In a recent TIME Magazine article, a claim of misconduct was made about an “influential figure in EA”: 

A third [woman] described an unsettling experience with an influential figure in EA whose role included picking out promising students and funneling them towards highly coveted jobs. After that leader arranged for her to be flown to the U.K. for a job interview, she recalls being surprised to discover that she was expected to stay in his home, not a hotel. When she arrived, she says, “he told me he needed to masturbate before seeing me.”

Shortly after the article came out, Julia Wise (CEA’s community liaison) informed the EV UK board that this concerned behaviour of Owen Cotton-Barratt;[1] the incident occurred more than 5 years ago and was reported to her in 2021.[2] (Owen became a board member in 2020.)

Following this, on February 11th, Owen voluntarily resigned from the board. This included stepping down from his role with Wytham Abbey; he is also no longer helping organise The Summit on Existential Security. 

Though Owen’s account of the incident differs in scope and emphasis from the version expressed in the TIME article, he still believes that he made significant mistakes, and also notes that there have been other cases where he regretted his behaviour.

It's very important to us that EV and the wider EA community strive to provide safe and respectful environments, and that we have reliable mechanisms for investigating and addressing claims of misconduct in the EA community. So, in order to better understand what happened, we are commissioning an external investigation by an independent law firm into Owen’s behaviour and the Community Health team’s response.[3]

 

This post is jointly from the Board of EV UK: Claire Zabel, Nick Beckstead, Tasha McCauley and Will MacAskill.


 

  1. ^

    The disclosure occurred as follows: shortly after the article came out, Owen and Julia agreed that Julia would work out whether Owen's identity should be disclosed to other people in EV UK and EV US; Julia determined that it should be shared with the boards.

  2. ^

    Julia writes about her response at the time here.

  3. ^

    See comment here from Chana Messinger on behalf of the Community Health team. 

Comments96
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Am I right in thinking that, if it weren't for the Time article, there's no reason to think that Owen would ever have been investigated and/or removed from the board?

I hope I would have eventually recognized there was more to do here, including telling the board, but it’s possible I wouldn’t have recognized this.

What processes are in place that gives you this hope? Or do you mean you hope that you would have spontaneously reflected on this and decided to take action after not doing so for two years?

I don't think the thrust of this comment is wrong but I think it is unkind.

Thanks for the feedback, Michael. I have struck out the last sentence.

I think it comes from a place of bitterness about both the community health team's inaction about this case, and what appears to be insufficient acknowledgement of the community health team's role in allowing things to have played out the way they have. Unlike you, I no longer believe the community health team should be in a high-trust position, as that's what contributed to this problem in the first place. If the community health team wants me to trust them going forward, I want them to show me they have a process that is at least somewhat robust to individuals making human mistakes, and not to ask me to have faith in their "hope" that they will eventually spontaneously recognize their mistakes years later, especially ones of this nature.

I don't blame individuals for making mistakes, but I am disappointed that the comment felt more like mitigating their role here instead of acknowledgement of the problem, and wanted to point this out. I appreciate that a more empathetic approach would be reasonable; I hope you help uphold this standard to other comments and extend this empathy and support to the other women in this community.

The fact this is true, despite issues being reported to the community health team, is a serious indictment.

This seems right to me.

It doesn't seem right for "would never have been investigated." My understanding is that the community health team looked into this. They talked to affected parties and came to some decision that didn't call for a public apology or Owen stepping down. Instead, their "steps to take" included writing that post on power dynamics and probably(?) they made a judgment call of the sort "our impression is that Owen learned from mistakes and is very unlikely to do this again." So, I'd imagine they resolved to keep an eye on things, but decided on no further actions otherwise.

[Edit1: Julia writes "I hope I would have eventually recognized there was more to do here, including telling the board, but it’s possible I wouldn’t have recognized this." This suggests that maybe the team was overwhelmed with things happening and hadn't conclusively finalized dealing with this situation before the TIME article came out.]

[Edit2: Oh, I now see that posters above probably meant "official investigation by experts" rather than "investigation by a team at an EA org." I agree that it looks like this wouldn't have happened.]

Then, the TIME article brought this up again and pressure mounted to hear more details ... (read more)

Jonas V
1y115
63
2

it was a lot less bad than what I'd have expected based on the TIME piece account

From my personal perspective: While the additional context makes the interaction itself seem less bad, I think the fact that it involved Owen (rather than, say, a more tangentially involved or less influential community member) made it a lot worse than what I would have expected. In addition, this seems the first second time (after this one*) I hear about a case that the community health team didn't address forcefully enough, which wasn't clear to me based on the Time article.

* edited based on feedback that someone sent me via DM, thank you

(edit: I think you acknowledge this elsewhere in your comment)

Yeah, I'll note because the memory might slip away that my initial reaction to the TIME article paragraph about Owen was:
- horror/disgust
- hope that the person was not as central as implied in the text
- (get distracted by my own work/life and allow the news to slip into the background of my mind, and allow the hope to transform into an implicit feeling that the person was, hopefully, not as central as Owen was)
- have an unjustified implicit belief that the person is not core to EA
- find out that that was wrong <-- I am here, and the only reason I can detect my previous implicit beliefs is from the current feeling of surprisal

Could it also mean the sexual harassment problem is much wider and deeper rooted than we think?

Yeah, it being more pervasive and entangled with EA culture than I thought is one of my takeaways, and I've been spending some time to reflect and think about ways I could help improve things.

8
timunderwood
1y
This isn't a story about 'sexual harassment' because there was none / 'sexual harassment' is in fact widely and deeply rooted, as shown by this incident of 'sexual harassment'.
5
pseudonym
1y
Sorry I'm struggling to understand what this comment is saying. Can you reword it?

I don't think Owen did anything that requires more than a private apology and a suggestion from friends to be less of an idiot, and even that is only necessary because the people around him are idiots in a different way.

However, I accept that some people think that what he did was awful and reprehensible, and I agree with them that a tendency to behaviors of that sort is likely to be common.

Also, the phrase 'sexual harassment' is not a clear symbol pointing to a concept cluster that is structured the same in everyone's mind, but in fact a muddy and politically contested thing that probably links to a different set of things in my head than yours.

Hence the request elsewhere in the comments for CEA to give a more precise definition of 'sexual harassment'

While the additional context makes the interaction itself seem less bad

That's what I was commenting on. I agree with your other points (which are arguably more important from a "what does this mean for EA?" perspective).

Ok, sorry in case that was a bit of a strawman!

-5
Will Bradshaw
1y

I want to explain my role in this situation, and to apologize for not handling it better. The role I played was in the context of my work as a community liaison at CEA.

(All parts that mention specific people were run past those people.)

In 2021, the woman who described traveling to a job interview in the TIME piece told me about her interactions with Owen Cotton-Barratt several years before. She said she found many aspects of his interactions with her to be inappropriate. 

We talked about what steps she wanted taken. Based on her requests, I had conversations with Owen and some of his colleagues. I tried to make sure that Owen understood the inappropriateness of his behavior and that steps were taken to reduce the risk of such things happening again. Owen apologized to the woman. The woman wrote to me to say that she felt relieved and appreciated my help. Later, I wrote about power dynamics based partly on this situation.

However, I think I didn’t do enough to address the risk of his behavior continuing in other settings. I didn’t pay enough attention to what other pieces might need addressing, like the fact that, by the time I learned about the situation, he was on the boar... (read more)

Kirsten
1y293
153
6

Julia, I really appreciate you explaining your role here. I feel uneasy about the framing of what I've read. It sounds like the narrative is "Owen messed up, Julia knew, and Julia messed up by not saying more". But I feel strongly that we shouldn't have one individual as a point of failure on issues this important, especially not as recently as 2021. I think the narrative should be something closer to "Owen messed up, and CEA didn't (and still doesn't) have the right systems in place to respond to these kinds of concerns"

I appreciate you sharing this additional info and reflections, Julia. 

I notice you mention being friends with Owen, but, as far as I can tell, the post, your comment, and other comments don't highlight that Owen was on the board of (what's now called) EV UK when you learned about this incident and tried to figure out how to deal with it, and EV UK was the umbrella organization hosting the org (CEA) that was employing you (including specifically for this work).[1] This seems to me like a key potential conflict of interest, and like it may have warranted someone outside CEA being looped in to decide what to do about this incident. At first glance, I feel confused about this not having been mentioned in these comments. I'd be curious to hear whether you explicitly thought about that when you were thinking about this incident in 2021?

That is, if I understand correctly, in some sense Owen had a key position of authority in an organization that in turn technically had authority over the organization you worked at. That said, my rough impression from the outside is that, prior to November 2022, the umbrella organization in practice exerted little influence over what the organiza... (read more)

I should add something that I forgot to include.

I’ve talked about February 3rd as the date I told the boards of EV US and EV UK, because that’s when I told everyone who’s on the current boards.

As I said, I had previously discussed some but not all of the situation with Nicole Ross, who was my manager and who is on the EV US board. And one of the staff at FHI I informed in 2021 about the situation described in TIME was Toby Ord, who at that time was on the EV UK (then called CEA UK) board. He was no longer on the board by the time I informed both boards about the full situation earlier this month. Our conversation focused on how he could reduce risk at FHI of further problems, and I don’t remember to what extent (if at all) we talked about the board. (I’m avoiding talking with him to see if he remembers more in order not to compromise the investigation.)

[anonymous]1y54
14
14

So thanks for the comment. And please let me maybe list some of my concerns here. I was going to contact Community Health Team directly, but then I thought that maybe I should write my opinion as a comment here as it may be a generally useful. It is a purely emotional reaction but like, I don't feel fine with what's going on. And because of that, this is also a burner account. For the record, I’m a woman.

TLTR:  I feel that the reaction to the Times and Vox articles within the community starts to be abusive and highly problematic in itself. I feel unsafe and I may resign from being a part of the EA. 

Let me check if I understand Owen’s situation correctly – he acted in an inappropriate way multiple times. If he was told that his behavior is not ok, he always would say sorry and stop interacting in an inappropriate way with this particular person. 

In one of the situations, a woman (let’s call her X) got hurt. X contacted Community Health Team. They reacted, in a way that X appreciated. She thanked. Owen apologized. Later on, X believed  that the problem of sexual harassment within the community didn’t disappear, so messaged the TIMES to do something about it. She h... (read more)

[anonymous]1y15
9
5

"I know it's irrational..."

I dunno, I've noticed myself feeling the same recently and it feels pretty rational to me.

As in I used to feel relatively comfortable sharing/complaining about anything that made me feel uncomfortable in EA, but now when I try to imagine myself doing so I'm like, "Haha there's no way in hell I'm ever reporting anything to Community Health now and I know I have to be pretty damn careful and selective these days if I want to tell any friends."

I think 'disproportionate reactions disincentivise openness' is a really underappreciated phenomenon in a lot of areas - thanks for highlighting it here.

(I'm also a woman, for the record.)

[anonymous]1y19
8
22

To be fair, I think these kind of over-reactions are happening in lots of places. I think it's particularly pronounced in social/political movements though because they attract a lot of people who are very passionate about social justice. And like, in a way I really admire that, and I think that energy can be very valuable when targeted at the most serious forms of human/nonhuman rights abuses.

But like, if the bar for resignation is the harmful actions Owen's committed.....almost everyone in the world should resign?

(I realise I may have lost literally everyone reading this comment with that last sentence. I've only just noticed the extent to which I disagree with the community here and I'm pretty shocked myself, so I should flag that I'm feeling particularly skeptical of my inside view. Maybe best not to debate this in public though as I imagine a lot of details/examples could be triggering for a lot of us.)

[anonymous]1y19
3
1

Ubuntu, thanks for writing it even if it's hard, I'm sending you massive hugs. 
I disagree with a community to a huge extent and that's why I've created a burner account to do it. I think a lot of people are scared of speaking up now, because we have a very vocal, and pretty aggressive group. A group-think consensus is not something we agree with, and there's a strong rhetoric of you-are-a-bad-person-if-you-think-differently-than-us.
In a long-term, however, I'm not willing to trade personal integrity for being a part of a group, because I think the values EA exhibits right now are harmful. So it may happen that I'll leave the community, as stated in the post above. 

I don't think you disagree with the community. You disagree with a smallish number of people who are active on the forums, and who on average are younger and more newly entered the community. 

'the community' as a whole does not have an opinion of this, but due to fear of being seen as defending bad behavior, I think there is a strong tendency to self censor on only one side of this discussion. At the very least I know I self censor. 

9
Milan_Griffes
1y
The scapegoat mechanism comes to mind: 
8
Nathan Young
1y
Sorry to hear this. And I'm glad someone said some of this. I guess, I think that people are upset and it will become clearer what the concensus  is in time and I am confident we as a community can do better than the first ideas we suggest.
0[anonymous]1y
Yeah, but, where is a boundary? And how do we set it? I'm mean - it's not like things you say or do because you are upset have no effect. And in my opinion those reactions already went from "intense" to "dangerous and cruel". 
bruce
1y52
12
3

Thanks for the apology Julia.

I'm mindful that there's an external investigation that is ongoing at present, but I had a few questions that I think would be useful transparency for the EA community, even if it may be detrimental to the CEA / the community health team. I'm sorry if this comes across as piling on in what I'm sure is a very stressful time for you and the team, and I want to emphasise and echo Kirsten's comment above about this ultimately being a "lack of adequate systems" issue, and not a responsibility that should be fully borne by you as an individual.

 

Shortly after the article came out, Julia Wise (CEA’s community liaison) informed the EV UK board that this concerned behaviour of Owen Cotton-Barratt; the incident occurred more than 5 years ago and was reported to her in 2021. (Owen became a board member in 2020.)

  1. From the EV UK board's statement, it sounds like the board did not know about this until Feb this year. Can you clarify the extent to which not informing the EV UK board was a result of the victim explicitly requesting something along these lines, and if so, whether you spoke to the victim before informing the EV UK board when the article came
... (read more)

The TIME article is what prompted me to realize I hadn’t properly dealt with everything here.

Can you clarify the extent to which not informing the EV UK board was a result of the victim explicitly requesting something along these lines

She did not request that I not tell the board - I don't think we discussed that possibility.

What actions did you take to reduce the risks associated with these events

  • I had conversations with several of his colleagues alerting them to the situation so they could intervene if they thought something like this might be happening again.
  • An email was sent to researchers he mentored encouraging them to bring concerns to me if they had feedback about their experience in the program or how personal and professional relationships were intersecting in the workplace.
  • I talked with Owen about the problems I saw with his behavior, including the power dynamics.

what's the role of OCB's colleagues here? Were they complicit, or was this for harm-mitigating reasons?

As far as I know, they did not previously know about any of this. The goal was harm mitigation.

Are you also happy to comment on whether your CoI with OCB was disclosed with Nicole when you inf

... (read more)

How do you square:

The order was: I learned about one situation from a third party, then learned the situation described in TIME, then learned of another situation because I asked the woman on a hunch, then learned the last case from Owen.

with

No other women raised complaints about him to me, but I learned (in some cases from him) of a couple of other situations where his interactions with women in EA were questionable. 

Emphasis mine. (Highlighting your first statement implies he informed you of multiple cases and this statement implies he only informed you of one)

In the first case, I initially heard about the situation from a third party, but nearly all the information I knew came from Owen. (I asked the woman if she had concerns about the situation that she wanted to discuss, and I didn’t hear back.)

She did not request that I not tell the board - I don't think we discussed that possibility.

To clarify - do you mean you didn't tell them by because you hadn't discussed the possibility that you would, or you did tell them because you didn't discuss the possibility that you wouldn't? That's an important ambiguity!

Either way, for all my recent disillusionment with EVF, I feel like you've been the one constant I've continually heard good things about, so I hope you learn whatever lessons apply here and continue providing much needed support to the community :)

In 2021, the woman and I discussed who she wanted to know about the situation. Our focus was on his colleagues at that time and people he might have a mentorship relationship with. I’ve clarified here that this did include one person who was a board member of EV UK (then called CEA UK) at the time.

When the TIME piece publicly described the situation but not either of the people’s identities, Nicole and I decided that the board should know that the account was about Owen (but not the identity of the woman). 


 

6
bruce
1y
Based on this comment and this excerpt from the UK EV board above, my interpretation is that the board as a whole did not know about this until Feb 2023. I do think the comment doesn't fully clarify between whether she considered telling the board but opted against this versus this option did not cross her mind back in 2021, but I suspect this is something that will also be part of the investigation, which is why I didn't follow up on this.  
1
projectionconfusion
1y
This seems to be a recurring issue in a lot of the recent controversies, that decisions are made by a relatively small and close knit group of people. Is there any work going on on ways to reduce this problem in the future?

Meta: I’m writing on behalf of the Community Health and Special Projects team (here: Community Health team) at CEA to explain how we’re thinking about next steps. For context, our team consists of:

  • Me, Chana Messinger: Normally I specialize (from a community health lens) in EA projects that involve high schoolers or minors, and community epistemics; since November, I’ve been the interim head of the Community Health team
  • Nicole Ross, the usual team head, who has been focusing on EV US board work since the FTX crisis, and when she transitions back to community health work, she plans to prioritize thinking through what changes should happen in EA given everything that happened with FTX
  • Julia Wise, who usually serves as a community health contact person for the EA community, but has been working primarily on other projects for a few months
  • Catherine Low, who serves as a contact person for the EA community among other roles
  • Eve McCormick, project manager and senior assistant
  • An affiliate and various contractors

In this comment I’ll sometimes be referring to Effective Ventures (EV) UK and Effective Ventures (EV) US together as the “EV entities” or as Effective Ventures or EV... (read more)

[anonymous]1y10
3
1

Can you comment on the scope of the external investigation EV UK commissioned being limited to the specific incident with OCB instead of a wider domain of e.g. how CH/CEA generally handles sexual misconduct and COIs or CH/CEA's processes in general? 

Some background, which is probably pedantic but I want to err on the side of over sharing:

  1. Your question was addressed to Chana, but, despite not being involved in the initial handling of this case, she felt it would not be appropriate for someone on the community health team to limit the scope of any investigation. So this question should probably be addressed to Max, the executive director, not her.
  2. Max has since resigned.
  3. I, his temporary replacement, was not involved in that decision, but I believe that I have the power to override that decision if I disagreed with it. Or, at least, I could attempt to override it, and I have not tried to do so.
  4. So this comment is my thoughts on having an external party review broader processes apart from this specific case. I expect it's similar to things that Max would have said, but probably not identical.

We already had a proposal from an external entity to audit some of the CH team’s general processes before the news of this specific incident broke, and I expect (~70%) we will end up working with them, although I'm not sure exactly what the details will be like. We have done this kind of external review before and have had mixed results; as with... (read more)

4[anonymous]1y
Thanks. Can you clarify whether the investigation is being handled by EV UK or CEA? I read EV UK's statement as saying they triggered it and are responsible for it (emphasis added):  But you are saying that it was triggered by CEA and not EV UK, and also that the ED of CEA is responsible for overseeing it.
4
Ben_West
1y
I think we might be talking past each other – I understood you to be asking about Chana/CEA's thoughts on commissioning an investigation whose scope is broader than the one the board commissioned. Is that wrong?
9
bruce
1y
Hi Chana, Thanks for this - I imagine this has been a difficult few months for you as the interim head of the community health team. I just wanted to bring Q4 from this comment to your attention, (specifically, lilly's set of questions here) as you seem better placed to answer about the general case (as opposed to the specifics around OCB, which might be better suited for Julia) Separately, I'm wondering what from the investigation if any, would you be happy to pre-commit to sharing publicly? I'd also love to get a sense of how you and the team hope to ensure the CH team has processes and systems in place to manage these kinds of cases going forward, and what you'd be happy to pre-commit to sharing  in terms of internal investigations and reflections. Non-exhaustive categories of information I would be interested in would be: 1. Methodology for investigations 1. Conflicts of Interests identified 2. Problems identified 3. Changes considered / explored 4. Changes made + reasoning  My sense is that rebuilding trust in the CH team will be important going forward, and such a precommitment combined with transparent and appropriately timely follow-up may be useful here.   (commenting in personal capacity etc)

Thanks for your comment and kind words.

I'll respond to the second set of questions here (we'll respond to comments from the other post there).

I can’t speak to the external investigation since I’m not involved (it’s going through the board so as to be external to my team). 

In terms of our internal investigation, since I don’t currently know the form it will take there’s not much I can precommit to, but I definitely think we should publicly say new processes or other changes we’re putting in place (or if none, that it’s none), so that people know how we’re planning to approach things in the future. 

I think the categories you’ve laid out are good ones though I don’t yet know if those will end up being exactly the categories I end up using as Ben and I go through this - appreciate you writing them up and flagging them. My strong guess is that relevant categories will include (as I noted in things I wanted to keep in mind during reflection) conflicts of interest and powerful people in EA.

I want to also address some elephant-in-the-room feeling (which may not be relevant to you, but feels important to say), which is that as I go into this only knowing what I learned recently, i... (read more)

7
CuriousEA
1y
Could you clarify whether the Charity commission investigation has any bearing on Owen’s resignation?
0
JoshuaBlake
1y
Supporting someone/people who are at least at arms length from EVF seems like it would be good asap. Relying on volunteers and good will to essentially cover for (at least perceived) mistakes seems bad.

Hey Joshua - can I ask you to clarify more what you mean about what kinds of people to support? I can imagine a few different things you might be pointing at being important.

6
JoshuaBlake
1y
Someone doing something similar to the community contact points at CEA but more clearly separated. Much like the people you list in the post as others who have volunteered to be named as contacts but are doing this voluntarily.

Got it - I have lots of thoughts here! Overall, the team has been wanting more contact people for a long time, and I’m definitely in favor of some versions of that (subject to considerations of tractability and prioritization). I still think there might be a few things you mean, but here are some thoughts.

  1. You might mean something like “a different team doing the same work but with different funding and institutional affiliation”. 

This might be good. It does bear coordination costs, and for instance it might mean we don’t see problematic patterns as easily. I’m not sure what us setting this up would look like; it takes a lot of trust to vouch for someone to handle tradeoffs and a variety of situations with sensitivity; in general if we found someone with the same skillset as people on our team who had free time, we’d want to hire them! (And this would allow syncing up on approach and process; with more separation, we might put ourselves in a position of vouching for someone where we couldn’t mentor or observe their process; that seems potentially problematic). This would take the kind of work and effort where likely we’d have to be quite sure it was the top priority for ou... (read more)

The strongest case for #1 is cases in which CH is conflicted out, either because the subject of the report is a friend of everyone in CH, is in their chain of command, or there are other reasons the reporter might reasonably conclude CH has a disqualifying conflict. Not only is that a bad situation for the reporter, it's a bad situation to put people in CH in.

I could also argue for at least some sort of external involvement in any case involving alleged significant misconduct by a very senior leader.

Can you please elaborate on Owen’s role with CEA (and other constituent projects of EVF) prior to his joining the board in 2020?

CEA’s website suggests Owen had a fairly significant role prior to joining the board, including during the period when some of his problematic behavior (like the incident described in Time) occurred. For instance, Owen was listed on the earliest version of CEA’s Team webpage (circa early 2014) as Director of Research. He seems to have continued to work (or volunteer?) in research roles for several years. In 2018, he began being listed as an “advisor”; on the org chart he and the Executive Director were next to each other, above the rest of the organization. In 2019, CEA had a new ED, but Owen occupied the same place on the org chart. His bio on the team page noted: “Owen provides strategic and research advice for CEA, and also works with the Events, Groups, and Grants teams” (in 2018, he apparently worked more with the “individual outreach team”.)

I recognize that sometimes team webpages are not the most accurate representations of an organization’s actual structure and responsibilities. But I think it is important to establish whether Owen was a CEA e... (read more)

Here’s my current understanding (certainty has been more difficult to achieve than I’d like, in part because the time period of Owen’s involvement traverses a number of changes to the structure of CEA and related organisations, possible there remain errors here but have tried to be clear about my level of certainty):

  • Looks like in 2014 (or possibly 2013), he joined some part of the CEA legal entity, eventually working at the Global Priorities Project (which was legally part of the CEA umbrella organisation) as Director of Research. He believes he was part-time, I couldn’t confirm.
  • He reports he started working primarily at FHI in 2015, but may have continued to have a part-time advisory role at CEA the umbrella organisation (I couldn’t confirm).
  • He started working with the main part of CEA (CEA-the-project) in summer 2017, part-time (16 hours a week). His part-time contract starting then describes him as “advisor to the CEO” and reporting to the CEO
    • He is described by a CEA employee there at the time as being trusted to give input on many CEA teams. This involved things like participating
... (read more)
8
AnonymousEAForumAccount
1y
Thank you for pulling this together Chana, I really appreciate it! I found your list very informative, and expect the internal and external reviewers will as well. FWIW, this makes me view Owen’s statement/apology, which makes no mention of his role and associated influence at CEA, considerably more negatively. The following statements seem particularly incomplete/misleading :
8
ChanaMessinger
1y
[Sorry for delay, there were a number of retreats / conferences recently]. Looking into this atm, hoping to know better what the timeline is going to be on getting this info (some people who know more than me have some out of office time) by the end of this week, will update then on timeline for getting a comment written, feel free to ping me if I haven't. Edit March 10: Still waiting to get records and info back. Will come back to this in a week if I haven't updated by then. Relevant comment now here.
7
AnonymousEAForumAccount
1y
Thanks for providing status updates on this Chana! I saw a comment on another thread that raised questions for me about another specific aspect of Owen’s historical role at CEA. Jonas Vollmer wrote “Nick (together with Owen) did a pretty good job turning CEA from a highly dysfunctional into a functional organization during CEA's leadership change in 2018/2019.”  I’m not sure if Jonas’ impression is accurate, and if so whether he’s referring to Owen’s role on the selection committee that picked Max as Executive Director or if there was involvement beyond that. So I hope the information you’re collecting will be able to address that.
lilly
1y56
26
10

I just wanted to flag one issue that may have contributed to this situation, as well as some of the others described in the TIME article:

As far as I am aware, CEA  has no clear, public, working definition of sexual harassment, and there are no clear guidelines regarding appropriate and inappropriate behavior at different types of EA events. This is a significant problem in a community where personal and professional relationships are frequently intertwined.

The lack of guidelines will predictably lead to bad consequences:

  1. People may engage in behavior that seems non-problematic to them, but that puts others in situations they don't want to be in. (Guidelines alleviate the pressure on individuals to consistently exercise good judgment, and can also serve an educational purpose by clarifying that/why certain behaviors are harmful.)
  2. People may not report situations that made them uncomfortable because no rules were technically broken. (When some mixing of professional/personal relationships is considered appropriate, it is harder to discern when lines have been crossed, especially when these lines have not been explicitly drawn.)
  3. The Community Health Team may have substantial leeway in resolving disputes, potentially leading to more biased or unfair decisions.

I am really glad to hear there will be an external investigation by an independent law firm, and I hope one of the things they will recommend is developing clearer standards regarding appropriate conduct.  

This doesn't really respond to the thrust of what you're saying here,  but just responding to:

there are no clear guidelines regarding appropriate and inappropriate behavior at different types of EA events 

I wanted to check that you're aware that at least EA Global and EAGx events require all attendees to agree to our code of conduct. To save readers a click,  it is currently:

___

At EA Global and social events associated with EA Global, you agree to:

  • Respect the boundaries of other participants.
  • Look out for one another and try to help if you can.
  • Adhere to national and local health and safety regulations, as well as any additional policies we institute for EA Global.

This is a professional learning and networking event. These behaviors don't belong at EA Global or related events:

  • Unwanted sexual attention, or sexual harassment of any kind.
  • Using the event app to request meetings for romantic or sexual reasons.
  • Offensive, disruptive, or discriminatory actions or communication.

We understand that human interaction is complex. If you feel able, please give each other the benefit of explaining behavior you find unwelcome or offensive.

If you’re asked to stop a behavior that’s caus... (read more)

Thanks for posting this, Ollie! I had seen these guidelines, but it may be helpful to use them to elaborate on what I mean. I think this code of conduct isn't sufficient per the criteria I outlined, in that:

  1. It lacks a working definition of sexual harassment. The statement says "unwanted sexual attention, or sexual harassment of any kind." This suggests that sexual harassment is different from unwanted sexual attention, but doesn't make clear what the latter is.
  2. These guidelines don't clarify how expectations regarding appropriate behavior may differ at different kinds of EA events, since "EA Global or related events" are lumped together. I think there's a fair bit of consensus that norms regarding behavior should differ between, e.g.,  EAG after parties and 1-on-1 meetings. (I think @Nathan Young ran some polls that suggested people endorse something along these lines, although a more formal survey would be helpful.) 
  3. Taken literally, these guidelines don't seem to map onto community norms—including, I think, totally reasonable ones—regarding appropriate conduct. For instance, "These behaviors don't belong at EA Global or related events: Unwanted sexual attention" would see
... (read more)

Thanks for this, lilly! We really appreciate your input on the norms here, thanks for taking the time :)

Some things I think I straightforwardly agree with:

  • I think you’re right to point out that appropriate standards will differ across a wide range of contexts. This poses a thorny challenge for setting norms.
  • Some language in our code of conduct might be unnecessarily vague - “related events” for example, is vague and could be worth clarifying. Thanks for this feedback.
  • I think it’s worth considering investigating what the community thinks about norms. I’ll suggest this to Catherine, who's investigating the experience of women, non-binary and trans people in EA (obviously, this is relevant to the experience of men in the community too, but that seems like a good project to consider incorporating this into).
     

I think there’s a tricky trade-off between clarity and scope here. This isn’t what you’re suggesting, but as a toy example to bring out this trade-off: if we state guidelines that are very specific (e.g. a list of things you mustn’t do in specific contexts), we might fail to prevent harmful behaviour that isn’t on the list. If our guidelines are something extremely wide i... (read more)

Hey Ollie! Hope you're well. 

I think there’s a tricky trade-off between clarity and scope here....if we state guidelines that are very specific (e.g. a list of things you mustn’t do in specific contexts), we might fail to prevent harmful behaviour that isn’t on the list.

I want to gently push back on this a bit - I don't think this is necessarily a tradeoff. It's not clear to me that the guidelines have to be "all-inclusive or nothing". As an example, just because the guidelines say you can't use the swapcard app for dating purposes, it would be pretty unreasonable for people to interpret that as "oh, the guidelines don't say I can't use the swapcard app to scam people, that must mean this is endorsed by CEA".

And even if it's the case that the current guidelines don't explicitly comment against using swapcard to scam other attendees, and this contributes to some degree of "failing to prevent harmful behaviour that isn't on the list", that seems like a bad reason to choose to not state "don't use swapcard for sexual purposes".

RE: guidelines that include helpful examples, here's one that I found from 10secs of googling.

... (read more)
6
Nathan Young
1y
I notice feeling scared about setting norms across all EA events. That's not to say it's bad.
8
lilly
1y
I think it’s good to observe this! I also have some baseline wariness about trying to codify subtle human behaviors into policy; I don’t think people think good guidelines are bad, it’s just hard to develop good guidelines. But it’d also be helpful to even just make explicit what people understand existing norms to be, because then we could have a more grounded conversation about what they should be.
4
Nathan Young
1y
yeah that's my sense also. Minor not, I doubt CEA is ever gonna write "you might meet someone you have great chemistry with and make out with them". So the range of norms they can describe might be limited.
4
Jason
1y
Re point 4, CEA's role is different as it pertains to CEA events than for non-CEA events. Only in the former case does it speak with the power of an event organizer, which gives it a clear basis to regulate. (I would extend CEA's "jurisdiction" as organizer to include everything an event attendee does in the city/region of the event immediately before, during, and immediately after the event.) So any statement about conduct in non-CEA spaces should probably be separate from the code of conduct at CEA events.

I share Ellie’s disappointment that CEA lacks explicit public guidelines around sexual harassment. I’m glad there’s something in place for EAG, but I find the lack of discussion about power dynamics to be a glaring omission. Power dynamics seem to have been at the root of Owen’s bad behavior, and have been a known issue in EA programming since at least 2016, when “a staff member leading [CEA’s Pareto Fellowship program] appeared to plan a romantic relationship with a fellow during the program.” 

Side note: while that issue with the Pareto Fellowship sounded fairly innocuous, if the program evaluation that was promised had actually been published it could have raised awareness of these issues and led to more explicit codes of conduct, potentially preventing offenses like Owen’s (which he claims were at least partially driven by a lack of awareness around power dynamics).

This is definitely not sufficient. Compare it to this code of conduct for a non-professional dance event, which is way better.  Or to the code of conduct for the other EA (the games company), which is the first result if you google "EA code of conduct".  (The latter would probably be overlong for a conference event, but it's a good indicator of what type of things could go in there). 

The main thing missing in your code is that there is no indication for what to do if someone feels like an offence has occurred. Whereas the dance club code has a clear indication of who to talk to about bad behaviour, where to find them, and what actions will be taken in response. 

I'd also suggest including more examples of unwelcome behavior. For example, if someone is subjected to personal insults at an event, it's presumably unacceptable under the "disruptive" rule, but there's a little ambiguity there that might add to reluctance to report. Whereas if they read the EA UK CoC, they can just point to the "personal insult" example. 

4
Jonas V
1y
I'm curious why some people disagree-voted on this comment.
lilly
1y39
21
1

I suspect it’s because many people like the culture around dating in EA, and are glad EA hasn’t taken a hard line on, e.g., workplace relationships. And people may be worried about the difficulty of drawing lines well, or having outside actors do it, and the chilling effect this could have on people’s ability to date within EA (which I can understand and am sympathetic to).

I think, though, that the solution is to create guidelines, and then develop creative solutions in accordance with them (e.g., more events/apps designed for EAs interested in dating).

6
Nathan Young
1y
Yeah I think this. But I think in some ways it's giving up to assume we give people at least some guidelines/advice. So while it makes me uncomfortable I think we should see if we can produce something that's better than nothing.
Jason
1y51
19
3

Has the person who Owen harassed been offered some sort of independent external support at community expense? I'm guessing her experience may have been uncomfortable at best since the Time article came out. (I hedged that sentence because, as a man who has never experienced anything like this, I don't want to sound like I know what she is experiencing.)

I don't know what (if anything) she would find useful, but don't want all the focus on Owen and EVF to obscure the need for the community to offer support for the harassed person through this.

This seems good, both as reparation and as a reward for speaking up.

Please would someone be able to put together a slightly more fleshed out timeline of who knew what and when. Best I can tell is:

  • 3rd February 2023 - TIME article published
  • 3rd February 2023 - People start questioning this specific case in the forum
  • 3rd February 2023 - Julia and Owen discuss who should find out about this
  • 3rd February 2023 - Julia informed Nicole that the person was Owen
  • 3rdFebruary 2023 - Julia informs EV US and EV UK boards
  • 4th February 2023 - Julia informed Chana that the person was Owen
  • 11th February 2023 - Owen resigns from the board
  • 20th February 2023 - Owen's resignation is made public

On Feb 3 I heard from Owen, I discussed the situation with Nicole, I informed Owen I'd be telling the boards, and I told the boards. I told Chana the following morning.

The EA forum, run by CEA, choosing to hide community posts from the front page just before news breaks that reflects badly on CEA and its parent organisation, is not a good look. I'm not suggesting that there is any foul play here but it would be a positive nice if some way to highlight this issue was found. CEA should be going be doing everything possible to reassure that they are maximizing transparency and accountability here.

Lizka
1y132
43
3

I’d like to chime in here. I can see how you might think that there’s a coverup or the like, but the Online team (primarily Ben Clifford and I, with significant amounts of input from JP and others on the team) made the decision to run this test based on feedback we’d been hearing for a long time from a variety of people, and discussions we’d had internally (also for a long time). And I didn’t know about Owen’s actions or resignation until today. (Edited to add: no one on the Online team knew about this when we were deciding to go forward with the test.)

We do think it’s important for people in EA to hear this news, and we’re talking about how we might make sure that happens. I know I plan on sharing one or both of these posts in the upcoming Digest, and we expect one or both of the posts to stay at the top of the Community page for at least a few days. If the posts drift down, we’ll probably pin one somehow. We’re considering moving them out of the section, but we’re conflicted; we do endorse the separation of Community and other content, and keeping the test going, and moving them out would violate this. We’ll keep talking about it, but I figured I would let you know what our thoughts are at the moment. 

19 hours later the posts have dropped off the front page

On mobile so can’t upload a screenshot, but I have one

I shared a quick update here — tl;dr: we're temporarily expanding the Community section on the Frontpage from 3 posts to 5 to give the posts a bit more visibility. We plan on reverting back to 3 posts in a few days.

A suggestion I'm throwing out just for consideration: maybe create a specific section on the frontpage for statements from organizations. I don't think there are that many organizations that want to make statements on the EA forum, but they usually seem pretty worth reading for people here. (Often: something bad happened, and here's our official stance/explanation).

A downside could be that this means organizations can be more visible than individuals about community matters. That seems possibly bad (though also how it usually works in the broader world). But it seems worse for the forum moderators to arbitrarily decide if something is important enough to be displayed somehow.

A quick update: the posts have been drifting in and out of the 3 top Community posts that are shown on the Frontpage, so we've expanded the Community section on the Frontpage temporarily from 3 posts to 5 to give them (and other Community posts being shared right now) a bit more visibility. We plan on reverting back to 3 posts in a few days.

If the purpose is to keep it on the front page, why not just pin it?

This post is now again out of the front page.

I suggest removing the community tag from one of them and pinning it to the main section.

1
Lauren Maria
1y
I agree with this. 
4
JoshuaBlake
1y
Thanks for the response. I think this position is completely reasonable, and I'll repeat that I (currently) do not think there's any cover-up or the like here. But I think at this point, we've both acknowledged that it would be easy to misconstrue actions as a coverup, which is also a problem IMO.
Jason
1y41
31
18

Still digesting, and out on a stroller ride with my son -- but this needs to be pinned to the frontpage for a few days, or else it will quickly fall off in light of the design change.

Thanks for this note! I currently don’t think it will fall off in a few days, but we are considering pinning the post(s) (at the top of the Community section of the Frontpage or on the overall top of the Frontpage) if they do. 

It's now fallen off the front page, at least for me.

Pinning seems pretty important.

I shared a quick update here — tl;dr: we're temporarily expanding the Community section on the Frontpage from 3 posts to 5 to give the posts a bit more visibility. We plan on reverting back to 3 posts in a few days.

Jason
1y32
14
3

There needs to be an emergency interim policy that all reports about the conduct of a board member are brought to the attention of the rest of the board, as well as reports about specified senior staff within EVF. Reports about any other EVF staffer need to be brought to the attention of a senior official or board member.

I'm not sure if reporters should be able to opt out, or if they should be hold before reporting that this is the policy. (I'm not sure if it's legally feasible to offer non-reporting of certain information for legal reasons; there may be exposure of various sorts if EVF is deemed to know certain information because CH knows it, yet fails to act.)

The better long-run approach is probably that reports about people associated with EVF should go elsewhere, but that would take time. So as an interim measure, CH needs to be taken out of the awkward position of having to decide whether to share these reports with leaders.

I have a significant concern that this response comes across as firefighting in response to the bespoke issue, with a very narrow focus on one incident rather than a wider review of cultural issues in EA.

I appreciate the decision was made by the EV board for EV in particular, but it is notable that this is probably the 4th major scandal in EA in 6 months, all of which have been troubling, and regularly involving senior figures in the movement. (Ftx, Bostrom email, Time article, now this). I am unaware of any other independent investigations ongoing.

It is far from clear that they are the last scandals which might hit EA e.g. what if more information came out from the Time, or if there was troubling information around the early vetting of FTX (I've seen that suggested as a rumour, I cant vouch for its reliability.)

These issues seem to require read across, reflection and significant action. But I'm not seeing the major transformation programmethat I would expect from other similar organisations/movements facing a barrage of scandals. I've seen multiple similar independent investigations in other fields I'm involved with, and their scope is normally far broader.

I confess that I'm not a regular commenter /forum reader and people who follow more closely may have a better view of work going on. That said, I think subjective perception does matter and suggests that EA at minimum faces a serious comms issue, and likely much more than that. (I am someone who's followed EA for years and donated to EA charities for that time).

Jason
1y26
16
1

I believe there is an independent external review of EVF over the FTX affair, on top of a statutory inquiry from the UK Charity Commission on that and other issues (which is a big deal). The University of Oxford -- Bostrom's employer -- is investigating him last I checked. Im not sure a separate EA investigation would add anything to that.

Today's news is related to the Time article, as Owen was one of the people whose inappropriate conduct was mentioned. (I do hope the external investigation promised today looks at Community Health's handling of sexual harassment and assault more broadly).

A comment I made a few days ago said "But usually very little changes until someone goes public (at least anonymously). Nothing else remotely reliably creates the momentum to get bad actors out of power." Really aged quite well. 

As always I would advise survivors who want change to be as public as possible. Anonymous public statements work fine. Of course prioritize your own safety. But private internal processes are not a vehicle for change. Owen would, as predicted, still be on the board if not for the Time article.

ok while i'm glad someone is doing bookkeeping of sexual assault cases so that a) there is documented institutional knowledge that doesn't disappear after victims move out of EA, b) people don't interrogate victims "why didn't you say anything then" because they did, c) helps building cases against repeat offenders; what was the point of knowing this in 2021 if it took 2 years for him to *voluntarily* resign? this feels like "i'm only sorry i got caught", and of EAs in general "i only started giving a shit about misconduct that i have known for years after it got published in mainstream media and became ~reputation risk~". making sure people who sometimes do bad things aren't in charge isn't a bad thing to do

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