The New York Times

Picture a scene: the New York Times is releasing an article on Effective Altruism (EA) with an express goal to dig up every piece of negative information they can find. They contact Émile Torres, David Gerard, and Timnit Gebru, collect evidence about Sam Bankman-Fried, the OpenAI board blowup, and Pasek's Doom, start calling Astral Codex Ten (ACX) readers to ask them about rumors they'd heard about affinity between Effective Altruists, neoreactionaries, and something called TESCREAL. They spend hundreds of hours over six months on interviews and evidence collection, paying Émile and Timnit for their time and effort. The phrase "HBD" is muttered, but it's nobody's birthday.

A few days before publication, they present key claims to the Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA), who furiously tell them that many of the claims are provably false and ask for a brief delay to demonstrate the falsehood of those claims, though their principles compel them to avoid threatening any form of legal action. The Times unconditionally refuses, claiming it must meet a hard deadline. The day before publication, Scott Alexander gets his hands on a copy of the article and informs the Times that it's full of provable falsehoods. They correct one of his claims, but tell him it's too late to fix another.

The final article comes out. It states openly that it's not aiming to be a balanced view, but to provide a deep dive into the worst of EA so people can judge for themselves. It contains lurid and alarming claims about Effective Altruists, paired with a section of responses based on its conversation with EA that it says provides a view of the EA perspective that CEA agreed was a good summary. In the end, it warns people that EA is a destructive movement likely to chew up and spit out young people hoping to do good.

In the comments, the overwhelming majority of readers thank it for providing such thorough journalism. Readers broadly agree that waiting to review CEA's further claims was clearly unnecessary. David Gerard pops in to provide more harrowing stories. Scott gets a polite but skeptical hearing out as he shares his story of what happened, and one enterprising EA shares hard evidence of one error in the article to a mixed and mostly hostile audience. A few weeks later, the article writer pens a triumphant follow-up about how well the whole process went and offers to do similar work for a high price in the future.

This is not an essay about the New York Times.

The rationalist and EA communities tend to feel a certain way about the New York Times. Adamantly a certain way. Emphatically a certain way, even. I can't say my sentiment is terribly different—in fact, even when I have positive things to say about the New York Times, Scott has a way of saying them more elegantly, as in The Media Very Rarely Lies.

That essay segues neatly into my next statement, one I never imagined I would make:

You are very very lucky the New York Times does not cover you the way you cover you.

A Word of Introduction

Since this is my first post here, I owe you a brief introduction. I am a friendly critic of EA who would join you were it not for my irreconcilable differences in fundamental values and thinks you are, by and large, one of the most pleasant and well-meaning groups of people in the world. I spend much more time in the ACX sphere or around its more esoteric descendants and know more than anyone ought about its history and occasional drama. Some of you know me from my adversarial collaboration in Scott's contest some years ago, others from my misadventures in "speedrunning" college, still others from my exhaustively detailed deep dives into obscure subculture drama (sometimes in connection with my job).

The last, I'm afraid, is why I'm here this time around—I wish we were meeting on better terms. I saw a certain malcontent[1] complaining that his abrasiveness was poorly received, stopped by to see what he was on about, and got sucked in—as one is—by every word of the blow-by-blow fighting between two companies I knew nothing about in an ecosystem where I am a neighbor but certainly not a member. I came to this fresh: never having heard of @Ben Pace, @Habryka, or Nonlinear, having about as much knowledge of EA as any outsider can have while having no ties to its in-person community, and with the massive benefit of hindsight in being able to read side-by-side what active EA forum users read three months apart. I pursued it out of sheer fascination when I should have been studying for my Civil Procedure final, entranced by a saga that would not leave my mind.

What precisely do I think of Nonlinear, a group I had never heard of prior to a few days ago? More-or-less what my friends think, really—credit them for the bulk of the following description. It sounds like a minor celebrity got comfortably rich young, dove into the same fascinating online ecosystem we all did, and decided to spend his retirement with his partner (who has an impressive history of dedication to charity) and brother scratching his itch to be productive by traveling the world and doing charity via talking with cool, smart people about meaningful ideas. It sounds like they hired someone who imagined doing charity work but instead lived a life more akin to that of a live-in assistant to a celebrity, picked up another traveling-partner-turned-employee with a long history of tumultuous encounters, and had a lot of very predictable drama of the sort that happens when young people live as roommates and traveling partners with their bosses.

From there, the ex-employees, disillusioned and burnt out, began spreading allegations that toed and sometimes crossed the line between "exaggerated" and "fabricated", and the founders learned an important lesson about mixing work and pleasure, one that soon turned into the much crueller lesson of what it feels like to be sewn inside a punching bag and dangled in front of your tight-knit community. They made a major unforced tactical error in taking so long to respond and another in not writing in the right sort of measured, precise tone that would have allowed them to defuse many criticisms. They were also unambiguously, inarguably, and severely wronged by the EA/LessWrong (LW) community as a whole.

What about Lightcone, a group I quickly realized maintains LessWrong, the ancestral home of my people? I'm grateful they've maintained a community that has inspired me and so many people like me. I get the sense that they're earnest, principled, precise thinkers who care deeply about ethical behavior. I've learned they recently faced the severe blow of watching a trusted community member be revealed as the fraud to end all frauds while feeling like there was something they could have done. I think they met earnest people who talked about feeling hurt and genuinely wanted to help to the best of their ability. And I wish I'd built up sufficient social capital with them to allow it to feel like a relationship of trust rather than the intrusion of a hostile stranger when I say they wrote one of the most careless, irresponsible, destructive callout articles I have ever had the displeasure of reading—one they seem to continue to be in denial about.

In a sense, though, I think they should be thanked for it, because the community reaction to their article indicates it was not just them. I follow drama and blow-ups in a lot of different subcultures. It's my job. The response I saw from the EA and LessWrong communities to their article was thoroughly ordinary as far as subculture pile-ons go, even commendable in ways. Here's the trouble: the ways it was ordinary are the ways it aspires to be extraordinary, and as the community walked headlong into every pitfall of rumormongering and dogpiles, it did so while explaining at every step how reasonable, charitable, and prudent it was in doing so.

The Story So Far: A Recap

Starting in mid-2022, two disgruntled former Nonlinear employees, referred to by the pseudonyms Alice and Chloe, began to spread rumors about the misery of their time there. They told these rumors to many people within the EA community, including CEA, requesting that CEA not tell Nonlinear about any of their complaints and pushing for unspecified action against the organization. CEA discussed the possibility of the former employees writing a public post, but they were unwilling to do so. In November 2022, someone made an anonymous post spreading vague rumors about the same. As more rumors spread, some organizations within EA began to restrict Nonlinear's opportunities in the EA space, such as CEA not inviting them to present at conferences.

Ben Pace, who managed a community hub called the Lightcone offices, heard these rumors when Kat Woods and Drew Spartz of Nonlinear applied to visit the offices in early 2023, and told them he was concerned about them but still allowed a visit. Dissatisfied with Kat's explanations when he chatted with her, he began to investigate further, spending several hundred hours over six months looking for all negative information he could find about Nonlinear (centering around the experiences of those two former employees) via interviews and investigative research. Others in the Lightcone office participated in this process, with Oliver Habryka reporting the office as a whole spent close to a thousand hours on it. In collaboration with their sources, they set a publication date for an exposé about Nonlinear.

Less than a week before the publication date, Ben informed Nonlinear that he had been digging into them with intent to publish an exposé and sent them a list of concerns. Around 60 hours before publication, Ben had a three-hour phone call with the Nonlinear cofounders about those concerns in which they told him his list contained a number of exaggerations and fabrications. Nonlinear requested a week to compile and present evidence against these claimed fabrications, which Ben and Oliver rejected. The day before publication, longtime community member Spencer Greenberg obtained a draft copy of the post and warned Ben and Oliver that it contained a number of falsehoods. Ben edited some, but when Spencer sent him message records contesting one claim in the post two hours before publication, Lightcone concluded it was too late to change and that the post must release on schedule. During the few days before publication and in particular after seeing a draft copy of the post, the Nonlinear founders grew increasingly urgent and aggressive in their messages, eventually threatening to sue Lightcone for defamation if they released the post without taking another week to investigate Nonlinear's evidence. Lightcone refused.

Ben released the post on September 7th to the EA/LW communities, where it was widely circulated and supported, including by CEA's Community Health team.[2] After publishing the post, he paid Alice and Chloe $5,000 each. Kat shared screenshots contesting one of the post's claims in the comments section and Nonlinear promised a comprehensive reply as soon as possible. On September 15th, Ben released a postmortem sharing further thoughts on Nonlinear and concluding that the CEA Community Health team was not doing enough to police the EA ecosystem. Nonlinear stayed mostly quiet until December 12th, when they released an in-depth post contesting the bulk of the claims in the exposé.

On December 13th, I heard about this sequence of events and the players involved for the first time.

Avoidable, Unambiguous Falsehoods in "Sharing Information About Nonlinear"

If you have a strong stake in Nonlinear's reputation, I encourage you to read their full response, including the appendix. Here, I will aim towards something simpler: documenting some of the standout times Ben made claims easily and unambiguously contested by primary sources from Nonlinear, mostly about situations that occurred when Alice and Chloe were traveling with them, claims that could and should have been fixed with a modicum of effort. Each subsection that follows will begin with a direct pull quote from Ben’s article and follow with my summary of the evidence Nonlinear provides rebutting it, with sources and specific screenshots in footnotes.

"My current understanding is that they’ve had around ~4 remote interns, 1 remote employee, and 2 in-person employees (Alice and Chloe). Alice was the only person to go through their incubator program."

Nonlinear has had 21 employees, including five other incubatees. This is a low-importance claim, but it's illustrative. Clarifying with Nonlinear, who was not only willing to clarify points with them but begging to do so, would have taken no time at all. To avoid fact-checking this demonstrates a low priority for fact-checking in general.[3]

"they were not able to live apart from the family unit while they worked with them" 

Per Nonlinear, Alice lived apart from them for six weeks during her four months of employment. This is a slight exception to my "primary source" rule—verifying whether Alice lived apart for six weeks would take a bit more work than just Nonlinear's word, but it directly contradicts Ben's claim such that publication of the original claim becomes irresponsible.[4]

"Chloe’s salary was verbally agreed to come out to around $75k/year. However, she was only paid $1k/month, and otherwise had many basic things compensated i.e. rent, groceries, travel. This was supposed to make traveling together easier, and supposed to come out to the same salary level." 

Nonlinear clearly explained Chloe's compensation scheme from the beginning and presented it in a clear and unambiguous written contract, which they fulfilled.[5] It was always conceptualized and presented as $1000 a month plus living expenses. She accepted the position knowing its compensation. It's not a level of compensation I'd advise anyone in it for the money to take, but the experience is the sort that many young people, including me, have pursued knowing there's a monetary tradeoff. 

I don't agree with Nonlinear's apparent conception of benefits as functionally equivalent to pay given my experience in comparable situations (the military and a Mormon mission)[6], but Chloe had no serious grounds to complain about salary, and Ben's description of it ignores the actual employment agreement and misrepresents the situation.

"Over her time there she spent through all of her financial runway, and spent a significant portion of her last few months there financially in the red (having more bills and medical expenses than the money in her bank account) in part due to waiting on salary payments from Nonlinear. She eventually quit due to a combination of running exceedingly low on personal funds and wanting financial independence from Nonlinear, and as she quit she gave Nonlinear (on their request) full ownership of the organization that she had otherwise finished incubating." ... "At the time of her quitting she had €700 in her account, which was not enough to cover her bills at the end of the month, and left her quite scared. Though to be clear she was paid back ~€2900 of her outstanding salary by Nonlinear within a week, in part due to her strongly requesting it."

Timed transactions straightforwardly demonstrate that aspects of Alice's claims about waiting for salary payments were false. Kat also explains that the delay in expense reimbursement was because Alice switched from recording in their public reimbursement system to using a private spreadsheet without telling them, and that they reimbursed Alice as soon as she told them. While the document provides no primary source on this, as with the "not allowed to live apart" claim, the counterclaim provides ample reason to either verify more closely or avoid publishing the falsehood.[7]

"One of the central reasons Alice says that she stayed on this long was because she was expecting financial independence with the launch of her incubated project that had $100k allocated to it (fundraised from FTX). In her final month there Kat informed her that while she would work quite independently, they would keep the money in the Nonlinear bank account and she would ask for it, meaning she wouldn’t have the financial independence from them that she had been expecting, and learning this was what caused Alice to quit."

Nonlinear provides two screenshots to support an in-depth narrative that Alice's role was always as a project manager within Nonlinear, that they clarified repeatedly that she was a project manager within Nonlinear, that all of the funding in her project came via Nonlinear, that they would never have simply handed a quarter-million dollars to an untested new organization, and that Alice repeatedly attempted to claim she had a separate organization despite that.[8]

Ben's quoted claim is not technically false: Alice did indeed seem to believe, or claim to believe, that she would get financial independence. It provides a misleading impression, though, to present it without any of the context and primary sources available from Nonlinear.

"Alice quit being vegan while working there. She was sick with covid in a foreign country, with only the three Nonlinear cofounders around, but nobody in the house was willing to go out and get her vegan food, so she barely ate for 2 days. Alice eventually gave in and ate non-vegan food in the house. She also said that the Nonlinear cofounders marked her quitting veganism as a ‘win’, as they had been arguing that she should not be vegan."

There was vegan food in the house and they picked food up for her while sick themselves, but on one of the days they wanted to go to a Mexican place with limited vegan options instead of getting a vegan burger from Burger King.[9] "Nobody in the house was willing to go out and get her vegan food" is unambiguously false. Crucially, Ben had sufficient information to know it was false before the time of publication.

"Alice was polyamorous, and she and Drew entered into a casual romantic relationship. Kat previously had a polyamorous marriage that ended in divorce, and is now monogamously partnered with Emerson. Kat reportedly told Alice that she didn't mind polyamory "on the other side of the world”, but couldn't stand it right next to her, and probably either Alice would need to become monogamous or Alice should leave the organization." 

Kat points out that she recommended poly people for Alice to date multiple times, but felt strongly that Alice dating Drew (her colleague, roommate, and the brother of her boss) would be a bad idea. I happen to agree with her reasoning on that front and think subsequent events vindicated her. I find this claim particularly noxious because advising someone in the strongest possible terms against dating their boss's brother, who lives with them, seems from my own angle like a thoroughly sane thing to do. Kat's advice on that front was wholly vindicated.[10]

"Before she went on vacation, Kat requested that Alice bring a variety of illegal drugs across the border for her (some recreational, some for productivity). Alice argued that this would be dangerous for her personally, but Emerson and Kat reportedly argued that it is not dangerous at all and was “absolutely risk-free”. Privately, Drew said that Kat would “love her forever” if she did this."

When you read "bring a variety of illegal drugs across the border [...] (some recreational, some for productivity)," do you think "stop by a pharmacy for ADHD meds"? I do not. It conjures up images of cartels, of back-alley meth deals, of steep danger and serious wrongdoing. For many responding to the original post, this was one of the most severe indicators of wrongdoing. If it had been accurately reported, whatever people think about casual Adderall use, it simply would not have had the same impact.[11] Oliver asserts his belief that more is being covered up here—I have no basis on which to judge this, but if so, it would have been an excellent point for Ben to confirm and present in specific while writing an article on the matter.

Ben and Oliver focus a great deal on the amount of time and effort that went into the post: 100-200 hours per the original post, 320 hours per Ben's postmortem, somewhat over 1000 hours spread over the Lightcone staff per a comment from Oliver. They and the community alike use this time and effort to justify the difficulty of an investigation like this, the impracticality of asking for more, the high standards that went into the investigation, and the lack of need to add any sort of delay.

I believe they spent that time in productive, reasonable ways, but I keep coming back to an inescapable conclusion about it all: You can do a lot of cross-checking of a lot of claims in a thousand hours, but without talking with the people involved, you can do very little to cross-check the core allegations. The bulk of the claims I list above, and the bulk of the claims the community seems to have found most alarming, occurred in times and places where there were precisely five people present.  Ben and Oliver spent a thousand hours diligently avoiding three of those five people while hearing and collecting rumors that they were vile, spent three hours with a publication date already set dumping every allegation on them at once, then flat-out refused to wait so much as a week to allow those three people to compile concrete material evidence against their claims.

They were, in fact, in such a hurry to release that when Spencer Greenberg got a last-minute look at the draft and warned them of serious inconsistencies, they hurriedly adjusted some before pleading lack of time on another and treating an update in the comments section as sufficient. Oliver claims, and I have little reason to contest, that Ben published (almost) nothing he knew was wrong at the time. But they both knew they were receiving information contradicting their claims up until the moment of publication and being promised more of that information shortly.

The errors in this section and in the process that led to it are inexcusable for any published work purporting to be the result of serious investigation. They cannot be said to be either trivial or tangential. These are not the results of a truth-seeking process.

These Issues Were Known and Knowable By Lightcone and the Community. The EA/LW Community Dismissed Them

The original post and the discussion around it contained three glaring red flags:

  • At the top, Ben reminded the community that the bulk of the post came from a search for negative information, not for a complete picture.
  • In the comments, @spencerg, someone with a long history of good faith and fair dealing in the rationalist community, warned that the post contained many false claims, some of which he had warned Ben of immediately before publishing and Ben took half-hearted measures to correct.
  • Also in the comments, @Geoffrey Miller, with his own long history of serious, sincere engagement within the rationalist community, exhorted the community to adhere to the standards of professional investigative journalism—learned from bitter experience—and to be professionally accountable for truth and balance—and warned that the post realistically failed that standard.

The community treated Ben's admission that he had been on a six-month hunt for negative information not as a signal saying "I am writing a slanted hit piece" the way they would if it came from any news organization in the country, but as one of good epistemic hygiene and honesty that would allow them to rationally and accurately update.

Judging by votes, people were somewhat receptive to Spencer and politely heard him out, but they did little to update based on his claims. Oliver's response, claiming that the lawsuit threat was an attempt at intimidation that justified immediate release of all information and that 40 more hours of lost productive time was unreasonable to ask, was overwhelmingly more popular—indeed, about as popular as a response gets in this ecosystem.

Geoffrey's reception was decidedly more mixed. The bulk of the community emphatically rejected Geoffrey's push to heed professional standards, with people claiming that in many cases those standards simply existed to protect the professionals, citing a general distrust for established codes of professions and for the standards of investigative journalism in specific, and claiming those standards set the bar too high for an already thankless task.

In addition, a plurality of the community who voted in @Nathan Young's poll agreed with the decision not to delay posting. 

It is well and good to distrust journalism. I do myself. I confess, though, that in all my time hearing how my spheres criticize journalists, I have never once heard people complain that they work too hard to verify their information, try too hard to be fair to the subjects of their writing, or place too high a premium on truth.

As Geoffrey points out, the crux is "how bad it is to make public, false, potentially damaging claims about people, and the standard of care/evidence required before making those claims."

I can't say this is a crux I expected among rationalists, but here we are.

Oliver claims that Ben's goal with the post was not to judge, but to publish evidence that had been circulating and allow for refutation. That is hard to square with lines like "I expect that if Nonlinear does more hiring in the EA ecosystem it is more-likely-than-not to chew up and spit out other bright-eyed young EAs who want to do good in the world," hard to square with Ben's repeated assertions that claims in his post were credible, and hard to square with the duty you take on by electing to publish an exposé about someone and telling people they can trust it due to the time you put into it and your stature within the community. You have to play the role of judge in a scenario like that.

It's worth examining the code of ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists. A respect for truth as their fundamental aim is written into their first, second, and third principles:

Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.

Journalists should:

  • Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before releasing it. Use original sources whenever possible.
  • Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy.
  • Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.

I believe this is a fair, reasonable, and minimal standard for anyone aiming to do investigative work. It is not sufficient to claim epistemic uncertainty when promoting falsehoods, nor is it sufficient to say you are simply amplifying the falsehoods of your sources.

When you amplify someone's claims, you take responsibility for those claims. When you amplify false claims where contradictory evidence is available to you and you decline to investigate that contradictory evidence, you take responsibility for that. People live and die on their reputations, and spreading falsehoods that damage someone's reputation is and should be seen as more than just a minor faux pas.

Ben, so far as I can tell, disputes this standard, holding instead that past a relatively low threshold, unverified allegations should be spread: "I think I'm more likely to say "Hey, I currently assign 25% to <very terrible accusation>" if I have that probability, assigned rather than wait until it's like 90% or something before saying my probability." His response to Nonlinear's rebuttal makes the reasonable-sounding statement that he plans to compare factual claims to those in his piece and update inaccuracies, but a high tolerance for spreading falsehoods is built into his process. Correction is the bare minimum of damage control after spreading damaging falsehoods, not prudence following a pattern of prudence.

Better processes are both possible and necessary

Oliver explicitly disputes the journalistic standard. He asserts that the "approximate result of [the standard I ask] is that [they] would have never been able to publish." When I pushed back, he encouraged me "to talk to any investigative reporter with experience in the field and ask them whether [my] demands here are at all realistic for anyone working in the space."

I agree that they would never have been able to publish a list of unsubstantiated rumors, and consider that a good thing: to quote a friend, a healthy community does not spread rumors about every time someone felt mistreated. But I emphatically disagree that they would never have been able to publish anything at all. I would never think to hold them to a standard I do not hold myself to.

As reassurance, Oliver cites how their investigative efforts are a "vast and far outlier," both in the realm of willingness to pay sources[12] and "on the dimension of gathering contradicting evidence."[13]

He is technically correct: they are indeed an outlier. Just not, unfortunately, in the way he intends.

I am not a journalist. The only time in my life I have been paid to write, or indeed have sought payment for that writing, was in Scott's 2018 Adversarial Collaboration Contest. When I write, I do so in my spare time in quiet corners of the internet, often out of the motivation that only comes when Someone Is Wrong On The Internet and when by all rights I should be doing something else. Some of the topics I focus on read as bizarrely trivial on their face rather than the world-saving EAs prefer to focus on, as with my detailed account of the fall of r/antiwork and the backstory behind a viral moment of a pirate furry hitting someone with a megaphone. We all have our fascinations.

Consider that latter article. The "antagonists" were not particularly communicative, but I reached out to them multiple times, including right before publication, checking if I could ask questions and asking them to review my claims about them for accuracy. I went to the person closest to them who was informed on the situation and got as much information as I could from them. I spent hours talking with my primary sources, the victim and his boyfriend, and collecting as much hard evidence as possible. I spent a long time weighing which points were material and which would just serve to stir up and uncover old drama. Parties claimed I was making major material errors at several points during the process, and I dug into their claims as thoroughly as I could and asked for all available evidence to verify. Often, the disputes they claimed were material hinged on dissatisfaction with framing.

All sources were, mutually, worried about retribution and vitriol from the other parties involved.[14] All sources were part of the same niche subculture spaces, all had interacted many times over the past half-decade, mostly unhappily, and all had complicated, ugly backstories.

From my conclusion to that story:

The obscurity became its own justification. Little tragedies happen all the time and are forgotten by the broader world as quickly as they arise. [...] In the end, I pursued this story for a simple reason: nobody else would. If people are to become outcasts among outcasts, to have their names and faces forever tied to allegations of behavior and beliefs so heinous they justify ostracization and physical assault, the least they deserve is someone willing to tell their story.

I did this in my spare time, of my own initiative, while balancing a full law school schedule. I approached it with care, with seriousness, and with full understanding of the reputational effects I expected it to have and the evidence I had backing and justifying those effects. Writing about someone means taking on a duty to them, particularly if you write to condemn them.

There is no threshold for hours of engagement. The test is accuracy. If you are receiving or seem likely to receive new material facts that contradict elements of your narrative, you are not ready to publish.

I want to pause for a moment on this: I spend hours upon hours verifying obscure trivia in niche stories with minuscule real-world impact. This obsession is hardly a virtue, but the standards of truth-seeking I demand are not too onerous—not for a story about internet nonsense, and certainly not for a controversy that could change the course of lives.

My own credibility is limited by my amateur status and relative inexperience. I'm not an investigative reporter, much as I LARP as one online.[15] Since my job puts me in close proximity to them, though, Oliver and I worked together to write a hypothetical to pose to experienced journalists, in line with his challenge to me, with our opposite expectations preregistered. I don't endorse the hypothetical as a fully accurate summary of what happened, but agreed that it was close enough to get worthwhile answers.

The hypothetical we came up with:

Say you were advising someone on a story they'd been working on for six months aimed at presenting an exposé of a group their sources were confident was doing harm. They'd contacted dozens of people, cross-checked stories, and did extensive independent research over the course of hundreds of hours.

Their sources, who will be anonymous but realistically identifiable in the article, express serious concerns about retribution and request a known-in-advance publication date.

They have talked to the group they are investigating multiple times to gather evidence, but have not informed them that they are planning to release an exposé with the evidence they gathered. 7 days before their scheduled publication date they contact the group and inform them about their intent to publish and the key claims they are planning to include in their exposé.

The group claims that several points in their article are materially wrong and libelous and asks for another week to compile evidence to rebut those claims, growing increasingly frantic as the publication date approaches and escalating to a threat of a libel suit.

On the last day before publication, they show a draft to another person close to the story who points out a detail that does not directly contradict anything in the post, but seems indirectly implied to be false, which they correct in the final publication. Then with two hours to go before the scheduled publication, the same contact provides evidence against one of the statements made in the post, though also does not definitely disprove it.

Would you advise them to publish the article in its current form, or delay publication, despite the credible requests about the sources about retribution and the promise of the scheduled publication date?

I posed that hypothetical as written, with a brief, neutral leadup, to several journalists.[16] Ultimately, I received three answers, two from my bosses and one from Helen Lewis of The Atlantic. I understand if people would prefer to discount the answers from my bosses due to my working relationship with them, but I believe the framing and lack of context positioned all three well to consider the question in the abstract and on the merits independent of any connections. None were aware of the actual story in advance of answering, only the hypothetical as presented, and none of their answers should be taken as positions on the actual sequence of events.

First, from Katie Herzog, who formerly wrote for The Stranger and currently cohosts the podcast Blocked and Reported:

I would delay publication. I’m not sure about the specifics of libel law but putting myself in a publisher’s shoes, they do tend to not want to get sued and your first commitment, beyond getting the scoop or even stopping the hypothetical group from doing harm, should be towards accuracy.

Oliver requested I clarify that the concern is solely ethical responsibility, not lawsuits. When I asked whether it mattered, she responded:

[I]t doesn't, really. [A]ccuracy is paramount under threat of legal action or not.

Second, from Jesse Singal, formerly of NYMag with bylines in many outlets, author of The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can't Cure Our Social Ills and cohost of Blocked and Reported

I think it depends a lot on the group's ability to provide evidence the investigators' claims are wrong. In a situation like that I would really press them on the specifics. They should be able to provide evidence fairly quickly. You don't want a libel suit but you also don't want to let them indefinitely delay the publication of an article that will be damaging to them. It is a tricky situation! I am not sure an investigative reporter would be able to help much more simply because what you're providing is a pretty vague account, though I totally understand the reasons why that's necessary.

Finally, from The Atlantic's Helen Lewis, former deputy editor of the New Statesman and author of the book "Difficult Women: A history of feminism in 11 fights":

This feels like a good example of why you shouldn’t over-promise to your sources—you want a cordial relationship with them but you need boundaries too. I can definitely see a situation where you would agree to give a source a heads up once you’d decided to publish — if it was a story where they’d recounted a violent incident or sexual assault, or if they needed notice to stay somewhere else or watch out for hacking attempts. But I would be very wary of agreeing in advance when I would publish an investigation—it isn’t done until it’s done.

In the end the story is going out under your name, and you will face the legal and ethical consequences, so you can’t publish until you’re satisfied. If the sources are desperate to make the information public, they can make a statement on social media. Working with a journalist involves a trade-off: in exchange for total control, you get greater credibility, plausible deniability and institutional legal protection. If I wasn’t happy with a story against a ticking clock, I wouldn’t be pressured into publication. That’s a huge risk of libelling the subjects of the piece and trashing your professional reputation.

On the request for more time for right to reply, that’s a judgement call—is this a fair period for the allegations involved, or time wasting? It’s not unknown for journalists to put in a right to reply on serious allegations, and the subject ask for more time, and then try to get ahead of the story by breaking it themselves (by denying it).

You don't even have to look as far as my examples, though. To his credit, Oliver repeatedly asked for better examples of what to do in similar situations. To the credit of the rationalist community, it contains some of those examples. To Oliver's discredit, however, he had full awareness of one better example, as his response to allegations of community misconduct was one of its subjects of investigation.

Last year, a rationalist meetup organizer faced accusations of misconduct, Oliver and his wife Claire (who was in charge of meetup organization as a whole) banned him from an event, he objected, and Claire agreed to be bound by a community investigation. One principle used in that investigation is worth highlighting:

Anyone accused of misconduct should promptly be informed of any accusations made against them and given an opportunity to tell their side of the story, present evidence, and propose witnesses. Emergency preliminary actions should be taken where allegations are sufficiently serious and credible, but the accused should be given an opportunity to defend themselves as quickly as possible.[17]

In the end, the team writing the report highlighted several specific allegations against its primary subject before including a telling line:

We were unable to substantiate any other allegations made against [redacted]. At his request, we are not repeating unsubstantiated allegations in this document.

A prudent decision.

On Lawsuits

One of the strongest and most universal sentiments shared in response to Ben's post was that threatening a lawsuit was completely unacceptable. A notable example:

More confidently than anything on this list, Nonlinear's threatening to sue Lightcone for Ben's post is completely unacceptable, decreases my sympathy for them by about 98%, and strongly updates me in the direction that refusing to give in to their requested delay was the right decision. In my view, it is quite a strong update that the negative portrayal of Emerson Spartz in the OP is broadly correct. I don't think we as a community should tolerate this, and I applaud Lightcone for refusing to give in to such heavy-handed coercion.

I get the skepticism, but no matter how much you dislike defamation lawsuits, you should like actual defamation less.

Earlier, I linked to a comment emphasizing distrust in established code of professions in favor of another standard: "this group thought about this a lot and underwent a lot of trial by fire and came up with these specific guidelines, and I can articulate the costs and benefits of individual rules."

I am not a romantic about the law. It is an unwieldy, bloated beast that puts people through the wringer even when they win. The powerful can wield it against the weak. It is selectively enforced, in what feel at times like all the worst moments.

In common law countries, though, it is something else as well: the result of collective society thinking a lot, undergoing a lot of trial by fire, and coming up with specific guidelines to bring people as close as possible to being made whole again after they suffer injustices we have collectively deemed to be intolerable. The best judges understand precisely what the law is:

A case is just a dispute. The first thing you do is ask yourself—forget about the law—what is a sensible resolution of this dispute? The next thing ... is to see if a recent Supreme Court precedent or some other legal obstacle stood in the way of ruling in favor of that sensible resolution. And the answer is that's actually rarely the case.

The common law is, for the most part, pleasantly intuitive. I like to say it's all vibes. A great deal of common law hinges on the "reasonable person" standard, either explicitly or implicitly: is it sensible to do this? Good. Then do it. Is it unreasonable? Then don't.

The court of law is, in short and aspirationally, a last-ditch way to force people to right wrongs without escalating to force. Few disputes reach the point of lawsuits. Fewer still make it past discovery and into trials without settlements. Yet fewer see dueling parties fight bitterly up the chain of appeals. Throughout the cases I read as a first-semester law student, a message drilled in by judge after judge throughout history is that nobody wants to see the inside of a court. If you can handle wrongs in your life on your own, not even the judges want you there.

Threats of lawsuits are fundamentally different to other threats. They are, as @Nathan Young put it, bets that the other party is so wrong you're willing to expend both of your time and money to demonstrate it. Rationalists are fond of Yudkowsky's line: "Bad argument gets counterargument. Does not get bullet. Never. Never ever never for ever." If it can be had nowhere else, the court is the way to get that counterargument, and I concur with @Daystar Eld that people should not be "shunned, demonized, etc for threatening to use a very core right that they're entitled to."

Making firm statements about the law when I am not a lawyer is perilous, and the legal paper I had to write outlining the ways lawyers can get sued for malpractice for casual false advice to friends is fresh in my mind. Still, my impression is that many here misunderstand libel law somewhat, and the actual standard is worth clarifying. I'll start with a comment from Oliver:

The original post is really quite careful in its epistemic status and in clearly referencing to sources claiming something. You could run this by a lawyer with experience in libel law, and I think they would conclude that a suit did not have much of a chance of success.

I will make no specific legal claims about the original post. Inasmuch as I am interested in the legal standard, it is primarily as a baseline for the ethical standard. It's worth examining, however, the standards of defamation law.


Referencing claims made by specific sources: 

Under Restatement (Second) of Torts § 578, a broadly but not universally accepted summation of common law torts, someone who repeats defamatory material from someone else is liable to the same extent as if they were the original publisher, even if they mention the name of the original source and state they do not believe the claim. Claims of belief or disbelief, while not determinative, come into play when determining damages.

Two Supreme Court cases, St. Amant v. Thompson, 390 U.S. 727 (1968) and Harte-Hanks Communications, Inc. v. Connaughton, 491 U.S. 657 (1989), showcase how people can be liable solely for repeating someone else's defamatory claims. In St. Amant, a politician who read his own questions and someone else's false answers in an interview was found not liable only because actual malice could not be proven. In Harte-Hanks, a newspaper was found liable for libel solely for quoting a witness who falsely claimed she was offered a bribe in exchange for favorable testimony.

Epistemic uncertainty: 

Restatement (Second) of Torts § 566 touches on expressions of opinion, clarifying that opinions are actionable to the extent they are based on express or implied defamatory factual claims.

Per Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., 497 U.S. 1 (1990), opinions that rest on factual claims (e.g. "In my opinion John Jones is a liar") can imply assertions of objective fact, and connotations that are susceptible to being proven true or false can still be considered. Opinions are not privileged in a way fundamentally distinct from facts.


In short, you do not dodge liability for defamation by attributing beliefs to your sources or by clarifying you don't know whether an accusation is true. 

Lawsuit threats are distinctly unfriendly. Here's another thing that's distinctly unfriendly: publishing libelous information likely to do irreparable damage to an organization without giving them the opportunity to proactively correct falsehoods. The legal system is a way of systematizing responses to that sort of unfriendliness. It is not kind, it is not pleasant, but it is a legitimate response to a calculated decision to inflict enormous reputational harm.

At the time Nonlinear threatened legal action, they honestly believed that they were about to be libeled and that they had hard material evidence that would be sufficient to prove that libel in a court of law. They may be correct, they may be incorrect, but at the time they made that threat they were already on trial, with Ben Pace as prosecutor and judge alike, and no defense attorney to be found.

A threat of legal action in a circumstance like that should serve not as a defection from a frame of cooperation, but as a reminder that you are already in a fundamentally adversarial frame, having chosen to investigate a group over a long period of time and then publish information to damage them. It should serve as a warning: not "get this information out immediately at all cost," but "If you cannot deescalate, someone will win here and someone will lose. Dot every i. Cross every t. Make your own behavior unimpeachable, because every action you take will be under strict scrutiny."

The adversarial frame began when Alice and Chloe began sharing rumors about Nonlinear that people used to justify changing their behavior around the company members without verifying with them. It continued when Lightcone elected to spend six months digging up all possible negative information about them, when they reached out with a publication date already set, and when they refused to delay publication a moment to allow counter-evidence. At no stage can this be said to have been a collaborative process.

If your goal is to reveal the truth and not to inflict harm on someone, you should wait until you have all sides as thoroughly as you can reasonably get them, not cut that process short when the party you are making allegations against responds with understandable antagonism—until and unless they refuse to cooperate further and have no more useful information to give.

First Principles, Duty, and Harm

The EA/LW community loves to think from first principles, and that is usually one of its finest traits. I notice and respect the times their first-principles thinking leads them to be correct about things broader society is incorrect about—a regular occurrence. Occasionally, though, this manifests in a way satirized by SMBC and many others: confidence that they can outperform others from first principles leading them to make painfully predictable missteps in other fields.

It would be hypocritical of me to criticize the desire to do amateur investigative journalism, to be the one to show up and do things where others do not. Ben Pace, in defending his decision to write his article, used a quote from Eliezer Yudkowsky I am also fond of:

But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that the important things are accomplished not by those best suited to do them, or by those who ought to be responsible for doing them, but by whoever actually shows up.

When you say "I want to make the world a better place," though, you add an implicit "I want power and should be trusted with it." People should do good, say things worth saying, and get involved in causes that matter to them, but every time they do so, they enmesh themselves in a web of responsibilities. The assertion of power is neither trivial nor costless. I do more amateur investigative work than almost anyone else I know of, without formal training, often without pay, and without any stamp of approval from a profession, and Lightcone has and should have the same privilege. But responsibility must accompany it.

Ben felt a clear sense of responsibility to Alice and Chloe. He felt a responsibility, too, to the community of Effective Altruism. Both are admirable. Somewhere along the way, though, spurred by those responsibilities and the feeling that he had a duty to speak out, he stopped feeling that same sense of responsibility to Nonlinear.

One of the most unsavory critics of the rationalist community coined the meme of rationalists as quokkas: profoundly innocent and naïve souls who can't imagine you might deceive them. This describes a failure state of rationalism, I think, but certainly not the central case. He is rightly unpopular around here and I hesitate to give further life to his metaphor by extending it, but in seeing rationalists reinvent the pettiest and most destructive subculture drama I find everywhere else from first principles, all while working to be even-handed and earnest, I have thought of nothing so much as a quokka with a machine gun.

Ben's post, in all honesty, seems naïve: that if you just state you only looked for the negative, people will add it to a carefully balanced judgment rather than treat it as a complete picture; that if you share negative information about someone and the truth comes out later people will simply update and the original damage is undone; that uncertainty about whether someone has done an awful thing should be handled the same way as other public uncertainty—that you can, in short, write a hit piece full of unverified gossip and rumors, but Rational.

That is not flattering, it is not kind, but it is what I see in this saga: First-principles thinking without sufficient consideration towards harm, brushing aside the safeguards people have felt out over centuries of building the common law and codes of ethics. Pure harm, in a sense. Innocent, well-meaning, earnest harm. But harm nonetheless.

What of Nonlinear?

Effective Altruists wish to avoid adjudicating truth claims in court and believe they can and should do better in-house. Very well, but you would do well to adopt some choices from the courts in that process.

Lightcone elected to try Nonlinear in the court of public opinion, putting the question of their reputation to a jury of their peers. They did so by means of a post that was openly biased and contained a wide range of falsehoods for which they concede slight, if any, fault. They offered no semblance of due process, providing a single three-hour phone call to respond to six months of work and declining to examine any further exculpatory evidence. Their post, embraced and accepted by their community, caused immense and irrevocable material harm to Nonlinear. The community had a chance to notice and proactively correct those flaws. It did not and indeed dismissed those who raised them. CEA noticed and endorsed the trial, having likewise deliberately neglected Nonlinear's side of the story.

From all of this, I find myself drawn to only one outcome: Declare a mistrial, likely at least by retracting the initial article with a public apology, the same as responsible journalists do after publishing sufficiently false articles. Was Nonlinear at fault in some of its interactions? Probably! Were they their own worst enemies in the way they responded? Certainly. Does it matter anymore? Not at all. The community mishandled this so badly and so comprehensively that inasmuch as Nonlinear made mistakes in their treatment of Chloe or Alice, for the purposes of the EA/LW community, the procedural defects have destroyed the case.

I know neither Ben nor Oliver but respect their roles in this community and think that they were acting with serious efforts to apply rationalist/EA principles, neither of which I claim the mantle of. I spent the bulk of this essay criticizing their approach in ways that necessarily come off as hostile and painful towards an investigation they poured their hearts into over the course of half a year, but I think the lack of community self-correction to that approach and the failure to heed the red flags raised by Spencer Greenberg, Geoffrey Miller, and others are an order of magnitude more serious than anything either of them did. Inasmuch as people should correct from this, I believe the community as a whole is at fault.

This is my first top-level post on the Effective Altruism forums and, surprisingly, my first on LessWrong as well. I am used to writing to adjacent communities and in my own sphere, not here. I have written at such length here, rather than elsewhere, because I fundamentally and deeply respect many of the discourse norms here. This saga damaged that respect—pretty badly, in some ways—and reveals what I believe to be deep-running structural flaws in this ecosystem, implicating many people I have long followed and respected, but if there is one thing I know and respect about the EA/LW community, it is that you engage seriously and carefully with criticism. 

As a community, you go to great lengths to do good—more, certainly, than I can claim. You're human, though. Give each other some grace.

And hey, next time you need a hit piece written?

Leave it to the New York Times.

  1. ^
  2. ^

    A member of the CEA community health team tells me they "tend to write messages of support for people going through or trying to protect others going through hard things, without necessarily supporting all their methods." I think they in particular have been in a complex spot trying to navigate many competing demands and I sympathize with the difficulty.

  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^

    Benefits and pay just aren't 1:1 comparable. I've had a lot of experience living in similar situations. During my early time in the Air Force, living and training expenses were covered in full and I was paid some $2200 a month (pay is public if you'd like more details). This was a great situation for me and I was able to save some 90% of my salary while living comfortably and happily. Later on, though, I got to choose my housing and food and got housing and food stipends added to my salary. I chose cheaper housing and cheaper food and saved much more money as a result.

    Someone wanting to describe my military compensation could do so in several ways:

    1. Raw salary while I got no housing/food allowance, then salary + allowances afterwards. This would be the answer in terms of pure income.
    2. Salary + equivalent value of allowances, both at the start and later. This would have relatively overstated my compensation early on compared to the first option, since I got more money in my pocket without a decline in subjective quality of life when I got money instead of housing and food.
    3. Salary + allowances + benefits (eg free health+dental, later GI Bill, travel). This is an honest account of true compensation, probably the "truest" number I could choose, but it overstates the cash value of every benefit.
    4. My cost to the military. This would be astronomically higher than my compensation given the cost of my training and upkeep. Thinking too much about this number unsettles me.

    Nonlinear, it seems, is choosing somewhere between 3 and 4 to describe compensation. Having employees is expensive, more so when you want them to travel with you. Not all costs to you are reflected in their take-home pay. Military enlistment is not traditionally considered a high-paying career, but an E-1 fresh out of high school makes more take-home pay than Chloe did. That said, claims about military pay aside, I felt my own compensation was extraordinarily generous at every stage of my time in the Air Force. 

    My Mormon mission provides another basis of comparison. At the time I served, every two-year missionary paid $10,000 for the experience. From there, every cost was fully covered by the mission, with a small (few hundred dollar) stipend for food and incidentals that we still conceptualized as "the Lord's money." Costs to the LDS church vary wildly by mission location, but it would be odd to describe those costs as compensation at all. I did not and do not consider this structure abusive. Though I left Mormonism afterwards, my mission was the key formative experience of my life, with some of the worst and best experiences I've had and exposure to a slice of the world I had no other way to experience. 

    I think Nonlinear should have avoided putting a value estimate on benefits since that anchors expectations in an unproductive way, instead simply describing the benefits and letting people work it out for themselves.

  7. ^
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  9. ^

    I include this for completeness, but those familiar with the story are probably most familiar with this claim, since Kat posted screenshots demonstrating this in reply to the original article.

  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^

    Paying sources, or checkbook journalism, is typically reserved for tabloids and paparazzi in the United States. Most mainstream papers ban it out of concern about introducing conflicts of interest, reducing the journalist's ability to remain objective, and undermining credibility of information. More outlets in Europe follow a cultural norm of being willing to pay, but it is not stinginess that causes most American outlets to shy away from paying sources. 

  13. ^

    I confess I find his position paradoxical: on the one hand, they put more effort and care in than others; on the other, the standard used by professional journalists is too onerous.

  14. ^

    Fears of retribution are the baseline norm for anybody sharing negative information about anybody else with an eye towards broad publication. There are few more common fears to hear from sources.

  15. ^

    It would, however, probably take substantially less than $800k a year to persuade me to become one.

  16. ^

    The full text of the messages I sent, with hypo text truncated:

  17. ^

    I had a long and somewhat confusing conversation with Oliver over whether the panel members endorsed this paragraph, with him claiming they may have either changed their mind about the paragraph or would not believe it applied to the Nonlinear situation based on private conversations he'd had with them. The panelist who I discussed things with stands by everything in the report. 

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Strong downvote solely for the highly mendacious description of lawsuits, notably omitted from the introductory allegory. WTF. You know better. You investigate this sort of drama all the time, you know exactly how legal threats are egregiously abused by the wealthy to shut down criticism! You knew this before #Metoo and case studies like Harvey Weinstein, you knew it after, and you know it now even while you are writing this fantasy description of how wonderful lawsuits are and how surely only noble and good people ever sue over libel:

Threats of lawsuits are fundamentally different to other threats. They are, as @Nathan Young put it, bets that the other party is so wrong you’re willing to expend both of your time and money to demonstrate it.

No, they are not. They are not anything like that.

TracingWoodgrains, you know damn right well that the point of a lawsuit threat has nothing to do with whether you think you are right, and that you can count on one hand the sort of libel lawsuit which follows this beautiful fantasy. They are not, in any way, a 'bet that the other part is so wrong'. They are fundamentally different, because they are a bullet: they are solely a threat to destr... (read more)


The general animus against defamation lawsuits is one aspect I found particularly puzzling within this saga. And here I confess my biases in that I am a lawyer, but also a free speech maximalist who used to work at the ACLU (back when they were cool) and an emphatic supporter of anti-SLAPP statutes.

I suspect that defamation lawsuits have a poor reputation in part because of a selection bias. There are significantly more threats to sue than actual suits in our universe, and the threats that will shine brightest on the public's memory will necessarily be the most outlandish and least substantiated. Threats are further proliferated because they're very cheaply deployed (anyone with a bar card can type out a cease & desist letter on their phone on the toilet and still have time to flush) and — crucially — authentically terrifying regardless of the underlying merits or lack thereof. As you point out, there is no question that lawfare is often levied as a war of financial attrition.

The closest corollary would be the bevy of tort abuse stories. Before it was widely and thoroughly vindicated, the McDonald's hot coffee story served as the lodestar condemnation that the American tort sys... (read more)


I am not a lawyer. If I use as examples only what people I have met in person have told me (i.e. not anything I have read online, because yes that is a sample selected for being outrageous), I know three people who were targets of defamation lawsuits, and zero people who used one. I know more people who were, in my opinion quite realistically threatened by a possibility of such lawsuit, and as a result decided to be quiet about some bad activities that definitely should have been discussed publicly. I am not even counting myself in that set, and I know about the same activities that I do not discuss, no one even needed to threaten me directly, it is enough to know that other people in analogical situation were threatened for me to connect the dots. I know zero people who considered or threatened using a defamation lawsuit.

Each of us can have an unrepresentative sample, given our different professions and people we hang out with. So I am not saying that my experience is more representative than yours. Just adding a different data point.

Based on my experience, using this kind of threat is an evidence of being a villain, because I have only seen obvious villains use this weapon, eithe... (read more)

I'm sure all that is quite harmful, and I smiled to see the verdict against Giuliuani. I also think the criticisms of Nonlinear are clearly different from a Tiktok psychic accusing you of quadruple homicide, or Giuliani's behavior in pushing election fraud repeatedly on the flimsiest of fraudulent evidence even after being corrected and during the trial itself (similar to Jones doubling down again and again on his 'crisis actor' narrative) and casually stoking death-threats against innocent people who must flee into hiding because of what Giuliani has said. (Is Nonlinear in hiding from people sending them death threats and their home address online? Maybe I missed that in all the comments?) So I thank you for the point you inadvertently make here in trying to defend libel lawsuits.

I'm not sure what point you think I made here. I have a vague idea of how many lawsuits are filed in general, an extremely vague theory about what portion are defamation suits, and a hopelessly speculative guess of how many of those are frivolous. You're expressing a significantly higher level of epistemic certainty about that last question, and I'm questioning what evidence it's based on. You haven't offered any basis except assertions and anecdotal citations to notable examples.


This is a combative comment which fails to back up its claims.

how surely only noble and good people ever sue over libel

if you really believe lawsuits are so awesome and wonderful

He did not say this. This is not reasonable for you to write.

you can count on one hand the sort of libel lawsuit which follows this beautiful fantasy.

This is not true. This is obviously not true. A successful and important libel case (against Giuliani) was literally headline news this week. You can exceed five such cases just looking at similar cases: Dominion v Fox; Smartmatic v Fox; Coomer v Newsmax; Khalil v Fox; Andrews v D’Souza; and Weisenbach v Project Veritas. This is extremely unreasonable for you to say.

They are cynically used to burn money based on the fact that rich people have a lot more money than poor people

Nonlinear certainly doesn’t have more money than the EA community. Nonlinear plausibly (?) doesn’t have more money than Lighthouse; at a minimum, it’s not a significant difference.

which they would generally win, BTW

<argument needed>

It’s very unclear to me whether Lighthouse would win; your confidence here seems unreasonable; but more importantly, “no, that’s not tr... (read more)


This is not true. This is obviously not true. A successful and important libel case (against Giuliani) was literally headline news this week. You can exceed five such cases just looking at similar cases: Dominion v Fox; Smartmatic v Fox; Coomer v Newsmax; Khalil v Fox; Andrews v D’Souza; and Weisenbach v Project Veritas. This is extremely unreasonable for you to say.

Those were in fact some of the cases I had in mind, yes, thank you - I read the news too. And what one learns from reading about them is how those are exceptional cases, newsworthy precisely because they reached any verdict rather than settling, driven by external politics and often third-party funding, and highly unusual until recently post-2016/Trump. It is certainly the case that sometimes villains like Alex Jones get smacked down properly by libel lawsuits; but note how wildly incomparable these cases are to the blog post that Spartz is threatening to sue over. Look, for example, at Jones's malicious behavior even during the trial, or to take the most recent case, Giuliani, his repeated affirmation of the libelous and blatantly false claims. Look at the kinds of claims being punished in these lawsuits, like claim... (read more)


Those were in fact some of the cases I had in mind, yes, thank you - I read the news too. And what one learns from reading about them is how those are exceptional cases, newsworthy precisely because they reached any verdict rather than settling, driven by external politics and often third-party funding, and highly unusual until recently post-2016/Trump. It is certainly the case that sometimes villains like Alex Jones get smacked down properly by libel lawsuits; but note how wildly incomparable these cases are to the blog post that Spartz is threatening to sue over. Look, for example, at Jones's malicious behavior even during the trial, or to take the most recent case, Giuliani, his repeated affirmation of the libelous and blatantly false claims. Look at the kinds of claims being punished in these lawsuits, like claiming that the Sandy Hook shooting was completely fake and the victims' relatives are fabricating their entire existence. (You're going to analogize this to Pace saying 'Nonlinear may not have treated some employees very well'? Really?) Look at how many of the plaintiffs are private citizens, who are in no way public figures. That this rash of victories for the good guys

... (read more)
I haven't read this whole comment, though expect I will. Just making a quick clarification: I don't think that's an accurate summary of the linked comment (though it's also not like totally unrelated). Here it is in full:  I agree that this comment confirms that Spencer sent us evidence that related to some claims in the post. It does not speak on my epistemic state with regards to the relevance of that evidence. (To take an object-level stance on the issue, though I was more responding to the fact that I expect people will interpret that sentence as me saying something I am not saying, I do think that Spencer's messages were evidence, though really not very much evidence, and I would object to my epistemic state being summarized in this context as being interpreted as Spencer's screenshots falsifying anything about Ben's original post, though I agree that they are bayesian evidence against the hypothesis. I do think for the argument at hand to have force it needs to meet a higher standard than "some bayesian evidence", and I don't currently think it meets that threshold by my own lights)
I don't think that's the civil-society-wide norm? Using the threat of defamation lawsuits to keep people from saying true things, especially when the person threatening is richer or otherwise more powerful, that I agree there's a norm against. But using the threat to keep someone from doing something they're already not supposed to be doing [1], that I don't see a norm against? This looks to me like a threat to bring in the legal system to keep the dispute within bounds. (I was initially really negative on NL for threatening a suit, but I've reversed on this after coming to understand the situation better.) [1] In this case, saying damaging things some of which they expect will be shown to be false. He published after saying to NL that "I do expect you'll be able to show a bunch of the things you said." And should have expected to be publishing some false claims just based on how many claims there were and how little time he allocated to checking the final claims with NL.
I don't think this means very much without specifying which things, and how relevant to the overall question they are. I would say this both in worlds where I expect something substantial or something minor to be inaccurate. I also don't expect Ben would have said something different if he had waited longer for adversarial fact-checking. Reaching an epistemic status of "I don't expect you'll be able to show any of the things you said" seems extremely hard and unlikely. I think it's reasonable to criticize not waiting longer. But I object to using a sentence like this as really any evidence about the degree to which that was a mistake, or about the degree to which there are material errors in the post. Of course in any post like this, in a situation as adversarial like this, will there be some things that the post gets wrong. That's true in any domain of this complexity. I think admitting to potential error helps in situations like this and interpreting things as adversarially as this undermines people's ability to be honest and open to new evidence in situations like this.
I included Ben's quote because it seems relevant, but I think I'd be saying pretty much the same thing without it (or if it turned out NL used Ben's quote out of context). The "should have expected to be publishing some false claims just based on how many claims there were and how little time he allocated to checking the final claims with NL" is sufficient.

which they would generally win

Place your bets!

Of course this market is "Conditioning on Nonlinear bringing a lawsuit, how likely are they to win?" which is a different question.

I would were the judge not betting in the market. You really should be more upfront about that.
Manifold encourages market creators to participate in their own markets. Are you concerned that I will disregard the resolution criteria and steal the mana? Note that if Manifold thought judges should not bet in their own markets they could easily prohibit it or put a notification on markets where the creator was placing bets to warn prospective participants. (I've updated the resolution criteria a few times to make it more specific since creating the market, each time in ways that make it less likely to resolve YES, and I'm long YES)
I knew they did not prohibit it, but I am surprised they are actively encouraging it. In any real-money market, doing anything analogous would almost certainly be grossly illegal. I have significant restrictions on my real-life trading, and I just work at a company that sells information about the market, but doesn't actually run it. I've found the practice of people betting in their own markets on manifold to predictably result in unfair resolutions, and so I do judge people who do it, and I judge more harshly if they don't actively disclose the fact. I came to manifold on the expectation that it was trying to be like a real-money prediction market, and just couldn't because of laws in the US. As I see them diverging more and more from the standards of real markets, I become more and more disappointed. But you do make a fair point that perhaps I should judge Manifold more than the market makers if they are actively encouraging such bad behavior.

Manifold also explicitly encourages insider trading; I think they're just not trying to emulate real-money markets.

You can also rate how someone resolved their market afterwards, which I assume does something
I did not know this. How long has this been around?  Still strikes me as a really bad idea to ignore the norms that actual financial markets have developed over centuries of experience, but I am curious if this will actually solve the problem of judges biased by having a position in their own markets.
6Sinclair Chen
I added the reviews feature on July 12. We've been thinking about letting market creators delegate a judge that is not themselves. People sometimes do this informally. Also Manifold team members (and mods we delegate) have the power to overturn resolutions - though iirc we only do this in extreme cases.
Since the beginning.
I’m not sure, I haven’t been using Manifold for very long, sorry!

I agree that some people use them that way. I disagree that is a fair descriptor of every lawsuit threat, and think in this case the parties had approximately equal power and influence, and that six months of building a case against Nonlinear is every bit as threatening as a lawsuit. Since the overwhelming community consensus was that Ben's six months collecting negative information about someone with 60 hours to respond was reasonable and Nonlinear's threat of a lawsuit if not given another week to respond was unreasonable, I felt, and feel, that the community needs to sharply update against the reasonableness of collecting and presenting only negative information and somewhat more weakly update against lawsuit threats being de facto proof of bad faith and unfair dealing.

It is being had right here!

It is being had here after Nonlinear's reputation was damaged in what reads to me as a fundamentally unfair way, and being had in the way it is only because word happened to make it to me from a community I am a neighbor to but not a part of and I happened to be obsessive enough to respond. The court of public opinion is fickle and unreliable, relying on oratory skills and the chance of ... (read more)

Gawker engaged in a lot of things that seemed libelous against a lot of people but for a long time, no successful libel suit was run against them. It took the 8-figure lawsuit from Peter Thiel to move against Gawker. If it would take a similar amount of money for a successful suit with merit against the New York Times, that's a lot of money that competes for other EA priorities. It makes sense that it's too expensive and EA funders would see more bang for their buck elsewhere.

If financial concerns are the key mover, sure (although I don’t think it takes an 8-figure lawsuit to sue Gawker, just to ruin them). Gwern’s comment seemed to be outlining much more of an ethical principle: thou shalt not threaten defamation lawsuits even when you have suffered actual damages from actual defamation.


Lawsuits are an asymmetric weapon. Rich people can easily afford them (even if they know they would lose). If their use is unchecked, it would mean that no one would dare to criticize rich people (except for other rich people, but those may not care about specific wrongs that do not concern them).

There is always a chance to lose a lawsuit even if you were right; for example, you may fail to prove it. You would probably also lose a lawsuit if, let's say, 80% of your accusations are right, but the remaining 20% are wrong. (In which case, the community would still benefit from exposing the actor.) And even if you win the lawsuit... "the process is the punishment", it cost you lots of money and time.

I think that an absolute ban on lawsuits would probably be excessive, but given the asymmetry of power and the devastating impact, what rule would you propose to make the situation balanced?


Yes, there is also an opposite concern... people writing shit online can damage someone's reputation and business. If those people are more popular on LW, or if they do not have a business that could be damaged in turn, this is also an asymmetric weapon.

I guess the only thing I can say here is that if s... (read more)


I agree NL chose a bad strategy, but I also think you mischaracterize it? Instead of making a long list of claims they were asserting were false (without documentation) they picked one relatively serious accusation and responded to it in detail with screenshots.


I supposed one's perspective depends on how you see the relative seriousness of accusations. From my perspective, to be isolated from friends and family is a huge red flag, but not being given vegan food is... an asshole move, certainly, but... as I am not a vegan myself, I see it as nothing too serious, also because it was only one day.

It's like, if someone accused me of "arson, murder, and jaywalking", and I focused my entire defense on why what I did does not qualify as jaywalking... even if I made my case successfully, it would probably seem quite weird. (But if instead I said that the supposedly murdered person is actually alive, just give me some time to call them...)


I think the accusation around food was much more serious than Jaywalking. Ben's post had:

She was sick with covid in a foreign country, with only the three Nonlinear cofounders around, but nobody in the house was willing to go out and get her vegan food, so she barely ate for 2 days. Alice eventually gave in and ate non-vegan food in the house

I understood this to be claiming, some explicitly and some implicitly, that:

  • Alice was dependent on NL for food because she had covid.

  • NL would not provide her with food compatible with her dietary restrictions.

  • After two days she had eaten whatever small amount food was available that met her dietary restrictions, NL was still not providing her with acceptable food, so she decided to compromise her ethics in the name of not starving.

Now, the full picture ended up being pretty different from this (and also very messy and still disputed) but I don't think it's surprising that as stated many people took this as a serious accusation, and I don't think it was trivial or otherwise a bad choice for NL to rebut.

(Repeating, though, that I don't think chosing to spend their time rebutting a single claim in detail was a good strategy, and i... (read more)


I also think this accusation was relatively serious to me. 

I do not think it was among the very most serious accusations in the post, but I think it was a valid one to reply to. I also found the response that Kat wrote pretty compelling, and think it meaningfully affected my interpretation of the situation (I still assign some probability that Ben or Alice will have some good explanation of the situation that flips my understanding of the facts around, which has happened a few times in this whole situation, but I think that relies on trust in those parties that I don't think should be shared by others on this forum, and I think given the evidence provided, I think it's very reasonable for an observer to consider that accusation confidently false and relatively serious)

And I'm frustrated with myself that I didn't suggest this at the time.)

Many people did push for this at the time

(2) I think something odd about the comments claiming that this post is full of misinformation, is that they don't correct any of the misinformation. Like, I get that assembling receipts, evidence etc can take a while, and writing a full rebuttal of this would take a while. But if there are false claims in the post, pick one and say why it's false. 

Seconding this. 

I would be pretty interested to read a comment from nonlinear folks listing out everything that they believe to be false in the narrative as stated, even if they can't substantiate their counter-claims yet.


Maybe I'm missing something, but it seems like it should take less than an hour to read the post, make a note of every claim that's not true, and then post that list of false claims, even if it would take many days to collect all the evidence that shows those points are false.

I imagine that would be helpful for you, because readers are much more likely to reserve judgement if you listed which specific things are false. 

Personally, I could look over that list and say "oh yeah, number 8

... (read more)
Agreed! What I was trying to say is that I additionally feel badly for not having called for this.
I had thought people did push them for this?
We said this in our post about the vegan food: "We chose this example not because it’s the most important (although it certainly paints us in a very negative and misleading light) but simply because it was the fastest claim to explain where we had extremely clear evidence without having to add a lot of context, explanation, find more evidence, etc. We have job contracts, interview recordings, receipts, chat histories, and more, which we are working full-time on preparing. This claim was a few sentences in Ben’s article but took us hours to refute because we had to track down all of the conversations, make them readable, add context, anonymize people, check our facts, and write up an explanation that was rigorous and clear. Ben’s article is over 10,000 words and we’re working as fast as we can to respond to every point he made.  Again, we are not asking for the community to believe us unconditionally. We want to show everybody all of the evidence and also take responsibility for the mistakes we made." As for the "isolated" claim, we showed that this did not happen. Alice lived/worked apart from us for 50% of the time. Chloe's boyfriend was invited to travel with us 40% of the time. We encouraged them to have regular calls with friends and family when they weren't visiting. We have the invite policy where it says they're encouraged to invite friends and family (and they followed up on this, like with Chloe's boyfriend). 

I have never had any interaction with lawsuits of any kind, including those relating to libel etc.

However, a social dynamic I have observed several times in my life is that Person A and Person B have some kind of conflict. Person A is utterly convinced of the rightness (and righteousness) of their position.

Someone (either B or a third party, C) suggests that it may be prudent to involve the police or the teachers/parents (if these people are chidden) or other authorities. Person A, on mention of the police/teachers/whoever suddenly looses that utter confidence they had in the obvious morality of their position, and runs a mile. Curiously person A in this case will often genuinely feel that the mention of involving authority was an attack or an escalation (Although I think they are always wrong in that estimation, and that the main effect is to de-escalate). I have, on none of these occasions, actually seen the police/teachers/whoever actually be contacted. I believe there exists a certain frame of mind a human can get into, where they are in a position of relative power, and believe they have a great moral authority behind them. And that simply being reminded that they may potentia... (read more)


To be clear, it's not that they "mentioned lawyers", it's that they said: 

Given the irreversible damage that would occur by publishing, it simply is inexcusable to not give us a bit of time to correct the libelous falsehoods in this document, and if published as is we intend to pursue legal action for libel against Ben Pace personally and Lightcone for the maximum damages permitted by law. The legal case is unambiguous and publishing it now would both be unethical and gross negligence, causing irreversible damage.

Which has a bit of a different feel to it than "mentioning lawyers". (I think you otherwise make a decent point, though one I think that doesn't apply very well to this situation)

Since the /r/slatestarcodex comment section is unlikely to get the long-term traffic this mirror is, I want to copy my reply there over here as well.

I’m honestly really frustrated by your response to this post. The incident I describe is not trivial and it is not tangential to the purposes of the rationalist community. It directly damages the community’s credibility towards its core goals in a major way. You are about as trusted as a public figure gets among the rationalists, and when you see this whole thing, you vote it down and rebuke me because I don’t hate libel lawsuits as much as I hate libel.

Rationalists spend a lot of time criticizing poor journalistic practices from outside the community. It should raise massive alarms that someone can spend six months digging up dirt on another community member, provide scant time to reply and flat-out refuse to look at exculpatory evidence, and be praised by the great majority of the community who noticed while those who pointed out the issues with what was going on were ignored.

If a prominent person in your community spends six months working to gather material to destroy your reputation, then flat-out refuses to look at your exculpato... (read more)

I really don't want to get into a whole conversation here, just a quick comment so that people don't make wrong updates: I don't think Ben has said anything that indicates that he believes evidence provided "overturns an allegation in the article". I have, but I didn't write the article. I have asked you a few times to please not attribute things that I said to Ben or generalize them confidently to statements about the whole process here. Ben knows much more about the details here than I do, and I would really appreciate if you distinguish between me and him here. It's plausible to me that Ben also believes this, but I don't think your summary here is accurate. I don't think Ben has refused to update his post. Indeed he has many times offered to update the post and has pretty prominently linked to all relevant counter-evidence (and has also promised to update the post in response to the new evidence provided). I think there is some valid criticism here about not waiting to publish, but I don't think there is a valid criticism about not being willing to update the post. AFAIK all requests that were made to update the post with links or references to relevant counter-evidence were fulfilled. I really don't want to have a whole conversation here, but this does seem like an inaccurate summary of the process that occurred. The actual thing that happened is that Ben heard some specific accusations about Nonlinear which seemed very concerning, so he investigated those accusations. In the process of investigating those accusations he did not aim to make a full assessment of Nonlinear as an organization, but chose the limited scope of figuring out whether the accusations were accurate, and whether they were part of a larger pattern. This importantly is still a biased evidence-gathering process, because he did not also seek to find other good things that Nonlinear has done that might outweigh the harm indicated by these accusations. This seems like a totally normal thing t
I edited the original to "his collaborator." My apologies for the imprecision; I'll be more careful about attribution. Ben refused to update his post at the time in dispute--the moment when the lawsuit threat was sent. That he was willing to update it after publishing false information, and remains willing to update it, is not material to that point. Spencer provided important context which, when seen in full, dramatically changed public understanding of one allegation in the final article. You and Ben refused to delay publication to update that allegation before the article went live. When considering whether a lawsuit threat was reasonable and whether the publication of that allegation as written was actionably defamatory, that moment of publication is the relevant one. Since I am responding to Gwern's criticism of my defense of that moment, I figured the context for that was clear. As for whether my summary of the process is fair, I recognize we disagree here but stand by it and would say the same whether or not he included that disclaimer. The final article and the process that led to it was not totally normal by any stretch, an argument I present extensively in my post and throughout our conversations here. It is not normal to spend six months and hundreds of hours investigating negative information about people in your community, then publicizing it with a condemnation of those people to your whole community. I would definitely be keen to hear more about the actual process via DM, though, and could certainly see it changing my understanding of that process in important ways.
I think "refusing update" in this context would usually be understood to be about updating the published post for some ongoing period of time, at least that's how I understood it. But seems fine, I now understand the point you are trying to make. (Also, just to clarify for other readers, the lawsuit threat and the evidence Spencer sent over were separate events with two different groups of people who I think weren't aware of the messages the other group was sending. Indeed Spencer requested secrecy about him talking to Ben at all about this).

Do Nonlinear and Lightcone in fact have vastly different financial resources?

My impression is that they do not, in which case this line of criticism is moot here


It is hard to gauge, for obvious reasons, but the situation is asymmetric: even if Spartz-Nonlinear and Lightcone have similar annual budgets or assets or however you want to try to equate them, they are not the same. Lightcone is under constraints, like fulltime employees for maintaining & running these websites and renovating Rose Garden (which I recall them soliciting donations for because their budget wasn't going to cover it),* whereas Spartz-Nonlinear seems like it could halt its minimal activities/expenses if necessary without anything crashing to the ground, and devote his full cashflow to a lawsuit (with the benefit of contingency financing, as the plaintiff, paid out of damages). In addition, even if they are equal... how does one know that? Or willingness to be vindictive?

* As finance types know, cash(flow) is king. Since we're on the topic of libel lawsuits, this reminds me of the Oberlin bakery lawsuit, one of the rare bright spots where libel lawsuits seem to have done what they were supposed to, eventually - where Oberlin tried to destroy a private bakery maliciously by organized protests & repeated statements they knew were false, to score political points a... (read more)

gwern - The situation is indeed quite asymmetric, insofar as some people at Lightcone seem to have launched a poorly-researched slander attack on another EA organization, Nonlinear, which has been suffering serious reputational harm as a result. Whereas Nonlinear did not attack Lightcone or its people, except insofar as necessary to defend themselves.

Treating Nonlinear as a disposable organization, and treating its leaders as having disposable careers, seems ethically very bad.


I am confused, and I do not have enough energy to figure this out. So I will just wait and see what happens.

After Ben's post, everything seemed obvious. After the response from Nonlinear, everything seems obvious again. I wonder if it is possible that a third post (and fourth etc.) will flip the consensus again.

I wish that someone who only cares about technical details would go through the claims made in the original article, and made a list of: what exactly was claimed, what exactly was refuted, and how are these two related. To distinguish "X was clearly refuted by evidence Y" from "it is quite possible for X and Y to be simultaneously true" and maybe some other options.

(EDIT: This comment does it well; I would like to see Ben's response specifically to it.)

I have this weird feeling (and feel weird about admitting it) that the response from Nonlinear sometimes felt too good. Not sure if I can explain it. It's like... if one guy says "they paid me $1000" and the other guy says "no, we paid him $2000", then my brain will generate possibilities like: maybe it was $1000, maybe it was $2000, and maybe it was something in between and both sides are exaggerating -- all three options see... (read more)


I have this weird feeling (and feel weird about admitting it) that the response from Nonlinear sometimes felt too good.

One explanation is that you have this weird feeling because many problems turn out to be honest misunderstandings, and a response that is too good rules out the possibility that there's been an honest misunderstanding. Realizing that being charitable is not an option and that you are forced to believe that one of the two sides is a liar (or out of touch enough that they may as well be a liar) is 1) unpleasant, and 2) rare.

[-]jimrandomhModerator Comment4125

We (the LW moderation team) have given Roko a one-week site ban and an indefinite post/topic ban for attempted doxing. We have deleted all comments that revealed real names, and ask that everyone respect the privacy of the people involved.

Naive question: why are the disgruntled ex-employees who seem to have made many serious false allegations the only ones whose 'privacy' is being protected here? 

The people who were accused at Nonlinear aren't able to keep their privacy. 

The guy (Ben Pace) who published the allegations isn't keeping his privacy.

But the people who are at the heart of the whole controversy, whose allegations are the whole thing we've been discussing at length, are protected by the forum moderators? Why? 

This is a genuine question. I don't understand the ethical or rational principles that you're applying here.


We can talk about under what conditions revealing the identities of people who've made false accusations is appropriate, and about whether that accurately describes anything Alice and/or Chloe have done. But jumping straight to deanonymizing is seriously premature.

Did not Ben instantly deanonymize Spartz and Woods without discussion? I’m not getting banned for saying their names and I’d bet dollars to donuts they would prefer if they were never mentioned by name.

There's a big difference between arguing that someone shouldn't be able to stay anonymous, and unilaterally posting names. Arguing against allowing anonymity (without posting names) would not have been against the rules. But, we're definitely not going to re-derive the philosophy of when anonymity should and shouldn't be allowed, after names are already posted. The time to argue for an exception was beforehand, not after the fact.

Just to pull on some loose strings here, why was it okay for Ben Pace to unilaterally reveal the names of Kat Woods and Emerson Spartz, but not for Roko to unilaterally reveal the names of Alice and Chloe? Theoretically Ben could have titled his post, "Sharing Information About [Pseudonymous EA Organization]", and requested the mods enforce anonymity of both parties, right? Is it because Ben's post was first so we adopt his naming conventions as the default? Is it because Kat and Emerson are "public figures" in some sense? Is it because Alice and Chloe agreed to share information in exchange for anonymity? That was an agreement with Ben. Why do we assume that the agreement between Ben Pace and Alice/Chloe is binding upon LessWrong commenters in general? I agree that it feels wrong to reveal the identities of Alice and/or Chloe without concrete evidence of major wrongdoing, but I don't think we have a good theoretical framework for why that is.

I agree with asking this question. There's a worthy journalistic norm against naming victims of sexual assault, and a norm in the other direction in favor of naming individuals charged with a crime. You could justify this by arguing that a criminal 'forfeits' the right to remain anonymous, that society has a transparency interest to know who has committed misdeeds. Whereas a victim has not done anything to diminish their default right to privacy.

How you apply these principles to NL depends entirely on who you view as the malefactor (or none/both), and there is demonstrable disagreement from the LW community on this question. So how do you adjudicate which names are ok to post?

I agree that it feels wrong to reveal the identities of Alice and/or Chloe without concrete evidence of major wrongdoing, but I don't think we have a good theoretical framework for why that is.

Ethically (and pragmatically), you want whistleblowers to have the right to anonymity, or else you'll learn of much less wrongdoing that you would otherwise, and because whistleblowers are (usually) in a position of lower social power, so anonymity is meant to compensate for that, I suppose.

How do you determine who counts as a whistleblower? The generic definition refers to anyone who discloses insider information with the intent to warn others about potentially illegal or unethical misconduct. By this definition, Kat is a whistleblower because she revealed information about Alice's history of dishonesty (assuming of course this accusation is correct).

They're accused, not whistleblowers. They can't retroactively gain the right to anonymity, since their identities have already been revealed. They could argue that they became whistleblowers as well, and so they should be retroactively anonymized, but that would interfere with the first whistleblowing accusation (there is no point in whistleblowing against anonymous people), and also they're (I assume) in a position of comparative power here. There could be a second whistleblowing accusation made by them (but this time anonymously) against the (this time) deanonymized accuser, but given their (I assume) higher social power, that doesn't seem appropriate.

Is it because Kat and Emerson are "public figures" in some sense?

Well, yeah. The whole point of Ben's post was presumably to protect the health of the alignment ecosystem. The integrity/ethical conduct/{other positive adjectives} of AI safety orgs is a public good, and arguably a super important one that justifies hurting individual people. I've always viewed the situation as, having to hurt Kat and Emerson is a tragedy, but it is (or at least can be; obviously it's not if the charges have no merit) justified because of what's at stake. If they weren't working in this space, I don't think Ben's post would be okay.

Why not protect the EAs from a bpd liar who accuses everybody she comes into contact with of mistreatment and abuse?

L'Ésswrong, c'est moi.

See my comment here.  Kat and Emerson were well-known in the community and they were accused of something that would cause future harm to EA community members as well. By contrast, Chloe isn't particularly likely to make future false allegations even based on Nonlinear's portrayal (I would say). It's different for Alice, since Nonlinear claim she has a pattern. (But with Alice, we'd at least want someone to talk to Nonlinear in private and verify how reliable they seem about negative info they have about Alice, before simply taking their word for it based on an ominous list of redacted names and redacted specifics of accusations.) That would miss the point, rendering the post almost useless. The whole point is to prevent future harm.  Alice and Chloe had Ben, who is a trusted community member, look into their claims. I'd say Ben is at least somewhat "on the hook" for the reliability of the anonymous claims. By contrast, Roko posted a 100 word summary of the Nonlinear incident that got some large number of net downvotes, so he seems to be particularly poorly informed about what even happened.

By contrast, Roko posted a 100 word summary of the Nonlinear incident that got some large number of net downvotes, so he seems to be particularly poorly informed about what even happened.

Roko posted a request for a summary—he offered his own current and admittedly poorly-informed understanding of the situation, by way of asking for a better version of same. (And he was right about the post he was commenting on being very long.) This is virtuous behavior, and the downvotes were entirely unwarranted.

My point is that I have no evidence that he ended up reading most of the relevant posts in their entirety. I don't think people who read all the posts in their entirety should just go ahead and unilaterally dox discussion participants, but I feel like people who have only read parts of it (or only secondhand sources) should do it even less

Also, at the time, I interpreted Roko's "request for a summary" more as a way for him to sneer at people. His "summary" had a lot of loaded terms and subjective judgments in it. Maybe this is a style thing, but I find that people should only (at most) write summaries like that if they're already well-informed. (E.g., Zvi's writing style can be like that, and I find it fine because he's usually really well-informed. But if I see him make a half-assed take on something he doesn't seem to be well-informed on, I'd downvote.) 

My point is that I have no evidence that he ended up reading most of the relevant posts in their entirety.

Indeed, because they were very long. That was Roko’s complaint!

I don’t think people who read all the posts in their entirety should just go ahead and unilaterally dox discussion participants, but I feel like people who have only read parts of it (or only secondhand sources) should do it even less.

I don’t think “how much of a post has someone read” has any bearing whatever on whether it’s proper to dox anyone.

Also, at the time, I interpreted Roko’s “request for a summary” more as a way for him to sneer at people. His “summary” had a lot of loaded terms and subjective judgments in it.

Neither sneers nor loaded terms (a) make the summary untrue, or (b) bear on whether it’s fine to dox someone.

Now, if the summary was untrue, that’s another matter. But the proper response to that is to reply with a correction—which is exactly what Roko asked for! It would have been easy for someone (including the mods, if they wished) to post a reply saying “nah actually that’s wrong, the situation in fact is [some comparably short but more accurate description]”.

Sneers and loaded terms are, IMO, evidence that the summary is unlikely to be true. It's not impossible to sneer while having an accurate understanding of the situation, but typically sneering goes along with a lack of interest in the details of whatever one sneers at and a lack of concern for the accuracy of one's characterization; mechanically, a sneer is a status attack on something the sneerer feels contempt for. It can also be a sign of dishonesty: sneering feels good, so people are generally inclined to lower their epistemic standards when presented with a description of something that makes it sound sneerworthy, and this is a convenient impulse for bad actors to exploit. Due to these same features, I think they are also evidence that the speaker is, if they dox the target of the sneering, likely to be doing so out of a desire to hurt the target and without careful consideration for whether the ostensible justification for the doxxing is true.
Posting a request would have been fine, and nothing about that request requires or really benefits from including a summary. I don't see how it's virtuous to include one, especially one so inaccurate that it adds a lot of heat and noise to the discussion?

Elsewhere in discussions on LW, I have been told, repeatedly, that it’s proper to say what you think your interlocutor meant, if you have any kind of idea or guess, but are not sure or are confused. I don’t see why that principle should suddenly go out the window now, when it’s inconvenient.

I'm not sure if I agree with that principle in general, especially if you have as little context as Roko seemed to, but it also seems pretty different if you're going back and forth with someone as opposed to making a request for someone to summarize the discourse so far? Like, who is the "interlocutor" you're referring to in this case? And then another reason I'm negative on the comment is that I don't actually think Roko was trying to summarize the discussion as best as he understood it, but was in part trying to mock some of the participants. Though also note that it's mostly just heavily disagree voted and not downvoted.
4Said Achmiz
In the phrase “what you think your interlocutor meant”, the interlocutor is the OP, naturally. The request was directed to the commentariat generally. The two are not incompatible!
Here's my attempt at an answer. Note that nothing in this answer is meant to make any claims about the credibility of Ben's or Nonlinear's accounts. Ben Pace wrote a post saying "Hey, you know Kat Woods and Emerson Spartz? The people who run Nonlinear? The people listed on Nonlinear's website as running it? Well here's some info about them qua their role as running Nonlinear". It's an instance of taking a professional identity and relaying claims about their behaviour under that known identity. In his post, people using the identities of "Alice" and "Chloe" take the role of Nonlinear employees/contractors/whatever, and talk about stuff they experienced in terms of those roles. In Nonlinear's post, they make claims about things related to the identities of "Alice" and "Chloe" behaved in their roles as Nonlinear employees/contractors/whatever. In all of these instances, you're taking an identity/reputation someone has established in a domain, and making claims about behaviour associated with that identity in that domain, so that you can keep the reputation of that identity accurate. So you're not e.g. saying "Hey you know Joe Bloggs, the person who is publicly identified as CEO of NonCone? He actually secretly has Y weird habit in his personal life" - that would be an instance of cross-domain identification. So: the way revealing Alice and Chloe's names is different than what Ben did is that it takes an identity established in a domain, and links it to cross-domain information. This is bad because it makes it harder to set up identities in domains the way you want, which is valuable. But it seems like it could be justified if it turned out that Alice was (e.g.) a famous journalist, and that Alice's claims in Ben's post are totally false - then, knowing that the journalist did sketchy journalist stuff under the name of Alice would be very relevant to judging their reputation as a journalist.

I don't think that works. Imagine Pat and Sam had a series of really bad interactions and each thinks the other has done something seriously wrong to the point that other people should avoid interacting with them under some contexts. Sam (though it could have just as easily been Pat) posts publicly first, posting under a pseudonym, naming Pat, and detailing the interactions.

Does this mean that Pat is now permanently unable to use this "post your concerns publicly" community process to warn people about Sam, since if they ever do this, it will clearly link Sam to Sam's pseudonym?

3[comment deleted]

Very thoughtful post. I liked that you delved into this out of interest even though you aren't particularly involved in this community, but then instead of just treating it as fun but unproductive gossip, you used your interest to make a high-value contribution! 

It changed my mind in some places (I had a favorable reaction to the initial post by Ben; also, I still appreciate what Ben tried to do). 

I will comment on two points that I didn't like, but I'm not sure to what degree this changes your recommended takeaways (more on this below).

They [Kat and Emerson] made a major unforced tactical error in taking so long to respond and another in not writing in the right sort of measured, precise tone that would have allowed them to defuse many criticisms.

I don't like that this sounds like this is only (or mostly) about tone.

I updated that the lawsuit threat was indeed more about tone than I initially thought. I initially thought that any threat of a lawsuit is strong evidence that someone is a bad actor. I now think it's sometimes okay to mention the last resort of lawsuits if you think you're about to be defamed.  

At the same time, I'd say it was hard for Lightcone to come... (read more)

I appreciate the detailed response! 

I don't like that this sounds like this is only (or mostly) about tone.

The core of it, for me, is that Nonlinear was in a brutally difficult position. I've been on the receiving end of dogpiles from my own community before, and I know what it feels like. It's excruciating, it's terrifying, and you all-but see your life flashing before your eyes. Crisis communication is very, very, very difficult, particularly when people are already skeptical of you. Nonlinear's response to Ben was as he was on the verge of fundamentally changing the trajectory of their reputations and would not be swayed from his course, and their response to the community was in a similarly high-pressure frame.

The pressure and stress of a position like that makes it very hard for me to apply someone's behavior in those circumstances to other settings. A normal person acts very differently under intense pressure than in regular situations, so when I think someone is put in an unfair situation (as I do of Nonlinear) I'm reluctant to pass too much judgment from the sidelines. We don't know how the Nonlinear people would have reacted had those concerns been brought up in a mea... (read more)

(Also posted to the EA Forum)

This post seems premature to me (edit: which I recognize might seem in conflict with my defense of Ben not giving Nonlinear more time to respond before publication, and I am happy to go into why I hold both of these positions after Ben published his response).

In-particular the section 'Avoidable, Unambiguous Falsehoods' contains mostly claims that are, to the best of my knowledge, not actually falsehoods, but are correct. And that section of the post seems quite load-bearing (given that the central case relies on spreading false and/or misleading information about Nonlinear, and the case for an absence of due diligence).

Ben is working on a response, and given that I think it's clearly the right call to wait a week or two until we have another round of counter-evidence before jumping to conclusions. If in a week or two people still think the section of "Avoidable, Unambiguous falsehoods" does indeed contain such things, then I think an analysis like this makes sense, and people can spend time thinking through the implications of that (I disagree with various other parts of the post, but I think mine and Ben's time is best spent engaging with Nonlinear's ... (read more)

When you say "it's clearly the right call to wait a week or two until we have another round of counter-evidence before jumping to conclusions", is this a deliberate or accidental echo of the similar request from Nonlinear which you denied?

Like, on the deliberate way of reading this, the subtext is "While Lightcone did not wait a week or two for counter-evidence and still defends this decision, you should have waited in your case because that's the standard you describe in your article." Which would be a hell of a thing to say without explicitly acknowledging that you're asking for different standards. (And would also misunderstand TracingWoodgrains's actual standard, which is about the algorithm used and not how much clock time is elapsed, as described in their reply to your parent comment.) Or on the accidental way of reading this, the subtext is "I was oblivious to how being publicly accused of wrongdoing feels from the inside, and I request grace now that the shoe is on the other foot." Either of these seems kind of incredible but I can't easily think of another plausible way of reading this. I suppose your paragraph on wanting to take the time to make a comprehensive response (which I agree with) updates my guess towards "oblivious".

(I am aware of this seeming at least somewhat contradictory. I don't particularly want to litigate that in this comment thread before we publish a response, though if people care a lot I can do that. At the moment I would like to focus on publishing a counter-response. I am in favor of revisiting this thread after we have done so, and hope we can have a productive conversation then about it.)

Since the time I have started looking into this, you have:

... (read more)

I would like to ask a narrow question: What ACX Meetup Board?

The obvious-to-me guess I have for what you're talking about is a community council that was also in some places called a panel. I tend to think there's a meaningful distinction between a council and a board? Or, rather, I tend to have a specific meaning and context for a board (the board of a nonprofit, the board of directors for a company) and I don't believe anything like that exists for ACX meetups.

For context, hi, I'm the current ACX Meetup coordinator, if there is a board in the sense of a board of directors for ACX Meetups that is making decisions about ACX meetups I really think someone should tell me. 

Poor choice of words, yes. It was the community council or panel; I can DM more complete details if you'd like but it was all above-board and there is to the best of my knowledge no board of directors making decisions about ACX meetups.
If you're comfortable DMing enough details to know which thing you're talking about (I'm ~90% I know which one you have in mind but want to check) that'd be appreciated, but thank you for the clarification!

(responded on the EA Forum here

Given that Ben is working on a response, I think it's clearly the right call to wait a week or two until we have another round of counter-evidence before jumping to conclusions.

This is a remarkable sentence given your prior statement from three months ago:

I don't have all the context of Ben's investigation here, but as someone who has done investigations like this in the past, here are some thoughts on why I don't feel super sympathetic to requests to delay publication

Have you changed your mind since?

To be clear, the decision to delay publication will always be a judgement call subject to reasonable disagreement. As pointed out, sometimes the targets of an investigation will request a publication delay under false pretenses either as an indefinite delay tactic or to break the story themselves under much more favorable framing.

Even the question of whether to notify the targets of an investigation is subject to reasonable disagreement. To give an intentionally trivial example from a journalistic amateur, the YouTube channel Gamers Nexus published an expose a few months ago about what it saw as shoddy practices by Linus Tech Tips, a wildly popular tech review channel. GN's video was v... (read more)

I will reiterate my response to a similar comment: 
1David Hornbein
This was three months ago. I have not seen the anticipated response. Setting aside the internal validity of your argument above, the promised counterevidence did not arrive in anything like a reasonable time. TracingWoodgrains clearly made the right call in publishing, rather than waiting for you.

This post seems wildly over-charitable toward Nonlinear and their claims. Several things you note as refuted by Nonlinear aren't, e.g. "they were not able to live apart from the family unit while they worked with them" which even given the reply by Nonlinear is accurate (uncertain) is still true and obviously and unambiguously so.

Also, you fail to acknowledge that basically everything about Nonlinear's replies indicates an utterly toxic and abusive work environment and a staff of people who are seriously disconnected from reality and consumed in high-simulacra-level nonsense. The attempt to refute the claims made against them managed to be far more damning than the claims themselves. And the claims weren't minimal, either!

Can you explain more how "they were not able to live apart from the family unit while they worked with them" is true if Alice went to live in the EA hotel for three weeks while working for them without them doing anything to the contrary?

I'd be curious to hear your other examples here as well. I think the counterevidence is strong on each point I examine.

Six weeks, once, with significant counterpressure exerted against her doing so is confirmation of the original claim, not counterevidence.

Thank you for your response. That seems a tendentious reading to me, but I'm happy to leave it at that.

EDIT: Actually, given the level of support the above comment is getting, I'd appreciate elaboration from someone. The straightforward reading of "They were not able to live apart from the family unit while they worked with them" is that during the whole duration of working with the family unit, they were required to live in the same location. Are people honestly claiming that that sentence remains true as written if she spent fully a third of her time working for them living apart from them? I don't see where people are coming from on this at all.

I'm having trouble following your logic. Ben's post said "they were not able to live apart from the family unit while they worked with them" and we showed evidence that Alice lived apart from us ~50% of the time she worked for us. Are you disputing when Alice and Ben both said she visited her family? Has Alice disputed this, saying that she didn't actually live and work apart from us from that time?  She didn't live apart once but twice. She also lived/worked separately in the FTX condos (which we did not live in). And if you're counting, the time spent apart seems relevant. It was for ~50% of the entire time she worked for us. Not scraps she had to beg for.  In both cases, she never "asked" to leave. She just informed us. Because it wasn't our place to give "permission", so framing this as something that she only did at great cost to her is incorrect.  Or are you referring to the one sentence where they didn't technically say they weren't allowed to leave. Where they said "Alice and Chloe report that they were advised not to spend time with ‘low value people’, including their families, romantic partners, and anyone local to where they were staying, with the exception of guests/visitors that Nonlinear invited. Alice and Chloe report this made them very socially dependent on Kat/Emerson/Drew and otherwise very isolated." Now, if you read this very carefully, technically it does just say they were "advised" to not spend time with others. But it follows up by saying that "this made them very socially dependent on Kat/Emerson/Drew and otherwise very isolated". This very clearly implies that it was not that once we recommended that Alice postpone visiting her family to have impact. It is saying they were isolated and it clearly implies that it's because we told them to not spend time with others.  This couldn't be the case if it wasn't for the fact that we actually made them isolated. Which is indeed disproven by showing many text messages and screenshots of them ha

Crossposted from the EA Forum

Thanks for writing this! I'd been putting something together, but this is much more thorough. Here are the parts of my draft that I think still add something:

I'm interested in two overlapping questions:

  1. Should Ben have delayed to evaluate NL's evidence?
  2. Was Nonlinear wrong to threaten to sue?

While I've previously advocated giving friendly organizations a chance to review criticism and prepare a response in advance, primarily as a question of politeness, that's not the issue here. As I commented on the original post, the norm I've been pushing is only intended for cases where you have a neutral or better relationship with the organization, and not situations like this one where there are allegations of mistreatment or you don't trust them to behave cooperatively. The question here instead is, how do you ensure the accusations you're signal-boosting are true?

Here's my understanding of the timeline of 'adversarial' fact checking before publication: timeline. Three key bits:

  • LC first shared the overview of claims 3d before posting.
  • LC first shared the draft 21hr before posting, which included additional accusations
  • NL responded to both by asking for a week to ga
... (read more)

Someone asked me privately whether it would change my overall view if I learned that none of the claims that NL and Spencer offered evidence against during the 3 days (and/or 21hr) they had the list were false. I don't think it would, unless I also learned that LC was rightly completely confident of this at the time, which is quite a high bar given how little time there had been for NL to present their side.


Another response to a private question: is there any way to run an investigation like this if you absolutely can't share the claims with the accused ahead of time and wait for them to give counter-evidence?

I do think you can make a post that (a) compiles public evidence, (b) presents new evidence, and/or (c) presents your personal experience while getting your facts sufficiently correct that a defamation lawsuit would be an unreasonable escalation and unlikely to succeed. When signal-boosting someone else's accusations, however, especially if any of it involves taking their word for things, this is far harder and I expect almost always impossible.

If you have a hard constraint that you can't run something by the accused before publishing, I think you have two main options:

A. Support the accuser in getting their own story out: helping them draft it, gathering supporting evidence, helping them figure out which claims to lead with and which to drop, proofreading, emotional support, etc.

B. Write something that contains only what you can fully defend. "Here are screenshots Pat shared with us of a conversation with Org that we found troubling." If Pat is willing to go as far as forging evidence, and is good at it, then you're just screwed, but I'm assuming you're willing to take the risk that they're not doing that.

I've been holding off sharing a take about the Nonlinear situation, but I think I'm settle enough on one to share it now. This post is as good as any to write it up in response to.

As far as I can tell no one had malicious intent, but Nonlinear put themselves in a precarious situation by offering weird employment terms, and then didn't have strong enough filters to only hire people who would actually be happy with those terms. The situation predictably blew up, and now, depending on how you frame the situation, Nonlinear folks either look like assholes or victims because we don't have a standard way to interpret the facts.

Nonlinear seems to have fallen prey to a well-worn story in the startup world: naive, earnest founders try to do something novel with the organizational structure, and because most changes make things worse, things are worse, and it blows up in some weird way that lawyers haven't previously figured out how to deal with, so it ends up becoming a huge mess trying to sort everything out. For many startups, these kinds of failures kill companies that otherwise might have had successful products.

Successful small orgs know they can innovate on the org and processes, but ... (read more)


I've been busy this week and not actually soaked in all the details from the newer Nonlinear response post, or this one (I have skimmed both). I work at Lightcone. I wasn't heavily involved in this investigation, but I helped a bit from the sidelines and generally supported it and probably deserve some small portion of whatever credit/blame end up going to Ben/Habryka when the dust settles.

I disagree with much of the framing here. I think I am also more skeptical than you about how much Nonlinear's counterclaims exonerate them (Many of their own statements skeeve me out in a way that isn't very dependent on Alice's veracity)

But, one update I did make reading this post:

"I think it was probably still correct to ship quickly, given what Ben knew at the time, but, I think it'd have been better to avoid editorializing. i.e. stick to propagating facts." 

The reason I still am in favor of not delaying a week is that I think the risks of the adversarial slowdown, or threatening/pressuring witnesses into silence, are real, and this post doesn't engage with them enough IMO. 

I agree with the failure modes you list here of shipping quickly. If we were going to trade off those failure ... (read more)

I think I am also more skeptical than you about how much Nonlinear's counterclaims exonerate them

I mention this in the post and realize this is a frustrating frame for the Lightcone people who worked hard on this story, but I really just don't care a ton about Nonlinear qua Nonlinear. It's a small charity org with an unconventional structure working in a general area (AI safety) a lot of rationalists see as important and I have ambiguous feelings on in terms of the efficacy of charity work. I don't have a lot of weight as to where people should land on whether their claims "exonerate" them in a true sense, particularly because the stakes feel a lot more like "roommate drama" stakes than "FTX" ones to me.

What I do care very much about is that the rationalist/EA community not fall into the same callout/dogpiling/"cancel" cultural traps I've seen repeat in so many other subcultures. Spending six months to gather only negative information about someone -- particularly someone in your own community, where your opinion will carry a lot of weight -- before presenting it in public is bad, full stop. It works in a courtroom because there is a judge there, but the court of public opinion dem... (read more)


So I have more objections to some of this, but I maybe want to take a moment to say: 

I do really appreciate that you are here trying to push for good epistemic standards. I definitely think each of the considerations you're raising are really important. I don't feel that confident that we made the right call, and I think each of the points you're making should be a pretty strong default that you need a really good reason to deviate from.

I think you're wrong about specific points like "Nonlinear couldn't do anything to indefinitely delay publication" and "Ben had the info and could do what he felt he ought independent of Nonlinear's actions."

But, mostly right now it feels like you have one really strong/clear frame of how to do truthseeking. I think "investigative journalism ethics" is one particular frame, but neither the only frame for collective truthseeking nor for "figuring out how a community can/should protect itself from manipulative people."

I can totally buy deciding, in a few weeks, that, yep, Ben fucked up here. And fwiw I also don't have any objection to you writing your post now rather than later (I thought that was a pretty weird objection on Habryka's part, given... (read more)

I appreciate this response and would love to dive into it more. I’m only loosely familiar with the dialogue format on this site but am definitely game, though I’d request an asynchronous one since I prefer having time to gather my thoughts and maintaining a bit of flexibility around each of our schedules.

Yep reasonable. I’m busy this week but if it still feels promising next week can followup then.
I'm not sure what you mean here? If LC had said "ok, we'll consider all the evidence you provide by [datetime] and update our post as we see appropriate" what are you worried about? This seems possible to address with precommitments? I think LC and the sources could have agreed on and included something like "to protect our sources from retaliation aimed at keeping the serious allegations in this post from becoming public, we have agreed with them that from the time we first share a draft with NL we will not honor any requests our sources make to withdraw claims." And then made sure NL knows this and that LC is serious about it.
As far as I understand Ben seemed to have made a precommitment to Alice and Chloe to publish at a certain date. The idea of them not publishing at that point seems to already break a precommitment and make future precommitments weaker.  I find the idea of precommiting not to update on Alice saying "When it comes to event XY I forgot to mention facts Y and Q" not easy to uphold.

Ben seemed to have made a precommitment to Alice and Chloe to publish at a certain date

Sorry, I'm trying to talk about how to do this sort of thing in the future and what options were available to someone in Ben's position. If Ben committed to Alice and Chloe that he'd publish on a certain date (and it's not clear to me he did, or if so how far out he did) that was a mistake, and then one seriously compounded by not starting 'adversarial' draft review far enough in advance of that date.

What I'd like to see from future people in Ben's position is something like:

A: I can't publish this list of accusations without letting the other side raise potential counterevidence

B: I'm concerned about retaliation during the period when the accused knows this is coming but before it's public, with the goal of getting me to retract

A: I'm willing to commit to not honoring any requests you make to withdraw claims between now and publication, and to make the accused aware of this, so they won't benefit from retailiation

I think this handles the retaliation-against-sources-to-prevent-publication concern?

I find the idea of precommiting not to update on Alice saying "When it comes to event XY I f

... (read more)
The decision of whether or not to launch a ICBM is a binary one. Take the issue of the illegal drugs. Imagine that Alice first version of the story was as unspecific as it's written. One day in Kate writes in and says "It's ADHD medication + antibiotics and not really illegal material". Then Alice sends an email saying ""It's ADHD medication + antibiotics and not really illegal material". If Ben then publishes a story saying "It's Alice position that it's illegal drugs and Kat's position that Alice wasn't asked to bring over illegal drugs" Ben would likely get pushback for that. In an actual court case, it can be argued that Ben misrepresents the evidence available to him. 
It sounds like you're describing a situation like: With this strategy B would ignore that A agrees with C's clarification. And would also ignore it if instead it had been: If it's important to A that C cannot retaliate against them to shut them up and they've decided to use the precommittment process I'm proposing, this requires giving up some flexibility. In this case the time for B to get clarity from A on exactly what they're claiming would have to be before starting the adversarial fact checking process. Once it has started, all B can do is consider what they heard from A before fact checking and what they're hearing from C now and choose between keeping the claim, weakening it, clarifying it, or dropping it. Note that weakening it is quite tricky: you can't do it in a way that makes it sound like A is claiming something different than they already endorsed before fact checking, so if you do want to keep the claim I think clarifying it will often make more sense. In this scenario I think I'd go with something like "A told me C asked them to bring drugs into the country illegally. During fact checking C agreed that it wouldn't have been legal, but also said they were over-the-counter medications and at the time they made the request they believed bringing them in was legal." And then potentially adding "Due to the precommitments to our sources I described above, I have not asked A whether they agree with C's description of the situation, but even if C is correct I think it demonstrates a reckless attitude toward the sensitive matter of bringing controlled substances between jurisdictions."

Scanned it, seems pretty fair. In our discussion you convinced me pace should probably have given the team a week to respond, unless other information comes out. 

Paying sources, or checkbook journalism, is typically reserved for tabloids and paparazzi in the United States. Most mainstream papers ban it out of concern about introducing conflicts of interest, reducing the journalist's ability to remain objective, and undermining credibility of information. More outlets in Europe follow a cultural norm of being willing to pay, but it is not stinginess that causes most American outlets to shy away from paying sources. 

I think it's misleading to call the post that Ben wrote journalism. Journalism is usually about outsiders looking into a community but not about stakeholders within the community developing public positions. Ben has not the incentives of a newspaper who wants to sell copies.

In the absence of a public post information like this would have likely be used privately by funds to reject grants to Nonlinear. Making the evidence public makes it easier to address it. 

There are multiple laws in the US that define whistleblower bounties, because they are generally seen as a good tool for getting evidence into the public domain.


Thanks for the post. Your intuition as someone who has observed lots of similar arguments and the people involved in them seems like it should be worth something.

Personally as a non-involved party following this drama the thing I updated the most about so far was the emotional harm apparently done by Ben's original post. Kat's descriptions of how stressed out it made her were very striking and unexpected to me. Your post corroborates that it's common to take extreme emotional damage from accusations like this.

I am sure that LW has other people like me who are natural psychological outliers on "low emotional affect" or maybe "low agreeableness" who wouldn't necessarily intuit that it would be a super big deal for someone to publish a big public post accusing you of being an asshole. Now I understand that it's a bigger deal than I thought, and I am more open to norms that are more subtle than "honestly write whatever you think."


I'm not sure the "Quokkas with machineguns" picture is an accurate one. The people in this community who are quokkas are fairly distinct from the people with the machine guns; the quokka is the careful introverted nerd who likes math and logic, and the person with the machine gun is probably the attractive, poly, highly-sociosexual woman who tried to sleep with the boss's brother and then potentially emotionally manipulated people into writing hitpieces on her behalf.

If the broader rationalist community was all quokkas it would probably not have this kind of scandal, but with success and fame and impact on the world more of the machine gunner types will show up, and we'll see more and more of this.

This is what nonviolent or fifth generation warfare looks like. Informational and reputational warfare. Competition for money, fame, power, and so on by trashing the reputations of your adversaries with lies or with exaggerations.

And as more normies enter the space, we'll see a greater susceptibility to these kinds of tactics; trial by vibes, the power of accusations and groupthink. If the normies win, the rationality movement will turn into something like Forbes 30u30 or Ted Talks.

Zoomin... (read more)


I am skeptical of the gender angle, but I think it's being underdiscussed that, based on the balance of evidence so far, the person with the biggest, most effective machine gun is $5000 to the richer and still anonymous, whereas the people hit by their bullets are busy pointing fingers at each other. Alice's alleged actions trashing Nonlinear (and 20-some former people???) seem IMO much worse than anything Lightcone or Nonlinear is being even accused of.

(Not that this is a totally foregone conclusion - I noticed that Nonlinear didn't provide any direct evidence on the claim that Alice was a known serial liar outside of this saga.)

Hey, Roko! Sincere thanks for alerting me to this situation, as well as motivating a petty “There are a million better ways to disagree with them; let’s see what I can do” urge when I saw your post about it. I wouldn’t have noticed or responded to this all without that prompting.

As for quokkas and machine guns, I don’t disagree that someone can be one or the other, but—well, not to put too fine a point on it, but I don’t think Ben is an attractive, poly, highly sociosexual woman. As a more general archetype, I think there’s a distinct sort of first-principles thinking that can lead someone to do a lot of harm without precisely meaning any of it.

0Matt Goldenberg
This felt unnecessarily gendered to me.  There are obviously masculine manipulative sociopaths.

Yes, obviously, but they use different strategies. Male sociopaths rarely paint themselves as helpless victims because it is not an effective tactic for men. One does notice that, while the LW community is mostly male, ~every successful callout post against a LW community organization has been built on claims of harm to vulnerable female victims.


~every successful callout post against a LW community organization has been built on claims of harm to vulnerable female victims.

An example of a post that wasn't was Concerns with Intentional Insights, where most of the accusations were not about harming specific victims but for the ones that were (subverting Upwork's minimum wage rules) the victims were mostly male.

Was that a particularly key part of the accusation? TBH, I completely forgot about that part of it. Is this just me? Do other people remember that aspect or did they forget it?
For me the key accusations were (a) he did a lot of smallish bad things and (b) he would repeatedly do something bad, be told that it was bad, apologize, say he'd "updated", and then he'd keep doing the thing. So I don't think any of the object level harms in the post are "key"; it was how many there were and how he responded to feedback on them.
I didn't remember it as key, but the highlights I'd cached about the whole affair (before rereading the post) were that he'd been astroturfing reviews and that he'd required unpaid 'volunteer' work from employees (well, and that employees had been doing some of the astroturfing, possibly on 'volunteer' time).
-5Matt Goldenberg

I think this just shows another weakness of the actual, real-world rationality culture we currently have - trying to bend the pursuit of truth so that it just happens to coincide with popular narratives.

Eliezer was really onto something when he wrote that future rationalists would live like monks and not partake in social status games ...

In short, you do not dodge liability for defamation by attributing beliefs to your sources or by clarifying you don't know whether an accusation is true. 

This is very wrong if actual malice is the standard. Your own case law says as much too. 

I considered going into actual malice and think Harte-Hanks is a close enough parallel to have a lot of worthwhile things to say on that front, but I thought it was important to establish those two points given Oliver's comment on the matter. 


I find the general response to the threat of a libel suit to be deeply concerning. It is true that libel suits, and lawsuits generally, are expensive, time consuming, and generally unpleasant for everyone involved, including the victors. That is why I think NL ultimately made the right decision not to sue. That said, I also think that it is important not to use social pressure to discourage lawsuits. And I think we can all see this when we look at other communities from an outside perspective. When a community mistreats its members badly enough, it is important that the law be there as an escape hatch, and attempting to interfere with that by creating norms against lawsuits is therefor likely to be very harmful. The Amish famously will never seek recourse in the secular legal system, no matter how bad the wrong or what the circumstances are. Does anyone here admire this aspect of the Amish culture? Cults also famously use all kinds of pressure tactics to prevent members from seeking out the law. This is bad. We should not be like this. So when I see the way Habryka for example talks about the threat of a libel suit in this case, or Gwern, or a number of others, that sets off alarm bells for me. I don't think Habryka is a cult leader right now, but I do think he is veering uncomfortably in that direction and I hope he changes course.

I disagree with this but I found this a novel and compelling perspective. I agree that discouraging people from using legal tools to defend themselves can pretty strongly push towards insularity and creates opportunities for greater forms of exploitation, which is something I am quite concerned about these days.

I do think at least for me, libel suits are a very uniquely bad aspect of the law (especially in countries like the UK where the standards for libel are much lower), and their effects also seem particularly in-conflict with what I see as the central mission and values of the rationality and EA communities. I do think you make a decent case for a broad general norm here, and I would be interested in exploring it more.

9Said Achmiz
I do think that this is admirable. I agree that this is bad. But there’s a critical point here: whether the pressure to eschew lawsuits and similar legal-system tactics boils down to “if you do this, we don’t consider you a member of this community anymore”, or whether instead it’s something more severe. In the case of cults, it does tend to be much worse than that! (Even if it’s just the threat of expulsion combined with various psychological pressure tactics to convince the member that expulsion is intolerably horrible.) I think that it’s almost always impossible for one member of a community to involve the law in a dispute with another community member and for them both to remain in the community thereafter. Sometimes this is perfectly fine and is the normative outcome—for example, suppose that Dave physically assaults Ellen while they’re playing D&D at their local gaming club, and Ellen calls the police, and presses charges against Dave. Is Dave going to continue as a member of the gaming club? No way. And nor should he! But, conversely, if Dave is minding his own business, and Ellen calls the police on him because she finds him vaguely alarming for unclear reasons (perhaps bigotry of some sort), and Dave ends up being hassled (or worse) by the cops even though he did nothing wrong—well, then it’s Ellen who can expect to be disinvited from the club’s meetings thenceforth. Either way, you generally don’t involve the law in your community disputes and then expect all parties involved to remain community members in good standing. It’s simply an unrealistic expectation.

After Ben’s post, 38% of responses to Nathan’s poll disagreed that there should be a way for Nonlinear to continue doing charity work with the support of the community, while 22% agreed. It’s unclear to me that a six-month campaign to gather negative information and then warn people about a group in your community is any less divisive in that regard than a lawsuit.


I think you are using an inapplicable definition of "community". Your example of a D&D group calls to mind a "community" in the sense of "a group of single digit number of people who are in the same room socially interacting on a recurring basis." In this sense of the word, neither EA nor rationality is a community. I agree that we should not expect Ben/Alice/Chloe to be in the same community with Kat/Emerson, for this narrow sense of community. And my assumption is that they weren't on the day before Ben made his post. And that is fine.

There is a broader sense of the word "community", which we might define as "an extended social network with shared identity and values", which does apply to EA and rationality. I don't see a reason why two people in a legal dispute shouldn't be able to remain in this sort of community.

1Said Achmiz
You are right that there are different sorts and scales of “communities”. (It seems clear to me that these exist on a continuum from the gaming group to “all of rationality and/or EA”, rather than a strict binary, but that does not materially alter your point.) But the degree to which a “community” can be productive and efficient (in whatever sense is applicable to the community’s purpose) is highly correlated with the degree to which it more resembles the former sort of community than the latter (i.e., its position, on some relevant dimensions, along this continuum). A shared (and adhered-to) understanding that one does not employ libel suits to settle within-community grudges constitutes a position along one (and a very important one) of those dimensions. Going from having that understanding, to not having it, is a huge break. It substantially degrades the community’s ability to accomplish anything useful. If such a thing truly becomes necessary (and it certainly might), it means that something has gone catastrophically wrong with the community. (One can then discuss which party or parties are to blame for this breakdown—but that a breakdown has occurred, with disastrous consequences for the community’s effectiveness at its purpose, is in that case inarguable.)
I agree that these different sorts of communities exist along a continuum. What startles me is that you seem to think that the intimacy of the something of the smaller community can and should be scaled to the larger sort of community. To my mind, it is inherently a property of the small size. Trying to scale it sets of loud alarm bells. I'm not sure to what extent I endorse this, but possibly one way of summarizing the problems of overly controlling organizations like cults is that they try to take the intimacy or something of a small community and scale it. I also strongly disagree with your presumption that we are talking about "Going from having [the understanding that we do not use libel suits within the community], to not having it". I have never understood the rationalist community to have such a norm. From where I am sitting, Habryka is trying to create such a norm out of nothing, and I am not ok with that. As I believe I have said already, I agree that libel suits, and law suits generally, can be damaging, and I certainly do not encourage anyone to use them. I'm just pointing out that having a norm against using lawsuits can be even more damaging.
6Said Achmiz
Indeed, as you scale a community, the costs of adhering to a norm like this proportionally increase. (The rate of this increase, and the final amount of it, of course depend on various aspect of the community.) The benefits, however, do not proportionally decrease. Certainly there are points in community-space where the costs outweigh the benefits. (For example, when the community is as large, and as diverse in ideology and temperament and other things, as a country…) Those points tend to occur with greater likelihood in the region toward the higher end of the scale dimensions. This is all true. It does not follow from any of the above, however, that this community cannot adhere to such a norm, or hasn’t adhered to it, or shouldn’t adhere to it, etc. I think that Gwern said it well: And empirically, we can observe that Less Wrong and the greater “rationalist” community has always operated in accordance with such a norm.
Can you articulate what exactly the property of small communities is that we are talking about, and what its benefits are? I still am not forming a coherent picture of what the heck you are talking about because, again, the thing I was trying to point to in making this distinction I think is inherently a property of small groups. Are you seriously now claiming that all of society has a norm against lawsuits? I think that is just obviously wrong, particularly for the US. And the misappropriation of the more traditional "arguments get arguments, not bullets" is just astoundingly oblivious. Lawsuits are a kind of argument! They are an example of the thing we are supposed to do instead of bullets! No, I cannot empirically observe that the rationalist community has operated by such a norm. I can empirically observe that I know of no instance where one rationalist has actually filed a libel suit against another, but this is much more likely to be due to either (1) my ignorance of such a suit, or (2) the low rate of actually filing libel lawsuits in society at large combined with the small size of the rationalist community. I know of no instance of a rationalist going to space either, but I'm pretty sure we don't have a norm against it. I'd never heard anyone speak of such a norm until the NL drama. That is significant evidence that there is no such norm. May I ask which city you live in?
-3Said Achmiz
I am talking about the community norm of not using lawsuits to settle arguments (and, more generally, disputes that are… just about words, let’s say). It’s not exclusively a property of small communities—that’s my point. As for what the benefits of this norm are—wow, that rather broadens the scope of the discussion! I’d rather not have this comment thread spiral out of all reason or proportion… Obviously not. Gwern has already addressed this. Please attend carefully to exactly what I wrote: I chose my words quite deliberately. I did not claim that we have always had this norm. (That may be true, but it is not what I am claiming there.) I claimed that we have operated in accordance with such a norm. That might’ve been just coincidence! But the fact that we’ve not deviated from the behavior the norm would mandate, is evidence of the norm’s effective existence. I live in New York City. Why do you ask this?
Then you misunderstood what I was trying to point at when I brought up the distinction about the scale of a community. I was trying to point at the fact that when lawsuits occur, there is likely already too much negative feeling between the parties for them to enjoy direct interactions even in a small group context, and if there isn't already, the lawsuit causes it. I was pointing to a fact about human psychology, which on a pragmatic level we need to arrange our social structures to deal with. I was not pointing to a norm about using libel lawsuits.   At this point, you've failed to engage with my point that having a norm against lawsuits is harmful, even though lawsuits themselves are also harmful. I'm guessing your case for having such a norm is that lawsuits are harmful, which is not something I dispute. Is there any more to say?   Negligible evidence, especially in comparison to the lack of any past discussion of such a norm. Your argument here is so bad, and your choice of language so ambiguous, that I have to question whether you are even arguing in good faith.
6Said Achmiz
By the way, you haven’t answered: What was the purpose of the question about my city of residence? What hinges on this?
My guess is River was asking because it gives some context on where you encountered different community norms (though my sense is that in your case your model of the community is not very dependent on your physical location, though there are many others for which it would be). 
2Said Achmiz
0Said Achmiz
I understood your point perfectly well. But your very argument, right here, contains its own refutation, on two points: Firstly, you say (italics added) But “even” is precisely the wrong word to use here. Indeed, in a small group context, if feelings are soured enough to even contemplate a hypothetical lawsuit, then no direct interaction is possible—and in a small group context, it’s direct interaction or bust. But in a larger group this doesn’t apply. One does not need that sort of “intimacy” to interact productively, neither before nor after the dispute. Then, you say: Yes! Exactly! The lawsuit causes it! Which is a good reason not to employ lawsuits! Why do you say that I’ve failed to engage? I responded to that point, in this earlier comment. Presumably, the “more to say” is some hypothetical argument that having a norm against lawsuits is so harmful that it outweighs any benefits of such a norm. Do you have such an argument? Let’s set aside for the moment the question of whether my argument is bad. But what do you mean by saying that my choice of language was ambiguous? I think I’ve been as clear as is reasonable to expect, in a discussion like this. Are there some claims or statements I’ve made that you would like me to clarify? I’ll be happy to do so, if I can.
Your conclusion doesn't follow.  A community is fully in its rights to use social pressure to discourage things it disagrees with (like libel suits), and others are fully in their rights to do those discouraged things anyway if they're willing to bear the social costs. This is fallacious reasoning. It equivocates social discouragement with the far more extreme pressure tactics of cults. It also equivocates "discouraging libel suits" with "prevent from seeking out the law". And it implies that only cults do this kind of discouragement. Separately, comparing Habryka to a cult-leader is a remarkable and remarkably unfounded non-sequitur.
What is up with the voting patterns on this post?_? My comment sits at 0 karma (3 votes) and -17 agreement karma (5 votes), and yet no-one bothered to reply or react to any part of it?
A lot of people have strong, competing opinions about this topic. The votes on my own comments have been all over the place, often careening wildly from one hour to the next.
I agree. But actually using the law is equal to making a statement that the community is too dysfunctional to solve the problem internally. (If that is true, it is a correct statement to make. If that is false, it is an incorrect statement to make.) There should be an option to escalate and people should not escalate needlessly. As I see it, there are basically three things that can happen now: Option 1 -- a few weeks later Ben (or someone else) will write an equally convincing response, which again will make most people update dramatically. Option 2 -- Ben will write a public apology, admitting that he was wrong about most or all things. Then we will collectively brainstorm about how to make it up for Nonlinear and all individuals named, and how to make sure this never happens again. Option 3 -- silence. This would be the most disappointing option, and because it doesn't have a clear trigger, I guess unless by the end of January I get some information like "a thorough rebuttal is being written and it's at least 40% done, some people have seen the working version and they think it is solid", I will assume that this is what actually happened. In such case, either some high-profile person (Habryka?) will write the public apology on community's behalf, and we continue like in Option 2... or I will conclude that we indeed are a dysfunctional community and I will be really sad about it. Also, in this case, I would approve of the lawsuit. It's the fact that these options realistically exist that makes it different from the cult analogy in my opinion. And if you decide to escalate before these options are exhausted, that's kinda like jurisdiction shopping. You can be treated as a part of the community, or you can be treated as a faceless corporation, but you can't just choose whatever is more convenient for you at the moment. (And yeah, maybe the community sucks and it's not worth being its part.)

Just commenting to explain that I strongly downvoted this post because:

  • The "Unambiguous Falsehoods" section appears to contain exclusively truths or ambiguous claims of falsehood on Nonlinear's part (extremely strange to read, and happened constantly as I was reading this post)
  • I'm not sure how it's possible to totally disregard the power dynamics / coercion at play when an independently-wealthy person threatens to sue someone investigating them, but it appears that you've succeeded in doing so

Overall I think you have a fun and engaging writing style - kudos for that - but the content of this post was harmful.

I appreciate the response! A lot of people have been saying in passing that the section doesn't contain unambiguous falsehoods, but have provided few specifics. Going through:

  • The number of former employees - there's nothing ambiguous here.
  • "not able to live apart" - some people have claimed that "lived apart for six weeks with no issues" does not disprove "not able to live apart," a claim that still confuses me.
  • salary - the written contract and the conversations beforehand are pretty clear.
  • spent through financial runway/outstanding salary -- they have Alice on record saying she hasn't been paid in months with timed transactions demonstrating otherwise. The outstanding money was not salary, and the reason they provide for it being outstanding (her inexplicably switching away from their public reimbursement system, with them paying as soon as she informed them) makes perfect sense.
  • expecting financial independence - their consistent "Project Manager" messaging makes sense to me. What am I missing here?
  • nobody willing to get vegan food - All parties to the controversy concur that the article was incorrect here.
  • didn't mind polyamory "on the other side of the world", but couldn't stand it
... (read more)
I have not read most of what there is to read here, just jumping in on "illegal drugs" ---> ADHD meds. Chloe's comment spoke to weed as the illegal drug on her mind.

To clarify, this is specifically in the context "Kat requested that Alice bring a variety of illegal drugs across the border for her." Chloe didn't come into it.

Yeah Ben should have said illicit not illegal, because they are illegal to bring across the border except if you have a valid prescription, even if the place you purchased them didn’t require a prescription. But I wouldn’t consider it an unambiguous falsehood, like the following is mostly a sliding scale of frustrating ambiguity: 1. ‘asked Alice to illegally bring Schedule II medication into the country’ [edit: entirely correct according to NL’s stating of the facts] 2. ‘asked Alice to illegally bring Schedule II drugs into the country’ [some intermediate version, still completely factually correct but would be eliding the different between meth and Adderall] 3. ‘asked Alice to bring illegal drugs across the border’ [frustratingly bad choice of words that gives people a much worse impression than is accurate, from memory basically the thing that Ben said]
Just for the record, I think the original claim continues to be true, and in addition to prescription drugs, Alice was also asked to bring over recreational drugs that are more clearly illegal. I do think that if the facts were such that it was just ADHD meds, the way the claim was presented (especially given that it explicitly mentioned 'recreational drugs') would have been misleading.  However, I don't think it was just ADHD meds (this is somewhat hard to prove since as far as I know basically all requests for things like this were made in voice, but we might be able to find something).
Ah I see. I took ‘recreational’, given NL’s context, to mean something like ‘ADHD medication taken recreationally’.
I think the contract is valid [1] in as much as it was signed before the relevant time period. However, Kat has still not verified when the contract was signed (or whether it was signed at all), which I would still really appreciate a response on. 1. ^ edit: valid in the sense of "valid evidence on the dispute of expectations setting, immoral behavior, and violations of common-sense ethics". I am not trying to make a claim here of legal validity. The legal issue here is likely to be quite complex and depends on details I don't have access to. 

I hope you receive this feedback packaged along the constructive nature I intend. A concerning number of your responses that touch on legal issues demonstrate an obvious lack of subject matter familiarity. This is very apparent to me because I am a licensed and practicing lawyer, but your statements are likely to be read by other non-lawyers as epistemically certain to a degree that is unwarranted.

Everything I will say in this paragraph is potentially subject to a million needling obscure exceptions, because lawyers love exceptions. In general though, Tracing is correct that it's largely irrelevant whether a contract was signed, when it was signed, or even whether it was ever written.

This issue is also tangential to the overall allegations levied against Nonlinear, because the dispute does not center on whether or not a contract was breached, but rather on behavior too inchoate to be adequately adjudicated within a legal framework. Consider for example how no one reads the lengthy terms of service that we all reflexively click 'agree' on. Courts in the United States have repeatedly ruled that these contracts are enforceable, even if they take the form of a loose piece of paper that... (read more)

I added a footnote. I meant valid in the sense of "valid evidence". I didn't intend to make a claim of legal validity. Legally the contract might be considered valid or invalid depending on a bunch of details I don't have access to (for example, I don't even know what the relevant jurisdiction of this contract would be).
It would be interesting as an aside to know whether the contract was signed, but it's not actually particularly material to what makes a legal contract. (Again, not a lawyer, but I am studying for my Contracts final right now instead of my Civil Procedure one). The core question is whether an offer was made and accepted, and performance (that is: acting according to the terms of the contract) is a pretty reliable way to demonstrate acceptance.  I have no knowledge of whether the contract was signed, but that a written contract exists, that she worked according to the terms in the contract, and that they paid her according to the same terms all serve as strong evidence of a valid contract. Information about signatures adds little one way or another.

I'd agree with you if the contract had been shared ahead of time (instead of six days after starting), or signed, or if she'd continue to work after accepting the payment specified in the contract. But she didn't get paid until she left (which Kat says was her choice, since she ran payroll), which sounds very consistent with an ongoing salary dispute. 

I can accept that there was an ongoing dispute. I cannot accept that Chloe had any grounds on which to dispute it. They told her what compensation would be going in; they provided a contract consistent with that; she accepted the job knowing precisely what the compensation was. To be blunt, I think it speaks very poorly of someone to accept a position and then immediately dispute the compensation they accepted and, having been in very similar positions myself, have no sympathy whatsoever for Chloe in the dispute. She is in the wrong and should not have accepted the job if she was not satisfied with the compensation package.

I don't think you currently have access to evidence that would allow you to come to as confident of a conclusion as you seem to be, unless you have access to private evidence I or others don't have access to. 

For example, it seems totally plausible that Chloe explicitly objected, in writing, to the contract sent to her, and that there was other communication in which a materially different basis for an agreement was established (I do not know whether that is the case, but I certainly can't rule it out from the evidence provided).

Written contracts are the means to resolve those disputes. That is the specific, precise function they serve. Your argument here strikes me as an invisible-dragon one, particularly given the time both sides have spent presenting evidence. I believe my level of confidence is precisely appropriate to the situation: a contract existed; it was discussed in advance; it was fulfilled; now it is doing precisely what contracts do and settling a dispute. The burden of proof has entirely shifted from Nonlinear here.
If I send you a contract, and you send back a response "that contract is unfair and does not capture our pre-existing agreement, I do not agree to it", then of course that contract has not taken effect. This seems really clear to me (and is also l