Tldr: This is a letter I wrote to the Climate Contributing Editor of the Bulletin Atomic Scientists, Dawn Stover, about Emile Torres' latest piece criticising EA. In short: 

  • In advance of the publication of the article, Ms Stover reached out to us to check on what Torres calls their most "disturbing" claim viz. that Will MacAskill lied about getting advice from five climate experts. 
  • We showed them that this was false.
  • The Bulletin published the claim anyway, and then tweeted it. 
  • In my opinion, this is outrageous, so I have asked them to issue a correction and an apology. 

Update: The Bulletin has declined to correct the piece or issue an apology. They say that the editor's note provides 'balance' for the reader. They haven't explained how their false tweet remains acceptable. By these standards, media outlets don't have to correct false claims in articles, they just have to include editor's notes contradicting the false claims. There are apparently no constraints on what media outlets are permitted to tweet. 

 

Dear Ms Stover, 

I have long admired the work of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. However, I am extremely disappointed by your publication of the latest piece by Emile Torres. 

I knew long ago that Torres would publish a piece critical of What We Owe the Future, and on me following my report on climate change. However, I am surprised that the Bulletin has chosen to publish this particular piece in its current form. There are many things wrong with the piece, but the most important is that it accuses Will MacAskill and his research assistants of research misconduct. Specifically, Torres contends that five of the climate experts we listed in the acknowledgements for the book were not actually consulted. 

Ms Stover: you contacted us about this claim in advance of the article’s publication, and we informed you that it was not true. Overall, we consulted around 106 experts in the research process for What We Owe The Future. Torres suggests that five experts were never consulted at all, but this is not true — as Will stated in his earlier email to you, four of those five experts were consulted. I am happy to provide evidence for this. The article would have readers think that we made up the citations out of thin air. One of them was contacted but didn’t have time to give feedback, and was incorrectly credited in the acknowledgements, which we will change in future editions: this was an honest mistake. The Bulletin also went on to tweet the false claim that multiple people hadn’t been consulted at all.

The acknowledgements are also clear that we are not claiming that those listed checked and agreed with every claim in the book. Immediately after the acknowledgements of subject-matter experts, Will writes: “These advisers don’t necessarily agree with the claims I make in the book, and all errors in the book are my responsibility alone.”

To accuse someone of research misconduct is a very serious allegation. After you check it and find out that it is false, it is extremely poor form to let the claim go out anyway and then to tweet it. The Bulletin should issue a correction to the article, and to the false claim they put out in a tweet.

I also have concerns about the nature of Torres’ background work for article — they seemingly sent every person that was acknowledged for the book a misleading email, telling them that we lied in the acknowledgements, and making some reviewers quite uncomfortable.  

To reiterate, I am very disappointed by the journalistic standards demonstrated in this article. I will be publishing something separately about Torres’ (as usual) misrepresented substantive claims, but the most serious allegation of research misconduct needs to be retracted and we need an apology. 

(Also, a more minor point: it's not true that I am Head of Applied Research at Founders Pledge. I left that role in 2019.) 

John 


 

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Downvoted. I appreciate you a lot for writing this letter, and am sorry you/Will were slandered in this way! But I would like to see less of this content on the EA Forum. I think Torres' has a clear history of writing very bad faith and outrage inducing hit pieces, and think that prominently discussing these or really paying any attention on the EA forum easily sucks in time and emotional energy with little reward. So seeing this post with a lot of comments and at 300+ karma feels sad to me!

My personal take is that the correct policy for the typical EA is to not bother reading their criticisms, given their history of quote mining and misrepresentation, and would have rather never heard about this article.

All that said, I want to reiterate that I'm very glad you wrote this letter, sorry you went through this, and that this has conveyed the useful information to take the bulletin's editorial standards less seriously!

Yeah I can see that perspective. The aim here was more to point out malfeasance on the part of the Bulletin rather than Torres.  I would have expected a lot better from the Bulletin

Fair point! My guess is that the emotional energy tradeoff isn't worth it, but do agree that this is more useful information than most hit piece discussions give

Perhaps posts should have agreement karma like comments do, so we can signal that we agree with John's post without making it more prominent on the Forum (which as you said is generally a waste of EAs' attention).

I would be pro this! Though in practice I expect this to not solve the problem - I think the standard reaction is to feel outraged /righteously indignant and upvote this kind of post in a show of support/solidarity

I'd have guessed it's not outrage or indignation but instead feeling 1) sorry for how frustrating it must be to deal with Torres and dishonest criticism in general, and 2) gratitude for pushing back against it.

That was my reaction. Also I had assumed that John had probably sent this post to the Bulletin and that it would help him get the desired retraction/appology if this post had more karma, so I was tempted to upvote the post to support with that.

(But despite the temptation I originally abstained from voting due to not wanting to promote more Torres-related content, then strong-downvoted after reading Neel's comment and seeing another front-page post responding to (IMO problematic) journalism (Rob Wiblin's post responding to Matt Yglesias' re SBF and risk neutrality) that also wasn't the sort of content I want to fill up the Forum.)

I didn't disagreement-karma your comment, but do want to note that I think it would likely help to at least partially solve the problem.

E.g. (Largely due to your original comment, but also in part due to feeling similarly to you independently first) I strong-downvoted the OP despite strongly agreeing with it and feeling very grateful to John for doing such a thorough job dealing with and responding to Torres and bad journalism related to EA.

I don't always downvote in cases like this--I usuually just abstain from voting--but if there was an agreement button on posts I think I'd be a lot more willing to downvote posts that I think should get less attention (despite my agreement with them, their high writing quality, etc).

I'd like this for the sake of my own posts as well. That is, it has sometimes been the case that I've been averse to posting things due to not wanting to take up EA's time/attention with unimportant things. Giving others an additional way to leave me positive feedback (agreement karma) without having to upvote my post would be nice. As an author it would also help me feel better about my content getting downvoted or having low karma.

Actually that's a fair point, I somewhat retract my above comment.

I think that in general, if I agree vote a comment I also up vote it. But I do vibe with the idea that I'd be more comfortable downvoting posts like this if I could also agree vote.

Another falsehood to add to the list of corrections the Bulletin needs to make to the article. In the article, Torres writes,

And in the acknowledgments section, he lists 30 scientists and an entire research group as having been consulted on “climate change” or “climate science.” I wrote to all the scientists MacAskill thanked for providing “feedback and advice,” and the responses were surprising.

However, one of those scientists, Peter Watson, has recently tweeted that Torres did not contact him about the Bulletin article. Torres responds to this claim with an irrelevant question. 

As you can see below, Peter Watson is indeed one of the climate scientists who was thanked. If Watson is correct, then the Bulletin needs to correct Torres's claim to have contacted all the climate scientists who were acknowledged in the book. 

[edit: I originally wrote  and highlighted"Andrew Watson" instead of Peter Watson. Peter Watson, as you can see below, is also acknowledged]

This is so ironic.

that is peter watson not andrew watson. both were contacted and provided feedback

Oops, thanks. Fixed it to say "Peter Watson". Fortunately Peter Watson is also in the screencap, so I'm leaving that as is.

I agree with the overall statement that the Bulletin should not have published this article as it is and definitely should have not tweeted what it did. Yes, they owe you an apology but I also don't understand some of the claims in this letter and think that these (maybe?) exaggerated claims undermine your good arguments and the rightful question for an apology.

First, concerning this paragraph:

I also have concerns about the nature of Torres’ background work for article — they seemingly sent every person that was acknowledged for the book a misleading email, telling them that we lied in the acknowledgements, and making some reviewers quite uncomfortable.

Where does this information come from? The twitter thread you link to does not claim that Torres' made the author of the thread uncomfortable, only that he choose to ignore the email. Furthermore, the mail Torres wrote to him does not claim that you lied in the acknowledgments. 

Second, the Bulletin did add an annotation to the article, correcting the claim from Torres that several researchers were not consulted. Yes, the article still suggests heavily that they weren't and even with this annotation you get the impression that MacAskill was at least negligent in his research, but accusing the Bulletin of just lying regarding this, is also not true. 

On your first question, several people Torres contacted reached out to us to tell us that they had a weird email from Torres, which made some of them uncomfortable. In some of the emails Torres repeated the false claim that we had essentially fabricated the acknowledgements. 

Second, they annotated the article, but then tweeted the false claim! The claim should not be allowed to stay in the piece once they have checked it and found out that it is false. It's basic journalism. If they think we lied to them about consulting the experts, then they should say so explicitly. If they think the claim is false it is obvious that they should remove since it is an accusation of research misconduct.

On what other occasions has a major news outlet knowingly published misinformation about EA? Is there a database for this? Misinformation at this caliber needs to be archived so that it can be made accessible to misinformation and disinformation analysts, there are likely to be trends here that are worth pointing out, but there's a wide variety of causes for this sort of thing so there's probably trends that only a very small number of people know how to spot. There's a lot of problems that can be handled entirely with generalists but this isn't one of them.

Good idea on creating a database. One misleading article (with community members' rebuttal) here: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/Fm4vAtKoH4nBCzsoQ/linkpost-a-response-to-rebecca-ackermann-s-inside-effective

As a community we should have easily accessible, respectful and good-faith responses to all prominent articles criticising EA.

It is current CEA policy to mostly ignore critical bad faith content, see 2nd faq in https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/zgHWeMBPnCMvdoZvz/ea-will-likely-get-more-attention-soon . I would love to see more thourought explanation of that position though.

I don't think anyone should expect a lot of explanations or a new policy. It is an extremely difficult environment right now and there's nothing to say or add that can help a lot. There's literally new articles coming out every day.

Unfortunately, Will and CEA has been pinned to this, for essentially trying to get a donor. 

Matt and Kelsey are piling on a bit here and that's unfair:

I find it easier to draw the conclusion that the threadbare, limited management of pre-2019 CEA was involved in this, if anything. 

For what it's worth, I don't think Matt and Kelsey are "piling on" in an unfair way here. This thread was about wealth signals & EAG food. I don't think it's bad faith criticism comparable to Torres.

In the case of the FTX disaster, people in the thread were speculating that obvious non-frugal behaviour might have been one of the only good signals/red flags regarding SBF prior the public scandal. I think that's somewhat fair and at least a reasonable hypothesis. CEA spending lots of money on things like food at conferences are also less frugal behaviour compared to the past. I think "being sceptical" is not unreasonable (coupled with the obvious mistakes made regarding trust put in SBF by CEA).

(This doesn't mean that CEA decisionmaking is obviously flawed in a big way, at all. I don't think they're saying that. I think they're updating something like from CEA making 99.9% correct decisions to 98% correct decisions, non-frugality likely being one of them. We all just have very high standards here!)

I think they're updating something like from CEA making 99.9% correct decisions to 98% correct decisions

Nitpick, but I doubt many who seriously thought about CEA (or any org's) decisions think their decisions are correct to the tune of 98 to 99.9%. This includes people at CEA.

It's just very hard to make accurate decisions in a complex world.

I think what you said is fair.  Writing as a collaboration.

I sort of want to peel the curtain back for onlookers here, since apparently few in EA is doing this before or after.

Basically, a journalist's role, including and maybe especially EA journalists, is basically the OG “epistemic” immune system, as rationalists would say. They are an institution, specifically supposed to ferret out problems, including subtle things like smells.

I spoke to a very respected reporter at EAG, who I met for the first time ever, and within the first 60 seconds and within 5 minutes he was warning me about a “broken stair”, someone I had a positive opinion of, had a history of issues. There was limited direct benefit to him for doing this and some risk. Reporters get credibility and live and die by this, it’s what they do.

Dylan Matthews gets a lot of credit for saying something like this:

Now, we know, Kelsey and Matt know, and everyone else knows, it’s a bit of a mess up that neither of them seemed to be in a position to make the statement, “Hey, SBF has a penthouse, uses a private jet. Maybe we shouldn’t let Will hang it all on the Corolla, because it might make EA and Will look stupid”. It’s non-positive, and maybe even slightly implausible they didn’t know.

Kelsey’s story, which most EAs know, relied on EA communication norms to get that level of candor, is probably partially motivated, and people in journalism know this.
 

Moving to this thread about catering:

As someone who isn’t vegan, declares they aren't vegan, and thinks it’s not helpful to animal welfare that this is a norm, I think it is disgusting if SBF harvested veganism to his ends.

However, we still don’t know how substantive most of these stories are. (To be clear, SBF seems to be just trying to talk his way out of things at this point and his credibility should be zero). However, things like the “hack”, turned out to be literally the Bahamas ordering him to seize money, showed that stories are noisy.

Overall, this Twitter thread about FTX catering, then moving to EAG’s food, then moving to CEA’s conduct, is a stretch and I find it a bit performative. 


 

Especially when they are high profile or to a relevant audience

as Will stated in his earlier email to you, four of those five experts were consulted. I am happy to provide evidence for this.

Minor nitpick: Was one of them not consulted, or can evidence not be provided?

[This comment is no longer endorsed by its author]Reply

This question is answered a couple of sentences after the bit you've quoted: "One of them was contacted but didn’t have time to give feedback, and was incorrectly credited in the acknowledgements, which we will change in future editions: this was an honest mistake."

lol, my bad. Thanks.