Aaron Gertler

17294San Diego, CA, USAJoined Oct 2014

Bio

I ran the Forum for three years. I'm no longer an active moderator, but I still provide advice to the team in some cases.

I'm a Communications Officer at Open Philanthropy. Before that, I worked at CEA, on the Forum and other projects. I also started Yale's student EA group, and I spend a few hours a month advising a small, un-Googleable private foundation that makes EA-adjacent donations.

Outside of EA, I play Magic: the Gathering on a semi-professional level and donate half my winnings (more than $50k in 2020) to charity.

Before my first job in EA, I was a tutor, a freelance writer, a tech support agent, and a music journalist. I blog, and keep a public list of my donations, at aarongertler.net.

Sequences
9

Part 7: What Might We Be Missing?
Part 8: Putting it into Practice
Part 6: Emerging Technologies
Part 5: Existential Risk
Part 4: Longtermism
Part 3: Expanding Our Compassion
Part 2: Differences in Impact
Part 1: The Effectiveness Mindset
The Motivation Series

Comments
1821

Topic Contributions
270

I really don't know, and I wish people wouldn't do that. It's a reasonable question. 

I strong-upvoted to balance things out.

The year I founded Yale EA, our group met with Dean (who taught there at the time) to get ideas for what we might work on. So he's been aware of EA for a long time. 

(He was also a grader for my undergraduate thesis, which was explicitly influenced by EA.)

He's not really involved in the community that I know of. But in a more important sense, his entire life has been spent practicing EA, and I'm excited to see what he does in his new position!

When did he say that? I just looked at his main comment and didn't see anything like this, though I could be missing something obvious.

I don't know whether my explanation will actually hold up! Haven't had the chance to test it.

But if you use it anywhere, let me know how it goes :-)

I will not defend this decision to them, regardless of what the economic calculus around conferences/event costs says. 

What do you think would happen if you responded to a friend's question with something like this?

"Yes, they purchased this property as a way to save money on event hosting + lodging for attendees. They host a ton of people for events each year, so they think the space will pay for itself over time. It's also an asset that can be held long-term, instead of money going down the drain on rental costs. A lot of large organizations own centers like this to host events. 

"Zero public donations went into this — it was bought with a grant specifically for this project."

You're obviously under no obligation to spend time/energy doing this kind of thing! But I'm curious how you think the people messaging you would react. 

(I've had a lot of conversations with my parents over the years about weird EA things, and I find that it's good practice for my other comms work.)

*****

I agree that large purchases can be spun in embarrassing ways, but I'm not sure how orgs are meant to respond to this. Does the risk of bad press mean that no one in EA can purchase a building over a certain price, and buildings should be rented instead? Or that buildings can be purchased, but they have to be bland newer buildings instead of fancy-looking older buildings?

I'm a big fan of communicating more clearly about decisions like this, especially when there's PR risk inherent to the project. But I'm very wary of PR concerns stopping people from making sound decisions about infrastructure.

*****

Also, the "I will not defend this decision to them" point could extend to things like e.g. spending any amount of money on AI alignment, which is also weird and embarrassing to talk about. 

No one is obligated to defend AI work, either — I'd be happy to have thousands of people just advocating for malaria funding in their spare time! — but I don't like when people argue that AI alignment is bad for the EA brand and should thus be deemphasized (I've been seeing a lot of this lately in the media).

I think that the existence of a page would mollify maybe 10% of the people who liked Torres' post, and it also runs the risk of sparking additional attention (maybe drawing in people to attack EV for running so many events or providing material for people to quote-tweet derisively).

I believe in reasoning transparency and try to write up my own decisions in a lot of detail. I think this is a good thing to do for the sake of the people who like and care about your work. But I don't expect it to help much with motivated critics or the general public.

(One counterpoint: If anyone from the general public cares about long explanatory writeups on the economics of buying an abbey, I'd expect those people to be the types most likely to become interested in EA. But those are also the people I'd expect to not be engaging with Torres, so I don't know how big the effect is.)

(Written in a personal capacity, unrelated to my job)

I agree with some of this, but not the last sentence. 

Emile's audience is very different from CEA's audience (or the audience of anyone in EA). Many people will "find out" things from them, regardless of how EA orgs share information.

I also think they would have written exactly the same Twitter thread regardless of what was shared, for exactly the same audience (people who follow them specifically to see exaggerated takedowns of EA-related things). A public post about the Abbey probably kicks off that thread earlier, but I don't think it changes the content.

In general, thinking about what Torres will say is of limited use, because they tend to show everything in the worst possible light (often lying in order to do so).

(I'm a moderator, but I'm speaking personally here.)

These all are in the same reference class in my mind.

Like you, I see "sociopath" as lossier than the others, but I think I care less about brevity (vs. precision) than you do. 

Brevity is crucial in cases where the same thing is discussed repeatedly, but I think people are different enough that we lose a lot by rounding off to terms like "sociopath".

I also think it helps w/community legibility to share details on behavior. "Don't engage with X, they have a personality disorder" tells me nothing if I have no context. "Don't engage with X, they have bad intentions and lie frequently [insert links]" tells me something.

And if I know that X is a bad actor already, and I have context on their habitual lying, comments like "X is a binge drinker" still add nothing (and worsen the overall tone/quality of discourse).

By observing their behavior over the course of a few years, and e.g. seeing whether they have used anti-psychotic medication in the past, I come to the conclusion that it's the case that there are some periods in which interfacing with Torres will reliably go bad, and in which their behavior will be erratic, and some other periods in which they will probably be pretty sane. 

I can imagine this being valuable sometimes, and I appreciate the general point. I also liked the LW example — seems like you were being a good moderator there! (It helps that at least one of the people you messaged was open about their condition.)

To add my own example: I read a lot of Freddie Deboer, and he's been very open about his struggles with bipolar disorder. If Freddie suddenly made a bunch of weird comments on the Forum, I might reach out to him the same way you did to your users.

*****

But I think watching someone this closely is only merited if there's an important reason to engage with them. This applies in the case of the LW users you mention (I assume you saw them as valuable contributors to the LW community). I also think it applies to someone like Donald Trump, who had so much power and influence that it made sense for psychologists to speculate about his condition. (Same goes for all U.S. presidents.)

I don't think Torres is a valuable contributor or a figure of towering influence. To the extent that we care about their behavior, it's about their arguments (and how others receive them). And the best way to address their arguments is by (a) presenting facts, and (b) cataloguing their long history of dishonesty.

*****

I also don't want to lose sight of the various negative things that come along with psychologizing, which trade off against brevity and predictive value:

  • It opens up space for insults and ad hominem attacks. 
  • It distracts from discussion of ideas and arguments (e.g. when "has a personality disorder" replaces "consistently lies and makes bad-faith arguments").
  • It's a turn-off to readers. 
    • If someone visits the Forum, sees speculation on the mental conditions of the community's critics, and finds that deeply unappealing... that's the kind of user I want to attract.
      • However, I also want the kinds of users that are drawn to thoughtful discussions of Forum norms. So I appreciate Habryka's comment!
    • I care about politeness and friendliness because I see them as  ways to keep our focus on ideas rather than people.

I'm highly dubious of this case.

What does "personality disorder" tell you that "habitual liar with a grudge" doesn't?

What does "sociopath" tell you that "habitual liar who casually exploits other people" doesn't? (Or "un-lawful oathbreaker"?) 

What prediction would you make about Torres based on psychologizing that you wouldn't be able to make using the information that led you to psychologize in the first place?

Thanks for pointing this out — as an FYI, you can DM me about any problems with the OP website. I'll look into the bug (and make sure we improve the error message, yikes).

Update: Now fixed!

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