Is anyone in the world being paid to do an independent investigation of how EA handled Sam Bankman-Fried, with respect to "did we screw up" and "is there stuff we should do differently going forward"?

Last I heard, literally nobody was doing this and at least some EA leaders were mostly just hoping that SBF gets memoryholed — but maybe I'm out of the loop?

My understanding is that Effective Ventures completed a narrow investigation into this topic in mid-2023, purely looking at legal risk to EV and not at all trying to do a general postmortem for EA or any group of EAs. Is that correct, and have things changed since then?

[Update Apr. 5: I'd now guess that EV's investigation was slightly broader than that, though it's hard to say exactly how broad.]

I saw that Will MacAskill is planning to appear on some podcasts soon to speak about SBF, which seems like great news to me. If I recall correctly, Will previously said that he was going to talk about what happened with SBF once EV's narrow investigation was done, but it's now been almost a year since that investigation finished (!).

I think it would have been better to speak up way, way sooner, but I'm hopeful that Will will be able to clear up some big chunks of what the heck happened, and that a bunch of other EAs will speak up with their postmortems too, now that SBF's trial and sentencing are complete?

I unfortunately don't know the full list of who should be sharing personal or org-level postmortems on this topic, so I'm forced to single out people like Will whose involvement over the years is public knowledge. Hopefully I'll know who I should be gadflying to share the remaining puzzle pieces once Will and others start sharing some of the first puzzle pieces.

 

To state the obvious: I'm wary of EAs performatively self-flagellating and accepting more responsibility for the FTX thing than is warranted (given, e.g., that huge numbers of people with a very direct financial incentive in spotting FTX's fraud didn't spot it, so it's obviously not weird if random EAs failed to spot it). I want a concrete understanding of what actually happened, not vague scapegoating or self-flagellation.

But the idea of a basic investigation and postmortem seems like an obvious step to me regardless, and my sense is that there are things we could have done a lot better re SBF (e.g., better spread the word about what happened in the Alameda blow-up, so more people would've been aware of some red flags), even if those things probably wouldn't have prevented the FTX debacle all on their own. So I'd like to hear what's up with all that.

 

See also CEA's recent piece in the Washington Post. The WaPost piece mostly just seems like EA PR, and I'll be very sad if we stay at that level of vagueness.

The piece also (unless I'm misunderstanding something) implies some false things about whether CEA, EV, etc. have ever done an investigation into what happened with an eye toward reviewing (and possibly improving) EA institutions, practices, etc.

This doesn't match what I've heard from talking to involved parties, and Oliver Habryka mentions that he's "been shared on documents by CEA employees where the legal investigation was explicitly called out as not being helpful for facilitating a reflection process and institutional reform". says, based on documents he's been shared on and conversations he had, that he thinks most people at CEA did not consider the investigation to be helpful for doing internal reforms.

So the narrow "are we in legal trouble?" investigation EV did last year doesn't seem like it was ever meant to fill the "figure out what happened and whether we should do anything about it, for the sake of ethics and for the sake of furthering our EA work" role. But maybe I'm missing something here.


Update Apr. 2: CEA staff, Oliver Habryka, and a former EV board member (who resigned in protest) all confirm that no such investigation has taken place, nor is any in the works. Which leaves me baffled about what's going on here.

Update Apr. 4: An EA who was involved in EA's early response to the FTX disaster has give me their take on why there hasn't yet been an investigation. They think EA leaders (at least, the ones they talked to a lot at the time) had "little to do with a desire to protect the reputation of EA or of individual EAs", and had more to do with things like "general time constraints and various exogenous logistical difficulties". See my comment for a lot more details, and a short response from Habryka.

Also, some corrections: I said that "there was a narrow investigation into legal risk to Effective Ventures last year", which I think risks overstating how narrow the investigation probably was. I also said that Julia Wise had "been calling for the existence of such an investigation", when from her perspective she "listed it as a possible project rather than calling for it exactly". Again, see the comment for details.

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4/2 Update: A former board member of Effective Ventures US, Rebecca Kagan, has shared that she resigned from the board in protest last year, evidently in part because of various core EAs' resistance to there being any investigation into what happened with Sam Bankman-Fried. "These mistakes make me very concerned about the amount of harm EA might do in the future."

Oliver Habryka says that I'm correct that EA still hasn't yet conducted any sort of investigation about what happened re SBF/FTX, beyond the narrow investigation into whether EV was facing legal risk:

I am quite confident there is no such investigation. I have been trying to convince people to do such a thing for like 1.5 years, but appetite for it seems low among leadership.

I might even offer for Lightcone to do it, if we could get EA orgs to collaborate.

(I've had conversations with Kagan, Habryka, and a bunch of other EAs about this in the past, and I knew Kagan's post was in the pipeline, though the stuff they've said on this topic has been independent of me and would have been written in my absence.)

Someone else messaged me to say that they thought there had been an investigation, but after talking to staff at CEA, they've confirmed again that no investigation has ever taken place.

Julia Wise and Ozzie Gooen apparently also called for an investigation, a full five months ago: 

  • Action: 
    • Find someone to run an investigation into how EA individuals and organizations could have better handled the FTX situation. 
  • Barriers:
    • People who did things that were bad or will make them look bad will not want to tell you about it. Everyone’s lawyers will have told them not to talk about anything.
  • Existing work / resources:
    • EV’s investigation has a defined scope that won’t be relevant to all the things EAs want to know, and it won’t necessarily publish any of its results.
    • Oliver Habryka and friends have done a discussion series informally looking at what happened and how trust within EA related to the problem.

 

[Update Apr. 5: Julia tells me "I would say I listed it as a possible project rather than calling for it exactly."]

So, bizarre as it seems, the situation does seem to be as it appears: there's been literally no action on this in the ~17 months since FTX imploded.

Will MacAskill's appearance on Sam Harris podcast is out now, and I'm very happy to hear the new details from Will about what happened from his perspective.

But while he talks (at 56:00) about a lot of individual EAs undergoing an enormous amount of "self-reflection, self-scrutiny" in the wake of FTX's collapse, and he notes that a lot of EA's leadership has been replaced with new leadership, I don't consider this a replacement for the whole (obvious, from my perspective) "actually pay someone to look into what happened and write up a postmortem" thing. If anything I'd have expected EAs to have multiple such write-ups by now so we could compare different perspectives on what happened, not literally zero.

4/4 Update: An EA who was involved in EA's early response to the FTX disaster has give me their take on why there hasn't yet been an investigation. They think EA leaders (at least, the ones they talked to a lot at the time) had "little to do with a desire to protect the reputation of EA or of individual EAs", and had more to do with things like "general time constraints and various exogenous logistical difficulties".

See this comment for a lot more details, and a short response from Habryka.

Also, some corrections: I said that "there was a narrow investigation into legal risk to Effective Ventures last year", which I think risks overstating how narrow the investigation probably was. I also said that Julia Wise had "been calling for the existence of such an investigation", when from her perspective she "listed it as a possible project rather than calling for it exactly". Again, see the comment for details.

Julia tells me "I would say I listed it as a possible project rather than calling for it exactly."]

It actually was not just neutrally listed as a "possible" project, because it was the fourth bullet point under "Projects and programs we’d like to see" here.

I think someone should do an investigation much wider in scope than what happened at FTX, covering the entire causal chain from SBF first talking to EAs at MIT to the damage done to EA. Here are some questions I'm particularly curious about:

  • Did SBF show signs of dishonesty early on at MIT? If so, why did he not have a negative reputation among the EAs there?
  • To what extent did EA "create SBF"-- influence the values of SBF and others at FTX? Could a version of EA that placed more emphasis on integrity, diminishing returns to altruistic donations, or something else have prevented FTX?
  • Alameda was started by various traders from Jane Street, especially EAs. Did they do this despite concerns about how the company would be run, and were they correct to leave at the time?
  • [edited to add] I have heard that Tara Mac Aulay and others left Alameda in 2018. Mac Aulay claims this was "in part due to concerns over risk management and business ethics". Do they get a bunch of points for this? Why did this warning not spread, and can we even spread such warnings without overloading the community with gossip even more than it is?
  • Were Alameda/FTX ever highly profitable controlling for the price of crypto? (edit: this is not obvious; it could be that FTX's market share was due to artificially tight spreads due to money-losing trades from Alameda). How should we update on the overall competence of companies with lots of EAs?
  • SBF believed in linear returns to altruistic donations (I think he said this on the 80k podcast), unlike most EAs. Did this cause him to take on undue risk, or would fraud have happened if FTX had a view on altruistic returns similar to that of OP or SFF but linear moral views?
  • What is the cause of the exceptionally poor media perception of EA after FTX? When i search for "effective altruism news", around 90% of articles I could find negative and none positive, including many with extremely negative opinions unrelated to FTX. One would expect at least some article saying "Here's why donating to effective causes is still good". (In no way do I want to diminish the harms done to customers whose money was gambled away, but it seems prudent to investigate the harms to EA per se)

My guess is that this hasn't been done simply because it's a lot of work (perhaps 100 interviews and one person-year of work), no one thinks it's their job, and conducting such an investigation would somewhat entail someone both speaking for the entire EA movement and criticizing powerful people and organizations.

See also: Ryan Carey's comment

Here's another question I have:

  • is SBF a sociopath, and should the community have a specific strategy for dealing with sociopaths?

(I think yes. Something like 1% of the population of sociopathic, and I think EA's utilitarianism attracts sociopaths at a higher level than population baseline. Many sociopaths don't inherently want to do evil, especially not those attracted to EA. If sociopaths could somehow receive integrity guidance and be excluded from powerful positions, this would limit risk from other sociopaths.)

If you've concluded that someone is a "sociopath," wouldn't it be better to show them the door? [in quotes because there is no commonly accepted definition of this term as far as I know]

I know that doesn't protect the broader society from their risk, but it's not clear to me that sociopath risk reduction makes sense as an EA cause area generally. (Ensuring that the EA community does not enable sociopathic behavior is distinct from that.)

Well, yes, but I was thinking about what to do with sociopaths that are already in the community. If your policy is "we kick out every sociopath we identify", no sociopath is going to identify themselves to you. I'm not advocating for attracting new sociopaths.

Mind you, I'm assuming here that there are plenty of sociopaths that aren't that bad, and want to do good, but suffer from the disability of not being able to care emotionally for others. I think it would be good if we could at least keep them out of powerful positions.

This was a pretty uninformed thought of how to deal with sociopaths, but it does feel like a problem worth someone thinking more deeply about.

Maybe some of this is coming from a definitional difference -- sociopathy as a "disability of not being able to care emotionally for others" is different from it being akin to, if not an obsolete synonym for, antisocial personality disorder. I don't think calling people who lack affective empathy, without more, sociopaths is likely to be helpful.

Ah, I wasn't aware that that wasn't the conventional definition. Thanks for the correction.

Still, I think it's important to somehow manage both sets of people and we can probably do better, though my idea is quite random.

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I'm wary of EAs performatively self-flagellating and accepting more responsibility for the FTX thing than is warranted (given, e.g., that huge numbers of people with a very direct financial incentive in spotting FTX's fraud didn't spot it, so it's obviously not weird if random EAs failed to spot it).

I don't think this is about spotting fraud at all. I think the strong case for EA responsibility goes like:

  • EA promoted earning to give
  • When the movement largely moved away from it, not enough work was done to make that distance (such that the average person still strongly associates EA with earning to give)
  • Sam adopted an extremely reckless approach to EV-maximisation that was highly likely, if not guaranteed, to lead to a severe loss in value, regardless of the illegality of that loss
  • He publicly branded himself with this reckless EV-maximisation approach
  • He publicly associated himself with the movement, with earning-to-give specifically, and donated lots of money to EA causes to prove it
  • Many EA causes accepted that money and/or associated themselves with Sam
  • Critics of Sam's recklessness did not speak up or were drowned out by other community members

The counterfactuals look something like this:

  • If EA had strongly distanced themselves from ETG, Sam may not have considered it as a path, or been unable to tie himself to EA
  • If EA had criticised Sam's recklessness this may have moderated it
  • If EA orgs conditionalised their acceptance of his donations on financial transparency this may have mitigated the recklessness (and this would have been in their own interests since they stood to lose money!)

FWIW, I don't necessarily agree with this, but this is what feels either explicit or implicit in a lot of the EA criticism around this that I've read. The focus appears to be explicitly on the causal chain of Sam adopting a reckless flavour of ETG which motivated him to take risks which didn't pay off, and what EA, which was surely influential over his thinking, could've done to prevent it.

Any claim that advising people to earn to give is inherently really bad needs to either defend the view that "start a business or take another high paying job" is inherently immoral advice, or explain why it becomes immoral when you add "and give the money to charity" or when it's aimed at EAs specifically. It's possible that can be done, but I think it's quite a high bar. (Which is not to say EtG advice couldn't be improved in ways that make future scandals less likely.) 

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You're right! It's not that ETG is inherently bad (and frankly, I haven't seen anyone make this argument), it's that specific EV-maximising interpretations of ETG cause people to pursue careers that are (1) harmful, (2) net harmful, or (3) too risky to pay off.

Personally, I think FTX was (1) and (3), and unlikely to be (2) probably also (2). I'm not really sure where the bar is, but under any moderately deontological framework (1) is especially concerning, and many of the people EA might want to have a good reputation with believe (1). So that's roughly the worldview-neutral case for caring about strongly rejecting EV-maximising forms of ETG.

Wait, why do you think 2 is false for FTX? (Good comment though!) 

I haven’t run the numbers myself but I generally assume that FTX’s account-holders were mostly moderately well-off HIC residents (based on roughly imbibed demographics of crypto), and the Future Fund’s beneficiaries are by and large worse off. There were probably some number of people who invested their life savings or were otherwise poor to begin with that were harmed more significantly then the beneficiaries of their money. But on the whole it feels like it was an accidental wealth transfer, and much of that harm will be mitigated if they’re made whole (but admittedly, the make-whole money just comes from crypto speculation that trades on the gullibility of yet more people).

But much less confident in this take; my point is much more around the real harms it caused being worth thinking about.

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The possibility of "made whole" is based on crypto values at the time of bankruptcy filing -- meaning not really whole.

FTXFF was IIRC ~$150MM in grants, a substantial portion of which will end up clawed back. The losses (based on current crypto values) are exponentially greater than that. I suspect that the bulk of the economic impact involves transfers from customers, investors, and lenders to Alameda creditors?

Also, one can argue that crypto itself is net harmful, so any crypto career is presumptively so as well.

I tend to agree with all these points, actually—forgot about the clawbacks & specifically how substantial they were.

I don't think "advising people to earn to give is inherently really bad" is necessary to reach the conclusion that there is a case for EA responsibility here. There exist many ideas that are not inherently bad, but yet it is irresponsible to advocate for them in certain ways / without certain safeguards. An ends-justifies-the-means approach to making money was a foreseeable response to EtG advocacy. Did EA actors do enough to discourage that kind of approach when advocating for EtG?

I don't think it's necessary, no. But I do think some early critics of EtG were motivated at least partly by a general anticapitalist case that business or at least finance careers were generically morally problematic in themselves. 

Fair, but that wouldnt be a steelmanned -- or even fairly balanced -- version of criticisms of EtG. It's the weaker part of a partial motivation held by some critics.

True. We should make sure any particular safeguard wasn't in place around how people advocated for it before assuming it would have helped though. For what it's worth my sense is that a much more culpable thing was not blowing the whistle on Sam's bad behaviour at early Alameda even after Will and other leaders-I forget exactly who, if it's even known-were informed about it. That mistake was almost certainly far less consequential for the people harmed by FTX (I don't think it would have stopped the fraud; it might have protected EA itself), but I strongly suspect it was more knowably wrong at the time than anything anyone did or said about EtG as a general idea. 

I think there are two separate but somewhat intertwined chains of inquiry under discussion here:

  1. A historical inquiry: what happened in this case, what safeguards failed, what would have helped but wasn't in place?
  2. A ~first-principles re-evaluation of EtG based on an update: The catastrophic failure of the supposedly most successful instance of EtG should update us that we underestimated the risk and severity of EtG downsides. That suggests a broader re-examination of potential risks and safeguards, which may look more appropriate than they did before the update.

By analogy, whenever there is a school shooting, I don't think it is inappropriate to analyze and discuss things merely because they would not have prevented that specific school shooting. However, those doing so should be careful to avoiding claiming that their preferred intervention would have been effective in the case in the news.

EA promoted earning to give When the movement largely moved away from it, not enough work was done to make that distance

Why would we want to do that? Earning to give is a good way to help the world. Maybe not the best, but still good.

Earning to Give still seems the best way to contribute for many people (e.g. people with exceptionally high earning potential, or people with decently paying jobs who aren't a good fit for direct work or don't want to switch jobs). I don't think we should distance ourselves from it. 

I'd add that I think 80K has done an awful lot to communicate "EA isn't just about earning-to-give" over the years. At some point it surely has to be the case that they've done enough. This is part of why I want to distinguish the question "did we play a causal role here?" from questions like "did we foreseeably screw up?" and "should we do things differently going forward?".

The complaints here seem to be partly about HOW EtG is promoted, rather than how MUCH. Though I am mildly skeptical that people in fact did not warn against doing harm to make money while promoting EtG, and much more skeptical that SBF would have listened if they had done this more. 

Yeah, I had 80k in mind when I thought about EAs who did distance themselves from harms. They've had this article up for ages (I remember reading it early in my EA journey). I think a good SBF/EtG postmortem would try to establish which orgs didn't do as well at this, and what the counterfactuals really were, and I think it may well conclude there wasn't much else EA-promoting orgs could've done. (Although, if I had to put money on it I'd say explicit condemnations could've been predictable).

At some point it surely has to be the case that they've done enough.

This doesn't seem true? It makes perfect sense for advocacy groups to continue advocating their position, since a lot of the point is to reach people for whom the message is new. 80k is (or at least was) all about how to use your career for good, I would expect them to always be talking about earning to give as an option.

I mean "done enough" in the sense that 80K is at fault for falling short, not in the sense that they should necessarily stop sharing that message.

Yes, there are many indirect ways EA might have had a causal impact here, including by influencing SBF's ideology, funneling certain kinds of people to FTX, improving SBF's reputation with funders, etc. Not all of these should necessarily cause EAs to hand-wring or soul-search — sometimes you can do all the right things and still contribute to a rare disaster by sheer chance. But a disaster like this is a good opportunity to double-check whether we're living up to our own principles in practice, and also to double-check whether our principles and strategies are as beneficial as they sounded on paper.

A few months ago, @Naomi N and I collected this overview of all post-FTX reflection-related projects we were aware of at the time - you and others might find that helpful!

I think it would have been better to speak up way, way sooner,

If and when this postmortem ever does happen, I hope they will address this, too. The lack of public engagement on the subject with the rest of the movement following the FTX disaster seems a comparable lapse of responsibility to anything that might have happened in the time leading up to it.

I would like to know what the disagree votes* mean here.

*At the time of this comment, it's 7 Agree - 7 Disagree

Hi Siebe,

I think some disagree votes may be motivated by interpreting Rob's critique as being directed to EA (as in the title) instead of specific people or organisations (see EA should taboo "EA should"), although Rob does mention specific individuals (Will) and organisations (EV).

https://www.samharris.org/podcasts/making-sense-episodes/361-sam-bankman-fried-effective-altruism

This podcast just came out with Will MacAskill talking about EA and SBF with Sam Harris 

 

(edit: listening to the podcast, which I haven't finished, I get the sense that both Sam and Will are surprisingly unaware of the enrichment of SBF, his family members, and others from FTX)

I'm pretty sure if you're aware of it Will is. (Not sure about Harris.) 

I've made a first attempt at this here: To what extent & how did EA indirectly contribute to financial crime - and what can be done now? One attempt at a review

I'd highlight that I found taking quite a structured approach helpful: breaking things down chronologically, and trying to answer specific questions like what's the mechanism, how much did this contribute, and what's a concrete recommendation?

"I’ll suggest a framework for how that broader review might be conducted: for each topic the review could:

  • Establish the details of EA involvement, 
  • Indicate a mechanism for how this could have indirectly contributed to the eventual financial crime, 
  • Provide some assessment of to what extent that mechanism may have indirectly contributed, and 
  • Provide a concrete recommendation for what the EA community could do differently to prevent any recurrence.

I’ll also provide some preliminary thoughts below, as an indication of what could be done in the full review. One way to approach a review is chronological, covering eight touchstone or 'gate' moments:

  1. Bankman-Fried starts earning to give
  2. Alameda founding 
  3. FTX founding
  4. Early political donations through Bankman-Fried’s family
  5. FTX Foundation and Future Fund founding
  6. Bankman-Fried becomes a public face of EA
  7. Whistleblowing

This may be too exhaustive or “self-flagellating” for some, but I think it can identify areas to improve and fix. As will become clear, I think that step 5, the founding of the FTX Foundation and Future Fund, is where the biggest questions are raised and where I make the most recommendations."

EAs will talk about how this should be done, instead of just doing it themselves.

To be fair, doing this properly would take a lot of time, resources, and buy-in from people with information. So do-it-yourself is only an option for a few people.

Hi Rob,

Thank you for writing this post. I am also highly disappointed that no institutional post-mortem has been conducted, so I'm glad that you're speaking out about it. Now that the verdict has been officially handed down to SBF, there's no excuse for there not to be an investigation anymore.

Maybe somehow there are good excuses (and yes, they are excuses) for why a formal investigation has not taken place. But no matter how florid or sophisticated they are, they won't change my mind that a public investigation should take place. Pretty much no matter what, the reputation of the core EA leadership is going to take a hit if no public and formal investigation is carried out, at least in my eyes.

Regarding comments about psychopathy/sociopathy: I recently did a bunch of research on malevolence, so I feel confident in speaking on the subject. The term "sociopathy" seems to be the less well-defined term, so I would somewhat advise against using it, at least until greater clarity arises. However, psychopathy is a fairly established construct in the literature with a few widely-used instruments from the academy, so if you're choosing between using psychopathy or sociopathy, I would say use psychopathy. But even psychopathy is a pretty confused term because it captures so many different characteristics (including callousness, grandiosity, impulsivity, and criminality) which don't necessarily coincide. My opinion is that the cleanest way of talking about all this is to list out more specific and well-defined traits, such as callousness.

But, and I stress this, just because he wasn't a violent criminal doesn't prove he was a good, compassionate person. Neuroscientific evidence suggests that deficiencies in empathy/caring for others have distinct origins from violent or socially unacceptable behavioral expressions. Indeed, the main distinguishing point between psychopathy and Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD) is that psychopathy has a component that does not theoretically relate to violent or socially unacceptable behavioral expressions (according to an authority on Psychopathy). It would be most adaptive for a person to be able to abide by the most explicit and universal social norms (e.g., don't kill people) but still do harm in covert, neutral, or even socially desirable ways (e.g., being the CEO of a giant meat company). This is the type of malevolent person I expect SBF is, if he indeed is malevolent.

I also intend to publish a post on this topic, but I thought I'd clarify here since I saw a discussion regarding sociopathy in the comments.

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