I want an ethnography of EA

byHolly_Elmore18d2nd May 201933 comments


Commissioning an ethnography or routine anthropological observation of EA communities could be good for our epistemic hygiene. A lot of the big differences of opinion in EA today don't come down to empirical matters, but priors and values. It's difficult to get anywhere using logic and debate when the real difference between sides is, say, how realistic a catastrophe feels or whether you lean negative utilitarian. One productive way I see to move forward is identifying the existence of strong motives or forces that lead us to hold certain beliefs besides their truth value.

With longtermism, EA is trending into areas where it's difficult to make short-term testable predictions that could expose motivated reasoning or bias (let alone unforeseen complications). Without many empirical checks available in EA's new hot topics, I don't know how to adjudicate between my biases and everyone else's. That's why I think it would be extremely interesting to see what a sociologist or ethnographer had to say about this topic and everything else we do.

What I'd want is a breakdown of the social dynamics and the role that beliefs play in that from someone who won't get bogged down in the content of EA beliefs-- just a descriptive analysis of what beliefs and their associated behaviors are doing what in our system. Particularly, I'd want to know what beliefs they viewed as serving important social functions, i.e. having the greatest reason to persist without being true.

I have my issues with anthropology as a field but I generally approve of the practices around ethnography. I think an ethnography of EA would be a valuable outside opinion that could offer unique access to difficult to debug areas of our thinking. Though not my top priority, such a document might also reveal promising areas for movement-building or previously unappreciated community vulnerabilities.

I'm just curious what people think about this idea for now. Please let me know if this has already been done (yay!). I haven't heard of an anthropological study of EA yet and a quick google search didn't produce anything relevant. Even if it has been done before, EA moves so fast that it could surely profitably be done again. I just learned googling for this post that businesses getting ethnographies for the kind of reasons I'm listing is a thing, so we might be able to get someone like that without having to interest someone in us for their own research. An analysis of the social function of our beliefs is potentially such a good epistemic check that perhaps we should hire someone to do it on a regular basis or try to get someone interested in us for a dissertation.