EA Forum Prize: Winners for February 2021

by Aaron Gertler7 min read27th Apr 20211 comment

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Forum Prize
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CEA is pleased to announce the winners of the February 2021 EA Forum Prize! 

The following users were each awarded a Comment Prize ($75):

See here for a list of all prize announcements and winning posts.

What is the EA Forum Prize?

Certain posts and comments exemplify the kind of content we most want to see on the EA Forum. They are well-researched and well-organized; they care about informing readers, not just persuading them.

The Prize is an incentive to create content like this. But more importantly, we see it as an opportunity to showcase excellent work as an example and inspiration to the Forum's users.

About the winning posts and comments

Note: I write this section in first person based on my own thoughts, rather than by attempting to summarize the views of the other judges.

Killing the Ants

The choice to kill the ants had had, for me, a quality of unreality. I had exerted some limited advocacy, in the direction of some hazy set of norms, but with no real sense of responsibility for what I was doing. There was something performative and disengaged about it [...] I was hoping for some kind of conformity, some kind of “pass” from the moral “authorities.” But I wasn’t looking down my arm, at the world I was creating, and the ants that were dying as a result. I wasn’t owning it.

This isn’t the typical Forum Prize winner — there’s no summary and no set of action items. The post is a dense essay that ought to be read in full, and I won’t try to summarize it here. But I will talk about two of the things I liked:

  • His use of many vivid stories and examples to support his discussion of abstract concepts. When I read the post again in the course of writing this, I found that I still remembered Brian Tomasik’s bedsheets and the hypothetical dancing slimes, as well as the titular anecdote. These sorts of things — stories, anecdotes, thought experiments — make posts more interesting to read and easier to digest.
  • His exploration of the idea that you don’t have to think a given issue is overwhelmingly important before you can acknowledge its existence.
    • I find that this is one of the hardest things for people to grasp when they first hear about EA — “this doesn’t seem important enough to focus on” gets interpreted as “this isn’t important at all” or “this deserves no attention”.
    • This post lays out a very different mindset, one which I’ve seen in many of my favorite EA-adjacent thinkers.
      • I’d call it the desire to understand the world, and be aware of our agency within it, even if almost all the choices we could make must go unexercised for lack of comparative impact.
      • I could become vegan, or live more frugally and donate the difference, or work longer hours than I do. I have reasons not to do those things, but the existence of those reasons doesn’t mean I should ignore the consequences of the way I live. Embracing reality — “owning it”, as the post puts it — feels like a very good mental habit, a way of blending the first and second virtues of rationality.

Why I find longtermism hard, and what keeps me motivated

I find working on longtermist causes to be — emotionally speaking — hard: There are so many terrible problems in the world right now. How can we turn away from the suffering happening all around us in order to prioritise something as abstract as helping make the long-run future go well?

A lot of people who aim to put longtermist ideas into practice seem to struggle with this, including many of the people I’ve worked with over the years. 

[...]

This issue is one aspect of a broader issue in EA: figuring out how to motivate ourselves to do important work even when it doesn’t feel emotionally compelling. It’s useful to have a clear understanding of our emotions in order to distinguish between feelings and beliefs we endorse and those that we wouldn’t — on reflection — want to act on.

This post tackles a very common problem for people in the community and makes a lot of strong, practical suggestions for addressing it.

This impressed me because I hadn’t thought of “longtermism sometimes isn’t very motivating” as the sort of problem one could address, other than by reading more philosophy and hoping to find an argument that sank in. And because “trying to convince yourself of one side of a debate” generally isn’t what we ought to do, that “solution” seemed awkward.

Michelle argues for what seems to me like a more effective approach — understanding our own emotions and beliefs, and trying to figure out which of those come from a place we could reflectively endorse.

I’ll stop my summary here and focus on how good the writing is here. Michelle doesn’t repeat herself or go off on long tangents. Every sentence makes one clear point. Every paragraph in the advisory section of the post offers a different piece of advice, or at least a new way to view the problem. This is the kind of post that rewards rereading (so much useful material in such a small space!), and one I can imagine people in Michelle’s situation revisiting in difficult times.

Project Ideas in Biosecurity for EAs

In conjunction with a group of other EA biosecurity folk, I helped brainstorm a set of projects which seem useful, and which require various backgrounds but which, as far as we know, aren't being done, or could use additional work. Many EAs have expressed interest in doing something substantive related to research in bio, but are unsure where to start - this is intended as one pathway to do so.

Sometimes, a great post is very simple. The process of (a) getting some experts together and (b) working with them to develop a list of open questions/projects is one I’d love to see people repeat for pretty much any EA-adjacent cause area, and David’s post shows how to do it well. Things I liked:

  • The reminder to start projects with a literature review. This is a good way to avoid reinventing wheels, and the advice “read and think carefully before you do something” rarely backfires.
  • The way ideas are split across academic disciplines. This makes it easy for someone  with background X to glance at the post, see things marked as relevant to their background, and become interested enough to read further (rather than poring over a single 50-item list and guessing at which projects would fit them).
  • The stated plan for updating the post as people take action. Forum posts needn’t be static articles — they’re often more useful as living pages.

Report on Running a Forecasting Tournament at an EA Retreat

This post describes a simple forecasting tournament I ran during the 2021 Effective Altruism New Zealand retreat as an experimental exercise in improving judgement and decision making [...] The tournament was surprisingly fun, and went in many unexpected directions. I would strongly encourage other EA retreats and similar gatherings to run their own prediction tournaments, and I provide some resources to get started.

My personal standards for identifying a good event report:

  • Do I feel well-informed as to whether the event went well?
  • Do I have a good sense for whether I should run this kind of event?
  • Does the post offer resources/ideas that will make it easier for me to run this kind of event?

This post does all three! I especially like the conclusion’s link to a Google Drive folder with all of Hamish’s resources. It’s also written in an engaging way that really set a scene in my mind (e.g. the part where Hamish forgot to collect the prediction sheets and had to dig them out of a rubbish bin, a story which will also help readers remember to collect those sheets).

Finally, I laughed out loud at this line:

I don’t think it’s ever going to make sense for me to spend several hours learning the principles of Italian ministerial politics just for the sake of getting one bit of feedback half a year from now.

Why EA groups should not use ‘effective altruism’ in their name

We think we should have a movement wide conversation about “Effective Altruism” as the name for local and university groups [...] We think picking a different name for your EA chapter could have some great advantages.

When I saw the title of this post, I was 80% excited for its potential and 20% concerned about a potential flame war. Once I read the post, I was 95% excited, and when I saw the first comments, I was safe at 100% (in general, our users can be trusted to take the path of wisdom in these situations).

While I still think that EA groups should usually have “effective altruism” in their names, I appreciate that Koen’s post was driven by a positive experience with an alternative option (rather than pure theory about the downsides of the name). I also like his acknowledgement that going with an EA name might have had advantages for his group — as with most ideas, his proposal comes with advantages and disadvantages.

But my favorite thing might be the post’s use of times — explaining how many minutes or hours various things took. It’s really easy for groups (and individuals!) not to appreciate how useful it can be to sit down and think about things for half an hour, or to spend an hour or two putting together a quick survey for people whose opinions they value. Had I been thinking of starting a group, the emphasis on how little time it takes to consider name options would likely have convinced me to go through the same exercises as Koen’s group.

Finally, the comments on this are excellent. While Koen didn’t make comments past the original post, the conversation could have been a lot less illuminating if the post had been less thoughtful.

The winning comments

I won’t write up an analysis of each comment. Instead, here are my thoughts on selecting comments for the prize.

The voting process

The current prize judges are:

All posts published in the titular month qualified for voting, save for those in the following categories: 

  • Procedural posts from CEA and EA Funds (for example, posts announcing a new application round for one of the Funds)
  • Posts linking to others’ content with little or no additional commentary
  • Posts which got fewer than five additional votes after being posted (not counting the author’s automatic vote)

Voters recused themselves from voting on posts written by themselves or their colleagues. Otherwise, they used their own individual criteria for choosing posts, though they broadly agree with the goals outlined above.

Judges each had ten votes to distribute between the month’s posts. They also had a number of “extra” votes equal to [10 - the number of votes made last month]. For example, a judge who cast 7 votes last month would have 13 this month. No judge could cast more than three votes for any single post.

The winning comments were chosen by Aaron Gertler, though other judges had the chance to nominate and veto comments before this post was published.

Feedback

If the Prize has changed the way you read or write on the Forum, or you have an idea for how we could improve it, please leave a comment or contact me.

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I see that someone strong-downvoted this post, which is unusual for the prize announcement posts. To that voter, in case they see this: if you have any specific feedback, I'd be really grateful to hear it.

I know that my post summaries don't always capture the winners' best features, and if that's the problem, I'm open to making edits if someone points out "hey, you totally overlooked feature X of post Y" or "hey, this thing you said about post Y isn't accurate, fix it".