This is a linkpost for Scott Alexander's Criticism of Criticism of Criticism, posted with Scott's permission. I added in a few quotes I think are particularly helpful.
Part of the post discusses a critique of Open Phil, where I work, but I'm posting in my personal capacity and wasn't involved in the program the post discusses.
Here are some differences I noticed between the experience of reading the more specific criminal justice criticism vs. the more paradigmatic structures-and-individualism criticism:
Before reading the specific criticism, I wouldn’t have been able to predict its conclusion. Was this program more effective than other programs? Less effective? But before reading the paradigmatic criticism, I could predict its conclusion pretty well. “We are all more interconnected than we think” is a typical piece of Profound Wisdom, and nobody ever says the opposite.
I can name several people who gain/lose status from the specific criticism, and I expect those people to be upset, push back, or otherwise have strong opinions. I can’t think of anyone like that for the paradigmatic criticism.
The specific criticism carries an obvious conclusion: cancel this one program! (in this case it had already been cancelled, so maybe the conclusion is more like reform various processes to make that happen sooner later on). The paradigmatic criticism is less actionable.
This isn’t to say that paradigmatic criticisms are always bad and useless, and specific criticism is always good.
The virtue of the first phase is looking for anomalies. These aren’t vague, sweeping, and ideological. The anomalies with Newtonian gravity weren’t things like “action at a distance doesn’t feel scientific enough” or “it doesn’t sufficiently glorify Jesus Christ” or even “it’s insufficiently elegant”. The one that ended up most important was “its estimate for the precession of the orbit of Mercury is off by forty arc-seconds per century”.
I don’t know if it’s meaningful to talk about EA needing “another paradigm” - this whole discussion conflates scientific theories, ideologies, and methods for producing change. But if it does, it will come from complaints like the criminal justice criticism, which record boring ways that EA-as-it-exists-now made bad decisions on some specific point. If we had a hundred such complaints, maybe we could figure out some broader failure mode and how to deal with it.
What happens if you demand a new paradigm before enough anomalies have built up? If you incentivize people to preach at you, they’ll do that. But they can’t preach the tenets of the new paradigm, because they don’t know it yet. And they can’t preach the implementable tenets of the old paradigm, because you’ve already implemented them. So instead, they’ll preach things the old paradigm says are good, which haven’t been implemented because they’re vague or impossible or not worth the tradeoff against other considerations. Listen too hard, and you’ll go from a precise and efficient implementation of the old paradigm, to a fuzzier implementation that emphasizes trying to do vague, inefficient, or impossible things. This isn’t just a failure mode of EA or psychiatry, it’s a failure mode of whole societies.