Some thoughts on the EA Munich //​ Robin Hanson incident

I work for CEA, but these are my per­sonal views.

Rele­vant back­ground: I pre­vi­ously co-founded two EA groups, at Yale Univer­sity and the health­care cor­po­ra­tion Epic. In one case, I had to make a de­ci­sion about how to han­dle a po­ten­tial guest speaker who was also a con­tro­ver­sial figure; this is part of why I sym­pa­thize with EA Mu­nich’s po­si­tion, though a small part.

Epistemic sta­tus: A lot of pent-up vent­ing, which I hope adds up to some­thing mod­er­ately rea­son­able. But I wouldn’t be too sur­prised if it doesn’t.

Many things can be true at the same time.

A planned EA Mu­nich event with Robin Han­son was re­cently can­cel­led. This is EA Mu­nich’s ex­pla­na­tion. This is a Twit­ter thread with lots of re­ac­tions.

For con­text, I’ll start with a fac­tual clar­ifi­ca­tion, based on con­ver­sa­tions with oth­ers at CEA (all of this is also de­tailed in the Mu­nich group’s doc­u­ment):

  • When the Mu­nich or­ga­niz­ers got in touch with CEA, they were already con­sid­er­ing whether to can­cel the event.

  • CEA staff told the or­ga­niz­ers that they didn’t see a clear-cut “right de­ci­sion,” and that it could be rea­son­able to can­cel or not can­cel the event. Most of CEA’s en­gage­ment with the Mu­nich group on this mat­ter in­volved think­ing through ways to han­dle con­flict that could arise from the event, rather than ways to can­cel it.

  • The or­ga­niz­ers then held a vote among them­selves and de­cided to can­cel.

Here are some things about the situ­a­tion which seem true to me (though this doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily make them true):

On the de­ci­sion and en­su­ing so­cial me­dia kerfuffle

  1. It is gen­er­ally good for groups in­ter­ested in find­ing good ideas to choose speak­ers on the ba­sis of the qual­ity of their best ideas, rather than their most con­tro­ver­sial or mis­guided ideas.

  2. How­ever, if most mem­bers of a small group don’t want a speaker to pre­sent to their group, this is a good rea­son for that speaker not to pre­sent. The smaller the group, the more true this seems. (If a speaker is dis­in­vited from an event at a large uni­ver­sity, thou­sands of sup­port­ers might be left dis­ap­pointed; this isn’t the case for a tiny event run by a lo­cal EA group.)

  3. The Slate piece cited as crit­i­cism of Han­son was un­char­i­ta­ble; read­ing it would prob­a­bly leave most peo­ple with a differ­ent view of Han­son than they’d get from read­ing a wider se­lec­tion of Han­son’s work.

  4. And yet, many peo­ple are ac­tu­ally un­com­fortable with Han­son for some of the same rea­sons brought up in the Slate piece; they find his re­marks per­son­ally up­set­ting or un­set­tling.

    • It’s un­clear how many mem­bers/​or­ga­niz­ers of the Mu­nich group were per­son­ally up­set/​un­set­tled by Han­son and how many were mostly con­cerned with the PR im­pli­ca­tions of his pres­ence, but it seems likely that both groups were rep­re­sented.

  5. Those who com­mented on the an­nounce­ment were gen­er­ally quite un­char­i­ta­ble to EA Mu­nich — in­clud­ing peo­ple I’m cer­tain would en­dorse the Prin­ci­ple of Char­ity in the ab­stract if I were to ask them about it in­de­pen­dent of this con­text. Read­ing Han­son’s tweets likely left them with a very differ­ent view of EA Mu­nich than they’d get from at­tend­ing a few mee­tups.

  6. I wasn’t in­volved in CEA’s dis­cus­sion with EA Mu­nich, but CEA giv­ing them the go-ahead to make their own de­ci­sion seems cor­rect.

    • I don’t think Han­son’s sup­port­ers would ac­tu­ally have wanted CEA to say: “You should run the event even if it feels like the wrong de­ci­sion.”

    • Maybe they would have wanted CEA to say: “You should do what seems best, but keep in mind the nega­tive con­se­quences of de­plat­form­ing speak­ers.” But EA Mu­nich was clearly aware of the nega­tive con­se­quences. What could CEA tell them that they didn’t know already, aside from “we trust you to make a de­ci­sion”?

  7. There are ways in which EA Mu­nich could have ad­justed their an­nounce­ment to bet­ter com­mu­ni­cate their rea­son­ing.

  8. There are many ways in which the EA Mu­nich an­nounce­ment is much, much bet­ter than other an­nounce­ments of its type pro­duced by in­sti­tu­tions with far more power, pres­tige, and PR ex­pe­rience.

  9. Writ­ing an an­nounce­ment that has to be ap­proved by eight peo­ple (all vol­un­teers), in­volves a sen­si­tive topic, and has to be pub­lished quickly… is some­thing I wouldn’t wish on any­one. Be kind.

On Robin Hanson

  1. Based on my read­ing of some of Han­son’s work, I be­lieve he cares a lot about the world be­ing a bet­ter place and peo­ple liv­ing bet­ter lives, who­ever they are. He is the re­spected col­league of sev­eral of my fa­vorite blog­gers. I’d prob­a­bly find him an in­ter­est­ing per­son to eat lunch with.

  2. Much of Han­son’s writ­ing (as EA Mu­nich pointed out them­selves!) is in­ter­est­ing and valuable. And some writ­ing that doesn’t seem in­ter­est­ing or valuable to me is clearly in­ter­est­ing or valuable to other peo­ple, which prob­a­bly means that I’m un­der­es­ti­mat­ing the to­tal value of his out­put.

  3. Some of Han­son’s writ­ing has prob­a­bly been, on net, detri­men­tal to his own in­fluence. Had he cho­sen not to pub­lish that writ­ing (or al­tered it, got­ten more feed­back be­fore pub­lish­ing, etc.), his best and most im­por­tant ideas would have a bet­ter chance of im­prov­ing the world. In­stead, much of the at­ten­tion he gets in­volves ideas which I doubt he even cares about very much (though I don’t know Han­son, and this is just a guess).

  4. But as I said, many things can be true at the same time. There is some­thing to the ar­gu­ment that an ideal schol­arly ca­reer will in­volve some de­gree of offense, be­cause fil­ter­ing all of one’s out­put takes a lot of time and en­ergy and will pro­duce false pos­i­tives. “If you never make peo­ple an­gry, you’re spend­ing too much time edit­ing your work.

  5. Still, many other schol­ars have done a bet­ter job than Han­son at pre­sent­ing con­tro­ver­sial ideas in a pro­duc­tive way. (Sev­eral of them work in his aca­demic de­part­ment and have writ­ten thou­sands of blog posts on varied top­ics, many of them con­tro­ver­sial.)

  6. To the ex­tent that I sup­port some of Han­son’s ideas and want to see them be­come bet­ter-known, I am an­noyed that this may be less likely to hap­pen be­cause of Han­son’s de­ci­sions. (Though maybe the con­tro­ver­sies lead more peo­ple to his good ideas in a way that is net pos­i­tive? I re­ally don’t know.)

  7. And of course, Han­son’s ap­proach to his own work is none of my busi­ness, and he can write what­ever he wants. I just have a lot of feel­ings.

On the EA move­ment’s ap­proach to ideas, di­ver­sity, etc.

  1. EA Mu­nich’s de­ci­sion doesn’t say much, if any­thing, about EA in gen­eral. They are a small group and acted in­de­pen­dently.

  2. That said, my im­pres­sion is that, over time, the EA move­ment has be­come more at­ten­tive to var­i­ous kinds of di­ver­sity, and more cau­tious about avoid­ing pub­lic dis­cus­sion of ideas likely to cause offense. This in­volves trade-offs with other val­ues.

  3. How­ever, these trade-offs could eas­ily be benefi­cial, on net, for the move­ment’s goals.

    • Whether they ac­tu­ally are de­pends on many fac­tors, in­clud­ing what a given per­son would define as “the move­ment’s goals.” Differ­ent peo­ple want EA to do differ­ent things! Com­pet­ing ac­cess needs are real!

  4. Some of the peo­ple who have en­couraged EA to be more at­ten­tive to di­ver­sity and more cau­tious about pub­lic dis­cus­sion did so with­out think­ing care­fully about trade-offs.

  5. Some of the peo­ple who have en­couraged EA not to be­come more cau­tious and at­ten­tive to di­ver­sity… also did so with­out think­ing care­fully about trade-offs.

  6. Given pre­vailing EA dis­cus­sion norms, I would ex­pect peo­ple who fa­vor more at­ten­tive­ness to di­ver­sity to be un­der­rep­re­sented in com­mu­nity dis­cus­sions, rel­a­tive to their ac­tual num­bers. My ex­pe­rience run­ning anony­mous sur­veys of peo­ple in EA (Fo­rum users, org em­ploy­ees, etc.) tends to bear this out.

    • How­ever, un­der­rep­re­sen­ta­tion isn’t ex­clu­sive to this group. I’ve heard from peo­ple with many differ­ent views who feel un­com­fortable talk­ing about their views in one or more places.

  7. The more time some­one spends talk­ing to a va­ri­ety of com­mu­nity mem­bers (and po­ten­tial fu­ture mem­bers), the more likely they are to have an ac­cu­rate view of which norms will best en­courage the com­mu­nity’s health and flour­ish­ing. Get­ting a sense of where the com­mu­nity lies on is­sues of­ten in­volves hav­ing a lot of pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions, be­cause peo­ple of­ten say more about their views in pri­vate than they will in a pub­lic fo­rum.

  8. Some of the peo­ple who have spent the most time do­ing the above came to the con­clu­sion that EA should be more cau­tious and at­ten­tive to di­ver­sity.

    • I don’t know what the right trade-offs are my­self, but I rec­og­nize that, com­pared to the afore­men­tioned peo­ple, I have ac­cess to (a) the same knowl­edge about trade-offs and (b) less knowl­edge about ac­tual peo­ple in the com­mu­nity.

    • Hence, I’m in­clined to weigh some­one’s views more heav­ily if they’ve spent a lot of time talk­ing to com­mu­nity mem­bers.

    • That said (al­most done), I spoke to some of the afore­men­tioned peo­ple, who cau­tioned me not to defer too much to their views, and pointed out that “opinions about di­ver­sity” aren’t nec­es­sar­ily cor­re­lated with “time spent talk­ing to com­mu­nity mem­bers,” pre­sent­ing me with ex­am­ples of other fre­quent con­ver­sa­tion-havers who hold very differ­ent opinions.

      • This drives home for me how open these kinds of ques­tions are — and how wrongfooted it seems when peo­ple pre­sent EA or its biggest orgs as some kind of re­stric­tive or­tho­doxy.