Researcher (on bio) at FHI


Avoiding Munich's Mistakes: Advice for CEA and Local Groups

I agree with this in the abstract, but for the specifics of this particular case, do you in fact think that online mobs / cancel culture / groups who show up to protest your event without warning should be engaged with on a good faith assumption? I struggle to imagine any of these groups accepting anything other than full concession to their demands, such that you're stuck with the BATNA regardless.

I think so. 

In the abstract, 'negotiating via ultimatum' (e.g. "you must cancel the talk, or I will do this") does not mean one is acting in bad faith. Alice may foresee there is no bargaining frontier, but is informing you what your BATNA looks like and gives you the opportunity to consider whether 'giving in' is nonetheless better for you (this may not be very 'nice', but it isn't 'blackmail'). A lot turns on whether her 'or else' is plausibly recommended by the lights of her interests (e.g. she would do these things if we had already held the event/she believed our pre-commitment to do so) or she is threatening spiteful actions where their primary value is her hope they alter our behaviour (e.g. she would at least privately wish she didn't have to 'follow through' if we defied her). 

The reason these are important to distinguish is 'folk game theory' gives a pro tanto reason to not give in the latter case, even if doing so is better than suffering the consequences (as you deter future attempts to coerce you). But not in the former one, as Alice's motivation to retaliate does not rely on the chance you may acquiesce to her threats, and so she will not 'go away' after you've credibly demonstrated to her you will never do this. 

On the particular case I think some of it was plausibly bad faith (i.e. if a major driver was 'fleet in being' threat that people would antisocially disrupt the event) but a lot of it probably wasn't: "People badmouthing/thinking less of us for doing this" or (as Habryka put it) the 'very explicit threat' of an organisation removing their affiliation from EA Munich are all credibly/probably good faith warnings even if the only way to avoid them would have been complete concession. (There are lots of potential reasons I would threaten to stop associating with someone or something where the only way for me to relent is their complete surrender)

(I would be cautious about labelling things as mobs or cancel culture.)

[G]iven that she's taking actions that destroy value for Bob without generating value for Alice (except via their impact on Bob's actions), I think it is fine to think of this as a threat. (I am less attached to the bully metaphor -- I meant that as an example of a threat.)

Let me take a more in-group example readers will find sympathetic.

When the NYT suggested it will run an article using Scott's legal name, may of his supporters responded by complaining to the editor, organising petitions, cancelling their subscriptions (and encouraging others to do likewise), trying to coordinate sources/public figures to refuse access to NYT journalists, and so on. These are straightforwardly actions which 'destroy value' for the NYT, are substantially motivated to try and influence its behaviour, and was an ultimatum to boot (i.e. the only way the NYT can placate this 'online mob' is to fully concede on not using Scott's legal name). 

Yet presumably this strategy was not predicated on 'only we are allowed to (or smart enough to) use game theory, so we can expect the NYT to irrationally give in to our threats when they should be ostentatiously doing exactly what we don't want them to do to demonstrate they won't be bullied'. For although these actions are 'threats', they are warnings/ good faith/ non-spiteful, as these responses are not just out of hope to coerce: these people would be minded to retaliate similarly if they only found out NYT's intention after the article had been published. 

Naturally the hope is that one can resolve conflict by a meeting of the minds: we might hope we can convince Alice to see things our way; and the NYT probably hopes the same. But if the disagreement prompting conflict remains, we should be cautious about how we use the word threat, especially in equivocating between commonsense use of the term (e.g. "I threaten to castigate Charlie publicly if she holds a conference on holocaust denial") and the subspecies where folk game theory - and our own self-righteousness - strongly urges us to refute (e.g. "Life would be easier for us at the NYT if we acquiesced to those threatening to harm our reputation and livelihoods if we report things they don't want us to. But we will never surrender the integrity of our journalism to bullies and blackmailers.")

Avoiding Munich's Mistakes: Advice for CEA and Local Groups

Another case where 'precommitment  to refute all threats' is an unwise strategy (and a case more relevant to the discussion, as I don't think all opponents to hosting a speaker like Hanson either see themselves or should be seen as bullies attempting coercion) is where your opponent is trying to warn you rather than trying to blackmail you. (cf. 1, 2)

Suppose Alice sincerely believes some of Bob's writing is unapologetically misogynistic. She believes it is important one does not give misogynists a platform and implicit approbation. Thus she finds hosting Bob abhorrent, and is dismayed that a group at her university is planning to do just this. She approaches this group, making clear her objections and stating her intention to, if this goes ahead, to (e.g.) protest this event, stridently criticise the group in the student paper for hosting him, petition the university to withdraw affiliation, and so on. 

This could be an attempt to bully (where usual game theory provides a good reason to refuse to concede anything on principle). But it also could not be: Alice may be explaining what responses she would make to protect her interests which the groups planned action would harm, and hoping to find a better negotiated agreement for her and the EA group besides "They do X and I do Y". 

It can be hard to tell the difference, but some elements in this example speak against Alice being a bully wanting to blackmail the group to get her way: First is the plausibility of her interests recommending these actions to her even if they had no deterrent effect whatsoever (i.e. she'd do the same if the event had already happened). Second the actions she intends falls roughly falls in 'fair game' of how one can retaliate against those doing something they're allowed to do which you deem to be wrong. 

Alice is still not a bully even if her motivating beliefs re. Bob are both completely mistaken and unreasonable. She's also still not a bully even if Alice's implied second-order norms are wrong (e.g. maybe the public square would be better off if people didn't stridently object to hosting speakers based on their supposed views on topics they are not speaking upon, etc.) Conflict is typically easy to navigate when you can dictate to your opponent what their interests should be and what they can license themselves to do. Alas such cases are rare.

It is extremely important not to respond to Alice as if she was a bully if in fact she is not, for two reasons. First, if she is acting in good faith, pre-committing to refuse any compromise for 'do not give in to bullying' reasons means one always ends up at ones respective BATNAs even if there was mutually beneficial compromises to be struck. Maybe there is no good compromise with Alice this time, but there may be the next time one finds oneself at cross-purposes.

Second, wrongly presuming bad faith for Alice seems apt to induce her to make a symmetrical mistake presuming bad faith for you. To Alice, malice explains well why you were unwilling to even contemplate compromise, why you considered yourself obliged out of principle  to persist with actions that harm her interests, and why you call her desire to combat misogyny bullying and blackmail. If Alice also thinks about these things through the lens of game theory (although perhaps not in the most sophisticated way), she may reason she is rationally obliged to retaliate against you (even spitefully) to deter you from doing harm again. 

The stage is set for continued escalation. Presumptive bad faith is pernicious, and can easily lead to martyring oneself needlessly on the wrong hill. I also note that 'leaning into righteous anger' or 'take oneself as justified in thinking the worst of those opposed to you' are not widely recognised as promising approaches in conflict resolution, bargaining, or negotiation.

What actually is the argument for effective altruism?

This isn't much more than a rotation (or maybe just a rephrasing), but:

When I offer a 10 second or less description of Effective Altruism, it is hard avoid making it sound platitudinous. Things like "using evidence and reason to do the most good", or "trying to find the best things to do, then doing them" are things I can imagine the typical person nodding along with, but then wondering what the fuss is about ("Sure, I'm also a fan of doing more good rather than less good - aren't we all?") I feel I need to elaborate with a distinctive example (e.g. "I left clinical practice because I did some amateur health econ on how much good a doctor does, and thought I could make a greater contribution elsewhere") for someone to get a good sense of what I am driving at.

I think a related problem is the 'thin' version of EA can seem slippery when engaging with those who object to it. "If indeed intervention Y was the best thing to do, we would of course support intervention Y" may (hopefully!) be true, but is seldom the heart of the issue. I take most common objections are not against the principle but the application (I also suspect this may inadvertently annoy an objector, given this reply can paint them as - bizarrely - 'preferring less good to more good'). 

My best try at what makes EA distinctive is a summary of what you spell out with spread, identifiability, etc: that there are very large returns to reason  for beneficence (maybe 'deliberation' instead of 'reason', or whatever).  I think the typical person does "use reason and evidence to do the most good", and can be said to be doing some sort of search for the best actions. I think the core of EA (at least the 'E' bit) is the appeal that people should do a lot more of this than they would otherwise - as, if they do, their beneficence would tend to accomplish much more.

Per OP, motivating this is easier said than done. The best case is for global health, as there is a lot more (common sense) evidence one can point to about some things being a lot better than others, and these object level matters a hypothetical interlocutor is fairly likely to accept also offers support for the 'returns to reason' story. For most other cause areas, the motivating reasons are typically controversial, and the (common sense) evidence is scant-to-absent. Perhaps the best moves are here would be pointing to these as salient considerations which plausibly could dramatically change ones priorities, and so exploring to uncover these is better than exploiting after more limited deliberation (but cf. cluelessness).


Challenges in evaluating forecaster performance

I'm afraid I'm also not following. Take an extreme case (which is not that extreme given I think 'average number of forecasts per forecaster per question on GJO is 1.something). Alice predicts a year out P(X) = 0.2 and never touches her forecast again, whilst Bob predicts P(X) = 0.3, but decrements proportionately as time elapses. Say X doesn't happen (and say the right ex ante probability a year out was indeed 0.2). Although Alice > Bob on the initial forecast (and so if we just scored that day she would be better), if we carry forward Bob overtakes her overall [I haven't checked the maths for this example, but we can tweak initial forecasts so he does].

As time elapses, Alice's forecast steadily diverges from the 'true' ex ante likelihood, whilst Bob's converges to it. A similar story applies if new evidence emerges which dramatically changes the probability, if Bob updates on it and Alice doesn't. This seems roughly consonant with things like the stock-market - trading off month (or more) old prices rather than current prices seems unlikely to go well.

AMA: Owen Cotton-Barratt, RSP Director

FWIW I agree with Owen. I agree the direction of effect supplies a pro tanto consideration which will typically lean in favour of other options, but it is not decisive (in addition to the scenarios he notes, some people have pursued higher degrees concurrently with RSP).

So I don't think you need to worry about potentially leading folks astray by suggesting this as an option for them to consider - although, naturally, they should carefully weigh their options up (including considerations around which sorts of career capital are most valuable for their longer term career planning).

Some thoughts on the EA Munich // Robin Hanson incident
As such, blackmail feels like a totally fair characterization [of a substantial part of the reason for disinviting Hanson (though definitely not 100% of it).]

As your subsequent caveat implies, whether blackmail is a fair characterisation turns on exactly how substantial this part was. If in fact the decision was driven by non-blackmail considerations, the (great-)grandparent's remarks about it being bad to submit to blackmail are inapposite.

Crucially, (q.v. Daniel's comment), not all instances where someone says (or implies), "If you do X (which I say harms my interests), I'm going to do Y (and Y harms your interests)" are fairly characterised as (essentially equivalent to) blackmail. To give a much lower resolution of Daniel's treatment, if (conditional on you doing X) it would be in my interest to respond with Y independent of any harm it may do to you (and any coercive pull it would have on you doing X in the first place), informing you of my intentions is credibly not a blackmail attempt, but a better-faith "You do X then I do Y is our BATNA here, can we negotiate something better?" (In some treatments these are termed warnings versus threats, or using terms like 'spiteful', 'malicious' or 'bad faith' to make the distinction).

The 'very explicit threat' of disassociation you mention is a prime example of 'plausibly (/prima facie) not-blackmail'. There are many credible motivations to (e.g.) renounce (or denounce) a group which invites a controversial speaker you find objectionable independent from any hope threatening this makes them ultimately resile from running the event after all. So too 'trenchantly criticising you for holding the event', 'no longer supporting your group', 'leaving in protest (and encouraging others to do the same)' etc. etc. Any or all of these might be wrong for other reasons - but (again, per Daniels) 'they're trying to blackmail us!' is not necessarily one of them.

(Less-than-coincidentally, the above are also acts of protest which are typically considered 'fair game', versus disrupting events, intimidating participants, campaigns to get someone fired, etc. I presume neither of us take various responses made to the NYT when they were planning to write an article about Scott to be (morally objectionable) attempts to blackmail them, even if many of them can be called 'threats' in natural language).

Of course, even if something could plausibly not be a blackmail attempt, it may in fact be exactly this. I may posture that my own interests would drive me to Y, but I would privately regret having to 'follow through' with this after X happens; or I may pretend my threat of Y is 'only meant as a friendly warning'. Yet although our counterparty's mind is not transparent to us, we can make reasonable guesses.

It is important to get this right, as the right strategy to deal with threats is a very wrong one to deal with warnings. If you think I'm trying to blackmail you when I say "If you do X, I will do Y", then all the usual stuff around 'don't give in to the bullies' applies: by refuting my threat, you deter me (and others) from attempting to bully you in future. But if you think I am giving a good-faith warning when I say this, it is worth looking for a compromise. Being intransigent as a matter of policy - at best - means we always end up at our mutual BATNAs even when there were better-for-you negotiated agreements we could have reached.

At worst, it may induce me to make the symmetrical mistake - wrongly believing your behaviour in is bad faith. That your real reasons for doing X, and for being unwilling to entertain the idea of compromise to mitigate the harm X will do to me, are because you're actually 'out to get me'. Game theory will often recommend retaliation as a way of deterring you from doing this again. So the stage is set for escalating conflict.

Directly: Widely across the comments here you have urged for charity and good faith to be extended to evaluating Hanson's behaviour which others have taken exception to - that adverse inferences (beyond perhaps "inadvertently causes offence") are not only mistaken but often indicate a violation of discourse norms vital for EA-land to maintain. I'm a big fan of extending charity and good faith in principle (although perhaps putting this into practice remains a work in progress for me). Yet you mete out much more meagre measure to others than you demand from them in turn, endorsing fervid hyperbole that paints those who expressed opposition to Munich inviting Hanson as bullies trying to blackmail them, and those sympathetic to the decision they made as selling out. Beyond this being normatively unjust, it is also prudentially unwise - presuming bad faith in those who object to your actions is a recipe for making a lot of enemies you didn't need to, especially in already-fractious intellectual terrain.

You could still be right - despite the highlighted 'very explicit threat' which is also very plausibly not blackmail, despite the other 'threats' alluded to which seem also plausibly not blackmail and 'fair game' protests for them to make, and despite what the organisers have said (publicly) themselves, the full body of evidence should lead us to infer what really happened was bullying which was acquiesced to. But I doubt it.

Some thoughts on the EA Munich // Robin Hanson incident

I'm fairly sure the real story is much better than that, although still bad in objective terms: In culture war threads, the typical norms re karma roughly morph into 'barely restricted tribal warfare'. So people have much lower thresholds both to slavishly upvote their 'team',and to downvote the opposing one.

Some thoughts on the EA Munich // Robin Hanson incident

Talk of 'blackmail' (here and elsethread) is substantially missing the mark. To my understanding, there were no 'threats' being acquiesced to here.

If some party external to the Munich group pressured them into cancelling the event with Hanson (and without this, they would want to hold the event), then the standard story of 'if you give in to the bullies you encourage them to bully you more' applies.

Yet unless I'm missing something, the Munich group changed their minds of their own accord, and not in response to pressure from third parties. Whether or not that was a good decision, it does not signal they're vulnerable to 'blackmail threats'. If anything, they've signalled the opposite by not reversing course after various folks castigated them on Twitter etc.

The distinction between 'changing our minds on the merits' and 'bowing to public pressure' can get murky (e.g. public outcry could genuinely prompt someone to change their mind that what they were doing was wrong after all, but people will often say this insincerely when what really happened is they were cowed by opprobrium). But again, the apparent absence of people pressuring Munich to 'cancel Hanson' makes this moot.

(I agree with Linch that the incentives look a little weird here given if Munich had found out about work by Hanson they deemed objectionable before they invited him, they presumably would not have invited him and none of us would be any the wiser. It's not clear "Vet more carefully so you don't have to rescind invitations to controversial speakers (with attendant internet drama) rather than not inviting them in the first place" is the lesson folks would want to be learned from this episode.)

What is the increase in expected value of effective altruist Wayne Hsiung being mayor of Berkeley instead of its current incumbent?

I recall Hsiung being in favour of conducting disruptive protests against EAG 2015:

I honestly think this is an opportunity. "EAs get into fight with Elon Musk over eating animals" is a great story line that would travel well on both social and possibly mainstream media.

Organize a group. Come forward with an initially private demand (and threaten to escalate, maybe even with a press release). Then start a big fight if they don't comply.

Even if you lose, you still win because you'll generate massive dialogue!

It is unclear whether the motivation was more 'blackmail threats to stop them serving meat' or 'as Elon Musk will be there we can co-opt this to raise our profile'. Whether Hsiung calls himself an EA or not, he evidently missed the memo on 'eschew narrow minded obnoxious defection against others in the EA community'.

For similar reasons, it seems generally wiser for a community not to help people who previously wanted to throw it under the bus.

Use resilience, instead of imprecision, to communicate uncertainty

My reply is a mix of the considerations you anticipate. With apologies for brevity:

  • It's not clear to me whether avoiding anchoring favours (e.g.) round numbers or not. If my listener, in virtue of being human, is going to anchor on whatever number I provide them, I might as well anchor them on a number I believe to be more accurate.
  • I expect there are better forms of words for my examples which can better avoid the downsides you note (e.g. maybe saying 'roughly 12%' instead of '12%' still helps, even if you give a later articulation).
  • I'm less fussed about precision re. resilience (e.g. 'I'd typically expect drift of several percent from this with a few more hours to think about it' doesn't seem much worse than 'the standard error of this forecast is 6% versus me with 5 hours more thinking time' or similar). I'd still insist something at least pseudo-quantitative is important, as verbal riders may not put the listener in the right ballpark (e.g. does 'roughly' 10% pretty much rule out it being 30%?)
  • Similar to the 'trip to the shops' example in the OP, there's plenty of cases where precision isn't a good way to spend time and words (e.g. I could have counter-productively littered many of the sentences above with precise yet non-resilient forecasts). I'd guess there's also cases where it is better to sacrifice precision to better communicate with your listener (e.g. despite the rider on resilience you offer, they will still think '12%' is claimed to be accurate to the nearest percent, but if you say 'roughly 10%' they will better approximate what you have in mind). I still think when the stakes are sufficiently high, it is worth taking pains on this.
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