Our conference does have an application process. To provide accommodation for participants, travel reimbursement, and events that allow participants to engage with speakers we can only have a limited number of participants. Right now, we seek to maximize the impact that the conference has by selecting participants who are likely to be leaders in the future. We've narrowed down criteria we believe are indicative of becoming future leaders.
That said, I do agree with your point and I worry about our ability to accurately predict who will become a leader in the future. There are many possible paths to becoming a leader in the future, and what you do in college may not reflect well what you'll do in the future. Beyond that, applications are subjective and we likely have a high false negative rate. Some people are better at writing applications, and skill in writing applications doesn't imply (I think) the applicant will be successful in the future.
We've considered doing randomized evaluation, but haven't yet because we don't know of a rigorous way to measure how we did selecting participants that will have an impact in the future. An impact in the future would, by construction, have to be measured years after the conference. We'd have to track randomized applicants and applicants we selected and have a way to measure their impact, which would be challenging if not infeasible. Right now, the best heuristic we have for identifying applicants that will be leaders in the future is by looking at what they're doing now.
The act of having an application also provides self selection for applicants; many people have communicated to us that completing the application is a barrier to entry. The application itself selects for a certain level of interest in the conference (the interest required to complete the application).
We like to believe that this approach is better than random, but we do admit that it may not be.
I see the benefit of cultivating a strong standards within the community, but how does this weigh against the benefits of having a more open community?
Perhaps we can focus on suggesting alternative ways of involvement that work to incorporate individuals who are low income or less consistent in their involvement. It is a balance between doing so and not diluting the community, though.
This sentence in your post caught my attention: " Even if the fraction of suffering decreases, it's not clear whether the absolute amount will be higher or lower."
To me, it seems like suffering should be measured by suffering / population, rather than by the total amount of suffering. The total amount of suffering will grow naturally with the population, and suffering / population seems to give a better indication of the severity of the suffering (a small group suffering a large amount is weighted higher than a large group suffering a small amount, as I intuitively think is correct).
My primarily concern with this (simplistic) method of measuring the severity of suffering is that it ignores the distribution of suffering within a population (i.e there could be a sub population with a large amount of suffering). However, I don't think that's a compelling enough reason to discount working to minimize the fraction of suffering rather than absolute suffering.
Are there compelling arguments for why we should seek to minimize total suffering?
Categorizing quality of life based on personal testimony is a challenging task. The reasons you listed show many specific problems, and more generally, human judgement is fickle and error-prone. For instance, Thinking Fast and Slow claims that we are loss-averse and that we overweight the cost of losing something. I wonder, then, how the responses of perceived quality of life differ between people who were born with particular illnesses (like blindness) and people that suffered from it later in life.
The inherent fallacies in human judgement cause me to wonder if it can ever be a reliable source to quantify the effect of illnesses. At the risk of being hyper-pragmatic, perhaps we should attempt to quantify the effect of illnesses by only considering the degree to which the illness impacts a person's ability to provide useful social function.
Of course, this approach also has many inherent issues. For one, meaningfully quantifying this would be incredibly challenging if not infeasible. It would also likely weight the value of the rich much higher than the value of the poor.
"Making blunt pushes for different policies are likely to be unimpactful on policy or harmful if impactful." I think that this is true in many cases, but is often not considered by activists lobbying for change. It's very easy to protest in favor of an ideal, but asking for an extreme alternative immediately seems naive to people in positions to cause direct change. In my opinion, activists are most effective when they consider the pressures that are preventing change from the current state, and ask for alternatives that are mindful of these pressures.
Great example that we need to take the time to educate ourselves and assume that most of the people making decisions are smart, capable people.