Between honesty and perjury

I've promoted Effective Altruism in the past. I will probably continue to promote some EA-related projects. Many individual EAs are well-intentioned, talented, and doing extremely important, valuable work. Many EA organizations have good people working for them, and are doing good work on important problems.

That's why I think Sarah Constantin’s recent writing on Effective Altruism’s integrity problem is so important. If we are going to get anything done, in the long run, we have to have reliable sources of information. This doesn't work unless we call out misrepresentations and systematic failures of honesty, and these concerns get taken seriously.

Sarah's post is titled “EA Has A Lying Problem.” Some people think this is overstated. This is an important topic to be precise on - the whole point of raising these issues is to make public discourse more reliable. For this reason, we want to avoid accusing people of things that aren’t actually true. It’s also important that we align incentives correctly. If dishonesty is not punished, but admitting a policy of dishonesty is, this might just make our discourse worse, not better.

To identify the problem precisely, we need language that can distinguish making specific assertions that are not factually accurate, from other conduct that contributes to dishonesty in discourse. I'm going to lay out a framework for thinking about this and when it's appropriate to hold someone to a high standard of honesty, and then show how it applies to the cases Sarah brings up.

(Disclosure: Sarah's a close friend. I've previously worked at an EA organization that isn't mentioned here, though I have no current affiliation with it.)

Honesty, dishonesty, and lies

Let's look at an example from outside Effective Altruism. Slate Star Codex writes about a New York Times article that claims economists "don't buy" claims of the benefits of education vouchers:

From today’s New York Times: Free Market For Education: Economists Generally Don’t Buy It:

[…] Only a third of economists on the Chicago panel agreed that students would be better off if they all had access to vouchers to use at any private (or public) school of their choice.


36% of economists agree that vouchers would improve education, compared to 19% who disagree. […]

A more accurate way to summarize this graph is “About twice as many economists believe a voucher system would improve education as believe that it wouldn’t.”

By leaving it at “only a third of economists support vouchers”, the article implies that there is an economic consensus against the policy. […] Its title is “Free Market For Education: Economists Generally Don’t Buy It”. But its own source suggests that, of economists who have an opinion, a large majority are pro-voucher.


I think this is really poor journalistic practice and implies the opinion of the nation’s economists to be the opposite of what it really is. I hope the Times prints a correction.

Noah Smith replies that the article was fine because it contained no false factual assertions:

A correction!! Of course no correction will be printed, because no incorrect statements were made. Dynarski said that economists are "far less optimistic" about vouchers than about Uber/Lyft, and this is true. She also reported close to the correct percentage of economists who said they supported the policy in the IGM poll ("a third" for 36%).

Scott is upset because Dynarski left out other information he considered pertinent - i.e., the breakdown between economists who were "uncertain" and those who "disagree". Scott thinks that information is pertinent because he thinks the article is trying to argue that most economists think vouchers are bad.

Scott Alexander thinks the article was deceptive. Noah Smith thinks the article was basically accurate. I think they're applying different standards of honesty.

Factual accuracy vs perjury

Smith appears to be applying the factual accuracy standard of honesty. If your sentences, taken literally, describe a true fact about the world, then they're admissible. If not, not. This is the standard by which Hillary Clinton appeared to be honest, according to her supporters, while Donald Trump did not. When is this standard good enough to lead us to the truth?

A mere factual accuracy standard does not work if you cannot count on a comprehensive presentation of the relevant information. Typically not all the evidence will be on one side of any interesting issue, even ones with a clear answer. If you only listen to one side, a clever arguer can present only the true facts that favor one side, resulting in strongly filtered evidence:

Yesterday I discussed the dilemma of the clever arguer, hired to sell you a box that may or may not contain a diamond. […] What if the only evidence you have is the word of the clever arguer, who is legally constrained to make only true statements, but does not tell you everything he knows?  Each statement that he makes is valid evidence—how could you not update your probabilities? […] According to Jaynes, a Bayesian must always condition on all known evidence, on pain of paradox.  But then the clever arguer can make you believe anything he chooses, if there is a sufficient variety of signs to selectively report.  That doesn't sound right.


Most legal processes work on the theory that every case has exactly two opposed sides and that it is easier to find two biased humans than one unbiased one.  Between the prosecution and the defense, someone has a motive to present any given piece of evidence, so the court will see all the evidence; that is the theory.  If there are two clever arguers in the box dilemma, it is not quite as good as one curious inquirer, but it is almost as good.  But that is with two boxes.  Reality often has many-sided problems, and deep problems, and nonobvious answers, which are not readily found by Blues and Greens screaming at each other.

An example of a system where statements are regularly held to this standard is the court system in the US and similar countries. This standard works in the context of such an adversarial system: both sides of the argument get to make any arguments they like, point out flaws in the other side's case, and there's a third party who's explicitly not an advocate, focused on nothing but making sure both sides get a fair chance to present their case, blocking irrelevant shenanigans. Then there's a decision, it's recorded, the matter's settled, and any time the matter comes up again, it's an uphill battle to relitigate things without new evidence.

In a system like this, no one party to the argument bears the burden of bringing up all the relevant facts, or ensuring that each fact is contextualized adequately – as long as witnesses limit themselves to assertions that are literally true, if the facts are selectively represented to favor one side, the other side has both the incentive and the capacity to expose this to the court.

In criminal cases (but not civil ones), the burden of proof is on one side – but even so, the standards of admissibility of evidence and argument are applied symmetrically. Nor can anyone game the system by simply relitigating the same case over and over – the avenues for appeal are finite, there are penalties for legal actions that the court deems frivolous, and at the end of the process some court makes a decision that determines the outcome.

Smith appears to be arguing that the New York Times did not perjure itself. This is true, but the New York Times was not arguing in an adversarial venue in which a reader can count on seeing the other side present counterarguments. It does not present itself as an advocate in a court – it presents itself as a source of reliably informative, objective reporting. It claims that it is going to give you not just the news that favors its side, but all the news that's fit to print.

Alexander's point seems to be that there is some highly relevant news, which is fit to print, that has been omitted. In this case, the New York Times has not in fact presented all the news that's fit to print, belying its ancient motto.

(UPDATE: Empirically, it seems that most casual readers drew the false conclusion that Alexander predicted they would.)

Intent to inform

While adversarial processes help alleviate this problem, they only reliably lead towards the truth if all sides are represented. If one side is entirely omitted, then you will reliably have a point of view slanted against that side. Similarly, if an asymmetrical burden of admissibility is imposed, holding one side to a higher standard than another, then we will see less evidence in that direction.

To the extent to which we are looking at arguments where we don't get all the relevant sides, then we have to rely on some other guarantee that the discourse will converge towards truth. We will have to trust that the parties presenting us with information are doing so with an honest intent to inform us about relevant evidence on all sides.

When you cannot verify every decision someone is making, and are relying on their intent to cooperate, the things you can observe and verify are evidence about their underlying intent. For this reason, once you observe someone selectively withholding or deemphasizing some information, you should trust them less, even if they correct the specific issues you can observe. If you are satisfied with corrections only of the misrepresentations you can verify, you will simply teach them how to be better clever arguers. What you're looking for is an affirmative effort to honestly inform, such that they seem to be trying even in cases where you wouldn't have caught them:

Expending effort to infer others' preferences, needs, and boundaries, and how your actions affect these, is a classic "costly signal" since it's something a friendly person would want to do anyway, and something an unfriendly person would not want to do without norms that force it. […]

An important cost here is that making a scene harder for outsiders to exploit maliciously also makes it harder for harmless strangers to interface with, and imposes some cognitive overhead on all participants. Probably for people sufficiently acculturated (and not neurodivergent in certain ways) the training creates a passive process where they don't even see how they could do otherwise, which is fairly low-effort as long as they don't have to code-switch or do anything unusual. […]

Explicit communication about preferences can be very valuable for bridging cultural gaps, or simply misaligned expectations, and often what we need is simply to tell each other what's wrong. But if someone crosses boundary after boundary with no apparent attempts to generalize, it doesn't matter whether they're malicious, or simply very much unlike you. If the other person isn't able to do some of the work towards being decent towards you by your standards, you can't explicitly tell them how. Not mustn't - can't. There's no litmus test for "try to infer my preferences, rather than directly optimizing on the metrics I can observe directly," unless you set up bullshit tests.

Case studies of EA's trustworthiness problem

I've distinguished mere factual accuracy from the intent to inform. Before I consider the cases Sarah brings up, I want to lay out another distinction. There are two ways to interpret quoting a case of person X saying Y as an example of a lying problem:

  1. Y shows that person X lied.
  2. Y is either a direct contribution to, or evidence of, deception-friendly norms.

The first claim is often dubious, but the second often seems right to me. I don't have an opinion on whether this constitutes "a lying problem," so I'm trying to use more precise language here.

A tax on criticism

The first example Sarah brings up is an EA arguing that criticism should be held to a higher standard than other discourse:

In response to an essay on the EA forums criticizing the Giving What We Can pledge (a promise to give 10% of one’s income to charity), Ben Todd, the CEO  of 80,000 Hours, said:

Topics like this are sensitive and complex, so it can take a long time to write them up well. It’s easy to get misunderstood or make the organisation look bad.

At the same time, the benefits might be slight, because (i) it doesn’t directly contribute to growth (if users have common questions, then add them to the FAQ and other intro materials) or (ii) fundraising (if donors have questions, speak to them directly).

Remember that GWWC is getting almost 100 pledges per month atm, and very few come from places like this forum. More broadly, there’s a huge number of pressing priorities. There’s lots of other issues GWWC could write about but hasn’t had time to as well.

If you’re wondering whether GWWC has thought about these kinds of questions, you can also just ask them. They’ll probably respond, and if they get a lot of requests to answer the same thing, they’ll probably write about it publicly.

With figuring out strategy (e.g. whether to spend more time on communication with the EA community or something else) GWWC writes fairly lengthy public reviews every 6-12 months.

He also said:

None of these criticisms are new to me. I think all of them have been discussed in some depth within CEA.

This makes me wonder if the problem is actually a failure of communication. Unfortunately, issues like this are costly to communicate outside of the organisation, and it often doesn’t seem like the best use of time, but maybe that’s wrong.

Given this, I think it also makes sense to run critical posts past the organisation concerned before posting. They might have already dealt with the issue, or have plans to do so, in which posting the criticism is significantly less valuable (because it incurs similar costs to the org but with fewer benefits). It also helps the community avoid re-treading the same ground.

In other words: the CEO of 80,000 Hours thinks that people should “run critical posts past the organization concerned before posting”, but also thinks that it might not be worth it for GWWC to address such criticisms because they don’t directly contribute to growth or fundraising, and addressing criticisms publicly might “make the organization look bad.”

This cashes out to saying “we don’t want to respond to your criticism, and we also would prefer you didn’t make it in public.”

It’s normal for organizations not to respond to every criticism — the Coca-Cola company doesn’t have to respond to every internet comment that says Coke is unhealthy — but Coca-Cola’s CEO doesn’t go around shushing critics either.

Ben Todd's suggestions are good general practice for producing high-quality commentary on organizations' internal affairs. If I were to write something up about 80K’s internal practices, I would want to give 80K plenty of time to take a look at it first, even if it weren’t mainly critical. I would do this because I would prefer not to be embarrassingly wrong.

Similarly, I try to let people and organizations know if I plan to quote them or describe their public conduct, in case there’s context I’m missing, or they want to point me to more recent public information on the topic.

The problem comes when this standard is applied to critics but not to supporters of EA organizations. This is effectively a tax on internal criticism of EA. If you ask that we impose a higher burden on criticism than on praise for you or your organization, you are proposing that we forgo the benefits of an adversarial system, in order to avoid potentially damaging criticism. If we forgo the benefits of an adversarial system, we can only expect to come to the right answers if the parties that are presenting us with information exhibit an exceptionally honest intent to inform.

If you ask people to hold criticism of you to a higher standard than praise, you are either asserting a right to misinform, or implicitly promising to be honest enough that a balanced adversarial system is not necessary. You are promising to be a reliable, objective source of information, not just a clever arguer.

If you're asserting a right to misinform, then it is clear enough why people might not want to trust you.

If, on the other hand, you're promising not to be a clever arguer – if you're promising to be so reliably objective a provider of information that a tax on critics doesn't lead to misinformation - then you are promising to be exceptionally forthcoming about evidence against your views. But in that case, you're promising not to be too busy to present and address potential criticism that your audience is likely to find relevant.

I am not accusing Ben Todd of deliberately, consciously claiming the right to lie, on behalf of Giving What We Can. I don't think this reflects especially poorly on Ben Todd personally – I think he sincerely thinks that his proposed policies cause better outcomes, and that these views are not exceptional in the EA community. I think that he should continue to accurately represent his actual opinions and do what he thinks is best. I do hope that this causes him to either reconsider and change his opinion, publicly – or explain to me what I'm missing and why I'm wrong.

What I am saying is that he has asked us to hold criticism of EA organizations to a higher standard than support of EA organizations, and has also implied that we should excuse these organizations from proactively addressing potential criticism, in cases where this doesn't directly contribute to growth or fundraising. Taken together, this amounts to a claim that EA organizations have the right to distort the public discourse about them to further their organizational aims.

Distortion of evidence

Sarah discusses the case of Animal Charity Evaluators heavily implying that leafleting has a strong evidence base as an effective animal welfare intervention, when in fact there's no experimental evidence for it, and some evidence against. On the impact tab on their leafleting page they wrote, "the existing evidence on the impact of leafleting is among the strongest bodies of evidence bearing on animal advocacy methods," which might lead a reader to conclude that there is strong evidence for this intervention. Elsewhere they admit that the evidence is extremely weak.

This problem has been pointed out publicly multiple times. (For an example, see Aceso Under Glass's 2015 post on the subject.) ACE staff have repeatedly said they understand the concerns and are revising the page.

ACE finally, after Sarah's post sensationalized the issue, added a disclaimer to the impact page to this effect. But the problem is not that this particular page is telling a very harmful lie, it’s evidence about a lack of intent to honestly inform.

On a Facebook thread on the topic, an ACE board member asked for suggestions for what ACE might do to repair this breach of trust. Here's how I responded:

I'm not going to propose a bunch of hoops ACE can jump through to make things better here. Just like the problem isn't that ACE got caught here, the problem can't be solved by a bunch of easily verified things.

I think ACE staff should sit down and have an honest internal discussion about why it seemed fine to ignore this issue for so long, and why the controversy's surprising - if it is in fact surprising. They should seriously think through the perceived conflict between prioritizing work that promotes the cause, and reassess whether perhaps they've underestimated the costs of overenthusiastic framings. And then they should do whatever they think is right after that.

If they end up deciding on a communication strategy that involves more forthright, prominent communication about the limits of the existing evidence base for animal charities, and why they think they're still worth supporting, then I'll be happy - and if they don't think that's the best strategy, then they aren't so worried about making people like me happy.

A good way to realize some of the benefits of a more honesty-centric strategy would be to write openly about the mistakes they made with their current communication strategy, why they made those mistakes, and what they intend to do differently. GiveWell put its astroturfing misstep on its mistakes page, and I think this was a good move. 80,000 Hours, Ben Todd's employer, also maintains a mistakes page, to its credit.

Cavalier attitude towards promises

Finally, there's the case of the Giving What We Can pledge:

I recognise that I can use part of my income to do a significant amount of good. Since I can live well enough on a smaller income, I pledge that for the rest of my life or until the day I retire, I shall give at least ten percent of what I earn to whichever organisations can most effectively use it to improve the lives of others, now and in the years to come. I make this pledge freely, openly, and sincerely.

In a post on the Effective Altruism forum about the GWWC pledge, Alyssa Vance discussed, among other things, possible circumstances in which giving away ten percent of one's income might not be compatible with the highest-impact strategy. In the next paragraph, she discussed how the pledge's lifelong nature might not be advisable, since it can be hard to predict one's future opportunities, especially as a student, which many pledge-takers are. At the end of this paragraph, she wrote:

In response to this argument, pledge taker Rob Wiblin said that, if he changed his mind about donating 10% every year being the best choice, he would simply un-take the pledge. However, this is certainly not encouraged by the pledge itself, which says "for the rest of my life" and doesn't contemplate leaving.

Rob Wiblin responded by quoting GWWC's sitewide FAQ (not on the pledge page or prominently featured there), which does talk about the prospect of leaving. The FAQ mentions that the pledge is not legally binding, and says that you “can” cease to be a member, specifically bringing up the prospect of “serious unforeseen circumstances.”

Overall, this seems entirely consistent to me with a reading whereby the pledge is morally binding barring circumstances that make it pretty much infeasible to fulfill. However, I tried to steelman this a little. Perhaps it was an honest misunderstanding. Some promises are like wedding vows, binding enough that the prospect that it might turn out not to be a good idea is a reason to be reluctant to commit. Others are like fitness goals, where if it turns out that running twice a week hurts your knees, you'll just do something else instead. If the pledge is meant more like a fitness goal than like a wedding vow, then the problem is just lack of clarity.

But Wiblin continues:

I think we should use the interpretation of the pledge that produces the best outcome. The use GWWC and I apply is completely mainstream use of the term pledge (e.g. you 'pledge' to stay with the person you marry, but people nonetheless get divorced if they think the marriage is too harmful to continue).


One thing I suspect is going on here is that people on the autism spectrum interpret all kinds of promises to be more binding than neurotypical people do (e.g. I don't know if that applies to any individual here specifically, but I think it explains how some of us have very different intuitions. But I expect we will be able to do more good if we apply the neurotypical intuitions that most people share.

Of course if you want to make it fully binding for yourself, then nobody can really stop you.

This reads to me like an implied claim – using the Gricean maxim of relation – that the Giving What We Can pledge, like wedding vows, is not serious enough that the prospect that it might not work out should make you reluctant to make the promise in the first place.

Paul Christiano's response says it as well as I could:

Usually we promise to do something that we would not have done otherwise, i.e. which may not be in line with our future self's interests. The promise "I will do X if my future self wants to" is gratuitous.


It seems reasonable for GWWC to say that the GWWC pledge is intended more as a statement of intent than as a commitment; it would be interesting to understand whether this is how most people who come into contact with GWWC perceive the pledge. If there is systematic misperception, it seems like the appropriate response is "oops, sorry" and to fix the misperception.

Instead, the initial response is to diagnose us with a mental disorder. To medicalize integrity.

There is not uniformly strong social pressure to take the pledge in the Effective Altruism community, but there is definitely some pressure, and from time to time people talk about whether people who haven't taken the pledge count as real EAs. There is also plenty of social proof. This will lead people who are especially agreeable to take the pledge when they might otherwise not have done so.

If these agreeable pledge-takers understand the pledge to be truly binding, when their peers who have taken the pledge have not, then they've been manipulated into devoting a disproportionate amount of resources through a misleading presentation. This is the sort of thing that can easily happen by accident. I don't blame Giving What We Can for the initial situation.

I blame the EA culture. If you accidentally mislead someone, and when this is pointed out to you, your response is not to seek to prevent the miscommunication is recurring, then it becomes your fault. Rob Wiblin is affiliated not with Giving What We Can, but with 80,000 Hours, a different subsidiary of the Center for Effective Altruism, so it's hard to assign responsibility to one particular actor here. But it says something bad about the EA culture's attitude towards trust that when this problem came up, the first response by an EA organization leader was to dismiss people who "misunderstood" as probably just autistic, rather than to ask how the pledge might be clarified.

In the comments to Sarah's post, Centre for Effective Altruism head Will MacAskill said he intend to write something up clarifying the pledge. He also endorsed the notion that there are seriously but not infinitely binding pledges such that the prospect that it might not work out is a serious concern:

There does seem to me to be more confusion around the pledge than I had realized, and I’ll write up something soon on how to understand the pledge, but it’ll take me a little bit to write it up in a way I’m happy with. In the meantime: I think that the analogy with wedding vows is pretty good – marriage is a firm intent, it’s not a trivial commitment, you’re doing a bunch of stuff to make it hard to back out of this commitment at a later date, you’re going to make life plans on the assumption that you’ll keep the commitment, and you’re making a commitment to act in a certain way even when its against your own later interest to do so. But, at the same time, you know that there’s a chance you won’t live up to the commitment, or that things will change sufficiently that being married to this person really really won’t make sense any more. In general, there’s quite a bit of space between “this is an absolutely binding commitment that I can never renege on” and “I can quit any time I feel like it”. I think that most promises, including serious promises like marriage, are in that space in between the two – having promised to do X provides a very significant, but not overriding, reason to do X.

This is encouraging, and I look forward to his writeup. But I'm disappointed that it seems to have taken this level of fuss to get this prioritized.

UPDATE: Since it may have been unclear to some - I do not mean to say that either Rob Wiblin or William MacAskill is personally to blame for this. This is a cultural divide, not a matter of individual bad actors. I fully believe both of them that the notion that the Pledge might be misleading never crossed their minds until the recent discussion I've referenced.

Intentional Insights

I'm not going to go into much depth on the case of Intentional Insights beyond Sarah's description (follow the first link for a more detailed account, "paid for likes" is not the best summary of what happened):

Intentional Insights, a supposed “EA” organization led by history professor Gleb Tsipursky, used astroturfing, paid for likes and positive comments, made false claims about his social media popularity, falsely claimed affiliation with other EA organizations, and may have required his employees to “volunteer” large amounts of unpaid labor for him.

To their credit, CEA repudiated Intentional Insights; Will McAskill’s excellent post on the topic argued that EA needs to clarify shared values and guard against people co-opting the EA brand to do unethical things.

People kept pointing out problems, and Gleb kept responding to the minimum possible construal of that problem - e.g. someone asked him not to use paid promoters, and point to an example, and he’d stop using that paid promoter on that forum, but use the same one on other forums, and other ones on that forum. He was not trying to honestly inform. He responded to criticism with “I’ve updated,” but didn't seem to be trying to make inferences about why his pattern of misbehavior was objectionable. Eventually, we needed public judgment – and eventually we got it.

I used to be happy with this outcome. But now I’m worried about our treatment of Gleb. At first I felt good that we’d identified and sort-of-expelled a bad actor, even if I was annoyed with some people for what I thought was extremely obsessive give-him-another-chance-ism. But I’m not so sure Gleb wasn’t just sincerely emulating the endorsed behavior and ideals of respected community leaders. Maybe the reason I don't see similarly outrageous behavior among other EA organizations – except the few moments where the curtain slips, like above – is because I accept them as authorities. Maybe Gleb's crime was not that he was dishonest, but that he was dishonest in poor taste.

Even one of the most ridiculous things Gleb did seems less exceptional now: A leader in an EA organization emailed him asking him to stop claiming to be supported by their organization. Later, this leader stated publicly that she'd sent this email. Gleb then complained that her public disclosure of the email she had sent him was an "unethical disclosures of my private messages with others."

This definitely seems different from the proposal that EA organizations should get to look at criticism before it's made public. But now I'm less sure that I'm justified in thinking that while the former is cartoonishly demanding, the latter is an understandable mistake. Maybe I'm just blinded by the respectability and good taste of the "better" EA organizations. Maybe I've been a self-righteous dupe. Maybe I still am.

I'm genuinely unsure.

39 thoughts on “Between honesty and perjury

  1. Daniel Dewey

    Thank you, Ben -- I found this clarifying, and I'm now more worried about this broad issue. (Maybe your communication style is more convincing to me than Sarah's.)

    FWIW, recent talk about the pledge has been very good for my understanding of the community -- I would have responded in roughly the way Will or Rob did, and I was genuinely surprised when others disagreed with this interpretation of the pledge. Without this conversation, I might never have realized how differently people interpret this, and I have strong feelings about how the pledge should be interpreted for it to be the most useful tool it can be for EAs. (E.g. I *don't* want to be part of a community that requires pledge-takers to blow up their lives in order to keep the pledge; if this is the pledge's canonical interpretation, I wouldn't recommend anyone take it.) I look forward to Will's clarification; if the word "pledge" is wrong (and I've now heard good arguments that it is), I'm totally open to GWWC changing it.

    I'm anxious about saying this, but I've just been reading about how fear of social costs might be harming the community, so I'll lean in the direction of saying what I think and trusting the community: if Rob had showed me his comment about the pledge and autism beforehand (in a hypothetical world where I work with Rob), I probably would have said "looks fine". I would have assumed not that the pledge was poorly worded, but that a small number of people were understanding the word "pledge" in a very unusual way, because I truly thought that Rob's version of "pledge" *was* the vastly more common usage (right down to the marriage analogy). I probably wouldn't have even noticed that his comment about autism looks like "medicalizing integrity" or dismissing people. It's now clear to me that both of these were mistakes, and probably ones that many people would have caught ahead of time, but I'm just standing up and saying "I think I would have made these mistakes too" because it's true, and relevant to how harshly you judge Rob.

    1. Benquo Post author

      Thanks for the reply. I don't think the right outcome right now is to judge Rob (or Ben) particularly harshly. I think this was an honest mistake. I don't even think it was a case of them being sloppy and selfishly letting down their true values - to the contrary, I think they were sincerely trying to do their moral duty, and it's their conception of their duty that I take issue with. I think the level at which this has to be addressed really is moral philosophy, and everything else just follows straightforwardly from that.

      The rest of this won't be at the level of detail the post was - I'll probably write a post on it later - but I'm curious whether it's clear to you if I try to just say the thing directly.

      In practice, utilitarianish EA seems to demand two things:

      1. You - you, personally - are responsible for everything that happens.
      2. No one is allowed their own private perspective - everyone must take the public, common perspective.

      The first principle is the reason for the notorious demandingness of utilitarianism. And it's important to note that it actually doesn't generalize; it's massive double-counting if each individual person is responsible for everything that happens. That's why I say "you" rather than "each person".

      The second principle follows from the first one. If you think you're personally responsible for everything that happens, and obliged to do something about that rather than weigh your taste accordingly, then you'll feel morally obliged - and therefore morally sanctioned - to control everything that happens, for the greater good. If part of you doesn't like the sacrifices you're making, that's a part that has to be subjugated or bought off with the minimum about of selfish indulgence required to ensure compliance with your plan. And what you're willing to do to yourself, you'll be willing to do to others. Respecting their autonomy becomes a mere matter of either selfishly indulging your personal taste for "deontological principles," or a concession made because they won't accept your leadership if you're too demanding - not a principled way to cooperate with them. You end up trying to force yourself and others to obey your judgment about what actions are best.

      This moral reasoning only makes sense if you basically believe that other people are moral patients, but independent, friendly agents do not exist; that you are the only person in the world who matters as a moral agent. (If you believe that other people are moral agents, then e.g. withholding information means that the friendly agents around you are more poorly informed, which is obviously bad, even before taking into account trust considerations!)

      I think that this reasoning is tacitly accepted by many EAs, and explains two seemingly opposite things:

      • Some EAs get their shit together and make power plays, implicitly claiming the right to deceive and manipulate to implement their plan.
      • Some EAs are paralyzed by the impossibility of weighing the consequences for the universe of every act, and collapse into perpetual scrupulosity and anxiety.

      I think part of the reason Sarah's critique wasn't as persuasive as mine is that moral claims like "you are not allowed to have a private perspective" actually work on her a little bit. Because of this, it was hard for her to honestly retreat to her own private perspective and humbly point out that this sort of thing made her trust EAs less and she didn't like it. She felt like she had to justify herself to others, and like she was under attack. In fairness, this was an accurate read of the situation - she was under attack, even if no one consciously intended to declare their moral ownership of her. (Much pro-EA writing also does this sort of dishonest perspective-mixing, but it's more self-righteous about it because it's written by people who think they're the natural philosopher-kings of the world.)

      Unlike Sarah, I am pretty hard to intimidate by moral coercion. I could have written something undefensively from my own private perspective. If I'd done so, this post would have been titled something like "Why I might stop calling myself an EA", and been about how I'd like it if my friends trusted me when I say that some ways of improving the world are especially effective and important, so I'm reluctant to identify with a movement that discourages criticism and leaves misleading info up to motivate people. It would have been a smaller, humbler post, mainly a goodbye note so people would understand why I was walking away. I am not sure how persuasive this would have been.

      What I decided instead was to try to take the universal perspective really seriously, and show how the sort of practical act-utilitarianism I outlined above isn't really coherent, and winds up being a partly principled defense of unjustified power.

      1. Daniel Dewey

        I'd guess this is moderately clear (hard to say whether it matches what you intended to say). It probably requires a post to be really clear.

        I do support the idea of taking the universal perspective and saying something like "we shouldn't do this". I'm not sure whether this reasoning is "tacitly accepted by many EAs", nor have I really thought hard about whether 1 + 2 imply the consequences you say they do, but I sure don't like the consequences.

      2. Michael Dickens

        > But it says something bad about the EA culture's attitude towards trust that when this problem came up, the first response by an EA organization leader was to dismiss people who "misunderstood" as probably just autistic

        I think this is being unfair to Rob. Speaking as someone who was on the opposite side of the argument from Rob (and who's on the autism spectrum, if that matters), I didn't feel like he was being dismissive toward me. He was just speculating about why people might have such different intuitions on how the pledge should be interpreted. My takeaway from the comment was "Oh that's interesting, perhaps we interpret the pledge differently because our brains work differently in a known way," which is what I believe Rob intended (although I can't speak for him).

        I've seen a couple people quote this thing he said and attribute excessively bad intentions to it, and I don't like to see that. If we can expect to be criticized for saying things like this, it discourages us from speaking off the cuff and puts too much pressure on making all our comments (even those buried deep in forum threads) PR-friendly, which has a silencing effect.


    2. Aceso Under Glass

      I think that if your + Rob's interpretation of the pledge was correct (and while I'm in the pledge-means-ironclad-commitment camp, I don't think there's anything wrong with a weaker form), the correct response to people worried that it was too large a commitment would be "yup, this is not the pledge for you. Consider this form with a weaker literal reading." not "you are wrong words don't mean that."

      In fact I think a lot of my problems with the pledge stem from prioritizing universality over optimality in individual situations. I worry that the 10% number anchors people to less than they would donate otherwise, and that the amount lost is larger than the gain from low-income individuals giving more. I worry that by not counting foregone salary or time it reinforces the narrative that cash and sacrifice is the most important thing, not impact. I worry it inhibits people who are early in their careers or doing direct work from investing in themselves.

      Which doesn't mean there aren't advantages to universality, but I think the line has definitely been drawn differently than where I would have put it.

      1. Daniel Dewey

        Those seem like very reasonable worries to me, FWIW. They definitely make me more uncertain about what the actual effects of the pledge are (and what possible effects of other pledges would be). Now I want data on these things 🙂

  2. Justis Mills

    One interesting thing about pledge-taking to me is how, in person at EAGlobal, the GWWC people I met were not at all pushy. I'd been giving 10% for a while, but had simply been using the Try Giving utility each year. I told them my worries about taking the pledge, basically to do with uncertainty about my future self's financial situation, and they more or less said "Sure, that makes sense. Definitely do what you think is consistent for you and your interpretation."

    I think it's okay for different people to interpret the pledge differently. I'd like to see a reasonable lower bound for pledge-taking interpretations in terms of seriousness, something like: "I'll keep doing it even if I don't feel like it," but if some people feel like "If I switch to a field where I make half as much and accomplish direct impact, maybe I'll stop" and others feel like "I will only stop if I would literally starve to death without 100% of my income," I think that's okay.

    To me it feels like publishing a longer, authoritative version of the pledge would be wrong. It's like a quasi-religious commitment, or was to me at least (I have since taken it), to be squared with privately. I thought on the words in it and what they meant to me, not what they happened to mean to its authors. If I find it necessary to back out later (I don't anticipate I will), then I'd have to reckon with myself, not CEA officials.

    1. Benquo Post author

      This seems entirely reasonable to me. But if we accept this view, we should disagree with the position that criticism of the pledge for its lifelong nature is naive, and we should also be skeptical of how meaningful it is to count the number of people who have taken the pledge as though it's counting units of the same thing.

      I'm very glad to hear that GWWC avoids high-pressure tactics; that's consistent with my impression, and I hope it's clear in this post that I'm not accusing GWWC per se of specific misbehavior here.

      1. Justis Mills

        I agree that we shouldn't consider criticism of the pledge as a lifelong commitment as naive, though I think it's fair to respond to some such criticism with something like "there is room under the interpretive umbrella for people who would be willing to forgo their pledge under substantial duress or in the presence of clearly superior alternatives (going from making 100k/yr to 25k/yr but moving at least 30k/yr to the most effective causes in the latter job, for example)," and suggesting readers don't take the critics' (very strict) interpretation of the pledge as a sole objective truth about its content. I lean strict with things like pledges, but I don't think that's the only consistent stance.

        I definitely agree that "number of pledge-takers" is a shaky metric, and REALLY think that "future amount pledged" is very shaky. The dropout rate is massively unclear.

  3. Aceso Under Glass

    Two complaints came up in regard to Sarah's post: asking people to run criticism by organizations is reasonable, and it's not fair to cite comments on EA Forums and facebook.

    I'm more sympathetic to the latter after Sarah misquoted someone and incorrectly described his position. It was an honest mistake, but easy to make, and would have been prevented if she'd reached out to him first.

    I'm also sympathetic to "people need to be able to test out ideas, context is important, if every FB comment needs to be a perfect statement of your views in isolation we will do less learning on FB."

    But you can't have both for the same forum. If I have to do the work of running things by people, they have to do the work of meaning what they say.

  4. Decius

    Oddly enough, the claim that InIn paid for hundreds of likes on specific posts is not well substantiated in the accusations.

    What is well substantiated is that some posts have been promoted and get hundreds of likes, and some people who are affiliated with InIn like most or all of InIn's posts.

    The former might be explained by purchasing likes, but it can as easily be explained by the post being promoted and gathering natural likes as well as artificial ones from groups disguising their patterns from algorithms.

    Frankly, if you didn't notice this already, you've already held criticism and praise of thinks you find attractive and distasteful to different standards in the wrong way.

    You know your biases. Add an intentional step in evaluating information which is opposite your biases.

    1. Benquo Post author

      Thanks for pointing this out, I've updated the wording to deprecate that phrase. I agree that "paid for likes" is not a good summary of what happened.

      Gleb paid to promote his FB posts, which resulted in large numbers of fake likes. This was very plausibly unintentional. He also had paid staff "like" his posts and comment on them with praise but little other content, and was not forthcoming about the extent of this practice even when very explicitly asked about it.

  5. Raymond Arnold

    I think my main disagreements with you (with regards to Ben Todd's comments), would be:

    I do not think it is currently possible, given our current social and intellectual technology, to hold discourse at the level you are currently talking about. I *agree* that this is a huge problem that needs to be solved, and that if we cannot solve it Effective Altruism probably fails. But I think lumping this in with the way we socially penalize dishonesty will cause a bunch of bad outcomes. (In particular, I think a necessary precursor to solving the problem *requires* not penalizing it in the same bucket we penalize traditional dishonesty)

    (This is all a bit off the cuff and I'm not greater than 51% confident in any of this, but it feels like a natural consequence of a bunch of interwined things I believe in a system 1 sense)

    Some sub-claims about what I think are necessary to solve the problem:

    1) We need brevity, precision, persuasiveness, speed

    Keeping up with literature is exhausting. Dealing with criticism is exhausting. Being precise enough to not be deceptive is exhausting. Reading essays designed to be "precise enough to not be wrong" is even more exhausting that reading less precise things. (i.e. if I wasn't worried about our community being at an important inflection point, I would have found this post of yours borderline more-trouble-than-it's-worth to read)

    I think finding ways to be brief *and* precise *and* not-taking-too-long ("I'd have made it shorter but I didn't have the time") is a necessary requisite for having the kind of discourse we need.

    2) We need high standards for high profile praise and criticism

    You've convinced me that an imbalance of praise and criticism is bad, but a) I don't think praise and criticism are symmetrical, and b) it's not at all obvious the solution is to make criticism easier.

    To be precise, idealized criticism would always include talking with the people you're criticizing (see my comments on the thread). I don't think it's possible to do this all the time, but we can at least try during high profile criticisms, engineered for publicity, controversy, and/or reputation damage.

    (I also think it's fair for high profile praises *also* be held to high standards, and I think this will probably turn out to be a better idea than making high profile criticism easier)

    ((I think low profile criticism should still aim for the principle of charity and usually be framed more like "this doesn't make sense to me"))

    Part of the reason this seems fine to me is that running criticism by someone doesn't obligate you to wait till they respond. If, say, Sarah and run this by Rob Wiblin, Ben Todd, and ACE, I think the threat of her *ability* to publish could have achieved a similar effect. She can still ultimately publish the thing if it seems like the right decision, possible with edits, possibly without. She'll have more information.

    I think this is especially important for a post called "EA has a lying problem" because

    3) The default epistemic world is a race to the bottom of sensationalism/controversy/tribalism

    (see my posts in the EA forums, left out here for speed)

    4) Solving our epistemic problems requires a high trust environment

    This ties in both with why I think Sarah's title and tone were problematic, and why I think it's reasonable for high profile criticism to be run by the criticizee. I think more organizations will be willing to join us and adopt these standards if they have a strong sense that they will be treated fairly.

    1. Raymond Arnold

      For frame of reference, at an org I used to work at, we weren't able to publish foundation's *positive* reviews of charities the foundation endorsed, because the foundations were worried about coming under scrutiny and criticism.

      If those foundations looked at Effective Altruism, thought "hmm, this seems like a good idea, maybe we should start being more transparent", and then see something like Ben Todd's comments, and then those comments being characterized as _lying_, they'd be like... "okay nevermind this is just ridiculous."

      This is the default world. If EA succeeds, it will need buy in and transparency from a lot of different orgs that aren't as idealistic as us when it comes to rigor.

      We *should* hold ourselves to ever-higher-standards, and encourage others to do the same, but I don't think the framing you have hear is the most helpful one.

    2. Benquo Post author

      Ben Todd's comment was critical of Alyssa's post. Should he have emailed her first?

      I think that in this context, it's important to distinguish discussing the cons as well as the pros of a policy, from judging the conduct of a particular person or organization.

      I can see the case for being extra careful about criticism in the second category, but I think Alyssa's original Effective Altruism forum post was clearly in the first category. She was discussing considerations against taking the pledge (considerations that in some cases GWWC *agrees* with), not condemning GWWC as an organization.

      1. Raymond Arnold

        Upon reflection I agree - I did not look carefully enough at the actual details of the case and was making inferences heavily influenced by past experience with exasperation with lazy critics.

        (I still have not looked into the details myself since I'm on a phone and time constrained but from what I recall I think you are right, which does make me more sympathetic to a characterization of active pushing of dishonest practices. 'Lying' still feels like the wrong word)

        1. Benquo Post author

          I agree that "lying" is not a good word to characterize what Sarah's examples were doing, because of the "perjury" connotations that are simply false, at least in the examples given. I wish she'd said "dishonesty problem." Many would still have objected to the wording, but they'd have been wrong.

  6. Alexander Gordon-Brown

    If what you're worried about is an asymmetric standard between criticism and praise, but you agree the suggested standard for criticism would improve the quality of the criticism, why not just hold praise to the same high standard?

    Maybe you r addressed this somewhere and I missed it, but I don't see why we have to choose between low-quality criticism on the one hand and unfair distortion on the other; why not have both?

    1. Benquo Post author


      I think the right thing to do is to have multiple venues and modes at different levels of formality with different standards for publication. Per William's comment below, I do think there's some value in informal, low-threshold semi-public writing. Separately, I think it would be good to have venues where we expect that both praise and blame will be careful and thoroughly checked first.

      I think Carl Shulman already writes to something like the standard we'd want, for instance, at the price of publishing substantially less than he otherwise might. Possibly EA, or one of the adjacent or partly overlapping communities, should have something a little bit more like an academic journal to host writing at that level of thoroughness from time to time.

  7. William MacAskill

    Thanks for this post! Love it, and generally find your posts very helpful.

    Regarding a 'tax on criticism': one (not necessarily conclusive) consideration is that I think it's easy for criticism to lose a lot of its value by containing a few errors, or having the wrong tone. So a post might be 90% good, but have a few clear mistakes, and perhaps be written in a more confrontational tone than is optimal (this is *so* easy to do because everyone gets taught in high school to write in a 'debate' format). This means that the recipient of the criticism (who, likely, is a human, with all the weaknesses that go along with that) both is likely to feel defensive, and has an easy stick to hit the critic with - namely, the obvious, easily-correctable mistakes.

    If you have a social norm of 'a couple of days before you publish a critical piece of person or organisation X, run the draft by them first' you: (i) signal respect, by giving them a heads-up, and make responding to the criticism less costly for them because they can incorporate it into their workflow for the week; (ii) are more likely to write with a co-operative rather than combative tone (where I think a combative tone is very rarely warranted in the first instance); (iii) are less likely to make obvious errors, undermining the force of the rest of the critique.

    This matches my personal experience. In the past I've written critical posts (such as of GiveWell, of the Charity Navigator folks). Sometimes I've run the post past the recipient first; other times I haven't. In every case when I didn't run the criticism past them first it felt like a mistake; and when I have run a criticism past them first I've felt like it made the post better.

    Tl;dr: keeping quality of criticism high is super important for having a good institution of criticism and feedback in EA (which is itself super important). Having a tax on criticism that reduces quantity of criticism but increases quality might well be worth it.

    (One thing in addition on taxes: we should probably construct norms around when it's appropriate to quote people and represent that quote as their considered view. Blog post is definitely fine; comment on a blog post, or facebook post - I'm not so sure. It's definitely a tax on making comments if that comment (which, like this comment I'm writing now, was often quickly written, shoot-from-the-hip) might be quoted, not necessarily in context, elsewhere on the web. I've had my facebook comments quoted as "The View of Will MacAskill" - and, fine, I'm a public figure and I accept that's going to happen to me. But it for sure is the reason I rarely post on facebook, and when I do it's almost always super innocuous. Whereas if we have a norm of 'run posts past people you quote', then that tax on comments gets lifted to a significant extent. E.g. Carl once wanted to quote a facebook comment I made - he ran it past me first, and that meant I could say "yep, that's my view" or "I said that but I'm not sure I stand by it" - and if it's the latter he can make a comment to that effect under that quote. We really really want to avoid situations where people feel they *have* to defend their statements; we want to make publicly changing one's mind as socially easy as possible. So, the "run criticism by the person/organisation criticised" is one sort of tax (on criticism), but it takes away a different tax (on commenting)).

    Different topic: Regarding "Centre for Effective Altruism head Will MacAskill said he intend to write something up clarifying the pledge... This is encouraging, and I look forward to his writeup. But I'm disappointed that it seems to have taken this level of fuss to get this prioritized." My best guess at the moment is that the issue of what it means to make a promise/pledge is like the issue as whether you have vivid mental imagery (see this post: or your views on *that* dress ( people divide on this issue and can't believe that the other group has different views.

    So, in my case, I'm genuinely highly surprised by the fact that some people find this confusing, and would (prior to this debate) have wrongly placed big bets on no-one else finding it confusing (given the explanation of the pledge in sections 3 and 4 here: But other people - smart, reasonable, well-intentioned people - find it really confusing! So I must have the wrong model of other people's understandings of promising/pledging. (If I'm honest, I still don't really feel like I know what's going on). So the reason I haven't written on this at more length than is contained in the FAQ is that I wouldn't have thought there would be any confusion that would need to be cleared up.

    The reason I find the confusion surprising is that we have a well-established social institution of promise-keeping, where "I promise to do X" lies in between "I intend to do X" and "I vow to do X no matter what the consequences." E.g. "I promise to pick up Alice's kids from school" gives you a pro tanto obligation to pick up Alice's kids from school; but if an emergency happens, then it's permissible to break that promise (and understood by both parties that you will break that promise). You're neither stating merely that you will pick up Alice's kids from school, nor that you will do whatever you can in all circumstances to pick up Alice's kids from school. The promise is in between those two extremes: it gives you a reason, but not an overriding reason, to pick up the kids from school.

    So I understand Rob not at all as medicalising integrity. He's just perhaps suggesting that different groups seem to understand the content of 'I promise to do X' differently. (So therefore what it counts to live by that promise is different). I understood Rob's comment to just be saying that the pledge is like wedding vows, or promises in general: that you pledge to do X gives you a reason to do X, but in really bad situations, it's permissible to break the promise and not do X.

    Then I hope what's going on is that people feel in the dark about what 'really bad situations' means in the case of the Pledge; in which case hopefully we can clarify that.

    (One last clarification: There is a disanalogy between marriage and pledging. Because marriage is a joint promise, if both parties want to end the marriage, they can dissolve the promise-agreement. But the pledge is just made in general, not made to a specific person, so this way of no longer having to abide by the promise isn't available.)

    (Ok, just one more: I do think that taking the pledge shouldn't count as definitive of 'being an EA', and that there are plenty of situations where people shouldn't take the pledge. So that would be a bad norm, if it existed in the community. My perception would be that that norm doesn't exist, but I only have one view.)

    1. Benquo Post author

      William, thanks for the kind response. You made a few important points and I'm going to put my responses in separate comments. I'll start with your advice around criticism.

      I think that your prudential advice on criticism is good advice; critics often face an uphill battle in being heard because people being criticized can naturally feel defensive, and it's easy for criticism of mixed merit to be unfairly dismissed.

      That said, you're giving advice on how to accommodate a basically unjust set of norms, where the people in positions of power and influence get to have hurt feelings, but people pointing out ways they might be harmed by those in charge don't get to. I think it's worth being mindful of that asymmetry, especially when giving advice about how to criticize oneself or one's own institution.

      Suppose I shove someone because they're in my way. They respond by saying, "stop shoving me, you jerk!" I reply by saying that I feel attacked when I'm called a jerk, and I'd be more receptive to their criticism if they employed Nonviolent Communication. I hope it's clear in this hypothetical what it is that I'm doing wrong. I'm not just giving general advice, I'm asking the other person to do the cognitive and emotional work to resolve the problem I've caused, and implicitly asserting the right to impose that harm free of penalty. This is not because NVC is always bad advice - I have many friends who've benefited from it. The problem is specific to the context.

      I'm not accusing anyone of shoving anyone else here, physically or metaphorically, but I hope this was a clear example of how giving prudential advice to critics can amount to asserting the right to set the terms of an interaction. The question then becomes when, and under what circumstances, that's OK.

      The more public and consequential the thing being criticized, the harder I think this asymmetry is to defend. If someone comes into my house and dislikes one of the paintings on the wall, they should be pretty circumspect, since it's not really their business, and I'm pretty justified in getting upset if a houseguest starts criticizing a treasured family heirloom or my own work. Likewise if an acquaintance disapproves of the way I'm conducting my romantic life. At the other extreme, the Giving What We Can pledge is extremely public. GWWC can't possibly have consulted with all potential stakeholders before coming up with the wording of the pledge, and their promotion strategy - by its very nature it's going to affect people GWWC hasn't talked with yet.

      When someone at CEA publicly responds to open discussion of the pros and cons of the pledge by giving this kind of prudential advice on how to criticize, they are implying that this is one of the domains in which criticism ought to be limited because one ought to be mindful of their hurt feelings. That doesn't mean that it's always wrong to give such advice - but I think it's worth trying to take into account the dual effect of such advice: overtly, it tells people how to be more effective. Implicitly, it endorses the power asymmetry that makes such advice necessary.

      1. William MacAskill

        Hey - thanks for the response. I disagree on ‘unjust norms’ and on ‘prudential advice’ in this instance - I’m attempting to make suggestions about how the community can have better norms around criticism, to the benefit of the whole community, based on my own experience. (See Nick’s comment below). But I apologise if it came across in a different way.

        And I agree in general on asymmetry of obligation of organisations vs individuals. A paragraph I removed from my comment, because I (mistakenly?) thought it wasn’t going to be helpful, was comparing organisations to cars and individuals to pedestrians. Cars have more responsibility to navigate the roads safely than pedestrians do; but pedestrians still have responsibilities (to, say, not jump in front of cars).

        1. Benquo Post author

          At first glance I really like the "cars and pedestrians" analogy; it's a nonjudgmental way to talk about asymmetries, and I think we need more of that.

          I am not sure how much it can be stretched to fit the case of discourse, especially since we want our discourse to produce public goods and gains from trade rather than just minimize harms, but it seems like a productive addition anyhow.

    2. Benquo Post author

      On the subject of moving conversation from less to more public and formal spaces, I agree that there’s a valuable role for low-stakes, casual discussions in good faith. If it’s normal to suddenly elevate a semiprivate conversation to a more formal public venue to pick apart, there could be a substantial chilling effect on discussion.

      This is why I and others tried to engage Ben Todd and Rob Wiblin in the comments first. I wish we’d had the chance to hash things out there first before this went more public, but there were long lag times on both sides, so it was going to take a while. If I were writing a callout post, I'd have wanted to make sure that I gave Ben & Rob - preferably publicly in the comments - the most recent version of my argument, in case they wanted to reconsider, and make a revised statement.

      On the other hand, in the cases of ACE and InIn, there was ample criticism, which - even when made on the public internet - was only addressed in informal, semipublic venues like Facebook comments, not on their own websites.

      The amount of work that went into documenting Gleb's abuses was pretty extreme. I think that if we have to do that every time, we just lose. During the time when someone's accumulating a track record of misleading public statements, people who aren't party to the private or semipublic discussion don't know enough not to get taken in, potentially wasting their attention on something that's known to be suspect. If you are guaranteed fair warning before semi-public things become more public, then no one who's clever at all is punished for acting in bad faith.

      Gleb is not very politically savvy, so he got burnt anyway. But suppose that after years of ACE only responding to criticism about the leafleting page in informal, semiprivate venues, Sarah had given ACE and Jacy a chance to clarify their position before putting up her callout post. If Jacy had responded to Sarah's draft post with a plausible clarification, and ACE had responded by putting up the banner saying that their leafleting page no longer reflected their considered opinion, and Sarah had responded with by dropping their case from her callout post, then they’d have avoided most of the public fuss. The ultimate situation would be one in which:

      • ACE subtly misleads the public for years about the evidence base for leafleting, despite large amounts of private criticism.
      • ACE appears to self-correct, and faces no penalty for only responding under threat of a public fuss.
      • Instead of trusting ACE less because of its track record, people trust ACE more, because it appears to have proactively corrected an error in the absence of loud public criticism to do so.
      • Sarah does a bunch of work and gets no public credit at all for it.

      If we're going to encourage this sort of thing, then I wonder what other apparently exceptionally trustworthy behavior by EA organizations is actually the result of a secret shakedown by an integrity vigilante.

      At some point, when someone keeps conceding criticism in informal venues, but not changing their public behavior, it has to be okay to call them out publicly without additional warning.

      If you're a public figure or institution, and you don't want your informal, semipublic responses to criticism to be held up in public as representative, then it behooves you to respond publicly and promptly.

    3. Benquo Post author

      Disagreement on the meaning of the pledge doesn't necessarily mean that Giving What We Can did anything wrong. A substantial misalignment in interpretations of the pledge is a problem worth addressing, and I’m glad to see that you’re on board with this now that the problem’s been brought to your attention. I’m also glad, given that we agree that the pledge is at least somewhat seriously meant, that you’re not on board with using the pledge as an implicit membership requirement for EA.

      I think that the most straightforward reading of your and Rob's writing is that the two of you strongly disagree on how seriously the pledge is meant. As I said in the comments on Sarah’s post, I think there's some (hopefully unintended) goalpost moving going on in the interpretation of the dispute here, and I wonder whether you might be assuming that Rob's position is closer to yours than it actually is. Rob's original comment comparing the pledge to wedding vows was a response to Alyssa’s point that a lifelong pledge might commit you to substantially suboptimal behavior. In this context, it seemed to some of us as though Rob was implying that in terms of seriousness, the pledge is near the lower bound of the interval from “doing X seems better than any other option I’ve found so far" to "I vow to do X no matter what the consequences.”

      It’s in the context of whether reservations about a lifelong commitment were relevant, that it came across as dismissive to some of us when Rob considered labels for the people who had a differing interpretation from his, but didn’t bring up the possibility of publicly adjusting or clarifying the wording of the pledge. This was exacerbated by the fact that the existence of terms like "Autism Spectrum Disorder" and "Asperger's syndrome" is ipso facto a judgment by the American Psychiatric Association that this personality type is pathological.

      I understand that this can make it hard to talk about differences in personality, which are potentially relevant here. It’s especially tricky because many people do happily self-describe with those terms. I think that the right policy is to accept explicit disclaimers at face value unless there's fairly strong evidence that they're insincere. For instance, I think that if Rob had said something to the effect of, "I don't think this means their interpretation is intrinsically less valid, just unusual enough that we shouldn’t default to it" in his initial comment, this probably ought to have been fine.

      1. Rob W

        "I wonder whether you might be assuming that Rob's position is closer to yours than it actually is"

        No, I have the same view as Will. Any appearance to the contrary is because my work commitments mean I lacked the time to spend hours going through all my views about the nature of promises, philosophy of word meanings, personal identity over time, exactly how bad it is to un-take the pledge under different hypothetical conditions, and so on. I figured the audience for my comments was a handful of people only, as traffic on the EA Forum is low.

        Like Will I was at first astonished to find there was any alternative perspective to the one I was putting forward, such a universal social convention on the nature of promises did it seem to me.

        It's for this kind of reason that it would have been beneficial for someone (anyone) to contact me to speak about this topic using a higher bandwidth method before basing broad claims on forum posts written in 1-2 minutes each.

        Regarding my reference to people being on the spectrum I replied to Sarah about this here:

        All the best,


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  9. Nick Beckstead

    Here's a really quick thought. My personal experience is that deciding to run lengthy criticism by someone before publishing it usually *reduces the cost of criticism* and *increases its quality*. This works by decreasing the drama involved and removing inaccuracies. So the idea that encouraging people to do this decreases the quantity of criticism seems wrong to me.

    I've thought to myself, "I wish I had talked with them beforehand - things really got off on the wrong foot" but never "man, that would have been so much easier if I hadn't checked in first."

    1. Benquo Post author

      I agree on increasing quality, which is why I often run criticism or praise by the individual or organization I'm mentioning.

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  14. Sam Sapirstein

    Generally agree on the broader philosophical point, but I think my experience writing copy for A/B test might be helpful here.

    If you have good data that can tell you why an A/B test result occurred, but just don't care, then I agree with you. And boy have I seen that play out.

    But I've also written enough copy for many tests to tell you the data as to WHY can be harder to find than the result itself. It's not that "why" isn't asked by marketers, it's just that answers are often wanting. This is especially true of A/B testing. A/B is different from a "multivariate" test in that you can't really quantify which individual element or collection of elements caused a specific ad/landing page/product page/purile infographic to work. With multivariate testing, you can test different lines of copy, different subtle design changes, etc. while keeping everything else exactly the same. You just end up with so many permutations that setting the test up can be far more complicated and time consuming. But it's easier to ask "why" in that case.

    So why not just do multivariate all the time? Well, when you're trying to compete with someone else who might be winning handily with their ad/page/thing, sometimes it helps to take a holistic approach to their work, and attempt to imitate and improve on it in a holistic way - as opposed to drawing inspiration from individual elements like a specific headline or image. The artists and writers you hire to make this stuff are at their best when the holistic approach is favored. And frankly, dishonesty won't get past a robust legal department with Google breathing down their necks however shitty the product is.

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