Some Thoughts on Public Discourse


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Thanks to Ben Hoffman and several of my coworkers for reviewing a draft of this.

It seems to me that there have been some disagreements lately in the effective altruism community regarding the proper role and conduct for public discourse (in particular, discussions on the public Web). I decided to share some thoughts on this topic, because (a) my thoughts on the matter have evolved a lot over time; (b) some of the disagreement and frustration I've seen has been specifically over the way Open Philanthropy approaches public discourse, and rather than responding to comments piecemeal I thought it would be more productive to lay out my views at a high level.

First I'll discuss my past and present views on the role of public discourse, and why they've changed. (In brief, I see significantly fewer benefits and greater costs to public discourse than I used to, but I still value it.) Then I'll list some guidelines I follow in public discourse, and some observations about what kinds of responses people are likely to get from the Open Philanthropy Project depending on how they approach it.

By "public discourse," I mean communications that are available to the public and that are primarily aimed at clearly describing one's thinking, exploring differences with others, etc. with a focus on truth-seeking rather than on fundraising, advocacy, promotion, etc.

 

My past and present views on the role of public discourse

Vipul Naik recently quoted a 2007 blog post of mine as saying, "When I look at large foundations making multimillion-dollar decisions while keeping their data and reasoning 'confidential' – all I see is a gigantic pile of the most unbelievably mind-blowing arrogance of all time. I’m serious." (It continues, "Deciding where to give is too hard and too complex – with all the judgment calls and all the different kinds of thinking it involves, there is just no way Bill Gates wouldn’t benefit from having more outside perspectives. I don’t care how smart he is.")

I'd guess that there are many other quotes in a similar vein. My old writing style tended toward hyperbole rather than careful statement of the strength of my views, but overall, I think this quote captures something I believed. It's hard to say exactly what I thought more than nine years ago, but I think some key parts of my model were:

  1. On any given topic, knowledge and insight are broadly distributed. It's hard to predict what sort of person will have helpful input, and hard to assess an idea without subjecting it to a broad "marketplace of ideas." Thus, the ideal way to arrive at truth would be to broadcast one's views in as much detail to as many people as possible and invite maximal input.
  2. Foundations face little downside to public discourse, because they are not accountable to the public at large. Their hesitation to engage in public discourse can most easily be explained by wanting to avoid embarrassment, bad press, etc. - and/or by following habits derived from other kinds of institutions (companies, government agencies) that face more substantive downsides. Because of their lack of accountability to the public at large, foundations are uniquely positioned to raise the level of public discourse and set examples for other institutions, so it's a shame that they don't.

Evolution

Over time, I've come to estimate both less benefit and more cost to public discourse. The details of this evolution are laid out in Challenges of Transparency (2014) and Update on How We’re Thinking about Openness and Information Sharing (2016).

The biggest surprise for me, over time, has been on the "benefits" side of the ledger. This point is noted in the above blog posts, but it's worth going into some detail here.

For nearly a decade now, we've been putting a huge amount of work into putting the details of our reasoning out in public, and yet I am hard-pressed to think of cases (especially in more recent years) where a public comment from an unexpected source raised novel important considerations, leading to a change in views. This isn't because nobody has raised novel important considerations, and it certainly isn't because we haven't changed our views. Rather, it seems to be the case that we get a large amount of valuable and important criticism from a relatively small number of highly engaged, highly informed people. Such people tend to spend a lot of time reading, thinking and writing about relevant topics, to follow our work closely, and to have a great deal of context. They also tend to be people who form relationships of some sort with us beyond public discourse.

The feedback and questions we get from outside of this set of people are often reasonable but familiar, seemingly unreasonable, or difficult for us to make sense of. In many cases, it may be that we're wrong and our external critics are right; our lack of learning from these external critics may reflect our own flaws, or difficulties inherent to a situation where people who have thought about a topic at length, forming their own intellectual frameworks and presuppositions, try to learn from people who bring very different communication styles and presuppositions.

The dynamic seems quite similar to that of academia: academics tend to get very deep into their topics and intellectual frameworks, and it is quite unusual for them to be moved by the arguments of those unfamiliar with their field. I think it is sometimes justified and sometimes unjustified to be so unmoved by arguments from outsiders.

Regardless of the underlying reasons, we have put a lot of effort over a long period of time into public discourse, and have reaped very little of this particular kind of benefit (though we have reaped other benefits - more below). I'm aware that this claim may strike some as unlikely and/or disappointing, but it is my lived experience, and I think at this point it would be hard to argue that it is simply explained by a lack of effort or interest in public discourse.

I have also come to have a better understanding of the costs of public discourse. These costs are enumerated in some detail in the posts linked above. A couple aspects that seem worth highlighting here are:

  • I've come to appreciate the tangible benefits of having a good reputation, in terms of hiring, retention, access to experts, etc. I've also raised my estimate of how risky public discourse can be to our reputation; I think there are a lot of people who actively seek out opportunities to draw attention by quoting things in bad faith, and a lot of other people who never correct the first impression they get from encountering these quotes.
  • Because of how much valuable feedback we've gotten from "insiders" who know the topic at hand well, I've come to feel that careless public discourse would do more harm than good to our ability to learn from feedback, via damaging relationships with the people most likely to give good feedback.

I recognize that an outsider might be skeptical of this narrative, because there is a simple alternative one: that we valued public discourse when we were "outsiders" desperate for more information, and we value it less now that we are "insiders" who usually are able to get the information we want. I think this is, in fact, part of why my attitude has changed; but I think the above factors are more important.

Why I still value public discourse

Despite all of the above considerations, we still engage in a large amount of public discourse by the standards of a funder, and I'm glad we do. Some reasons:

  • I think our public content helps others understand where we're coming from and why we do what we do. I think that this has, over time, been a major net positive for our reputation, and in particular for our ability to connect with people who deeply resonate with our values and approach. Such people can later become highly informed, engaged critics who influence our views.
  • I still empathize with my earlier self, and my frustration at not being able to learn about topics I cared about, understand the thinking of key institutions, and generally get "up to speed" in key areas. I worry about what I perceive as a lack of mentorship in the effective altruism community, and I wonder how the next generation of highly informed, engaged critics (alluded to above) is supposed to develop if all substantive conversations are happening offline.
  • Writing public content often forces me to clarify my own thinking, helps (via others' reactions) highlight the most controversial parts of it (which then leads to further reflection), and often leads to better feedback than we would've otherwise gotten from highly informed and engaged people.

However, it is much more costly for me to participate in public discourse than it used to be, both because the stakes are higher (calling for more care in communications) and because I have less time.

I'll add that I don't see it as a cost to us when someone publicly criticizes our work, and I'd generally like to see more of this rather than less - provided that such criticism does not misrepresent our views and actions. And as discussed below, I think misrepresentation is fairly easy to avoid. It is still the case that the people we most want to reach are people we expect to fairly consider different arguments and reach reasonable conclusions; if public criticism hurt our reputation among such people (without misrepresenting our views), I would by default consider this deserved and good.

How I approach public discourse today

Principles I generally follow in public discourse

  • I am very selective about where I engage. In general, if I write something publicly, it either (a) lays out a fundamental set of ideas and arguments that I expect to link to repeatedly in order to help people understand something important about my thinking; (b) addresses a criticism/concern that is important to one or more specific people whose relationships I value; or (c) addresses a question posed directly to me, while not saying more than needed to accomplish this.
  • I strive to convey the nuances of my thinking, and generally prioritize avoiding harm over getting attention. My communications often take patience to read through, but have relatively low risk of leaving people with problematic impressions.
  • I always seek at least one other pair of eyes to look over what I've written before I post it publicly. Usually much more than one.
  • I always run content by (a sample of) the people whose views I am addressing and the people I am directly naming/commenting on, assuming they are not outright adversaries (e.g., political opponents of ideas the content is arguing for). I consider this a universally, unquestionably good practice. Almost always, I learn some nuance of their views or actions that leads to my improving the content, from both my perspective and theirs. Almost always, they appreciate the chance to comment. Sometimes, they make small requests (e.g. about timing) that I can easily accommodate. I think this practice is good for both the accuracy of the content and my relationships with the people affected. And it does not make criticism more costly for me - quite the contrary, it makes criticism less costly (in terms of relationships, and in terms of time due to improved accuracy), and increases the quantity of criticism I'm willing to make. I see essentially no case against this practice. Note that running content by people is not the same as giving editorial control or seeking their permission (see next point).
  • When running content by others, I communicate explicitly about my expectations for their feedback. In particular, I am clear about when I expect to publish by default, and clear that I am not offering them editorial control. I am usually happy to delay publication for an agreed-upon, non-excessive amount of time. I will make corrections to my content if it improves accuracy, and sometimes if it offers a major relationship benefit for a negligible substance cost. But I do not wait indefinitely if there's no response, and I do not accept suggestions that result in my writing something in someone else's voice, or stating something I don't believe to be true and fair.
  • I don't try to write for everyone. I try to write for our most thoughtful critics and for our most valued present and future relationships. I do not try to address every detail of criticisms and claims people make, or to address every misconception someone might have.
  • When writing at length, I provide a summary and a roadmap, and I generally try to make it easy for people to quickly understand my major claims and how to find the supporting arguments behind them.
  • I try to avoid straw-manning, steel-manning, and nitpicking. I strive for an accurate understanding of the most important premises behind someone's most important decisions, and address those. (As a side note, I find it very unsatisfying to engage with "steel-man" versions of my arguments, which rarely resemble my actual views.)
  • I try to bear in mind how limited my understanding of others' views is. I believe it is often prohibitively difficult and time-consuming to communicate comprehensively about the reasoning behind one's thinking. I often observe others who have extremely inaccurate pictures of my thinking but are quite confident in their analysis, and I don't want to make that mistake. So I have a high bar for making judgments and assertions about the rationality, character, and values of people based on public discourse, and I generally confine my writing to topics that don't rely on views about these things. More on this in the note at the bottom.
  • Especially when dealing with organizations, I restrict my definition of "important disagreements" to "beliefs underlying important actions I disagree with." I think there is sometimes a practice in the effective altruist and rationalist communities of paying a lot of attention to inconsistencies, or to actions that seem knowably non-optimal, or to other disagreements, even when they don't pertain to important disagreements on actions, on the grounds that such things demonstrate a lack of good epistemic standards or a lack of value alignment. I think this is misguided. As an organization leader, I am constantly making tradeoffs about when to think carefully about a dilemma and reach a great answer, vs. when to go with a hacky "middle ground" approach that is knowably non-optimal but also minimizes the risk of any particular disaster, vs. when to simply defer to others or stick with inertia and accept the risk of doing something clearly flawed. I strongly feel that one cannot get a read on the values and epistemology of an organization’s leadership by focusing on the decisions that seem simplest to analyze; one must focus on the decisions that are important and that one feels could have been done in a specific better way. Even then, one will often lack a great deal of context.

What to expect in terms of responses from Open Philanthropy

If you have questions or criticisms of Open Philanthropy and are hoping for a direct response, here are some general guidelines for what to expect:

  • If someone comments on the Open Philanthropy Blog (including one of our regular open threads, and even if the open thread is old) and asks a direct question, I or someone else from Open Philanthropy will answer it. (Tagging me on Facebook or mentioning Open Philanthropy in a forum comment does not have the same effect, at least not consistently. I feel I owe a response to people who specifically "approach" Open Philanthropy with a question, which includes people who email, people who comment on our blog, and people who come to our events; I don't feel a similar obligation to people who express interest/curiosity in our views but are ultimately having their own discussion.)
  • If someone whose relationship I value specifically tells me they are curious about my answer to a question or criticism, and that they think it's worth my time to engage, I generally do.
  • I generally address specific claims that seem crucial to an argument implying Open Philanthropy’s actions are suboptimal. I often do not respond at all to claims that seem tangential, or to vague expressions of disagreement/dissatisfaction that I can't pin down to particular claims.
  • I have limited time for reading as well as writing. When someone writes a long critique of Open Philanthropy, I look to the summary to determine whether there's anything worth addressing, then drill down to see the supporting arguments behind key points. When the summary is absent or ineffective, this usually means I will not respond in a satisfying way; I do not consider myself obligated to read long (>5pg) pieces just because they address Open Philanthropy.
  • I do not feel offended when people criticize us, and I also do not generally feel taxed by it (I often feel no obligation no respond, and when responding out of obligation, I often respond quite briefly). I lower my opinion of someone when I feel they are misrepresenting us (or others), but I generally do not lower my opinion of someone simply because they express criticism or disagreement. (I elaborate on this point in a note below, since people who reviewed a draft of this piece generally found this statement surprising.) As noted above, I believe that misrepresentations can wrongfully damage our reputation, but I do not worry about the reputational effects of criticism based on accurate representations. I don't have a desire for people to criticize us less; I do have a desire for people to be more understanding about the fact that we sometimes do not respond at length or at all.
  • When people run things by me before posting them, I try to be helpful by correcting any inaccuracies I notice, though I often do not engage much beyond that, and will usually save substantive disagreements for public discourse (or decline to get into them at all).
  • I have a strong bias to engage people who seem like they are thinking hard, reasoning carefully, engaging respectfully, and doing their best to understand the public content that is already available, even if this doesn't fit my other criteria.

A note on evaluating people based on public discourse

This section is tangential to the rest of the piece, but I include it as an elaboration on a couple of comments above that stem from a somewhat unusual attitude toward evaluating people.

I think it's good and important to form views about people's strengths, weaknesses, values and character. However, I am generally against forming negative views of people (on any of these dimensions) based on seemingly incorrect, poorly reasoned, or seemingly bad-values-driven public statements. When a public statement is not misleading or tangibly harmful, I generally am open to treating it as a positive update on the person making the statement, but not to treating it as worse news about them than if they had simply said nothing.

The basic reasons for this attitude are:

  • I think it is very easy to be wrong about the implications of someone's public statement. It could be that their statement was poorly expressed, or aimed at another audience; that the reader is failing to understand subtleties of it; or that the statement is in fact wrong, but that it merely reflects that the person who made it hasn't been sufficiently reflective or knowledgeable on the topic yet (and could become so later).
  • I think public discourse would be less costly and more productive for everyone if the attitude I take were more common. I think that one of the best ways to learn is to share one's impressions, even (especially) when they might be badly wrong. I wish that public discourse could include more low-caution exploration, without the risks that currently come with such things.
  • I generally believe in evaluating people based on what they've accomplished and what they've had the opportunity to accomplish, plus any tangible harm (including misinformation) they've caused. I think this approach works well for identifying people who are promising and people whom I should steer clear of; I think other methods add little of value and mostly add noise.

I update negatively on people who mislead (including expressing great confidence while being wrong, and especially including avoidable mischaracterizations of others' views); people who do tangible damage (usually by misleading); and people who create little of value despite large amounts of opportunity and time investment. But if someone is simply expressing a view and being open about their reasons for holding it, I try (largely successfully, I think) not to make any negative updates simply based on the substance.