EA Forum Prize: Winners for July 2019

by aarongertler 3mo20th Aug 20194 min readNo comments

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CEA is pleased to announce the winners of the July 2019 EA Forum Prize!

In first place (for a prize of $750): “Why Nations Fail and the long-termist view of global poverty,” by Ben Kuhn.

In second place (for a prize of $500): “Extinguishing or preventing coal seam fires is a potential cause area,” by kbog.

In third place (for a prize of $250): “There are a *bajillion* jobs working on plant-based foods right now,” by Scott Weathers.

The following users were each awarded a Comment Prize ($50), for the comments linked to their names:

  • Hauke Hillebrandt for a critique of an impact estimate on tree-planting
  • Linchuan Zhang on his experience working at Impossible Foods
  • weeatquince for a set of ideas to increase long-term thinking in government
  • Ikaxas for useful reading suggestions on consistency in ethical frameworks
  • Nix_Goldowsky-Dill for comments on the impact of corporate cage-free campaigns

For the previous round of prizes, see our June post.

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.

Why Nations Fail and the long-termist view of global poverty

Ben Kuhn’s book review contains enough ideas for many good Forum posts; instead, he combined them all into one excellent post. I’m loathe to even attempt a summary; you should really read the whole thing.

Some especially good features of the post:

  • Written in a colloquial style. This seems likely to help readers (a) finish the post and (b) remember the ideas. Using a freewheeling, SlateStarCodex-ish voice isn’t always ideal, but in this context, it works out beautifully.
  • Starts by defining its terms. Ben’s list of features found in “long-termist” and “short-termist” worldviews provides useful context for the rest of the post, and also gives readers a model for how they might apply each worldview to causes outside of global development.
  • Includes practical takeaways — not just “EA should do more X,” but “EA may spend too much time on Y, and people with outlook Z should consider doing X”. (In this case, “long-termists sympathetic to global poverty as a cause area should consider a root-cause approach to problem-solving.”)
    • If you want to make a recommendation in a post, it’s helpful to think about tradeoffs and your target audience. “Effective altruism” isn’t an individual entity that can do more or less of something; actions come from specific people and organizations within the community.

Extinguishing or preventing coal seam fires is a potential cause area

It’s not often that I hear about a potential EA cause area that I’d literally never thought about before, but kbog’s post on coal seam fires gave me — and, I expect, many other readers — that rare experience.

Some especially good features of the post:

  • Provides strong evidence for the claim that coal seam fires are neglected: they’ve never been mentioned by the EA research organizations that do the most work on climate change, and they receive relatively little funding from outside of EA.
  • Includes enough analysis to show that the intervention is plausibly more efficient than other means of emissions reduction, without trying to argue that it is, say, the “best” climate-related intervention.
  • Ends with a causal story for why the cause might be neglected. If you encounter an important idea that no one else seems to have picked up on, it’s good to go a step further and think: “Wait — how did this happen? Why hasn’t someone picked up the $20 bill already?”
    • Philanthropy is far from an efficient market, of course, but it’s still worth thinking about why a promising intervention in a hugely popular cause area might be overlooked.

There are *a bajillion* jobs working in plant-based foods right now

It’s no secret that there are many open jobs working in plant-based foods. Many details about these jobs are available on the public websites of fast-growing companies; 80,000 Hours aggregates many of them on its job board.

But something being “no secret” or “available” does not make it salient. There’s real value in writing Forum posts about ideas or information that’s available elsewhere, but that is still underappreciated and worth noticing. I wouldn’t be surprised if Scott’s post prompted at least a couple of applications to EA-aligned positions that otherwise never would have happened.

I especially appreciate that the post included positions with a wide range of skill requirements:

Do you live in the San Francisco bay area? Can you do manufacturing work? Then there's a job there for you.

The winning comments

I won’t write up an analysis of each comment, but I will make some general remarks on what I looked for when nominating the winners:

  • A sense that the comment was “counterfactual”: if the author hadn’t written it, it’s unlikely that anyone else would. This could be because they applied their personal expertise to the comment, or because they thought especially carefully about the issue at hand.
  • Adherence to good Forum standards: The comment is informative and easy to read; if critical, it is also constructive.

A comment’s karma doesn’t factor in, so long as it wasn’t heavily downvoted. (I wouldn’t want to nominate a comment the community seemed not to find valuable.)

I read through every comment on every post, and found many more candidates than I wound up selecting (the top-5 cutoff was somewhat arbitrary). This experience made me very happy. I’ve been a part of the community for many years, but I can still be surprised by the sheer depth and breadth of its collective knowledge.


The voting process

The winning posts were chosen by six people:

All posts published in the month of July 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 accrued zero or negative net karma after being posted
    • Example: a post which had 2 karma upon publication and wound up with 2 karma or less

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.

We changed our voting system this month. Judges each had 10 votes to distribute between the month’s posts (with a maximum of three votes per judge, per post).


The winning comments were chosen by Aaron Gertler, though the five other judges had the chance to evaluate the winners beforehand and veto comments they didn’t think should win.

Feedback

If you have thoughts on how the Prize has changed the way you read or write on the Forum, or ideas for ways we should change the current format, please write a comment or contact Aaron Gertler.

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