Some thoughts on the EA Munich // Robin Hanson incident

by Aaron Gertler5 min read28th Aug 2020136 comments

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I work for CEA, but these are my personal views. 

Relevant background: I previously co-founded two EA groups, at Yale University and the healthcare corporation Epic. In one case, I had to make a decision about how to handle a potential guest speaker who was also a controversial figure; this is part of why I sympathize with EA Munich’s position, though a small part.

Epistemic status: A lot of pent-up venting, which I hope adds up to something moderately reasonable. But I wouldn’t be too surprised if it doesn’t.


Many things can be true at the same time.

A planned EA Munich event with Robin Hanson was recently cancelled. This is EA Munich’s explanation. This is a Twitter thread with lots of reactions.

For context, I’ll start with a factual clarification, based on conversations with others at CEA (all of this is also detailed in the Munich group’s document):

  • When the Munich organizers got in touch with CEA, they were already considering whether to cancel the event.
  • CEA staff told the organizers that they didn’t see a clear-cut “right decision,” and that it could be reasonable to cancel or not cancel the event. Most of CEA’s engagement with the Munich group on this matter involved thinking through ways to handle conflict that could arise from the event, rather than ways to cancel it.
  • The organizers then held a vote among themselves and decided to cancel.

Here are some things about the situation which seem true to me (though this doesn’t necessarily make them true):

On the decision and ensuing social media kerfuffle

  1. It is generally good for groups interested in finding good ideas to choose speakers on the basis of the quality of their best ideas, rather than their most controversial or misguided ideas.
  2. However, if most members of a small group don’t want a speaker to present to their group, this is a good reason for that speaker not to present. The smaller the group, the more true this seems. (If a speaker is disinvited from an event at a large university, thousands of supporters might be left disappointed; this isn’t the case for a tiny event run by a local EA group.)
  3. The Slate piece cited as criticism of Hanson was uncharitable; reading it would probably leave most people with a different view of Hanson than they’d get from reading a wider selection of Hanson’s work.
  4. And yet, many people are actually uncomfortable with Hanson for some of the same reasons brought up in the Slate piece; they find his remarks personally upsetting or unsettling.
    • It’s unclear how many members/organizers of the Munich group were personally upset/unsettled by Hanson and how many were mostly concerned with the PR implications of his presence, but it seems likely that both groups were represented.
  5. Those who commented on the announcement were generally quite uncharitable to EA Munich — including people I’m certain would endorse the Principle of Charity in the abstract if I were to ask them about it independent of this context. Reading Hanson’s tweets likely left them with a very different view of EA Munich than they’d get from attending a few meetups.
  6. I wasn’t involved in CEA’s discussion with EA Munich, but CEA giving them the go-ahead to make their own decision seems correct.
    • I don’t think Hanson’s supporters would actually have wanted CEA to say: “You should run the event even if it feels like the wrong decision.”
    • Maybe they would have wanted CEA to say: “You should do what seems best, but keep in mind the negative consequences of deplatforming speakers.” But EA Munich was clearly aware of the negative consequences. What could CEA tell them that they didn’t know already, aside from “we trust you to make a decision”?
  7. There are ways in which EA Munich could have adjusted their announcement to better communicate their reasoning.
  8. There are many ways in which the EA Munich announcement is much, much better than other announcements of its type produced by institutions with far more power, prestige, and PR experience.
  9. Writing an announcement that has to be approved by eight people (all volunteers), involves a sensitive topic, and has to be published quickly… is something I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Be kind.

On Robin Hanson

  1. Based on my reading of some of Hanson’s work, I believe he cares a lot about the world being a better place and people living better lives, whoever they are. He is the respected colleague of several of my favorite bloggers. I’d probably find him an interesting person to eat lunch with.
  2. Much of Hanson’s writing (as EA Munich pointed out themselves!) is interesting and valuable. And some writing that doesn’t seem interesting or valuable to me is clearly interesting or valuable to other people, which probably means that I’m underestimating the total value of his output.
  3. Some of Hanson’s writing has probably been, on net, detrimental to his own influence. Had he chosen not to publish that writing (or altered it, gotten more feedback before publishing, etc.), his best and most important ideas would have a better chance of improving the world. Instead, much of the attention he gets involves ideas which I doubt he even cares about very much (though I don’t know Hanson, and this is just a guess).
  4. But as I said, many things can be true at the same time. There is something to the argument that an ideal scholarly career will involve some degree of offense, because filtering all of one’s output takes a lot of time and energy and will produce false positives. “If you never make people angry, you’re spending too much time editing your work.
  5. Still, many other scholars have done a better job than Hanson at presenting controversial ideas in a productive way. (Several of them work in his academic department and have written thousands of blog posts on varied topics, many of them controversial.)
  6. To the extent that I support some of Hanson’s ideas and want to see them become better-known, I am annoyed that this may be less likely to happen because of Hanson’s decisions. (Though maybe the controversies lead more people to his good ideas in a way that is net positive? I really don't know.)
  7. And of course, Hanson's approach to his own work is none of my business, and he can write whatever he wants. I just have a lot of feelings.

On the EA movement’s approach to ideas, diversity, etc.

  1. EA Munich’s decision doesn’t say much, if anything, about EA in general. They are a small group and acted independently.
  2. That said, my impression is that, over time, the EA movement has become more attentive to various kinds of diversity, and more cautious about avoiding public discussion of ideas likely to cause offense. This involves trade-offs with other values.
  3. However, these trade-offs could easily be beneficial, on net, for the movement’s goals.
    • Whether they actually are depends on many factors, including what a given person would define as “the movement’s goals.” Different people want EA to do different things! Competing access needs are real!
  4. Some of the people who have encouraged EA to be more attentive to diversity and more cautious about public discussion did so without thinking carefully about trade-offs.
  5. Some of the people who have encouraged EA not to become more cautious and attentive to diversity… also did so without thinking carefully about trade-offs.
  6. Given prevailing EA discussion norms, I would expect people who favor more attentiveness to diversity to be underrepresented in community discussions, relative to their actual numbers. My experience running anonymous surveys of people in EA (Forum users, org employees, etc.) tends to bear this out.
    • However, underrepresentation isn’t exclusive to this group. I’ve heard from people with many different views who feel uncomfortable talking about their views in one or more places.
  7. The more time someone spends talking to a variety of community members (and potential future members), the more likely they are to have an accurate view of which norms will best encourage the community’s health and flourishing. Getting a sense of where the community lies on issues often involves having a lot of private conversations, because people often say more about their views in private than they will in a public forum.
  8. Some of the people who have spent the most time doing the above came to the conclusion that EA should be more cautious and attentive to diversity.
    • I don’t know what the right trade-offs are myself, but I recognize that, compared to the aforementioned people, I have access to (a) the same knowledge about trade-offs and (b) less knowledge about actual people in the community.
    • Hence, I’m inclined to weigh someone’s views more heavily if they’ve spent a lot of time talking to community members.
    • That said (almost done), I spoke to some of the aforementioned people, who cautioned me not to defer too much to their views, and pointed out that “opinions about diversity” aren’t necessarily correlated with “time spent talking to community members,” presenting me with examples of other frequent conversation-havers who hold very different opinions.
      • This drives home for me how open these kinds of questions are — and how wrongfooted it seems when people present EA or its biggest orgs as some kind of restrictive orthodoxy.

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