EA Forum Prize: Winners for March 2021

by Aaron Gertler11 min read22nd May 20211 comment

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Forum Prize
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CEA is pleased to announce the winners of the March 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.

Is Democracy a Fad?

It’s natural to wonder: Will this rise in democracy last? Or will democracy turn out to be only a passing fad—something like the Ice Bucket Challenge of regime types?

Let’s suppose, to be more specific, that one thousand years from now people and states still at least kind of exist. How surprised should we be if democracy is no more common then than it was in the year 1000AD?

While this question is a lot to tackle in a single post, I liked several aspects of Ben’s attempt:

  • The key points he added at the beginning, rather than only crossposting text from his original blog post
  • The rapid, frank admission of his limitations on this topic (“I haven’t actually read that much about democracy”)
  • The references to historical writing on democracy, which emphasize (in my view, correctly) that we tend to update too much on recent events. They also helped me to see Ben’s post in the same context (he may not be driven by “current events” to the same degree, but any post like this is likely to be somewhat anchored on the most recent available data).
  • The use of a prediction at the end, and the willingness to update that prediction + share the update in the post as a result of ensuing discussion.
  • Oh, and also the actual, object-level content of the post. Ben’s choice of which topics/questions to focus on seems reasonable to me, I like the way he compares democracy to many other social trends, and the prose quality + humor made the post a pleasant reading experience.

I’ll also second Larks in noting that a certain footnote deserves more prominence. (Kudos to Ben for acknowledging the possibility that the question he’s tried to answer winds up being largely irrelevant to the actual structure of the future.)

How much does performance differ between people?

Some people seem to achieve orders of magnitude more than others in the same job. For instance, among companies funded by Y Combinator the top 0.5% account for more than ⅔ of the total market value; and among successful bestseller authors, the top 1% stay on the New York Times bestseller list more than 25 times longer than the median author in that group.

This is a striking and often unappreciated fact, but raises many questions. How many jobs have these huge differences in achievements? More importantly, why can achievements differ so much, and can we identify future top performers in advance?

This post may be the best example I’ve seen on the Forum of being productively “wrong on the internet”. 

The authors of this post chose to research an important and deeply complicated question. Inevitably, commenters had various objections. While I’m not sure which side I take for some of the ensuing debates (to the extent that there were “sides” to take), I learned a lot by reading everything. Based on Ben’s “more accurate” summary, I’d guess that he and Max also learned a lot, and made some updates as a result.

Not all Forum discussions are this productive. It helps that this was a post by two well-known researchers (so I’m not surprised people spent a lot of time/attention on it), but I think a few other factors also helped it inspire a good conversation:

  • Providing a huge number of examples in the course of investigating claims. This gave people many chances to question particular examples, and by doing so, make general points that could apply more broadly to the post’s conclusions. If you share five different examples for why X is true, people are more likely to catch some flaw in your reasoning and zero in on “actually, X isn’t quite true, but (thing close to X) is”.
  • Presenting many different “findings”, each of which had its own section of the post. This has a similar effect to sharing lots of examples — you make it easier for people to identify when something sounds wrong, and to present counter-arguments that have some clear implication for your conclusions.
    • And the individual sections made it easier to see which evidence was driving which findings; I can imagine a version of the post where all the evidence was bundled together, with findings summarized at the end, and I think that would have been much harder to comment on.
  • Finally, the obvious factor: Max Daniel leaving dozens of comments in which he responded constructively to various criticisms. Not fancy, but very effective at producing better discussion!

Apart from the question of which factors helped the authors leverage Cunningham’s Law, I also liked:

  • The use of a “further research” section, which will hopefully inspire future posts on an important topic that we’ve only begun to explore as a community
  • The use of a glossary to clarify how certain terms were being used. (Some of the ensuing discussion was about how those same terms were potentially misused, so the glossary may not have had the intended effect, but it was still nice to include.)

Don't Be Bycatch

EA organizations and writers are doing us a favor by presenting a set of ideas that speak to us. They can't be responsible for addressing all our needs. That's something we need to figure out for ourselves [...] How do we help each other to help others?

Lots of good advice here, paired with a perspective I find useful: while it’s hard for most people in EA to live up to the movement’s most ambitious advice, there are still many ways to make an impact on a smaller scale. Because the post is mostly a list of tips with simple formatting, I’ll just use this writeup to quote my favorites:

  1. “Don't aim for instant success. Aim for 20 years of solid growth.”
  2. “Prefer the known, concrete, solvable problem to the quest for perfection. Yes, running an EA book club or, gosh darn it, picking up trash in the park is a fine EA project to cut our teeth on. If you donate 0% of your income, donating 1% of your income is moving in the right direction.” (I once spent a few hours cleaning up trash in my apartment complex, and found the experience more satisfying than nearly any donation I’ve ever made.)
  3. “Build each other up. Do zoom calls. Ask each other questions. Send a message to a stranger whose blog posts you like. Form relationships, and care about those relationships for their own sake. That is literally what EA community development is about.”
  4. “Be a founder and an instigator, even if the organization is temporary, the activity incomplete. Do a little bit of everything. Have the guts to write for this forum, if you have time. Organize an event with a friend. Buy a domain name and throw together a website.” (I’ve done a little bit of everything in my EA career. I was bad at most of it, but the accumulated experience helped me better understand the movement as a whole, and made me a better advisor for people who have skills I lack.)

How to run a high-energy reading group

Why are reading groups and journal clubs bad so often?

I think there are two reasons: boring readings and low-energy discussions. This post is about how to avoid those pitfalls.

This is a perfect example of how to inspire action through writing. In a relatively brief post, Tessa gives advice that applies across a wide range of situations — for organizers with different levels of experience and free time, and groups of different sizes:

  • If someone wants to invest a ton of energy into a novel group, they can use Tessa’s advice about reaching out to experts for suggestions; if they want to throw something together quickly, they can reference her suggested reading lists.
  • If someone runs an EA group already, they can use Tessa’s suggested structure for bigger groups; if they have exactly one friend to read with, there’s also a suggestion for that! (And Tessa’s conclusion explains how she’s currently making use of multiple structures in her own reading groups — I thought this made the whole concept feel more approachable.)

I also loved the advice on note-taking, paired with a memorable anecdote. As a whole, the post is a wonderful blend of inspiration and execution — in fewer than 2000 words!

Against neutrality about creating happy lives

I think that creating someone who will live a wonderful life is to do, for them, something incredibly significant and worthwhile. Exactly how to weigh this against other considerations in different contexts is an additional and substantially more complex question. But I feel very far from neutral about it, and I’d hope that others, in considering whether to create me, wouldn’t feel neutral, either. This post tries to point at why.

“This common philosophical point seems intuitively wrong” isn’t an easy trick to pull off. And yet, it can be very valuable to attempt. 

Few people choose actions through philosophy alone. Even within EA, I’d argue that most of us follow our moral intuitions most of the time. If that’s the case, building a discussion around an intuition lets you get at the reasons people actually do things. It helps people who agree with you better understand what led them to a given belief. And it gives people who disagree with you a chance to engage with your “true” reasons; if someone persuades you that your intuition is flawed, you’re more likely to change your actions than you would if they made some clever philosophical argument that didn’t engage with your intuition.

Your perspective on this post may depend mostly on how well Joe’s intuitions match yours. They match mine very well, so I’m reluctant to discuss the “strength” of the argument or anything like that. (See this comment from someone whose intuitions were different.) 

I appreciated the use of a single thought experiment, presented from multiple perspectives (elegant!). And given that this post tends toward poetry over dry philosophy and consideration of counterpoints (as this comment notes), I was glad to see the links to Beckstead and Broome for people who want a different kind of discussion. While I largely share his intuitions, I wouldn’t want someone to adopt Joe’s position based on this post alone, without examining detailed arguments on both sides.

(Also, congratulations to Joe for his second straight win! I’ve enjoyed many of the posts he’s shared from his blog, and I’m glad he took the time to bring them to the Forum.)

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 send me a private message.

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1 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 3:20 AM
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Hi Aaron, I'm glad that you and others felt they got value out of our post and the discussion in the comments. (And obviously I'm glad that we won a Forum prize.)

I'd just like to clarify a few things because I'm concerned that your writeup might imply the opposite, at least on some readings:

  • I think I made a number of mistakes of exposition, particularly with the summary (which is the part of our long Google doc that I included in the EA Forum post). [I'm using "I" here since I was the main author of the wording, and so I think mistakes of exposition are primarily my rather than Ben's responsibility.] The discussion helped me realize this, which I'm grateful for.
  • I don't think I was substantially wrong about any of my key beliefs on this topic. More broadly, I have changed my mind about the 'substance' of our findings only to a very limited extent.
    • (Just based on priors I think that probably some of my current beliefs on this topic are wrong. But I don't know which ones and how, and the discussion didn't help me make progress with this.)
  • Minor: My understanding is that Ben intended to say that his summary for the 80k blog is "more accurate" than his own earlier Twitter summary (as opposed to being more accurate than the EA Forum post summary). But I didn't ask Ben for clarification and would welcome a correction.
    • From my perspective, the two summaries serve different purposes and are optimized for different audiences. I don't think that one is generally more accurate than the other.