A call for mechanistic thinking in movement-building

by tyleralterman21st Jan 20161 comment

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TL;DR: we should apply the same standards to movement-building proposals that we apply to scientific theories.

[I've written a lot about this topic previously for the CEA team, so I'll write a more easily digestible series of posts rather than a single over-long one. Also: my team is currently in the midst of inviting speakers to EA Global, so please pardon these posts for being patchy in terms of quality and detail.]

A motivation for mechanistic thinking

Recently, two posts have been written seemingly arguing for two very different types of EA movement. A post by Gleb argues for "celebrating all who are in effective altruism" while a post by Diogenes argues that EA should not shy away from prioritizing elite recruitment. This post series will argue that both Gleb and Diogenes articulate important sentiments, and that EA should probably encompass both. But more importantly, it will argue for the importance of mechanistic thinking for movement design. As a scientifically-minded movement, we should be skeptical of proposals for what kind of movement we ought to build if they lack detailed mechanisms for achieving the aims of EA.

The magician's mechanism

By analogy, imagine that you are approached in the street by a magician. They proceed to pull a rabbit out of a hat.

You say, "I too would like to pull rabbits out of hats. How did you do that?"

They reply, "Magic."

You ask, "But how does magic work?"

They reply, "There is a one-step process: believe."

If your goal is to pull rabbits out of hats, you should be suspicious of the magician's proposal. "Believe" doesn't seem like a complex or plausible enough mechanism to get a rabbit out of a hat. Indeed, the magician's mechanism sounds suspiciously similar to many startup business plans that follow a structure like:

Step one: Create app
Step two: ???
Step three: Profit

Mechanistic movement design

It's easy to fall into debates about EA branding, outreach, and infrastructure, particularly where both sides argue for solutions that lack the following considerations:
  • What ultimate goal is the EA movement trying to achieve?
  • By what mechanisms can a movement plausibly achieve that ultimate goal?
  • How can we dial the sociological parameters of EA to instantiate those mechanisms?

In our case, the ultimate goal is something like "universal flourishing." So, movement design proposals should include an account of how some mechanism(s) bring us closer to that ultimate goal. If a proposal contains too many implicit pieces between "Step n" and "universal flourishing" that resemble "Step two: ???" then we should lower our confidence in those proposals.

Mechanistic proposals for movement design will often contain descriptions of causal chains for plausibly moving us toward the goal. It's important to keep in mind the conjunction fallacy when evaluating such proposals. Yet, all else equal, we should sooner trust a proposal that includes plausible mechanisms for victory over one that doesn't. (Especially if it includes scenario-planning.)

In summary, it's important to realize that implicit in every movement-building proposal is a theory about sociology and human behavior. Given how wrong a movement can go (cf communism), we should seek to apply at least as much careful thought to building a movement that we do in building an airplane. 

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The ideal outcome of this post: When evaluating a proposal for EA movement design, ask, "By what concrete mechanism would this solution move us closer to universal flourishing?"

Below are all examples of proposal for which one could ask, "What is the mechanism for getting to universal flourishing?"

"EA should...

  • ...be more like an elite network."
  • ...be more like a mass-movement."
  • ...have higher barriers to entry."
  • ...should be more welcoming." 
  • ...accelerate growth."
  • ...slow down growth."
  • ...become more diversity-conscious."
  • ...become less diversity-conscious."
  • ...appeal more to emotion."
  • ...appeal less to emotion."
And so on.