Why we need more meta

Peter Hurford recently wrote a popular post “EA risks falling into a meta-trap. But we can avoid it.” Many people seemed to infer from the post that we’re doing too many meta activities, and I’ve now seen the post cited several times as a reason not to donate to meta-charities.

I think Peter presents good arguments, but drawing this conclusion is wrong. Here’s a couple of reasons.

(The following is quickly written so not as well vetted as I’d like, and doesn’t represent the views of 80,000 Hours).

1) Peter doesn’t actually argue we need less meta

Peter presents some arguments against meta-charities, and it’s true if you’ve never considered these arguments, then you should become more skeptical about meta-charities.

But these arguments are already known by most people already working on meta-charity. Everyone agrees we don’t want the EA movement to be 100% meta, meta will eventually hit diminishing returns, and that many meta projects won’t work.

The interesting questions are rather:

  1. Where does the balance of meta and object level work lie today?

  2. Is that balance too far towards meta or object level?

Peter doesn’t directly address these two questions, so doesn’t actually answer the question of whether we need more or less meta. The closest he gets is stating:

Right now I’m aiming at donating 50% of my pool to the best meta-projects I know and spending the other 50% on direct impact through GiveWell’s top charities. I don’t know if 50% is the correct number, but I hope this will set an example of what I want the movement as a whole to do.

And quoting Jeff Kaufman saying:

We need to do things that help people alongside growing the movement, and personally I try to divide my efforts 50-50.

My estimate, however, is that the EA movement is spending less than 5% of its resources on meta activities,(1) so a 50:50 division would mean we should scale up meta 10-fold.

My guess is that the optimal overall allocation is more like 10-20%, so I’m actually *less* enthusiastic about meta than Peter, but I still think meta should be grown substantially.(2)

2) Peter uses a weird definition of meta

In the comments, it emerges that Peter doesn’t include priorities research or marketing for object level causes in his definition of meta. Rather, he’s mainly concerned about ‘second level’ meta, which involves promoting effective altruism in abstract, with the hope that people do good object level projects in the future.

However, the vast majority of meta today is priorities research or marketing of object level causes. (And this is how I use the term)

Direct promotion of effective altruism is only pursued by one full-time organisation, EAO, some volunteers (largely local group leaders) and a few projects like Will’s book. Until the last year or so, we had almost no direct promotion of effective altruism.

If you’re only concerned with ‘second level’ meta, then the proportion that’s being carried out today is even smaller, which again means that Peter thinks we need more meta rather than less.

3) Doesn’t weigh against very strong arguments in favor of meta

Many meta-charities have decent evidence they’ve achieved leverage ratios of over 10x in the past, and some have achieved leverage ratios of over 1000 (GiveWell has spent millions, but it’s now partnered with a foundation that has billions). The possibility of having over 10x as much impact is a big deal.

Meta is also extremely neglected. $360bn is given to charity each year in the US, but only a few million dollars are spent on effective altruist style meta, or 0.0003%. Even if you include philanthropy think tanks and the research-arms of strategic foundations, my guess is that broad-meta is still way under 1% of total philanthropy. (And much of this evaluation research is never published, so doesn’t really count).

In sum, Peter presents important arguments, but we probably need more meta rather than less, and based on what he says, Peter seems to agree.


(1) In 2014, about $40m of funding was allocated on the basis of GiveWell’s recommendations, whereas only a couple of million dollars was spent on meta activities. http://​​www.givewell.org/​​about/​​impact
If you also include GWWC donors and the Open Philanthropy Project, then meta is an even smaller fraction.

Of course, you could make a narrower definition of the EA movement than ‘everyone donating to GiveWell recommended charities’, but you’d need to make it pretty restrictive or weird to find the ratio is currently over 50%.

People who feel like meta is very popular today are being biased by selection effects. When you meet EAs or talk to those on the forum, they’re far more interested in meta than the average, and that’s because the people most enthusiastic about meta are the most likely to want to do movement building activities and talk to other EAs.

(2) I don’t think individuals should follow this 10-20% allocation though. Rather, individuals should try to move the overall balance more in the optimal direction. So, if you think the overall allocation should be 10-20%, then you should probably allocate most of your resources to meta activities (perhaps holding back ~25% for object level activities for learning and signalling).