Introduction to Effective Altruism Reading List 2018-11-18T20:54:33.131Z


Comment by smithee on The Global Priorities of the Copenhagen Consensus · 2019-01-08T19:36:48.979Z · EA · GW

Thanks! My understanding of CC being controversial: Lomborg once was a member of Greenpeace, then became disillusioned with popular environmentalism and wrote the extremely controversial The Skeptical Environmentalist arguing against most popular environmental causes. The Economist and Wall Street Journal celebrated it as a fresh new look, while the Scientific American lambasted Lomborg as wrong and even scientifically dishonest. One Danish government commission accused Lomborg of fabricating data and plagiarism, while another criticized the previous commission's investigations.

I've read the book and tried to form my own view, but the rabbit hole is too deep. If anyone's interested in the object level question, try Slate Star Codex.

In any case, Lomborg is highly controversial in some circles and has had extremely high reputational stakes in the environmentalism debate for over a decade. So on second thought, I significantly agree with Jan: EA should be wary of close association with controversial figures (not to mention possibly unethical).

Separately, I think this gets to a more central question of EA's nature: Will we always demand truth at all costs, or is good enough really good enough? Will we work with pragmatic allies that don't share all of our underlying motivations? EA evolved in very high fidelity, academic-style circles, where truth-seeking and intelligence are paramount. But if doing good is the single objective, while truth is clearly extremely important, so is influence. GiveWell claims to have moved ~$500m or so at this point; CC is working in an arena with tens of billions at stake. Should we accept lower intellectual rigor if it means we can increase our scale 100x over?

I default to a commitment to truth, if only because lowering your standards is always possible at a later date, while regaining intellectual rigor is likely not. But it's certainly a question worth discussing.

Comment by smithee on The Global Priorities of the Copenhagen Consensus · 2019-01-08T06:54:40.681Z · EA · GW

More generally, it seems really strange that EA and the Copenhagen Consensus haven't been in closer contact. Their mission is very EA: "to address a fundamental, but overlooked topic in international development: In a world with limited budgets and attention spans, we need to find effective ways to do the most good for the most people." And importantly, they're very legitimate, established, and influential.

Bjorn Lomborg, head of Copenhagen, has a relatively high public profile and has been named in several rankings of top public intellectuals. Even better, the Copenhagen Consensus (CC) has quite a bit of political influence: they claim some responsibility for or influence over Denmark's $2.9 billion anti-HIV program, George Bush's $1.2B Malaria Initiative, and their research was cited by David Cameron in a $4B global nutrition pledge.

A quick brainstorm of ways EA could connect with CC:

  • 80,000 Hours could direct readers to work with CC.
  • GiveWell shares an interest in cost-benefit analysis of development interventions, and each organization likely has insights that the other has missed. They could also network for employees through each other.
  • The Global Priorities Institute, being (a) located in academia and (b) interested in cause prioritization, seems like a great match for CC. GPI wants economists to work on prioritization, CC has relationships with hundreds of academic economists who have written its papers.
  • CC has political influence that EA seems not to; EA (maybe) receives more public attention and can more easily publicize ideas.

To be clear, there has been EA contact with CC before. Will MacAskill is featured on CC's Testimonials page, and 80k has spoken to CC several times in years past. But it seems like there should be more awareness of CC as a massively influential EA-aligned organization with strong inroads in politics (aka, where EA seems to be the weakest).

Does anyone know of further collaboration with CC? Any good ideas on what collaborations could work?

Comment by smithee on Long-Term Future Fund AMA · 2018-12-19T06:01:32.841Z · EA · GW

Hi! Do you happen to know about the current AI Impacts hiring process?

Comment by smithee on [deleted post] 2018-11-23T07:13:06.435Z

Is EA Forum getting spam bots?

Comment by smithee on William MacAskill misrepresents much of the evidence underlying his key arguments in "Doing Good Better" · 2018-11-23T06:40:07.375Z · EA · GW

I've defended MacAskill extensively here, but why are people downvoting to hide this legitimate criticism? MacAskill acknowledged that he did this and apologized.

If there's a reason please say so, I might be missing something. But downvoting a comment until it disappears without explaining why seems harsh. Thanks!

Comment by smithee on Towards Better EA Career Advice · 2018-11-21T06:20:36.879Z · EA · GW

1) I think it's important to try to specify exactly what 80k can improve. They're an extremely busy organization that doesn't have time for everything they'd like to do, so they can only improve if we can identify specific high-leverage uses of their time. General hopes for higher accuracy or helpfulness are likely not actionable.

2) I definitely agree with the worries about competition. I've been quite surprised to see how difficult it is to get hired at many EA orgs, often with <5% of applicants getting offers. Because people are often making years of plans based on thinking they have a realistic chance of working at these organizations, it's important that they understand their true chances. I think 80k should try to better publicize acceptance rates for certain jobs, and if possible the types of resumes and experience that are really necessary to be accepted.

Comment by smithee on William MacAskill misrepresents much of the evidence underlying his key arguments in "Doing Good Better" · 2018-11-20T06:50:39.682Z · EA · GW

I'm not sure how EA Forum displays drafts. It seems very plausible that, on this sometimes confusing platform, you're mistaken as to which draft was available where and when. If you're implying that the CEA employee sent MacAskill the draft, then yes, they should not have done that, but MacAskill played no part in that. Further, it seems basic courtesy to let someone respond to your arguments before you publicly call them a liar - you should've allowed MacAskill a chance to respond without immediate time pressure.

Comment by smithee on William MacAskill misrepresents much of the evidence underlying his key arguments in "Doing Good Better" · 2018-11-20T06:47:44.604Z · EA · GW

First, on honesty. As I said above, I completely agree with you on honesty: "bad arguments for a good conclusion are not justified." This is one of my (and I'd say the EA community as a whole) strongest values. Arguments are not soldiers, their only value is in their own truth. SSC's In Favor of Niceness, Community, and Civilization sums up my views very well. I'm glad we're after the same goal.

That said, in popular writing, it's impossible to reflect the true complexity of what's being described. So the goal is to simplify as much as possible, while losing as little truth as possible. If someone simplifies in a way that's importantly misleading, that's an important failure and should be condemned. But the more I dig into each of these arguments, the more I'm convinced MacAskill is doing a very good job maintaining truth while simplifying.

Charity Navigator. MacAskill says "One popular way of evaluating a charity is to look at financial information regarding how the charity spends its money." He says that CN takes this approach, and then quotes CN saying that many of the best charities spend 25% or less on overhead. You say this is a misquote, because CN later says that high overhead can be OK if balanced by other indicators of financial health. CN says they like to see charities "that are able to grow their revenue at least at the rate of inflation, that continue to invest in their programs and that have some money saved for a rainy day."

I see absolutely no misrepresentation here. MacAskill says CN evaluates based on financials such as overhead pay, and quotes CN saying that. He never says that CN only looks at overhead pay, neglecting other financials. In fact, his quote of CN says that overhead indicator is a "strong indicator" in "most" charities, which nobody would interpret as claiming that CN literally only evaluates overhead. The fact that CN does in fact care about financials other than overhead is abundantly clear when reading MacAskill's summary. MacAskill perfectly represents their view. I doubt someone from CN would ever take issue with that first paragraph.

Playpumps. Charge by charge: 1. After checking out both the UN and SKAT reports, I agree with MacAskill: they're "damning". 2. MacAskill says "But in order to pump water, PlayPumps need constant force, and children playing on them would quickly get exhausted." You quote UNICEF saying "Some primary school children complained of becoming tired very quickly after pushing the pump, particularly as additional torque is required with each rotation to commence the upstroke of the piston." Look at a video of one in motion, it's clear that it spins easy for a little while but also constantly requires new force. No misrepresentation. 3. "Children sometimes fell off and broke limbs" is an exaggeration. One child fractured their arm, not multiple. MacAskill misrepresented the number of injuries. 4. The reporter said that PlayPump requires 27 hours of pumping a day in order to meet its ambition of supplying 15 liters a day to 10 million people using 4000 PlayPumps. Assuming one PlayPump per village, that means a village of 2500 would require 27 hours a day of PlayPump to meet their water needs. The only editorializing MacAskill does is call a village of 2500 "typical". No misrepresentation. 5. MacAskill that PlayPumps often replaced old pumps. You correctly point out that in most countries, that did not happen. Bottom line: You're right that (i) MacAskill exaggerates the number of children who broke bones; it was one reported case, not multiple; and (ii) MacAskill incorrectly implies that PlayPumps often replaced old pumps, when in fact they rarely did.

Again, thank you for continuing to engage in this in a fair and receptive way. But after spending a lot of time looking into this, I'm less convinced than I ever was of your argument. You have four good points: (i) MacAskill should've used other deworming evidence; (ii) MacAskill exaggerated the number of children who broke bones on PlayPumps; (iii) MacAskill incorrectly implies that PlayPumps often replaced old pumps, when in fact they rarely did; (iv) MacAskill incorrectly reported the question asked by a survey on ethical companies. You might have a good point with the John Bunker DALY estimates, but I haven't looked into it enough.

Framed in the right way, these four points would be helpful, useful feedback for MacAskill. Four slips in 200 pages seems impressively good, but MacAskill surely would have promptly updated his Errata page, and that would be that. Nothing significant whatsoever about the book would've changed. But because they were framed as "William MacAskill is a liar", nobody else has been willing to engage your points, lest they legitimize clearly unfair criticism. Yes, he didn't make the best response to your points, but to be frank, they were quite unorganized and hard to follow - it's taken me upwards of 5 hours in sum to get to the bottom of your claims.

At this point, I really don't think you can justifiably continue to hold your either of your positions: that DGB is significantly inaccurate, or that MacAskill is dishonest. I really do believe that you're in this in good faith, and that your main error (save the ad hominem attack, likely a judgement error) was in not getting to the bottom of these questions. But now the questions feel very well resolved. Unless the four issues listed above constitute systemic inaccuracy, I really don't see an argument for it.

Sincerely, thank you for engaging, and if you find these arguments correct, I hope you'll uphold our value of honesty and apologize to MacAskill for the ad hominem attacks, as well as give him a kinder, more accurate explanation of his inaccuracies. I hope I've helped.

Comment by smithee on William MacAskill misrepresents much of the evidence underlying his key arguments in "Doing Good Better" · 2018-11-19T20:57:18.841Z · EA · GW

I'll headline this by saying that I completely believe you're doing this in good faith, I agree with several of your criticisms, and I think this deserves to be openly discussed. But I also strongly disagree with your conclusion about MacAskill's honesty, and, even if I thought it was plausible, it still would be an unnecessary breach of etiquette that makes open conversation near impossible. I really think you should stop making this an argument about MacAskill's personal honesty. Have the facts debate, leave ad hominem aside so everyone can fully engage, and if you're proven right on the facts, then raise your honesty concerns.

First I'd like to address your individual points, then your claims about MacAskill.

Misreporting the deworming study. I think this is your best point. It seems entirely correct that if textbooks fail because they don't improve test scores, that deworming should fail by the same metric. But I agree with /u/ScottAlexander that, in popular writing, you often don't have the space to specifically go through all the literature on why deworming is better. MacAskill's deworming claims were misleading on one level, in that the specific argument he provided is not a good one, but also fair on another level: MacAskill/GiveWell has looked tons into deworming, concluded that it's better than textbooks, and this is the easiest way to illustrate why in a single sentence. Nobody reading this is looking for a survey of the evidence base on deworming; they're reading it as an introduction to thinking critically about interventions. Bottom line: MacAskill probably should've found a better example/line of defense that was literally true, but even this literally false claim serves its purpose in making a broader, true point.

Interpreting GiveWell literally. Jan's comment was perfect: GiveWell is not the supreme authority on how to interpret their numbers. Holden prefers to give extra weight to expected values with low uncertainty, MacAskill doesn't, and that's a legitimate disagreement. In any case, if you think people shouldn't ever interpret GiveWell's estimates literally when pitching EA, that's not a problem with MacAskill, it's a problem with >90% of the EA community. Bottom line: I think you should drop this argument, I just don't think it's correct.

Misrepresenting Charity Navigator. As MacAskill admits, it's inaccurate to conflate overhead costs and CEO pay. Good find, the specific criticism was correct. But after thinking it through, I think MacAskill's argument, while botching that single detail, is still a fair criticism of an accurate overall characterization of Charity Navigator. Let's focus on the donut example. MacAskill says that if a donut charity had a low-paid CEO, CN would rate them highly. You correctly identify that CN cares about things other than CEO pay, and is willing to give good ratings to charities with highly paid CEOs if they do well on other metrics, namely financial stability, accountability, and transparency. BUT, MacAskill's point I believe would be that none of those other CN metrics have to do with the effectiveness of the intervention or the cause area. CN will let financial stability and low employee costs outweigh a highly-paid CEO, but they won't let a terrible cause bring down your rating. So if you had a highly efficient, financial well-managed donut charity, CN really would give them a good rating. Bottom line: MacAskill mistakenly conflates CEO pay with overhead costs. But that's incredibly minor, and no reader is going to be annoyed by it. His fundamental point is correct: CN doesn't care about cause area or intervention effectiveness, and that's silly to the point of absurdity.

Further, even if you still think MacAskill unfairly represented CN's position, I'm willing to cut him a bit slack on it. Do check out their hit piece on effective altruism. It's aggressive, demeaning, and rude. Yes, it would've been better if MacAskill took the perfect high road, but if the inaccuracy really is minor, I think we can excuse it.

Exaggerating PlayPump's failures. At first, I bought what you said in your comment. Everyone can read what you have to say themselves, but basically, it seems like MacAskill may have exaggerated the reports he cites discussing the failures of the PlayPump. But after a quick Google, it seems like this is another example of a specific line of argumentation that really isn't rigorous, but that tries to make a fair point in a single sentence. PlayPump was a disaster, everyone agrees, and MacAskill was absolutely not the first to say so. So although MacAskill could've better explained specifically why it was a failure, without exaggerating reports, his conclusion is completely fair. I absolutely agree with the importance of honesty, and that bad arguments for a good conclusion are not justified. But this is popular writing, and he really doesn't have space to fully review all the ins and outs of PlayPumps. Bottom line: I wish MacAskill more accurately justified his view, but nobody who looks into this should feel misled about the overall point of the failure of PlayPumps.

Conclusion: I think you correctly identify several inaccuracies in DGB. But after looking into them myself, I think you really overestimated the importance of these inaccuracies. Except perhaps the deworming example, none of these inaccuracies, if corrected, would change anything important about the conclusions of the book.

Even if you think I'm underestimating the level of inaccuracy, it seems near impossible that this is a sign of malice. If you go into a Barnes and Noble and pick out the popular nonfiction sitting to the left and right of DGB, I think you'd find dozens of inaccuracies far more important than these. Popular writing needs to oversimplify complex debates. DGB does an admirable job of preserving truth while simplifying.

I'll reiterate that I really do believe in your good faith. You found inaccuracies, and you began worrying about MacAskill's honesty, which drove you to find more inaccuracies. I think if you step back and consider the charitable interpretation of these flaws, though, you'll realize that there are good reasons why they're minor, and that it's highly unlikely that this is the result of malice.

But finally, regardless of your conclusions on MacAskill's honesty, I'll say again that it's absolutely destructive to open discourse and everyone's goals to headline your post calling MacAskill a liar. If you want the community to engage this conversation, you have to stick to the substantive disagreements. If consensus concludes that MacAskill importantly and repeatedly fails, people will question his honesty on their own. But I think if the open debate is had, you'll eventually come around to thinking that these inaccuracies are minor, inconsequential, and accidental.

Comment by smithee on William MacAskill misrepresents much of the evidence underlying his key arguments in "Doing Good Better" · 2018-11-19T00:01:23.820Z · EA · GW

Guzey, would you consider rewriting this post, framing it not as questioning MacAskill's honesty but rather just pointing out some flaws in the representation of research? I fully buy some of your criticisms (it was an epistemic failure to not report that deworming has no effect on test scores, misrepresent Charity Navigator's views, and misrepresent the "ethical employer" poll). And I think Jan's views accurately reflect the community's views: we want to be able to have open discussion and criticism, even of the EA "canon." But it's absolutely correct that the personal attacks on MacAskill's integrity make it near impossible to have this open discussion.

Even if you're still convinced that MacAskill is dishonest, wouldn't the best way to prove it to the community be to have a thorough, open debate over these factual question? Then, if it becomes clear that your criticisms are correct, people will be able to judge the honesty issue themselves. I think you're limiting your own potential here by making people not want to engage with your ideas.

I'd be happy to engage with the individual criticisms here and have some back and forth, if only this was written in a less ad hominem way.

Separately, does anyone have thoughts on the John Bunker DALY estimate? MacAskill claims that a developed world doctor only creates 7 DALYs, Bunker's paper doesn't seem to say anything like this, and this 80,000 Hours blog estimates instead that a developed world doctor creates 600 QALYs. Was MacAskill wrong on the effectiveness of becoming a doctor?

Comment by smithee on Debate and Effective Altruism: Friends or Foes? · 2018-11-14T06:37:45.621Z · EA · GW

Personal experience note on formal debate (high school, college): It can really be great. I doubt I'd be an EA if not for it, it's been probably the single most educational thing I've done. If you're reading this post and wondering whether you should participate in your high school or college debate team, I'd give it a pretty strong recommendation.

It's certainly not ideal, it pits you in zero sum competitions where finding truth is always less valuable than winning by any means necessary. And culture-wise, the people who enjoy it most often become more concerned with winning and competition than finding truth. But still, 90% of your time is spent deep in the weeds of difficult substantive questions, where the best arguments are often the true ones. If you enjoy the level of discourse on something like the EA Forum or LessWrong, you'd probably love spending hours highly incentivized to get to the bottom of interesting and difficult questions.

One caveat: if you're someone who personality-wise is conflict-averse or uncomfortable with aggressive disagreement, you might be put off by some debate communities. Norms are very different place to place, but some places have a substantial minority that's pretty aggressive and rude.