This was very interesting food for thought, thanks!
Taking systemic change seriously would require EA to embrace a much wider range of methods and forms of evidence, embracing the inevitably uncertain judgments involved in the holistic interpretation of social systems and analysis of the dynamics of social change.
This is definitely correct, but I’d guess that where I (and many EAs) part ways with you is not in being in principle unwilling to make commitments to other methods/forms of evidence, but rather, not finding any other existing paradigms compelling or not agreeing on which ones we find compelling.
You can’t separate the question of “should I take systemic change seriously” from the question of “how compelling is the most compelling paradigm for thinking about systemic change”, so I think you would have a stronger chance of convincing EAs to take systemic change convincingly by arguing why EAs should find a specific paradigm compelling.
Here are some features that might make a paradigm compelling to me. I think the current EA paradigm for addressing global poverty exhibits all of them, but it seems to me that one or more is lacking from (my stereotype of) any current paradigm for addressing systemic change:
Tolerance of uncertainty and ability to course-correct
Compatibility with our understanding of human behavior (e.g. the tendency of people to follow local incentives)
Scope sensitivity (i.e. trying to reason about the relative sizes of different things)
Grounding in consequentialism
Not having its internal discourse co-opted by status seeking or “mood affiliation”
Hi thanks for your comment! Sorry for delayed response.
As it happens I think that radical social movements, broadly understood, do have the capacity to course-correct, learning from what has worked or failed before and are compatible with our understanding of human behavior. And certainly they are tolerant of uncertainty—there is little choice but to be!
I’m not sure what it means to be grounded in consequentialism—to invoke it explicitly? Not sure why this would be so important—everyone cares about consequences and radicals have often not been restrained by deontological concerns.
I think that global impartiality is impossible—there is no such thing as a wholly neutral perspective on social phenomena, because qualitative interpretation is fundamental to any social inquiry.
Scope sensitivity: I think that e.g. the distinction between base and super-structure reflects a kind of scope-sensitivity—the idea that some parts of society matter more than others to outcomes and so its more important to change them. Plus the spectrum of reformism to radicalism reflects an awareness of the differences in scale/impact of different social and political changes.
Status-seeking: I think EA has just as much of a problem with this, in light of its affiliation with tech/data/wealth/rationalism, all of which are pretty near the top of cultural, economic and political hierarchies right now!
More generally: I’m happy for EAs to prefer their paradigm—I just think they should admit that any paradigm, including their own, has to be justified in the same inevitably controversial, qualitative terms and that evidence/claims of effectiveness within a paradigm are therefore contingent not just on the ‘data’ but on these qualitative arguments for the paradigm itself. This puts EA on the same footing as those who endorse different paradigms—doesn’t prove EA to be wrong, but does suggest it should be more humble and less inclined to traduce its critics as epistemically lazy or whatever.