EA can sound less weird, if we want it to

I have previously encountered EAs who have beliefs about EA communication that seem jaded to me. These are either, “Trying to make EA seem less weird is an unimportant distraction, and we shouldn’t concern ourselves with it” or “Sounding weird is an inherent property of EA/​EA cause areas, and making it seem less weird is not tractable, or at least not without compromising important aspects of the movement.” I would like to challenge both of these views.

“Trying to make EA seem less weird is unimportant”

As Peter Wildeford explains in this LessWrong post:

People take weird opinions less seriously. The absurdity heuristic is a real bias that people—even you—have. If an idea sounds weird to you, you’re less likely to try and believe it, even if there’s overwhelming evidence.

Being taken seriously is key to many EA objectives, such as growing the movement, getting mainstream researchers to care about the EA risks of their work, and having policymakers give weight to EA considerations. Sci-fi-sounding ideas make it harder to achieve these, while making it easier for critics to mischaracterize the movement and (probably) contributing to the perception that EA is cult-like.

On a more personal note, and perhaps more relevant to some of the examples I am going to mention, it is also nice for friends and family to be able to understand why we do what we do, which I don’t think is a trivial desire to have.

All things considered, I think it would be better if EA ideas did not sound weird to outsiders, and instead sounded intuitive and immediately persuasive.

“EA is inherently weird, and making our ideas seem less weird is not tractable”

I don’t think this is true, and I think this view generally comes from people who haven’t spent much time trying to think creatively about this. Some ways of framing things are more compelling than others, and this is an area where we can iterate, innovate and improve. Here are a few examples of possible ways we talk about weird EA ideas:

AI risk

Talking about other bad but less severe outcomes of AI misalignment besides paperclip maximizers and then saying “and it could even get as bad as paperclip maximizers,” requires less of a leap in imagination than opening with paperclip maximizers. It may be the case that we don’t even need to make general audiences consider paperclip maximizers at all, since the mechanisms needed to prevent them are the same as those needed to prevent the less severe and more plausible-sounding scenarios of the form “you ask an AI to do X, and the AI accomplishes X by doing Y, but Y is bad and not what you intended”.

Longtermism

Due to scope insensitivity, referencing visuals to show just how much larger the future can be than the present is particularly emotionally powerful here, and makes the whole idea of working to improve the far future feel far less abstract. My favorite longtermist visualization is this one by Our World in Data, which I have saved on my phone to be able to reference it in conversations. (I think visualizations also work well to combat scope insensitivity for wild animal welfare and farmed animal welfare).

Non-human Welfare

If it is the first time someone is contemplating the idea that insects or wild animals deserve moral consideration, it makes sense to want to give them the spiel with the least probability of being mocked and dismissed. If you start to explain it by saying we should spend money to enhance the lives of insects in the wild, the idea will probably get laughed out of the room.

I think for insect welfare, the most palatable approach would be talking about the role of inhumane pesticides and other ways humans harm insects actively, making insect welfare more comparable to farmed animal welfare than wild animal welfare. Similarly, talking about helping wild animals during pandemics, famines, wildfires, etc. (problems humans also have) probably incites more compassion than talking about helping them from being chased by lions. How sensible something sounds to a layperson seems correlated with how tractable it is, so tractability can be used as a proxy for how likely an idea is to be dismissed by the person you are talking to.

The point is not to commit the motte-and-bailey fallacy (and one must be careful not to do this), but that people will be more open to contemplating your idea if you go in motte first instead of bailey first.

Other existential risks

I think the point about paperclip maximizers generalizes—it is sometimes not necessary to frame existential risks as existential risks. Most still have unusually high expected value even if they fall short of extinction, and this can be a preferable framing in some cases. Extinction-level events can be difficult to imagine and emotionally process, leading to overwhelm and inaction (see climate paralysis). We can say that serious pandemics are one of the “highest priority risks” for the international community due to their potential to kill hundreds of millions of people, and in many cases this would resonate more than the harder-to-conceive “existential risk” that could “lead to the extinction of humanity”. (Whether a problem poses extinction risk is, of course, still a relevant factor for cause prioritization.)

Also, as has been discussed many times already, longtermism is not a necessary prerequisite to care about existential risk. The expected value in the short term is enough to make people care about it, so trying to pitch existential risk through longtermism requires convincing people of an extra weird step and unnecessarily makes it less compelling to most.

Conclusion

My point is not necessarily that we should implement these specific examples, but that there are ways we can make our ideas more palatable to people. Also, there is the obvious caveat that the best way to talk about a topic will depend on your audience, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some ways of communicating that work better most of the time, or work better for the general public.