptable for different actors to engage in coordinated comment posting. I'd argue, and wager that the EA forum team agrees, that it's pretty much always unacceptable to engage in concealed coordinated forum engagement.    Yes. Please disclose if you ever do anything like this. It's absolutely brigading.  (2) I have a few key areas of disagreement with this angle  A) the positive comments being left, are largely irrelevant. If the claim is "Kat encouraged me to drive without a license" then no amount of "I have had great experiences with Kat at EAGs" is relevant.  B) Early on, these comments had the potential to set the trajectory of discussion. If you have a model of the forum, where everybody shares perspectives unbiase

A) the positive comments being left, are largely irrelevant. If the claim is "Kat encouraged me to drive without a license" then no amount of "I have had great experiences with Kat at EAGs" is relevant. 

I completely agree "I have had great experiences with Kat at EAGs" is irrelevant to the claim "Kat encouraged me to drive without a license", which is why I've been pretty clear in my comments that I don't see Nonlinear leadership coming out looking good after this.

At the same time, this post isn't narrowly focused on this issue or just a few issues, but rather seems like a summary of the negative things that Ben found out when he started investigating Nonlinear.

So I think "it's off-topic" could have been a valid position had Ben chosen a narrower focus, but I don't think that applies in general given this particular case. On the other hand, if you think any specific comments are a distraction, I'd encourage you to (politely!) pick one or two of them (perhaps the top-voted) and explain why the comment is a distraction from the real issues here.
 

Just to finish on a question, if Kat had asked N number of people to chime in, at what point would you think it's excessive? I.e.

... (read more)

I'm a friend of Kat's and spoke to her about this situation. At the end of the conversation she asked me to post a comment (which I'd been meaning to do anyways), but made it clear that I should do it only if I wanted to and that there was no pressure at all for me to do so. The way she did this was quite wholesome, to the point that it stuck with me; I could feel that she really meant what she said (i.e. she really cared that I only post if I wanted to), and I did not in fact feel any pressure in the request.

Will Aldred
Moderator Comment20
4
0
1

Just a note to say that we—the moderators—began looking into this two days ago. The current status is that Elliot has let the user who was allegedly asked to comment by Nonlinear know to reach out to us, if they are comfortable, so that we might determine whether what has happened here is an instance of brigading.

At this point, it seems worth mentioning that it is not the opinion of the moderators that every activity that looks like this is brigading. See the linked post for our full take on brigading: the summary is “your vote (or comment) should be your own”.

Good work. It occurred to me that this might be happening but I didn’t do the sleuth work. Thanks.

-12
Morpheus_Trinity

Hi all, I wanted to chime in because I have had conversations relevant to this post with just about all involved parties at various points. I've spoken to "Alice" (both while she worked at nonlinear and afterward), Kat (throughout the period when the events in the post were alleged to have happened and afterward), Emerson, Drew, and (recently) the author Ben, as well as, to a much lesser extent, "Chloe" (when she worked at nonlinear). I am (to my knowledge) on friendly terms with everyone mentioned (by name or pseudonym) in this post. I wish well for everyone involved. I also want the truth to be known, whatever the truth is.

I was sent a nearly final draft of this post yesterday (Wednesday), once by Ben and once by another person mentioned in the post.
 

I want to say that I find this post extremely strange for the following reasons:
 

(1) The nearly final draft of this post that I was given yesterday had factual inaccuracies that (in my opinion and based on my understanding of the facts) are very serious despite ~150 hours being spent on this investigation. This makes it harder for me to take at face value the parts of the post that I have no knowledge of. &nb... (read more)

(Copying over the same response I posted over on LW)

I don't have all the context of Ben's investigation here, but as someone who has done investigations like this in the past, here are some thoughts on why I don't feel super sympathetic to requests to delay publication: 

In this case, it seems to me that there is a large and substantial threat of retaliation. My guess is Ben's sources were worried about Emerson hiring stalkers, calling their family, trying to get them fired from their job, or threatening legal action. Having things be out in the public can provide a defense because it is much easier to ask for help if the conflict happens in the open. 

As a concrete example, Emerson has just sent me an email saying: 

Given the irreversible damage that would occur by publishing, it simply is inexcusable to not give us a bit of time to correct the libelous falsehoods in this document, and if published as is we intend to pursue legal action for libel against Ben Pace personally and Lightcone for the maximum damages permitted by law. The legal case is unambiguous and publishing it now would both be unethical and gross negligence, causing irreversible damage.

For the record, ... (read more)

I think it is reasonable to share information without providing people the opportunity to respond if you’re worried they’ll abuse your generosity (which may indeed have been Ben’s reasoning here), but I’m generally against the norm of not waiting for a response if the main reason is “can’t be bothered” *.

I guess my reasoning here is the drama can consume a community if it let it, so I would prefer that we choose our norms to minimise unnecessary drama.

(I don’t want this comment to be taken as a defense of Nonlinear leadership in relation to these claims. I want to be clear that I am very disappointed with what they have admitted even if we were to imagine that nothing else claimed is true. I should mention that I interned at Nonlinear and was subsequently invited to collaborate with them on Superlinear, but I turned this down because of some of the rumours I was hearing).

  • I’ll add that I’m more sympathetic to the victim of something deciding to just post it than a third party bc third parties are generally more able to bear that burden.

This case seems to me to be fairly clearly covered by the second paragraph, and also, Nonlinear's response to "I am happy to discuss your concerns publicly in the comments" was to respond with "I will sue you if you publish these concerns"

agreed

7
aprilsun
I don't understand how people would be at greater risk of retaliation if the post was delayed by a week? I also want to make sure people realise that there's a huge difference between "I will stalk you / call your family / get you fired" and "I will sue you" in terms of what counts as threats/intimidation/retaliation [edit: e.g. if Alice had threatened to sue Nonlinear that wouldn't be considered retaliation, whereas threatening to call their family would be worrying], so I don't think Emerson's email is a particularly strong confirmation that the "large and substantial threat of retaliation" is real. If Ben is worried about losing 40 hours of productive time by responding to Nonlinear's evidence in private, he doesn't have to. He could just allow them to put together their side of the story, ready for publishing when he publishes his own post. Similarly, if he's worried about them manipulating him with their charisma, he could just agree to delay and then stop reading/responding to their messages. This way readers can still read both sides of the story at once, rather than read the most juicy side, tell all their friends the latest gossip, and carry on with their lives as the post drops off the frontpage.

I don't understand how people would be at greater risk of retaliation if the post was delayed by a week?

It is a lot easier to explain to your employer or your friends or your colleagues what is happening if you can just link them to a public post, if someone is trying to pressure you. That week in which the person you are scared of has access to the post, but the public does not, is a quite vulnerable week, in my experience.

I also want to make sure people realise that there's a huge difference between "I will stalk you / call your family / get you fired" and "I will sue you" in terms of what counts as threats/intimidation/retaliation, so I don't think Emerson's email is a particularly strong confirmation that the "large and substantial threat of retaliation" is real.

I think threatening a libel lawsuit with the intensity that Emerson did strikes me as above "calling my family" in terms of what counts as threats/intimidation/retaliation, especially if you are someone who does not have the means for a legal defense (which would be true of Ben's sources for this post). Libel suits are really costly, and a quite major escalation.

If Ben is worried about losing 40 hours of productive time

... (read more)
6
Linch
I think there's different versions of "call your family" that suggests different levels of escalation.  * Tell your family compromising facts about you (bad and scary, but probably less scary than having to mount a legal defense) * Threaten your family, implicitly or explicitly (the type of thing that predictably leads people to being terrified)
3
JoshuaBlake
Thank you for taking the time to clearly and patiently explain these dynamics. They're not obvious to me, as someone who's never experienced anything similar.
5
Fermi–Dirac Distribution
Does Lightcone have liability insurance? Or any kind of legal insurance or something similar that covers the litigation costs involved in defamation lawsuits? I think posts like these are important, it would be sad if there wasn’t a way to easily protect whistleblowers from having to spend a lot of money fighting a defamation case. 

My current model is that we have enough money to defend against a defamation lawsuit like this. The costs are high, but we also aren't a super small organization (we have a budget of like $3M-$4M a year), so I think we could absorb it if it happened, and my guess is we could fundraise additionally if the costs somehow ballooned above that. 

I looked a bit into liability insurance but it seemed like a large pain, and not worth it given that we are probably capable of self-insuring.

-1
Josh Jacobson
I’m pretty surprised it seemed like a large pain. In my experience it’s been easy to secure.

I might be confused here, but it sure seemed easy to hand over money, but hard to verify that the insurance would actually kick in in the relevant situation, and wouldn't end up being voided for some random reason.

1
Josh Jacobson
Yeah, that can be significant work.
3
Joel Becker
God bless your clear thinking and strong stance-taking, Habryka.
-19
Emerson Spartz
[anonymous]37
7
0

The nearly final draft of this post that I was given yesterday had factual inaccuracies that (in my opinion and based on my understanding of the facts) are very serious

 

Why am I, an outsider on this whole thing, finding serious errors in the final hours before publication?

 

I was disturbed to see serious inaccuracies

 

Can you give some examples of the serious errors you found? 

Yes, here two examples, sorry I can’t provide more detail:

-there were claims in the post made about Emerson that were not actually about Emerson at all (they were about his former company years after he left). I pointed this out to Ben hours before publication and he rushed to correct it (in my view it’s a pretty serious mistake to make false accusations about a person, I see this as pretty significant)!

-there was also a very disparaging claim made in the piece (I unfortunately can’t share the details for privacy reasons; but I assume nonlinear will later) that was quite strongly contradicted by a text message exchange I have

To confirm: I had a quickly written bit about the glassdoor reviews. It was added in without much care because it wasn't that cruxy to me about the whole situation, just a red flag that suggested further investigation was worth it, that someone else suggested I add for completeness. The reviews I included were from after the time that Emerson's linkedin says he was CEO, and I'm glad that Spencer corrected me.

If I'm remembering the other one, there was also a claim that I included not because it was itself obviously unethical, but because it seemed to indicate a really invasive social environment, and when I think information has been suppressed I have strong heuristics suggesting to share worrying information even if it isn't proven or necessarily bad. Anyway, Spencer said he was confident in a very different narrative of events, so I edited it the comment to be more minor.

In general I think Spencer's feedback on this and other points improved the post (though he also had some inaccurate information).

4
orthonormal
If the disparaging claim is in the piece, it makes no sense to me that you can't specify which claim it is.

I think the idea is that it was in a draft but got edited out last-minute? That seems to be corroborated by Ben's comment.

3
IrenaK
To me, this is the biggest red flag in this whole situation. My work has been written about by journalists, with both negative spins and actual factual inaccuracies and whenever this happens, my first response is: here is where you are wrong, and here is the truth. Which, I know, because it's about me and I know what happened (at least according to me).  If someone doesn't believe me and they want the "receipts", I can provide these later, but I don't need them to dispute the claim in the first place. I understand this piece has a lot of information and responding to everything can take time but again, but the broad strokes shouldn't take this long.  In fact, it seems that Nonlinear already had a chance to dispute some of the claims when they had their lengthy interview with Ben and it seems that they did because the piece says, multiple times, that there are conflicting claims from both parties about what happened. I'm unclear Nonlinear want to clarify and prove these in their favor or if they want to dispute additional claims that they have not disputed before. Either way, the vagueness is concerning and in my experience, it is a sign of possibly buying more time to figure out a spin.  

Could this be an instance of the rationalist tendency to "decouple"?

From one perspective, Ben is simply "Sharing information about nonlinear." What's wrong with providing additional information? It's even caveated with a description of one's epistemic status and instruction on how to update accordingly! Why don't we all have such a "low bar for publicly sharing critical info about folks in the EA/x-risk/rationalist/etc ecosystem"?

From another perspective, Ben has chosen to "search for negative information about the Nonlinear cofounders" and then - without inviting or even permitting the accused party to share their side of the story in advance - share it in a public space full of agents whose tendency to gossip is far stronger than their tendency to update in an appropriately Bayesian manner (i.e. human beings).

I suspect Ben does in fact have some understanding of the political dimension of his decision to share this post, but I think his behaviour is more understandable when you consider that he's embedded in a culture that encourages people to ignore the political consequences of what they say.

without inviting or even permitting the accused party to share their side of the story in advance

You may have missed the section where I had a 3hr call with them and summarized what they told me? It's not everything we'd want but I think this sentence is inaccurate.

I suspect Ben does in fact have some understanding of the political dimension of his decision to share this post

Of course I do! I thought about it a bunch and came to the conclusion that it's best to share serious and credible accusations early and fast.

From another perspective, Ben has chosen to "search for negative information about the Nonlinear cofounders" and then - without inviting or even permitting the accused party to share their side of the story in advance - share it in a public space full of agents whose tendency to gossip is far stronger than their tendency to update in an appropriately Bayesian manner (i.e. human beings).

I'm confused - wouldn't you consider the "Conversation with Nonlinear" section to be letting the accused party share their side of the story in advance?

5
Mateusz Bagiński
Possibly naive question: if Non-Linear have material that undeniably rebuts these accusations and they only need to sort it out/organize for presentation, why not publish it in a disorganized/scrambled format, sort it out later and then publish clean/sorted out version? In this way, they will at least show that they're not scheming anything and are honest about why they asked Ben to delay the post. What am I missing?

I don't know, but I know that negotiating confidentiality is a major part that often takes a lot of calendar time. They might have emails or text chats from people that they would like to share, but they first need to get permission to share, or at least provide adequate warning. This can definitely take a few days in my experience.

4
Mateusz Bagiński
Makes sense, thanks

It might simply take a lot of time to track it all down. If there was one big Google Doc with all of the relevant information in a disorganized/scrambled format (and it didn't have other information, such as someone's social security number), then it might make sense to share the messy information and organize it later. But what is more likely is that there are tidbits of information scattered across dozens of email threads, chat groups, slack channels, Google Calendars, etc., and that merely copying and pasting a bunch of stuff into a messy Google Doc would take many, many hours.

9
Chris Leong
That's an interesting idea, but presenting information badly is a good way of ensuring people tune out when you present your final version. I wonder about versions of this scheme where someone holds an unorganised version in escrow to be released alongside the organised version? However, I'm not really sure if that would work either. Suppose you might have relevant texts where it isn't clear whether they contain confidential information or not. Like in some cases, you may actually need to have a discussion about what is okay to share and what is not. Just quickly dumping a bunch of information out there is an easy way to accidentally do further harm. Disclaimer: Previously interned at Nonlinear. This comment previously said that I didn't have knowledge of what information Nonlinear is yet to release, but then I just realised that I actually do know a few things.
2
burner
This is really weird to me. These allegations have been circling for over a year, and presumably Nonlinear has known about this piece for months now. Why do they still need to get their evidence together? And even if they do - just due to extraneous circumstances - why do they feel so entitled to the piece being held for a week, when they have had ample time to collect their side of the story. 

To be clear I only informed them about my planned writeup on Friday.

(The rest of the time lots of other people involved were v afraid of retaliation and intimidation and I wanted to respect that while gathering evidence. I believe if I hadn't made that commitment to people then I wouldn't have gotten the evidence.)

6
burner
Thanks - more sympathetic to the ask in that case, though I don't think you were obliged to wait. 
2
Rubi J. Hudson
With regards to #2, I shared your concern, and I thought Habryka's response didn't justify that the cost of a brief delay was sufficient if there was a realistic chance of evidence being provided to contradict the main point of this post. However, upon reflection, I am skeptical that such evidence will be provided. Why did Nonlinear not provide at least some of the proof they claim to have, in order to justify time for a more comprehensive rebuttal? Or at least describe the form the proof will take? That should be possible, if they have specific evidence in mind. Also, a week seems like longer time than should be needed to provide such proof, which increases my suspicion that they're playing for time. What does delaying for a week do that a 48h delay would not? Edit: Nonlinear has begun posting some evidence. I remain skeptical that the bulk of the evidence supports their side of the narrative, but I no longer find the lack of posting evidence as a reason for additional suspicion.

The vast majority of people should probably be withholding judgment and getting back to work for the next week until Nonlinear can respond.

I'm contributing to it now, but it's a bit of a shame that this post has 183 comments at the time of writing when the post is not even a day old and not being on the front page. EA seems drawn to drama and controversy and it would accomplish its goals much better if it were more able to focus on more substantive posts.

For me, this is a substantive post. Nonlinear do a lot of "meta" EA work so their business practices and future matter to me

Fwiw “EA seems drawn to drama” is a take I’ve heard before and I feel like it’s kind of misleading. The truth is probably closer to “small communities are drawn to drama, EA is also drawn to drama and should (maybe) try to mitigate this”. It’s not super clear to me whether EA is worse or better than it’s reference class. Modelling the community as unusually bad is easy to say from the inside and could lead us to correct against drama in the wrong ways

I’m one of the Community Liaisons for CEA’s Community Health and Special Projects team. The information shared in this post is very troubling. There is no room in our community for manipulative or intimidating behaviour.

We were familiar with many (but not all) of the concerns raised in Ben’s post based on our own investigation. We’re grateful to Ben for spending the time pursuing a more detailed picture, and grateful to those who supported Alice and Chloe during a very difficult time. 

We talked to several people currently or formerly involved in Nonlinear about these issues, and took some actions as a result of what we heard. We plan to continue working on this situation. 

From the comments on this post, I’m guessing that some readers are trying to work out whether Kat and Emerson’s intentions were bad. However, for some things, intentions might not be very decision-relevant. In my opinion, meta work like incubating new charities, advising inexperienced charity entrepreneurs, and influencing funding decisions should be done by people with particularly good judgement about how to run strong organisations, in addition to having admirable intentions. 

I’m looking forward to seeing what information Nonlinear shares in the coming weeks.  

Re “work like incubating new charities, advising inexperienced charity entrepreneurs, and influencing funding decisions should be done by people with particularly good judgement about how to run strong organisations, in addition to having admirable intentions”, I think this is the single best sentence that has been written on this so far.

We were familiar with many (but not all) of the concerns raised in Ben’s post based on our own investigation.

What happened as a result of this, before Ben posted? 

3
Catherine Low
Hey Agrippa, this comment provides a partial answer. 

Hmm. I think if I had been in an abusive situation such as the ones OP describes, and I (privately) went to the Community Health team about it, and the only outcomes were what you just listed, I would have considered it a waste of my time and emotional energy. 

Edit: waste of my time relative to "going public", that is.

I assume the actions you’ve taken can’t be shared? (No pressure if it can’t).

Thanks for asking Yadav. I can confirm that:

  • Nonlinear has not been invited or permitted to run sessions or give talks relating to their work, or host a recruiting table at EAG and EAGx conferences this year. 
  • Kat ran a session on a personal topic at EAG Bay Area 2023 in February. EDIT: Kat, Emerson and Drew also had a community office hour slot at that conference
    Since then we have not invited or permitted Kat or Emerson to run any type of session.
  • We have been considering blocking them from attending future conferences since May, and were planning on making that decision if/when Kat or Emerson applied to attend a future conference.

Are you familiar with any concerns about nonlinear not raised in Ben's post? Ben seems particularly concerned that nonlinear creates an epistemic environment where he wouldn't know if there was more. If there is, that seems pretty central to confirming Ben's concerns.

5
Tiresias
Can you share what you mean by "intimidating behavior"? How does the community health team define, "intimidating behavior"?
-2
Morpheus_Trinity
Could you kindly provide information regarding the initial reporting of the case to the Community Health committee, along with the identity of the individual or individuals entrusted with the case's investigation? Is it within the realm of possibility that the relationship between Julia Wise and Kat Woods, as evidenced by the content accessible via the following link: https://juliawise.net/interview-with-kat-woods-decision-making-about-having-kids/, may have influenced the expeditiousness with which the Community Health committee executed pertinent actions? Your assertion that, "We were familiar with many (but not all) of the concerns raised ...," piques curiosity as to which specific concerns had been previously acknowledged. Furthermore, could you elucidate the methodologies employed to ascertain their veracity? In the spirit of transparency, and recognizing the historical underreporting tendencies of certain individuals like Julia Wise, it would be appreciated if you could enumerate the precise steps undertaken in the course of taking actions as alluded to. Given the gravity of allegations, such as the solicitation of recreational substances from employees and the encouragement of unlicensed driving, is there not ample cause for the temporary suspension of individuals such as Emerson and Kat from participation in community events and forum activities? What threshold of misconduct would necessitate the Community Health committee to perceive such behavior as detrimental to the Effective Altruism community, thus contravening its mission and setting an undesirable precedent for newcomers? To facilitate a clearer understanding of the investigative timeline, could you please divulge the duration of the ongoing investigation, its commencement date, and your projected timeline for the publication of conclusive findings?

is there not ample cause for the temporary suspension of individuals such as Emerson and Kat from participation in ... forum activities

No, because if nothing else you need to give them time to respond. 

8
Linch
This sneaks in the presumption that publication is a good idea and a good use of CH time? I haven't seen much positive evidence for this proposition, and indeed I'm seeing some negative evidence, live.
8
Catherine Low
I understand your desire to know this information, Morpheus_Trinity. I’m sorry but we’re not in a position to share all that information here. This comment provides a partial answer.
4
David Mathers
I admire what your doing here overall in terms of keeping up pressure on the Community Health team to do something about bad actors and asking tough questions, but I don't see what in that link supports the claim Kat Woods and Julia Wise are particularly close. I mean it's reasonable to suspect that if a small blog interviews someone from a small world like EA, the interviewee is a close friend of the blogger. But it's very far from guaranteed, and no closeness is mentioned in the blog post itself.

I think the pertinent question here is primarily not "Were Kat and Julia close", but "What standard should we hold the Community Health team to here". If you updated significantly negatively on Julia/the Community Health team due to recent events, you might want to hold them to a standard closer to the one Morpheus is proposing. This is especially true if you view the cause of inaction closer to some kind of deferral/information cascade (they are well-established and well-regarded members of the EA community), rather than due to Julia's close personal relationship with the people in question. I do think this may be a good opportunity for the community health team to regain some trust though, and I would be interested in hearing more about the Community Health team's involvement too, and whether we should be understanding this as "Ben spent his time on something that the Community Health team should have done but actively deprioritized", or "The Community Health team played an active role in this investigation", or something else.

For what it's worth, I actually strongly upvoted Morpheus' comment. I just think 'she once interviewed her' is a bit unfair to cite as somehow evidence of corruption, regardless of how confident people should be in Julia Wise overall.

Hello!

I’m Minh, Nonlinear intern from September 2022 to April 2023. The last time allegations of bad practices came up, I reiterated that I had a great time working at Nonlinear. Since this post is >10,000 words, I’m not able to address everything, both because:

  1. I literally can’t write that much.
  2. I can’t speak for interactions between Nonlinear and Alice/Chloe, because everything I’ve heard on this topic is secondhand.

I’m just sharing my own experience with Nonlinear, and interpreting specific claims made about Kat/Emerson’s character/interaction styles based on my time with Nonlinear. In fact, I’m largely assuming Alice and Chloe are telling the truth, and speaking in good faith.

Disclaimers

In the interest of transparency, I’d like to state:

  1. I have never been approached in this investigation, nor was I aware of it. I find this odd, because … if you’re gonna interview dozens of people about a company’s unethical treatment of employees, why wouldn’t you ask the recent interns? Nonlinear doesn’t even have that many people to interview, and I was very easy to find/reach. So that’s … odd.
  2. I was not asked to write this comment. I just felt like it. It’s been a while since I’ve writte
... (read more)

Hi Minh, Appreciate you sharing your views publicly here. I think you're acting in good faith, and if others engage with this comment I hope they see that as well. 

I think it's very possible the Nonlinear team handled different employees very differently, especially since you started interning with them after Alice and Chloe had left and from Nonlinear's account, it sounds like they made some changes (e.g. not having employees live and work with them).

Overall, I don't think I've updated my views much as a result of this comment. I won't cite every example in detail to save time, and won't have capacity to do write it up publicly but happy to talk about it off the Forum, but here's a quick overview of why I haven't:

1) Most of the points you comment on here seem to be your interpretation of the accounts of the post. It seems like you don't necessarily have a unique perspective on at least the first point, and overall I don't agree with the conclusions you draw based on the evidence provided in the original post (e.g. the point about intimidation and Emerson)

I don't think you are always engaging with all the context of the post (e.g. I think more so than talking about tactics, Em... (read more)

Oh yeah, don’t take this as a direct refutation of Alice/Chloe's accounts. I definitely agree that the context was different. If the claims are true, then yeah, that sounds really bad.

Re: Core Claims

For the “core claims”. I have a personal opinion that these claims started from unfortunate, honest misunderstanding, and were substantively exaggerated. But those claims are specific and very sensitive. Clearly, at least one party involved is misleading people. So I’ll let Kat/Emerson represent themselves with whatever evidence they showed me.

Re: Patterns of behaviour

I’m addressing parts of the post that cite other concerning behaviour. Maybe it’s unintentional, but this post references a lot of extra details that make the core claims feel much more believable as a pattern of behaviour. If this post was just about “Nonlinear abused this specific employee in this specific context”, that’s one thing. But this post says “Nonlinear abused employees, and they openly brag about how cutthroat/exploitative they are, and they tell employees their problems and time and personal life don’t really matter”. Hell, I’d be convinced.

Also, … I’m disagreeing with this conclusion... (read more)

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Vaidehi Agarwalla
Edit on Dec 26 2023: not sure it's worth people freaking this given the new nonlinear updates. I think it makes the below comment outdated. I don't think I would still endorse the specific claims in this comment if i came back to it.  Re patterns of behaviors - I believe I still disagree here. The way I'd summarize it (poorly) is something like: "Nonlinear have a history of negative behavior towards employees, they have continued to demonstrate some negative behaviors, and have not acknowledged that some of their behavior was harmful to others" (edited) What I think constitutes a "pattern": * Two employees had multiple negative experiences across a range of scenarios (e.g. financial, psychological/social, legal) over the course of 7 months.  * I think they have demonstrated a consistent pattern with at the very least intimidation tactics (re their email to Ben about this post).  * Based on their responses of events (over a year later), it seems like Nonlinear team does not believe they have done any wrong. For many actions which they admit to doing (e.g. the driving or drugs incidents) seem like pretty clear red flags, they don't  see anything wrong with that behavior.   * Edit: I no longer endorse the first sentence this based on Violet's comment below, and agree with her overall take here. I would be keen to see what aspects the Nonlinear team believe to be mistakes and what changes they made. * For the second sentence, I still endorse it based on Nonlinear's interview with Ben I think the above is still consistent with current/future employees having a much more positive experience though, since as I said I think a lot of the problems were caused by the environment / co-living situation.  I do think it's strange / unfortunate that Ben didn't interview you given how the conclusion is stated.  I still agree with the end-line conclusion though, I think it's possible there could still be situations where others could have negative experiences.  Re Ador