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Belonging (Part 3: Reform)

The EA community is notoriously homogenous, and the “average EA” is extremely easy to imagine: he is a white male in his twenties or thirties from an upper-middle class family in North America or Western Europe. He is ethically utilitarian and politically centrist; an atheist, but culturally protestant. He studied analytic philosophy, mathematics, computer science, or economics at an elite university in the US or UK. He is neurodivergent. He thinks space is really cool. He highly values intelligence, and believes that his own is significantly above average. He hung around LessWrong for a while as a teenager, and now wears EA-branded shirts and hoodies, drinks Huel, and consumes a narrow range of blogs, podcasts, and vegan ready-meals. He moves in particular ways, talks in particular ways, and thinks in particular ways. Let us name him “Sam”, if only because there’s a solid chance he already is.

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1. Series introduction

Nick Bostrom’s email and subsequent apology have sparked fresh discussions about inclusion and belonging in effective altruism. Who is or can be an effective altruist? Whose voices will be heard? Who feels that they belong within effective altruism, and who feels marginalized, uncomfortable, or mistreated?

This is Part 3 of a series on belonging in effective altruism, incorporating two posts about Bostrom’s email that were initially unattached to a specific series.

Part 1 discusses an email sent by Nick Bostrom in the 1990s and his subsequent apology last week. The email and apology were offensive to many, and Part 1 discusses some reasons why the email and apology were offensive. Others, such as Habiba Islam (80,000 Hours), Peter Wildeford (Rethink Priorities), and Richard Chappell (University of Miami) add valuable complementary perspectives.

Part 2 looks at the reaction to Bostrom’s email and apology within the effective altruism community. I argue that the initial reaction in many quarters was quite concerning, but that by Sunday, January 15th the tide had begun to shift against the most concerning responses.

Today, as the tide continues to shift, I want to emphasize the need to use this moment for growth, learning and change. First, I will say why reform is necessary. Second, I will draw on recent reforms within the scientific community as guidance for how an intellectually-engaged community might restructure itself to become more inclusive and welcoming.

2. The need for reform

There are many appropriate reactions to recent events. Some feel sad, others angry, exhausted or numb. Some wish to punish, others to forgive. Some wish to discuss the matter, and others wish to forget.

One theme that I have emphasized is the need to use this moment as an opportunity to drive positive change within and outside of the effective altruism movement.

In Part 1 of this series, I wrote:

This is an opportunity for learning, healing and change. I hope that the community will take this opportunity to understand what went wrong, to explore the depth of the problem, and to explore meaningful solutions to ensure that effective altruists take adequate account of the needs, interests and perspectives of all.

And in Part 2, I wrote:

Many of us are privileged to notice racism only when it becomes so visible that it is impossible to ignore. This means that it is crucial to exploit the fleeting moments in which problematic attitudes become visible to all as opportunities to learn about the harmful beliefs and behaviors which have been so long ignored; to change those beliefs and behaviors; and to grow to be more aware of, and responsible for our behaviors in the world and their effects on those upon whom the consequences of racist thought and talk are heaped every day.

Calls for change in the way that marginalized groups are treated within effective altruism have been made many times before. For example, in 2019, ten members of underrepresented groups posted a set of guidelines for making discussions in EA groups more inclusive. The authors drew on data suggesting that many members of underrepresented groups felt put off by discussions they had been a part of:

In the Facebook group Women and non-binary people in Effective Altruism 47 out of 52 poll respondents say that they have at some point felt put off by a discussion relating to a minority identity (e.g. a discussion on women, gay people, or disabled people) in an EA group or community.

This felt lack of belonging had a tangible impact on many respondents’ ability to participate in the movement:

About half (27 out of 51) of the respondents said they have reduced their participation in some part of the community due to such discussions.

In a striking anticipation of recent events, the authors proposed that it is sometimes better to limit debate in order to increase inclusion:

We argue that being a part of an inclusive community can sometimes mean refraining from pursuing every last theory or thought experiment to its end in public places. This principle may be easier to understand if we use an extreme example: if someone in an EA group started seriously proposing, using evidence and reasoning, that women are lesser and that humanity would be better off if women were controlled by men, most group members would not want there to be a serious debate on that topic.

These calls for reform were heard, although there was substantial resistance to change. The most upvoted comment on that thread begins:

While I appreciate your saying you don’t intend to ban topics, I think there is considerable risk that this sort of policy becomes a form of de facto censorship. In the same way that we should be wary of Isolated Demands for Rigour, so too we should also be wary of Isolated Demands for Sensitivity.

There are consequences to pushing back against reform. Stronger norms against hurtful discussion might well have discouraged Bostrom from writing his apology in quite the way that he did.

Another consequence of pushing back against reform is that calls for reform may be largely ignored. For example, a few months ago Keerthana Gopalakrishnan submitted a post entitled “Women and effective altruism” to the EA Forum. Gopalakrishnan complained about the sexual pressures exerted on young women by powerful men in an EA culture strongly influenced by polyamory:

If you’re a reasonably attractive woman entering an EA community, you get a ton of sexual requests to join polycules, often from poly and partnered men. Some of these men control funding for projects and enjoy high status in EA communities and that means there are real downsides to refusing their sexual advances and pressure to say yes, especially if your career is in an EA cause area or is funded by them … Having to keep replenishing that ‘no’ becomes annoying very fast, and becomes harder to give informed consent when socializing in the presence of alcohol / psychedelics. It puts your safety at risk. From experience, EA as a community, has very little respect for monogamy and many men, often competing with each other, will persuade you to join polyamory using LessWrong style jedi mindtricks while they stand to benefit from the erosion of your boundaries.

In particular, Gopalakrishnan complained of a prevalence of redpilled thinking and sexual behavior together with a system that accords “tacit and somewhat widespread backing for this behavior”:

The power enjoyed by men who are predatory, the rate of occurrence and a lack of visible push back equals to a tacit and somewhat widespread backing for this behaviour. My experience resonates with a few other women in SF I have spoken to. They have also met red pilled, exploitative men in EA/rationalist circles. EA/rationalism and redpill fit like yin and yang. Akin to how EA is an optimization of altruism with “suboptimal” human tendencies like morality and empathy stripped from it, red pill is an optimized sexual strategy with the humanity of women stripped from it.

Gopalakrishnan proposed a number of reforms in response to these problems:

  1. EA needs to implement a stricter code of conduct, in line with Title IX, and align on this code in EA group houses / social events / communities.
  2. They also need better processes for resolving and reporting sexual misconduct incidents – Julia Wise’s work is a beginning but is not nearly enough.
  3. Libertarian style community mediation of sexual assault cases common in EA communities need to be dumped in favour of police intervention because it leads to gross mismanagement such as in this anon’s case or in Kathy Ford’s case which ended in her suicide. Arbitration within the community has higher chance of bias and power differentials creeping in.
  4. Conflicts of interest in grant allocation, work place appointments should be examined more closely while adjucating.
  5. People should be made more conscientious about hitting on each other at EA events. This means honoring ‘no’s, avoiding coercion, respecting a person’s choice of poly/mono, etc.
  6. Any EA event organizer using that venue to hit on women should be removed from organizing EA events again, without question.
  7. Retaliation for sexual rejection, both social and professional, needs to be addressed.

These reforms were widely rejected – indeed, the community response to Gopalakrishnan’s request (made from a place of extreme vulnerability) was so harsh that Gopalakrishnan soon deleted her post.

I took it down due to the responses from the forum. The original intention of the post was to catalyze action from within the community, but after it was around for a day or two, I realized this will not happen. The original goal of posting here will not be served. 

In addition, the post being live here brought me a lot of headache. I felt like the responses from the forum were mob-like and fell into three categories 1. normalizing (this is just a statistic, every community has a few) 2. dismissive (not a big deal) 3. attacking. I also have a full time job so didn’t have the time to respond and felt increasingly unsafe given that I wasn’t posting as an anon. 

Now, once again, effective altruism finds itself faced with calls for reform. I hope that effective altruists can work hard to listen openly and nondefensively to the proposed reforms, accept the need for structural change and begin an earnest debate about what form those changes might take.

3. New calls for reform

Recent days have brought an influx of new voices, often from within the effective altruism community itself, calling for reform.

Recently, an anonymous group of concerned effective altruists wrote:

Recent events, including the FTX collapse and the Bostrom email/apology scandal, have led a sizeable portion of EAs to become disillusioned with or at least much more critical of the Effective Altruism movement … many EAs have become increasingly worried about the direction of EA over the last few years. We are some of them.

Of particular note are the group’s complaints about homogeneity within effective altruism:

The EA community is notoriously homogenous, and the “average EA” is extremely easy to imagine: he is a white male in his twenties or thirties from an upper-middle class family in North America or Western Europe. He is ethically utilitarian and politically centrist; an atheist, but culturally protestant. He studied analytic philosophy, mathematics, computer science, or economics at an elite university in the US or UK. He is neurodivergent. He thinks space is really cool. He highly values intelligence, and believes that his own is significantly above average. He hung around LessWrong for a while as a teenager, and now wears EA-branded shirts and hoodies, drinks Huel, and consumes a narrow range of blogs, podcasts, and vegan ready-meals. He moves in particular ways, talks in particular ways, and thinks in particular ways. Let us name him “Sam”, if only because there’s a solid chance he already is.

The group goes on to offer a series of proposed reforms, with a promised supplement next week to address issues of diversity, inclusion and belonging in more depth.

These are far from the only effective altruists to sound the call for reform in recent days. In her “Reflection on Bostrom’s comments as a woman in EA“, Lilly writes:

I was dismayed by Bostrom’s racist email, more so by his apology, but most of all by many EAs’ reactions to both. Based on defenses of Bostrom’s apology here and on Twitter, a substantial number of EAs seem to think it was fine that Bostrom failed to disavow the racist claims made in his original email. (“Are there any genetic contributors to differences between groups in cognitive abilities? It is not my area of expertise…”).

This dismay has tangible consequences: it makes Lilly feel unwelcome within the movement. In fact, Lilly concludes:

If something causes me to leave EA entirely, it may well be sexism. I simply don’t have to do as much extra work to prove myself in other spaces (including ones where people are every bit as smart), and having to do this work saps me of my energy, confidence, and time; in short, of my ability to be an effective altruist.

The same thoughts were voiced by Habiba Islam:

I would be uncomfortable and upset to be part of a community where discussing issues like race/intelligence was not carried out with the empathy and rigour that the subject requires or where people commonly held views on race/intelligence that I consider to be wrong and extremely harmful.

Megan Nelson voiced a weaker version of the same thought:

I am tired of drama, scandals, and PR. I am tired of being in a position where I have to apologize for sexism, racism, and other toxic ideologies within this movement. I am tired of convening calls with other community builders where we try to figure out how to best react to the latest Thing That Happened.

The zeitgeist is aptly captured by Rohit Krishnan’s call to “Do better, please“:

The past few months have been exhausting in seeing … the community, one I like, in turmoil repeatedly, while clearly fumbling basic aspects of how they’re seen in the wider world. I like having EA in the world, I think it does a lot of good. And I think you guys are literally throwing it away based on aesthetics of misguided epistemic virtue signaling. But it’s late, and I read more than a few articles, and this post is me begging you to please just stop.

Many of those I have spoken to about recent events have agreed that there is a serious need for reform within effective altruism in order to make the movement more inclusive and diverse and to promote a greater sense of belonging. But just what would it mean to reform? What tangible actions might be taken? What does the evidence say about the best path to success?

These are hard questions, and no one should pretend to have all of the answers. But there is no need to start from scratch. Other communities have confronted similar challenges and used reason and evidence to make their communities better than they were before. Let’s look at a relevant case study.

4. Lessons from science: Post-2020 reform

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement, communities around the world began to think more earnestly than before about how they could reshape themselves to be more inclusive. One such community is the community of academic scientists, a community that resembles effective altruists in many ways.

One belief that scientists share with effective altruists is that it is important to use reason, evidence and data to solve pressing societal challenges. When academic scientists turned their attention towards reform, leading scientific journals published compendiums of the best evidentially-supported advice for reform. So that I cannot be accused of cherry-picking, I want to look at some suggestions raised by four articles mentioned in the recent Global Catastrophic Risk Institute Statement on race and intelligence:

There are many suggestions raised by this literature, and many other sources of information to consider. Today, I want to raise four suggestions common to many of these articles as a way of beginning a conversation about the sorts of reforms that could help the effective altruism movement to become more diverse and inclusive.

First proposal: Proactive outreach and recruitment. Qualified applicants from a range of backgrounds may not be aware of relevant opportunities, may fear that they are unqualified, or may simply benefit from a word of encouragement. Many studies agree that aggressive and proactive outreach to members of historically underrepresented groups can help to increase the likelihood that they will apply and ultimately be hired.

For example, Ahmad et al. (2019) explain:

Proactive types of recruitment efforts can take place by both faculty and lab members. … This can be done by faculty identifying and encouraging strong minority students in the classroom to apply for research opportunities … Current lab members may also take an active role in recruiting diverse students. For example, research assistants can set time aside for community outreach events where diverse students may be involved in, such as sports, student clubs, or special events on campus. This can allow for the opportunity for current students to engage in conversation about their experiences working in a lab and the benefits of research for their future goals, specifically, articulating that they are working on publishable research which will be instrumental for pursuing graduate education.

And Nikki Forrester shares the story of Edmond Sanganyado, a toxicologist at Shantou University:

A few months ago, Shantou University was recruiting graduate students by posting advertisements in Chinese on its website. To reach a broader audience, Sanganyado translated the ad and shared it on LinkedIn and WhatsApp, encouraging students to contact him before applying. He found several interested students from Nigeria and Zimbabwe, guided them through the application process and edited their CVs and proposals. In one case, he stopped receiving communications from an interested student. On calling the student, he discovered that they didn’t have data to access the Internet. “Fortunately, my wife was in Zimbabwe and she paid for that student to get data to continue with their application,” says Sanganyado. “When you really want diversity, you need to go the extra mile — you need to invest in it.”

Within the context of effective altruism, proactive outreach and recruitment might mean expanding recruiting activities to include a broader range of universities, holding targeted recruiting events for members of traditionally underrepresented groups, or conducting individualized outreach to potential applicants identified through mentorship and advising programs. If there is a lack of mentorship programs within a given space, new programs might be established. This brings us to our next proposal.

Second proposal: Active mentorship. Members of underrepresented groups often lack the formal support and informal knowledge and networks needed to navigate workplace dynamics, to learn what is required for advancement and to be recognized for their work when advancement decisions are made. Active mentorship provides a much needed channel of formal support and informal advice.

For example, Ahmad et al. (2019) suggest:

Students from diverse backgrounds report that a lack of mentorship is a challenge in navigating their educational experiences. Previous work has found that mentoring can be particularly vital to maintaining persistence toward a degree for African American students … Once students are in the lab, faculty members can take an active role in mentorship by providing developmental opportunities (i.e., co-authorship for publications or conferences) and feedback on research related tasks to build the skills of these students at the undergraduate level.

And Olugbeminiyi Fadeyi cites Maria-Jesus Blanco, Senior Director at Sage Therapeutics:

Having a mentor is important for any scientist interested in pursuing a gratifying career in pharma and academia. For under-represented minorities, the impact of mentoring and sponsorship is even more critical to provide career development support overcoming barriers, and unconscious biases. Relying only on informal mentoring and networking efforts is not enough to make a true difference and minimize racism and bias faced by minority professionals. Minorities developed with these programs could, in turn, be mentors to others, thus systematically decreasing the gender and racial gaps in academia and pharma.

Sometimes, mentorship relationships may be formalized. For example, the Open Student Workshop on Global Priorities Research pairs students with a faculty mentor to work together on a research project, as does the UNIQ+ scheme at Oxford. (Edit: Cecil Abungu also draws my attention to the wonderful ILINA Fellowship in Nairobi). But there is no need to wait on a formal mentorship program. Anyone in a position to offer mentorship within their own organization can reach out to offer their services as a mentor. Try it tomorrow.

Third proposal: Promote an inclusive culture and work environment. It goes without saying that open racism, sexism and discrimination will chase away employees. But promoting an inclusive culture and work environment is not just a negative project of chasing away misbehavior. Promoting an inclusive culture and work environment requires a range of active, conscious and costly decisions to promote and monitor inclusiveness.

For example, Shanina Sanders Johnson recommends:

… Dedicated funds to develop and/or maintain resources that will allow for high levels of retention among the cohorts. This includes efforts to maintain a positive racial climate, cultural spaces for students, and intensive support programs. Some of the highlights of my graduate career were assisting in creating a chapter of National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers (NOBCChE) on the campus, attending a Sister Circle event with Dr. Valerie Ashby, a Black professor from the chemistry department, and interacting with Black students from other graduate programs through the Black Graduate Student Association. The latter was not active during my entire tenure at the institution. The Department also hosted an annual Slayton A. Evans Jr. lecture in honor of Dr. Evans, the first Black chemistry professor at UNC.

Creating an inclusive culture requires not only promoting inclusivity, but also monitoring inclusivity. Here is Nikki Forrester, again quoting Edmond Sanganyado:

The best measure we can have is asking the students, ‘How much do you feel like you belong?’ You can have the highest percentage of whatever group that you want to emphasize, but if all of them feel like they don’t belong, what’s the point?

One of the best devices for monitoring inclusivity is a formal climate survey, conducted annually and discussed by in a public forum, backed by a committee empowered to act on the results of the survey. Many organizations within the effective altruism movement already conduct annual climate surveys. These organizations might consider strengthening the sensitivity of climate surveys as well as increasing the attention that is paid to analyzing and acting upon their results. Other organizations should act quickly to implement and support annual climate surveys.

Fourth proposal: Targeted grants. Nobody wants to work for free, and members of underrepresented groups are often most in need of a steady paycheck, but least likely to get one. Offering targeted programs of long-term, multi-year grant funding can help to give a wider range of candidates the chance to develop their work and build expertise without the instability of insecure work combined with the looming threat of student loan repayment.

For example, Tilghman et al. recommend:

Grants to early-stage investigators from minority groups.

Programs and grants to promote entrepreneurship for individuals from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups.

Salaries and tuition for graduates of health professional schools who seek additional research training.

Programs that build research infrastructure in minority-serving institutions.

Any of these grants might be administered through a dedicated scheme offered by Open Philanthropy or another large funder associated with the effective altruism movement. If effective altruists are serious about their commitment to promoting inclusion and belonging, they could do far worse than to establish a large, dedicated grant fund for supporting projects to promote diversity, inclusion and belonging.

5. Conclusion

It is time for effective altruists to show that they can come together to drive meaningful change in order to ensure that incidents similar to last week’s events do not recur, and more generally in order to improve the degree of inclusion and belonging within effective altruism.

So far, we have discussed four concrete areas for change: Proactive outreach and recruitment, active mentorship, promoting an inclusive culture and work environment, and targeted grants. These are suggested not in order to close discussion, but instead to open it.

What do you think about the proposals for change outlined here? And what else might be done to promote positive change within and around the effective altruism movement?





2 responses to “Belonging (Part 3: Reform)”

  1. Will Avatar

    In addition to your ideas aimed at making EA more inclusive, I liked these ideas for structural reform by Carla Zoe Cremer:


    1. David Thorstad Avatar

      Thanks Will!

      Cremer is great. I hope her proposals will see renewed attention.

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