Matt_Lerner's Comments

I Want To Do Good - an EA puppet mini-musical!

I don't have anything to say except that I loved this, and I'm really happy somebody is starting to present a warmer and fuzzier side of EA.

Matt_Lerner's Shortform

In general, I'm skeptical about software solutionism, but I wonder if there's a need/appetite for group decision-making tools. While it's unclear exactly what works for helping groups make decisions, it does seem like a structured format could provide value to lots of organizations. Moreover, tools like this could provide valuable information about what works (and doesn't).

Matt_Lerner's Shortform

Proportional representation

Matt_Lerner's Shortform

School closures

Workplace closures

The usual caveats apply here: cross-country comparisons are often BS, correlation is not causation, I'm presenting smoothed densities instead of (jagged) histograms, etc, etc...

I've combined data on electoral system design and covid response to start thinking about the possible relationships between electoral system and crisis response. Here's some initial stuff: the gap, in days, between first confirmed cases and first school and workplace closures. Note that n= ~80 for these two datasets, pending some cleaning and hopefully a fuller merge between the different datasets.

To me, the potentially interesting thing here is the apparently lower variability of PR government responses. But I think there's a 75% chance that this is an illusion... there are many more PR governments than others in the dataset, and this may just be an instance of variability decreasing with sample size.

If there's an appetite here for more like this, I'll try and flesh out the analysis with some more instructive stuff, with the predictable criticisms either dismissed or validated.

Matt_Lerner's Shortform

Or of course, restrict our sample to a smaller geographic region in the US with more prevalence.

Matt_Lerner's Shortform

It seems like there's a significant need right now to identify what the plausible relationship is between mask-wearing and covid19 symptoms. The virus is now widespread enough that a very quick Mechanical Turk survey could provide useful information.

Collect the following:

• Age group (5 categories)

• Wear a mask in public 1 month ago? (y/n)

• If yes to above, type of mask? (bandana/N95+/surgical/cloth/other)

• Sick with covid19 symptoms in past month? (y/n)

• Know anyone in everyday life who tested positive for covid19 in past month? (y/n)

• Postal code (for pop. density info)

Based on figures from this Gallup piece, a back-of-the-envelope says we could get usable results from surveying 20,000 Americans -- but we could work with a much smaller sample if we survey in a country where the virus is more prevalent.

What is the average EA salary?

I'd love to see some more information about the distribution (e.g. percentiles, change since previous years, breakdown by organization size/type or by role). Is it possible to provide that while maintaining anonymity?

The case for building more and better epistemic institutions in the effective altruism community

This is a great post and I, like @rohinmshah, feel that simply the introduction of this general class of discussion is of value to the community.

With respect to expert surveys, I am somewhat surprised that there isn't someone in the EA community already pursuing this avenue in earnest. I think that it's firmly within the wheelhouse of the community's larger knowledge-building project to conduct something like the IGM experts panel across a variety of fields. I think, first, that this sort of thing is direly needed in the world at large and could have considerable direct positive effects, but secondly that it could have a number of virtues for the EA community:

  • Improve efficiency of additional research: Knowing what the expert consensus is on a given topic will save some nontrivial percentage of time when starting a literature review, and help researchers contextualize papers that they find over the course of the review. Expert consensus is a good starting place for a lit review, and surveys will save time and reduce uncertainty in that phase.
  • Let EAs know where we stand relative to the expert consensus: when we explore topics like growth as a cause area, we need to be able to (1) have a quick reference to the expert consensus at vital pivots in a conversation (e.g. do structural adjustments work?) and (2) identify with certainty where EA views might depart from the consensus.
  • Provide a basis for argument to policymakers and philanthropists: Appeals to authority are powerful persuasive mechanisms outside the EA community. Being able to fall back on expert consensus in any range of issues can be a powerful obstacle or motivator, depending on the issue. Here's an example: governments around the world continue to locally relitigate conversations about the degree to which electronic voting is safe, desirable, secure or feasible. Security researchers have a pretty solid consensus on these questions-- that consensus should be available to these governments and those of us who seek to influence them.
  • Demonstrate to those outside the community that EAs are directly linked to the mainstream research community: This is a legitimacy issue: regardless of whether the EA community ends up being broader or narrower, we are often insisting to some degree on a new way of doing things: we need to be able to demonstrate to newcomers and outsiders that we are not simply starting from scratch.
  • Establish continued relationships with experts across a variety of fields: Repeated deployment of these expert surveys affords opportunities for contact with experts who can be integrated into projects, sought for advice, or deployed (in the best case scenario) as voices on behalf of sensible policies or interventions.
  • Identify funding opportunities for further research or for novel epistemic avenues like the adversarial collaborations mentioned in the initial post: Expert surveys will reveal areas where there is no consensus. Although consensus can be and sometimes is wrong, areas where there is considerable disagreement seem like obvious avenues for further exploration. Where issues have a direct bearing on human wellbeing, uncovering a relative lack of conclusive research seems like a cause area in and of itself.
  • Finally, the question-finding and -constructing process is itself an important activity that requires expert input. Identifying the key questions to ask experts is itself very important research, and can result in constructive engagements with experts and others.
Thoughts on electoral reform

I agree that EAs should continue investigating and possibly advocating different voting methods, and I strongly agree that electoral reform writ large should be part of the "EA portfolio."

I don't think EAs (qua EAs, as opposed to as individuals concerned as a matter of principle with having their electoral preferences correctly represented) should advocate for different voting methods in isolation, even though essentially all options are conceptually superior to FPTP/plurality voting.

This is because A democratic system is not the same as a utility-maximizing one. The various criteria used to evaluate voting systems in social choice theory are, generally speaking, formal representations of widely-shared intuitions about how individuals' preferences should be aggregated or, more loosely, how democratic governments should function.

Obviously, the only preferences voting systems aggregate are those over the topic being voted on. But voters have preferences over lots of other areas as well, and the choice of voting system relates only to two of them: (a) their preferences over the choice in question and (b) their meta-preferences over how preferences are aggregated (e.g. how democratic their society is).

As others in this thread have pointed out, individuals' electoral preferences cannot be convincingly said to represent their preferences over all of the other areas their choice will influence.

So an individual gains utility from a voting system if and only if the utility gained by its superior representation of their preferences exceeds the utility lost in other areas lost by switching. I don't think this is a high bar to clear, but I do think that, beyond the contrast between broadly democratic and non-democratic systems, we have next-to-no good information about the relationship between electoral systems and non-electoral outcomes.

In the simplest terms possible: we know that some voting systems are better than others when it comes to meeting our intuitive conception of democratic government. But we're concerned about people's welfare beyond just having people's electoral preferences represented, and we don't know what the relationship between these things is.

It is totally possible that voting systems that violate the Condorcet criterion also dominate systems that meet the criterion with respect to social welfare. We simply don't know.

It's also not clear to what degree different voting systems induce a closer relationship between individuals' electoral preferences and their preferences over non-electoral topics, e.g. by incentivizing or disincentivizing voter education.

To reiterate, I strongly support the increased interest in approval voting and RCV that we're seeing, and I voted for it here in NYC. I want to see my own electoral preferences represented more accurately and I don't think there is a big risk that (at least here) my other preferences will suffer. But as consequentialists I think we are on very uncertain ground.

What posts you are planning on writing?

I'm doing a lit review on the effectiveness of lobbying and on some of the relevant theoretical background that I'm planning on posting when I'm done. I feel like this is potentially very relevant but I'm not sure if people will be interested.

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