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# Matt_Lerner

Karma: 521

Currently Research Director at Founders Pledge, but posts and comments represent my own opinions, not FP’s, unless otherwise noted.

I worked previously as a data scientist and as a journalist.

• I appreciate your taking the time to write out this idea and the careful thought that went into your post. I liked that it was kind of in the form of a pitch, in keeping with your journalistic theme. I agree that EAs should be thinking more seriously about journalism (in the broadest possible sense) and I think that this is as good a place as any to start. I want to (a) nitpick a few things in your post with an eye to facilitating this broader conversation and (b) point out what I see as an important potential failure mode for an effort like this.

You characterize The Altruist at first as:

a news agency that provides journalistic coverage of EA topics and organisations

This sounds like more or less like a trade publication along the lines of Advertising Age or Publishers Weekly, or perhaps a subject-specific publication oriented more toward the general public, like Popular Science or Nautilus. Generally speaking, I think something like the former is a good idea, though trade publications are generally targeted at those working within an industry. I will describe later on why I am not sure the latter is feasible.

But you go on to say:

Other rough comparisons include The Atlantic, The Economist, the New Yorker, Current Affairs, Works in Progress, and Unherd

These publications are very different from each other. The Economist (where, full disclosure, I worked for a short time) is a general interest newspaper with a print circulation of ~1 million. The New Yorker is a highbrow weekly magazine known for its longform journalistic content. The Atlantic is an eclectic monthly that leans heavily on its regular output of short-form, nonreported digital content. Current Affairs is a bimonthly political magazine with an explicitly left-wing cultural and political agenda. Works in Progress is small, completely online, wholly dedicated to progress studies, and generally nonreported.

Unherd is evidently constructed in opposition to various trends and themes in mainstream political and cultural discourse, and its goal is to disrupt the homogeneity of that discourse. I really enjoy it, but I worry that it sometimes typifies the failure mode I’m worried about. Broadly, that failure mode is this: by defining itself in opposition to the dominant way of thinking, an outlet can sort potential readers out of being interested.

Consider: if a media outlet mainly publishes content that conflicts with the modal narrative, then the modal reader encountering it will find mostly content that challenges their views. I think it is a pernicious but nonetheless reliable feature of the media landscape that most readers who stumble onto such a publication will typically stumble off immediately to another, more comfortable one. I worry that a lot of EA is challenging enough that this could happen with something like The Altruist.

This may actually be fine- that’s why I harp on the precision of the comparison classes: I think Works in Progress, for instance, is likely to serve the progress studies community very well in the years to come, and an EA version of that would serve well the initial goal you describe of improving resources for outreach. But I don’t think that it would do a particularly good job of mitigating reputational risk or increasing community growth, because it would be a niche publication that might find it difficult to earn the trust of readers who find EA ideas challenging (in my experience, this is most people).

So I think as far as new publications go, we may have to pick between the various goals you have helpfully laid out here. But my aspirations for EA in journalism are a bit higher. Here’s my question: what is an EA topic? It is not really obvious to me that there is such a thing. To most people, it is not intuitive, even when you explain, that there is something that ties together (for instance) worrying about AI risk, donating to anti-malaria charities, supporting human challenge trials, and eating vegan.

This is because EA is a way of approaching questions about how to do good in the world, not a collection of answers to those questions.

So my aspiration for journalism in general is not only that it more enthusiastically tackle those issues which this small and idiosyncratic community of people has determined is important. I also think it would be good if journalism in general moved in a more EA-aligned or EA-aware direction on all questions. I think that, counterfactually, the past two decades of journalism in the developed world would look very different if the criterion for newsworthiness was more utilitarian, and if editorial judgments more robustly modeled truth-seeking behavior. Consequently my (weak, working) hypothesis is that the world would be a better place. I also think such a world would be an easier place to grow the community, to combat bad-faith criticism, and to absorb and respond to good-faith critique.

One way to try to make this happen today would be to run a general-interest publication with an editorial position that is openly EA, much as The Economist’s editorial slant is classically liberal. Such a publication would have to cover everything, not just deworming and the lives of people in the far future. But it would, of course, cover those things too.

To bring things back down to the actual topic of conversation: the considerations you have raised here are the right ones. My core concern is that a publication like this will try to do too many things at once, and the reason I’ve written so much above is to try to articulate some additional considerations that I hope will be useful in narrowing down its purpose.

• While I’m skeptical about the idea that particular causes you’ve mentioned could truly end up being cost effective paths to reducing suffering, I’m sympathetic to the idea that improving the effectiveness of activity in putatively non-effective causes is potentially itself effective. What interventions do you have in mind to improve effectiveness within these domains?

• Now that you’ve given examples, can you provide an account of how increased funding in these areas can lead to improved well-being /​ preserves lives or DALYs /​ etc in expectation? Do you expect that targeted funds could be cost-competitive with GW top charities or likewise?

• To clarify, I’m not sure this is likely to be the best use of any individual EA’s time, but I think it can still be true that it’s potentially a good use of community resources, if intelligently directed.

I agree that perhaps “constitutionally” is too strong—what I mean is that EAs tend (generally) to have an interest in /​ awareness of these broadly meta-scientific topics.

In general, the argument I would make would be for greater attention to the possibility that mainstream causes deserve attention and more meta-level arguments for this case (like your post).

• Thanks for this! It seems like much of the work that went into your CEA could be repurposed for explorations of other potentially growth- or governance-enhancing interventions. Since finding such an intervention would be quite high-value, and since the parameters in your CEA are quite uncertain, it seems like the value of information with respect to clarifying these parameters (and therefore the final ROI distribution) is probably very high.

Do you have a sense of what kind of research or data would help you narrow the uncertainty in the parameter inputs of your cost-effectiveness model?

• On the face of it, it seems like researching and writing about “mainstream” topics is net positive value for EAs for the reasons you describe, although not obviously an optimal use of time relative to other competing opportunities for EAs. I’ve tried to work out in broad strokes how effective it might be to move money within putatively less-effective causes, and it seems to me like (for instance) the right research, done by the right person or group, really could make a meaningful difference in one of these areas.

Items 2.2 and 2.3 (in your summary) are, to me, simultaneously the riskiest and most compelling propositions to me. Could EAs really do a better job finding the “right answers” than there are to be found in existing work? I take “neglectedness” in the ITN framework to be a heuristic that serves mainly to forestall hubris in this regard: we should think twice before assuming we know better than the experts, as we’re quite likely to be wrong.

But I think there is still reason to suspect that there is value to be captured in mainstream causes. Here are a few reasons I think this might be the case.

• “Outcome orientation” and a cost-benefit mindset are surprisingly rare, even in fields that are nominally outcomes-focused. This horse has already been beaten to death, but the mistakes, groupthink, and general confusion in many corners of epidemiology and public health during the pandemic suggests that consequences are less salient in these fields than I would have expected beforehand. Alex Tabarrok, a non-epidemiologist, seems to have gotten most things right well before the relevant domain experts simply by thinking in consequentialist terms. Zeynep Tufekci, Nate Silver, and Emily Oster are in similar positions.

• Fields have their own idiosyncratic concerns and debates that eat up a lot of time and energy, IMO to the detriment of overall effectiveness. My (limited) experience in education research and tech in the developed world led me to conclude that the goals of the field are unclear and ill-defined (Are we maximizing graduation rates? College matriculation? Test scores? Are we maximizing anything at all?). Significant amounts of energy are taken up by debates and concerns about data privacy, teacher well-being and satisfaction, and other issues that are extremely important but which, ultimately, are not directly related to the (broadly defined) goals of the field. The drivers behind philanthropic funding seem, to me, to be highly undertheorized.

I think philanthropic money in the education sector should probably go to the developing world, but it’s not obvious to me that developed-world experts are squeezing out all the potential value that they could. Whether the scale of that potential value is large enough to justify improving the sector, or whether such improvements are tractable, are different questions.

• There are systematic biases within disciplines, even when those fields or disciplines are full of smart, even outcomes-focused people. Though not really a cause area, David Shor has persuasively argued that Democratic political operatives are ideological at the cost of being effective. My sense is that this is also true to some degree in education.

• There are fields where the research quality is just really low. The historical punching bag for this is obviously social psychology, which has been in the process of attempting to improve for a decade now. I think the experience of the replication crisis—which is ongoing—should cause us to update away from thinking that just because lots of people are working on a topic, that means that there is no marginal value to additional research. I think the marginal value can be high, especially for EAs, who are constitutionally hyper-aware of the pitfalls of bad research, have high standards of rigor, and are often quantitatively sophisticated. EAs are also relatively insistent on clarity, the lack of which seems to be a main obstacle to identifying bad research.

• I think about this all the time. It seems like a really high-value thing to do not just for the sake of other communities but even from a strictly EA perspective— discourse norms seem to have a real impact on the outcome of decision-relevant conversations, and I have an (as-yet unjustified) sense that EA-style norms lead to better normative outcomes. I haven’t tried it, but I do have a few isolated, perhaps obvious observations.

• For me at least, it is easier to hew to EA discussion norms when they are, in fact, accepted norms. That is, assuming the best intentions of an interlocutor, explaining instead of persuading, steelmanning, etc— I find it easier to do these things when I know they’re expected of me. This suggests to me that it might hard to institute such norms unilaterally.

• EA norms don’t obviously all go together. You can imagine a culture where civility is a dominant norm but where views are still expressed and argued for in a tendentious way. This would suck in a community where the shared goal is some truth-seeking enterprise, but I imagine that the more substantive EA norms around debate and discussion would actually impose a significant cost on communities where truth-seeking isn’t the main goal!

• Per the work of Robert Frank, it seems like there are probably institutional design decisions that can increase the likelihood of observing these norms. I’m not sure how much the EA Forum’s designers intended this, but it seems to me like hiding low-scoring answers, allowing real names, and the existence of strong upvotes/​downvotes all play a role in culture on the forum in particular.

• I guess a more useful way to think about this for prospective funders is to move things about again. Given that you can exert c/​x leverage over funds within Cause Y, then you’re justified in spending c to do so provided you can find some Cause Y such that the distribution of DALYs per dollar meets the condition...

...which makes for a potentially nice rule of thumb. When assessing some Cause Y, you need only (“only”) identify a plausibly best or close-to-best opportunity, as well as the median one, and work from there.

Obviously this condition holds for any distribution and any set of quintiles, but the worked example above only indicates to me that it’s a plausible condition for the log-normal.

• Under what circumstances is it potentially cost-effective to move money within low-impact causes?

This is preliminary and most likely somehow wrong. I’d love for someone to have a look at my math and tell me if (how?) I’m on the absolute wrong track here.

Start from the assumption that there is some amount of charitable funding that is resolutely non-cause-neutral. It is dedicated to some cause area Y and cannot be budged. I’ll assume for these purposes that DALYs saved per dollar is distributed log-normally within Cause Y:

I want to know how impactful it might, in general terms, be to shift money from the median funding opportunity in Cause Y to the 90th percentile opportunity. So I want the difference between the value of spending a dollar at those two points on the impact distribution.

The log-normal distribution has the following quantile function:

So the value to be gained by moving from p = 0.5 to p = 0.9 is given by

This simplifies down to

Or

Not a pretty formula, but it’s easy enough to see two things which were pretty intuitive before this exercise. First, you can squeeze out more DALYs from moving money in causes where the mean DALYs per dollar across all funding opportunities is higher, and, for a given average, moving money is higher-value where there’s more variation across funding opportunities (roughly, since variance is proportional to but not precisely given by sigma). Pretty obvious so far.

Okay, what about making this money-moving exercise cost-competitive with a direct investment in an effective cause, with a benchmark of $100/​DALY? For that, and for a given investment amount$x, and a value c such that an expenditure of $c causes the money in cause Y to shift from the median opportunity to the 90th-percentile one, we’d need to satisfy the following condition: Moving things around a bit... Which, given reasonable assumptions about the values of c and x, holds true trivially for larger means and variances across cause Y. The catch, of course, is that means and variances of DALYs per dollar in a cause area are practically never large, let alone in a low-impact cause area. Still, the implication is that (a) if you can exert inexpensive enough leverage over the funding flows within some cause Y and/​or (b) if funding opportunities within cause Y are sufficiently variable, cost-effectiveness is at least theoretically possible. So just taking an example: Our benchmark is$100 per DALY, or 0.01 DALYs per dollar, so let’s just suppose we have a low-impact Cause Y that is between three and six orders of magnitude less effective than that, with a 95% CI of [0.00000001,0.00001], or one for which you can preserve a DALY for between $100,000 and$100 million, depending on the opportunity. That gives mu = −14.97 and sigma = 1.76. Plugging those numbers into the above, we get approximately...

...suggesting, I think, that if you can get roughly 4000:1 leverage when it comes to spending money to move money, it can be cost-effective to influence funding patterns within this low-impact cause area.

There are obviously a lot of caveats here (does a true 90th percentile opportunity exist for any Cause Y?), but this is where my thinking is at right now, which is why this is in my shortform and not anywhere else.

• What do you see as the consequentialist value of doing journalism? What are the ways in which journalists can improve the world? And do you believe these potential improvements are measurable?

• One thing to note here is that lots of commonly-used power law distributions have positive support. Political choices can and sometimes do have dramatically negative effects, and many of the catastrophes that EAs are concerned with are plausibly the result of those choices (like nuclear catastrophe, for instance).

So a distribution that describes the outcomes of political choices should probably have support on the whole real line, and you wouldn’t want to model choices with most simple power-law distributions. But you might be on to something—you might think of a hierarchical model in which there’s some probability that decisions are either good or bad, and that the degree to which they are good or bad is governed by a power law distribution. That’s the model I’ve been working with, but it seems incomplete to me.

• I read this post with a lot of interest; it has started to seem more likely to me lately that spreading productive, resilient norms about decision-making and altruism is a more effective means of improving decisions in the long run than any set of particular institutional structures. The knock-on effects of such a phenomenon would, on a long time scale, seem to dwarf the effects of many other ostensibly effective interventions.

So I get excited about this idea. It seems promising.

But some reflection about what is commonly considered precedent for something like this makes me a little bit more skeptical.

I think we see another kind of self-correction mechanism in the belief system of science. It provides tools for recognising truth and discarding falsehood, as well as cultural impetus to do so; this leads not just to the propagation of existing scientific beliefs, but to the systematic upgrading of those beliefs; this isn’t drift, but going deeper into the well of truth.

I have a sense that a large part of the success of scientific norms comes down to their utility being immediately visible. Children can conduct and repeat simple experiments (e.g. baking soda volcano); undergraduates can repeat famous projects with the same results (e.g. the double slit experiment), and even non-experimentalists can see the logic at the core of contemporary theory (e.g. in middle school geometry, or at the upper level in real analysis). What’s more, the norms seem to be cemented most effectively by precisely this kind of training, and not to spread freely without direct inculcation: scientific thinking is widespread among the trained, and (anecdotally) not so common among the untrained. For many Western non-scientists, science is just another source of formal authority, not a process that derives legitimacy from its robust efficacy.

I can see a way clear to a broadening of scientific norms to include what you’ve characterized as “truth-seeking self-aware altruistic decision-making.” But I’m having trouble imaging how it could be self-propagating. It would seem, at the very least, to require active cultivation in exactly the way that scientific norms do—in other words, that it would require a lot of infrastructure and investment so that proto-truth-seeking-altruists can see the value of the norms. Or perhaps I am having a semantic confusion: is science self-propagating in that scientists, once cultivated, go on to cultivate others?

• I very strongly upvoted this because I think it’s highly likely to produce efficiencies in conversation on the Forum, to serve as a valuable reference for newcomers to EA, and to act as a catalyst for ongoing conversation.

I would be keen to see this list take on life outside the forum as a standalone website or heavily moderated wiki, or as a page under CEA or somesuch, or at QURI.

• I’m not sure why this is being downvoted. I don’t really have an opinion on this, but it seems at least worth discussing. OP, I think this is an interesting idea.

• John Lewis Gaddis’ The Cold War: A New History contains a number of useful segments about the nuclear tensions between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., insightful descriptions of policymakers’ thinking during these moments, and a consideration of counterfactual histories in which nuclear weapons might have been deployed. I found it pretty useful in terms of helping me get a picture of what decision-making looks like when the wrong decision means (potentially) the end of civilization.

• How harmful is a fragmented resume? People seem to believe this isn’t much of a problem for early-career professionals, but I’m 30, and my longest tenure was for two and a half years (recently shorter). I like to leave for new and interesting opportunities when I find them, but I’m starting to wonder whether I should avoid good opportunities for the sake of appearing more reliable as a potential employee.

• First, congratulations. This is impressive, you should be very proud of yourself, and I hope this is the beginning of a long and fruitful data science career (or avocation) for you.

What is going on here?

I think the simplest explanation is that your model fit better because you trained on more data. You write that your best score was obtained by applying XGBoost to the entire feature matrix, without splitting it into train/​test sets. So assuming the other teams did things the standard way, you were working with 25%-40% more data to fit the model. In a lot of settings, particularly in the case of tree-based methods (as I think XGBoost usually is), this is a recipe for overfitting. In this setting, however, it seems like the structure of the public test data was probably really close to the structure of the private test data, so the lack of validation on the public dataset paid off for you.

I think one interpretation of this is that you got lucky in that way. But I don’t think that’s the right takeaway. I think the right takeaway is that you kept your eye on the ball and chose the strategy that worked based on your understanding of the data structure and the available methods and you should be very satisfied.

• I wonder if the forum shouldn’t encourage a class of post (basically like this one) that’s something like “are there effective giving opportunities in X context?” Although EA is cause-neutral, there’s no reason why members shouldn’t take the opportunity provided by serendipity to investigate highly specific scenarios and model “virtuous EA behavior.” This could be a way of making the forum friendlier to visitors like the OP, and a way for comments to introduce visitors to EA concepts in a way that’s emotionally relevant.

• I also found this (ironically) abstract. There are more than enough philosophers on this board to translate this for us, but I think it might be useful to give it a shot and let somebody smarter correct the misinterpretations.

The author suggests that the “radical” part of EA is the idea that we are just as obligated to help a child drowning in a faraway pond as in a nearby one:

The morally radical suggestion is that our ability to act so as to produce value anywhere places the same moral demands on us as does our ability to produce value in our immediate practical circumstances

She notes that what she sees as the EA moral view excludes “virtue-oriented” or subjective moral positions, and lists several views (e.g. “Kantian constructivist”) that are restricted if one takes what she sees as the EA moral view. She maintains that such views, which (apparently) have a long history at Oxford, have a lot to offer in the way of critique of EA.

Institutional critique

In a nutshell, EA focuses too much on what it can measure, and what it can measure are incrementalist approaches that ignores the “structural, political roots of global misery.” The author says that the EA responses to this criticism (that even efforts at systemic change can be evaluated and judged effective) are fair. She says that these responses constitute a claim that the institutional critique is a criticism of how closely EA hews to its tenets, rather than of the tenets themselves. She disagrees with this claim.

Philosophical critique

This critique holds that EAs basically misunderstand what morality is—that the point of view of the universe is not really possible. The author argues that attempting to take this perspective actively “deprives us of the very resources we need to recognise what matters morally”—in other words, taking the abstract view eliminates moral information from our reasoning.

The author lists some of the features of the worldview underpinning the philosophical critique. Acting rightly includes:

acting in ways that are reflective of virtues such as benevolence, which aims at the well-being of others

acting, when appropriate, in ways reflective of the broad virtue of justice, which aims at an end—giving people what they are owed—that can conflict with the end of benevolence

She concludes:

In a case in which it is not right to improve others’ well-being, it makes no sense to say that we produce a worse result. To say this would be to pervert our grasp of the matter by importing into it an alien conception of morality … There is here simply no room for EA-style talk of “most good.”

So in this view there are situations in which morality is more expansive than the improvement of others’ well-being, and taking the abstract view eliminates these possibilities.

The philosophical-institutional critique

The author combines the philosophical and institutional critiques. The crux of this view seems to be that large-scale social problems have an ethical valence, and that it’s basically impossible to understand or begin to rectify them if you take the abstract (god’s eye) view, which eliminates some of this useful information:

Social phenomena are taken to be irreducibly ethical and such that we require particular modes of affective response to see them clearly … Against this backdrop, EA’s abstract epistemological stance seems to veer toward removing entirely it from the business of social understanding.

This critique maintains that it’s the methodological tools of EA (“economic modes of reasoning”) that block understanding, and articulates part of the worldview behind this critique:

Underlying this charge is a very particular diagnosis of our social condition. The thought is that the great social malaise of our time is the circumstance, sometimes taken as the mark of neoliberalism, that economic modes of reasoning have overreached so that things once rightly valued in a manner immune to the logic of exchange have been instrumentalised.

In other words, the overreach of economic thinking into moral philosophy is a kind of contamination that blinds EA to important moral concerns.

Conclusion

Finally, the author contends that EA’s framework constrains “available moral and political outlooks,” and ties this to the lack of diversity within the movement. By excluding more subjective strains of moral theory, EA excludes the individuals who “find in these traditions the things they most need to say.” In order for EA to make room for these individuals, it would need to expand its view of morality.

• I’m curious to hear Michael’s response, but also interested to hear more about why you think this. I have the opposite intuition- presumably 1910 had its fair share of moonshots which seemed crazy at the time and which turned out, in fact, to be basically crazy, which is why we haven’t heard about them.

A portfolio which included Ford and Edison would have performed extremely well, but I don’t know how many possible 1910 moonshot portfolios would have included them or would have weighted them significantly enough to outperform the many failed other moonshots.