if you don’t correct errors, you don’t get anything done, because you stay wrong. I don't think we do enough to reward saying oops.
Lately, I’ve been complaining about ways the EA community’s been papering over problems in ways that forgo this sort of learning. But while complaining is important, on its own it doesn’t offer any specific vision for how to do things. At the recent EA Global conference in Boston, I was reflecting with a friend on what sorts of positive norms I would like to see in the discourse.
One example of something I wish I saw more of, is people publicly and very clearly saying, "we tried X, it didn’t work, so now we’re stopping.” Or, “I used to believe X, and as a result asked people to do Y, but now I don’t believe X anymore and don’t think Y is a particularly good use of resources.” People often invest a lot of social capital in their current beliefs and plans; admitting that you were wrong can cost you valuable social momentum and mean you have to start over. You might worry that people will associate you with wrongness. We need communities where instead, clear admissions of error or failure are publicly acknowledged as signs of integrity, and commitment to communal learning and shared model-building.
So I'm offering a prize. But first, let me give an example of the sort of thing we need to be praising more loudly more often.
For instance, I don’t think we’ve praised Charity Science nearly enough. Early in its history, the Charity Science team hoped that they’d found a high-leverage way to move money to effective charities, in the form of grant writing. So they tried it, with a clear goal they declared in advance.
They technically met their goal of raising at least $25,000, mostly through Google AdWords grants. But the AdWords program was a one-time windfall with minimal standards, not a central case of the grantwriting they hoped to do, or something they expected to be able to repeat.
They could have spun this very plausibly as a success (they reached their original target!), and kept going. Or they could have quietly changed the emphasis of their program, while holding onto some of the momentum of their original marketing.
But they didn’t do that.
Instead they did something extraordinary. They told the world that they thought their experiment had failed. They closed down that operation. And they tried other things.
Because they communicated their failure very clearly, they helped other EAs who might have considered raising money through grant writing. We know to expect it to be hard. There’s not easy money lying on the table. So we won’t waste our time assuming that there is. We can try other things instead.
And I know that I have good reason to trust Charity Science’s public statements.
The thing I am curious about, is whether anything like this happened at EA Global Boston. Whether anyone discovered an error they’d committed resources based on or found that something that seemed promising was a dead end, and publicly corrected the error to save others the time and trouble of learning the hard way.
If anyone at the EA Global Boston conference publicly repudiated an old belief, and the efforts they made and asked others to make on this basis, and explained what they're doing differently, then I'd like to celebrate this. Since talk is cheap, I'm offering $1,000 in prize money. $900 to the person who most clearly reported changing their mind about something big they’d already invested their time or money or credibility in and asked others to invest in, and $100 to the first person to nominate them. Self-nomination is encouraged.
To qualify, an entry has to have the following attributes:
- It is explicitly error correction, not an account that spins things to look like a series of successes evolving over time.
- There was a public commitment of resources based on the original belief (e.g. funds raised or volunteer hours).
- There is a record of the error-correction statement. If it's not a recorded talk, an independent witness (neither the nominator nor prizewinner) is enough evidence.
- It happened at EA Global Boston, and either was part of a scheduled talk, or an independent witness (neither the nominator nor the nominee) believes that at least ten people were present.
Anyone who spoke at EA Global Boston is eligible for the prize, including leaders of EA organizations such as CEA, EAG leadership, and GiveWell / Open Philanthropy Project staff. If no qualifying entries are submitted, then no prize will be awarded. I am the sole, unaccountable judge of this, but will get people to check my work if I don't think anyone's eligible or feel like I'm too close to the person I think should win.
You can send nominations to me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'll review any entries sent before July 15th. If the error-correction is already publicly available, or if the nominee gives me permission, I’ll announce the winner by the time of the beginning of the next EA Global conference in San Francisco. If there is no public recording and the nominee isn’t OK with the error-correction being publicized in this way, then I reserve the right to award them only a partial prize or none at all.
Thanks to the EA Global staff for agreeing to publicize this to EA Global Boston attendees.