Why does Applied Divinity Studies think EA hasn’t grown since 2015?

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Applied Divinity Studies seeks to explain why the EA community hasn’t grown since 2015. The observations they initially call the EA community not having grown are:

  1. GiveWell money moved increased a lot in 2015, then grew only slightly since then.
  2. Open Phil (I guess money allocated) hasn’t increased since 2017
  3. Google Trends “Effective Altruism” ‘grows quickly starting in 2013, peaks in 2017, then falls back down to around 2015 levels’.

Looking at the graph they illustrate with, 1) is because GiveWell started receiving a large chunk of money from OpenPhil in 2015, and that chunk remained around the same over the years, while the money not from Open Phil has grown.

So 1) and 2) are both the observation, “Open Phil has not scaled up its money-moving in recent years”.

I’m confused about how this observation seems suggestive about the size of the EA community. Open Phil is not a community small-donations collector. You can’t even donate to Open Phil. It is mainly moving Good Ventures’ money, i.e. the money of a single couple: Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna.

One way that I could imagine Open Phil’s spending saying something about the size of the EA community is that the community might provide funding opportunities for Open Phil, so that its growth was reflected in Open Phil’s spending. But this would require EA growth at a scale that produced large enough funding opportunities, that met Open Phil’s specific criteria, to show up amidst hundreds of millions of dollars of annual grant-making. I think this at least requires argument.

I’m further confused when in trying to explain the purported end of growth, ADS says, ‘One possibility is that there was not a strange hidden cause behind widespread stagnation. It’s just that funding slowed down, and so everything else slowed down with it’, then go on to explore the possibility that funding from Open Phil/Good Ventures has slowed down in line with this ‘widespread’ stagnation (in different aspects of Open Phil and one Google Trends result). They find that indeed it has.

There is a strange hidden cause! Which is the underlying structural relationship between Open Phil and a combination of Open Phil twice and another thing.

(In fairness, ‘widespread’ might at that point in the post also include the stagnation since 2010 and 2013 respectively of Google searches for popular Rationalist blogs, Less Wrong, and Slate Star Codex. But stagnations that old seem unlikely to be symptomatic of an EA post-2015 stagnation, so probably the author didn’t intend to include them in it.)

While it’s not relevant to my above confusion, I should also note that even if Open Phil funding of Givewell was a better metric of the size of EA than I understand, if the data for 1) reached 2020, it would probably tell a different story: Open Phil’s allocation to GiveWell charities grew a lot— to $100 million, up from $54 million the previous year (according to the figure). So there isn’t even a stagnation of Open Phil allocation to GiveWell to be confused by.

I agree that 3) is evidence of the EA community receiving less attention since 2017 (though not 2015). But mild evidence, because searching for “effective altruism” on Google is probably not that closely associated with commitment to EA, as ADS notes, and because Google Trends is just pretty complicated to make sense of.

I think it’s worth finding better evidence, before we get to speculating about such things. For instance, this 2018 post by Peter Hurford looks at about thirty metrics, only two of which peaked in or before 2015. I haven’t read that post, but my impressions from skimming it a bit seem like a more informative start than a single Google trend.

In the process of coming up with explanations, ADS does also point to further relevant trends: the aforementioned flatness of two major rationalist blog name Google Trends, the aforementioned further measure of Open Phil activity via Good Ventures which looks like the other Open Phil activity measure, and the trend of Giving What We Can membership.

Giving What We Can membership seems potentially very informative. Does it support the view that EA hasn’t grown since 2015? No—GWWC membership has apparently grown by about 7x since 2015. ADS correctly notes that this is a measure of “cumulative interest” whereas how many people Google a term is a measure of “active interest”. That is, the total GWWC members on a day are the sum of everyone who has ever wanted to become a GWWC member, whereas searches for “join GWWC”, say, would be a measure of how many are wanting to do that right now. But ADS’s claim was that EA hasn’t grown. It wasn’t that EA’s rate of growth hasn’t grown. And the size of the EA community is about cumulative interest, to the extent interest persists. (For some activities, you might expect them to happen again every day that you remain involved, but neither joining a society for giving away 10% of your money, nor Googling “effective altruism” is one.) Or skipping all this complication about cumulativeness, the size of EA is very much the same kind of thing as the size of GWWC membership.

In sum, I don’t have a clear picture of how EA has grown since 2015, but as far as I can tell, the main relevant evidence that this post presents is that Google Trends “effective altruism” is flattish, Giving What We Can membership is growing (though not exponentially), and non-Open-Phil GiveWell money moved is growing. (Also, including information not in the post, it seems that Open Phil money moved to GiveWell was flat for a while then grew a lot in 2020, but it remains unclear to me how this is relevant anyway.) I’m inclined to interpret this evidence as mildly supporting ‘EA has grown since 2015’, but it doesn’t seem like much evidence either way. I think we should at least hold off on taking for granted that EA hasn’t grown since 2015 and trying to explain why.

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ScottAlexander had a very interesting response to this post on reddit