Effective Altruism Related Articles

I wanted to make it easier to find all my Effective Altruism (EA) related articles. I made an EA blog category.

Below I link to more EA-related stuff which isn't included in the category list.

Critical Fallibilism articles:

I also posted copies of some of my EA comments/replies in this topic on my forum.

You can look through my posts and comments on the EA site via my EA user profile.

I also made videos related to EA:


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

EA Should Raise Its Standards

I quit the Effective Altruism forum due to a new rule requiring all new posts and comments be basically put in the public domain without copyright, so anyone could e.g. sell a book of my posts without my consent (they’d just have to give attribution). More info. I had a bunch of draft posts, so I’m posting some of them here with minimal editing. In general, I’m not going to submit them as link posts at EA myself. If you think they should be shared with EA as link posts, please do it yourself. I’m happy for other people to share links to my work at EA or on social media. Please share stuff in whatever ways you think are good to do.


I think EA could be over 50% more effective by raising its standards. Community norms should care more about errors and about using explicit reasoning and methods.

For a small example, quotes should be exact. There should be a social norm that says misquotes are unacceptable. You can’t just change the words (without brackets), put it in quote marks, and publish it. That’s not OK. I believe this norm doesn’t currently exist and there would be significant resistance to it. Many people would think it’s not a big deal, and that it’s a pedantic or autistic demand to be so literal with quotes. I think this is a way that people downplay and accept errors, which contributes to lowered effectiveness.

There are similar issues with many sorts of logical, mathematical, grammatical, factual and other errors where a fairly clear and objective “correct answer” can be determined, which should be uncontroversial, and yet people don’t care and take seriously that getting it right is important. Errors should be corrected. Retractions should be issued. Post-mortems should be performed. What process allowed the error to happen? What changes could be made to prevent similar errors from happening in the future?

It’s fine for beginners to make mistakes, but thought leaders in the community should be held to higher standards, and the higher standards should be an aspirational ideal that the beginners want to achieve, rather than something that’s seen as unnecessary, bad or too much work. It’s possible to avoid misquotes and logical errors without it being a major burden; if someone finds it’s a large burden, that means they need to practice more until they improve their intuition and subconscious mind. Getting things right in these ways should be easy and something they you can do while tired, distracted, autopiloting, etc.

Fixes like these alone won’t make EA far more effective by themselves. They will set the stage to enable more advanced or complex improvements. It’s very hard to do more important improvements when frequently making small errors. Getting the basics rights enables working more effectively on more advanced issues.

One of the main more advanced issues is rational debate.

Another is not trusting yourself. Don’t bet anything on your integrity or lack of bias when you can avoid it. There should be a strong norm against doing anything that would fail if you have low integrity or bias. If you can find any alternative, which doesn’t rely on your rationality, do that instead. Bias is common. Learning to be better at not fooling yourself is great, but you’ll probably screw it up a lot. If you can approach things so that you don’t have the opportunity to fool yourself, that’s better. There should be strong norms for things like transparency and following flowcharted methods and rules that dramatically reduce scope for bias. This can be applied to debate as well as to other things. And getting debate right enables criticism when people don’t live up to norms; without getting debate right norms have to be enforced in significant part with social pressure which compromises the rationality of the community and prevents it from clearly seizing the rationality high ground in debates with other groups.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Criticizing The Scout Mindset (including a misquote)

I quit the Effective Altruism forum due to a new rule requiring all new posts and comments be basically put in the public domain without copyright, so anyone could e.g. sell a book of my posts without my consent (they’d just have to give attribution). More info. I had a bunch of draft posts, so I’m posting some of them here with minimal editing. In general, I’m not going to submit them as link posts at EA myself. If you think they should be shared with EA as link posts, please do it yourself. I’m happy for other people to share links to my work at EA or on social media. Please share stuff in whatever ways you think are good to do.


This is quick notes, opinions and criticisms about the book The Scout Mindset by Julia Galef (which EA likes and promotes). I’m not going in depth, being very complete, or giving many quotes, because I don’t care much. I think it’s a bad book that isn’t worth spending more time on, and I don’t expect the author or her fans to listen to, engage with, value, appreciate or learn from criticism. If they were reasonable and wanted to interact, then I think this would be plenty to get the discussion/debate started, and I could give more quotes and details later if that would help make progress in our conversation.

The book is pretty shallow.

Galef repeatedly admits she’s not very rational, sometimes openly and sometimes by accident. The open admissions alone imply that the techniques in the book are inadequate.

She mentions that while writing the book she gathered a bunch of studies that agree with her but was too biased to check their quality. She figured out during writing that she should check them and she found that lots were bad. If you don’t already know that kinda stuff (that most studies like that are bad, that studies should be checked instead of just trusting the title/abstract, or that you should watch out for being biased), maybe you’re too new to be writing a book on rationality?

The book is written so it’s easy to read and think you’re already pretty good and not change. Or someone could improve a little.

The book has nothing that I recognized as substantive original research or thinking. Does she have any ideas of her own?

She uses biased examples, e.g. Musk, Bezos and Susan Blackmore are all used as positive examples. In each case, there are many negative things one could say about them, but she only says positive things about them which fit her narrative. She never tries to consider alternative views about them or explain any examples that don’t easily fit her narrative. Counter-examples or apparent counter-examples are simply left out of the book. Another potential counter-example is Steve Jobs, who is a better and more productive person than any people used as examples in her book, yet he has a reputation rather contrary to the scout mindset. That’s the kind of challenging apparent/potential counter-example that she could have engaged with but didn’t.

She uses an example of a Twitter thread where someone thought email greetings revealed sexism, and she (the tweet author) got cheered for sharing this complaint. Then she checked her data and found that her claim was factually wrong. She retracted. Great? Hold on. Let’s analyze a little more. Are there any other explanations? Even if the original factual claims were true, would sexism necessarily follow? Why not try to think about other narratives? For example, maybe men are less status oriented or less compliant with social norms, so that is why they are less inclined to use fancier titles when addressing her. It doesn’t have to be sexism. If you want to blame sexism, you should look at how they treat men, not just as how they treat one woman. Another potential explanation is that men dislike you individually and don’t treat other women the same way, which could be for some reason other than sexism. E.g. maybe it’s because you’re biased against men but not biased against women, so men pick up on that and respect you less. Galef never thinks anything through in depth and doesn’t consider additional nuances like these.

For Blackmore, the narrative is that anyone can go wrong and rationality is about correcting your mistakes. (Another example is someone who fell for a multi-level marketing scheme before realizing the error.) Blackmore had some experience and then started believing in the paranormal and then did science experiments to test that stuff and none of it worked and she changed her mind. Good story? Hold on. Let’s think critically. Did Blackmore do any new experiments? Were the old experiments refuting the paranormal inadequate or incomplete in some way? Did she review them and critique them? The story mentioned none of them. So why did she do redundant experiments and waste resources to gather the same evidence that already existed? And why did it change her mind when it had no actual new information? Because she was biased to respect the results of her own experiments but not prior experiments done by other people (that she pointed out no flaws in)? This fits the pro-evidence, pro-science-experiments bias of LW/Galef. They’re too eager to test things without considering that, often, we already have plenty of evidence and we just need to examine and debate it better. Blackmore didn’t need any new evidence to change her mind and getting funding to do experiments like that speaks to her privilege. Galef brings up multiple examples of privilege without showing any awareness of it; she just seems to want to suck up to high status people, and not think critically about their flaws, rather than to actually consider their privileges. Blackmore not only was able to fund bad experiments, then she was able to change her mind and continue her career. Why did she get more opportunities after doing such a bad job earlier in her career? Yes she improved (how much really though?). But other people didn’t suck in the first place, then also improved, and never got such great opportunities.

Possibly all the examples in the book of changing one’s mind were things that Galef’s social circle can agree with instead of be challenged by. They all changed their minds to agree with Galef more, not less. E.g. an example was used of becoming more convinced by global warming which, in passing, smeared some other people on the climate change skeptic side as being really biased, dishonest, etc. (True of some of them probably but not a good thing to throw around as an in-passing smear based on hearsay. And true of people on the opposite side of the debate too, so it’s biased to only say it about the side you disagree with to undermine and discredit them in passing while having the deniability of saying it was just an example of something else about rationality.) There was a pro-choicer who became less dogmatic but remained pro-choice, and I think Galef’s social circle also is pro-choice but trying not to be dogmatic about it. There was also a pro-vaccine person who was careful and strategic about bringing up the subject with his anti-vax wife but didn’t reconsider his own views at all, but he and the author did display some understanding of the other side’s point of view and why some superficial pro-vax arguments won’t work. So the narrative is if you understand the point of view of the people who are wrong, then you can persuade them better. But (implied) if you have center-left views typical of EA and LW people, then you won’t have to change your mind much since you’re mostly right.

Galef’s Misquote

Here’s a slightly edited version of my post on my CF forum about a misquote in the book. I expect the book has other misquotes (and factual errors, bad cites, etc.) but I didn’t look for them.

The Scout Mindset by Julia Galef quotes a blog post:

“Well, that’s too bad, because I do think it was morally wrong.”[14]

But the words in the sentence are different in the original post:

Well that’s just too bad, because I do think it was morally wrong of me to publish that list.

She left out the “just” and also cut off the quote early which made it look like the end of a sentence when it wasn’t. Also a previous quote from the same post changes the italics even though the italics match in this one.

The book also summarizes events related to this blog post, and the story told doesn’t match reality (as I see it by looking at the actual posts). Also I guess he didn’t like the attention from the book because he took his whole blog down and the link in the book’s footnote is dead. The book says they’re engaged so maybe he mistakenly thought he would like the attention and had a say in whether to be included? Hopefully… Also the engagement may explain the biased summary of the story that she gave in her book about not being biased.

She also wrote about the same events:

He even published a list titled “Why It’s Plausible I’m Wrong,”

This is misleading because he didn’t put up a post with that title. It’s a section title within a post and she didn’t give a cite so it’s hard to find. Also her capitalization differs from the original which said “Why it’s plausible I’m wrong”. The capitalization change is relevant to making it look more like a title when it isn’t.

BTW I checked archives from other dates. The most recent working one doesn’t have any edits to this wording nor does the oldest version.

What is going on? This book is from a major publisher and there’s no apparent benefit to misquoting it in this way. She didn’t twist his words for some agenda; she just changed them enough that she’s clearly doing something wrong but with no apparent motive (besides maybe minor editing to make the quote sound more polished?). And it’s a blog post; wouldn’t she use copy/paste to get the quote? Did she have the blog post open in her browser and go back and forth between it and her manuscript in order to type in the quote by hand!? That would be a bizarre process. Or does she or someone else change quotes during editing passes in the same way they’d edit non-quotes? Do they just run Grammarly or similar and see snippets from the book and edit them without reading the whole paragraph and realizing they’re within quote marks?

My Email to Julia Galef

Misquote in Scout Mindset:

“Well, that’s too bad, because I do think it was morally wrong.”[14]

But the original sentence was actually:

Well that’s just too bad, because I do think it was morally wrong of me to publish that list.

The largest change is deleting the word "just".

I wanted to let you know about the error and also ask if you could tell me what sort of writing or editing process is capable of producing that error? I've seen similar errors in other books and would really appreciate if I could understand what the cause is. I know one cause is carelessness when typing in a quote from paper but this is from a blog post and was presumably copy/pasted.

Galef did not respond to this email.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

EA and Responding to Famous Authors

I quit the Effective Altruism forum due to a new rule requiring all new posts and comments be basically put in the public domain without copyright, so anyone could e.g. sell a book of my posts without my consent (they’d just have to give attribution). More info. I had a bunch of draft posts, so I’m posting some of them here with minimal editing. In general, I’m not going to submit them as link posts at EA myself. If you think they should be shared with EA as link posts, please do it yourself. I’m happy for other people to share links to my work at EA or on social media. Please share stuff in whatever ways you think are good to do.


I think EA has the resources to attempt to respond to every intellectual who sold over 100,000 books in English which make arguments that contradict EA. EA could write rebuttals to all popular, well known rival positions that are written in books. You could start with the authors who sold over a million books.

There are major downsides to using popularity as your only criterion for what to respond to. It’s important to also have ways that you respond to unpopular criticism. But responding to influential criticism makes sense because people know about it and just ignoring it makes it look like you don’t care to consider other ideas or have no answers.

Answering the arguments of popular authors could be one project, of 10+, in which EA attempts to engage with alternative ideas and argue its case.

EA claims to be committed to rationality but it seems more interested in getting a bunch of charity projects underway and/or funded better ASAP instead of taking the time to first do extensive rational analysis to figure out the right ideas to guide charity.

I understand not wanting to get caught up in doing planning forever and having decision paralysis, but where is the reasonably complete planning and debating that seems adequate to get started based on?

For example, it seems unreasonable to me to start an altruist movement without addressing Ayn Rand’s criticisms of altruism. Where are the serious essays summarizing, analyzing and refuting her arguments about altruism? She sold many millions of books. Where are the debates with anyone from ARI or the invitations for any online Objectivists who are interested to come debate with EA? Objectivism has a lot of fans today who are interested in rationality and debate (or at least claim to be), so ignoring them instead of writing anything that could change their minds seems bad. And being encouraging of discussion with them, instead of discouraging, would make sense and be more rational. (I’m aware that they aren’t doing better. They aren’t asking EA’s to come debate them, hosting more rational debates, writing articles refuting EA, etc. IMO both groups are not doing very well and there’s big room for improvement. I’ve tried to talk to Objectivists to get them to improve before and it didn’t work. Overall, although I’m a big fan of Ayn Rand, I think Objectivist communities today are less open to critical discussion and dissent than EA is.)


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Is EA Rational?

I quit the Effective Altruism forum due to a new rule requiring all new posts and comments be basically put in the public domain without copyright, so anyone could e.g. sell a book of my posts without my consent (they’d just have to give attribution). More info. I had a bunch of draft posts, so I’m posting some of them here with minimal editing. In general, I’m not going to submit them as link posts at EA myself. If you think they should be shared with EA as link posts, please do it yourself. I’m happy for other people to share links to my work at EA or on social media. Please share stuff in whatever ways you think are good to do.


I haven’t studied EA much. There is plenty more about EA that I could read. But I don’t want to get involved much unless EA is rational.

By “rational”, I mean capable of (and good at) correcting errors. Rationality, in my mind, enables progress and improvement instead of stasis, being set in your ways, not listening to suggestions, etc. So a key aspect of rationality is being open to criticism, and having ways that changes will actually be made based on correct criticisms.

Is EA rational? In other words, if I study EA and find some errors, and then I write down those errors, and I’m right, will EA then make changes to fix those errors? I am doubtful.

That definitely could happen. EA does make changes and improvements sometimes. Is that not a demonstration of EA’s rationality? Partially, yes, sure. Which is why I’m saying this to EA instead of some other group. I think EA is better at that than most other groups.

But I think EA’s ability to listen to criticism and make changes is related to social status, bias, tribalism, and popularity. If I share a correct criticism and I’m perceived as high status, and I have friends in high places, and the criticism fits people’s biases, and the criticism makes me seem in-group not out-group, and the criticism gains popularity (gets shared and upvoted a bunch, gets talked about by many people), then I would have high confidence that EA would make changes. If all those factors are present, then EA is reliably willing to consider criticism and make changes.

If some of those factors are present, then it’s less reliable but EA might listen to criticism. If none of those factors are present, then I’m doubtful the criticism will be impactful. I don’t want to study EA to find flaws and also make friends with the right people, change my writing style to be a better culture fit with EA, form habits of acting in higher status ways, and focus on sharing criticisms that fit some pre-existing biases or tribal divisions.

What can be done as an alternative to listening to criticism based on popularity, status, culture-fit, biases, tribes, etc? One option is organized debate with written methodologies that make some guarantees. EA doesn’t do that. Does it do something else?

One thing I know EA does, which is much better than nothing (and is better than many other groups offer), is informal, disorganized debate following unwritten methodologies that vary some by the individuals you’re speaking with. I consider this option inadequately motivating to seriously research and critically scrutinize EA.

I could talk to EA people who have read essays about rationality and who are trying to be rational – individually, with no accountability, transparency, or particular responsibilities. I think that’s not good enough and makes it way too easy for social status hierarchies to matter. If EA offered more organized ways of sharing and debating criticism, with formal rules, then people would have to follow the rules and therefore not act based on status. Things like rules, flowcharted methods to follow, or step-by-step actions to take can all help fight against the people’s tendency to act based on status and other biases.

It’s good for informal options to exist but they rely on basically “everyone just personally tries to be rational” which I don’t think is good enough. So more formal options, with pro-rationality (and anti-status, anti-bias, etc.) design features should exist too.

The most common objection to such things is they’re too much work. On an individual level, it’s unclear to me that following a written methodology is more work than following an unwritten methodology. Whatever you do, you have some sort of methods or policies. Also, I don’t really think you can evaluate how much work a methodology is (and how much benefit it offers, since the cost/benefit ratio is what matters) without actually developing that methodology and writing it down first. I think rational debate methodologies which tries to reach conclusions about incoming criticisms are broadly untested empirically, so people shouldn’t assume they’d take too long or be ineffective when they can’t point to any examples of them being tried with that result. And EA has plenty of resources to e.g. task one full-time worker with engaging with community criticism and keeping organized documents that attempt to specify what arguments against EA exist, what counter-arguments there are, and otherwise map out the entire relevant debate as it exists today. Putting in less effort than that looks to me like not trying because the results are unwanted (some people prefer status hierarchies and irrationality, even if they say they like rationality) rather than because the results are highly prized but too expensive. There have been no research programs afaik to try to get these kinds of rational debate results more cheaply.

Also, suppose I research EA, come up with some criticisms, and I’m wrong. I informally share my criticisms on the forum and get some unsatisfactory, incomplete answers. I still think I’m right and I have no way to get my error corrected. The lack of access to debate symmetrically prevents whoever is wrong from learning better, whether that’s EA or me. So the outcome is bad either way. Either I’ve come up with a correct criticism but EA won’t change; or I’ve come up with any incorrect criticism but EA won’t explain to me why it’s incorrect in a way that’s adequate for me to change. Blocking conclusive rational debate blocks error correction regardless of which side is right. Should EA really explain to all their incorrect critics why those critics are wrong? Yes! I think EA should create public explanations, in writing, of why all objections to EA (that anyone actually raises) are wrong. Would that take ~infinite work? No because you can explain why some category of objection is wrong. You can respond to patterns in the objections instead of addressing every objection individually. This lets you re-use some answers. Doing this would persuade more people that EA is correct, make it much more rewarding to study EA and try to think critically about it, and turn up the minority of cases where EA lacks an adequate answer to a criticism, and also expose EA’s good answers to review (people might suggest even better answers or find that, although EA won the argument in some case, there is a weakness in EA’s argument and a better criticism of EA could be made).

In general, I think EA is more willing to listen to criticism that is based on a bunch of shared premises. The more you disagree with and question foundational premises, the less EA will listen and discuss. If you agree on a bunch of foundations then criticize some more detailed matters based on those foundations, then EA will listen more. This results in many critics having a reasonably good experience even though the system (or really lack of system) is IMO fundamentally broken/irrational.

I imagine EA people will broadly dislike and disagree with what I’ve said, in part because I’m challenging foundational issues rather than using shared premises to challenge other issues. I think a bunch of people trying to study rationality and do their best at it is … a lot better than not doing that. But I think it’s inadequate compared to having policies, methodologies, flowcharts, checklists, rules, written guarantees, transparency, accountability, etc., to enable rationality. If you don’t walk people step by step through what to do, you’re going to get a lot of social status behaviors and biases from people who are trying to be rational. Also, if EA has something else to solve the same problems I’m concerned about in a different way than how I suggest approaching them, what is the alternative solution?

Why does writing down step by step what to do help if the people writing the steps have biases and irrationalities of their own? Won’t the steps be flawed? Sure they may be, but putting them in writing allows critical analysis of the steps from many people. Improving the steps can be a group effort. Whereas many people separately following their own separate unwritten steps is hard to improve.

I do agree with the basic idea of EA: using reason and evidence to optimize charity. I agree that charity should be approached with a scientific and rational mindset rather than with whims, arbitrariness, social signaling or whatever else. I agree that cost/benefit ratios and math matter more than feelings about charity. But unfortunately I don’t think that’s enough agreement to get a positive response when I then challenge EA on what rationality is and how to pursue it. I think critics get much better responses from EA if they have major pre-existing agreement with EA about what rationality is and how to do it, but optimizing rationality itself is crucial to EA’s mission.

In other words, I think EA is optimized for optimizing which charitable interventions are good. It’s pretty good at discussing and changing its mind about cost/benefit ratios of charity options (though questioning the premises themselves behind some charity approaches is less welcome). But EA is not similarly good at discussing and changing its mind about how to discuss, change its mind, and be rational. It’s better at applying rationality to charity topics than to epistemology.

Does this matter? Suppose I couldn’t talk to EA about rational debate itself, but could talk to EA about the costs and benefits of any particular charity project. Is that good enough? I don’t think so. Besides potentially disagreeing with the premises of some charity projects, I also have disagreements regarding how to do multi-factor decision making itself.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

EA and Paths Forward

I quit the Effective Altruism forum due to a new rule requiring all new posts and comments be basically put in the public domain without copyright, so anyone could e.g. sell a book of my posts without my consent (they’d just have to give attribution). More info. I had a bunch of draft posts, so I’m posting some of them here with minimal editing. In general, I’m not going to submit them as link posts at EA myself. If you think they should be shared with EA as link posts, please do it yourself. I’m happy for other people to share links to my work at EA or on social media. Please share stuff in whatever ways you think are good to do.


Suppose EA is making an important error. John knows a correction and would like to help. What can John do?

Whatever the answer is, this is something EA should put thought into. They should advertise/communicate the best process for John to use, make it easy to understand and use, and intentionally design it with some beneficial features. EA should also consider having several processes so there are backups in case one fails.

Failure is a realistic possibility here. John might try to share a correction but be ignored. People might think John is wrong even though he’s right. People might think John’s comment is unimportant even though it’s actually important. There are lots of ways for people to reject or ignore a good idea. Suppose that happens. Now EA has made two mistakes which John knows are mistakes and would like to correct. There’s the first mistake, whatever it was, and now also this second mistake of not being receptive to the correction of the first mistake.

How can John get the second mistake corrected? There should be some kind of escalation process for when the initial mistake correction process fails. There is a risk that this escalation process would be abused. What if John thinks he’s right but actually he’s wrong? If the escalation process is costly in time and effort for EA people, and is used frequently, that would be bad. So the process should exist but should be designed in some kind of conservative way that limits the effort it will cost EA to deal with incorrect corrections. Similarly, the initial process for correcting EA also needs to be designed to limit the burden it places on EA. Limiting the burden increases the failure rate, making a secondary (and perhaps tertiary) error correction option more important to have.

When John believes he has an important correction for EA, and he shares it, and EA initially disagrees, that is a symmetric situation. Each side thinks the other is wrong. (That EA is multiple people, and John also might actually be multiple people, makes things more complex, but without changing some of the key principles.) The rational thing to do with this kind of symmetric dispute is not to say “I think I’m right” and ignore the other side. If you can’t resolve the dispute – if your knowledge is inadequate to conclude that you’re right – then you should be neutral and act accordingly. Or you might think you have crushing arguments which are objectively adequate to resolve the dispute in your favor, and you might even post them publicly, and think John is responding in obviously unreasonable ways. In that case, you might manage to objectively establish some kind of asymmetry. How to do objectively establish asymmetries in intellectual disagreements is a hard, important question in epistemology which I don’t think has received appropriate research attention (note: it’s also relevant when there’s a disagreement between two ideas within one person).

Anyway, what can John do? He can write down some criticism and post it on the EA forum. EA has a free, public forum. That is better than many other organizations which don’t facilitate publicly sharing criticism. Many organizations either have no forum or delete critical discussions while making no real attempt at rationality (e.g. Blizzard has forums related to its games, but they aren’t very rational, don’t really try to be, and delete tons of complaints). Does EA ever delete dissent or ban dissenters? As someone who hasn’t already spent many years paying close attention, I don’t know and I don’t know how to find out in a way that I would trust. Many forums claim not to delete dissent but actually do; it’s a common thing to lie about. Making a highly credible claim not to delete or punish dissent is important or else John might not bother trying to share his criticism.

So John can post a criticism on a forum, and then people may or may not read it and may or may not reply. Will anyone with some kind of leadership role at EA read it? Maybe not. This is bad. The naive alternative “guarantee plenty of attention from important people to all criticism” would be even worse. But there are many other possible policy options which are better.

To design a better system, we should consider what might go wrong. How could John’s great, valuable criticism receive a negative reaction on an open forum which is active enough that John gets at least a little attention? And how might things go well? If the initial attention John gets is positive, that will draw some additional attention. If that is positive too, then it will draw more attention. If 100% of the attention John gets results in positive responses, his post will be shared and spread until a large portion of the community sees it including people with power and influence, who will also view the criticism positively (by premise) and so they’ll listen and act. A 75% positive response rate would probably also be good enough to get a similar outcome.

So how might John’s criticism, which we’re hypothetically supposing is true and important, get a more negative reception so that it can’t snowball to get more attention and influence important decision makers?

John might have low social status, and people might judge more based on status than idea quality.

John’s criticism might offend people.

John’s criticism might threaten people in some way, e.g. implying that some of them shouldn’t have the income and prestige (or merely self-esteem) that they currently enjoy.

John’s criticism might be hard to understand. People might get confused. People might lack some prerequisite knowledge and skills needed to engage with it well.

John’s criticism might be very long and hard to get value from just the beginning. People might skim but not see the value that they would see if they read the whole thing in a thoughtful, attentive way. Making it long might be an error by John, but it also might be really hard to shorten and still have a good cost/benefit ratio (it’s valuable enough to justify the length).

John’s criticism might rely on premises that people disagree with. In other words, EA might be wrong about more than one thing. An interconnected set of mistakes can be much harder to explain than a single mistake even if the critic understands the entire set of mistakes. People might reject criticism of X due to their own mistake Y, and criticism of Y due to their own mistake X. A similar thing can happening involving many more ideas in a much more complicated structure so that it’s harder for John to point out what’s going on (even if he knows).

What can be done about all these difficulties? My suggestion, in short, is to develop a rational debate methodology and to hold debates aimed at reaching conclusions about disagreements. The methodology must include features for reducing the role of bias, social status, dishonesty, etc. In particular, it must prevent people from arbitrarily stopping any debates whenever they feel like it (which tends to include shortly before losing, which prevents the debate from being conclusive). The debate methodology must also have features for reducing the cost of debate, and ending low value debates, especially since it won’t allow arbitrarily quitting at any moment. A debate methodology is not a perfect, complete solution to all the problems John may face but it has various merits.

People often assume that rational, conclusive debate is too much work so the cost/benefit ratio on it is poor. This is typically a general opinion they have rather than an evaluation of any specific debate methodology. I think they should reserve judgment until after they review some written debate methodologies. They should look at some actual methods and see how much work they are, and what benefits they offer, before reaching a conclusion about their cost/benefit ratio. If the cost/benefit ratios are poor, people would try to make adjustments to reduce costs and increase benefits before giving up on rational debate.

Can people have rational debate without following any written methodology? Sure that’s possible. But if that worked well for some people and resulted in good cost/benefit ratios, wouldn’t it make sense to take whatever those successful debate participants are doing and write it down as a method? Even if the method had vague parts that’d be better than nothing.

Although under-explored, debate methodologies are not a new idea. E.g. Russell L. Ackoff published one in a book in 1978 (pp. 44-47). That’s unfortunately the only very substantive, promising one I’ve found besides developing one of my own. I bet there are more to be found somewhere in existing literature though. The main reason I thought Ackoff’s was a valuable proposal were that 1) it was based on following specific steps (in other words, you could make a flowchart out of it); and 2) it aimed at completeness, including using recursion to enable it to always succeed instead of getting stuck. Partial methods are common and easy to find, e.g. “don’t straw man” is a partial debate method, but it’s just suitable for being one little part of an overall method (and it lacks specific methods of detecting straw men, handling them when someone thinks one was done, etc. – it’s more of an aspiration than specific actions to achieve that aspiration).

A downside of Ackoff’s method is that it lacks stopping conditions besides success, so it could take an unlimited amount of effort. I think unilateral stopping conditions are one of the key issues for a good debate method: they need to exist (to prevent abuse by unreasonable debate partners who don’t agree to end the debate) but be designed to prevent abuse (by e.g. people quitting debates when they’re losing and quitting in a way designed to obscure what happened). I developed impasse chains as a debate stopping condition which takes a fairly small, bounded amount of effort to end debates unilaterally but adds significant transparency about how and why the debate is ending. Impasse chains only work when the further debate is providing low value, but that’s the only problematic case – otherwise you can either continue or say you want to stop and give a reason (which the other person will consent to, or if they don’t and you think they’re being unreasonable, now you’ve got an impasse to raise). Impasse chains are in the ballpark of “to end a debate, you must either mutually agree or else go through some required post-mortem steps” plus they enable multiple chances at problem solving to fix whatever is broken about the debate. This strikes me as one of the most obvious genres of debate stopping conditions to try, yet I think my proposal is novel. I think that says something really important about the world and its hostility to rational debate methodology. (I don’t think it’s mere disinterest or ignorance; if it were, the moment I suggested rational debate methods and said why they were important a lot of people would become excited and want to pursue the matter; but that hasn’t happened.)

Another important and related issue is how can you write, or design and organize a community or movement, so it’s easier for people to learn and debate with your ideas? And also easier to avoid low value or repetitive discussion. An example design is an FAQ to help reduce repetition. A less typical design would be creating (and sharing and keeping updated) a debate tree document organizing and summarizing the key arguments in the entire field you care about.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Meta Criticism

I quit the Effective Altruism forum due to a new rule requiring all new posts and comments be basically put in the public domain without copyright, so anyone could e.g. sell a book of my posts without my consent (they’d just have to give attribution). More info. I had a bunch of draft posts, so I’m posting some of them here with minimal editing. In general, I’m not going to submit them as link posts at EA myself. If you think they should be shared with EA as link posts, please do it yourself. I’m happy for other people to share links to my work at EA or on social media. Please share stuff in whatever ways you think are good to do.


Meta criticism is potentially more powerful than direct criticism of specific flaws. Meta criticism can talk about methodologies or broad patterns. It’s a way of taking a step back, away from all the details, to look critically at a bigger picture.

Meta criticism isn’t very common. Why? It’s less conventional, normal, mainstream or popular. That makes it harder to get a positive reception for it. It’s less well understood or respected. Also, meta criticism tends to be more abstract, more complicated, harder to get right, and harder to act on. In return for those downsides, it can be more powerful.

On average or as some kind of general trend, is the cost-to-benefit ratio for meta criticism is better or worse than regular criticism? I don’t really know. I think neither one has a really clear advantage and we should try some of both. Plus, to some extent, they do different things so again it makes sense to use both.

I think there’s an under-exploited area with high value, which is some of the most simple, basic meta criticisms. These are easier to understand and deal with, yet can still be powerful. I think these initial meta criticisms tend to be more important than concrete criticisms. Also, meta criticisms are more generic so they can be re-used between different discussions or different topics more, and that’s especially true for the more basic meta criticisms that you would start with (whereas more advanced meta criticism might depend on the details of a topic more).

So let’s look at examples of introductory meta criticisms which I think have a great cost-to-benefit ratio (given that people aren’t hostile to them, which is a problem sometimes). These examples will help give a better sense of what meta criticisms are in addition to being useful issues to consider.

Do you act based on methods?

“You” could be a group or individual. If the answer is “no” that’s a major problem. Let’s assume it’s “yes”.

Are the methods written down?

Again, “no” is a major problem. Assuming “yes”:

Do the methods contain explicit features designed to reduce bias?

Again, “no” is a major problem. Examples of anti-bias features include transparency, accountability, anti-bias training or ways of reducing the importance of social status in decision making (such as some decisions being made in random or blinded ways).

Many individuals and organizations in the world have already failed within the first three questions. Others could technically say “yes” but their anti-bias features aren’t very good (e.g. I’m sure every large non-crypto bank has some written methods that employees use for some tasks which contain some anti-bias features of some sort despite not really even aiming at rationality).

But, broadly, those with “no” answers or poor answers don’t want to, and don’t, discuss this and try to improve. Why? There are many reasons but here’s a particularly relevant one: They lack methods of talking about it with transparency, accountability and other anti-bias features. The lack of rational discussion methodology protects all their other errors like lack of methodology for whatever it is that they do.

One of the major complicating factors is how groups work. Some groups have clear leadership and organization structures, with a hierarchical power structure which assigns responsibilities. In that case, it’s relatively easy to blame leadership for big picture problems like lack of rational methods. But other groups are more of a loose association without a clear leadership structure that takes responsibility for considering or addressing criticism, setting policies, etc. Not all groups have anyone who could easily decide on some methods and get others to use them. EA and LW are examples of groups with significant voids in leadership, responsibility and accountability. They claim to have a bunch of ideas, but it’s hard to criticize them because of the lack of official position statements by them (or when there is something kinda official, like The Sequences, the people willing to talk on the forum often disagree with or are ignorant of a lot of that official position – there’s no way to talk with a person who advocates the official position as a whole and will take responsibility for addressing errors in it, or who has the power to fix it). There’s no reasonable, reliable way to ask EA a question like “Do you have an a written methodology for rational debate?” and get an official answer that anyone will take responsibility for.

So one of the more basic, introductory areas for meta criticism/questioning is to ask about rational methodology. And a second is to ask about leadership, responsibility, and organization structure. If there is an error, who can be told who will fix it, and how does one get their attention? If some clarifying questions are needed before sharing the error, how does one get them answered? If the answers are things like “personally contact the right people and become familiar with the high status community members” that is a really problematic answer. There should be publicly accessible and documented options which can be used by people who don’t have social status within the community. Social status is a biasing, irrational approach which blocks valid criticism from leading to change. Also, even if the situation is better than that, many people won’t know it’s better, and won’t try, unless you publicly tell them it’s better in a convincing way. To be convincing, you have to offer specific policies with guarantees and transparency/accountability, rather than saying a variant of “trust us”.

Guarantees can be expensive especially when they’re open to the general public. There are costs/downsides here. Even non-guaranteed options, such as an option suggestion box for unsolicited advice, even if you never reply to anything, have a cost. If you promised to reply to every suggestion, that would be too expensive. Guarantees need to have conditions placed on them. E.g. “If you make a suggestion and read the following ten books and pay $100, then we guarantee a response (limit: one response per person per year).” That policy would result in a smaller burden than responding to all suggestions, but it still offers a guarantee. Would the burden still be too high? It depends how popular you are. Is a response a very good guarantee? Not really. You might read the ten books, pay the money, and get the response “No.” or “Interesting idea; we’ll consider it.” and nothing more. That could be unsatisfying. Some additional guarantees about the nature of the response could help. There is a ton of room to brainstorm how to do these things well. These kinds of ideas are very under-explored. An example stronger guarantee would be to respond with either a decisive refutation or else to put together an exploratory committee to investigate taking the suggestion. Such committees have a poor reputation and could be replaced with some other method of escalating the idea to get more consideration.

Guarantees should focus on objective criteria. For example, saying you’ll respond to all “good suggestions” would be a poor guarantee to offer. How can someone predictably know in advance whether their suggestion will meet that condition or not? Design policies to not let decision makers use arbitrary judgment which could easily be biased or wrong. For example, you might judge “good” suggestions using the “I’ll know it when I see it method”. That would be very arbitrary and a bad approach. If you say “good” means “novel, interesting, substantive and high value if correct” that is a little better, but still very bad, because a decision maker can arbitrary judge whatever he wants as bad and there’s no effective way to hold him accountable, determine his judgment was an error, get that error corrected, etc. There’s also there’s poor predictability for people considering making suggestions.

From what I can tell, my main disagreement with EA is I think EA should have written, rational debate methods, and EA doesn’t think so. I don’t know how to make effective progress on resolving that disagreement because no one from EA will follow any specific rational debate methods. Also EA offers no alternative solution, that I know of, to the same problem that rational debate methods are meant to solve. Without rational debate methods (or an effective alternative), no other disagreements really matter because there’s nothing good to be done about them.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

EA Misquoting Discussion Summary

I quit the Effective Altruism forum due to a new rule requiring all new posts and comments be basically put in the public domain without copyright, so anyone could e.g. sell a book of my posts without my consent (they’d just have to give attribution). More info. I had a bunch of draft posts, so I’m posting some of them here with minimal editing. In general, I’m not going to submit them as link posts at EA myself. If you think they should be shared with EA as link posts, please do it yourself. I’m happy for other people to share links to my work at EA or on social media. Please share stuff in whatever ways you think are good to do.


Let me summarize events from my perspective.

I read a book EA likes and found a misquote in it (and other problems).

Someone misquoted me twice in EA forum discussion. They seemed to think that was OK, not a big deal, etc. And no one in the audience took my side or said anything negative about misquotes.

The person who misquoted me (as well as anyone reading) didn’t want to talk about it or debate the matter.

In an open questions thread, I asked about EA’s norms regarding misquotes.

In response, someone misquoted the EA norms to me, which is pretty ironic and silly.

Their claim about EA norms was basically that misquotes aren’t important.

When I pointed out that they had misquoted, they didn’t really seem to care or think that was bad. Again, there were no signs the audience thought misquoting was bad, either.

Lizka, who was the person being misquoted since she wrote the EA norms document, commented on the matter. Lizka’s comment communicated:

  • She agrees with me that the norms were misquoted.
  • But she didn’t really mind or care.
  • EA has no strong norm against misquoting.
  • The attitude to misquotes is basically like typos: mistakes and accidents happen and we should be tolerant and forgiving about that.

Again, no one wanted to talk with me about the matter or debate it.

I wrote an article explaining that misquoting is bad. I compared misquoting to deadnaming because the misquoted norm was actually about deadnaming, and I thought that read as a whole it’s actually a good norm, and the same norm should be used for misquoting.

The EA norm on deadnaming is basically: first, don’t do it, and second, if it’s a genuine accident, that’s alright, but don’t do it again.

Whereas EA’s current misquoting norm is more like: misquotes are technically errors, so that’s bad, but no one particularly cares.

Misquotes are actually like deadnaming. Deadnaming involves exercising control over someone else’s name without their consent, when their name should be within their control. Misquotes involve exercising control over someone else’s words/speech without their consent, when their words/speech should be within their control. Misquotes and deadnaming both violate the personal boundaries of a person and violate consent.

Misquotes are also bad for reasons of scholarship, accuracy and truth seeking. I believe the general attitude of not caring about “small” errors is a big mistake.

Misquotes are accepted at EA due to the combination of not recognizing how they violate consent and victimize someone (like deadnaming), and having a culture tolerant of “small” errors and imprecision.

So, I disagree, and I have two main reasons. And people are not persuaded and don’t want to debate or give any counter-arguments. Which gets into one of the other main topics I’ve posted about at EA, which is debating norms and methodology.

All this so far is … fine. Whatever. The weird part comes next.

The main feedback I’ve gotten regarding misquoting and deadnaming is not disagreement. No one has clearly admitted to disagreeing with me and e.g. claimed that misquoting is not like deadnaming.

Instead, I’ve been told that I’m getting downvoted because people agree with me too much: they think it’s so obvious and uncontroversial that it’s a waste of time to write about.

That is not what’s happening and it’s a very bizarre excuse. People are so eager to avoid a debate that they deny disagreeing with me, even when they could tell from the title that they do disagree with me. None of them has actually claimed that they do think misquoting is like deadnaming, and should be reacted to similarly.

Partly, people are anti-misquoting in some weaker way than I am, just like they are anti-typos but not very strongly. The nuance of “I am more against misquoting than you are, so we disagree” seems too complex for some people. They want to identify as anti-misquoting, so they don’t want to take the pro-misquoting side of a debate. The actual issue is how bad misquoting is (or we could be more specific and specify 20 ways misquoting might be bad, 15 of which I believe, and only 5 of which they believe, and then debate the other 10).

I wrote a second article trying to clarify to people that they disagree with me. I gave some guided thinking so they could see it for themselves. E.g. if I pointed out a misquote in the sequences, would you care? Would it matter much to you? Would you become concerned and start investigating other quotes in the book? I think we all know that if I found a single misquote in that book, it would result in no substantive changes. I think it should; you don’t; we disagree.

After being downvoted without explanation on the second article about misquoting, I wrote an article about downvotes being evidence, in which I considered what different interpretations of downvotes and different reactions. This prompted the most mixed voting I’d gotten yet and a response saying people were probably just downvoting me because they didn’t see the point of my anti-misquoting articles because they already agree with me. That guy refused to actually say he agrees with me himself, saying basically (only when pressed) that he’s unsure and neutral and not very interested in thinking or talking about it. If you think it’s a low priority unimportant issue, then you disagree with me, since I think it’s very important. Does he also think deadnaming is low priority and unimportant? If not, then he clearly disagrees with me.

It’s so weird for people who disagree with me to insist they agree with me. And Lizka already clarified that she disagrees with me, and made a statement about what the EA norms are, and y’all are still telling me that the community in general agrees with me!?

Guys, I’ve struck a nerve. I got downvotes because people didn’t like being challenged in this way, and I’m getting very bizarre excuses to avoid debate because this is a sensitive issue that people don’t want to think or speak clearly about. So it’s important for an additional reason: because people are biased and irrational about it.

My opinions on this matter predate EA (though the specific comparison to deadnaming is a new way of expressing an old point).

I suspect one reason the deadnaming comparison didn’t go over well is that most EAers don’t care much about deadnaming either (and don’t have nuanced, thoughtful opinions about it), although they aren’t going to admit that.

Most deadnaming and most misquoting is not an innocent accident. I think people know that with deadnaming, but deny it with misquoting. But explain to me: how did the wording change in a quote that you could have copy/pasted? That’s generally not an innocent accident. How did you leave out the start of the paragraph and take a quote out of context? That was not a random accident. How did you type in a quote from paper and then forget to triple check it for typos? That is negligence at best, not an accident.

Negligently deadnaming people is not OK. Don’t do it. Negligently misquoting is bad too for more reasons: violates consent and harms scholarship.

This is all related to more complex and more important issues, but if I can’t persuade anyone of this smaller initial point that should be easy, I don’t think trying to say more complex stuff is going to work. If people won’t debate a relatively small, isolated issue, they aren’t going to successfully debate a complex topic involving dozens of issues of similar or higher difficulty as well as many books. One purpose of talking about misquoting is it it’s test issue to see how people handle debate and criticism, plus it’s an example of one of the main broader themes I’d like to talk about which is about the value of raising intellectual standards. If you can’t win with the small test issue that shouldn’t be very hard, you’ve gotta figure out what is going on. And if the responses to the small test issue are really bizarre and involve things like persistently denying disagreeing while obviously disagreeing … you really gotta figure out what is going on instead of ignore that evidence. So I’ve written about it again (this post).

If you want to find details of this stuff on the EA forum and see exactly what people said to me, besides what is linked in my two articles about misquoting that I linked above, you can also go to my EA user profile and look through my post and comment history there.


Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)