David_Moss

I am the Principal Research Manager at Rethink Priorities working on, among other things, the EA Survey, Local Groups Survey, and a number of studies on moral psychology, focusing on animal, population ethics and moral weights.

In my academic work, I'm a Research Fellow working on a project on 'epistemic insight' (mixing philosophy, empirical study and policy work) and moral psychology studies, mostly concerned either with effective altruism or metaethics.

I've previously worked for Charity Science in a number of roles and was formerly a trustee of EA London.

Comments

Some quick notes on "effective altruism"

I personally think the EA community could plausibly grow 1000-fold compared to its current size, i.e. to 2 million people, which would correspond to ~0.1% of the Western population. I think EA is unlikely to be able to attract >1% of the (Western and non-Western) population primarily because understanding EA ideas (and being into them) typically requires a scientific and prosocial/altruistic mindset, advanced education, and the right age (no younger than ~16, not old enough to be too busy with lots of other life goals). Trying to attract >1% of the population would in my view likely lead to a harmful dilution of the EA community.

 

While we're empirically investigating things, it seems like what proportion of the population seem like they could potentially be aligned with EA, might also be a high priority thing to investigate. 

The Long-Term Future Fund has room for more funding, right now

I wonder whether this alters the calculus for whether to give to donor lotteries (as opposed to EA Funds)? 

Four months ago,  it seemed like donating to the donor lottery was being recommended as a kind of default (unless the donor had a particularly cool and unusual idea for where to donate). I speculated that it might be better for a lot of donors to just donate to the Funds, resulting in the money being allocated by the fund managers rather than whoever won the lottery[^1]. It seemed at the time that the response was fairly sanguine about the possibility that individual donors (e.g. lottery winners) might make better allocations than the fund managers. 

If we thought that the EA Funds are quite well-funded relative to the potential projects available to fund, we might be more inclined to think this is true (since the lottery winner can, in theory, seek out more promising opportunities). If, however, EA Funds are relatively under-funded, and can't fund many promising opportunities available to them, then it might seem better to just encourage people to donate to the funds by default (unless, perhaps, they are particularly confident that they or others could beat the fund managers with more time to reflect).

One might argue that it would be better for people to donate to the lottery even when the Funds are very underfunded, because whoever the winner is can make a judicious decision (potentially advised by the Fund managers) about whether they should just donate to the Funds or not. As I noted at the time, I'm a little worried that lottery winners might be biased against just donating their winnings back to the Fund. And, more generally, one might wonder about why the lottery winner would be expected to make a better decision about that question than the fund managers themselves. There may also be other advantages to people donating directly to the funds if they are under-funded (e.g. perhaps grants can be made more quickly via people donating directly to the funds, than via the lottery winner conducting their own investigations and possibly choosing to donate to the funds, or perhaps funding decisions can be made more reliably, if the funds have a more predictable amount of money coming in, rather than a large pool of money possibly going to them, possibly being donated to projects they would recommend and possibly being donated elsewhere), but of course I don't know about whether any of those practical details hold.

 

[^1]

Though to be clear I also speculated that it could be better for people to make individual donation decisions, rather than to donate to the lottery, if this lead to more investigation, experimentation and knowledge generation from a larger number of more engaged individuals.

Is laziness immoral?

It seems like the core issue here is that even though in a certain sense it would be good if any time you were sitting not doing anything, you were instead going off to improve the world in some way, in practice, endeavouring to do this would not be possible and/or would be counterproductive. For one thing, you need rest, so if you were to always (or just too often) try to do something productive rather than sitting around, you'd eventually fail/become less productive overall. More generally, it seems like, in the long run, you may well do more good by focusing on the highest important things (e.g. college work and your long-term career), rather than spending all available time now on direct impact.

Even more generally, it seems like the approach of worrying about whether, at each specific moment, you could be doing a higher priority thing, is stressing you out to a clearly counter-productive extent (i.e. you explicitly note that worrying about this is making you less likely to do anything productive). If so the best thing to do from a utilitarian perspective is not to try to calculate what the best thing to do in each given moment is and try to do it, but to take a more meta- approach of working out what kind of strategy will work to maximise the utility you produce in the long-run (see discussion of two-level utilitarianism). People face analogous issues in the context of deciding how to spend money rather than time: many aiming for a high level of frugality find that trying to work out for every small purchase whether it's utility-maximising (even allowing considerations like "If I don't buy myself an ice cream on this occasion, I will go mad with unhappiness in the long run, so I will buy the ice cream") is too stressful for them to maintain in the long run, so they establish a more fixed rule that they will donate X, and everything left over they can just spend however they like.

Why Hasn't Effective Altruism Grown Since 2015?

DM: While I've no doubt that many of the groups that have been founded by people who joined since 2015*, I suspect that even if we cut those people out of the data, we'd still see an increase in the number of local groups over that time frame- so we can't infer that EA is continuing to grow based on increase in local group numbers.

BW: It sounds like maybe when you say "we can't infer that EA is continuing to grow based on increase in local group numbers" you mean "part of the growth might be explained by things other than what would be measured by a change in number of groups"? (Or possibly "increasing group numbers is evidence of growth since 2015, but not necessarily evidence of growth since, say, 2019"?)

 

I meant something closer to: 'we can't infer Y from X, because we'd still expect to observe X even if ¬Y.'

My impression is still that we have been somewhat talking past each other, in the way I described in the second paragraph of my previous comment. My core claim is that we should not look at the number of new EA groups as a proxy for growth in EA, since many new groups will just be a delayed result of earlier growth in EA, (as it happens I agree that EA has grown since 2015, but we'd see many new EA groups even if it hadn't). Whereas, if I understand it, your claim seems to be that as we know that at least some of the new groups were founded by new people to EA,  we know that there has been some new EA growth.

Some quick notes on "effective altruism"

Empirical research on people's responses to the term (and alternative terms) certainly seems valuable, and important to do before any potential rebrand.

Anecdotally, I find that people hate reference to "priorities" or "prioritising" as much or more than they hate "effective altruism." Referring to specific "global priorities" quite overtly implies that other things are not priorities. And terminology aside, I find that many people outright oppose "prioritisation" in the field of philanthropic or pro-social endeavours for roughly this reason: it's rude/inappropriate to imply that certain good things that people care about are more important than others. (The use of the word "global" just makes this even worse: this implies that you don't even just think that they are local or otherwise particular priorities, but rather that they are the priorities for everyone!)

Why Hasn't Effective Altruism Grown Since 2015?

I'm not sure where you are disagreeing, because I agree that many people founding groups since 2015 will in fact have joined the movement later than 2015. Indeed, as I show  in the first graph in the comment you're replying to, newer cohorts of EA are much larger than previous cohorts, and as a result most people (>60%) in the movement (or at least the EA Survey sample[^1]) by 2019 are people who joined post-2015. Fwiw, this seems like more direct evidence of growth in EA since 2015 than any of the other metrics (although concern about attrition mean that it's not straightforward evidence that the total size of the movement has been growing, merely that we've been recruiting many additional people since 2015).

My objection is that pointing to the continued growth in number of EA groups isn't good evidence of continued growth in the movement since 2015 due to lagginess (groups being founded by people who joined the movement in years previous). It sounds like your objection is that since we also  know that some of the groups are university groups (albeit a slight minority) and university groups are probably mostly founded by undergraduates, we know that at least some of the groups founded since 2015 were likely founded by people who got into EA after 2015. I agree this is true, but think we still shouldn't point to the growth in number of new groups as a sign of growth in the movement because it's a noisy proxy for growth in EA, picking up a lot of growth from previous years. (If we move to pointing to separate evidence that some of the people who founded EA groups probably got into EA only post 2015, then we may as well just point to the direct evidence that the majority of EAs got into EA post-2015!)

[^1]: I don't take this caveat to undermine the point very much because, if anything I would expect the EA Survey sample to under-represent newer, less engaged EAs and over-represent EAs who have been involved longer.

Why Hasn't Effective Altruism Grown Since 2015?

I think this applies to growth in local groups particularly well. As I argued in this comment above, local groups seem like a particularly laggy metric due to people usually starting local groups after at least a couple of years in EA. While I've no doubt that many of the groups that have been founded by people who joined since 2015*, I suspect that even if we cut those people out of the data, we'd still see an increase in the number of local groups over that time frame- so we can't infer that EA is continuing to grow based on increase in local group numbers.

*Indeed, we should expect this because most people currently in the EA community (at least as measured by the EA Survey) are people who joined since 2015. In each EA survey, the most recent cohorts are almost always much larger than earlier cohorts (with the exception of the most recent cohort of each survey since these are run before some EAs from that year will have had a chance to join). See this graph which I previously shared, from 2019 data, for example:

(Of course, this offers, at best, an upper bound on growth in the EA movement, since earlier cohorts will likely have had more attrition).

 

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do you think it's likely that there are about as many group members as before, spread across more groups? Or maybe there are more group members, but the same number of total people engaged in EA, with a higher % of people in groups than before?

There's definitely been a very dramatic increase in the percentage of EAs who are involved in local groups (at least within the EA Survey sample) since 2015 (the earliest year we have data for).

In EAS 2019 this was even higher (~43%) and in EAS 2020 it was higher still (almost 50%).

So higher numbers of local group members could be explained by increasing levels of engagement (group membership) among existing EAs. (One might worry, of course, that the increase in percentage is due to selective attrition, but the absolute numbers are higher than 2015 as well.)

Unfortunately we don't have good data on the number of local group members, because the measures in the Groups Survey were changed between 2019-2020. On the one measure which I was able to keep the same (total number of people engaged by groups) there was a large decline 2019-2020, but this is probably pandemic-related.
 

Responses and Testimonies on EA Growth

David Moss shares this chart saying "I fear that most of these metrics aren't measures of EA growth, so much as of reaping the rewards of earlier years' growth...  looking at years in EA and self-reported level of engagement, we can see that it appears to take some years for people to become highly engaged".

I have a different interpretation, which is that less engaged people are much more likely to churn out of the movement entirely and won't show up in this data.

Thanks for quoting me, though you cut out the bit where I say:

we can see that it appears to take some years for people to become highly engaged.  (Although, of course, this is complicated by potential attrition, i.e. people who aren't engaged dropping out of earlier cohorts. We'll talk more about this in this year's series). 

That said, while differential attrition is a serious problem (particularly in the earlier cohorts), I think it remains clear that people typically take some years to become highly engaged. Clearly very, very few people are highly engaged in their first year or so of EA involvement (only about 5%, or 10 people were highly engaged from the 2019 cohort in 2019). If EA were gaining highly engaged EAs only at that rate, (with the percentage of engaged EAs increasing only due to less engaged EAs dropping out) we'd be in a very poor state, gaining only a handful of engaged EAs per year. It also doesn't accord with the raw numbers of highly engaged EAs in each of the cohorts: there were 3x as many highly engaged EAs in the 2018 cohort as the 2019, twice as many highly engaged EAs in the 2017 cohort as the 2018 cohort and about 30% more in 2016 as in 2017. And total cohort size hadn't been decreasing dramatically over time time frame either. So it seems more natural to conclude that EAs are slowly increasing in engagement. As I say, we'll go into this in more detail in this year's series though.

Why Hasn't Effective Altruism Grown Since 2015?

One other thing to bear in mind about growth in groups is that, as I discussed in my reply to Aaron, this metric may be measuring the fruits of earlier growth more than current growth in the movement. My impression that many groups are founded by people who are not themselves new to EA, so if you get people into the movement in year X, you would expect to see groups being founded some years after they join. This lag may give the false reassurance than the movement is still growing when really it's just coasting on past successes.

Why Hasn't Effective Altruism Grown Since 2015?

An "estimate of the number of groups including outside of the survey sample" wouldn't quite make sense here, because I think we have good grounds to think that we (including CEA) know of the overwhelming majority of groups that exist(ed in 2020) and know that we captured >90% of the groups that exist.  

For earlier years it's a bit more speculative, what we can do there is something like what I mentioned in my reply to habryka comparing numbers across cohorts across year to get a sense of whether numbers actually seem to be growing or whether people from the 2019 survey are just dropping out.

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