Sawyer Bernath is the Executive Director of the Berkeley Existential Risk Initiative (BERI). Prior to joining BERI in July 2019, he was a Production Manager at Research Electro Optics (now Excelitas Boulder) and Head of Production at Modular Robotics. He has a B.S. in physics from Tufts University.


Topic Contributions

Great post. This put words to some vague concerns I've had lately with people valorizing "agent-y" characteristics. I'm agentic in some ways and very unagentic in other ways, and I'm mostly happy with my impact, reputation, and "social footprint". I like your section on not regulating consumption of finite resources: I think that modeling all aspects of a community as a free market is really bad (I think you agree with this, at least directionally).

This post, especially the section on "Assuming that it is low-cost for others to say 'no' to requests"  reminded me of Deborah Tannen's book That's Not What I Meant — How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships. I found it really enlightening, and I'd recommend it for help understanding the unexpected ways other people approach social interactions.

Good catch, thanks! I can't find my original quote, so I think this was a recent change. I will edit my post accordingly.

Great points, thanks David. I especially like the compare and contrast between personal connections and academic credentials. I think probably you're more experienced with academia and non-EA philanthropy than I am, so your empirical views are different. But I also think that even if EA is better than these other communities, we should still be thinking about (1) keeping it that way, and (2) maybe getting even less reliant. This is part of what I was saying with:

None of this is unique to EA. While I think EA is particularly guilty of some of these issues, in general I could aim this criticism in any direction and hit someone guilty of it. But “everyone else does it” is not in and of itself a reason to accept it. We claim to be doing something really difficult and important, so we should try to be as good as possible.

I think your observations may be counterevidence to anyone saying that EA should become more reliant on personal connections. Since you think (possibly correctly) that other major philanthropy is more reliant on personal connections than EA is, and I assume we agree that EA philanthropy is better than most other major philanthropy.

I think the extent to which "member of the EA community" comes along with a certain way of thinking (i.e. "a lot of useful frames") is exaggerated by many people I've heard talk about this sort of thing. I think ~50% of the perceived similarity is better described as similar ways of speaking and knowledge of jargon. I think that there actually not that many people who have fully internalized new ways of thinking that are 1.) very rare outside of EA, and 2.) shared across most EA hiring managers.

Another way to put this would be: I think EA hiring managers often weight "membership in the EA community" significantly more highly than it should be weighted. I think our disagreement is mostly about how much this factor should be weighted.

Fair point on the fast changing thing. I have some thoughts, but they're not very clear and I think what you said is reasonable. One very rough take: Yes you'd still the people you know, but you might go from, "I know 50% of the people in AI alignment" to "I know 10% of the people in AI Alignment" in 3 months, which could be disorienting and demoralizing. So it's more of a relative thing than the absolute number of people you know.

Explicitly asking for a reference the head organizer knows personally.

That feels pretty bad to me! I can imagine some reason that this would be necessary for some programs, but in general requiring this doesn't seem healthy.

I find the request for references on the EA Funds' application to be a good middle-ground. There's several sentences to it, but the most relevant one is:

References by people who are directly involved in effective altruism and adjacent communities are particularly useful, especially if we are likely to be familiar with their work and thinking.

It's clearly useful to already be in the fund managers' network, but it's also clearly not required. Of course there's always a difference between the policy and the practice, but this is a pretty good public policy from my perspective.

Thanks Chi, this was definitely a mistake on my part and I will edit the post. I do think that your website's "Get Involved" -> "CLR Fund" might not be the clearest path for people looking for funding, but I also think I should have spent more time looking.

Thanks for the thoughtful feedback Chris!

I think that the author undervalues value alignment and how the natural state is towards one of regression to the norm unless specific action is taken to avoid this

I think there is  difference between "value alignment" and "personal connection". I agree that the former is important, and I think the latter is often used (mostly successfully) as a tool to encourage the former. I addressed one aspect of this in the Hiring Managers section.

I agree that as EA scales, we will be less able to rely personal relationships, but I see no reason to impose those costs now

Fair, but I worry that if we're not prepared for this then the costs will be greater, more sudden, and confusing, e.g. people starting to feel that EA is no longer fun or good and not knowing why. I think it's good to be thinking about these things and make the tactical choice to do nothing, rather than leaving "overreliance on personal connections can be bad" out of our strategic arsenal completely.

I agree that it may affect our reputation in the outside world, but I don't think it's worth increasing the risk of bad hires to attempt to satisfy our critics.

I don't think my suggestions for hiring managers would increase the risk of bad hires. In fact, I think moving away from "my friend is friends with this person" and towards "this person demonstrates that they care deeply about this mission" would decrease the risk of bad hires. (Sorry if this doesn't make sense, but I don't want to go on for too long in a comment.)

tension between reliance on personal connections and high rates of movement growth. You take this to be a reason for relying on personal connections less, but one may argue it is a reason for growing more slowly.

I completely agree! I think probably some combination is best, and/or it could differ between subcommunities.

Also thanks for pointing out the FTX Future Fund's experience, I'd forgotten about that. I completely agree that this is evidence against my hypothesis, specifically in the case of grantee-grantor relationships.

Great point about mitigating as opposed to solving. It's possible that my having a "solutions" section wasn't the best framing. I definitely don't think personal connections should be vilified or gotten rid of entirely (if that were even possible), and going too far in this direction would be really bad.

Thanks Stefan! I agree with those strengths of personal connections, and I think there are many others. I mainly tried to argue that there are negative consequences as well, and that the negatives might outweigh the positives at some level of use. Did any of the problems I mentioned in the post strike you as wrong? (Either you think they don't tend to arise from reliance on personal connections, or you think they're not important problems even if they do arise?)

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