FYI, more info about the scenario game available here:https://intelligencerising.org/Writeup of game from participants:https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/ywKhqjgdKuHoQohYL/takeaways-from-the-intelligence-rising-rpg
[edit; just found their donation page and they recieved considerable OpenPhil support, so not a candidate based on the OP’s criteria].One Day Sooner seem like a candidate. I don’t know if they’ve received EA support, although at least one EA (David Manheim) works with them. I think they’ve done good work in bringing attention and legitimacy to the idea of human challenge trials in a pandemic situation, which seems plausibly like a very important thing for future pandemics.https://www.1daysooner.org/
With regard to the people mentioned, neither are forum regulars, and my understanding is that neither have plans for continued collaborations with Phil.
I appreciate that these kinds of moderation decisions can be difficult, but I also don’t agree with the warning to Halstead. And if it is to be given, then I am uncomfortable that Halstead has been singled out—it would seem consistent to apply the same warning to me, as I supported Halstead’s claims, and added my own, both without providing evidence.
+1; BERI have been a brilliant support. Strongly recommend applying!
I don’t know how to embed snapshots, but anyone who wishes is welcome to type “phil torres” into linkedin or email me for the snapshots I’ve just taken right now—it brings up “Researcher at Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, University of Cambridge”. As I say, it’s unclear if this is deliberate—it may well be an oversight, but it has contributed to the mistaken external impression that Phil Torres is or was research staff at CSER.
+1 from my own experience in debate (also british style). Truth-seeking / identifying and meaningfully resolving points of disagreement between different positions is a very different skill to trying to win a debate, and the skillsets/mindsets developed in the latter seem like they might actively work against the former unless the people doing it are very careful and self-aware.
Related cause area: Deepfake dub-over all 80k podcasts so that they’re presented by David Attenborough for prestige gains.
EA projects should be evidence based: I’ve done a survey of myself, and the results conclusively show that if 80,000 hours produced dubstep remixes of its podcasts, I would actually listen to them. The results were even more conclusive when the question included “what if Wiblin spliced in ‘Wib-wib-wib’ noises whenever crucial considerations were touched on?”.
(Disclaimer: am co-director of CSER): EA is a strong influence at CSER, but one of a number. At a guess, I’d say maybe a third to a half of people actively engage with EA/EA-led projects (some ambiguity based on how you define), but a lot are coming from other academic backgrounds relevant to GCR and working in broader GCR contexts, and there’s no expectation or requirement to be invoved with EA. We aim to be a broad church in this regard.
Among our senior advisers/board, folks like Martin Rees and Jaan Tallinn engage more actively with EA. There’s been little Partha/EA engagement to my knowledge. (At least some of the conversations that would ultimately lead to there being a CSER predated EA’s existence). I think I’d agree with comments elsewhere that Partha’s work on biodiversity loss might be considered a lower priority through an EA lens than through some other lenses (e.g. ones that place ‘intrinsic value of biological diversity/ecosystem preservation’ more highly, or ones that place higher weight on sub-existential catastrophes or systemic vulnerabilities) although I’m glad to see it considered through an EA lens and will be interested to see EA perspectives on it.
Here is an article by Phil Torres arguing that the rise of Islam represents a very significant and growing existential risk.
I will quote a key paragraph:
“Consider the claim that there will be 2.76 billion Muslims by 2050. Now, 1% of this number equals 27.6 million people, roughly 26.2 million more than the number of military personnel on active duty in the US today. It follows that if even 1% of this figure were to hold “active apocalyptic” views, humanity could be in for a catastrophe like nothing we’ve ever experienced before.”
Firstly, this is nonsense. The proposition that 1% of Muslims would hold “active apocalyptic” views and be prepared to act on it is pure nonsense. And “if even 1%” suggests this is the author lowballing.
Secondly, this is fear-mongering against one of the most feared and discriminated-against communities in the West, being written for a Western audience.
Thirdly, it utilises another standard racism trope, population replacement—look at the growing number of scary ‘other’. They threaten to over-run the US’s good ’ol apple pie armed forces.
This was not a paragraph in a thesis. It was a public article, intended to reach as wide an audience as possible. It used to be prominently displayed on his now-defunct website. The article above was written several years more recently than Beckstead’s thesis.
I will say, to Torres’s credit, that his views on Islam have become more nuanced over time, and that I have found his recent articles on Islam less problematic. This is to be praised. And he has moved on from attacking Muslims to ‘critiquing’ right-wing Americans, the Atheist community, and the EA community. This is at least punching sidewards, rather than down.
But he has not subject his own body of work, or other more harmful materials, to anything like the level of critique that he has subjected Beckstead, Mogensen etc al. I consider this deeply problematic in terms of scholarly responsibility.
Happy to have a go; the “in/out of context” is a large part of the problem here. (Note that I don’t think I agree with Beckstead’s argument for reasons given towards the end).
(1) The thesis (198 pages of it!) is about shaping the far future, and operates on staggering timescales. Some of it like this quote is written in the first person, which has the effect of putting it in the present-day context, but these are at their heart philosophical arguments abstracted from time and space. This is a thing philosophers do.
If I were to apply the argument to the 12th century world, I might claim that saving a person in what is now modern day Turkey would have greater ripple effects than saving a person in war-ravaged Britain. The former was lightyears further ahead in science and technology, chock full of incredible muslim scholar-engineers like Al Jazari (seriously; read about this guy). I might be wrong of course; the future is unpredictable and these ripples might be wiped out in the next century by a Mongol Horde (as for the most part did happen); but wrong on different grounds.
And earlier in the thesis Beckstead provides a whole heap of caveats (in addition to ‘all other things being equal’, including that his argument explicitly does not address issues “such as whose responsibility that is, how much the current generation should be required to sacrifice for the sake of future generations, how shaping the far future stacks up against special obligations or issues of justice”; these are all “good questions” but out of scope.)
If Beckstead further developed the ‘it is better to save lives in rich countries’ argument in the thesis, explicitly embedding it within the modern context and making practical recommendations that would exacerbate the legacy of harm of postcolonial inequality, then Torres might have a point. He does not. It’s a paragraph on one page of a 198 page PhD thesis. Reading the paragraph in the context of the overall thesis gives a very different impression than the deliberately leading context that Torres places the paragraph in.
(2) Now consider the further claims that Torres has repeatedly made—that this paragraph taints the entire field in white supremacy; and that any person or organisation who praised the thesis is endorsing white supremacy. This is an even more extreme version of the same set of moves. I have found nothing—nothing -anywhere in the EA or longtermist literature building on and progressing this argument.
(3) The same can be seen, but in a more extreme fashion, for the Mogensen paper. Again, an abstract philosophical argument. Here Mogensen (in a very simplified version) observes that over three dimensions—the world—total utilitarianism says you should spread your resources over all people in that space. But if you introduce a 4th dimension—time, then the same axiology says you should spread your resources over space and time, and the majority of that obligation lies in the future. It’s an abstract philosophical argument. Torres reads in white supremacy, and invites the reader to read in white supremacy.
(4) The problem here is that no body of scholarship can realistically withstand this level of hostile scrutiny and leading analysis. And no field can realistically withstand the level of hostile analysis where one paragraph in a PhD thesis taken out of context is used to damn an entire field. I don’t think I personally agree with the argument on its own terms—it’s hard to prove definitively but I would have a concern that inequality has often been argued to be a driver of systemic instability, and that if so, any intervention that increases inequality might contribute to negative ‘ripple effects’ regardless of what countries were rich and poor at a given time. And I think the paragraph itself could reasonably be characterised as ‘thoughtless’, given the author is a white western person writing in C21, even if the argument is not explicitly in this context.
However the extreme criticism presented in Torres’s piece stands in stark contrast to the much more serious racism that goes unchallenged in so much of scholarship and modern life. Any good-faith actor will in the first instance pursue these, rather than reading the worst ills possible into a paragraph of a PhD thesis. I’ve run out of time, but will illustrate this shortly with a prominent example of what I consider to be much more significant racism from Torres’s own work.
A quick note that there’s a session on it at this weekend’s EA Global: Reconnect (which Sanjay is speaking at): it might catalyse formation of such a group!
I haven’t done a systematic analysis, but at a quick glance I’d note that quite a number of the grants in scientific research seem like their outputs would directly support main EA cause areas such as biorisk and global health—e.g. in the last 1-2 years I see a number on malaria prevention, vaccine development, antivirals, disease diagnostics etc.
>but I think it’s worth noting that, were various longtermist ideas to enter mainstream discourse, this is exactly the kind of critique they’d receive (unfairly or not!) - so it’s worth considering how plausible these charges are, and how longtermists might respond.
This is a good point, and worth being mindful of as longtermism becomes more mainstream/widespread.
Addendum: There’s a saying that “no matter what side of an argument you’re on, you’ll always find someone on your side who you wish was on the other side”.
There is a seam running through Torres’s work that challenges xrisk/longtermism/EA on the grounds of the limitations of being led and formulated by a mostly elite, developed-world community.
Like many people in longtermism/xrisk, I think there is a valid concern here. xrisk/longtermism/EA all started in a combination of elite british universities + US communities e.g. bay. They had to start somewhere. I am of the view that they shouldn’t stay that way.
I think it’s valid to ask whether there are assumptions embedded within these frameworks at this stage that should be challenged, and to posit that these would be challenged most effectively by people with a very different background and perspective. I think it’s valid to argue that thinking, planning for, and efforts to shape the long-term future should not be driven by a community that is overwhelmingly from one particular background and that doesn’t draw on and incorporate the perspectives of a community that reflects more of global societies and cultures. Work by such a community would likely miss important values and considerations, might reflect founder-effect biases, and would lack legitimacy and buy-in when it came to implementation. I think it’s valid to expect it to engage with frameworks beyond utilitarianism, and I’m pleased to see GPI, The Precipice, amongst others do this.
As both xrisk and longtermism grow and mature, a core part of the project should be, in my view, and likely will be, expanding beyond this starting point. Such efforts are underway. They take a long time. And I would like to see people, both internal and external to the community, challenge the community on this where needed .
However, for someone on this side of the argument, I am deeply frustrated by Torres’s approach. It salts the earth for engagement with people who disagree with this view and actively works against finding common ground. It alienates people from diverse backgrounds outside xrisk/longtermism from engaging with xrisk/longtermism, and thus makes the project harder. And it strengthens the views of those who disagree with the case I’ve put, especially when they perceive those they disagree with acting in bad faith. The book ends with the claim “More than anything, I want this mini-book to help rehabilitate “longtermism,” and hence Existential Risk Studies.” I do not believe this hostile, polemical approach serves that aim; rather I worry that it is undermining it.
[disclaimer: I am co-Director at CSER. While much of what I will write intersects with professional responsibilities, it is primarily written from a personal perspective, as this is a deeply personal matter for me. Apologies in advance if that’s confusing, this is a distressing and difficult topic for me, and I may come back and edit. I may also delete my comment, for professional or personal/emotional reasons].
I am sympathetic to Halstead’s position here, and feel I need to write my own perspective. Clearly to the extent that CSER has—whether directly or indirectly—served to legitimise such attacks by Torres on colleagues in the field, I bear a portion of responsibility as someone in a leadership position. I do not feel it would be right or appropriate for me to speak for all colleagues, but I would like to emphasise that individually I do not, in any way, condone this conduct, and I apologise for it, and for any failings on my individual part that may have contributed.
My personal impression supports the case Halstead makes. Comments about my ‘whiteness’, and insinuations regarding my ‘real’ reasons for objecting to positions taken by Torres only came after I objected publicly to Torres’s characterisations of Halstead, Olle Hagstrom, Nick Beckstead, Toby Ord and others. I have been informed by Torres that I owe him an apology for not siding with him.
As well as the personal motivation, this mode of engagement reflects another aspect of this discourse I find deeply troubling: while I think there are valid arguments against longtermism, and alternative perspectives, it becomes impossible to discuss the issues, and in particular, the unfair characterisation of individuals, on the object level. Object level disagreement is met with an insinuation that this is the white supremacists closing ranks. I do believe there is a valid argument in some cases that one can be unaware of biases, and one can be unconsciously influenced by the ‘background radiation’ of a privileged society. Personally I have experienced this in unconscious, and sometimes deliberate, racism experienced as an Irish person living in Britain, and I have no doubt that non-white people have it much worse. However, this principle can also most certainly be overused uncharitably, or even ‘weaponised’ to shut down constructive intellectual engagement. And it is profoundly anti-intellectual to permit only those from outside a system of privilege to challenge scholarship.
There are other rhetorical moves I find deeply troubling. The common-society use of ‘white supremacy’ is something like “people who believe that white people are superior to other races and should dominate them; and are willing to act on that through violent means.”. Torres has typically not defined the term, but when challenged, he has explained that he is using the term in the more narrowly-used way used in critical race theory; of “of white people benefiting from and maintaining a system where the legacy of colonial privilege is maintained”. (note that he does define it in the mini-book, although as the ‘academic’ definition, which I think is overstatement). When challenged, Torres insults people for not automatically knowing he is using the more esoteric CRT definition rather than the common-use definition. This is not a reasonable position to take. And it is not reasonable to expect people not to be deeply hurt and offended by the language used.
Even accounting for the CRT definition, this is still an extremely serious and harmful accusation, and one that should not be made without extremely careful consideration and very strong evidence. In my own case, as someone from a culture overwhelmingly defined by the harms of colonialism, it is another way of shutting down any possible discussion; it is so violently upsetting that it renders me incapable of continuing to engage.
To the extent that scholars at CSER are still collaborating with Torres: I am not. I have spoken regarding my concerns to those who have let me know they are still collaborating with him, and have let them make their own choices. Most collaborations are the legacy of projects initiated during his visit 2 years ago (which I authorised, not knowing some of the more serious issue Halstead raises, but being aware of some more minor concerns). Papers take a long time to go through the academic system, and it would be a very unusual and hostile step to e.g. take an author’s name off a paper against their wishes. In some instances, people wished to engage with some aspects of Torres’ critique and collaborate with presenting them in a more constructive and less polemical way (e.g. see several examples of Beard+Torres). I have respected their choices. This may not be the case with all collaborations; at CSER’s current size I am not always aware of every paper being written. But I think it is fair to say my view on this style of engagement are well-known.
I have not taken the step of banning colleagues at CSER from collaborating with Torres. This would be an extremely unusual step in academia, running contrary to some fundamental principles of academic freedom. I am also concerned taking such a step would open the door to aspects of ‘cancel culture’ I am uncomfortable with. Further, I am concerned that such steps would reinforce another set of attack lines: Torres has already publicly claimed that he ‘has no doubt’ that employees at CSER that disagreed with me would be fired for it. I value having scope for intellectual disagreement greatly, and I would not want this perspective to take hold.
I do not claim that my decisions have been correct.
I do think there is significant value in engaging with critics. I admire engagement of the sort that Haydn has just undertaken. As a committed longtermist, to ‘turn the other cheek’ and engage in good faith with a steelmanned, charitable interpretation of a polemical and hostile document is something I find admirable in itself. And as noted elsewhere in this discussion, enough people have found some value in the challenge Torres has presented to ideas within longtermism (even where presented uncharitably) that it seems reasonable for some to engage with it. However at the same time, I do worry that beyond some point, engaging so charitably may legitimise a mode of discourse that I find distressingly hostile and inimical to kind and constructive, and open discourse.
These are challenging, and sometimes controversial topics. There will very often be issues on which reasonable people will disagree. There will sometimes be positions taken that others will be profoundly uncomfortable with. This is not unique to Xrisk or longtermism; the same is true of global development and animal rights. I believe it is of paramount importance that we be able to interact with each other as thinkers and doers in a kind, constructive and charitable way; and above all to adopt these principles when we critique each other. After all, when we are wrong, this is nearly always the most effective way to change minds. While not everyone will agree with me on this, this is the view I have always put forward in the centres I have been a part of.
A quick point of clarification that Phil Torres was never staff at CSER; he was a visitor for a couple of months a few years ago. He has unfortunately misrepresented himself as working at CSER on various media (unclear if deliberate or not). (And FWIW he has made similar allusions, albeit thinly veiled, about me).
Very helpful, thanks. Separately, I’d note that several of the biosecurity researchers most actively getting involved with the GCR community (e.g. Piers Millett at FHI and Catherine Rhodes at CSER) did PhD/postdoc work with Malcolm. (I’ve also found him a lovely and approachable person, generous with guidance and feedback—we’ve had him at several workshops).