75Joined May 2020


This comment is not intended to detract from the work that WANBAM has done (it's partly premised on the assumption that their mentoring work has likely been valuable to the individual people receiving mentorship): what would your views be about funding an EA mentoring program that was open to male EAs?

The case for such an initiative being extremely valuable seems very strong on the face of it. This is based on the assumption that mentoring is very valuable to individuals (this may have collective benefits if it makes them more impactful) and that there are many people who would benefit from mentoring and can't access it who are men. Both of those assumptions seem uncontroversially true. I would not be surprised if extending mentoring to more EAs paid for itself several times over and the Meta Fund does not seem particularly funding constrained. Adjudicating how this compares to other initiatives would depend on more controversial questions, especially if mentoring time is a scarce resource which can only be allocated to a somewhat fixed number of individuals, but it seems worth reflecting about.

One reason why this seems worth discussing explicitly is that I think that many people would be afraid to pitch a mentoring scheme that was open to men given that WANBAM exists (as I am somewhat afraid to make this comment) in case anyone infers any nefarious motivation behind it.

I think it's important to consider the general principles in question even if the particular instrumental claim 'defending accused witches doesn't do as much good, as you would in expectation be prevented from doing via your work on slavery if you defended accused witches.'

This seems to imply some general principles which don't seem that attractive, i.e. "Don't speak out against/defend against/protest one injustice if you think it will get in the way of working on injustices you care about more.'

This seems like the kind of violation of commonsense morality in the name of utilitarian instrumental goals that the EA community generally warns against. (I also worry that this specific violation of normal moral obligations like 'defend the innocent' 'speak the truth', makes it more likely that people will generally violate such norms in pursuit of their utilitarian goals).

This stance also seems quite shaky, since it seems like we would not generally support such reasoning if the cases were changed just a little bit e.g.:

"We should not speak out against slavery, because it would get in the way of our important anti-poverty work."

"We should not defend or associate with controversial _racial justice activists_, because it will reduce our other EA work."

This also seems bad from a reciprocity standpoint i.e. if slavery activists don't defend or associate with witch defenders, then witch defenders, by the same token may not defend or associate with slavery activists (and so on for other controversial groups). These reciprocity considerations might apply either directly and instrumentally or indirectly via defending the general norm.

Your position also seems even more extreme than how I described it above at points, i.e. "it seems much better for most people in the community to watch what they say in public somewhat, _be careful with their public associations_, and _minimize public contact with any associations that could be seen as potentially problematic_." This goes beyond merely not publicly defending groups. Add "minimiz[ing] public contact" with the groups I gave as examples above and this position seems even more problematic.

That said I think one part of your somewhat concessive, but somewhat ambiguous final paragraph is potentially true:

Individuals can do so... but doing so as a group is a dangerous correlated risk to the movement.

I think it's good to grant that individuals can stand up for accused individuals. I still think that a statement warning off EAs "as a group" is potentially problematic, because this could mean "It's OK for a small number of EAs to do this but not too many", which seems as objectionable as "It's OK for a small number of EAs to publicly oppose slavery, but not too many." But if "as a group" meant "The EA community shouldn't make official public statements as a whole on the political debates of the day or on other controversial issues, and nor should official EA orgs' (which I don't think was your intended meaning), then I would agree with this principle.

My interpretation is that the essay aims to provide a sketch of what should be covered in an education, e.g. p7: 'In order to provide some structure to such an enterprise, a schema of seven big areas and some material is sketched'. I think it is a poor sketch.

I note that you've switched from suggesting that the essay is supposed to give a comprehensive account of "most important economic and political priorities" to suggesting this is supposed to give "a sketch of what should be covered in an education", but I think this is a better characterization of the point of the essay so that's fine.

However, I think it's only plausible to think that the essay is aiming to sketch some necessary prerequisites of an education, not as claiming that the contents are sufficient for or fully exhaustive of a good education. Complaining that he hasn't discussed certain topics (in enough depth) seems an unreasonable complaint: of course, no single essay is going to describe every topic that should be in an education.

As an aside, I think it's somewhat perverse given that the majority of educations almost completely fail to address topics like probability, forecasting, overcoming bias, decision-making about risk (the topics which Cummings highlights and EAs are rightly concerned about) and yet the response is to single out this essay to complain that it doesn't egage with topics like climate change (which it actually does).

In the review I mention that his digressions into neurons and processing power draws false conclusions.

Yes, in my original comments I highlighted your claim that "he draws false equivalences between the count of neurons in a brain and the processing power of computers, when this field still has many deep uncertainties" because that was the only point where I could find you actually disagreeing with something specific in the essay. Having reviewed every mention of "neuron" in the text, I'm not sure that this does actually lead to any "false conclusion." But that aside, as I noted in my original comment, this putative "false equivalence" in a field with "deep uncertainties" concerning a side point that he goes into doesn't seem like much of an objection to the essay as a whole.

It is true that he briefly discusses voting in a section on decision-making and in an endnote, but a discussion of voting and democracy is absent from the section I was expecting it, ' 7. Political economy, philosophy, and avoiding catastrophes.', and I cannot see it covered elsewhere in the piece.

I think this falls under my general response that you can't reasonably criticize the (already hugely long, multi-topic spanning) essay for not discussing certain specific topics (that it discusses) more. Much of the piece is arguably about improving democratic institutions (through discussions of better thinking about risk, probability, forecasting and complex systems), so just saying that it could have discussed voting more in a specific section seems an unreasonable demand.

Thanks for your reply!

1. I don't think this is the right standard (or a fair standard) for a few reasons.

1a. I don't recall Cummings claiming that this was a _comprehensive_ description of the "most important economic and political priorities." But it's been a while since I read the essay, perhaps you can correct me.

1b. Even if this essay was presented as a description of the top economic and political priorities, it's always trivially easy to think of _some_ potentially highly important issue that wasn't discussed. I think it's a bad idea to dismiss an article on that basis. One could easily think of multiple potentially huge global issues that aren't discussed at any length in _Doing Good Better_ for example. As such this seems like an unrealistic standard.

1c. This strikes me as an asymmetric demand for rigor. If someone wrote an article or blog post discussing their personal thoughts on how climate change, poverty, various forms of discrimination are all inter-linked as top priorities, I think it would be churlish and inappropriate to respond that this didn't discuss (at sufficient length for your liking) technological risks or democratic reform or whatever.

2. Maybe he does, perhaps especially in one of the various digressions he goes into where he just starts talking about Quantum Computing or Set Theory or whatever. But I didn't see anything particular in the review to suggest that he does. Per my original comment, it seems to me that you mostly just observe that he hasn't discussed certain topics.

3. I think you presenting an argument for this would be worthwhile. Notably, he _does_ discuss democratic and democratic institutions at numerous points throughout the essay, so I think this would require engaging in more detail with the substance of his arguments.

I didn't find this review very helpful. Hopefully I'll be able to explain why and hopefully people will read Cummings's essay for themselves.

As you note, this is not (straightforwardly) an essay about education. It's a wide-ranging discussion of his views on a handful of core themes, and a series of disconnected thoughts on many topics. You might think these are vices in an essay, but I think it's only fair to evaluate the essay in terms of what it's actually trying to do.

As far as I can tell, it's not trying to be a comprehensive political manifesto, but most of your criticisms seem to simply be objecting that he's not talking about things you'd like him to talk about (or just not talking about them as much as you'd like):

- "One of the great failings of the piece is his failure to engage with climate change (while space exploration gets three full pages)."

- "Yet carbon emissions get very little airtime in his discussion of energy systems, and the impacts of climate change (heatwaves, floods, food shortages, and others) are not discussed at any point in the 235-page essay."

- "There's no discussion of the societal impact of advancing technologies... There's nothing on how algorithms are interacting with our social structures, locking in biases, and systematically discriminating against women. Cumming's essay has no real discussion of people, or reflection on lived experiences."

- "Notably vacant from Cummings' essay is any discussion of political representation, democracy, or even voting systems, which are in desperate need of reform."

You also complain that "Often the text moves on to another topic without linking to the previous one, and without having developed the ideas much further." But this is inevitable given that the essay ranges across an enormous variety of different topics of discussion. It might be frustrating to you as a reader if you didn't want to read a loose collection of Dominic Cummings's personal thoughts about multiple topics, but that's what you signed up for in reading the essay. There's nothing wrong with writing a personal essay which alludes to a wide range of topics without going into depth on most of them.

Notably, practically the only specific concrete criticism of anything in Cummings's essay that I found in your review was concerning one of these many digressions on technical issues of interest to him that he goes into: "he draws false equivalences between the count of neurons in a brain and the processing power of computers, when this field still has many deep uncertainties" which, for one, is a fairly mild objection but also seems only tangential to the main themes (to the extent there are any) of the essay.

I think it would have been more useful if you engaged substantively with some of the arguments Cummings makes and explained specifically where you think he goes wrong. For example, you grant that "[Cummings] agrees that markets can fail, need to be regulated, and that the government plays an important role in fostering innovation." But then you write "even advocates of market approaches, like Harvard academics Iversen and Soskice (2019) argue that successful capitalism has to always be embedded in the institutional features of democratic states" as though this you are pointing out a flaw in Cummings's position. As it stands, if I hadn't read Cummings's essay, I would have virtually no idea from reading your review what his distinctive views are and I barely know what you actually disagree with him about.