guzey

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William MacAskill misrepresents much of the evidence underlying his key arguments in "Doing Good Better"

Is it so hard to believe reasonable people can disagree with you, for reasons other than corruption or conspiracy?

Haha. There were clearly many reasonable people disagreeing with me for many reasonable reasons, including you (e.g. since you do not have access to my private correspondence with Julia Wise).

And as soon as organizations like GiveWell stop arbitrarily reversing their positions on such fundamental topics like interpretation of cost-effectiveness-estimates and as soon as my private drafts stop getting leaked and I stop being lied to by the leaders of the community while trying to engage in good-faith discussion, I will be much more prone to believe that people directly involved in the episode disagree with me for reasons other than corruption and conspiracy.

What is your credence that you're wrong about this?

Could you clarify your question? Credence about my interpretation of the estimates? Or about corruption? (or something else?)

William MacAskill misrepresents much of the evidence underlying his key arguments in "Doing Good Better"

If 72 comments represents deafening silence, I don't know what noise would look like.

Oh yes, there were comments. But no actions took place. As I noted in that "deafening silence" comment:

What's most notable to me is what happened after the episode: Nothing happened.

  • Doing Good Better remains the first book effectivealtruism.org recommends to people interested in the community: https://www.effectivealtruism.org/resources/
  • Julia Wise remains the contact person for the EA community. No sanctions were taken against her by the community.
  • William MacAskill remains the thought leader and the central figure of the community. No sanctions were taken about him or his team by the community.
William MacAskill misrepresents much of the evidence underlying his key arguments in "Doing Good Better"

I haven't yet seen evidence to support the strong claims you are making about Julia Wise's knowledge and intentions at various stages in this process. If your depiction of events is true (i.e. Wise both knowingly concealed the leak from you after realising what had happened, and explicitly lied about it somewhere) that seems very bad, but I haven't seen evidence for that. Her own explanation of what happened seems quite plausible to me.

In private correspondence, Wise explained to me that she realized that my draft was not supposed to be shared very soon after sending it. After having this realization, she:

  1. made the decision to not let me know about this (until I pointed out on EA Forum that MacAskill replied to my private draft)
  2. emailed me writing "If you're able to let me know when it's likely to be published, I'd appreciate that as then I can let Will know to take a look."

Your initial response to Julia's apology seemed quite reasonable, so I was surprised to see you revert so strongly in your LessWrong comment a few months back. What new evidence did you get that hardened your views here so much?

3 years ago, when I wrote that comment, I did not know that she concealed the leak from me. I thought it was indeed just an accident.

It matters – it was a serious error and breach of Wise's duty of confidentiality, and she has acknowledged it as such (it is now listed on CEA's mistakes page). But I do think it is important to point out that, other than having your expectation of confidentiality breached per se, nothing bad happened to you.

One reason I think this is important is because it makes the strong "conspiracy" interpretation of these events much less plausible. You present these events as though the intent of these actions was to in some way undermine or discredit your criticisms (you've used the word "sabotage") in order to protect MacAskill's reputation. But nobody did this, and it's not clear to me what they plausibly could have done – so what's the motive?

If this was not a "conspiracy", then:

  1. Why did neither Wise, nor MacAskill's team, nor MacAskill himself email me letting know me about the fact that they saw the draft and all knowing that it was confidential?
  2. Why did MacAskill pre-write a response to my post and publish it instead if simply writing me an email explaining that he accidentally became aware of my draft and explaining my errors before the publication? I might not have published it at all in the first place had he (or Wise) done it or at the very least I would've reworked it quite a bit. My essay did have several clear errors, e.g. in the PlayPump case study.

The first point I believe to be strong evidence of "conspiracy".

The second point I think is important because MacAskill knew that:

  1. I was interested in my essay being accurate and not misrepresenting him
  2. My essay contained serious errors

Then, although I demonstrated good faith by emailing Wise asking for feedback, writing "I aim to be as accurate as possible and would be very thankful if you checked my review, before me publishing it, so that I could be sure that I didn't unintentionally misinterpret the book. Please let me know if you'll have time to do this.", MacAskill decided to not return good faith and correct me before I made my poor arguments public. Instead, he decided to conceal his knowledge of the leak and to respond publicly instead, while stating in his response “Alexey’s post keeps changing, so if it looks like I’m responding to something that’s no longer there, that’s why.”

The fact that he did this, I believe, supported my initial worries about sending the draft to him, due to fear of him engaging with it in bad faith and taking adversarial action.

There is exactly one action that would've dispelled the "conspiracy" interpretation: letting me know about the leak as soon as people involved became aware of it. This did not happen.

William MacAskill misrepresents much of the evidence underlying his key arguments in "Doing Good Better"

With regards to the confidentiality screw-up, sure, it's rational to update downwards in some general sense, but given that the actual consequences were so minor and that the alternative hypothesis (that it was just a mistake) is so plausible, I don't respect Guzey's presentation of this incident in his more recent writings (e.g. here).

Do you believe that the following representation of the incident is unfair?

  1. upon perception of serious threat to the reputation of a co-founder of the EA community via a concern about said person, confidentiality of the person bringing up the concern was breached (despite them asking for it in two separate emails; potentially by an accident)
  2. the breach was concealed by several people, including the "contact person" of the community and by the person the concern was about
  3. the breach was lied about by the "contact person" of the community and by the person the concern was about

And that since "the actual consequences were so minor and that the alternative hypothesis (that it was just a mistake) is so plausible" this doesn't really matter?

William MacAskill misrepresents much of the evidence underlying his key arguments in "Doing Good Better"

Even rounding down all of the other things that are negative signals to me, this fixation on this episode after these years seems like a strong sign to me, and most people I know, of the low value of the ideas from this person.

This is amusing to me because I literally have not written anything about this episode for 3 years, then left two comments about this a month ago (and figured this was enough and not worth returning to anymore), then was asked by two people on the EA forum to write about this because they considered this post and the episode important, so I wrote another comment, and this is enough to be accused of being "fixated" on this episode "after these years"!

William MacAskill misrepresents much of the evidence underlying his key arguments in "Doing Good Better"

I was invited by two people to write a review of this post, so here it is.

What does this post add to the conversation?

I find this question difficult to answer.

In 2018, I had concerns about the book Doing Good Better written by one of the co-founders of the EA movement William MacAskill, so I decided to write a critical essay about it.

I don't think there was any kind of conversation before I published this essay and there has no been any conversation about it after about a week after I published it. For me, the silence has been deafening.

How did this post affect you, your thinking, and your actions?

The reason I say "silence has been deafening" is because of what my publication of the essay revealed (to me) about the EA community and its leadership. The book has issues -- I believe some of them are very serious. For example, MacAskill writes in the book:

Effective altruism is about asking, “How can I make the biggest difference I can?” and using evidence and careful reasoning to try to find an answer. It takes a scientific approach to doing good. Just as science consists of the honest and impartial attempt to work out what’s true, and a commitment to believe the truth whatever that turns out to be, effective altruism consists of the honest and impartial attempt to work out what’s best for the world, and a commitment to do what’s best, whatever that turns out to be.

Yet, in the book he grossly misrepresents the views of competitors of Effective Altruism, literally claiming the opposite of their beliefs by quoting them out of context in an attempt to discredit them (see here: https://guzey.com/books/doing-good-better/#charity-navigator) and seriously misrepresents evidence for programs he supports (https://guzey.com/books/doing-good-better/#educational-benefits-of-distributing-textbooks-and-deworming).

What happened around the publication of the essay, however, completely dwarfs the issues in the book itself. To recap:

  • When I was writing the essay, I figured I should send the draft to someone close to MacAskill to make sure I'm not misrepresenting his views or arguments. I didn't want to send it to him because I perceived the probability of him taking adversarial action against me to be quite high -- which is exactly what happened, as you will see.
  • I sent a draft of the essay to Julia Wise for review due to her designation as the contact person for reporting concerns about the community. The page is still live and says: "If you contact me about a problem you’ve experienced or a concern you have, I will keep it as confidential as you wish." (three years later, after I first wrote about what happened publicly, Wise added a note to the post writing "Someone sent me a draft of a critique of my colleague’s book, which I agreed to keep confidential. In deciding what to do with the email chain the following week, I forgot that they had asked for confidentiality in the first message, and sent it to my colleague. You can read more detail here.")
  • Prior to me sending Wise the draft, she agreed to keep it confidential. My first email to her started with: Hi Julia, / I'm writing you, because of your role as a contact person for EA community. Please do not share this email / its contents with anybody. / I'm writing a very critical review of Doing Good Better. I aim to be as accurate as possible and would be very thankful if you checked my review, before me publishing it, so that I could be sure that I didn't unintentionally misinterpret the book. Please let me know if you'll have time to do this."
  • When I sent the review to Wise I noted additionally: "(sorry for repeating but please don't discuss the post with anybody!)"
  • Wise then refused to read it, citing time constraints, and leaked it to MacAskill.
  • Neither Wise, nor anyone from MacAskill's team, nor MacAskill himself thought it's worth letting me know that my draft was read by them, despite me still believing that it was confidential
  • Several days after Wise sent my email to MacAskill's team and already having realized that I asked for confidentiality, she emailed me writing "If you're able to let me know when it's likely to be published, I'd appreciate that as then I can let Will know to take a look."
  • I only learned that my draft was read by anyone except for Wise when MacAskill published a response to my essay on EA Forum and that response contained an argument about something I wrote in the draft but removed prior to the essay publication. His response also noted that "Alexey’s post keeps changing, so if it looks like I’m responding to something that’s no longer there, that’s why."

To sum up:

  1. I had a concern about the co-founder of the EA community and was worried that they might take adversarial action against me
  2. I sent the concern to the contact person of the community
  3. The contact person accidentally sent my concern to the person I was concerned about
  4. The contact person attempted to hide the leak from me
  5. The co-founder of the EA community used the leaked material to take adversarial action against me (exactly what I was worried about!) and tried to hide the leak from me
  6. The co-founder's team not only tried to hide the leak from me but further forwarded it to the said person in order for them to be able to take adversarial action against me
  7. All of this transpired only because the co-founder of the EA community fucked up and published a response to something that I removed prior to the publication (!)
  8. When I pointed out that my draft was leaked on the EA Forum, the community downvoted me into oblivion

I know that many EAs will be asking: "so what? You had some book criticism. Yes, it's unfortunate that the criticism was accidentally leaked, but it's not like someone assaulted you or something. Why are you making it seem like it's something serious?"

The reason everyone involved tried to hide it instead of simply writing me a note saying "oops, sorry, I accidentally sent/read the draft" is because it was taken extremely seriously by people involved and it was precisely the reason why the people involved (Wise, MacAskill, his team) tried to cover up the leak. This was explicitly confirmed by MacAskill, with him writing: "the draft you sent to Julia was quite a bit more hostile than the published version; I can only say that as a result of this I felt under attack, and that clouded my judgment." Note that this reaction was in response to me specifically asking for feedback from someone close to MacAskill, thus credibly demonstrating good faith, while writing "I aim to be as accurate as possible and would be very thankful if you checked my review, before me publishing it, so that I could be sure that I didn't unintentionally misinterpret the book".

What's most notable to me is what happened after the episode: Nothing happened.

  • Doing Good Better remains the first book effectivealtruism.org recommends to people interested in the community: https://www.effectivealtruism.org/resources/
  • Julia Wise remains the contact person for the EA community. No sanctions were taken against her by the community.
  • William MacAskill remains the thought leader and the central figure of the community. No sanctions were taken about him or his team by the community.
A contact person for the EA community

Someone sent me a draft of a critique of my colleague’s book, which I agreed to keep confidential. In deciding what to do with the email chain the following week, I forgot that they had asked for confidentiality in the first message, and sent it to my colleague. You can read more detail here.

I think it's worth noting several details of my incident that change the picture quite significantly from (the entirely understandable) accidental sending of an email to a colleague.

After Wise sent the draft of my essay to MacAskill's team:

  1. MacAskill's team forwarded it to MacAskill
  2. Neither Wise, nor anyone from MacAskill's team, nor MacAskill himself thought it's worth letting me know that my draft was read by them, despite me still believing that it was confidential
  3. Several days after Wise sent my email to MacAskill's team and already having realized that I asked for confidentiality, she emailed me writing "If you're able to let me know when it's likely to be published, I'd appreciate that as then I can let Will know to take a look."
  4. I only learned that my draft was read by anyone except for Wise when MacAskill published a response to my essay on EA Forum and that response contained an argument about something I wrote in the draft but removed prior to the essay publication. His response also noted that "Alexey’s post keeps changing, so if it looks like I’m responding to something that’s no longer there, that’s why."

I.e. Both Wise, MacAskill's team, and MacAskill, not only accidentally forwarded/read my email but then attempted to hide doing so and lied about doing it, until MacAskill screwed up and I was able to deduce that my draft was leaked.

Again, I think it's entirely understandable that sometimes one sends an email one was not supposed to send, but I believe that this particular sequence of actions by Wise is fundamentally incompatible with occupying a role that expects any kind confidentiality expectations.

The motivated reasoning critique of effective altruism

The other perspective is that EA was actually able to solve Yudkowsky's Why Our Kind Can't Cooperate.

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