Buck's Shortform

post by Buck · 2020-09-13T17:29:42.117Z · score: 6 (1 votes) · EA · GW · 18 comments

18 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Buck · 2020-09-19T05:00:39.146Z · score: 64 (19 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I’ve recently been thinking about medieval alchemy as a metaphor for longtermist EA.

I think there’s a sense in which it was an extremely reasonable choice to study alchemy. The basic hope of alchemy was that by fiddling around in various ways with substances you had, you’d be able to turn them into other things which had various helpful properties. It would be a really big deal if humans were able to do this.

And it seems a priori pretty reasonable to expect that humanity could get way better at manipulating substances, because there was an established history of people figuring out ways that you could do useful things by fiddling around with substances in weird ways, for example metallurgy or glassmaking, and we have lots of examples of materials having different and useful properties. If you had been particularly forward thinking, you might even have noted that it seems plausible that we’ll eventually be able to do the full range of manipulations of materials that life is able to do.

So I think that alchemists deserve a lot of points for spotting a really big and important consideration about the future. (I actually have no idea if any alchemists were thinking about it this way; that’s why I billed this as a metaphor rather than an analogy.) But they weren’t really very correct about how anything worked, and so most of their work before 1650 was pretty useless. 

It’s interesting to think about whether EA is in a similar spot. I think EA has done a great job of identifying crucial and underrated considerations about how to do good and what the future will be like, eg x-risk and AI alignment. But I think our ideas for acting on these considerations seem much more tenuous. And it wouldn’t be super shocking to find out that later generations of longtermists think that our plans and ideas about the world are similarly inaccurate.

So what should you have done if you were an alchemist in the 1500s who agreed with this argument that you had some really underrated considerations but didn’t have great ideas for what to do about them? 

I think that you should probably have done some of the following things:

  • Try to establish the limits of your knowledge and be clear about the fact that you’re in possession of good questions rather than good answers.
  • Do lots of measurements, write down your experiments clearly, and disseminate the results widely, so that other alchemists could make faster progress.
  • Push for better scientific norms. (Scientific norms were in fact invented in large part by Robert Boyle for the sake of making chemistry a better field.)
  • Work on building devices which would enable people to do experiments better.

Overall I feel like the alchemists did pretty well at making the world better, and if they’d been more altruistically motivated they would have been even better.

There are some reasons to think that pushing early chemistry forward is easier than working on improving the long term future, In particular, you might think that it’s only possible to work on x-risk stuff around the time of the hinge of history.

comment by meerpirat · 2020-10-16T07:14:55.106Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Huh, interesting thoughts, have you looked into the actual motivations behind it more? I'd've guessed that there was little "big if true" thinking in alchemy and mostly hopes for wealth and power.

Another thought, I suppose alchemy was more technical than something like magical potion brewing and in that way attracted other kinds of people, making it more proto-scientific? Another similar comparison might be sincere altruistic missionaries that work on finding the "true" interpretation of the bible/koran/..., sharing their progress in understanding it and working on convincing others to save them.

Regarding pushing chemnistry being easier than longtermism, I'd have guessed the big reasons why pushing scientific fields is easier are the possibility of repeating experiments and profitability of the knowledge. Are there really longtermists who find it plausible we can only work on x-risk stuff around the hinge? Even patient longtermists seem to want to save resources and I suppose invest in other capacity building. Ah, or do you mean "it's only possible to *directly* work on x-risk stuff", vs. indirectly? It just seemed odd to suggest that everything longtermists have done so far has not affected the probability of eventual x-risk, in the very least it has set in motion the longtermism movement earlier and shaping the culture and thinking style and so forth via institutions like FHI.

comment by Buck · 2020-09-13T17:29:42.563Z · score: 59 (25 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Edited to add: I think that I phrased this post misleadingly; I meant to complain mostly about low quality criticism of EA rather than eg criticism of comments. Sorry to be so unclear. I suspect most commenters misunderstood me.

I think that EAs, especially on the EA Forum, are too welcoming to low quality criticism [EDIT: of EA]. I feel like an easy way to get lots of upvotes is to make lots of vague critical comments about how EA isn’t intellectually rigorous enough, or inclusive enough, or whatever. This makes me feel less enthusiastic about engaging with the EA Forum, because it makes me feel like everything I’m saying is being read by a jeering crowd who just want excuses to call me a moron.

I’m not sure how to have a forum where people will listen to criticism open mindedly which doesn’t lead to this bias towards low quality criticism.

comment by Linch · 2020-09-13T18:03:46.582Z · score: 21 (9 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

1. At an object level, I don't think I've noticed the dynamic particularly strongly on the EA Forum (as opposed to eg. social media). I feel like people are generally pretty positive about each other/the EA project (and if anything are less negative than is perhaps warranted sometimes?). There are occasionally low-quality critical posts (that to some degree reads to me as status plays) that pop up, but they usually get downvoted fairly quickly.

2. At a meta level, I'm not sure how to get around the problem of having a low bar for criticism in general. I think as an individual it's fairly hard to get good feedback without also being accepting of bad feedback, and likely something similar is true of groups as well?

comment by howdoyousay? · 2020-09-14T18:14:12.742Z · score: 14 (8 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)
I feel like an easy way to get lots of upvotes is to make lots of vague critical comments about how EA isn’t intellectually rigorous enough, or inclusive enough, or whatever. This makes me feel less enthusiastic about engaging with the EA Forum, because it makes me feel like everything I’m saying is being read by a jeering crowd who just want excuses to call me a moron.

Could you unpack this a bit? Is it the originating poster who makes you feel that there's a jeering crowd, or the people up-voting the OP which makes you feel the jeers?

As counterbalance...

Writing, and sharing your writing, is how you often come to know your own thoughts. I often recognise the kernel of truth someone is getting at before they've articulated it well, both in written posts and verbally. I'd rather encourage someone for getting at something even if it was lacking, and then guide them to do better. I'd especially prefer to do this given I personally know that it's difficult to make time to perfect a post whilst doing a job and other commitments.

This is even more the case when it's on a topic that hasn't been explored much, such as biases in thinking common to EAs or diversity issues. I accept that in liberal circles being critical on basis of diversity and inclusion or cognitive biases is a good signalling-win, and you might think it would follow suit in EA. But I'm reminded of what Will MacAskill said about 8 months ago on an 80k podcast that he was awake thinking his reputation would be in tatters after posting in the EA forum, that his post would be torn to shreds (didn't happen). For quite some time I was surprised at the diversity elephant in the room on EA, and welcomed when these critiques came forward. But I was in the room and not pointing out the elephant for a long time because I - like Will - had fears about being torn to shreds for putting myself out there, and I don't think this is unusual.

I also think that criticisms of underlying trends in groups are really difficult to get at in a substantive way, and though they often come across as put-downs from someone who wants to feel bigger, it is not always clear whether that's due to authorial intent or reader's perception. I still think there's something that can be taken from them though. I remember a scathing article about yuppies who listen to NPR to feel educated and part of the world for signalling purposes. It was very mean-spirited but definitely gave me food for thought on my media consumption and what I am (not) achieving from it. I think a healthy attitude for a community is willingness to find usefulness in seemingly threatening criticism. As all groups are vulnerable to effects of polarisation and fractiousness, this attitude could be a good protective element.

So in summary, even if someone could have done better on articulating their 'vague critical comments', I think it's good to encourage the start of a conversation on a topic which is not easy to bring up or articulate, but is important. So I would say go on ahead and upvote that criticism whilst giving feedback on ways to improve it. If that person hasn't nailed it, it's started the conversation at least, and maybe someone else will deliver the argument better. And I think there is a role for us as a community to be curious and open to 'vague critical comments' and find the important message, and that will prove more useful than the alternative of shunning it.

comment by Denise_Melchin · 2020-09-13T19:33:27.921Z · score: 11 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I have felt this way as well. I have been a bit unhappy with how many upvotes in my view low quality critiques of mine have gotten (and think I may have fallen prey to a poor incentive structure there). Over the last couple of months I have tried harder to avoid that by having a mental checklist before I post anything but not sure whether I am succeeding. At least I have gotten fewer wildly upvoted comments!

comment by Thomas Kwa (tkwa) · 2020-09-23T22:46:27.416Z · score: 8 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I've upvoted some low quality criticism of EA. Some of this is due to emotional biases or whatever, but a reason I still endorse is that I haven't read strong responses to some obvious criticism.

Example: I currently believe that an important reason EA is slightly uninclusive and moderately undiverse is because EA community-building was targeted at people with a lot of power as a necessary strategic move. Rich people, top university students, etc. It feels like it's worked, but I haven't seen a good writeup of the effects of this.

I think the same low-quality criticisms keep popping up because there's no quick rebuttal. I wish there were a post of "fallacies about problems with EA" that one could quickly link to.

comment by agent18 · 2020-09-13T19:28:09.434Z · score: 7 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think that EAs, especially on the EA Forum, are too welcoming to low quality criticism.

can you show one actual example of what exactly you mean?

comment by Buck · 2020-09-13T22:45:59.196Z · score: 21 (9 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I thought this post [EA · GW] was really bad, basically for the reasons described by Rohin in his comment. I think it's pretty sad that that post has positive karma.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2020-09-14T00:01:30.562Z · score: 11 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I actually strong upvoted that post, because I wanted to see more engagement with the topic, decision-making under deep uncertainty, since that's a major point in my skepticism of strong longtermism. I just reduced my vote to a regular upvote. It's worth noting that Rohin's comment had more karma than the post itself (even before I reduced my vote).

comment by MichaelDickens · 2020-09-24T00:12:47.637Z · score: 10 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I pretty much agree with your OP. Regarding that post in particular, I am uncertain about whether it's a good or bad post. It's bad in the sense that its author doesn't seem to have a great grasp of longtermism, and the post basically doesn't move the conversation forward at all. It's good in the sense that it's engaging with an important question, and the author clearly put some effort into it. I don't know how to balance these considerations.

comment by Max_Daniel · 2020-09-23T23:23:41.367Z · score: 10 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree that post is low-quality in some sense (which is why I didn't upvote it), but my impression is that its central flaw is being misinformed, in a way that's fairly easy to identify. I'm more worried about criticism where it's not even clear how much I agree with the criticism or where it's socially costly to argue against the criticism because of the way it has been framed.

It also looks like the post got a fair number of downvotes, and that its karma is way lower than for other posts by the same author or on similar topics. So it actually seems to me the karma system is working well in that case.

(Possibly there is an issue where "has a fair number of downvotes" on the EA FOrum corresponds to "has zero karma" in fora with different voting norms/rules, and so the former here appearing too positive if one is more used to fora with the latter norm. Conversely I used to be confused why posts on the Alignment Forum that seemed great to me had more votes than karma score.)

comment by Denise_Melchin · 2020-09-24T09:12:32.272Z · score: 8 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

It also looks like the post got a fair number of downvotes, and that its karma is way lower than for other posts by the same author or on similar topics. So it actually seems to me the karma system is working well in that case.

That's what I thought as well. The top critical comment also has more karma than the top level post, which I have always considered to be functionally equivalent to a top level post being below par.

comment by Max_Daniel · 2020-09-23T23:11:38.155Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I agree with this as stated, though I'm not sure how much overlap there is between the things we consider low-quality criticism. (I can think of at least one example where I was mildly annoyed that something got a lot of upvotes, but it seems awkward to point to publicly.)

I'm not so worried about becoming the target of low-quality criticism myself. I'm actually more worried about low-quality criticism crowding out higher-quality criticism. I can definitely think of instances where I wanted to say X but then was like "oh no, if I say X then people will lump this together with some other person saying nearby thing Y in a bad way, so I either need to be extra careful and explain that I'm not saying Y or shouldn't say X after all".

I'm overall not super worried because I think the opposite failure mode, i.e. appearing too unwelcoming of criticism, is worse.

comment by MichaelStJules · 2020-09-14T00:38:59.598Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I've proposed [EA(p) · GW(p)] before that voting shouldn't be anonymous, and that (strong) downvotes should  require explanation (either your own comment or a link to someone else's). Maybe strong upvotes should, too?

Of course, this is perhaps a bad sign about the EA community as a whole, and fixing forum incentives might hide the issue.

This makes me feel less enthusiastic about engaging with the EA Forum, because it makes me feel like everything I’m saying is being read by a jeering crowd who just want excuses to call me a moron.

How much of this do you think is due to the tone or framing of the criticism rather than just its content (accurate or not)?

comment by Larks · 2020-09-14T01:25:49.749Z · score: 11 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)
I've proposed [EA(p) · GW(p)] before that voting shouldn't be anonymous, and that (strong) downvotes should  require explanation (either your own comment or a link to someone else's). Maybe strong upvotes should, too?

It seems this could lead to a lot of comments and very rapid ascending through the meta hierarchy! What if I want to strong downvote your strong downvote explanation?

comment by MichaelStJules · 2020-09-14T01:38:54.657Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

It seems this could lead to a lot of comments and very rapid ascending through the meta hierarchy! What if I want to strong downvote your strong downvote explanation?

I don't really expect this to happen much, and I'd expect strong downvotes to decay quickly down a thread (which is my impression of what happens now when people do explain voluntarily), unless people are actually just being uncivil. 

I also don't see why this would be a particularly bad thing. I'd rather people hash out their differences properly and come to a mutual understanding than essentially just call each other's comments very stupid without explanation.

comment by Lukas_Gloor · 2020-09-13T19:55:51.444Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I thought the same thing recently.