The FTX situation is raising a lot of good questions. Could this have been prevented? What warning signs were there, and did people act on them as much as they should have? What steps could be taken to lower the odds of a similar situation in the future?
I want to think hard about questions like these, and I want to have a good (and public) discussion about them. But I don’t want to rush to make sure that happens as fast as possible. (I will continue to communicate things that seem directly and time-sensitively action-relevant; what I don’t want to rush is reflection on what went wrong and what we can learn.)
The overarching reason for this is that I think discussion will be better - more thoughtful, more honest, more productive - to the extent that it happens after the dust has settled a bit. (I’m guessing this will be some number of weeks or months, as opposed to days or years.)
I’m hearing calls from various members of the community to discuss all these issues quickly, and concerns (from people who’d rather not move so quickly) that engaging too slowly could risk losing the trust of the community. As a sort of compromise, I’m rushing out this post on why I disprefer rushing.1My guess is that a number of other people have similar thoughts to mine on this point, but I’ll speak only for myself.
I expect some people to read this as implicitly suggesting that others behave as I do. That’s mostly not right, so I’ll be explicit about my goals. My primary goal is just to explain my own behavior. My secondary goal is to make it easier to understand why some others might be behaving as I am. My third goal is to put some considerations out there that might change some other people’s minds somewhat about what they want to do; but I don’t expect or want everyone to make the same calls I’m making (actually it would be very weird if the EA Forum were quiet right now; that’s not something I wish for).
So, reasons why I mostly expect to stick to cold takes (weeks or months from now) rather than hot takes (days):
I think cold takes will be more intelligent and thoughtful. In general, I find that I have better thoughts on anything after I have a while to process it. In the immediate aftermath of new information, I have tons of quick reactions that tend not to hold up well; they’re often emotion-driven, often overcorrections to what I thought before and overreactions to what others are saying, etc.
Waiting also tends to mean I get to take in a lot more information, and angles from other people, that can affect my thinking. (This is especially the case with other people being so into hot takes!)
It also tends to give me more space for minimal-trust thinking. If I want to form the most accurate possible belief in the heat of the moment, I tend to look to people who have thought more about the matter than I have, and think about which of them I want to bet on and defer to. But if I have more time, I can develop my own models and come to the point where I can personally stand behind my opinions. (In general I’ve been slower than some to adopt ideas like the most important century hypothesis, but I also think I have more detailed understanding and more gut-level seriousness about such ideas than I would’ve if I’d adopted them more quickly and switched from “explore” to “exploit” mode earlier.)
These factors seem especially important for topics like “What went wrong here and what can we learn for the future?” It’s easy to learn the wrong lessons from a new development, and I think the extra info and thought is likely to really pay off.
I think cold takes will pose less risk of doing harm. Right now there is a lot of interest in the FTX situation, and anything I say could get an inordinate number of readers. Some of those readers have zero interest in truth-seeking, and are instead (a) looking to write a maximally juicy story, with truth only as an instrumental goal toward that (at best); or (b) in some cases, actively looking to try to harm effective altruism by putting negative narratives out there that could stick around even if they’re debunked.
If I wait longer, more of those people will have moved on (particularly the ones in category (a), since this won’t be such a hot news topic anymore). And I’ll have more time to consider downsides of my comments and find ways to say what's important while reducing those downsides.
Maybe I should not care about this? Maybe it’s somehow fundamentally wrong to even consider the “PR impact” of things I say? I’ve heard this sentiment at times, but I don’t really understand it.
- I think that overweighing “PR considerations” can be bad from an integrity perspective (people who care too much about PR can be slippery and deceptive) and can often backfire (I think being less than honest is nearly always a bad PR move).
- But that doesn’t mean these considerations should be given zero weight.
- I occasionally hear arguments like “If person X bounces off of [important cause X] because of some media narrative, this just shows that they were a superficial person whom [important cause X] didn’t need anyway.” I may be missing something, but I basically don’t get this point of view at all: there are lots of people who can be helpful with important causes who don’t have the time or dedication to figure everything out for themselves, and for whom media narratives and first impressions matter. (I definitely think this applies to the causes I’m most focused on.)
- And even if I should put zero weight on these types of considerations, I think this is just unrealistic, akin to trying to work every waking hour or be 100% altruistic or be 100% open with everyone at all times. I do care about bad press, I’m not going to make myself not care, and it seems better to deal with that as a factor in my life than try to white-knuckle myself into ignoring it. If I’m slower and more careful to write up my thoughts, I face less of a tradeoff between truth-seeking and PR considerations. That brings me to the next point.
I think cold takes will be more open and honest. If I’m rushing my writing or trying to avoid harm from bad-faith readers, these are forces pushing away from stating things as I really see them. The same applies to just being unconsciously influenced by the knowledge that what I write will have a particularly large and hard-to-model audience.
To be clear, I try to make all of my public writing open and honest, but this is a matter of effort - not just intention - and I expect to do it better if I have longer. Taking more time means I face fewer distortive forces, and it gives me more chances to reflect and think: “Is this really my take? Do I really stand behind it?”
I’m especially busy right now. There is an awful lot of chaos right now, and a lot of urgent priorities, including setting policies on funding for people affected by the situation, thinking about what our new funding standards should be generally, and deciding what public statements are urgent enough to make. (I note that a lot of other people are similarly dealing with hugely increased workloads right now.) Reflecting on lessons learned is very important in the long run, and I expect to get to it over the coming months, but it’s not currently the most time-sensitive priority.
Bottom line. I’ll continue to put out public comments when I think there’s an especially important, time-sensitive benefit to be had. And I do expect to put out my reflections on this matter (or to endorse someone else’s if they capture enough of mine) sometime in the next few months. But my guess is that my next major public piece will be about AI risk, not FTX. I’ve been working on some AI risk content for a long time.
Though I do worry that when the smoke has cleared, I’ll look back and think, “Gosh, that message was all wrong - it’s much better to rush out hot takes than to take my time and focus on cold ones. I really regret giving a case against rashness so rashly.” ↩