EA Debate Championship & Lecture Series

Executive Summary

  • On October 23-25 2020, we hosted the inaugural online EA Debate Championship—a three-day debate championship with EA-themed topics.

  • The championship had 150+ participants, from roughly 25 countries, that span 6 continents.

  • The championship was supported by the World Universities Debating Championship, aka WUDC—one of the largest international student-driven events in the world.

  • There were a total of 7 debate rounds − 5 preliminary rounds and 2 knockout rounds. The knockout rounds were held in 2 different language proficiency categories to promote inclusivity. In total over the course of that weekend over 500 EA-related speeches were delivered.

  • The championship featured a Distinguished Lecture Series as non-mandatory preparation material − 9 lectures, 3 debate exercises and 1 Q&A session containing introductory EA materials (totalling ~10 hours), with top EA speakers including Ishaan Guptasarma, Joey Savoie, Karolina Sarek, Kat Woods, Lewis Bollard, Olivia Larsen, Nick Beckstead, and Will MacAskill. The debate exercises were filmed by world-renowned debate teams.

  • The championship included a research component to examine if debating on EA topics changes the stance of debaters towards EA values.

  • Most of the participants were not familiar with EA prior to the competition, or had limited exposure to core EA ideas. However, when asked after the tournament many were highly positive on the prospect of attending a future EA debating championship, and reported a strong willingness to continue their engagement with the EA community.

  • During the tournament, over $2,000 were donated to effective charities by the participants (with most of the funds going to the Against Malaria Foundation). The funds were doubled via donation matching provided by Open Philanthropy.

  • The competition was initiated and organized by members of EA Israel who are also debaters; with the support of several highly influential international debaters and the World Championship. This collaboration was possible due to the strong ties that exist between the debating community and the EA community in Israel. We think that there is room to building similar ties on a more global scale.

  • In the rest of the post we will explain our motivation to run the event, describe the program and its outcomes in detail, share what we have learned from the process, and discuss our next steps.

  • Organizing the tournament was an effort of a great many. We thank them all, and would like to stress that any mistakes or inaccuracies in the description are our own. In particular we would like to thank Adel Ahmed, Ameera Moore, Barbara Batycka, Bosung Baik, Chaerin Lee, Connor O’Brien, Dana Green, Emily Frizell, Enting Lee, Harish Natarajan, Ishaan Guptasarma, Jaeyoung Choi, Jessica Musulin, Joey Savoie, Kallina Basli, Karolina Sarek, Kat Woods, Lewis Bollard, Milos Marajanovic, Mubarrat Wassey, Nick Beckstead, Olivia Larsen, Omer Nevo, Sally Kwon, Salwaa Khan, Seoyoun, Seungyoun Lee, Sharmila Parmanand, Tricia Park, Will MacAskill and Yeaeun Shin for their contributions in running the tournament, filming lectures or creating exercises; to David Moss, David Reinstein and Stefan Schubert for their advice on running the tournament survey; and to the many incredibly qualified debate adjudicators & speakers that made the event possible

Motivation

We initiated this effort due to the impression that themed debating tournaments (along with matching preparation materials) can be a relatively broad yet high-fidelity outreach opportunity. We believe this is the case for several reasons:

  • The international debating community mostly consists of undergraduate students from around 50 countries (elite universities are represented across all continents).

  • Debaters tend to be willing to sit and reflect upon themes for hours, both when preparing for a competition, and when analyzing their performance after each debate round. Long online discussions are the norm in the community, similar to EAs.

  • As such, a theme-specific championship is a rare opportunity to engage a highly diverse audience in a meaningful way that can spark interest for a long time.

  • To further seize the opportunity we also launched a complimentary Distinguished Lecture Series of videos on core EA topics, and conducted research surveys that questioned the positions of the crowd with regards to the championship’s topics.

We also believe debaters are a particularly promising audience for EA outreach, for the following reasons:

  • Prospective influence: Competitive debaters tend to be overwhelmingly represented in the high echelons of government, academia, media and business. A significant portion of high-ranking politicians in the US and the UK have a debating background. As a recent example of an influential community alum, Jake Sulivan was named the National Security Advisor of the Biden Administration; beyond him there are many other highly influential graduates that are positioned in key global roles in numerous important states. Thus, we think that making the community more EA-aligned presents an opportunity to instill important values that can propel large scale plans in the following decades.

  • Potentially high EA affinity: Competitive debaters tend to look at the world from a neutral perspective and ask what is most beneficial to humanity at-large when discussing a topic. We believe that a willingness to constantly engage with people from all over the world, to seek knowledge on policies, and to have logical discussions are indicators that show that EA values can resonate with the target audience.

In addition to our general view that this type of outreach may be promising, we believed we had a particularly promising opportunity at this time, for several reasons:

  • Collaborating with key members of the world championship and the debating elite to reach a wider audience.

    • There are globally prominent debaters who identify as EAs (e.g. former world champions who are active in local EA branches).

    • In particular, this year presented an opportunity to collaborate with the World Universities Debating Champions (WUDC) - the most prestigious academic competitive debating event in the world. The opportunity existed since the Chief Adjudicator, who is the professional director of the World Championship, is also a part of EA Israel.

    • The opportunity allowed the EA tournament to be a major event on the international debate calendar that attracted a lot of global engagement.

  • The team running the tournament had experience in reaching large audiences with similar past projects.

    • We were able to assemble a team that had the experience of running over 300 debating events, and recruit many key members of the debating community to help.

    • In particular, the team also ran large educational programs before (e.g. a Distinguished Lecture Series on feminism that had a global audience of thousands of dedicated participants).

Finally, we believed such an event could present a unique opportunity for improving the state of EA advocacy research:

  • Outreach is a key component of EA, and yet, the research on the effectiveness of different types of EA advocacy is still limited. We believe this is an important and underinvested research area within EA.

  • Debate, being a structured discussion format where judges and speakers are randomly assigned positions, is a natural ground for research on how engagement with EA ideas can change stances on EA values.

Program Description

The program included three distinct components, which complemented each other. Below we describe each of these components, followed by the total costs of running this program.

Distinguished Lecture Series:

  • The championship featured a Distinguished Lecture Series (DLS) as non-mandatory preparation material. We have recorded 8 lectures, 3 debate exercises and 1 Q&A session.

  • The content focused on main EA causes and centred on: introduction to EA, cause prioritization, global health and development, animal welfare, and existential risk. You can find the links to the lectures at the end of this section.

  • The exercises featured elite debaters that analyzed debate topics using the information from the corresponding lectures. We recorded 3 exercises that followed the topic-specific lectures—on global health and development, animal welfare, and existential risk.

  • Each lecture was between 20 mins to 90 mins at the discretion of the speaker. The lectures combined can serve as a crash course to EA and the materials totaled in ~10 hours.

  • The lectures were given in advance to the participants of the tournament so they can watch them before the beginning of the tournament . This was not mandatory as that is not a custom in debating. However, our analytics suggest that between a third to a half of the participants have watched the lectures to deepen their EA understanding.

  • We later released the lectures to the debating community at large, using the formal World Championship channels, so that more people could benefit from them.

  • The full program and speakers can be found here.

Debate championship:

  • How do debate tournaments work? The championship used the British Parliamentary debate format, which is the standard format of international competitive debating. In the format there are 4 teams, each consisting of 2 people, in any given debate. The teams are arbitrarily allocated to be for, or against, a predetermined topic, such that 2 teams support the topic and 2 teams oppose it. All teams compete with each other, even teams that are “on the same side” (e.g. both support the topic), and are ranked from 1st to 4th. The topics are decided by a committee, and are not known in advance to any of the speakers. When a topic is announced teams have 15 minutes to prepare their case before the debate starts. In the EA championship there were 5 preliminary rounds that were debated by all speakers. After each round teams were assigned scores by their adjudicators per the standard manual. At the end of the preliminary rounds the teams with the highest accumulative scores progressed to knockout rounds that determined the champions. There are separate knockout tracks for teams based on their English proficiency, to promote inclusivity. If you are interested to learn more you can visit this page.

  • How many people attended, and from where? The tournament had over 150 participants. During the course of the weekend 584 speeches on EA-related topics were given. Attendance was truly global—participants attended from roughly 25 countries that span 6 continents. Many top universities (e.g Oxford, Cambridge, Stanford etc.) had attended and sent several members.

  • How did the collaboration with the World Universities Debate Championship (WUDC) work? WUDC collaborated on producing, designing & distributing the Distinguished Lecture Series. The competition undertook similar initiatives in the past centred on other themes, and had the existing expertise and channels to broadcast the series. Additionally, several of the people that manage WUDC were also part of the organizational core of the EA tournament. Such a structure guaranteed that the content could be spread to the entirety of the global debating community and not be limited strictly to the participants of the tournament.

  • What were the debate topics? See Effective Altruism Debating Championship Motions.

Advocacy research:

  • To explore how debaters engage with EA ideas and values we set a research program that ran concurrently with the tournament.

  • Willing participants filled in questionnaires on EA positions before, during, and after the tournament. About a one third of the tournament participated in the research program and received compensation for their time.

  • The amount of data that was available to analyze makes it hard to establish causality and prove statistical significance for our research hypothesis. However, interim analysis suggests that the interaction with the competition, and/​or lectures, made the participants change their views on some EA related issues towards the EA position. We have reasons to believe that the debate dynamics played a role in the positions that participants converged to. Some metrics are shared in the next section. However, we would like to stress that we are unsure if we have enough data to prove our hypothesis, and we may need to conduct followup research to do so. The analysis is still a work in progress and we will release our conclusions in a future post (should they be informative).

The costs and funding for the program were as follows:

  • The tournament and the DLS components were done on a voluntary basis.

  • The advocacy research totalled at $4,000 USD paid as incentive/​compensation for people filling out the questionnaire.

  • The tournament also had a donation matching scheme. During the course of the tournament debaters donated ~$2,100 to effective charities (mostly to AMF and Givewell). The money was doubled via donation matching.

  • Funding for the research and donation matching was provided by an Open Philanthropy grant.

Engagement & Outcomes

Overall we were pleased with the engagement, response, and follow-ups to the tournament. Below we share some of the easier-to-quantify metrics for engagement and influence:

  • The championship had 150+ participants, from roughly 25 countries, that span 6 continents.

  • Participants were very satisfied with the tournament—there is a strong interest in attending a similar event in the future (an average of over 6, on a scale of 1-7), an interest in engaging with EA materials further (average of 5.85 out of 7), and to advocate EA to others (average of 5.66 out of 7). Note: an analysis of how much of these positive reactions is due to the lectures, the championship, or neither, is still pending. We are looking at our surveys to analyze that and will write a future post about this issue.

  • Hundreds of people from all over the world watched the full ~10 hour lecture series.

  • About 100 people joined the group Effective (Altruism) Debating that was designed to introduce more EA background and content to debaters. Due to a lack of personnel to promote and moderate the group it became less active after the tournament, but we do see the group as an opportunity for continuing engagement.

  • As mentioned ~$4200 were donated in the context of the tournament (50% via participants, 50% via donation matching). The vast majority of the money was donated to AMF and Givewell.

  • Anecdotally, several of the organizers have had multiple debater friends reach out to them for donation advice or with questions about EA in general.

  • Several other major debating tournaments adopted norms of donating proceeds to effective charities. The tournament model was also fondly mentioned in the context of doing debating for good several times. It remains to be seen whether this growing norm sustains in the debating community. However, we believe this shift in perception both has value in and of itself, and is a signal that the tournament was successful in influencing the broader debating community.

  • A few debating programs showed interest in adopting EA content to their curriculums. We have set up a pilot program for seniors in high schools that is based on the materials that we have filmed for the Distinguished Lecture Series and the competition. The pilot includes a small group of students 10-20 and is expected to conclude in the summer of 2021. Should it be a success we have great scale up opportunities—we are in contact with several schools that teach elite debate classes to thousands of teenagers globally.

Lessons Learned

  • Lesson 1: EA branding. There is a huge gap between what EA is about and what people think is EA about. For example, we heard comments about not wanting to do 5 debates about which charity to donate to. This should definitely be addressed before another such tournament or program is run, but may also be relevant for EA outreach in general. The problem seemed pretty universal, and people’s interest in hearing more about EA seemed to be heavily influenced by its branding.

  • Lesson 2: Increasing the organizational timeline would have been helpful. Our timelines ended up being very short, especially with regards to publishing the lecture series before the tournament (which was done in the week prior). We believe if we had published the materials earlier more people would engage with them. We did start organizing the event 4 months in advance, however, future similar events with multiple components running simultaneously may require more time.

  • Lesson 3: More manpower. Running the EA tournament, Q&A with Will MacAskill, and research survey simultaneously was challenging, even though our team has extensive experience in running debate events. We successfully remained close to the planned schedule throughout the event, but in potential future events it would make sense to recruit a larger team and distribute responsibilities in a clearer fashion to ease organizational burdens.

  • Lesson 4: Time investment and funding. The competition required a lot more time than we initially thought it would. The main cause was the ambitious program involving lectures, research and debating that we developed along the process. Perhaps providing grants to the organizing committee for future similar outreach events to offset the time costs will make sense if we choose to do this again in the future. Such grants would have allowed us to recruit a larger operating team and to potentially brand the tournament better.

  • Lesson 5: It may be helpful to design a formal EA-advocacy framework and research agenda. Debate can be a useful case-study for EA-advocacy for the reasons mentioned in this post. However, even with the help of fellow EAs, it took us a while to understand how best to measure engagement with EA content. It can be worthwhile to have a work group that tackles these questions specifically. Figuring best practices for such research can be valuable in reaching insights on what works, and what does not, helping the community grow in relevant target audiences.

Conclusions

  • Conclusion 1: The event was effective at positively influencing highly-engaged participants. We learned valuable lessons on how to engage crowds with EA-content, and the championship seemed to spark genuine interest among some members of the community. Overall, we feel we managed to achieve deep and positive engagement with tournament participants, but haven’t yet cracked the question of how to properly engage (more shallowly) with the broader debating community. It is also clear from the outcomes that these kinds of events are much more effective at outreach and advocacy than direct fundraising among the target audience (which makes sense given that the audience is students).

  • Conclusion 2: The debate community is a good “fit” for EA. A significant portion of participants we talked to found EA principles obvious and appealing once properly exposed to them. We don’t think this is unique to this type of outreach—we have seen similar results in other circumstances when communities with good “EA fit” are exposed to EA content. The participants showed a very high desire to attend similar events in the future, support EA actions, and promote EA values. Anecdotally, some major debate tournaments (after this project) referred participants to donate to effective charities, and people continue to engage with the recorded DLS lectures. These outcomes, the relatively low cost of running debate events, and the high probability that within a decade or so we can expect members of this audience to be in global positions of influence makes the community a great outreach target.

  • Conclusion 3: There is an appetite for more of these events. As mentioned, participants showed a high willingness to attend similar events in the future. Many top universities have both debate societies and EA societies, so perhaps promoting collaborations between them on a local level is worthwhile. An approach to promoting such a collaboration may be to build a formal EA crash course for debaters that can be circulated globally. We recommend exploring these options, and are happy to assist in such efforts.

Next Steps

  • The analysis of the survey results is still ongoing. We expect to reach results and share them (if they are valuable) later in the year.

  • As mentioned we are looking into the prospect of turning the lecture series into an EA & Debate crash course for schools debating. We are starting a pilot program with a small group of high school seniors that is expected to conclude in the summer of 2021. The materials are based on the Distinguished Lecture Series and other content we have gathered for the competition. We believe this direction has potential, because if done well it can scale to thousands of schools globally—and some school networks have already expressed interest in collaborating with us. When the pilot is concluded in a few months we intend to evaluate the results, and decide if we should pursue a scale up (based on how effective we find the program and whether we have capacity to grow it).

  • We are considering running such a tournament annually. However, we are unsure we have the available resources to pull this off again, at least as of yet. Overall there is interest from both the organizers and the community, but we will probably make a final decision only after all efforts around this instance are complete.

  • We continue to distribute EA content on the relevant debate channels. In particular, we found dedicated Facebook groups to be a good medium to increase engagement (e.g. the Effective (Altruism) Debating group), but currently we do not have anyone with the time and/​or social media skills to keep that going. If you’re interested in volunteering to do so, please contact us.

Final Details & Discussion

  • In order to reach us please feel free to write us here, via LinkedIn (Dan; Sella), or via email: danlahav (at) gmail (dot) com, sellanevo (at) gmail (dot) com.

  • We’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback.

  • If you have extensive background in running outreach programs, in the educational spheres, or in video editing and production, we may also be looking for volunteers to help us to run the EA-schools program (should the pilot be a success).

  • If you are considering running similar outreach events, or if you also want to promote EA-debate relations, feel free to also approach us for advice.