We are a small community, but our ideas have the potential to spread far if communicated effectively. Refining our communication means being well calibrated as to how people outside the EA community react to our worldviews. So when MacAskill's article about longtermism was published last month in the NYT, I was pretty interested to see the comment section. I started to count various reactions, got carried away, and ended up going through 300 or so. Below is a numerical summary.

Caveats

  • Selection bias is present. I would guess NYT commenters skew older and liberal.
  • It's possible the comments don't reflect overall sentiment of the article's readers, because people might only feel compelled to comment when they are strongly skeptical, undercounting casually positive readers.
  • Many people signaled they felt positive towards the article and longtermist thinking, but were entirely pessimistic about our future -- basically "This is all well and good, but _". Sometimes it was hard to know whether to tally these as positive or skeptical; I usually went with whichever sentiment was the main focus of the comment.
  • For the most part, this survey doesn't capture ideas people had to help our long term future. Some of those not tallied included better education, fusion power, planting trees, and outlawing social media.

Tallies

  • 60 - Skeptical -- either of longtermism, or our future
    • 20 - Our broken culture prevents us from focusing on the long-term
    • 16 - We're completely doomed, there's no point
    • 7 - We are hard-wired as animals to think short term
    • 7 - Predicting the future is hard; made up numbers
    • 5 - We don't know what future generations will want
    • 5 - We don't even value current lives
    • 3 - I value potential people far less than current people
    • 3 - It's easy to do horrific things in the name of longtermism
    • 2 - This is ivory tower BS
  • 42 - Generally positive
  • 17 - This is nothing new (most of these comments were either about climate activism or seven generation sustainability)
  • 7 - This planet is not ours / humans don't deserve to survive
  • 7 - We should lower the population
  • 6 - This is all about environmental sustainability
  • 6 - Animals matter too
  • 5 - Republicans are terrible
  • 4 - Reincarnation might be true
  • 3 - We should ease up on technology
  • 2 - Technology will save us
  • 1 - Time travel might be true
  • 1 - Society using carbon is a good thing
  • 1 - This idea is un-American
  • 1 - This is all the fault of boomers
  • 1 - Stop blaming boomers

Takeaways

Overall, I found the responses to be more negative than anticipated. The most common sentiment I saw was utter pessimism, which I worry is a self-fulling prophecy.

There was very little reaction to or discussion about the risks of bioweapons and AI. Many people seemed to substitute concern for our long-term future solely with concern for the environment. This is understandable given the prominence of environmentalism -- it's already top-of-mind for many.

I think people struggled to appreciate the timescale proposed in the article. Many referenced leaving the Earth a better place for their (literal) grandchildren, or for seven generations from now, but not thousands of years.

106

11 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:46 PM
New Comment

A concept this reminds me of "Cheems[1] mindset". This is the notion that many people just want to say why things will fail in order to justify why they don't have to try.

I'm not sure if this is a useful concept (upvote downvote). I guess I think that something might inspire these people to change their minds, but right now they neither agree nor disagree and aren't doing much. 

I also link this to The Myth of the Rational Voter which suggests that people are rationally irrational. In this example. The readers of the New York Times have a lived experience that not much changes and that most grand plans fail. Of course William MacAskill will not be sucessful. It's very cheap to say so, since they don't deep down expect that to affect anything.

From https://normielisation.substack.com/p/cheems-mindset

To be clear, cheems mindset isn’t arguing that a policy is a bad idea because it leads to bad outcomes. A policy like rent control is bad because it leads to lower supply of rental properties and increases prices outside the rent controlled area. On that basis, it would not be cheems mindset to oppose it.

Instead, cheems mindset is automatically dismissing an idea on the basis that it cannot be done, or would be hard to do- it would be cheems mindset to oppose introducing rent control legislation because you were worried about staffing levels in [the housing department], for example.

  1. ^

    The two most famous internet dogs two Shiba Inus who the intnet names Doge and Cheems. Doge (Dogecoin, much wow etc) is brave and strong. Cheems is cowardly and useless.

    I would resize this image if I could. And yes, I know the image resize option exists. But it isn't actually resizing.

Techno pessimism is trendy, snark is trendy, climate doomerism is trendy. There’s also a time honored tradition of using newspaper comment boards specifically for complaining, which predates digital papers (see: letters to the editor). I’d be hard pressed to find anything that moves far off that base rate.

That said, I expected 60/40 positive to negative. This is a super helpful way to see sentiment at a glance and I’d be so excited to see a compilation extended across other articles (ex: the negative Salon piece) and maintained over time.

That's a great point. This probably says as much about the psychology of news commenters as it does opinions about longtermism. Comparing comments of different articles would be great for understanding the bias of each. But ultimately, the important messaging questions are probably best answered with proper surveys.

This reinforces a thought I've had for quite a while: the main advantage of EA is the optimism it brings, and the messaging should incorporate that optimism. "See all these problems in the world? Let's fix them. seriously. Come join us"

Many EAs think there’s a large chance of extinction by 2100, so it’s a qualified optimism at most. Not to rain on your parade - I feel optimism that EA exists and it’s my own optimism that drew me to EA.

I'm not sure if I expected more positive comments. Some of the comments certainly disagree heavily ("ivory tower BS", "future people don't matter"), but most of the skeptical clusters don't seem to fundamentally disagree with longtermism. Maybe learned helplessness (or Cheems mindset, sure), or something akin to a filter bubble where you learn about global problems but are not exposed to the (admittedly) fringe approaches to solving them. The climate movement is, for example, very good at spreading doom despite a non-catastrophic outlook. I wonder how much future optimism/progress propaganda à la OWID would help to move the opinion of young, liberal, academic people

I saw the 6 "Animals matter too". I am really glad they raised this. (but could they be EAs? I mean some of them seem certainly not EAs judging from their content, but they could fake it)

Nice!

Most of the sceptic ideas look quite good to me, except for the doomerism.

These really made me chuckle:

  • 1 - This idea is un-American
  • 1 - This is all the fault of boomers
  • 1 - Stop blaming boomers

The problem here is that crisis and things going wrong dominates the news, and even if all the stories are true and unbiased (Which is at least weakly the case for the mainstream media.), you will still be horribly wrong about what things matter more, or the prevalence of things going wrong.

Combine this with non-prioritization of crisis, and the doomerism bias explains itself.

People should do shit like this more often!

A summary, you say..

(I like summaries)