In the wake of the FTX collapse, much ink has been spilled on EA reform by people smarter and more experienced in this space than I am. However, as someone who has been engaging with EA over the past few years and who has become increasingly connected with the community, I have a modest proposal I’d like to share: EA needs more humor.

Criticism of EA has roots back in the “earning to give” era. This Stanford Social Innovation Review editorial from 2013 describes EA as “cold and hyper-rationalistic,” deeming the idea of numerically judging charities as “defective altruism.” This piece in Aeon from 2014 essentially argues that the EA utilitarian worldview opposes art, aesthetic beauty, and creativity in general.

Criticism of EA has only heightened in recent years with the rise of longtermism. Another Aeon editorial from 2021 characterizes the “apocalypticism” of longtermist thought as “profoundly dangerous” while also lampooning EA organizations like the “grandiosely named Future of Humanity Institute” and “the even more grandiosely named Future of Life Institute.”

In the last few months before the FTX situation, criticism was directed at Will MacAskill’s longtermist manifesto, What We Owe the Future. A Wall Street Journal review concludes that “‘What We Owe the Future’ is a preposterous book” and that it is “replete with highfalutin truisms, cockamamie analogies and complex discussions leading nowhere.” A Current Affairs article once again evokes the phrase “defective altruism” and asserts that MacAskill’s book shows how EA as a whole “is self-righteous in the most literal sense.”

The above example are, of course, just a small snapshot of the criticism EA has faced. However, I think these examples capture a common theme in EA critiques. Overall, it seems that critics tend to characterize EA as a community of cold, calculating, imperious, pretentious people who take themselves and their ostensible mission to “save humanity” far too seriously.

To be honest, a lot of EA criticism seems like it’s coming from cynical, jaded adults who relish in the opportunity to crush young people’s ambitious dreams about changing the world. I also think many critics don’t really understand what EA is about and extrapolate based on a glance at the most radical ideas or make unfair assumptions based on a list of EA’s high-profile Silicon Valley supporters.

However, there is a lot of truth to what critics are saying: EA’s aims are incredibly ambitious, its ideas frequently radical, and its organizations often graced with grandiose names. I also agree that the FTX/SBF situation has exposed glaring holes in EA philosophy and shortcomings in the organization of the EA community.

However, my personal experience in this community has been that the majority of EAs are not cold, calculating, imperious, pretentious people but warm, intelligent, honest, and altruistic individuals who wholeheartedly want to “do good better.”

I think one thing the EA community could do moving forward to improve its external image and internal function is to embrace a bit more humor. EA could stand to acknowledge and make fun of the craziness of comparing the effectiveness of charities as disparate as a deworming campaign and a policy advocacy group, or the absurdity of a outlining a superintelligent extinction event.

I say these ideas are absurd not because I don’t believe in them; I have the utmost respect for rigorous charity evaluators like GiveWell and am convinced that AI is indeed the most important problem facing humanity. But I think that acknowledging the external optics of these ideas and, to a degree, joking about how crazy they may seem could make EA less disagreeable for many people on the outside looking in.

There have already been solid examples of humor in the community. Criticism aside, Will MacAskill’s What We Owe the Future demonstrates an excellent instance of levity. On page 15, MacAskill announces that he will depict all of the potential future generations by using little stick figures each representing 10 billion humans. The next three pages are filled with figures from top to bottom, and at the end MacAskill notes that the full version would actually fill 20,000 full pages.

Some reviewers have not appreciated this stick figure stunt, but I personally laughed out loud when I flipped through these pages. I think this is a perfect example of subtle humor that acknowledges the absurdity of longtermism while also imparting critical understandings on the scope and scale of the far-off future. By using pictograms that look like the gender sign on a bathroom door, MacAskill adds playfulness to his analysis and softens the grandiosity inherent in declaring that you will depict all of humanity’s future generations. These pages successfully joke about the ambitions of longtermism while still taking the subject seriously.

Another example of EA humor can be found in Holden Karnofsky’s “The Most Important Century” blog. For those unfamiliar, this is a series of posts arguing that the 21st century could be the most important in humanity’s history—i.e., a project only an EA would have the audacity to undertake.

A key part of Karnofsky’s argument is the potential for transformative AI to arrive this century. AI is, for EAs, a deadly serious topic. But talking about AI development has a tendency to get really science fiction-y really quickly and seems (especially to people outside of EA) odd at best or overblown at worst. So, in a stroke of genius, Karnofsky defines his conception of transformative AI as “Process for Automating Scientific and Technological Advancement, or PASTA.”

In a mockingly apologetic footnote, Karnofsky writes, “I'm sorry. But I do think the rest of the series will be slightly more fun to read this way.” And he’s absolutely right. PASTA embraces the absurdity of the transformative AI topic and makes the blog posts more enjoyable to read. Karnofsky even adds a “Hotline Bling”-inspired meme featuring the Terminator and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. While perhaps a tad cringy, this move is so unexpected as to be hilarious on balance. Quite frankly, EA could stand to see more memes like this.

The use of PASTA in no way diminishes Karnofsky’s arguments or makes his conclusions any less important. Rather, the use of a funny acronym to refer to AI makes the whole discussion seem less pretentious. I think PASTA is a model of subtle humor that, if imitated elsewhere, would make EA seem more relatable to anyone.

In terms of models outside of EA, John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight (hereafter: LWT) offers a template that could work well for EA topics. If you haven’t already heard of LWT, Oliver does weekly deep dive video segments on problems in the United States and around the world. Topics are wide-ranging, with the three most recent feature stories concerning the World Cup, the British Monarchy, and election subversion.

LWT features rigorous research and reporting while also employing top-notch slapstick humor. Oliver manages to make every episode both enlightening and entertaining, shining a light on overlooked societal problems in an accessible and enjoyable way. LWT shows that joking about something doesn’t mean you are making light of it or not taking it seriously. Humor is just a way to make the bitter medicine of truth go down a little bit easier, enabling people to process information they otherwise couldn’t stand to hear.

Oliver’s approach has proven genuinely impactful. A Time article from 2015 coined the term “the John Oliver Effect” to explain several instances where LWT episodes have contributed to real societal change, including ending unfair bail requirements in New York City, causing the resignation of FIFA president Sepp Blatter, and convincing the FCC to adopt net neutrality regulations, among other cases. LWT’s impact has only grown in the past seven years, the use of humor remaining integral to Oliver’s continued commercial and political success.

I think LWT could be model for future EA content. Incorporating humor into discussions on existential risk, for instance, would make the information more approachable, encouraging people to learn about heavy and heady topics. Humor also diminishes any pretension that may come along with asserting that an issue is one of the most important problems facing humanity.

LWT is just one half-baked idea of how EAs could incorporate more humor into their work. To be sure, Oliver’s in-your-face style will not work in many contexts or with many topics. However, I think LWT is a model showing how leveraging levity can be a truly effective approach to reaching people and driving societal change.

In closing, I am not suggesting that EAs should become outright comedians and make a joke out of everything. And in any case, perhaps EA should wait a bit to let the FTX storm die down before getting too jocular. But moving forward, I think the more EA learns to laugh at itself and in general, the less the public will view EA as so self-righteous or self-important. If EA can introduce a little more humor into its culture, EA may be able to connect with more people and shape the world for the better.





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As both a member of the EA community and a retired mediocre stand-up act, I appreciate that you took the time to write this. You rightly highlight that some light-heartedness has benefited some writers within the EA community, and outside of it. My intuition is that the level of humour we can see being used is, give or take, the right level given the goals the community has. A lot of effort and money has been spent on making the community, along with many job opportunities within it, seem professional in the hope that capable individuals will infer that we mean business and consider EA on those terms.

A concept I referred to a lot when planning comedic performances, and public speaking occasions in general, is that an audience (dependent on the context and their reasons for being there) will have a given threshold for the humour they expect to find in your communication. To be funny, you must go beyond this threshold. Some way above that threshold is another boundary, a humour ceiling, defined by the social norms of the setting beyond which you no longer seem funny. Instead, you signal that you don't understand the social norms around communication in that context. In stand-up, the humour threshold is really high, so it's hard to qualify as funny at all, but nigh on impossible to be too funny. In presenting a dry subject to your boss and colleagues, the humour threshold is low and anyone could exceed it with a bit of practice, but landing safely between this threshold and the marginally greater humour ceiling is genuinely hard. You will too easily be too funny and seem a liability. When reading an obituary at a funeral, the threshold is set at essentially zero and the ceiling is coincident with it, only allowing the exemption of jokes told to highlight the cherished memories you have of the deceased. 

I explain this because it seems to me untenably hard to commit to using humour all-out, or anywhere close to that, as a communicative and persuasive aid for EA without signalling that we do not "mean business". Stick man illustrations and starchy acronyms, used sparingly, fall within the threshold-ceiling window for the work MacAskill and Karnofsky are trying to publicise, so these gags play out well. I don't think they've got that much overhead clearance before readers would infer a lack of appreciation for the aesthetics of academic writing, and thus that they shouldn't be taken seriously. 

Since the advent of democracy and ancient Greek plays using jokes to point out the mistakes made by politicians of the day, comedy has proven a very effective method for poking holes in bad ideas and forcing people to change them, lest they be further laughed at. This seems to be the running theme of the cases you mention from John Oliver's career. Much harder, I think, to propose an idea of your own that you wish people to believe is good and use humour to enhance that perception. 

Thanks so much for your insights. Can't really argue with what you say here: I think you articulated the idea of subtlety and the importance of correct application with humor far better than I did. Admittedly, John Oliver is an extreme example of humor, perhaps so extreme as to be unhelpful as a model for EA. Overall, maybe my use of the word "humor" in this post was too strong. I really liked Tiger Lava Lamp's comment below on "microhumor," which Scott Alexander describes as "things that aren’t a joke in the laugh-out-loud told-by-a-comedian sense, but still put the tiniest ghost of a smile on your reader’s face while they’re skimming through them." This seems to be a more accurate description of the MacAskill and Karnosfky examples I gave.  It seems like we both have a sense that something like Alexander's microhumor can fall within EA's humor threshold and be an effective tool for EA to an extent.

Agreed - Scott Alexander does this very well, as does Yudkowsky in Rationality: A-Z. Both of these also benefit from being blogs of their own creation, where they can dictate a lot of the norms, and so I expect to have a fair bit more slack in how high the ceiling is. 

Anyone who wants to help improve EA's incredibly weak meme game is welcome to join us over at the Dank EA Memes facebook group:

May be a cartoon of text that says "Dank EA Memes Cultural trajectory of the EA movement 25 $50+ billion of philanthropy, lobbying, investment, etc The combined efforts of human civilization to avoid extinction build a flourishing utopian future ส."

There's also plenty of EA jokes on Twitter! You can start with @EAheadlines :)

Came here to say this! EA Twitter is fun!

Wow, can't believe I haven't seen this before. Thanks for sharing!

I think this post is super valuable. The following is an illustration of my endorsement. 

Humor has much more to do with error culture than is generally assumed. People who have a sense of humor put distance between themselves and the things they work on, and they don't immediately collapse if a mistake is made.  "It is a damn serious thing to be funny," and by this they mean not only that it takes a lot of brain power to invent a good joke, but that good humor is based on deep and balanced seriousness. We need more of the latter, and a little less of the cramped ambition to point out every blunder to others.

Humor is an unheard-of advantage in politics, because it can be used to say many things that would be insulting if said seriously. You probably know the story of Winston Churchill, who considered his French to be quite passable, while French people who listened to him spoke without hesitation of a "massacre of the French language". De Gaulle later wrote that he learned English listening to Churchill speak French. In any case, Churchill had a sense of humor, and he used it as often as he used his bumpy French. To make his point particularly forceful, he did not simply ask de Gaulle to give way to British troops in Africa, but stated curtly, "Si vous m'obstaclierez, je vous liquiderai." 

And by humor I don't mean a dull "permanent grin" or "making fun" at the expense of others. But the ability to laugh about the small and big shortcomings of life.  Those who have a sense of humor can laugh at themselves. You wouldn't believe how many people take themselves insanely seriously, and how much more pleasant it is when someone doesn't take themselves so seriously for once. Don't you feel the same way: at length, there is hardly anything more annoying and boring than colleagues who creep along the walls all year in a rainy state of listlessness and put on an expression for no reason, as if they were carrying a sign in front of them that says: "Anyone who wants to get along with me must first reveal the dark secret of my thoughtfulness. For I am insanely clever and not a simpleton like the good-humored majority in the room I am in at the moment."

Of course, you can get smarter without humor. Newton was everything but funny, and still brilliant. Schopenhauer was profound, but certainly not known for his laughing fits. Henrik Ibsen was an extremely creative mind and yet not a paragon of hilarity, quite the opposite. But the reverse conclusion is also not correct: just because you put on a wrinkled face and turn up your nose on principle, you are not yet insanely clever. I prefer Benjamin Franklin, who was so amused by the stilted titles of the scientific papers of his time that in a letter to the Royal Academy of Brussels he philosophized just as turgidly about the disadvantages of farting and proposed a prize for the discovery of a pill "that shall render the natural discharges, of wind from our bodies, not only inoffensive, but agreeable as perfumes". 

Thank you for this perspective! Once again, I think you've expressed better than I did the connection between humor and humility. I love all of your historical examples as well; it has me thinking that, rather than following current examples of comedy, looking further back in the past might be an even more fruitful approach to getting inspiration for EA-applicable humor that has stood the test of time.

I think about the microhumor section of SSC's nonfiction writing advice is a good example of this.  Scott Alexander is very easy to read for me despite covering pretty complex topics and does a very good job of making it both easy and enjoyable to read.  I've started peppering things like this into my communications with non-technical people at my job and people really enjoy it.

Love this example, thanks so much for sharing it. I know I mention John Oliver above, but realistically his style is almost certainly too extreme to be replicated in most cases by most people. I agree that Alexander's microhumor is a perfect example of subtle humor that could potentially be employed in almost any context.

I agree - I personally really appreciate humor on the EA Form. Also, EA is generally not cold and calculating, it is "warm and calculating."

Thanks for sharing this post, I absolutely agree. Hopefully critics of EA can come to see the genuinely warm-hearted motivations that I think most EAs have.

Big ask. Humour is incredibly difficult.

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