Seven women connected to effective altruism [told] TIME they experienced misconduct ranging from harassment and coercion to sexual assault within the community. The women allege EA itself is partly to blame. They say that effective altruism’s overwhelming maleness, its professional incestuousness, its subculture of polyamory and its overlap with tech-bro dominated “rationalist” groups have combined to create an environment in which sexual misconduct can be tolerated, excused, or rationalized away. Several described EA as having a “cult-like” dynamic.Charlotte Alter, “Effective Altruism Promises to Do Good Better. These Women Say It Has a Toxic Culture Of Sexual Harassment and Abuse,” TIME magazine.
It has been a rough year for effective altruists. The headline crisis of 2022 was a financial crisis: the collapse of FTX. So far, the headline crises of 2023 have centered around issues of inclusion and belonging within the movement.
On January 12th, an old email and subsequent apology by Nick Bostrom sparked a firestorm of discussion around race in effective altruism (covered here).
On February 3rd, Charlotte Alter of TIME magazine published an investigative report alleging a “toxic culture of sexual harassment and abuse” within effective altruism.
Seven women connected to effective altruism [told] TIME they experienced misconduct ranging from harassment and coercion to sexual assault within the community. The women allege EA itself is partly to blame. They say that effective altruism’s overwhelming maleness, its professional incestuousness, its subculture of polyamory and its overlap with tech-bro dominated “rationalist” groups have combined to create an environment in which sexual misconduct can be tolerated, excused, or rationalized away. Several described EA as having a “cult-like” dynamic.
In this post, I look at the contents of the TIME magazine report and the community’s subsequent reaction to the report. Some reactions were good. Other reactions were less good. I will try to discuss both good and not-so-good reactions to reports of sexual harassment and abuse within the movement, in the spirit of giving credit where credit is due and encouraging change where change is needed.
By way of background, this is Part 4 of a series on inclusion and belonging within effective altruism. Parts 1-3 discussed the Bostrom email (Part 1), the community’s reaction to that email (Part 2), and the prospect for reform (Part 3).
Some elements of that discussion stressed links between racial and gender dynamics within the movement. For example, Lilly’s “Reflection on Bostrom’s comments as a woman in EA” suggested that the same nominally-scientific skepticism raised by some community members towards the intelligence of people of color might be directed in a similar way towards the intelligence of women, and suggested that her own intelligence has been frequently questioned within effective altruist circles.
As the focus of this series turns, at least for now, from race to gender, I hope that the community can understand and appreciate links between discussions of race and gender within the community while allowing both discussions to thrive in parallel and in interaction.
Fair warning: This discussion contains uncensored descriptions of sexual harassment and abuse alongside a range of problematic responses on behalf of various community members. Some elements of the discussion also center on racist attitudes and actions, as well as their connections to recent discussions of sexual harassment and abuse.
2. The TIME article
Charlotte Alter is a senior correspondent for TIME magazine. Alter’s work often focuses on politics and sexual issues. Alter’s recent book, The ones we’ve been waiting for: How a new generation of leaders will transform America, paints a detailed and optimistic picture of how young leaders can create positive change in the United States in years to come.
Alter’s article, “Effective Altruism Promises to Do Good Better. These Women Say It Has a Toxic Culture Of Sexual Harassment and Abuse,” alleges a “toxic culture of sexual harassment and abuse” within effective altruism. Alter’s article is based on more than thirty interviews, including the testimony of seven survivors.
Much of Alter’s article is structured around three case studies. The first discusses the experience of Keerthana Gopalakrishnan, whom we met in Part 3 of this series. Gopalakrishnan submitted a post entitled “Women and effective altruism” to the EA Forum. Gopalakrishnan complained about the sexual pressures exerted on 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.
We saw in Part 3 that Gopalakrishnan proposed a number of reforms aimed at improving the situation for women in effective altruism. We saw then that the community reaction 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 the 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.
Alter uses Gopalakrishnan’s case as a segue into discussions of two more disturbing cases. Fair warning: Both involve explicit and uncensored descriptions of sexual harassment and abuse.
The second case involves a group house in the Bay Area. Alter writes:
In late 2021, the male co-leader of the house was accused of sexual misconduct by an ex-girlfriend who says she met him at an EA conference. She reported her allegation to the female co-leader of the house. The co-leader had also had a negative experience with the man, whom she says once climbed into her bed without her consent. She brought the ex-girlfriend’s accusation to the attention of others in the house and recommended her male co-leader step down.
Alter expresses concern not only about this incident, but also about the community’s reaction to the incident. One immediately surprising feature is the attempt by some community members to make mathematical sense of the incident:
The discussions reveal an attempt to filter disturbing, emotionally fraught allegations through the lens of math. “How do you live with someone if you think there is an X% chance they have done something horrible?” one resident wrote in the document, which was recently shared with TIME. “Depending on the exact definition of sexual assault you use, something like 1-10% of people have committed it,” another replied. “This implies a probability between 27% and 96% that you are living with someone who has done something horrible.”
Alter continues, “Those odds did not persuade the group to immediately expel the accused.”
Alter also raises concerns about the mediation process used to resolve the complaint. The female co-leader of the house recalls that the mediator “immediately started telling us that the worst thing that could possibly happen is if the man’s career was destroyed” and “She said, `You should never go to the police.’” Ultimately, “The alleged victim came away with the impression that she was being strongly urged not to report the incident to authorities and remembers a general sense that the accused man’s important career was a focus of the conversations.”
The third case described by Alter involves Sonia Joseph, an AI community builder. Alter writes:
In 2018, as she was starting her career in AI research, Joseph recalls being introduced to a prominent man in the field connected to EA. Joseph was 22 and still in college; he was nearly twice her age. As they talked at a Japanese restaurant in New York City, she recalled, the man turned the conversation in a bizarre direction, arguing “that pedophilic relationships between very young women and older men was a good way to transfer knowledge,” Joseph says. “I had a sense that he was grooming me.” (Joseph says she told her roommate about the alleged incident. The roommate confirmed that conversation to TIME.)
Joseph has, quite bravely, come forward to discuss her experience by video. I would encourage readers to hear Joseph’s story in her own words, and to consider the lessons that Joseph urges us to draw from it. (However, please do be sensitive to the extreme place of vulnerability from which such videos are shared if you choose to comment on the linked video).
The same man who spoke to Joseph about the value of pedophilic relationships was also accused of misconduct elsewhere. Alter writes:
Another woman, who dated the same man several years earlier in a polyamorous relationship, alleges that he had once attempted to put his penis in her mouth while she was sleeping.
This is, as we will see, an emerging pattern in the data: many of the alleged harassers and abusers named in the TIME magazine article have been accused of multiple forms of misbehavior over an extended period of time, giving special urgency to efforts to increase monitoring and prevention within the community.
These are not the only cases described by Alter. Others, discussed in less detail, are equally harrowing. For example, Alter speaks of one woman who:
… Described an unsettling experience with an influential figure in EA whose role included picking out promising students and funneling them towards highly coveted jobs. After that leader arranged for her to be flown to the U.K. for a job interview, she recalls being surprised to discover that she was expected to stay in his home, not a hotel. When she arrived, she says, “he told me he needed to masturbate before seeing me.”
We will discuss this case in more detail later, as the man involved has been identified and publicly resigned his position on the board of a leading organization. Other such cases have emerged in the past.
These are the facts presented by Alter. What follows from them? To a large extent, I want to present the lessons in a way inspired by Alter’s discussion: although this must, of necessity, involve some editorializing on my part, I think that all of the following are key themes of Alter’s discussion.
First, there have been recurring problems with mediation of sexual harassment and abuse cases. Alter suggests that some of these problems, such as the case in an EA group house, may turn partly on difficulties with restorative justice approaches, or at least a subset of these approaches which overemphasize the importance of protecting men’s reputations and careers.
Second, there are significant challenges involved in monitoring and controlling the incidence of harassment and abuse within an informal community due to the difficulty of controlling membership and disciplining offenders. Here is Alter, drawing on remarks by Julia Wise of the Community Health Team:
With no official leadership structure, no roster of who is and isn’t in the movement, and no formal process for dealing with complaints, Wise argues, it’s hard to gauge how common such issues are within EA compared to broader society.
It is often unclear who is in charge of cleaning up aspects of the climate for women and minorities, or what actions they are empowered to take, all of which substantially complicates the work of enforcement. This raises the need for substantive institutional reforms aimed at empowering actors to effectively monitor and control the incidence of harassment and abuse within the community.
Third, there are some unique challenges raised by the relatively high prevalence of polyamorous relationships within the community. To be absolutely clear, this discussion must not devolve into a condemnation of polyamory. Some community members have perceived Alter’s article and the subsequent response as an attack on polyamory, and have tried to spell out the ingredients of healthy polyamorous relationships. However, polyamorous relationships, just like other types of relationships, bring some unique challenges that must be addressed.
For example, Alter writes that:
Several of the women who spoke to TIME said that the popularity of polyamory within EA fosters an environment in which men—often men who control career opportunities–feel empowered to recruit younger women into uncomfortable sexual relationships.
I think there is room to take such complaints seriously, with an eye not to mocking or eliminating polyamorous relationships, but rather to understanding and appreciating the need to address some of the unique power dynamics that can arise in a movement that mixes work, social and living arrangements within a sometimes polyamorous context.
3. Good reactions
3.1: Believing and supporting survivors
How did the community react to the TIME magazine article? There were at least two types of good reactions to the TIME article within the effective altruist community, and I was heartened to see them.
The vast majority of sexual harassment and abuse claims are true. When a major international publication investigates and publishes such claims, it is important to demonstrate willingness to believe and support survivors.
Many reactions demonstrated clear belief in the truth of survivors’ claims, coupled with sympathy for their experiences. For example:
This was really upsetting to read. I really feel for the people impacted.
Significantly worse than what I was expecting, so sorry to hear.
In addition to belief and sympathy, some community members offered support:
First I’m going to say something which I think is obvious and uncontroversial to everyone: Sexual abuse and harassment are wrong, and should not happen. Secondly, I hereby take this pledge: A pledge of solidarity to those who have suffered from sexual harassment or abuse. If you are upset or suffering because you have been abused or harassed, and you disclose this to me, I pledge to do the following:
- I will listen and provide you with emotional support — if you’re upset, your distress will be my first priority at the outset.
- I will not ask you questions to try to work out whether you are telling the truth. I would much rather trust and provide emotional support to someone who later turns out to have been lying than to question — even subtly — the legitimacy of someone who has suffered sexual abuse.
- I will support you to work out the most appropriate next steps. I recognise that choices about your next steps may be complex, and I will not try to rob you of agency as you work out the best way forward.
Similarly, Dustin Moskovitz had this to say:
I encourage the EA men out there to try to pause and truly empathize with the lived experience of women in the community. What would it feel like if you were always second-guessing why someone was talking to you in a professional setting? … What’s the *most* inviting environment you can imagine for women? How can you do your part to make the actual environment look like that?
This level of belief and support was good to see. One of the women mentioned in the TIME article said as much (I won’t link to this comment because I haven’t asked permission to circulate the woman’s name to a wide audience):
I’m genuinely happy with the level of compassion and concern voiced in most of the comments on this article. Yes, while a lot of the comments are clearly concerned that this is a hard and difficult issue to tackle, I’m appreciative of the genuine desire of many people to do the right thing here. It seems that at least some of the EA community has a drive towards addressing the issue and improving from it rather than burying the issue as I had feared.
I have to say that at times, I share this reaction.
3.2: Seeking positive change
Words, sympathy and promises are good things. But they are not enough. The next step is to use past incidents to drive positive change in the way that women are treated within the community.
Some early reactions included calls for change. For example:
It’s terrible to see how people have suffered due to harassment and abuse in the community. I think this is an important time for us to reflect as a community on what we need to be doing differently.
Is there perhaps too much emphasis on punishment and not enough on prevention? Skimming through comments there is a lot of talk about reporting and dealing with situations. But I have a feeling there are too many of these situations occurring in EA. I feel like there is a lot of work to do in terms of culture and here I think CEA cannot be expected to do this alone. I think the onus is on us males to e.g. really make it clear whenever we overhear conversations that are inappropriate to make this clear, no matter how uncomfortable that makes us feel or if the person making the inappropriate comments has power. I am happy to work with people if there is a group of males that want to get together a e.g. a pledge and collect signatures or some other initiative that could give people more comfort in combatting bad culture (just DM me).
Better still, there were not just calls for change. In some quarters, action is being taken.
A group of EA community builders circulated a commitment to anti-racism and sexism. They wrote:
We unequivocally condemn racism and sexism, including “scientific” justifications for either, and believe they have no place in the effective altruism community. As community builders within the effective altruism space, we commit to practicing and promoting anti-racism and anti-sexism within our communities.
To date, nearly a hundred community builders have signed this document.
The community health team also announced a range of “Plans for investigating and improving the experience of women, non-binary and trans people in EA“. And after the revelation that one of the harassers named in the TIME article was a board member of Effective Ventures (formerly, CEA), the Effective Ventures board accepted his resignation and commissioned an external investigation into the incident and its handling.
These are good signs. Change is necessary. Change is possible. And this time, positive change may well occur. I am heartened to see what is, to my mind, one of the strongest commitments made by effective altruists in recent memory towards improving the climate for women and other members of disadvantaged groups. I hope this will lay the foundation for deeper and more systematic changes in the months and years to come.
4. Bad reactions
Not all reactions to the TIME article were positive. Some of those reactions were deeply disturbing. In this section, I focus on five types of bad reactions within the community.
I don’t want to comment on the prevalence of these reactions, although readers may want to use indirect evidence such as voting and commenting patterns, reactions to previous incidents, or personal experiences to make their own inferences. As far as I am concerned, the less prevalent that these reactions are, the better.
Fair warning: This section cites a range of deeply upsetting words and deeds connected to race, gender, and other issues. In many ways, the material in this section is considerably stronger than that discussed above.
The practice of doxxing involves revealing identifying information about anonymous individuals on the internet.
Many of the women who spoke to TIME did so under the promise of anonymity, a condition which was repeatedly stressed in Alter’s presentation. Here are some direct quotations from Alter’s article:
Many of them [the victims] asked that their alleged abusers not be named and that TIME shield their identities to avoid retaliation.
TIME is not naming the man, like others in this story, due to the request of one or more women who made accusations against them, and who wanted to shield themselves from possible retaliation.
The accuser … like several others in this story asked to remain anonymous for professional and personal reasons.
These and other passages amount to a direct, clear and strong request for anonymity. Within hours, this request was flagrantly violated many times on the EA Forum.
This is the only place in my discussion where I will not directly quote, or link to the existing discussion, because to my disappointment some identifying details have still not been redacted. I will try to be as direct and descriptive as I can without further revealing the identities of survivors. I would encourage readers who have not seen this discussion not to seek it out, in order to respect the request of survivors to retain their anonymity.
Within hours of the TIME magazine article being posted, users on the EA Forum had done all of the following:
(1) Revealed the identities of two of the seven women named in the article.
(2) Posted a previous description of an incident involving one of those women.
(3) Revealed the identity of one of the alleged abusers, whose name was redacted in the TIME story with the explanation: “TIME is not naming the man, like others in this story, due to the request of one or more women who made accusations against them, and who wanted to shield themselves from possible retaliation.”
(4) Circulated a private list of ~30 reported Bay-area abusers, including testimony from former victims and details of incidents, which was maintained by a well-known Bay area advocate for sexual assault victims.
Many of these details were visible for at least seven hours. I must confess that I rather lost my temper on this thread, with the result that, after intervention by other members of the community, the original posters of this information (to their credit) redacted it.
At this point, the CEA community health team as well as the moderators of the EA Forum stepped in alongside other members of the community to ask that requests for anonymity be respected. In many cases, these requests were respected.
Astoundingly, a certain LessWrong moderator decided to re-post one of the names redacted in the TIME article on the EA Forum, despite direct requests from the community health team, Forum moderators, and community members not to do so. (The TIME article also directly states that it is not naming this man due to the request of one or more survivors). Several community members then joined in the discussion. To the best of my knowledge, that information remains unredacted on the EA Forum today, which is the reason why I will not directly quote from the discussion.
Why this is wrong: Doxxing survivors of sexual harassment and abuse exposes them to the risk of further harassment, retaliation, and other professional and social consequences. In a society where fears such as these cause most harassment and abuse to go unreported, a willingness to violate the anonymity of survivors is likely to further deter reports of harassment and abuse within the community. This will make it more difficult to monitor and control the incidence of harassment and abuse within the community.
Revealing a list of Bay-area abusers had the additional consequence of making it harder for the list to fulfill its function. The creator of that list has since removed several names from the list out of fear of legal action, and there is a real possibility that the list will be taken out of circulation altogether. The women whose testimony is reflected on that list may face similar threats to those faced by women whose identities were revealed on the Forum, with a similar chilling effect on later reporting of sexual abuse.
A willingness to continue revealing names after being directly requested by leaders of the community not to do so illustrates a callous degree of disregard for all of the above considerations, in which a hypothetical and self-serving appeal to values such as truth-seeking is allowed to swamp immediate and strong threats to the well-being of women within the community.
4.2: Questioning survivors and their advocates
Earlier, we saw that many effective altruists expressed support for survivors and their advocates. That is a good reaction. Survivors and their advocates need belief and emotional and material support. However, some effective altruists reacted by questioning survivors and their advocates.
We will meet several examples of this reaction in later sections. Another good example would be a post by Aella entitled “People Will Sometimes Just Lie About You“. That post begins by chronicling a number of credible reasons why Aella, due to the nature of her views and activities, may well have been subject to unfair scrutiny in the past. But these reasons are shortly taken as reasons for skepticism about Alter’s article:
I had a lot of skepticism of the recent TIME article claiming that EA is a hotbed for sexual harassment, I think in large part because of those experiences I’ve had. We’re dealing with something high visibility (EA), where the most popular political coalition in journalism (people on the left side of the political aisle) can score points by hating you (insufficiently woke), and that is politically controversial (polyamory, weird nerds, SBF). It seems obvious to me that the odds of having some people with personal experience in the community who also regularly uncharitably misinterpret interactions, and uncharitably speak to a journalist (with both political and financial incentives to be uncharitable), are very high. This is why it strikes me as alarming to see a relative lack of skepticism in the EA forum response. I don’t think I’ve seen anyone explicitly state the hypothesis of bad actors (though it’s possible someone did and I missed it). My guess is that people are making the error that if you inspired this level of vitriol, you must be at least somewhat at fault, or if enough people all agree that you’re bad, denying this is arrogant.
This explicit call for skepticism was reflected in many of the responses to Aella’s discussion, which is currently heavily upvoted on the EA Forum. We will meet one of those responses below.
Other responses took a similarly skeptical stance. For example, in our discussion of doxxing we saw that effective altruists circulated a list of over thirty incidents of sexual abuse in the Bay Area, many of which involved or were adjacent to the effective altruist community. The author of that list was, understandably, somewhat annoyed, and after some gentle attempts to convince effective altruists to take the issue more seriously, submitted a post building on her initial list entitled “EA, 30 + 14 Rapes, and My Not-So-Good Experience with EA.“
Some of the reaction to that post was positive. Quickly, however, a number of questioning and hostile comments shot up the rankings. For example:
OP strikes me as hyperbolic in a way that makes me disinclined to trust it. “THAT’S A TOTAL OF 44. DENY THE “ADJACENT’, BUT YOU CAN’T DENY THE THIRTY STRONG THAT I, A SOLO PERSON, PERSONALLY FOUND.” I can’t deny this, in the sense that I don’t know that it’s false, but OP gives no evidence for this beyond the bare claims. OP doesn’t provide any details that people could investigate to verify, and OP writes anonymously on a one-off account, so that people can’t check how trustworthy OP has been in the past or on similar topics.
So far, we have dealt with questions raised about the veracity of testimony by survivors and their advocates. But there were also questions raised about the interpretation of behaviors. Alter’s article discusses a woman who:
… Described an unsettling experience with an influential figure in EA whose role included picking out promising students and funneling them towards highly coveted jobs. After that leader arranged for her to be flown to the U.K. for a job interview, she recalls being surprised to discover that she was expected to stay in his home, not a hotel. When she arrived, she says, “he told me he needed to masturbate before seeing me.”
The influential effective altruist in question has since been identified and has resigned their position on the board of Effective Ventures (I am typically hesitant to post identifying information, but I think this incident is public enough that there is little hope of anonymity). At least one commentator had this to say about the incident:
I expected worse from the TIME Magazine article. I don’t see this as sexual harassment. If this is true, then the TIME article pointed to what seems like a one-off mistake, and it’s unreasonable that you have to resign because of this. If you perceived a friendship where unusually direct and honest communication with the person was permitted, and the person went along with it, and you communicated in a way that was similar in the levels of ‘edginess’ to some previous conversations, then the feelings that were hurt are on her – not you.
I must confess some astonishment that a reasonable observer could take the behavior in question – inviting a job candidate to stay at the home of a powerful community member, who told her that he needed to masturbate before seeing her – to be anything less than sexual harassment, or that a reasonable observer could express willingness to blame subsequent feelings of hurt on the victim.
In addition to questioning details and interpretation of alleged harassment and abuse, some effective altruists also cast doubt on efforts at supporting survivors and reforming the community. For example, we saw in our discussion of good reaction that a group of EA community builders signed a commitment to anti-racism and anti-sexism within the community.
Some reactions raised legitimate questions: for example, was the statement detailed, strong or actionable enough to create positive change? Others cast around for any excuse to make the conversation about themselves: they would like to support the pledge, only they wanted to talk about how they and people like them would be threatened with unreasonable consequences, such as cancellation, if even a weak statement of opposition to racism and sexism were publicly circulated. One commentator wrote:
I wish I lived in a world where I could support this. I am definitely worried about how recent events may have harmed minorities and women and made it harder for them to trust the movement. However, coming out of a few years where the world essentially went crazy with canceling people, sometimes for the most absurd reasons, I’m naturally wary of anything in the social justice vein, even whilst I respect the people proposing/signing it and believe that most of them are acting in good faith and attempting to address real harms.
The comment continues for many paragraphs, but already within a few short words the strong and legitimate fears of women and people of color have been dismissed and replaced with a speculative and ungrounded discussion about how efforts at reform might sweep up a few innocents in their net. Given the disparate probability and severity of harms to each of the respective groups, one cannot get the feeling that this is an abject failure to apply the community’s supposed commitment to cost-benefit analysis in a consistent way when the bearers of costs and benefits are flipped.
Why this is wrong: The overwhelming majority of sexual harassment and abuse claims are true. However, survivors and their advocates are disproportionately likely to be questioned, with the result that they face social and professional consequences for bringing harassment and abuse to light, and are consequently less likely to report misbehavior or seek reform.
Given this background, there must be a very high bar for questioning survivors and their advocates. Flippant, strong and unevidenced criticism is almost certain to be misleading and to have detrimental effects on the well-being of survivors, advocates, and the community at large. Moreover, the timing of criticism is especially poor. Today, survivors and their advocates need belief and support. That is then only reaction which should be expressed in public right now.
4.3: Anti-woke crusades
An “anonymous rationalist” recently submitted a post to the EA Forum entitled “Why EA will be anti-woke or die“. As I write these words, the post sits at near-neutral karma and has attracted a wide range of discussion. This post suggested that many effective altruists “are unable to distance themselves from their own sacred beliefs and acknowledge evidence on its face.”
Though often couched in abstract language, the post soon identifies more concrete targets:
Hesitance on gene-editing, crime-as-a-cause-area, and yes, so called “HBD” highlight this. EA should be willing to explore all potentially fruitful avenues of mission fulfillment without regard to taboo.
To be very clear, the abbreviation “HBD” here refers to the discredited theory of “human biodiversity” advanced by scientific racists. This approach holds that genetic differences between racial groups lead to significant inherent variation in traits such as intelligence and susceptibility to violent crime.
I have spoken before about belief in HBD within the effective altruist community, including an incident in which racist science was directly submitted as a comment on my blog. (If you want to see what LessWrongers think about HBD you can read their views for yourself). Today, following the theme of linking problems with racism and sexism within the community, I want to dig deeper into the article which inspired the anonymous rationalist’s post.
The anonymous rationalist describes their post as a reaction to an article of the same name, “Why EA will be anti-woke or die“, from which they often quote. The article’s author, Richard Hanania, directs the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology. Hanania is no stranger to controversy, and the views we will encounter below are profoundly disturbing.
Here is what Hanania says about the TIME article:
Recently, Time Magazine ran an article about sexual harassment among the effective altruist community. The piece was “based on interviews with more than 30 current and former effective altruists and people who live among them.” Imagine saying that liberalism had a flatulence problem by talking to 30 people related to the movement (including “people who live among them”) and finding that some leftist once cut the cheese. “Sexual harassment” is a notoriously slippery concept, and Time didn’t even make a token effort to understand how pervasive it is in the movement, or how EA compares to other communities that bring men and women together. One can see from the tone of the article that the concept of rationality itself needs to be problematized in order to take sexual harassment seriously enough, as the author of the piece writes of an accuser who “was disturbed at the way the rational frameworks to which she had devoted her life could be used to undermine her own experiences.”
In this passage, Hanania seems to suggest all of the following: first, that a systematic piece of investigative journalism which spoke with seven survivors and over thirty current and former effective altruists does not count as a sufficiently systematic attempt to investigate the prevalence of sexual harassment and abuse within effective altruism, a task which the movement would normally be expected to carry out on its own; second, that the “notoriously slippery concept” of sexual harassment is being abused to classify unproblematic behavior as harassment; and third, that Alter’s investigation of sexual harassment is an attack on rationality itself.
Hanania expresses dismay at the fact that some effective altruists took the article seriously:
Instead of laughing this article off, the co-CEO of Open Philanthropy went to Twitter, called it a “painful read,” and begged people to send him more allegations.
The problem, Hanania suggests, is that effective altruists have not yet developed sufficient antibodies to women’s tears. Demonstrating, again, a striking tendency to link attacks on women with attacks on people of color, Hanania writes:
As every stand-up comedian knows, women’s tears will defeat men’s logic every time. The only way to avoid this is to banish women’s tears from the start as a matter of principle, ideology, or religious faith. One can say the same for the Sharpton-style race hustle, or its more sophisticated modern equivalent in the form of things like Critical Race Theory. White people don’t want to argue with emotional black people any more than men want to defy crying women. For these reasons, every political or social movement is now either woke or anti-woke.
The problem, Hanania continues, is inherent to liberalism:
Liberals deal with the representation problem by practicing affirmative action and changing rules and norms to make neurotic women more comfortable. Many aspects of modern liberalism can be understood in this light. For example, respecting degrees and relying on them helps create more gender parity in leadership roles. Women will never make up a significant portion of self-made billionaires or outstanding philosophers, but they can get a majority of BAs.
Here Hanania confronts one of the most striking developments in recent history: in many countries, women consistently outperform men across a wide variety of measures of academic success and degree attainment. Unable to credit women’s educational success, Hanania transitions into a full-blown attack on the importance of academic achievement:
It’s worth noting that when a group of “Concerned EAs” wrote a letter criticizing the movement, they demanded more diversity and also more reliance on peer-reviewed papers and deference to standard academic credentials. Diversity and credentialism are intimately related. A free market in ideas is like a free market in any other good or service. It ends up with Asian and white men on top who are there because they’re simply better than everyone else. Movements uncomfortable with this naturally get swallowed by wokeness.
Here we meet the striking suggestions that a demand for academic rigor amounts to a veiled attempt to advance the status of women, and that the increasing success of women in area such as (anonymous) peer review at the highest levels of academia is a scam meant to drive white and Asian men out of their rightful place at the top of the field.
Hanania moves on to a discussion of polyamory, in which he suggests that the women who spoke to TIME must have consensually entered into polyamorous relationships and changed their minds out of later regret:
Who could’ve foreseen that this would end up with an article in Time about how young women who entered into such relationships found them unfulfilling and are now plagued by regret?
Building towards a conclusion: Hanania suggests that effective altruism faces a choice. On the one hand, effective altruism can embrace “wokeness” and die. On the other hand, effective altruism can free itself, in which case it will be free to investigate the most important problems facing humanity:
An EA freed from the shackles of wokeness will be better able to live up to its highest ideals by taking seriously important threats to human well-being that the movement currently ignores for purely political reasons. What does it mean that birthrates are decreasing at the same time there is a negative relationship between IQ and fertility across much of the developed world? And, speaking from a strictly utilitarian perspective, why exactly do we let a tiny minority of violent criminals make large swaths of what are potentially some of our most economically productive urban areas uninhabitable, instead of simply getting rid of them in full confidence that we’re doing the greatest good for the largest number of people? These are the kinds of questions an honest movement either has to ignore or become obsessed with.
There is a long history of fears that growing nonwhite populations will lead to society becoming less intelligent or more criminal. These fears have not been well received by modern society, and it would be disappointing if readers took such passages to imply that they should be revived.
Why this is wrong: I hope readers know that people of color are not genetically disposed to be less intelligent or more prone to crime. Women are not genetically disposed to be less intelligent, less rational, or less suitable for leadership. These views have no basis in fact, reason, or evidence, and have been so often refuted and exposed for what they are that it is inappropriate even to raise them as subjects for debate.
What I want to emphasize here is something else: Hanania and the anonymous rationalist have terrible timing. It is well known that skeptics will often seize upon incidents in which others have been harmed and turn the discussion into one about themselves (how they have been harmed) or their favorite issues (how women and people of color are irrational).
In this context, reviving old forms of bigotry is not merely wrong because it is bigoted. It is wrong because it distracts attention from the only conversation that should come out of the TIME magazine article: how women have been failed in the past, and how the community might restructure itself to keep women safe in the future.
4.4: Questioning media
It is not simply survivors and their advocates who found themselves questioned. In the wake of the TIME magazine article, some commentators questioned the basic reliability of international media itself.
When one commentator attempted to “steelman” the TIME article, a second responded that it would be a mistake even to take the article seriously enough to steelman it. As the discussion continued, no less a leader within the movement than Eliezer Yudkowsky made a rare appearance on the EA Forum to repeat that the article should be disregarded:
Trying to “steelman” the work of an experienced adversary who relies on, and is exploiting, your tendency to undercompensate and not realize how distorted these things actually are – which is the practical, hard-earned knowledge that Aella is trying to propagate – seems like a mistake. (Actually, trying to “steelman” is a mistake in general and you should focus on passing Ideological Turing Tests instead, but that’s a much longer conversation.)
The rhetoric behind this post is startlingly strong: a major international journalist is likened to an “experienced adversary” and accused of “exploiting” our tendencies to “undercompensate” away from the lies of the media. I said as much:
Let’s be clear: the article in question was written by an internationally-renowned journalist in a major international publication. It went through all of the usual processes of careful research, writing, editing and fact-checking at the highest international standard. This article was written as a way to convey the experiences of women within the effective altruist community and to drive positive change in the way that women are treated within the movement.
This article is not the work of an “adversary” intent on taking someone down. They are not “exploiting” anyone, and the insinuation that readers of a major international publication fail to “realize how distorted these things actually are” and have a “tendency to undercompensate” from this distortedness lacks a credible basis in fact or reason.
Yudkowsky followed up by insinuating, with little evidence, that professional journalists are less reliable than bloggers.
I’ve had worse experiences with coverage from professional journalists than I have from random bloggers. My standard reply to a journalist who contacts me by email is “If you have something you actually want to know or understand, I will answer off-the-record; I am not providing any on-the-record quotes after past bad experiences.” Few ever follow up with actual questions.
A sincere-seeming online person with a blog can, any time they choose to, quote you accurately and in context, talk about the nuance, and just generally be truthful. Professional journalists exist in a much stranger context that would require much longer than this comment to describe.
These comments evidence a troubling level of distrust in reputable sources of information, and a willingness to turn towards much less reliable alternative sources of information, such as a random blog. (Yes, I am conscious of the irony that I am writing this sentence on a blog, but there is no inconsistency here. When push comes to shove, you should trust TIME magazine over this blog on nearly every issue, with one exception that will emerge below). I responded a bit more sharply at this point:
If you want to insinuate that a major international publication is likely to be less reliable than a blog on issues of sexual harassment and abuse within the movement, it would be appropriate for you to write up the much longer description that you mention. This is a striking claim that is at odds with established views of what constitutes a trustworthy source. Most educated readers think that a publication such as TIME is among the most reliable sources that can be found on such a subject.
I don’t deny that journalists sometimes have trouble understanding academic research. Blogs written by professional academics are often in a much better position to understand academic research, because their authors have more relevant expertise. I would be highly skeptical of the claim that, in all but the most exceptional circumstances, blogs are better equipped than major media companies to conduct serious investigative journalism on sensitive issues. Publications such as TIME have been doing that kind of work successfully for many years.
If you do write this up, please be careful to respect the anonymity of those whose names were redacted in the TIME article.
By now, I had a hunch that Yudkowsky would not be forthcoming with actual evidence that TIME’s investigative journalism is unreliable. What evidence could there be for such a claim? Instead, I feared that Yudkowsky would change the subject and point to the problems that journalists sometimes have in characterizing academic research. My second paragraph aimed at pre-empting that reaction. As it turned out, I was right. Here is Yudkowsky’s response:
The usual argument, which I think is entirely valid, and has been delivered by famouser and more famously reputable people if you don’t want to trust me about it, was named the “Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect” by Richard Feynman. Find something that you are really, truly an expert on. Find an article in TIME Magazine about it. Really take note of everything they get wrong. Try finding somebody who isn’t an expert and see what their takeaways from the article were – what picture of reality they derive without your own expertise to guide them in interpretation.
Then go find what you think is a pretty average blog post by an Internet expert on the same topic.
It is, alas, not something you can condense into a single webpage, because everybody has their own area of really solid expertise, even if it’s something like “the history of Star Trek TOS” because their day job doesn’t lead them into the same level of enthusiasm. Maybe somebody should put together a set of three comparisons like that, from three different fields – but then the skeptics could worry it was all cherry-picked unusual bad examples, even if it hadn’t been.
I will note that I do think that the great scientists of recent past generations have earned more of our respect than internationally famous journalistic publications, and those scientists did not speak kindly of their coverage of science – and that was before the era of clickbait, back when the likes of the New York Times kept to notably higher editorial standards.
I think you can talk to any famous respectable person in private, and ask them if there should be a great burden of skepticism about insinuating that a “major international publication” like TIME Magazine might be skewing the truth the way that Aella describes, and the famous respectable person (if they are willing to answer you at all) will tell you that you should not hold that much trust towards TIME Magazine.
Nothing in this response, except perhaps the last paragraph, says anything about the ability of TIME magazine to engage in serious investigative journalism into sexual harrassment and abuse, a task at which journalists have recently excelled. The last paragraph might be interesting if it were backed by evidence, such as a survey of “famous respectable” people, or a litany of past distortions. As it stands, there wasn’t much in the way of reason or evidence here, and every indication of an attempt to change the subject. I wrote:
To be clear, at the risk of repetition, the question is not whether journalists should be considered reliable in their explanations of academic research. Although some journalists explain academic research quite well, others lack the training to do this as well as professional researchers. I would much rather turn to a colleague’s blog than to a TIME magazine article to understand issues in academic philosophy, and I suspect that academics in most other fields would say the same.
The question is whether a major international publication should be considered a reliable source of investigative journalism into issues of sexual harassment and abuse. Most educated readers would consider such a publication to be among the most reliable sources on such a topic. Most readers would express some skepticism about the ability of a typical blogger to conduct serious investigative journalism of the same calibre. These readers would cite the relatively stronger training that journalists have in the practice of investigative journalism, as well as the relatively stronger track record of successful investigative journalism at major international news outlets, when compared to blogs. They might also cite specific institutional features of news outlets, such as more time devoted to research, more people devoted to fact-checking, and a higher reputational and legal stake in getting things right.
Is there a reason why we should distrust TIME’s discussion of sexual harassment and abuse within effective altruism?
That request for a reason has yet to be answered.
Why this is wrong: Trust in media is at a historic low, leading to a flood of misinformation with pernicious societal consequences. My own country, the United States, has seen a once-healthy political system begin to unravel as accusations of `fake news’ begin allowing politicians to dismiss anything from coronavirus numbers to the results of a democratic election. This culminated in a violent attack on the national Capitol with the intention to overturn the results of a democratic election.
A free and independent media is one of the central institutions within a democratic society. Leading international media companies such as TIME are among the most reliable, trustworthy, and knowledgeable sources of information available to us. A willingness to bat aside world-leading investigative reporting with the barest insinuations, for example that we do “not realize how distorted these things actually are,” speaks of a complete breakdown in trust in institutions that deserve our utmost trust.
The language in this discussion is not merely distrusting, but positively adversarial. Alter is described as “an experienced adversary who relies on, and is exploiting” readers’ “tendency to undercompensate” from her tricks. This sort of rhetoric, coming from a leader within the effective altruism movement, speaks of a willingness to go to war with trustworthy investigative reporters and the institutions they represent rather than confront and fix clear problems in the way that women are treated within the effective altruism movement. I very much hope that this rhetoric will not be repeated in the future.
4.5: Unequal discourse policing
I try very hard not to criticize EA Forum moderators in public. Although we have our differences, they are often among the better actors within the community on climate issues and I have found them personally helpful and responsive in cracking down on some of the worst behavior within the community. I have, to my knowledge, never said an unkind word about them, and I hope I will not do so in the future.
I want to make an exception today. Let me emphasize that this is not by any means an assertion that the Forum moderation team generally acts wrongly. However, I have been concerned lately about the community’s definition of what constitutes hateful and unacceptable speech. I think this definition is often weaponized to permit what many would qualify as hate speech (including openly racist and sexist remarks), so long as that speech is couched in emotionally neutral terms. By contrast, reactions to hate speech (which are, nearly of necessity, emotional and strongly worded) are classified as unacceptable because of the way in which they are phrased. And I think that this definition is sometimes reflected in Forum moderation policies.
I think there is one instance in which the Forum moderators made a wrong decision, and that this discussion might be useful in illustrating a more general pattern of unequal policing of discourse norms that favors hate speech and censors appropriate reactions to hate speech.
After revelations about the behavior of one powerful community member (involving at least five different women), a member of the community expressed justifiable frustration at this man’s behavior:
[hastily written] Never ever would I have guessed this. You were living proof to me that at least some, if not many, decent men exist. I am completely devastated. EA has been dying. But for me, this is the ultimate death blow.
The EA Forum moderators did something that they almost never do: a moderator, speaking in their official capacity, issued a public warning to the author of this comment about their remarks:
I’m commenting as a moderator right now. I’m really sorry that you’re feeling this way. I think a lot of us have strong emotions about this news and don’t know how to process it. Given that you wrote “[hastily written],” I assume that this comment is helping you process the news. At the same time, I think it’s important for us to not slip away from our norms on the Forum, which include making sure the space is welcoming to different groups of people, including men. There are a few different ways to interpret the part of your comment that’s about men. Unfortunately, I think right now it’s not clear whether you’re saying that “there are no decent men” (which would be norm-violating). (If you replace “men” with a different demographic group, you clearly see that the statement is not acceptable. This test doesn’t always work — sometimes there’s a long history of stereotype or power that makes statements about a demographic group much worse than the same statement about a different demographic group, but I think it’s a useful signal here.) So it might be worth clarifying what you mean in the comment. In the future, please avoid sweeping statements about demographic groups.
This frightened me, and still frightens me, for three reasons. First, the EA Forum often does allow sweeping statements about demographic groups that many observers would consider to be openly racist and sexist. In this series, we have covered a number of open discussions or even outright endorsements of ideas such as the following: that people of color are genetically disposed to be less intelligent and more criminal than others; that women are genetically disposed to be less intelligent, more emotional, or less suitable for leadership. If the moderators are to allow those sweeping statements to stand, but then censor a sweeping statement about the decency of men, there is more than a hint of a double standard in the air.
Second, the EA Forum allows many other forms of harmful speech. For example, in this post we have seen repeated attempts to question the reliability of survivors and their advocates, as well as repeated attempts to cast sexual harassment and abuse as unproblematic behavior. As I write these words, to the best of my knowledge none of these passages have been targeted by moderators. This includes even the post, to which I will not link, in which a powerful effective altruist decides to reveal names redacted in the TIME magazine article, after being requested by the Community Health Team not to do so. Although the moderation team did, after some cajoling, request that the individual not post the name, they did not sanction this individual in any manner comparable to the manner in which the author of the comment about decent men was treated. One wonders whether speech is being sanctioned in proportion to its harmfulness, or instead in proportion to something else.
Third, the moderator in question considers the natural explanation for why the post in question was not norm-violating: that sweeping statements about the decency of men (unlike, say, sweeping statements about the intelligence of women or people of color) do not figure in a systematic pattern of oppression, and do not have anything like the immediate and pervasive social costs of these latter sweeping statements. The moderator offers no objection to this argument – for what objection could be raised? – but instead simply repeats without argument that a sweeping statement about the decency of men is as norm-violating as a sweeping statement about any other demographic group.
Institutional reform is needed at many levels, perhaps all levels of the movement. In this regard, it should perhaps not be surprising that there are some levels in which I think structural changes should be made to Forum moderation. This case suggests that Forum norms need to be modified to police discourse according to its harmfulness and wrongfulness, and that care should be given to ensuring that a correct understanding of Forum norms is implemented in practice.
5. Ideology and the non-ideal theory of social movements
I want to close by discussing two responses that I often receive to criticisms of racism and sexism within the effective altruist community. The first response is that racism and sexism are no part of the theory of effective altruism, so it is unphilosophical, uncharitable and narrow-minded to criticize the movement for the misbehavior of some of its members.
To some extent, I feel the force of this criticism. I am a philosopher. I am not trained to write about matters such as these. Instead, I was trained to ignore them as unsuitable for serious academic discourse, and to focus on the core philosophical ideas of the effective altruism movement such as longtermism, existential risk, and obligations to future people.
Like many philosophers of my generation, I now think that this training was a mistake. I want to express the point through the words of Amia Srinivasan in her excellent foreword to a recently volume with Oxford University Press: The good it promises, the harm it does: Critical essays on effective altruism. (Reviewed here).
Srinivasan emphasizes that in thinking about social movements, we are engaged in a type of non-ideal theory. Non-ideal social theory must engage not only with what the ideals of a movement imply, but also with how those ideals are systematically implemented within the movement. In this vein, Srinivasan encourages us to:
… Think of Effective Altruism not just as a moral philosophy, but as a piece of ideology. Analytic philosophers as a whole, of whatever moral or political persuasion, tend to evaluate social and political movements according to what they say about themselves, as opposed to what they do in the world … As most students of political history, or practitioners of politics, will tell you, this is a politically disastrous way of thinking about political movements. Ideas have a life beyond what they say, which is partly why ideas matter so much.
It is, I hope, quite right to say that bigotry has no place within the lofty ideals of effective altruism. However, there is a growing sense that in practice, parts of the community have become increasingly willing to openly express bigoted views and defend misbehavior. Insofar as these practices are explicitly defended by appeal to community ideals such as truth-seeking and `good epistemics’, we have reason to worry about the way in which effective altruists’ ideals are being systematically implemented in practice.
Redemption is possible. If there is a gap between ideals and their implementation, then it is always possible for effective altruists to change their behavior to match their ideals. This brings us to the next point.
6. Where the basilisk roams
Some commentators have suggested that much of the recent mischief may be more heavily concentrated in some parts of the community than others. Geographically, they have suggested, some of the worst problems are confined to the Bay area. Ideologically, they have suggested, many of the problems originated within the rationalist community.
In this spirit, the objection continues, picking out individual patterns of misbehavior or even systematic patterns such as Forum discussion and voting behavior may overstate the prevalence of a problem. The problem, the objection goes, is largely confined to certain sub-communities.
To be honest, I am not best placed to judge the truth of these allegations. There may be some truth to them. I do not know. Instead, I would like to make a different point. This response must be earned.
If a sizable segment of the effective altruist community wants to present itself as supportive of women, people of color, and other traditionally underrepresented groups, this segment must do all of the following. First, it must clearly and publicly renounce racism and sexism, both in word and deed. Second, it must take swift and decisive steps to ensure a positive climate going forward. And third, it must put in place strong, central and well-funded institutions to monitor and enforce compliance.
I know many effective altruists who would like to see these developments come about. Some have spent years of their lives working, in different ways, to make them a reality. I also know many effective altruists who tell me, somewhat credibly that they would like to make these developments come about, but then do little to drive change within the movement.
The world needs to see strong signs of collective action from effective altruists to tackle issues of inclusion and belonging within the movement. I hope that this action can be genuinely collective, spanning all ideological and geographic locations within the movement. But most importantly, I hope for action, learning, growth and change.
If all goes well, this will be the last post in this series. I fear that this series may yet continue, but I do hope that the next iteration lies further down the road, and that it will deal with milder complaints than those raised in past discussions.
Comments are closed. I am sorry, but I cannot see an open discussion ending well. I would welcome discussion by email at email@example.com.