413 karmaJoined Nov 2022


CFAR investigated Brent and stood by him until there was public outcry! 

This says very bad things about the leadership of CFAR, and probably other CFAR staff (to the extent that they either agreed with leadership or failed to push back hard enough, though the latter can be hard to do).

It seems to say good things about the public that did the outcry, which at the time felt to me like "almost everyone outside of CFAR". Everyone* yelled at a venerable and respected org until they stopped doing bad stuff. Is this a negative update against EA/rationality, or a positive one?

*It's entirely possible that there were private whisper networks supporting Brett/attacking his accusers, or even public posts defending him that I missed. But it felt to me like the overwhelming community sentiment was "get Brent the hell out of here".

I should clarify that "particularly bad" should be "unusually bad", and by "unusually" I mean "unusual by the standards of human behavior in other professional/intellectual communities".

If someone writes an article about the murder epidemic in New York City, and someone else points out that the NYC murder rate is not at all unusual by U.S. standards, and that murder tends to be common throughout human society, is that a trivializing thing to say?

You can believe a lot of things at once:

  • Murder is terrible
  • 433 murders is 433 too many
  • Murderers should be removed from society for a long time
  • NYC should strongly consider taking further action aimed at preventing murder
  • The NYC murder rate doesn't point to NYC being more dangerous than other cities
  • People in NYC shouldn't feel especially unsafe
  • People who want to get involved in theater should still consider moving to NYC
  • Some of the actions NYC could take to try preventing murder would likely be helpful
  • Other actions would likely be unhelpful on net, either failing to prevent murder or causing other serious problems
  • Focusing on the murder rate as a top-priority issue would have both good and bad impacts for NYC, and there may be other problems that should be prioritized
  • People who know about murders should strongly consider informing the police, even if they are at risk of retaliation within their communities; this would be very likely to reduce the murder rate
  • And yet, it is highly understandable if people at risk don't want to inform the police about murders, and the police need to be extremely vigilant about protecting informants from retaliation (perhaps more vigilant than they have been...)

I'm in the position of believing many things at once, and I remain unconvinced that EA and rationality are unusually bad communities to be in, if a person seeks community. But I am reading comments and trying to learn, and I think there are plenty of things EA and rationality could do better on this front.

That is very concerning; I've now read several separate accounts of his behavior toward others (friends, devotees, partners, strangers), and together they painted a terrible picture.

I plan on sending a concerned letter to SFF, though I'm not sure I expect it to do much. Others should consider doing the same.

Thanks for this context! 

My understanding is that SFF regranting is pretty separate from the CEA/Open Phil network, since that I don't hear much about them on the Forum or in other EA spaces. But this is still a useful update about SFF* and a corrective to something I said that could have been misleading.

*I don't know anything about Jacy outside that post, and I should acknowledge that it's possible he's apologized and reformed to whatever degree was appropriate and should at some point make his way back to good standing in EA — but I haven't seen positive evidence of that either, so he seemed like a fair example to use.

Thank you for sharing this. I'm angry that you've had these experiences, and I'm grateful you were open to talking about them, even in response to a comment that some found unfriendly.

A lot of the frustration in my initial comment comes from not knowing how to react to things like the Bloomberg article as a mostly-lurker in the community. I don't know whether I'm going to end up chatting or collaborating with someone who makes sexist comments or sends cruel messages to accusers; I wish I knew whose work I could safely share, promote, etc., without contributing to the influence of people who make the community worse.

While a comment like yours doesn't name names, it at least helps me get a better handle on how much energy I want to put into engaging with these communities.* 

*This is a process that takes the form of thousands of small adjustments; no one comment is decisive, but they all help me figure things out.

Following CatGoddess, I'm going to share more detail on parts of the article that seemed misleading, or left out important context. 

Caveat: I'm not an active member of the in-person EA community or the Bay scene. If there's hot gossip circulating, it probably didn't circulate to me. But I read a lot.

This is a long comment, and my last comment was a long comment, because I've been driving myself crazy trying to figure this stuff out. If the community I (digitally) hang out in is full of bad people and their enablers, I want to find a different community! 

But the level of evidence presented in Bloomberg and TIME makes it hard to understand what's actually going on. I'm bothered enough by the weirdness of the epistemic environment that it drove me to stop lurking  :-/

I name Michael Vassar here, even though his name wasn't mentioned in the article. Someone asked me to remove that name the last time I did this, and I complied. But now that I'm seeing the same things repeated in multiple places and used to make misleading points, I no longer think it makes sense to hide info about serial abusers who have been kicked out of the movement, especially when that info is easy to find on other places. I prefer the Thing of Things approach.


Summary of my comments + my conclusions:

  • There are some allegations of sexual assault or misconduct. Bloomberg mentions five, so those are the ones I discuss, though there are doubtless other accusations out there.
  • In at least two cases (assuming Michael Vassar and Brent Dill count), the alleged perpetrators have been officially shunned to the point of being banned from community spaces.
  • I would be unsurprised if some of the other cases show up in this list of stories, some of which end with official bans from EA events or other penalties.
  • In cases outside those categories, it isn't clear what anyone could or should have done, aside from socially shunning the alleged perpetrators. It isn't mentioned whether they had jobs at EA orgs, positions of community leadership, etc.
  • In some cases, it sounds like friends of the alleged perpetrators were jerks to their accusers. I don't have the full story on any of this, but my best guess is that those friends suck and should consider finding other places to hang out. Ostracizing accusers is common enough that I assume my communities have some people who do this common awful thing.
  • The EA and rationality communities have thousands of people in them and have existed for over a decade. Now that there have been two articles focused on us, I'm unconvinced that the actual sum of all these reported incidents points to anything particularly bad, aside from "humans are gonna human". I can think of many other communities that seem to be in much worse shape.


A brief note before we go all TL;DR:

On the subject of whether alleged perpetrators have been fired or defunded: CEA and Open Philanthropy both have anonymous forms you can use to report allegations of sexual misconduct. 

As far as I can tell, both orgs take these seriously, though the ambiguous and worrisome Owen Cotton-Barratt case left me more confident in Open Philanthropy than CEA. For example, it seems like a long time since I've heard of Jacy Reese getting EA funding.

If you've been abused by someone in the EA/rationalist orbit, please consider reporting it!


Detailed comments:

  • Eventually, she began dating an AI researcher in the community. She alleges that he committed sexual misconduct against her, and she filed a report with the San Francisco police.
    • No idea what this refers to, and I hope the police took appropriate action. Would be nice if the article said more about what others in the community knew — who did Joseph talk to about this? Did she actually share a name at the time? Was the researcher employed by an org that chose not to fire him, or funded by someone who continued to do so after hearing about the allegations? What actions could anyone have actually taken?
  • In 2013, Thiel, still a fixture on the edges of the rationalist scene, gave a keynote address at an annual EA summit, hosted at a Bay Area rationalist group house.
    • Thiel is more an opponent than a friend of rationality/EA at this point. I don't think he's funded rat/EA things for many years, and he specifically attacked AI safety as a "Luddite" field in  a recent speech (starting at around 20:45).
  • Although [Jessica Taylor] acknowledged taking psychedelics for therapeutic reasons, she also attributed the delusions to her job’s blurring of nightmare scenarios and real life [...] Several people in Taylor’s sphere had similar psychotic episodes. One died by suicide in 2018 and another in 2021.
    • The circle of people I associate with "jailbreaking" are known as the Zizians, and they, like Thiel, seem like determined opponents of EA/rationality whose "jailbreaking" happened during a process of leaving the rationality community / looking for another way to live.
    • Various EA and rationality orgs are hiring extra event security in case these people show up. They are as isolated from the community as it is possible to be. See this Medium post.
    • It's also worth reading the Scott Alexander comment about this matter (Jessica's post, linked in Bloomberg, is largely a response to that comment).
  • Within the subculture of rationalists, EAs and AI safety researchers, sexual harassment and abuse are distressingly common, according to interviews with eight women at all levels of the community.
    • I believe, and I think the author would agree, that any amount of harassment and abuse would be distressing. This makes it hard to know what the author actually found. 
    • Did the eight women all agree? Did some of them disagree, and not show up in the article as a result? How were the eight women chosen? Was there ever a chance that the reporter would talk to, or quote, someone like Ivy?
  • Bryk, the rationalist-adjacent writer, says a prominent rationalist once told her condescendingly that she was a “5-year-old in a hot 20-year-old’s body.”
  • Joseph says he also argued that it was normal for a 12-year-old girl to have sexual relationships with adult men and that such relationships were a noble way of transferring knowledge to a younger generation. Then, she says, he followed her home and insisted on staying over. She says he slept on the floor of her living room and that she felt unsafe until he left in the morning.
    • This was also Michael Vassar.
    • I know this because of a line from the TIME article:
      • "Another woman, who dated the same man [the one who talked about pedophilia with Joseph] several years earlier in a polyamorous relationship, alleges that he had once attempted to put his penis in her mouth while she was sleeping."
    • Jax talks about other people in public threads, but I think Vassar is the only one whose alleged behavior was illegal physical abuse rather than rudeness or weird vibes.
  • On the extreme end, five women, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because they fear retribution, say men in the community committed sexual assault or misconduct against them [...]  Women who reported sexual abuse, either to the police or community mediators, say they were branded as trouble and ostracized while the men were protected.
    • At least one of these is Vassar (possibly multiple, given how consistent he seems to be).
    • Vassar has been banned from EA events for many years, and SlateStarCodex  meetups for at least a few years.
  • In 2018 two people accused Brent Dill, a rationalist who volunteered and worked for CFAR, of abusing them while they were in relationships with him.
  • Rochelle Shen, a startup founder who used to run a rationalist-adjacent group house, heard the same justification from a woman in the community who mediated a sexual misconduct allegation.
    • This is probably Aurora Quinn-Elmore, a mediator mentioned in the TIME article.
    • Aurora seems to be an independent person who does volunteer mediation for acquaintances. She is not employed by an org to do this. I am not surprised to see that volunteer mediators who mediate accusations against their romantic partners do a poor job of it. I'm not sure how much this says about any part of the EA or rationalist community outside Aurora's circle of acquaintances.
  • [Angela Pang] says she was assaulted by someone in the community who at first acknowledged having done wrong but later denied it. That backpedaling left her feeling doubly violated. “Everyone believed me, but them believing it wasn’t enough,” she says. “You need people who care a lot about abuse.”
    • As with Joseph's story, it's very unclear from this what actions anyone could or should have taken. Is this abuser still in the community? Are they employed or funded by anyone who knows about the allegations?

Per David's comment, I recommend removing this name and the linked spreadsheet.

That's a fair point — I've removed the name and Twitter link.

I've removed the name of the alleged person and the Twitter link as a result of David's comment. I'd recommend you do the same here.

From the article:

Another woman, who dated the same man several years earlier in a polyamorous relationship, alleges that he had once attempted to put his penis in her mouth while she was sleeping.

This rang a bell for me, and I was able to find an old Twitter thread (link removed on David's request) naming the man in question. At least, all the details seem to match.

I'm pretty sure that the man in question (name removed on David's request) has been banned from official EA events for many years. I remember an anecdote about him showing up without a ticket at EAG in the past and being asked to leave. As far as I know, the ban is because he has a long history of harassment with at least some assault mixed in. 

I don't know who introduced him to Sonia Joseph, but if she'd mentioned him to the people I know in EA,  I think the average reaction would have been "oh god, don't". I guess there are still bubbles I'm not a part of where he's seen as a "prominent man in the field", though I haven't heard anything about actual work from him in many years.

Anyway, while it sounds like many people mentioned in this article behaved very badly, it also seems possible that the incidents CEA knew about led to reasonable action from CEA. 

I don't remember a single mention in the article of someone being banned from official events, even though CEA has presumably done this for quite a few people (given that Wise "fielded roughly 20 complaints per year" for seven years). It's surprising to me that the author wouldn't have discovered this practice after talking to Wise.


Anyway, it sounds like many people mentioned in this article did terrible things. I really hope that whatever "influential figure" had an interviewee stay at his home is no longer in a position of responsibility — or that, if the incident was never reported, they can be found and disciplined. And I hope that Aurora Quinn-Elmore, if this depiction of her is accurate, sees her mediation work dry up.

But I sympathize with CEA if the best tools they have, a central database of accusations and control over who gets to attend official events, were left out of the article despite getting regular use.


I've hung around EA for many years, I'm not very active in any in-person EA social scene, but my impression is that the environment has a lot of similarities to the college I attended:

  • Most people there are smart and reasonably kind — at least no worse than people in other places (in EA, I see more people who are conspicuously morally excellent, but it's not clear how much higher the "average" is).
  • There are thousands of people there, which means that some of them do terrible things, anywhere on the spectrum from "creepy conversation" to "assault". 
  • Some types of bad actors are more common at the college than in other spaces — like the ones who try to philosophize their way into someone's pants. Others seem to be less common — like violent rapists or misogynists who claim that their god gave them authority over women.
  • Some of the bad actors stick around because no one reports them. Others are reported and face various consequences. Some of those consequences are mild enough not to remove them from the space (temporary suspension, forced sensitivity training). Others are as severe as the college can pull off (expulsion, firing).
  • But even the severe consequences can't solve the problem if the bad actor is sufficiently determined. Someone can be expelled from college but rent a house on campus. A professor can leave the city but invite former students to sleep with them elsewhere with promises of knowledge or networking.

My college didn't handle every situation well, and a few were handled quite badly.* But it would seem weird to describe the college as having a "toxic culture of sexual harassment and abuse". In the end, it was a space like other spaces, trying to manage bad actors despite limited power to punish them or to manage the surrounding social dynamics (people will gossip and take sides anywhere you go). 

I wouldn't tell someone to stay away from my college because of the bad actors there, and I wouldn't tell someone to avoid EA. There's a huge amount of good in both places.

* The comparison falters here. I can't say for sure that CEA handled any specific situation badly, because I know less about EA stuff than I did the stuff at my college.

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