I'm linking and excerpting a submission to the EA criticism contest published by a pseudonymous author on August 31, 2022 (i.e. before the collapse of FTX).
The submission did not win a prize, but was highlighted by a panelist:
I was unsure about including this post, but I think this post highlights an important risk of the EA community receiving a significant share of its funding from a few sources, both for internal community epistemics/culture considerations as well as for external-facing and movement-building considerations. I don't agree with all of the object-level claims, but I think these issues are important to highlight and plausibly relevant outside of the specific case of SBF / crypto. That it wasn't already on the forum (afaict) also contributed to its inclusion here.
Due to concerns about copyright, I'm excerpting the post besides the summary and disclaimer, but I recommend reading the whole piece.
Sam Bankman-Fried, founder of the cryptocurrency exchange FTX, is a major donator to the Effective Altruism ecosystem and has pledged to eventually donate his entire fortune to causes aligned with Effective Altruism.
By relying heavily on ultra-wealthy individuals like Sam Bankman-Fried for funding, the Effective Altruism community is incentivized to accept political stances and moral judgments based on their alignment with the interests of its wealthy donators, instead of relying on a careful and rational examination of the quality and merits of these ideas. Yet, the Effective Altruism community does not appear to recognize that this creates potential conflicts with its stated mission of doing the most good by adhering to high standards of rationality and critical thought.
In practice, Sam Bankman-Fried has enjoyed highly-favourable coverage from 80,000 Hours, an important actor in the Effective Altruism ecosystem. Given his donations to Effective Altruism, 80,000 Hours is, almost by definition, in a conflict of interest when it comes to communicating about Sam Bankman-Fried and his professional activities. This raises obvious questions regarding the trustworthiness of 80,000 Hours’ coverage of Sam Bankman-Fried and of topics his interests are linked with (quantitative trading, cryptocurrency, the FTX firm…).
In this post, I argue that the Effective Altruism movement has failed to identify and publicize its own potential conflicts of interests. This failure reflects poorly on the quality of the standards the Effective Altruism movement holds itself to. Therefore, I invite outsiders and Effective Altruists alike to keep a healthy level of skepticism in mind when examining areas of the discourse and action of the Effective Altruism community that are susceptible to be affected by incentives conflicting with its stated mission. These incentives are not just financial in nature, they can also be linked to influence, prestige, or even emerge from personal friendships or other social dynamics. The Effective Altruism movement is not above being influenced by such incentives, and it seems urgent that it acts to minimize conflicts of interest.
Introduction — Cryptocurrency is not neutral (neither morally nor politically)
... Cryptocurrency is not simply an attempt to provide a set of technical solutions to improve existing currency systems. It is an attempt to replace existing monetary institutions by a new political system, it is therefore political at its core...
My point here is not to debate on the virtues of the societal model promoted by cryptocurrency actors, but rather to convince readers unfamiliar with the cryptocurrency industry that it is deeply infused with political ideology and is certainly not a purely-technological response to a technical problem. The cryptocurrency response to monetary policy questions manifests a specific worldview accompanied by a specific set of moral values.
EA’s reliance on funding from the cryptocurrency industry
...These incentives are not just monetary. As the crypto industry grows and SBF gains in wealth, influence and prestige, EA benefits by receiving more funding but also by extending its own area of influence and its prestige. On the contrary, attacks on the image of SBF, FTX and even crypto as a whole carry the risk of tarnishing EA’s reputation. Were SBF to be involved in an ethical or legal scandal (whether in his personal or profesional life), the EA ecosystem would inevitably be damaged as well. As a result, the EA community has an incentive to protect SBF’s reputation, to counter critics against him from the outside and to stifle critics from the inside of the community (this incentive can act between EA members, by voiced criticisms being ignored, downplayed, treated with defiance, but can even act via self-censorship, conscious or not).
How EA views cryptocurrency
...Given that the adoption of cryptocurrency has massive political implications for the future of our societies and carries with it very strong ideological foundations, it should, at first glance, seem slightly surprising that the EA community does not visibly engage critically with this topic on a deeper political level. But this is not as surprising when considering EA’s reliance on crypto wealth for funding. As explained above, the EA community is powerfully primed to view cryptocurrency positively, if only by the direct financial benefits it collects from the industry. Moreover, the incentives at play are likely effective inhibitors of contrarian views (notably by means of self-censorship)...
EA’s ineffective mechanisms to protect itself against conflicts of interest
... EA claims to aim to do “the most good” using the tools of rationality and critical thinking. So what does the EA ecosystem do to mitigate the risk that EA members act according to bias-inducing incentives?
As far as I can tell, the systemic safeguards against conflicts of interests in the EA ecosystem are very limited...
These two main forms of promotion of debates (internal forums and invitations to criticisms) are not nearly sufficient as mechanisms to prevent the establishment of conflicts of interests. Yet, they appear to be the only ones the Effective Altruism community relies on.
Conflicts of interest need to be addressed whether they have real effects or not
...Fundamentally, the problem I want to highlight is not even whether the EA ecosystem is effectively influenced by the incentives it is subject to. These incentives exist, and are left unchecked. This is the primary issue.
Whether these incentives have actual effects on EA is almost secondary to the fact that EA seems to be unable to recognize, publicize and mitigate its engagement in conflicts of interest... For EA, incentives like the ones related to SBF are in direct conflict with EA’s stated mission of “using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible” (quote from the Centre For Effective Altruism).
What should EA do?
It appears clear that EA does not consider itself to be at any real risk of falling prey to conflicts of interests. This seems to be the only way to explain the blind spot EA suffers from when it comes to recognizing its incentives associated with relying on donations from tech bilionaires, as obvious as these may be in the particular case of donations by SBF.
Identifying and publicizing obvious sources of potential conflicts of interests
A necessary (but non sufficient) first step would be to acknowledge existing incentive and recognize their potential effects...
I will briefly address a counter-argument that could be made along the lines of: “SBF’s profile in 80,000 Hours clearly mentions SBF’s contributions to EA-aligned causes. Therefore EA is transparent about its funding, therefore EA does not suffer from issues of undisclosed conflicts of interests.” Indeed, SBF’s contributions are mentioned at length in EA publications. But I have seen no instance where this contribution was listed as a sign of potential conflict of interest. On the contrary, SBF is framed as a prime example of Earning to Give, he is presented as an example to follow, a person to admire, to take inspiration from and to be grateful to, which does nothing to warn against potential conflicts of interest.
It seems crucial that EA, if it values independence of thought and critical thinking, should engage in an in-depth examination of the role that incentives are allowed to play in the organization...
Publicizing existing conflicts of interest achieves little if not accompanied by a significant effort to understand how conflicts of interest are allowed to appear, how to minimize their potential effects, how to strengthen counterpowers within the organization to foster accountability, how to prevent EA from becoming more conflicted and instead reduce the number and strength of exisiting conflicts of interest.
There is a clear trade-off between 1) expanding the available resources of a non-profit organization and 2) protecting said organization from potential conflicts of interests. My opinion is that EA as a community should probably think hard about where it stands on this trade-off...
...It would be pointless to aspire to building an organization in which conflicting incentives are completely eliminated. On the other hand, it would be completely illusory to think that individuals can consciously decide to free themselves from the biases associated with incentives of all kinds. Systemic safeguards are essential, all the more so when an organization aims to hold itself to high standards of rationality. Hopefully, the EA movement will remember this sooner rather than later.
This post deals with conflicts of interests, it is only natural that I would be particularly transparent regarding the incentives that played into its writing.
First, I did not receive any funding for writing this post, and I have no affiliation to the EA movement.
I wrote this post aiming to submit it to EA’s criticism contest and was thus incentivized to write an effective critique of EA, but one that would not be too antagonizing to the jury of the contest (I believe that the jury is mainly composed of members of EA). I did my best to resist this incentive and aimed to not water down my thesis too much.
By making a pseudonymous submission, I am shielding myself from the fear of reputational damage, which could otherwise have been a powerful incentive to self-censor.