Carl Shulman

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Within the effective altruist and rationalist communities, Shulman is generally admired for the depth and breadth of his knowledge, and the significance and originality of his insights. He has made pioneering contributions

This passage makes me wonder how the EA wiki plans to handle things like how neutral a tone to aim for. I feel like those sentences wouldn't fly on Wikipedia as currently phrased; it might sound too might like Wikipedia itself giving subjective opinions. Maybe this sort of tone is appropriate for the EA wiki anyway? And/or maybe it'll be naturally fixed as sources are added and these views are attributed to them? But there should probably be guidance on that sort of thing.

We are in the process of publishing a style guide to address these and many other issues of this sort. In the current version of the guide, we require a neutral tone typical of reference works like Wikipedia. With that said, I'm not sure the above passage violates this neutrality requirement. It does seem to accurately characterize the esteem in which Carl Shulman is held by members of those communities, and the reasons behind that esteem. Perhaps the main argument for objecting to it is that it may be in tension with the "Prefer nonjudgmental language" principle? Feel free to revise the passage if you still feel it's insufficiently neutral.

It seems to me that there are two main reasons why the above passage would violate Wikipedia's policies/norms.

First, the passage doesn't merely say "Within the effective altruist and rationalist communities, Shulman is widely perceived to have an impressive depth and breadth of knowledge and to have had a string of significant and original insights." 

Instead, it says he is admired for "the depth and breadth of his knowledge, and the significance and originality of his insight". I.e., the passage seems to be endorsing these opinions as objective truths or as EA Wiki's own opinion (and also noting that the EA and rationalist communities admire Shulman as a result of these things). 

Wikipedia says: 

Avoid stating opinions as facts. Usually, articles will contain information about the significant opinions that have been expressed about their subjects. However, these opinions should not be stated in Wikipedia's voice. Rather, they should be attributed in the text to particular sources, or where justified, described as widespread views, etc. For example, an article should not state that "genocide is an evil action", but it may state that "genocide has been described by John So-and-so as the epitome of human evil."

An alternative to the rephrasing I suggested above ("...widely perceived to...") would be to replace this sentence with a quote capturing a similar view of Shulman

Another alternative would be to replace it with a set of specific, objective facts that would lead many to the opinion that the sentence currently endorses. 

Second, Wikipedia's passage on "peacock terms" (e.g., "acclaimed") states: 

Words such as these are often used without attribution to promote the subject of an article, while neither imparting nor plainly summarizing verifiable information. They are known as "peacock terms" by Wikipedia contributors.[2] Instead of making unprovable proclamations about a subject's importance, use facts and attribution to demonstrate that importance.

I think "pioneering" is a good example of a peacock term. I think it would be good to replace it with something that's more clearly just reporting some other person/org's opinion (perhaps ideally via a quote), or replace it with objective facts that speak for themselves, or to just cut the word (since the entry already has some objective facts that speak to this point). 

A related framing of what I'm saying is that I think cutting the term "pioneering" wouldn't really cut the information conveyed here, except inasmuch as it cuts the writer's overall subjective assessment, and Wikipedia articles aren't meant to convey the writer's overall subjective assessment. (Maybe you want a different policy/norm for EA Wiki - I'm not necessarily opposed to that, I'm just highlighting that that would be a difference from Wikipedia.)

(I think similar can be said - though a bit less clearly - for "depth and breath of his knowledge" and "significance and originality of his insights". They sort-of convey information, but in a way that I think sounds sort-of promotional or that also implies the writer's subjective assessment via the connotations.)

Also, I feel like we might have to be more careful about this sort of thing that Wikipedia (at least if we want to end up with a similar policy/norm being stuck to, and outsiders perceiving us as having that norm). This is because EA is a relatively small and closely interconnected community that is fairly united by a (type of) mission and worldview that differs from most of the rest of the world. So there'll be an unusual number of cases in which the editor of an entry knows the subject personally, has been involved with them, thinks their work or this concept is one of the most important things in the world, etc.

Concepts and ideas original to him include iterated embryo selection, hedonium, donor lotteries, and others.

Gwern suggests that Shulman independently came up with iterated embryo selection, but that an essentially identical idea already existed.

I know very little about the history of the idea of hedonium, but I'd be surprised if Shulman's idea was clearly, starkly different from previous ideas, so "original to him" may be a bit strong there too. I.e., it may be more like coining a new term and sharpening an existing idea. (Though I could be wrong.)

On hedonium, I think what is original to him is not just the idea of an arrangement of resources optimal for the production of positive hedonic experience, but this in combination with the claim that for hedonistic utilitarians actions are right approximately to the degree that they increase the probability of such an outcome (subject to various qualifications, of course). Again, I was hoping to discuss this in the main article; we could remove that entire sentence if you think it's too problematic, and wait until those articles are written to decide on the proper wording.

I think that that claim is quite distinct from the idea of hedonium itself. Analogously, I would not want to say that Bentham originated the idea of net wellbeing among conscious beings, simply due to him having originated the idea of utilitarianism. 

Though of course utilitarianism itself is a very significant idea, and the claim you mention is a significant idea as well. So this isn't meant to diminish Shulman's contribution, but rather to highlight that the current sentence's phrasing then seems to be making the wrong claim?

Unless you also think it's approximately fair to say that Shulman originated the idea of hedonium itself? That could be true - I haven't looked into it - though I doubt it on priors. (But if you say "originated or independently developed", then this claim seems more likely.)

Perhaps you could say:

Concepts and ideas original to him include [...] the idea that the primary determinant of the moral value of actions for hedonistic utilitarians may be those action's impact on the probability of hedonium [...]

Or just:

Concepts and ideas original to him include [...] the ethical significance of hedonium [...]


Concepts and ideas original to him include [...] hedonium and its ethical significance [...]

Yeah, I checked Gwern's article before writing that sentence and thought it was accurate, since claiming the idea is original to Shulman is compatible with it having being independently invented by other people. Though on reflection, I think that's only true for some senses of 'original'. My plan was to clarify this point in the IES article, though we could also revise the sentence along the lines of

Concepts and ideas original to him include iterated embryo selection (though independently invented by others), hedonium, donor lotteries, and others.

We could also split it into separate sentences, like this:

Concepts and ideas original to him include hedonium, donor lotteries, and others. He also came up with the concept of iterated embryo selection, though the idea was independently invented multiple times.

Though on reflection, I think that's only true for some senses of 'original'.

Yeah, I think how I'd normally interpret "original" isn't consistent with "independently invented (though it already existed)", though I now do realise that you're right that some senses of the term are consistent with that.

I'd suggest something like your split up version, or something like one of these two sentences:

Concepts and ideas original to him include hedonium and donor lotteries. He also independently developed the concept of iterated embryo selection (though the idea had also been developed by someone else previously).


Concepts and ideas he originated or independently developed include hedonium, donor lotteries, and iterated embryo selection.

(My sentences cut "and others", because I realised that you don't need to add that if you say "include". This isn't very important, but also seems in line with avoiding making this entry sound mildly promotional.)