The Culture of Fear in Effective Altruism Is Much Worse than Commonly Recognized

There are a lot of articles I’ve wanted to write for a long time on how those in effective altruism can help each other do more good and overall change effective altruism to even better than it is now. Yet there is a single barrier left stopping me. It’s the culture of fear in effective altruism.

Criticism has become so distorted from what it should be that my intention would not even be to criticize. Yet there is no way to suggest any organization could be doing anything better without it someone interpreting it as an attempt to sabotage it. It’s not that I’m afraid of how others will respond. It’s that so many individual actors have come to fear each other and the community itself. It’s too much of a hassle to make it worthwhile to resolve the barrage of hostility from trying to contribute to anything.

A couple months ago an article was published on the EA Forum about two researchers disclosing their experience of being subjected to widespread peer pressure to not publish a paper critical of some tendencies in long-termism. That wasn’t shocking me. What shocked me was how the leadership and grantmakers in this movement with the biggest portfolios at their command were themselves shocked that happened.

A couple weeks ago, I spent a couple hours with another friend who, like me, has participated in this movement for a decade puzzling over the problem of resolving the culture of fear. There wasn’t almost no progress but I posed him a scenario:

What if one person expressed to another working at an EA-affiliated organization that:
1. 60% of what the organization is doing could not be done any better;

2. 20% of what they’re doing could be tweaked a bit to be better,

3. and not disagree with but are curious about the rationale for 20% of what they do?

Here’s how my friend responded:

Well, you might be able to get away with that, but it would be hard.

That wasn’t about one cause in effective altruism. That was about all of it. The only progress I made was learning how much others feel the same as I do. It may not be helpful for me to pose all this without any specific details or proposing constructive solutions. Yet to make others aware, especially the core leadership of this movement, that the culture of fear is worse than they would have ever anticipated is a first step.