Sam Elder

213Joined Sep 2022


This is indeed quite well-written and a helpful summary! One question I have: You write that "Fortunately, Prof. Bostrom’s later comments suggest that he, at least, no longer believes in the first claim to the full extent he once did." Where are you getting that?

The third claim is indeed what has attracted the most attention and censure, but it's the interaction with the first that makes it particularly toxic by ruling out many of the more charitable readings. It's not just that he thinks the sentence "Blacks are more stupid than whites" is factually true but regrettable; he wrote that he "likes" that sentence, particularly because "the more counterintuitive and repugnant a formulation, the more it appeals to me given that it is logically correct."

It would be therefore great if Professor Bostrom explained somewhere why he no longer personally finds repugnant formulations of true statements appealing, but I couldn't find it in the apology linked above.

It’s not at all clear from the apology what subset of provocative communication styles Bostrom still believes in — and finds it necessary to defend categorically before even starting to apologize — and what subset he now condemns. As far as I can tell, he still “likes” “repugnant” formulations of statements one believes as costly signals of one’s commitment to truth-telling and merely regrets that this example will turn out to be too costly.

On the forum organization decision, two thoughts:

  • Can’t you just make a subforum and move all of the posts there? Isn’t that what eventually happened with all the FTX discussion?
  • Ooh, this sounds like the perfect time to write a personal blog post and link to it on the EA forum…

I haven’t waded into the deep end of comments elsewhere but just want to make a simple point: the way Bostrom’s apology starts is awful.

“I do think that provocative communication styles have a place—but not like this!”

This comment just plainly doesn’t make any sense! It’s saying that he believes in provocation as a style, but has a problem with…the provocative style in which he once expressed that view. And there’s no further clarification of the places where provocative communication styles are appropriate, and how his thinking has changed (even if it changed within 24 hours) on whether this particular example was appropriate or not.

Everything in the entire discussion seems downstream of this core point, which is completely botched in the apology. There are similar moments in the rest (like the “what about eugenics?” discussion, or decrying “sloganeering”) that could be dissected alone but this one is emblematic enough on its own.

I think your point about the various "warning flags" is well-taken. Of course, in retrospect, we've been combing the forums for comments that could have given pause. But the volume of comments is way too large to imagine we would have actually updated enough on a single comment to make a difference.

That said, I think the mass exodus of Alameda employees in 2018 should have been a bigger warning flag, cause for more scrutiny on the business, to the extent where those with a concern for the risks should have tried to dig deeper on those employees, even with the complications that NDAs can pose. We can't say we weren't aware of it -- that episode even made it into SBF's fawning 80k interview, albeit mostly framed as "how do you pick yourself up after hardships?".

The best case scenario conclusion of such an investigation very likely wouldn't have been "SBF is committing massive fraud" especially as that might not have happened until years later. But I think it still would have been useful for the community to know that SBF had a reckless appetite for risk, so we could anticipate at least the potential for FTX to just outright collapse, especially as the crypto industry turned sour earlier this year.

Don't read too much into this piece of journalistic flair. It's common practice to end pieces like this (in a paragraph or two known as a "kicker") with something that sounds poignant on first glance to the reader, even if it would fall apart on closer scrutiny, like this does.

I'm a bit confused: Which authorities would the whistleblower report to, especially if they aren't reporting any crimes?

One under-discussed aspect of this: What shape does your utility curve look like for negative dollar returns?

I've been trying to figure out why SBF seems very much to have not just been risk-neutral in his business approach, but quite probably was actively risk-seeking, seeking to make correlated bets (mainly amounting to longs on crypto in general) that all crashed this year.

It seems quite possible to me that SBF saw the downside of Alameda/FTX losing $10B as not nearly as bad as the upside of them making $10B would be good. Consider:

  • Depositors losing their money means that you're taking from people mostly in developed countries who likely have some cash to spare.
  • SBF's parents are law professors who could probably help him legally if he ran into trouble.
  • Even if SBF and the rest of his leadership end up in jail, that's only harm to a small number of people, compared to the many he could help in a positive situation.
  • The ensuing media firestorm has at least made a larger number of people aware of the ideas of EA, which are compelling on their own independent of the goodness of their practitioners.

To be clear, I'm not endorsing this perspective at all... I'm just trying to see if SBF could have been reasoning along these lines, even if he wasn't doing so publicly.

For the rest of us, particularly those trying to act based on the funding being provided, I think it would have been far more helpful to actually examine the potential downside risk that SBF himself was already highlighting with his approach to risk.

This would have meant Rob asking questions like: "If you endorse these sort of high-risk double-or-nothing bets, and you've made it clear that you're not letting up on that even now that you've made billions, should we anticipate a decent likelihood of hearing that FTX has gone bankrupt sometime soon?" Visualizing, and more broadly discussing that very real possibility would have hopefully muted the impact on the EA community when it actually came to pass. And then, after dwelling on the seemingly-zero downside possibility, the natural follow-up question would dive into SBF's valuation of negative returns.

I feel like the story that Rob told fell into the classic winner's fallacy mindset of highlighting a risk someone took seemingly after it was successful. The issue was that those risks weren't just in the past.

I think there’s a kernel of truth to this suggestion! I would put it this way: EA should be global, and it should continue to be powered by communities, but those communities should be local and small.

First, work in specific cause areas should continue to happen globally, but should not operate with an automatic assumption of trust.

“Low trust” wouldn’t mean we stop doing a lot of good; it would just mean that we need to be more transparent and rigorous, rather than just having major EA figures texting with billionaires and the rest of us just hoping they do it right.

GiveWell is a great example of an EA institution built in a “low trust” framework. And it’s great! It would be very hard for me to imagine anything nearly this bad happening in the global health and well-being side of EA precisely because of places like GiveWell.

But small, high-trust community is also great! And we should encourage that — more local meetup groups, more university groups. I agree that funding for such things, after the “startup phase,” should also be a bit more locally-sourced, with alumni funding university groups since students usually lack sources of income.

When I first hosted some EAs for a dinner in my home, someone in the group asked if I wanted funding for it. I had enough context in the EA community that I knew where this sentiment was coming from, but I still found it weird to imagine the tendrils of central EA funds reaching all the way down into my little house dinner. And given that the source was probably, at least counterfactually/fungibly, FTX, I’m glad I didn’t take it.

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