Bryan Caplan on EA groups

post by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2022-01-10T20:31:58.577Z · EA · GW · 13 comments

This is a link post for https://www.econlib.org/the-good-group/

Crossposting because it seems good to share sincere reviews of our community. If the post had been about how terrible EA groups were, I'd have crossposted it anyway. 

Kudos to whichever student groups actually interacted with Bryan and inspired this post!


As a professor and public speaker, I’ve spoken to a wide range of student groups.  On reflection, my very favorite turns out to be: Effective Altruism.  Indeed, I’ve had positive experiences with 100% of the EA groups I’ve encountered.

What’s so great about the Effective Altruists?  They combine high knowledge, high curiosity, and high iconoclasm.  When I ask EAs if they’ve heard of signaling, or the Non-Identity Problem, or pollution taxes, most of them say Yes.  The ones who say No are eager to get up to speed.  And if I defend a view that would shock a normal audience, EAs are more likely to be amused than defensive or hostile.  They’re genuinely open to reasoned argument.

Though you might expect EAs to be self-righteous, they’re not.  EA is a chill movement.  While ethical vegans are greatly overrepresented in EA, they’re the kind of ethical vegans who seek dialogue on the ethical treatment of animals, not the kind of ethical vegans who seek to bite your head off.

Most EAs are official utilitarians.  If they were consistent, they’d be Singerian robots who spent every surplus minute helping strangers.  But fortunately for me, these self-styled utilitarians severely bend their own rules.  In practice, the typical EA is roughly 20% philanthropist, 80% armchair intellectual.  They care enough to try make the world a better place, but EA clubs are basically debating societies.  Debating societies plus volleyball.  That’s utilitarianism I can live with.

Why do I prefer EA to, say, libertarian student clubs?  First and foremost, libertarian student clubs don’t attract enough members.  Since their numbers are small, it’s simply hard to get a vibrant discussion going.  EA has much broader appeal.  Anyone who likes the idea of “figuring out how to do the most good” fits in.  Furthermore, to be blunt, EAs are friendlier than libertarians – and as I keep saying, friendliness works.

Furthermore, while the best libertarian students hold their own against the best EA students, medians tell a different story.  The median EA student, like the median libertarian student, like almost any young intellectual, needs more curiosity and less dogmatism.  But the median EA’s curiosity deficit and dogmatism surplus is less severe.

The good news is that most EA clubs already contain some libertarians.  And the best way to improve both movements is for the libertarians to regularly attend EA meetings.  It’s a great chance to spread superior libertarian logos while absorbing superior EA ethos.

When I last spoke at the University of Chicago, one student defended education as a crucial promoter of social justice.  In response, I argued that Effective Altruism is what the social justice movement ought to be.  EAs know that before you can make the world a better place, you must first figure out how to make the world a better place.  This in turn requires you to prioritize the world’s problems – and calmly assess how much human action can remedy each of them.  Social justice activists imagine that these questions are easy – and as a result their movement has become one of the world’s major problems.  Probably like the twentieth-worst problem on Earth, but still.

Perhaps the main reason why I get along so well with EAs is that their whole movement rests on a bunch of my favorite heresies.  First and foremost: Good intentions often lead to bad results.  EA exists because many good things sound bad, and many bad things sound good.  The very existence of their movement is an attack on Social Desirability Bias and demagoguery.  Furthermore, since EAs like to rank social problems by their severity and remediability, their movement is also a thinly-veiled attack on Action Bias and social stampedes.  No, we shouldn’t do “all that we can” to fight Covid, or global warming, or anything, because resources are scarce, some problems fix themselves, many problems aren’t worth solving, and many cures are worse than the disease.  Once you take these truisms for granted, fruitful conversation is easy.  And fun.

13 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by SiebeRozendal · 2022-01-16T07:55:45.041Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The karma of this post is quite disproportional to its value.. It doesn't have that much information, or am I missing something?

Replies from: AppliedDivinityStudies, calebp, aarongertler
comment by AppliedDivinityStudies · 2022-01-16T15:39:09.416Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

People like to hear nice things about themselves from prominent people, and Bryan is non-EA enough to make it feel not entirely self-congratulatory. 

comment by calebp · 2022-01-16T21:42:25.595Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I think it is better to think of Karma as tracking the number of people that read and liked a post, rather than the value of a post relative to other posts.

i.e. people are generally thinking how much do I like the post rather than given the current karma, what change should I make to push it to the correct value.

Replies from: willbradshaw
comment by willbradshaw · 2022-01-17T14:25:04.416Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, I think you've encapsulated the two key ways people think about karma, and the difference between them. There was some discussion on LessWrong about this here [LW · GW].

I think probably the ideal would be for everyone to vote purely based on their reaction to the post and not at all in response to its current total. That's probably not feasible – the information about the total is there and people will react to it – but I do think that complaining that a post has the wrong total karma (which is my reading of the top-level comment) is pushing the community towards total-based voting in a way I think isn't great.

comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2022-01-17T09:34:36.965Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I didn't expect it to get as many votes as it did, but I think people just like hearing nice things — there's not really anything to miss.

Most of the top posts of all time [? · GW] have 2+ karma per vote, while this post has less. That lines up with many people reading it, most people liking it, but few people loving it.

comment by Linch · 2022-01-11T14:15:43.645Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Why do I prefer EA to, say, libertarian student clubs?  First and foremost, libertarian student clubs don’t attract enough members.  Since their numbers are small, it’s simply hard to get a vibrant discussion going.  EA has much broader appeal.  

It's pretty cool that EA has a broader appeal among student clubs than the third most popular political party in America!

Furthermore, while the best libertarian students hold their own against the best EA students, medians tell a different story.  The median EA student, like the median libertarian student, like almost any young intellectual, needs more curiosity and less dogmatism.  But the median EA’s curiosity deficit and dogmatism surplus is less severe.

I'm surprised that Bryan thinks the best libertarian students are on par with the best EA students, given a) there are more EA students (in his telling) and b) he thinks the median EA student is better. Naively it should be surprising that a group with both more members and a more impressive median won't have a more impressive top...why does Bryan think EA student groups have a lower variance? And if he's right, how can we improve this?

Replies from: Stefan_Schubert, calebp, David Johnston
comment by Stefan_Schubert · 2022-01-12T11:07:03.643Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Maybe he didn't meet that many students, or maybe his main point concerned the median students. I think this is quite weak evidence.

Replies from: Linch
comment by Linch · 2022-01-12T11:33:32.038Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, fair.

comment by calebp · 2022-01-11T20:00:06.301Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Maybe they think that both movements are large enough such that they both 'top out' I.e. both movements have some people in the top 0.1% of students or the top 10 EA students are about as good as the top 10 libertarian students.

I'd still expect a larger movement to have more of the top 0.1% people, I'm not exactly sure what Bryan was describing here but if he expects that students are roughly normally distributed with regards to goodness it seems like a reasonably hypothesis to me.

Replies from: Linch
comment by Linch · 2022-01-11T23:19:03.096Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I don't have a good model of what this topping out will look like. My intuition is that there's quite a bit of variance in the top 0.1% though I agree that the case is weaker for a normal distribution. My reasoning for why "student goodness" is probably not a normal distribution is partially because if you care about multiple relatively independent factors (say smarts, conscientiousness, and general niceness) in a multiplicative way, and the individual factors are normally or log-normally distributed, your resulting distribution is a log-normal. 

One funny hypothesis that someone like Bryan could give is something like "oh, the top EA students are all libertarian (ie, it's the same picture). 

I could maybe buy this, based on the (US-biased, Bay Area-biased) student groups I interact with, and especially if I factor in probably some pro-libertarian bias in Caplan's judgements of students. 

Replies from: calebp
comment by calebp · 2022-01-12T11:23:15.788Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

By topping out I just meant that Bryan's impression of students I saturated at an upper bounded for the best libertarian and EA students they met. This could be either be because the students that they met actually did have a very high and similar performance, or because their model/test for assessing how good people are had the best students scoring very highly (so their test was not well calibrated to show differences in top students).

I think this was probably a bit of an off hand remark, and Stefan is right in it being very weak evidence of the performance of top libertarian/EA students.

I personally agree with all of your comment and agree that the underlying distribution seems unlikely to be normal.

comment by David Johnston · 2022-01-12T02:06:09.894Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Someone should offer him a bet! Best EA vs best lib in a debate or something.

Replies from: Samuel Shadrach
comment by acylhalide (Samuel Shadrach) · 2022-01-15T07:57:52.964Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Idk what the debate formats are in America but I personally hated it because it isn't data-driven, you can't use research and stats to back your claims. Also slightly biases against epistemic humility.