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Disclaimer: While I criticize several EA critics in this article, I am myself on the EA-skeptical side of things (especially on AI risk).

Introduction

I am a proud critic of effective altruism, and in particular a critic of AI existential risk, but I have to admit that a lot of the critcism of EA is hostile, or lazy, and is extremely unlikely to convince a believer.

Take this recent Leif Weinar time article as an example. I liked a few of the object level critiques, but many of the points were twisted, and the overall point was hopelessly muddled (are they trying to say that voluntourism is the solution here?). As people have noted, the piece was needlessly hostile to EA (and incredibly hostile to Will Macaskill in particular). And he’s far from the only prominent hater. Emille Torres views EA as a threat to humanity. Timnit Gebru sees the whole AI safety field as racist nutjobs. In response, @JWS asked the question: why do EA critics hate EA so much? Are all EA haters just irrational culture warriors?

There are a few answers to this. Good writing is hard regardless of the subject matter. More inflammatory rhetoric gets more clicks, shares and discussion. EA figures have been involved in bad things (like SBF’s fraud), so nasty words in response are only to be expected.

I think there’s a more interesting explanation though, and it has to do with motivations. I think the average EA-critical person doesn’t hate EA, although they might dislike it. But it takes a lot of time and effort to write an article and have it published in TIME magazine. If Leif Weinar didn’t hate EA, he wouldn’t have bothered to write the article.

In this article, I’m going to explore the concept of motivation gaps, mainly using the example of AI x-risk, because the gaps are particularly stark there. I’m going to argue that for certain causes, the critiques being hostile or lazy is the natural state of affairs, whether or not the issue is actually correct, and that you can’t use the unadjusted quality of each sides critiques to judge an issues correctness.

No door to door atheists

Disclaimer: These next sections contains an analogy between logical reasoning about religious beliefs and logical reasoning about existential risk. It is not an attempt to smear EA as a religion, nor is it an attack on religion.

Imagine a man, we’ll call him Dave, who, for whatever reason, has never once thought about the question of whether God exists. One day he gets a knock on his door, and encounters two polite, well dressed and friendly gentlemen who say they are spreading the word about the existence of God and the Christian religion. They tell them that a singular God exists, and that his instructions for how to live life are contained within the Holy Bible. They have glossy brochures, well-prepared arguments and evidence, and represent a large organisation with a significant following and social backing by many respected members of society. He looks their website and finds that, wow, a huge number of people believe this, there is a huge field called theology explaining why God exists, and some of the smartest people in history have believed it as well.

Dave is impressed, but resolves to be skeptical. He takes their information and informs them that he while he finds them convincing, he wants to hear the other side of the story as well. He tells them that he’ll wait for the atheist door-to-door knockers to come and make their case, so he can decide for himself.

Dave waits for many months, but to his frustration, no atheists turn up. Another point for the Christians. He doesn’t give up though, and looks online, and finds the largest atheist forum he can find, r/atheism.

Dave is shocked at crude and nasty the atheists he encounters there are. He finds the average poster to be a socially inept and cringe, mainly posting bad memes and complaining about their parents. Dave does not find statements like “f*ck your imaginary sky daddy” to be a convincing rebuttal to thousands of years of theological debate. There are only occasionally actual arguments for atheism, which are not very well argued. He takes the arguments to the door to door preachers, and they have a prepared rebuttal of every single one, using articles by a highly educated, eloquent and polite priests and religious thinkers.

From this whole experience, Dave concludes that God is probably real, and that atheists haven’t really studied things properly or are blinded by bias against their parents or bad apples in the religious community.

What went wrong here?

I am making no factual claims about the existence of God in this post. I am personally an atheist, but I respect and admire many religious people, and I do not think believing in god is a foolish belief.

But what I will say is that I think Dave’s reasoning for concluding that God is real is flawed. And I think the main flaw lies in failing to account for motivation gaps.

If you believe in God (let’s say, the Christian evangelical version), that belief comes with duties and obligations. People who don’t believe in god are missing a personal connection to the greatest being in the universe, and in some versions may be condemned to be tortured for all eternity. If you believe this, it’s not hard to find a moral obligation to convert as many people as possible. The religion you subscribe to will have a bunch of rules and laws you need to follow, which comes with a need to understand and join together with like minded people at church, and donate money so they can print lots of fancy pamphlets and hire priests and religious scholars to guide people and argue for God’s existence. The church also coordinates volunteers to go door to knocking so people can be converted. All of these actions are fairly logical implications believing in a particular version of the Christian God.

If you don’t believe in God… you don’t believe in God, and don’t really have to think about it very much. If the religious people start putting in, say, restrictive anti-abortion policies, you might be pissed off and organise against those. But you’ll find plenty of Christians who are also pro-choice, and you may find it counterproductive to argue about God’s existence. Since you believe that Atheism is correct, you might think it’s good to argue for it because you like spreading truth. But if you don’t think the stakes are high, would you really put that much effort into it? The reason there are no atheist door knockers is that doorknocking is a massive pain in the arse, and no atheists are motivated enough to actually do it. Usually every atheist will know of another cause that they think is more pressing than spreading atheism.

The majority of my friends are atheist, but none of them would be caught dead posting on r/atheism or making it a large part of their identity. Actively trying to deconvert people is seen as rude and gauche, with the attitude that if they’re not harming anyone, you’re just being a dick.

Who does end up advocating against religion itself? Bitter ex-religious people, people like Richard Dawkins who see religion as one of the biggest problems in the world, and a few comedians like Ricky Gervais who find the whole thing absurd. You might also see it be absorbed as a smaller part of greater movements that do come with motivations, like communism in China. As an atheist myself, I find most of these people annoying and I don’t like them.

So the imbalance that Dave sees, where the Christians are glossy, high-effort and highly organised and the Atheists are a bunch of weirdos on internet forums with bad memes, actually tells you very little about how correct the position is. It’s simply the natural consequence of motivation gaps arising from their beliefs. And the reason he finds atheists so needlessly angry and hostile is not that atheists are all hostile and angry: it’s that the non-angry atheists don’t bother to advocate hard for their beliefs.

Fortunately, in this case, the question of God’s existence and nature has been discussed for literal millenia, so if he actually did dig deeper he could find the philosophical literature on the subject, and be exposed to actual serious, high-effort arguments on both sides of the aisle.

I think that this is a case where the less motivated side is correct, but there are other cases where I believe the more motivated side is correct. The people who thought CFC’s were tearing apart the ozone layer were more motivated than the people who thought it was no big deal, but they were also correct, and they were proven to be correct.

Motivation gaps in AI x-risk

Emily is a young, highly intelligent high school graduate who is considering what to do with her life. While googling careers, she comes across an ad from 80,000 hours discussing career options, and finds an article arguing that there there could be an existential risk from Artificial Intelligence. Disturbed, she researches more on the subject, and encounters even more convincing articles from highly intelligent full time employed “AI safety” researchers, slick youtube videos, podcasts, etc. She goes to a local meetup group, where dozens of smart, motivated people are convinced of the dangers of AI, have strong arguments in favour, and are committed to acting against them.

However, Emily wants to maintain a skeptical instinct. She resolves to try and look at the opposing side as well. Of course, no “Ai x-risk is bunk” ads show up on her instagram feed. But even when she googles “Ai existential risk debunk ”, the results are pretty damn weak. Like, the top result has no actual arguments against AI risk, it just states “this is bunk” and starts talking about near-term harms.

She sees a few articles from Emille Torres, but they seem needlessly fearmongering and hostile, and she’s sent an article pointing out their dishonest behaviour. Timnit Gebru is more straightforward, and has some interesting academic articles, but her online presence is more interested in culture war discourse and insults than object level arguments against AI risk.

She finds r/sneerclub on reddit, which seems like the biggest online forum criticizing EA, but it leaves a bad taste in her mouth. She finds the arguments are generally low-effort when they occur, the critiques are often inaccurate or lack reading comprehension, the mods are obnoxious and ban-happy, and many commenters are just making mean-spirited jabs at political enemies.

When she brings up the best arguments she found to the EA people, they all have ready made rebuttals, written by very smart, highly eloquent and educated professionals employed at EA orgs.

From this experience, she concludes that the risk of AI doom is high, and that the critics of AI doom are misguided people blinded by their culture war biases. She pursues a career in AI policy.

EA gap analysis

I argue here that Emily and Dave are making the exact same mistake. Emily is not accounting for the motivation gaps involved in the AI doom question.

If you think that P(AI doom) is high (or even medium) then the stakes are unbelievably high. Humanity is staring down the barrel of a gun, and the lives of literally everyone on the planet are in danger. If you believe in that, then obviously it comes with at least some obligation to try and prevent it from happening, which involves spreading the word about the threat. And to spread the word, you want a big organisation of people, you need to present your arguments in a flashy way that can win over the masses, you want to prepare rebuttals to the most common objections, and so on and so forth. The AI safety ecosystem is being funded to the tune of half a billion dollars, with dozens of organisations employing hundreds of full-time employees, a decent fraction of which are working on advocacy.

This is all a completely reasonable response to believing in a high risk of human extinction!

If you think that P(AI doom) is low.. then you think that P(AI doom) is low. It comes with no inherent moral obligations. You might be annoyed that people are spreading bad ideas around, but it’s not the end of the world. Meanwhile, there is climate change, pandemic risks, global poverty, all of which you would probably view as more pressing that people being wrong about AI.

You might be motivated to push back if the false ideas of the AI x-riskers start affecting you, like the 6 month AI pause idea. But you only need to push back on the policy, not the idea itself. If you are concerned about the short-term, non-doom effects of AI developments, you would probably rather spend your time raising concerns about those rather than debunking x-risk fears. You might say that x-risk is a “distraction from near term worries”, which is probably not actually true in terms of media coverage, but is true in regards to the use of your personal time and energy. There are ~0 organisations dedicated to AI x-risk skepticism, and I’m having trouble thinking of more than a tiny handful of people who relies on AI skepticism as a major source of income. Compared to the half billion in funding for AI safetyism, AI skepticism funding looks downright nonexistent.

So who is motivated to dedicate significant time to attacking AI x-risk beliefs, generally in their spare time? This I will explore in more depth in the next section, but it’s mostly people motivated by fear, hatred, annoyance, tribalism, or a desire to mock, or some combination of all of these.

The same principle applies to EA in general, proportional to how effective you think EA is. Even if you only believe in malaria nets, people donating to ineffective charities are still, in effect, letting actual, real people die that otherwise would have been saved. Whereas someone who (wrongly) thinks malaria nets are ineffective will, by default, not bother engaging.

I would guess that most of the people who have heard EA or AI x-risk arguments, but don’t agree with them, feel no large motivation to oppose them.  They read an article or two, find it unconvincing, and move on with their lives.

If you are the average person, there is no motivation to get familiar with EA jargon, spend hours and hours engaging with the current debates, learn about all the wide ranging topics that go into estimating complex problems like P(doom), and then spend dozens of hours preparing high quality critique of the movement. All for the purpose of, what, posting an article on the EA forum that will most likely be lightly upvoted but largely ignored?

I’m a person that has done all of the above, and I don’t think it was a rational decision on my part. Don’t get me wrong, the EA community is in general quite lovely, I’ve gotten lots of praise and encouragement, and I’m proud of what I’ve written. But it’s taken up a large amount of time and effort that could have been spent on other things, and at times it’s been quite unpleasant and harmful to my mental health. Why would someone do such a thing?

Counter-motivations

I think there a few factors that close motivation gaps, and result in high effort stuff on the non-intrinsically motivated side. My main example would be the issue of climate change. Naively this theory would predict that the climate change believers would be highly motivated, whereas the deniers would treat the matter with a shrug. In reality climate denialism is high effort, popular and well funded, despite being objectively false.

In this section I will explain a few counter-motivations that can bring someone to put energy into a critique. The problem is that almost all of them come with corresponding flaws as a result of what motivated you in the first place.

Moral backlash:

Defeating climate change is a massive, world changing task, that requires sweeping societal changes to prevent catastrophe. And whenever you try to change anything, some of the people affected will try and push back. You put in a carbon tax, people will see their bills go up and start fighting you. You put up a wind turbine, people will complain about blocking the view (or incorrectly think it is making them sick). This all provides motivation for climate denial: fear and moral objection to the actions of the activists.

Up until recently, there hasn’t been much of this motivation in opposing EA or AI x-risk. I mean, a few years ago EA was just funneling rich peoples money into malaria nets, which is hard to get super worked up about. But with the rise of longtermism, the SBF debacle, and the move towards policy intervention, I think this is changing.

I think this motivation underlies the Emille Torres and Timnit Gebru section of EA haters. These people think the EA movement is actively harmful and dangerous. Torres isn’t even super skeptical of AI x-risk, they just think that the dreams of utopian singularities within EA will make everything worse. Whereas Gebru sees EA as a bunch of white tech bros using fake AI hype as an excuse to not fix real world harms like discrimination (although I don’t fully agree, I do sympathise with this point of view).

Conversely, we have the e/accs (effective accelerationists), who are often super mad that AI doomers might stall or prevent a technological singularitian utopia. Think of all the people that will die because the nigh-omnipotent AI god won’t appear! Hence Andreessons (highly unconvincing to me) techno-utopian manifesto.

When people motivated by moral backlash write critiques, they will probably come off as hostile, because they think EA does bad things that inspire fear or hatred. These feelings are sometimes entirely justified. SBF committed a bunch of fraud and very much did harm a lot of people!

Politicisation/tribalism:

The realm of politics is one where motivation is easy to find. If you are a committed democrat, the republicans must be opposed at all costs for the preservation of your values. And of course, the opposite applies as well. So if an issue starts being primarily associated with one side of the political aisle, the other side will be tempted to oppose it. This is not necessarily irrational behaviour: different political parties can have hugely different effects on the world and peoples lives.

The existence of climate change was initially not treated as a partisan issue, but over time became associated with the political left. This gave the right an incentive, either genuinely or cynically, to try and convince people it didn’t exist, so climate change denial got hooked up to all the existing right wing infrastructure, like fox news panels, conservative newspapers, right wing websites, and so on. By being sucked into the larger ongoing political war, the motivation gap was lifted.

The flaw here is, of course, that arguments can treated as weapons in a war for power, so critiques motivated by politics are highly incentivised to hide arguments that are good for the enemy and distort arguments in your favour, so that your side wins.

EA has deliberately aimed to try and escape partisanship and culture wars. It is impossible to completely succeed in this, and many attacks on EA are motivated by political disagreements from both sides of the aisle. These attacks will obviously be somewhat hostile, because they are attacking a political enemy, not trying to persuade them.

Monetary incentives for skepticism:

One of the key arguments for academic tenure is that it ensure an academics pay is completely detached from the positions they advocate. A professor of climatogy can decide that climate change is false and try to argue that case, and they will still get paid a professors salary.

Of course, this does not extend to, say, grant applications and other sources of money, or to early career researchers. Fortunately for the climate change denialists (and unfortunately for us), there is another source of ample funding: Fossil fuel companies and their allies, for which climate change initiatives are an active threat to billions of dollars of revenue. This is ample motivation to toss some money to some convincing sounding denialists, and to try and make the climate denial case as strong as possible.

Surely the same reasoning applies to AI skepticism? Well I would argue not yet, but that may soon be changing. Up until now, AI x-risk fears have not been an obstacle to the profits of tech companies. Sort of the opposite: EA and x-riskers have played a role in starting openAI and triggering AI arms races. Even some AI regulations aren’t necessarily bad for big AI companies, as they could kneecap small market players that can’t afford to keep up with them. However, if the movement starts getting regulations with teeth through, we might start seeing big company funding go to AI x-risk debunkers, with a bias towards accelerationists.

Of course if such funding did happen, it would then be biased towards the views of the people funding them, much like climate denialist orgs.

What about EA funding? Well, ultimately, they come from donations. This ties straight back to the initial motivation gap: If you are concerned about AI, you might be willing to donate to AI x-risk advocacy groups. If you are not concerned about AI, would you care enough to donate to an “AI x-risk is bunk” advocacy group?

EA has some legitimate attempts to fix this, with cause neutral funding and competitions. The global priorities institute in particular seems to publish a lot of papers that criticise EA orthodoxy. Prizes like the AI worldview challenge are nice encouragement for people who are already somewhat motivated to criticize things, but they pale in comparison to the reliable pay of a full time x-risk advocate. You’re just not guaranteed to win: I have not made a single cent off my numerous skeptical articles on the subject.

Articles motivated by money are probably more likely to be calm in tone, but there’s always a conflict of interest in that the writer is incentivised to agree with their funder.

Annoyance/dislike:

Some people find Al gore smug and pretentiousness. Therefore, when they see Al Gore preaching about this new “global warming” thing that they don’t really buy, they get motivated to attack it to take the smug guy down a peg. Hence the south park episodes mocking climate change by targeting Al Gore specifically.

Similarly, someone who dislikes certain EA figures might be annoyed at how prominent and influential they are getting, and be motivated to knock them down in response. I must confess this is part of my motivation.

For example, my impression is that Leif Weinar really, really, dislikes Will Macaskill for some reason, and this was a key reason he wrote his time article. Articles like these motivated by dislike are usually hostile in tone unless the writer takes great effort to hide it.

Entertainment value

There are people who are simply in it for the entertainment value. People being wrong, in a weird way, can be very interesting or funny. Or you can enjoy the intellectual challenge of debunking incorrect opinions.

Why did 3.6 million people watch this hour long video dunking on flat earthers? Because the topic of people believing crazy things is fun and interesting.

This is a main motivator behind my work, honestly. I could dedicate more time to debunking hardcore Trumpists or whatever, but that would feel like a major chore. Whereas debunking something like “a super-AI can derive general relativity from a blade of grass” is just way more fun and interesting.

This is something of the point of circlejerky subreddits. The people on r/atheism generally aren't actively trying to deconvert or debate with their posts. They just want a safe space to hang out with people who already agree with them about the supposed wrongness/harm of religion. 

The problem with this type of criticism is that for the most part it’s usually pretty lazy. If you just want to make people laugh, there’s no need to be charitable or high-effort. The average r/sneerclub post consisted of finding something seemingly absurd or offensive said by a rationalist and then mocking it. The resulting threads are obviously biased and not epistemically rigorous. Like, Wytham abbey was technically a manor house, but “EA gets a castle” is objectively a funnier meme. There are sometimes good arguments in there (I think my old sneerclub posts weren’t terrible), but they’re not the point of the community, and you shouldn’t expect them to be common.  

Truth-seeking:

The feeling that someone is wrong on the internet can be a powerful motivation in the right conditions. And, in a way, this is one of the key drivers of the scientific method. People strive for truth for truth’s sake, but also because people being wrong is annoying. Climate science might look like a bunch of people in lockstep, but if you dig a littler deeper, you’ll see scientist X ranting that scientists Y’s climate model is obviously flawed because it neglected factors G, F and Q, how does that clown keep getting more citations than me!

However, I don’t think this alone is likely to motivate someone to offer up high-quality outsider critique. The internet has a limitless supply of incorrect statements, wrong beliefs, and misinformation. Why should a person focus on your issue in particular, rather than

I do think EA does a good job internally encouraging this type of debate, and a general focus on truthseeking. In the next section I’ll outline why you can’t just rely on insider criticism.

You can’t rely on ingroup criticism

I think it’s a common opinion in EA that ingroup criticism is way better than outgroup criticism. It’s certainly more polite! Since EA is theoretically cause-neutral and truth-seeking, EA insiders theoretically have that “neutral” motivation to critique their beliefs. From this, it’s tempting to just ignore all outgroup criticism.

However, I think that relying too hard on ingroup criticism leads to pitfalls. There are reasons we prefer ingroup criticism that might be inflating their value beyond what is needed.

First: in-group criticism speaks our language, so we understand it easily. The EA movement has been marinated in the tone and jargon of the Rationalist movement, so we understand people that reference their “epistemic status” or whatever. But this is not a requirement for having insightful and correct opinions on something like, say, nanotechnology. So someone steeped in a different jargon language might come off as harder to understand and less persuasive, even if their views are correct.

Following on from this, we believe our opinions are correct. So the more someone agrees with us, the more we tend to trust their opinion. If someone believes everything you believe except for one issue, you will be more likely to listen to their reasoning on the very last disagreement and be persuaded. This is not a big deal if you already are mostly at the truth, but if you have a lot of things off, you risk being trapped in an epistemic dead end, where you only listen to people who are wrong in similar ways to you.

We are talking about speculative issues here. Poor assumptions and groupthink might affect the assumptions going into a climate model, but it can’t make the reading of a thermometer go up. There’s no equivalent for the behaviour of hypothetical super-intelligent AI’s: we can only make extrapolations from current evidence, and different people extrapolate in different ways. So it’s hard to escape from an epistemic dead end if one does occur.

There is also the risk of evaporative cooling of group beliefs (and a similar risk for selection bias in who enters). As AI risk becomes a bigger and bigger part of the EA movement, in-group criticism may become less and less useful, as non AI-riskers get more and more alienated from the movement. This will happen even if you’re super duper nice to them and are welcoming as possible. Sure, someone concerned about global health will be satisfied that like half of the EA funding still goes to global health, but if they jump ship to a global health agency, that number will be 100%. And an earn to giver doesn’t have to engage with the “EA movement” at all: they can just read the latest Givewell report and cut a cheque.

Lastly, EA is a big part of peoples lives. A significant number of people in EA, including a lot of the most influential people, rely on EA as their employer. Plenty of people also have EA as part of their identity, including their friends, partners, and family. EA is a source of identity and social status. These all introduce conflicts of interests when it comes to discussing the value of EA. Theoretically, you might be committed to the truth, but it’s not hard to see why people might be unconsciously biased against a position like “my heroes are foolish and all my friends should be fired”.

How to respond to motivation gaps

Note that some of these recommendations would benefit me and “my tribe” personally. Feel free to take that into account when evaluating them.

The dumb response to this concept would be to assume that because motivation gaps existed, that the less inherently motivated side must be correct. I hope I’ve given enough counterexamples to show that this is not true.

I think there is also a danger of proving too much with this concept. There are plenty of aspects of AI x-risk that are not explained by motivation gaps. It doesn’t explain why EA settled on AI risk in particular, as opposed to other forms of x-risk. It’s only a partial explanation for why AI fears are common among AI researchers. And obviously, it says nothing about the object level arguments and evidence, which are what ultimately matters.

I’m also not saying that because negative attitudes are more boosted and visible, that working on PR and avoiding scandals is pointless. If EA went out shooting puppies for no reason, it would rightfully get more criticism and hatred than it does now!

One way to react to this would be to try and compensate for motivation gaps when evaluating the strengths of different arguments. Like, if you are evaluating a claim, and side A has a hundred full time advocates but side B doesn’t, don’t just weigh up current arguments, weigh up how strong side B’s position would be if they also had a hundred full time advocates. A tough mental exercise!

Another reaction could be to set different standards for advocates and critics. You could choose to be more charitable and forgiving of hostility, in EA critics than you are in EA supporters, because otherwise you wouldn’t get any criticism at all. Or pick through a hostile piece and just extract the object level arguments and engage with those. (I think people did engage with most of the arguments in the Weinar article, for example).

If you wanted to be proactive, you could seek out an unfiltered segment on the community. For example, the forecasting research institute sought out superforecasters, regardless of their AI opinions, and paid them to do a deep dive into issue of AI x-risk and to discuss the issue with AI concerned people. This group gave a much lower estimate of x-risk than the EA insiders did. This gives us a better feeling for the average intellectual opinion, rather than the people filtered by motivations.

I want to be clear that I am advocating for somewhat unfair treatment, in that if you see an equally good article from a pro-AI risk perspective and and an anti-AI risk perspective, you should preferentially boost the latter, because of it’s rarity and in order to compensate for all the other disadvantages of that minority perspective.

The main thing I would emphasize is then when you do see the rare critique that is good, that is well argued and in good faith, don’t let it languish in obscurity. Otherwise, why would anyone bother to offer it up? For examples, in the last year of EA forum “curated posts” I couldn’t find any posts from AI skeptics (unless you count this?).

Leif Weinars bad article prompted mass discussion, multiple followup posts, and a direct response from EA celebrities like scott alexander. At the exact same time, David thorstadt has been writing up his peer reviewed academic paper “against the singularity hypothesis”, arguing against a widespread and loadbearing EA belief with rigorous argumentation and good faith. And the response has been… modest upvotes and a few comments. Where are the followup post responses? Where is the EA celebrity response? I would bet only a fraction of the people engaging with the time article have seen Thorstadts arguments. Ironically, if you want your ideas to be seen within EA circles, being flashy and hostile seems like the better strategy. Why bother writing a polite good faith critique, when you’ll have more spread and influence being lazier and meaner?

Summary

This article unveils a major asymmetry in activism. Belief in a cause, especially something like an existential threat, brings intrinsic motivation to spread the word, while disbelief brings a shrug. Thus, in order to receive outsider critiques, some other motivation needs to bridge the motivation gap.

Receiving unpleasant critiques is incredibly frustrating. It’s tempting to just ignore criticism that is needlessly hostile, or fearmongering, or lazy, or mean-spirited, or politically/financially biased.

But the result is that you ignore people that are motivated by dislike, or fear, or entertainment, or money or tribalism. As a result, you ignore near-everyone that would care enough about the subject to criticize it.

If a cause has a motivation gap, you don’t have to throw up your hands in the air and declare that there’s no point trying to find the truth. But you do have to take it into account, because it filters which arguments get to you, and their quality.

To address the issue, you can try and stomach the hostile articles and pick out the good points from them, or seek out neutral parties and pay them to evaluate the issue, or extra signal boost the high effort good faith critiques you do find. EA has done some of this, but there is still a vast motivation gulf between the believers and the skeptics. Until that situations ends, do not be surprised that the critiques you see seem lazy and hostile. 

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I think the idea of a motivational shadow is a good one, and it can be useful to think about these sorts of filters on what sorts of evidence/argument/research people are willing to share, especially if people are afraid of social sanction.

However, I am less convinced by this concrete application. You present a hierarchy of activities in order of effort required to unlock, and suggest that something like 'being paid full time to advocate for this' pushes people up multiple levels:

  • Offhand comment
  • irate Tweet
  • Low-effort blog post
  • Sensationalised newpaper article
  • Polite, charitable, good faith, evidentially rigorous article

I don't believe that the people who are currently doing high quality Xrisk advocacy would counter-factually be writing nasty newspaper hit pieces; these just seem like totally different activities, or that Timnit would write more rigourously if people gave her more money. My impression is that high quality work on both sides is done by people with strong inherent dedication to truth-seeking and intellectual inquiry, and there is no need to first pass through a valley of vitriol before your achieve a motivational level-up to an ascended state of evidence. Indeed, historically a lot of Xrisk advocacy work was done by people for whom such an activity had negative financial and social payoff.

I also think you miss a major, often dominant motivation: people love to criticize, especially to criticize things that seem to threaten their moral superiority. 

I think that's a good critique, although it can be mitigated somewhat with a narrower interpretation. In the narrower view, motivation (e.g., "effort required to unlock") is a necessary but not sufficient precursor to various actions. 

Being a jerk on X requires only low motivation, but if I'm not prone to being a jerk in the first place then my response to that level of motivation will be [no action], which will not result in any criticism. Conditional on someone posting criticism at that level of motivation, the criticism will be ~ in the form of mean tweets, because the motivation level isn't high enough to unlock higher forms of criticism.

My impression is that high quality work on both sides is done by people with strong inherent dedication to truth-seeking and intellectual inquiry [ . . .]

 . . . as well as sufficient motivation and resources to do so. As with the lower levels, I suggest that high motivation unlocks high-level work in the sense that it is a necessary but not sufficient precondition. This means that people with strong inherent dedication to truth-seeking and intellectual inquiry will still not produce high-quality work unless they are motivated enough to do so.

I don't believe that the people who are currently doing high quality Xrisk advocacy would counter-factually be writing nasty newspaper hit pieces; these just seem like totally different activities, or that Timnit would write more rigourously if people gave her more money.

I don't think that's what the OP argues though.[1] The argument is that the people motivated to seek funding to assess X-risk as a full time job tend to be disproportionately people that think X-risk and the ability to mitigate it significant. So of course advocates produce more serious research, and of course people who don't think it's that big a deal don't tend to choose it as a research topic (and on the rare occasions they put actual effort in, it's relatively likely to be motivated by animus against x-risk advocates). 

If those x-risk advocates had to do something other than x-risk research for their day job, they might not write hit pieces, but there would be blogs instead of a body of high quality research to point to, and some people would still tweet angrily and insubstantially about Sam Altman and FAANG. 

Gebru's an interesting example looked at the other way, because she does write rigorous papers on her actual research interests as well as issue shallow, hostile dismissals of groups in tech she doesn't like. But funnily enough, nobody's producing high quality rebuttals of those papers[2] - they're happy to dismiss her entire body of work based on disagreeing with her shallower comments. Less outspoken figures than Gebru write papers on similar lines, but these don't get the engagement at all.

I do agree people love to criticize.

  1. ^

    the bar chart for x-risk believers without funding actually stops short of the "hit piece" FWIW

  2. ^

    EAs may not necessarily actually disagree with her when she's writing about implicit biases in LLMs or concentration of ownership in tech rather than tweeting angrily about TESCREALs, but obviously some people and organizations have reason to disagree with her papers as well.

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I'm not sure that I buy that critics lack motivation. At least in the space of AI, there will be (and already are) people with immense financial incentive to ensure that x-risk concerns don't become very politically powerful.

Of course, it might be that the best move for these critics won't be to write careful and well reasoned arguments for whatever reason (e.g. this would draw more attention to x-risk so ignoring it is better from their perspective).

Edit: this is mentioned in the post, but I'm a bit surprised because this isn't emphasized more.

I'm not sure that I buy that critics lack motivation. At least in the space of AI, there will be (and already are) people with immense financial incentive to ensure that x-risk concerns don't become very politically powerful.

The current situation still feels like the incentives are relatively small compared with the incentive to create the appearance that the existence of anthropogenic climate change is still uncertain. Over decades advocates have succeeded in actually reducing fossil fuel consumption in many countries as well as securing less-likely-to-be-honoured commitments to Net Zero, and direct and indirect energy costs are a significant part of everyone' household budget.

Not to mention that Big Tech companies whose business plans might be most threatened by "AI pause" advocacy are currently seeing more general "AI safety" arguments as an opportunity to achieve regulatory capture...

Not to mention that Big Tech companies whose business plans might be most threatened by "AI pause" advocacy are currently seeing more general "AI safety" arguments as an opportunity to achieve regulatory capture...

Why do you think this? It seems very unclear if this is true to me.

Because their leaders are openly enthusiastic about AI regulation and saying things like "better that the standard is set by American companies that can work with our government to shape these models on important issues" or "we need a referee", rather than arguing that their tech is too far away from AGI to need any regulation or arguing the risks of AI are greatly exaggerated, as you might expect if they saw AI safety lobbying as a threat rather than an opportunity. 

Sure, but there are many alternative explanations:

  • There is internal and external pressure to avoid downplaying AI safety.
  • Regulation is inevitable, so it would be better to ensure that you can at least influence it somewhat. Purely fighting against regulation might go poorly for you.
  • The leaders care at least a bit about AI safety either out of a bit of altruism or self interest. (Or at least aren't constantly manipulative to such an extent that they choose all words to maximize their power.)

I don't disagree that these are also factors, but if tech leaders are pretty openly stating they want the regulation to happen and they want to guide the regulators, I think it's accurate to say that they're currently more motivated to achieve regulatory capture (for whatever reason) than they are to ensure that x-risk concerns don't become a powerful political argument as suggested by the OP, which was the fairly modest claim I made. 

(Obviously far more explicit and cynical claims about, say, Sam Altman's intentions in founding OpenAI exist, but the point I made doesn't rest on them)

@JWS asked the question: why do EA critics hate EA so much? Are all EA haters just irrational culture warriors?

I genuinely don't know if this is an interesting/relevant question that's unique to EA. To me, the obvious follow-up question here is whether EA is unique or special in having this (average) level of vitriol in critiques of us? Like is the answer to "why so much EA criticism is hostile and lazy" the same answer to "why is so much criticism, period, hostile and lazy?" Or are there specific factors of EA that's at all relevant here?

I haven't been sufficiently embedded in other intellectual or social movements. I was a bit involved in global development before and don't recall much serious vitirol, maybe something like Easterly or Moyo are closest. I guess maybe MAGA implicitly doesn't like global dev? 

But otoh I've heard of other people involved in say animal rights who say that the "critiques" of EA are all really light and milquetoast by comparison.

I'd really appreciate answers from people who have been more "around the block" than I have. 

Strongly agree. I think there's also a motivation gap in knowledge acquisition. If you don't think there's much promise in an idea or a movement, it usually doesn't make sense to spend years learning about it. This leads to large numbers of very good academics writing poorly-informed criticisms. But this shouldn't be taken to indicate that there's nothing behind the criticisms. It's just that it doesn't pay off career-wise for these people to spend years learning enough to press the criticisms better.

I don’t think it requires years of learning to write a thoughtful op-ed-level critique of EA. I’d be surprised if that’s true for an academic paper-level one either

That's fair! But I also think most op-eds on any topic are pretty bad. As for academic papers, I have to say it took me at least a year to write anything good about EA, and that was on a research-only postdoc with 50% of my research time devoted to longtermism. 

There's an awful lot that has been written on these topics, and catching up on the state of the art can't be rushed without bad results. 

To a large extent I don't buy this. Academics and Journalists could interview an arbitrary EA forum user on a particular area if they wanted to get up to speed quickly. The fact they seem not to do this, in addition to not giving a right to reply, makes me think they're not truth-seeking. 

I’d like to hope that academics are aiming for a level of understanding above that of a typical user on an Internet forum.

All academic works have a right to reply. Many journals print response papers and it is a live option to submit responses to critical papers, including mine. It is also common to respond to others in the context of a larger paper. The only limit to the right of academic reply is that the response must be of suitable quality and interest to satisfy expert reviewers.

All academic works have a right to reply. Many journals print response papers and it is a live option to submit responses to critical papers, including mine. It is also common to respond to others in the context of a larger paper. The only limit to the right of academic reply is that the response must be of suitable quality and interest to satisfy expert reviewers.

This sounds like... not having a right of reply? The right means a strong presumption if not an absolute policy that criticized people can defend themselves in the same place as they were criticized. If only many, not all, journals print response papers, and only if you jump through whatever hoops and criteria the expert reviewers put in front of you, I'm not sure how this is different to 'no right of reply'.

A serious right would mean journals would send you an email with the critical paper, the code and the underlying data, and give you time to create your response (subject to some word limit, copy-editing etc.) for them to publish. 

A serious right would mean journals would send you an email with the critical paper, the code and the underlying data, and give you time to create your response (subject to some word limit, copy-editing etc.) for them to publish. 

I generally agree with this to the extent that the person authoring the reply had a strong basis for standing -- e.g., the published piece represented a direct and sustained criticism on their previously published piece. I would not extend it to cases where the person authoring the reply was more of a third party, as in the story Richard shares here. I am unsure about extending it to cases where the challenged work was not published in an appropriate journal in the first place. It seems a bit odd to guarantee someone journal access to defend work where there is no clear reason to believe the original work was of journal-level quality in the first place. 

Yeah I agree Richard's story is about illustrating journal incentives and behaviour, not specially about a Right of Reply. In the specific Leif Weinar case I would say that Will, and maybe CEA, [should] have a Right of Reply, but a random EA person would not.

I don't think it's that strange to accept replies for lower-quality work. A newspaper, when quoting the subject of an article saying "the accusations are false and malicious and we are confident the Judge will side with us" or whatever is guaranteeing them space even though they wouldn't have given the subject a platform normally. The purpose of the reply is to allow readers to better evaluate the criticism, which was deemed sufficient quality to publish, and if the reply is low quality then that is informative by itself. Important to this is that replies should be constrained to a much shorter length than the criticism itself.

The crux for me is whether "published reply in journal" could and would be (mis?)construed by some people as a sort of quality signal.

To the extent that journals are allowing replies-by-permission by third parties, then we don't want to diminish the value of getting one of those published. As Richard notes, the incentives are already weak. Yet I think replies-by-permission are undervalued already, because I think ~ direct dialog is usually better than ~ talking past one another.

If I were too concerned about this issue for a reply author with standing, I'd probably at least offer to publish an Editor's Note with a link to the reply author's off-journal response.

Realistically, it is almost never in an academic's professional interest to write a reply paper (unless they are completely starved of original ideas). Referees are fickle, and if the reply isn't accepted at the original journal, very few other journals will even consider it, making it a bad time investment. (A real "right of reply" -- where the default expectation switches from 'rejection' to 'acceptance' -- might change the incentives here.)

Example: early in my career, I wrote a reply to an article that was published in Ethics. The referees agreed with my criticisms, and rejected my reply on the grounds that this was all obvious and the original paper never should have been published. I learned my lesson and now just post replies to my blog since that's much less time-intensive (and probably gets more readers anyway).

A lot of people seem to think EA is this singular, exceptional, incomparable thing, unlike other movements or ideologies or group identities. But I think EA is not special or exceptional or unique at all. It is just another human enterprise with many of the flaws that human enterprises typically have.

I studied philosophy at university and, by the time I was done, I still loved philosophy (maybe just as much or even more than ever), but developed many deep frustrations and critiques with philosophy, and a little bit of cynicism or skepticism toward the field, or some aspects of it. One thing I wished philosophers and philosophy teachers asked themselves more and more pointedly was, "Why is this worth thinking about?" or "Am I wasting my time with this?”. (I imagine if you had a glass of wine or some weed in a private place with any random philosophy PhD student or professor and asked them about the structural problems in their field, there’s a good chance they would have a lot to complain about.)

At university, I got intensely involved with political activism to the point of burnout and mental destabilization. I still believe very strongly in many of the basic ideas I believed in then (e.g. trans rights, economic justice) — maybe even more so, given the subsequent years I’ve had to think on it — but I was scared and disturbed by how amped up and out of control people can get when they spend so much time talking to people in their weird little in-group and have a strong sense of self-righteousness. Very relevant to EA.

EA is something like a combination of philosophy and political activism. When I got involved in my local EA community circa 2015, from the jump, I had a certain wariness about how something like this might go astray. One thing that bothered me then and I still don’t quite get is why people want to say "I’m an EA" or say things like "EAs like to help other EAs". Why is this part of your personal identity? Maybe it’s fine and normal to want to be part of a group or to label yourself and I’m overthinking it. Maybe it’s largely personal preference.

A thing that weirds me out today is when I see EAs having a weird superiority complex, like the apparent idea that EAs, exceptionally, care about truth and know how to get it, whereas I guess everyone else are just lying fools.

I don’t remember where I read this, but someone pointed out that a lot of EAs just like talking about philosophy and futurism, and then for some reason feel the need to justify that it’s important. (Maybe it feels wasteful or indulgent otherwise? Maybe pleasure is a sin?) My feeling is that people should just be able to enjoy talking about philosophy and futurism, just like they enjoy sports or video games or playing in a band, and that shouldn’t be frowned upon. In fact, it should be looked on as an enriching and somewhat admirable part of life. You don’t have to furiously justify things along the lines of, “Well, if my essay has a 1 in a billion chance of making things go 0.01% better for 10^52 future lives…”

You can devote yourself to an institution, an organization, a movement, an idea or ideal or ideology, a community, a subculture, a career, a cause, or a hobby and not elevate it to the point of "we are the special few this sick, sad world needs". It can just be fallible humans trying their best, not being perfect, not always knowing for sure what’s true, not always knowing for sure what the right thing to do is.

To the extent that feels uncomfortable or even intolerable to some people, or just not good enough, I wonder if what’s missing in their lives is just being loved for who they really are, without feeling the need to prove that they deserve to be loved.

Moreover, even if a critic has a sufficiently high level of motivation in the abstract, it doesn't follow that they will be incentivized to produce much (if any) "polite, charitable, good-faith, evidentiarily rigorous" work. (Many) critics want to be effective too -- and they may reasonably (maybe even correctly!) think that effort devoted to producing castle memes produces a higher ROI than polishing, simplifying, promoting, and defending their more rigorous critiques. 

For example, a committed e/acc's top priority is arguably the avoidance of government regulation that seriously slows down AI development. Memes are more important for 90%, perhaps 99%, of the electorate -- so "make EA / AI safety a topic of public scorn and ridicule" seems like a reasonable theory of change for the e/acc folks. When you're mainly trying to tear someone else's work down, you may plausibly see maintaining epistemic rigor in your own camp as relatively less important than if you were actually trying to build something.

This is interesting, thanks. Though I wanted to flag that the volume of copyediting errors means I’m unlikely to share it with others.

Great post, titotal!

Why should a person focus on your issue in particular, rather than

It looks like you meant to write something after this.

One way to react to this would be to try and compensate for motivation gaps when evaluating the strengths of different arguments. Like, if you are evaluating a claim, and side A has a hundred full time advocates but side B doesn’t, don’t just weigh up current arguments, weigh up how strong side B’s position would be if they also had a hundred full time advocates. A tough mental exercise!

Relatedly, there is this post from Nuño Sempere.

Summary

This document seeks to outline why I feel uneasy about high existential risk estimates from AGI (e.g., 80% doom by 2070). When I try to verbalize this, I view considerations like 

  • selection effects at the level of which arguments are discovered and distributed
  • community epistemic problems, and 
  • increased uncertainty due to chains of reasoning with imperfect concepts 

as real and important. 

I still think that existential risk from AGI is important. But I don’t view it as certain or close to certain, and I think that something is going wrong when people see it as all but assured. 

Love this thanks for the insights, this definitely helps answer some of my questions about people like Weinar. When a couple of people I knew mentioned that article, I pointed them to what I think are better criticisms here in philosophy tube (also more fun)

https://youtu.be/Lm0vHQYKI-Y?si=sw_3u-9tQSvRZRut

I am encouraged though that a few people have written responses to Thorstad over the last couple of weeks. Not exactly blowing up on Twitter but some good engagement at least ;)

Executive summary: Motivation gaps between advocates and skeptics of a cause can lead to an imbalance in the quality and quantity of arguments on each side, making it difficult to accurately judge the merits of the cause based on the arguments alone.

Key points:

  1. Advocates of a cause (e.g. religion, AI risk) are intrinsically motivated to make high-effort arguments, while skeptics lack inherent motivation to do the same.
  2. This leads to an asymmetry where advocate arguments appear more convincing, even if the cause itself may be flawed.
  3. Counter-motivations like moral backlash, politics, money, annoyance, and entertainment can somewhat close the motivation gap for skeptics, but introduce their own biases.
  4. In-group criticism alone is insufficient due to issues like jargon barriers, agreement bias, evaporative cooling, and conflicts of interest.
  5. To account for motivation gaps, adjust the weight given to each side's arguments, be more charitable to critics, seek out neutral parties to evaluate the cause, and signal boost high-effort critiques.
  6. EA should make an extra effort to highlight good-faith criticism to encourage more productive engagement from skeptics.

 

 

This comment was auto-generated by the EA Forum Team. Feel free to point out issues with this summary by replying to the comment, and contact us if you have feedback.

Call me obsessed, but : Street Epistemology, Deep Canvassing, Smart Politics. Those are ways to talk to people who are hostile and yet turn the conversation into an object-level disagreement, and you can get fast training, for free (see my post "Effectively Handling Disagreements" -conflict of interest explicit). Notoriously relied upon by constructive atheists, by the way.

I do agree, however, that polite critiques should be boosted by default, e.g. with a karma boost on the forum, and doing this might be more effective than what I just stated above.

I must admit I did not have time to re-read your post carefully, but thought it worth pointing out that after reading it I am left a bit confused by the multiple "culture wars" references. Could you please expand on this a bit?

I guess my confusion is that "culture wars" seem to be "attention grabbing" words you used in the beginning of your post, but I feel that after reading the full post that they were not fully addressed. I would be keen to understand if you only meant these to be rhetorical devices to make the reading more captivating, or if you have opinions on the frequent "white boys" criticisms of EA? It is fine if it is the former, I just felt a bit like I was left hanging after reading the post which I think otherwise did some good analysis on financial motives for criticism, comparing AI to e.g Climate Change.

I think others might be interested in this topic as well, especially as JEID concerns was raised by many EAs, and especially women and non-binary EAs. I also think some EAs might think that the "white boys"/culture wars criticisms of EA is actually criticism we should take seriously, although the tone in which these criticisms are made are often not the most optimal for engaging in fruitful dialogue (but I can understand if people with bad experiences can find it hard to suppress their anger - and perhaps sometimes anger is appropriate).

This is overthinking things. EA is full of quokkas, quokkas attract predators, predators tend to be volatile and very mentally unstable. This pretty much perfectly describes why Torres and Gebru do what they do. In Torres's case it's not even the first time he's latched onto a philosophical movement only do later flip out and decide all its adherents were evil. He has some variant of borderline personality disorder, as it very obvious from his drunken tweets blaming his ex girlfriend for all his problems. 

I don't think armchair diagnosis of the alleged psychiatric disorders of EA critics (or much of anyone, for that matter) is an appropriate activity for the Forum.

For what it’s worth, I endorse @Habryka’s old comment on this issue:

Man, this sure is a dicy topic, but I do think it's pretty likely that Torres has a personality disorder, and that modeling these kinds of things is often important. 

A while ago we had a conversation on the forum on whether Elon Musk might be (at least somewhat) autistic. A number of people pushed back on this as ungrounded speculation and as irrelevant in a way that seemed highly confused to me, since like, being autistic has huge effects on how you make decisions and how you relate to the world, and Musk has been a relevant player in many EA-adjacent cause areas for quite a while. 

I do think there is some trickiness in talking about this kind of stuff, but talking about someone's internal mental makeup can often be really important. Indeed, lots of people were saying to me in-person that they were modeling SBF as a sociopath, and implying that they would not feel comfortable giving that description in public, since that's rude. I think in this case that diagnosis sure would have been really helpful and I think our norms against bringing up this kind of stuff harmed us quite a bit.

To be clear I am not advocating for a culture of psychologizing everyone. I think that's terrible, and a lot of the worse interactions I've had with people external to the community have been people who have tried to dismiss various risks from artificial intelligence through various psychologizing lenses like "these people are power-obsessed, which is why they think  an AI will want to dominate everyone", which... are really not helpful and seem just straightforwardly very wrong to me, while also being very hard to respond to.

I don't currently have a great proposal for norms for discussing this kind of stuff, especially as an attack (I feel less bad about the Elon autism discussion, since like, Elon identifies at least partially as autistic and I don't think he would see it as an insult). Seems hard. My current guess is that it must be OK to at some point, after engaging extensively with someone's object-level arguments, to bring up more psychologizing explanations and intuitions, but that it currently should come pretty late, after the object-level has been responded to and relatively thoroughly explored. I think this is the case with Torres, but not the case with many other people.

Yeah, I don't want to make a claim that reference to an individual's mental condition would be categorically inappropriate. However, I think at a minimum there needs to be a reason for making the assertion that furthers an important interest, that the assertion is tailored to that interest, and that there isn't a clear yet less inflammatory & invasive way to get the information across.

I think there are few cases in which this test would be met as applied to a critic. Saying that the critic has a long history of dishonest, volatile, paranoid, or whatever kind of behavior (and showing the receipts where appropriate) is more convincing to explaining why people shouldn't engage than a thinly-supported armchair diagnosis.

While I don't agree with everything in that quote, I do see some points of convergence -- there is awareness of downsides, consideration of what is potentially to be gained from the discussion, a suggestion that this should not occur without significant object-level engagement first, and some sense of narrow tailoring (insofar as discussion of "psychologizing explanations and intuitions" is more narrowly tailored than trotting out a stigmatized DSM/ICD diagnosis).

This is quokka logic. With Torres in particular it's an incredibly obvious motivation for why he does what he does. If this were more widely known, he would not get nearly the amount of press attention that he does. Instead people like this get to pose in the press as sane and sober critics because they can put together barely-coherent critiques and journalists don't know the backstory. See https://markfuentes1.substack.com/p/emile-p-torress-history-of-dishonesty, which everyone should be signal boosting aggressively on a regular basis.

As an aside, Torres uses they/them pronouns. Could you correct your comments?

It seems reasonably clear that there are certain psychiatric disorders such that people would be justified in refusing to engage with, or dismiss the claims of, those who suffer from them. I think the epistemically sound norm would be to ask those who argue that someone suffers from such a disorder to provide adequate evidence for the allegation.

The armchair diagnosis doesn't add anything to the behavior offered in support of it. If someone has a history of deceptive behavior, extreme emotional instability, seemingly delusional behavior, whatever, then that is the potential reason to disengage. What's the marginal benefit here to justify the various harms of armchair diagnosis?

That seems like a fully general counterargument against relying on medical diagnoses for anything. There are always facts that confirm a diagnosis, and then the diagnosis itself. Presumably, it is often helpful to argue that the facts confirm the diagnosis instead of simply listing the facts alone. I don’t see any principled reason for eschewing diagnoses when they are being used to support the conclusion that someone's testimony or arguments should be distrusted.

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