The Importance of Truth-Oriented Discussions in EA

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This document is a collaborative effort. It responds to the document Making Discussions in EA Groups Inclusive (henceforth referred to as Making Discussions Inclusive). We appreciate the time and care that went into making that document. It not only brought attention to issues that many EAs might not have previously been aware of, but it addressed these issues with a greater level of nuance than they are usually discussed with. At the same time, we also feel that there are several important issues that were not addressed. We will address the original document section by section and elaborate on why we believe that limiting discussion is a risky path to go down and why it won’t ultimately deliver on what we are told it will.

Content Note: This document discusses issues which were listed in Making Discussion Inclusive as potentially alienating.

We agree that discussing certain topics will often have impacts in terms of how comfortable or welcome certain people feel in a group and that these trade-offs should be considered. However, we believe that limiting debate tends to improve inclusion less than you might think, for a number of reasons:

Firstly, there is always the option to not participate in a discussion if you believe that engaging would be emotionally draining or a waste of time. We don’t want to dismiss how frustrating it can be to see people being wrong without it being sufficiently challenged, but we also believe that people are generally capable of overcoming these challenges and learning to adopt a broader perspective from where they can see that it usually isn’t actually very important if someone is wrong on the internet. However, people are less likely to develop this resilience when the community they are part of creates too much of an expectation of comfort. This is important since comfort in a particular context is a result of environmental factors and the individual’s resilience.

Secondly, there are competing access needs. Effective altruism provides a community where people can have discussions that they cannot have elsewhere. Limiting the discussion may make some people feel more welcome, but we also risk losing the most independent thinkers. And these are vital to discovering truth as detailed in the next section.

Thirdly, groups are not uniform. Measures to make a minority more welcome may make minorities within that minority feel less welcome. Attempts to limit criticisms of Islam, may marginalise ex-Muslims or women from Islamic countries. Preventing people from making arguments against abortion may make pro-choice women more comfortable, but at the cost of making pro-life women feel unwelcome (conservatives are a minority within EA). Limiting discussion of cultural reasons for poverty may be alienating to members of that minority who seek to reform their culture.

Lastly, we believe that someone is excluded to a greater degree when they are not allowed to share their sincerely held beliefs than when they are merely exposed to beliefs that they disagree with. This is especially the case with censorship as rules are often extended or interpreted more broadly over time. Even though certain rules may seem quite mild and reasonable by themselves, their mere existence creates a reasonable fear that those with certain viewpoints will eventually be completely pushed out.

This is not to claim that all discussions should necessarily occur in all contexts, just that we should be very wary of limiting them. In particular, the example given of someone arguing that women would be better if they were controlled by men does not seem to be at all typical of the kinds of discussions that usually occur in EA and hence of the kinds of discussions that likely motivated Making Discussions Inclusive or that would be limited were the advice in that document to be followed.

We also note that people do actually come into EA groups and challenge the basic ideas of EA (Three Biases that Made Me Believe in AI Risk, Charity vs. Revolution). This is a good thing as it forces us to further refine our ideas. Now, of course, we have to ensure that such discussions don’t drive out other discussion by sucking up all the time, but we ought to engage with sincere criticism, even if it is tiring. An attitude where we expect others to automatically agree with us is unlikely to be the most effective for persuading people over the long term.

We accept that having people feel comfortable is valuable in and of itself. However, we don’t consider this to be the primary purpose of effective altruism. Most charity is about the giver and allowing them to feel like they are making a significant difference even when they are not. In contrast, EA is about being effective and that necessarily involves having a true understanding of things as they are. Indeed, many standard EA views, such as the importance of AI safety or that wild animal suffering matters, seem outrageous to most people at first. It would seem arrogant to suppose that there aren’t any issues in which we are in a similar position; i.e. causes that sound outrageous, but are honestly incredibly important to pursue (see crucial considerations and Cause X). For this reason we should be wary about ruling things out preemptively.

We agree that humans are often irrational and that power structures/dynamics have some effect the way that discussions play out. however, we think the reductive approach taken in Making Discussions Inclusive considerably over-states the impact for the following four reasons:

Firstly, if the goal is to rebalance conversations in order to make them more objective, we need to specifically consider conversational power, instead of power in general. Advocates of social justice have recently been unusually successful in limiting speech compared to other ideologies (see RIP culture war thread for a recent example). We might therefore be tempted to conclude that they have a disproportionate amount of conversational power and that any attempt at rebalancing would involve reducing the voice of these advocates (this should not be interpreted as support of rebalancing in the first place).

Secondly, the power of the speaker heavily depends on the specific circumstances. Even though rich people tend to have more power and social status than the poor, due to a desire to favour the underdog particular audiences may be heavily biased towards the latter to the point of being completely dismissive of the former. Similarly, it is plausible that a man questioning both a man and a woman equally aggressively would be more likely to be seen as a bully in the case of the woman because that would fit more inline with society’s preconceptions.

Lastly, the received view of power relations is significantly outdated. Even though historically men have been granted more authority than women, influence of feminism and social justice means that in many circumstances this has been mitigated or even reversed. For example, studies like Gornall and Strebulaev (2019) found that blinding evaluators to the race or sex of applicants showed that by default they were biased against white men. We acknowledge that there are other circumstances where society is still biased towards men, but we caution about turning this into a blanket assumption, even though it may have been more appropriate in the past. Taking this further, there is a negative selection effect in that the more that a group is disempowered and could benefit from having its views being given more consideration the less likely it is to have to power to make this happen.

So the power relations which the authors of Making Discussion Inclusive want to correct are much less clear defined than you might think at first glance. But even if we were to accept their premises, limiting debate still wouldn’t necessarily be a good choice. Why not?

Firstly, some people choosing not to participate tends to be less harmful to the quality of discussion than censorship as the latter prevents exposure to a set of viewpoints completely, while the former only reduces its prominence. Even when there is a cost to participating, someone who considers the topic important enough can choose to bear it and one strong advocate by themselves is often sufficient to change people’s minds (especially within the Effective Altruism community where steel-manning tends to be admired).

Secondly, the concerns here are mostly around people choosing not to participate because of the effort required or because the discussion makes them uncomfortable. This is generally less worrying than people declining to participate because of long term reputational risk. This is because it is much easier to bear short term costs in order to make an important point than longer term costs.

Thirdly, even if limiting particular discussions would clearly be good, once we’ve decided to limit discussions at all, we’ve opened the door to endless discussion and debate about what is or is not unwelcoming (see Moderator’s Dilemma). And ironically, these kinds of discussions tend to be highly partisan, political and emotional. In fact, we could go so far as to say that they tend to make people on both sides feel more unwelcome: one side feels like it is being pushed out, while the other side feels that their perspectives aren’t being taken seriously (and the prominence of the discussion makes it much more prominent in their mind).

This is a difficult topic to broach as some people may find this discussion alienating in itself, but selection effects are at the core of this discussion and the evaluation of its impact. It is important to remember that these comments relate to group averages and not to individuals. Just because someone ends up leaving EA because of discomfort with certain discussions, doesn’t mean that they are described by all or even any of qualities listed below.

One of the strongest effects is that the people who leave as a result of certain ideas being discussed are much less likely to be committed EAs. The mechanism here is simple: the more committed to a cause, the more you are willing to endure for it. We agree with CEA that committed EAs are several times more valuable than those who are vaguely aligned, so that we should optimising the movement for attracting more committed members.

Secondly, while we all have topics on which our emotions get the better of us, those who leave are likely to be overcome to a greater degree and on a wider variety of topics. This means that they will be less likely to be able to contribute productively by providing reasoned analysis. But further than this, they are more likely to contribute negatively by being dismissive, producing biased analysis or engaging in personal attacks.

Thirdly, the people who leave are likely to be more ideological. This is generally an association between being more radical and more ideological, even though there are also people who are radical without being ideological. People who are more ideological are less able to update in the face of new evidence and are also less likely to be able to provide the kind of reasoned analysis that would cause other EAs to update more towards their views.

Lastly, we note that some people feel that EA is unfriendly to those on the right, while other feel that it is unfriendly to those in social justice. Often in these kinds of circumstances the fairest resolution is one which neither side is completely happy with. That is, we should expect some level of people feeling that EA is unwelcome to them in the optimal solution.

We acknowledge that people subject to a social disadvantage will tend to be much more knowledgeable about how it plays out than the average person has a reason to be. We also are aware that it can be incredibly hard for others to understand an experience from a mere verbal description, without ever having experienced it themselves. At the same time, we worry that people often fail to be objective about issues that directly concern them and can often have difficult putting it in perspective.

We also worry that it is very easy for the experiences of a vocal minority to be presented as the experiences of a group as a whole as those who tend to have a more positive experience are less likely to have a reason to talk about it than those who have a negative experience. These effects are amplified by the incentives of journalists to focus on controversy and of activists to focus on driving change, both of whom are selective in whose voices are presented.

While historically the response to valid claims of structural inequality has often been denial, we believe that this has resulted in an over-correction where almost anything can and is argued to be oppression. These include practising yoga, eating sushi or sitting with your legs open too wide. Even though we believe that these are only minority views within social justice, we draw the lesson that any claims of unfairness need to be carefully analysed before deciding on whether to act

We acknowledge that it is doubly frustrating when you are not only treated unfairly, but you also have to engage in substantial effort in order to convince others that you were treated unfairly. Unfortunately, this is a problem that is generally not very easy to solve. One response would be to automatically accept any claim of unfairness no matter how absurd it sounds to the listener. The problems with this solution are so obvious that they need not be stated. It is possible to put in an extra special effort to try to understand the perspective of another person when their experiences are substantially different from their own, but there will still be circumstances when despite your best effort, you will still disagree with them. In these cases, there cannot be an expectation that a particular claim will automatically be accepted without having to argue for it.

Indeed, we don’t believe that this is a one-way street. These kinds of highly politicised, highly polarised discussions tend to be unpleasant for everyone involved and there are bad actors on all sides. Due to the very nature of the discussion, people on both sides are regularly attacked or have their best attempts at honest engagement cursorily dismissed.

We don’t believe that demographics are a very good indicator of how well members of a particular group are treated. Scott Alexander provides many examples of groups that have large numbers of women despite not being “the poster child for feminism” including the Catholics, Islamists and Trump supporters. In another, he points out the difficulty of using such explanations for race:

For the record, here is a small sample of other communities where black people are strongly underrepresented:
Runners (3%). Bikers (6%). Furries (2%). Wall Street senior management (2%). Occupy Wall Street protesters (unknown but low, one source says 1.6% but likely an underestimate). BDSM (unknown but low) Tea Party members (1%). American Buddhists (~2%). Bird watchers (4%). Environmentalists (various but universally low). Wikipedia contributors (unknown but low). Atheists (2%). Vegetarian activists (maybe 1-5%). Yoga enthusiasts (unknown but low). College baseball players (5%). Swimmers (2%). Fanfiction readers (2%). Unitarian Universalists (1%).
Can you see what all of these groups have in common?
No. No you can’t. If there’s some hidden factor uniting Wall Street senior management and furries, it is way beyond any of our pay grades.

The authors of Making Discussions Inclusive theorise that alienating discussions are the reason why women were less likely than men to return to meetings of EA London, despite being equally likely to attend in the first place. We note that such a conclusion would depend on an exceptionally high quantity of alienating discussions, and is prima facie incompatible with the generally high rating for welcomingness reported in the EA survey. We note that there are several possible other theories. Perhaps women are more likely to have been socialised to perceive utilitarian calculations as “cold” (i.e. EA itself being the main cause of alienation, rather than any of the topics suggested in Making Discussions Inclusive). Perhaps women are less likely to be interested in the discussions that occur because they focus more on male interests (or at least what are predominantly male interests within our particular society). Perhaps EAs come off as socially awkward and this is more of a turn-off for women than men (women tend to have a greater interest in people and men a greater interest in things). The claim is not that any of these theories are necessarily correct, just that it would be premature to assume that the main cause of the gender gap is the kinds of alienating conversations discussed in Making Discussions Inclusive. So if we were to limit discussions in EA we could worsen our epistemics without actually increasing our diversity.

Further, we disagree with the focus on mere numbers, as opposed to emphasising recruiting those from these demographics who will make great effective altruists. Just as in impact, there is a power law in terms of influence. One modern-day Martin Luther King can ensure that EA takes into account black perspectives better than dozens of ordinary EAs. And any intervention that sacrifices the intellectual culture that makes EA unique is likely to turn away the best individuals of all demographics, including those which are under-represented. For this reason, interventions to increase representation can easily backfire, where representation is measured in terms of how much deliberation certain viewpoints receive, as opposed to the mere number of people from a particular demographic.

The authors Making Discussion Inclusive discuss the argument that women might not be “oppressed” on average in society as an example of an alienating discussion. Indeed, some people might find the following discussion alienating, but we believe that engaging with the object level issue is the only way to adequately respond to these assertions.

Firstly, this an incredibly controversial statement that is only held by a minority of people. It wouldn’t just be rejected by most conservatives, but also by many moderates and liberals as well. We note that the statement wasn’t just that women face certain disadvantages or that women face more disadvantages than men, but that the level of disadvantages is such that it could be fairly labelled “oppression”. This further contains the assumptions about men being the main cause of these disadvantages, as opposed to bad luck, in the case of pregnancy affecting women’s careers, and that such “oppression” is ongoing, instead of inequalities being the result of time-lag effects.

Secondly, we note that this isn’t the kind of statement that is easy to evaluate. It requires attempting to weigh hundreds of different advantages and disadvantages against each other. We agree with the authors of Making Discussion Inclusive that members of a group have a strong awareness and salience of the disadvantages they face and a much weaker ability to understand those faced by others. If we apply that here, it would seem to warrant caution in jumping too quickly to the conclusion that one group is advantaged over another.

Thirdly, we note that insisting that no-one challenge the received feminist position on this subject could very well be considered alienating as well. It is worthwhile considering the example of Atheism Plus, an attempt to insist that atheists also accepted the principles of social justice. This was incredibly damaging and destructive to the atheist movement due to the infighting that it led to and was perhaps partly responsible for the movement’s decline.

Fourthly, while we acknowledge that the denial of oppression has been used to justify mistreatment, so has the assertion of oppression. Nazis saw themselves as being oppressed by Jews, white supremacists as oppressed by political elites, terrorists as oppressed by the government. Any group can construct a narrative of oppression and these should not be accepted uncritically given how appealing such false narratives can be.

Fifthly, while we sympathise with many of the concerns expressed, we don’t believe that they are unique to one side. People regardless of ideology face the difficult choice of engaging in an unpleasant discussion or allowing views that they to be wrong and harmful to go unchallenged. People on all sides are frustrated by people who stick within the norms of politeness, but seem to be exceptionally stubborn nonetheless. People on all sides are frustrated by debates that don’t leave anyone closer to truth. This is alienating for everyone, not just for particular groups.

EA is a nascent field; we should expect over time our understanding of many things to change dramatically, in potentially unpredictable ways. This makes banning or discouraging topics, even if they seem irrelevant, harmful, because we don’t know which could come to be important.

Fortunately, there are some examples we have to make this clear. For example, Making Discussions Inclusive provides a list of things that we should not discuss (or at least we should be very wary of discussing). We will argue that there are actually very good reasons for EAs to discuss these topics. Even in cases where it would not be reasonable to dispute the statement as given, we suggest that people may often be accused of rejecting these statement when they actually believe something much more innocent. Here are the examples:

“Whether poor people are poor due to having a lower IQ”

We doubt that many people believe that all poor people are stupid or even that poor people are generally stupid. We think that most people recognise that many have grown up in a difficult environment or been denied opportunities. On the other hand, it is important to discuss the relation between intelligence and poverty, in order to discuss the ways in which our society fails people of low intelligence. As more of the simpler jobs become automated, there are legitimate concerns that there won’t be anything for many people to do, which may leave many people in a dire position.

“Whether it is or has been right or necessary that women have less influence over the intellectual debate and less economic and political power”

We doubt that many EAs honestly believe that women are intrinsically deserving of less influence or economic power. On the other hand, it is quite reasonable to believe: a) personal choices such as whether to take a high paying job with long hours or whether to be a stay home parent affect a person’s influence or earnings; b) it is perfectly valid for an individual to make this choice, even though this may result in one group having more power than another; and c) even though these choices are subject to social influences which we can seek to reduce, they are still predominantly free choices that ought to be respected.

"Justifying that the group should be inclusive for them"

This argument sounds like it could very easily be used in need an attempt to circumvent debate about whether a particular measure to increase inclusiveness is justified or not.

“Whether people in the developing world are poor because of character flaws”

At first glance this might seem an innocuous restriction. However, there are many valuable research projects into the causes and solutions of poverty that would be undermined by this:

  • It is a well-established fact that corruption is a major problem in many countries, especially in the developing world. If this could be reduced or ameliorated, it could significantly improve the independence and wellbeing of some of the worst-off people in the world. But we cannot hope to achieve this without confronting the fact that the issue is endemic corruption, and corruption is a clear example of a character flaw.
  • Microfinance and Direct Cash Transfers are two policies of interest to many EAs. Crucial to their evaluation is the question of well is the money eventually spent by the recipients; do they pay for medicine and invest in businesses, or do they spend it on positional goods and alcohol? Does the additional safety net cause them to take new entrepreneurial risks, or does it lead to unemployment and apathy? These are empirical questions of great importance, and worthy of the RCTs that are studying these issues. But even if not explicitly phrased in this way, an honest advocate would struggle to deny that they were studying ‘are poor people lazy’ and ‘do poor people heavily discount the future’ - two questions that certainly seem like forbidden discussions of character flaws.

Even if these discussions don’t fall afoul of the proposed measures, these kinds of considerations are less likely to be raised if they are right on the edge of the Overton Window.

Suggestions

This document is about EA spaces in general and not just about the Diversity and Inclusion Group. While it is up to the members of each group to decide on its policies, we make the following recommendations:

  • The primary discussion for any suggested policy for EA in general should occur in a location where the moderation policy doesn’t result in one particular side receiving an unfair advantage. If a group decides that it wishes to be a safe space or otherwise limit discussion of certain viewpoints, then it ought not to be the primary discussion for any policy.
  • Groups should be upfront about their moderation policies. This should be listed in the sidebar so that people know whether their contribution will be welcome or not.
  • EAs who align with a particular ideology should try to have a good understanding of the alternatives. This will increase their ability to engage with the EA community broadly and not just one particular slice of it.

Any comments by this account on the post are personal opinion, rather than some kind of group consensus.

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