rosehadshar

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A case for the effectiveness of protest

Thanks for the responses James, I found them thoughtful and helpful!

A few responses in return:

On your point regarding the methodology you would use to answer these questions, I would definitely be interested to hear more about that as I'll be finalising my research methodology over January.

Quick thoughts:

  • Partly it's just that I don't have a quant background, and so of necessity I would take a qualitative approach. I think for some questions, this would also be the most appropriate approach (to give a straw example, I'm sceptical about measuring broad social change by quantitative analysis of words used in searchable databases of newspaper articles, versus reading a whole bunch of different sources of evidence, and reaching a qualitative conclusion)
  • As implied in my comment, I'm reasonably sceptical of theoretical models of social change. Partly this is just my historian's socialisation. I'd be pretty surprised if many (any?) of these models had high predictive power, and I worry that they miss important nuance. So I'd probably not pay much attention to them if I were doing this research.
  • I also note that you seem to me to have started from 'this thing (mass movement protests) seems maybe really effective! What research can we do to dis/confirm this?' I would be more likely to start from 'there's a gap in what we're trying to do. What might fill that gap?', or from 'there are a lot of past examples of people doing the thing we're thinking of doing. What can we learn from that?'

To pin down my thinking a bit more, this is vaguely it: I believe public opinion is quite important for social change -> Mass movements can be useful tools to build public support -> Protests can be a cost-effective way of building public support and building a mass movement. 

Thanks for clarifying. One thing I'll note is that this is a multi-stage hypothesis, so you have to be right about quite a few different things for this to end up mattering.

I think you're right in that I haven't been very clear on what my proposed intervention is e.g. incubate a new movement vs organise protests vs a mass movement not focused on protest. That is something I'll definitely try clarify in future research but partly I think this is due to my own uncertainty on this topic which makes it hard to pin down.

When you put it like this, I think it's definitely legit and in fact wise not to have pinned down your proposed intervention: after all, you haven't done the research yet, and might discover things which update your current guesses in important ways. Sorry for not getting this before, and implying that you should already know the answer here!

Could I just check if you have any examples of what you would consider empirical social movement studies vs theoretical? As my initial hunch is that most of that work would fit into the theoretical categories but wondering if I'm drawing my boundaries different to you e.g. would conclusions from a very detailed case study be empirical or theoretical?

I guess most things have aspects of both theory (~statements about how stuff works in general) and empirics (~statements about particular stuff that's happened). A few different ways of gesturing at what I personally mean here:

  • Some types of theory fit my intellectual tastes; others don't. When someone, after showing me a bunch of evidence, says 'this evidence suggests that x tends to happen because of y', that feels good to me: I know what evidence to use to assess the claim, and the claim is reasonably specific. When someone presents me with a complicated model of change (x influences y but also z can cause all of it if and only if in the presence of a), I feel a bunch more sceptical: the model is actually still qualitative masquerading as quantitate, it's claiming a lot and so it's difficult to assess and disentangle, and a lot of separate things would need to be right for the model to be right.
  • Speaking from the (relatively few) works of sociology I've read relating to social movements, I like the stuff which focuses on empirical explanation of particular social movements (e.g. this is what happened when foot-binding stopped in China) more than I like the stuff which focuses on engaging with theoretical models that come up elsewhere in the literature (e.g. here is our contribution to the concept of political opportunity structure).
MichaelA's Shortform

Another one: Alex Hill and Jaime Sevilla, Attempt at understanding the role of moral philosophy in moral progress (on women’s suffrage and animal rights)

MichaelA's Shortform

Some more recent things:

Also fwiw, I have read the ACE case studies, and I think that the one on environmentalism is pretty high quality, more so than some of the other things listed here. I'd recommend people interested in working on this stuff to read the environmentalism one.

A case for the effectiveness of protest

Thanks for this post James! I found it thought provoking.

Overall, I'm still not sure what I make of your claims. There are a few things contributing to this, including:

  • The post is long and I read it quickly.
  • Probably just inferential distance/different background models and ways of thinking. E.g. I've never been involved in a mass movement, I'm a historian by background and would go about these questions in a different way methodologically, etc.
  • More specifically, I'm used to thinking of EA as a social movement, and other social movements as potentially useful historical comparisons. This post was an interesting refactoring for me, looking at social movements as a general kind of intervention.

I think the main reason I'm not sure what I think of your claims is that I felt that the post wasn't crisp/precise enough about which interventions you think it might be good to have more of. Some questions that point towards my unclarity here:

  • Is it that you want EAs to try harder to change public opinion? Protests/social movements aren't the only way to do this - think media campaigns, books etc.
  • Or maybe you're arguing that EAs should cause there to be more protests on issues they care about, because protests are actually quite an effective strategy? Setting up new mass movements isn't the only way to have more protests - what about liaising with existing movements, or setting up a temporary organising committee for a one off thing.
  • Or maybe you want there to be more social movements on issues you care about as you think they are key agents of change? These don't necessarily need to be mass movements to make a difference, and even mass movements don't necessarily need to operate centrally via protest....

I could give more examples of my confusions here. Definitely part of what's happening here is that I am personally confused about how these concepts and phenomenon relate. Another contributor is that I haven't taken the time to carefully go through your post and construct the clearest most charitable take here. I'm quite sure that if I did this, it would already clear up quite a bit of my confusion. But I also think it's likely that you could benefit from expressing yourself more crisply here. I think clarity here matters for two main reasons: 

  1. Making your assumptions transparent. (E.g. I might be sympathetic to the argument that more social movements would be good, but not think that mass social movements are the main type to favour. Being clear about what you think here would help me to spot research gaps to fill.)
  2. Making it easier to check whether you're using the right kind of evidence and reference classes. (E.g. if you specifically think there should be more protests, then evidence about the effectiveness of phone campaigns is probably not very applicable.)

There are also a few more specific points I'd like to raise:

  • You write that longtermism might be a suitable candidate for this sort of mass movement, but that you think global poverty may not be relatable enough. Intuitively this seems a bit wild to me: most people I know find it much easier to empathise with e.g. malnourished children who are suffering right now, than with big abstract numbers on how many people may exist or how much they might suffer.
  • I'm not sure, but I think I might have different intuitions to you on how likely it is that a given embryonic social movement succeeds. At one point, you say "I believe you could launch a social movement with reasonable chances of success for less than £100K”. This sounds over-optimistic to me, but I suppose it comes down to what you mean by "reasonable chances". My guess is that the vast majority of potential social movements never get off the ground, so 0.1% doesn't seem implausible to me as a base rate for success, and >1% does seem a bit implausible to me. In another place, you say “I can confidently say it’s extremely rare to find such driven and talented people who manage to launch a project of this scale without self-imploding due to conflict and governance issues.” So maybe you also think that successful social movements are pretty rare. It also partly depends on what counts as movement success. Feminism has a very large membership, and is widely accepted as a set of values in lots of societies. But on the other hand, women still own something like 10% of global wealth. (Statistic that I vaguely remember. Haven't checked.) So if you take full gender equality as the metric of ultimate success, feminism is still very far away from succeeding, in spite of its intermediate successes at growing a movement. You can push this to extremes and argue that just about every social movement has failed (e.g. chattel slavery has been legally abolished but modern slavery goes on, so the anti-slavery movement failed). That's clearly an unhelpful way to define it, but being too inclusive about success (any movement that's big must be successful) is also clearly a problem.
  • Do you know why OP commissioned the report on funding social movements? Or what conclusions they reached on this, if any? Seems relevant.

I'm excited to see what further research comes out of your project. Some particular things I'd be interested to see:

  • A literature review of (relevant bits of) social movement studies, if you think any parts of that literature might be generally insightful for EA/LTism. (FWIW, I feel a lot more optimistic about what we can learn from empirical work than theoretical work here.)
  • Counterexamples: examples of protest backfiring. Examples of big important changes where protest was largely irrelevant to the outcome.
  • (Maybe) A book review of the MAP book, if you think the model is good. (FWIW, I have a strong ish prior that rigid 8 step models are unlikely to be predictive of messy reality. But you know more about it than me, and think it matches the realities you've encountered well. If you back the model, it might be useful to write a good book review.)
  • (Not exactly part of the research project) A write up of your key learnings and takeaways from working in XR and Animal Rebellion. I found the asides and comments you made in this post interesting, as I don't speak much to people in those communities, and it would be interesting to understand better how they do what they do.
Can we influence the values of our descendants?

Thanks for the informal post! I really liked it, and probably wouldn't have read the whole paper.

I have a few thoughts that I'd be curious for your take on.

I'm a bit unsure how generally the papers you're looking at apply to the broad question of changing values. A few intuitions:

  • These papers look at measurable and relatively narrow features of the past, and how far they explain features of the present which are again measurable and relatively narrow. My intuition would be that most of what matters in terms of values is pretty hard to measure, and might not show up in very concrete slices of reality. But maybe this is confused: if there were big fuzzy effects, they would show up in narrow concretisations?
  • Naively I'd say that past values and culture have had a huge impact on current values and culture. Many religions have persisted for a long time, there are differences in values between cultures that seem to have been relatively persistent, everyone inherits a bunch of assumptions from their society many of which have been around for a long time... (Below, Lumpyproletariat makes a similar point I think.) If all of my ancestors were Chinese, I expect I would see the world quite differently to how I actually do, with European ancestors. I don't really understand how intuitions like this relate to your findings. Do you have any ideas?

To progress, we’d need to study the cultural legacy of intentional movements. This is a much harder topic, where quantitative proxies will be hard to come by.

Do you have any ideas about how to make progress on this? E.g. examples of intentional movements that seem worth looking into, proxies that might work...?

What FHI’s Research Scholars Programme is like: views from scholars

Some examples of policy stuff RSPers have done:

  • Advising governments directly (including the Czech and UK governments on their COVID-19 response, the Mexican government on its national AI strategy)
  • Networking with relevant government individuals, think tanks etc
  • Attending relevant conferences, like the Biological Weapons Convention
  • Writing papers, written submissions and reports on various policy issues

Some examples of community building related stuff RSPers have done:

What FHI’s Research Scholars Programme is like: views from scholars

I think it can be a good fit for either of those groups. Currently most people are more in the academic work category, but we have a few RSPers who are working on more policy engagement style work, and having a fair bit of success.


It's also worth pointing out that plenty of RSPers don't fall neatly into either camp:

  • Policy people sometimes do academic style things and vice versa
  • Lots of RSPers are exploring and haven't yet narrowed down to 'I am definitely going to optimise for policy engagement/some other style of work'
  • There are other buckets of activities that RSPers do: software development, teaching and mentorship, community building
What FHI’s Research Scholars Programme is like: views from scholars

Impressiveness: good question, but feels hard to express without going into lots of detail, so I'm going to pass.

Acceptance rate: 9/~150, then 10 out of ~250. We're planning to take 8 in this round. The summer fellowship was 27/~300.

Some support options, briefly:

  • Talking with Owen, the programme director
  • Talking with me or other future project managers on the programme
  • Peer support
  • FHI provides opportunities for coaching and other external support
  • We have various structures that aim to help people with this, like 6-week project cycles, a major project in the second year, a quarterly review process and an advisory board...
  • For the project cycles and major projects scholars would by default have something like a project supervisor

Apologies for the brief response, writing in haste!

What FHI’s Research Scholars Programme is like: views from scholars

Thanks for this! I agree that a lot of the value of RSP won't become obvious until after the programme (and also want to flag that as our first cohort is only finishing this autumn, it's still quite uncertain how large this value will be).

At this stage, the best information we have on how things will shape up for scholars after the programme is what our first cohort have lined up to do immediately after the programme - see here.

In praise of unhistoric heroism

Strong agree, thanks for pointing this out Ollie

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