The Less Wrong General Census is unofficially back!

In days of yore, there was an annual census of the site users. That census has come again in an unofficial form! Click here to take the survey! [EDIT: SURVEY CLOSED, DO NOT TAKE!] It can take as little as five minutes if you just want to fill out the basics, and can take longer if you want to fill other the optional sections out. The survey will be open from today until February 27th, at which point it will close.

Once the census is closed, I'll remove the very private information, then make some summaries of the data and write up what I found in a post that will be linked from here. I'll also release a csv of all the responses marked "fine to include" as a public dataset. 

There once was a tradition associated with the annual census where, if you take the survey, you could comment saying you have done so and people will upvote you and you will get karma. This census is unofficial! I'm unclear as to the official status of the traditional censuses. Anyway, you could try the upvote thing if you wanted?

An Argument For Greater Visibility

Update: As of 2023-01-31 01:00, it looks like this has front page status. Thank you! Argument left for reference.

In the old days, the survey author could promote their post to Main and get more people to see it. Front page is the current equivalent to that, and the 2020 survey stayed as a Personal Blog post likely leading to the lower number of responses. Therefore, I would like to make a case to Administration and the Sunshine Regiment that this is worth frontpaging. Three years ago there was a comment about maybe having a more official survey, but as far as I'm aware that hasn't materialized. I believe perfect may be the enemy of good, and would rather have a Google Form and a CSV than no census at all.

Community-focused discussion is meant to be kept to a minimum on the front page. I would like to argue that the Annual Census should be a once-a-year case where front paging something that's community-focused. It benefits from being seen by more people in a direct "there are more responses and so the statistics give us more information" sense. By definition, there is one annual census a year and so there's a clear line preventing similar surveys from proliferating and flooding the first page. (It's possible to wind up with two in a given calendar year; since this one is happening in January there might also be one in December looking at 2023. Still, on average they're not going to come more than once a year.) That means it isn't crowded. 

It doesn't need to be of fleeting importance; I've enjoyed looking at the past surveys from a decade ago, and as time goes on our ability to look at changes will only get better. It's not especially political, despite political questions being on the survey. If those are the objection, I'm happy to remove the political section.

I think a census of the site's users would be useful for Less Wrong's administrators. One of the questions is how long someone has been part of the community. That's relevant to how the website could be laid out, and not obviously observable from page loads or IP addresses without some more work. 

Also, it's fun. This is the space where we get to check if there's a noticeable difference in first born children vs younger siblings, or if there's anything significant to the relative lengths of your fingers. There's a couple questions on there about aliens. I really do want to find out if there's a correlation between reading Rationalist Fanfic and having read The Sequences. I'm no Yvain (Yeah, I'm that old) but reading the old census summaries reminded me that there's some good laughs in there and I'll do my best to live up to that.

Once again, the census is up and you can take it here! [EDIT: SURVEY CLOSED, DO NOT TAKE!]

Update: As of 2023-02-28, the survey is now closed. Thank you to everyone who took it. You can view the summary and the results here.


New Comment
31 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:43 AM

I just noticed a kinda-ambiguity that I should have spotted before when looking at the questions.

There is a question about "cryonics" and then a question about "anti-agathics". It would be nice if the latter made it explicit (1) whether it counts as "reaching an age of 1000 years" if you are cryosuspended and then revived 1000 years later, and (2) whether it counts as "reaching an age of 1000 years" if you are cryosuspended and then revived after everyone currently alive has died or likewise been cryosuspended, and then (using whatever future technology is available then) you live another 1000 years.

My guess is that the intended answer is no, and that the "anti-agathics" question is meant to ask how likely we think it that very impressive anti-aging technology will be developed during the currently-ordinary lifetime of people now alive. But in terms of the literal wording of the question, I think the answer to 2 at least should be yes.

I took the survey, and I appreciate the effort. Note that P(Global Catastrophic Risk) is defined as the probability that there will not be a catastrophe.

Thank you for taking it!

That is the phrasing for P(Global Catastrophic Risk) that's been used consistently since 2012 I believe. 

The SAT switched from a 2400-point scale back to a 1600-point scale in 2016.

That I feel a bit embarrassed for missing. Thank you for pointing it out; since the question asks for which range the respondent had hopefully everything got answered right. I updated the description.

What does one answer for "How would you describe your opinion on immigration?" if your preferred policy would include much more legal immigration and more enforcement against illegal immigration?

I'm probably too late to answer you but for the next person to ask; if you want a lot more legal immigration and a little more enforcement, I'd call that leaning more open. If you want a little more legal immigration and a lot more enforcement, I'd say that's leaning more restricted.

So if you strongly opine that there should be a lot more legal immigration and a lot more enforcement, that's "no strong opinion"? This is not satisfying, though of course there'll never be a way to make the options satisfy everyone <shrug>.

I noticed that you listed "Salamander" as rationalist/rationalist adjacent fiction. I've never heard of it before, and Google doesn't seem to know either. What is this?

I'm guessing it's this. Its author (a libertarian economist) sometimes comments on, and is sometimes mentioned in, Scott's blog posts. (There's a David Friedman with an LW account but whether or not it's the same person it doesn't seem like he's ever posted anything.)

I have now posted something, so I suppose I must at some point have set up an LW account. I haven't read Ra so have no idea if they are similar. Commenters on my fiction sometimes complain that the characters are too rational, which I suppose could make it rationalist adjacent, which I think also describes me. 

Scott reviewed two of my books on SSC, but they were both nonfiction.

Yep, it's the David Friedman book. It's very roughly a bit like Ra, but instead of a swerve into high octane space magic it has some awkward wizards who express affection through academic research.

You could consider a fourth "cannot vote" option in the voting question

That does offer more info than just a No response. I'm not going to change that on a live survey that some people have already taken, but that could make sense for future censuses.

Did you coordinate with anyone else about you being the person who's responsible for the census? The LessWrong census is something that costs hundreds of hours of opportunity time of smart people and is thus worth of coordination to be unilaterally done by a person with <1000 karma. 

Therefore, I would like to make a case to Administration and the Sunshine Regiment that this is worth frontpaging. 

To me making such a request only after you post a census, seems like an awful move and I would recommend closing the census and having a discussion about how the census should look first.

Seems worth mentioning that Screwtape is now the ACX/Rationality global meetups coordinator, which I feel gives him a certain degree of moral authority to run this (not to mention the other stuff he mentions about how the LW team was aware of his plans).

Hey, sorry for not saying something sooner. As Screwtape says below, the LessWrong team was aware of this plan to make a survey. Since realistically we weren't going to run one ourselves, didn't make sense to get in the way of someone else doing one (and the questions seem reasonable).

I think putting something in title and prominently in the description like "Unofficial" would be good. Edit: I think if this post for the census got like 100 karma, that'd give it enough legitimacy from the community to be official even if the LW mod team wasn't endorsing it.

I'd say the status is that this not done with the collaboration/support of the LessWrong team, but neither do we wish to block it.

"Unofficial" is now in the post title, post description, and the title of of the Google form. Let me know if there's other changes you or the rest of the LessWrong team would like.  

The extent of support that was particularly useful was having a the visibility front page brings, which it seems this now has. Thank you to whoever did that.

I know that at least one administrator (Ben Pace) was aware of my intent to run the census if there were no objections from the LessWrong team prior to me putting up the Request For Comments. Ben sent me a Google Doc of brainstormed census questions in response. I made a request for comments post. I agree most people probably didn't see it, but don't know how to fix that without asking for more visibility, which I did. I didn't get told not to do it or that there was a decision not to give this more visibility, that part didn't get addressed. If anyone from the LessWrong team asks me to retract the census then I'll retract this census.

I am unaware of any rule, official or unofficial, that the census should be done by someone with more than 1000 karma. I don't actually think karma score is the right metric here, but if that rule officially exists then I'll retract this census.

In November of 2022, SurfingOrca offered to run the census. This also stayed as a Personal Blog, so likely not many people saw it, but by my count eight different people (including Ben and yourself) commented on it and everyone seemed positive. As far as I know, this effort has not been published. If your objection is based on karma score I have about ten times as much as SurfingOrca, but I don't actually think karma score is the right metric here. Still, if SurfingOrca has a census ready to go, I'm willing to defer to the person who started working on this in November 2022 instead of starting in January of 2023. If SurfingOrca announces one that's up and ready in the next ~48 hours, I'll retract this census and offer to merge any data this one has as best as I can.

The 2020 General Census was the last census done, run by B Jacobs, who also has less than a thousand karma. B Jacobs was aware of my plans to run the census this year and made no objection, advising me to make the privacy options clear and that it would be helpful if I could get the administration's assistance. Still, they had the torch last, and if B Jacobs objects and would prefer to run it then I'll retract this census.

I disagree that my request is an awful move. The status quo is no census. I don't think anyone has argued that the census should not be run. I don't think that anyone in particular is currently responsible for the census; there exists no person whose job title is "Less Wrong Census Administrator." It's not quite "Somebody Has To And No One Else Will" mode, because nobody actually has to and several people have offered. Nobody else did though, and since I did this at the end of January after talking to an admin and giving a week of RFC it's not like I'm blocking anyone else who was visibly about to do it.

I disagree that my request is an awful move. 

You didn't make a request that's comparable to the request that SurfingOrca made. SurfingOrca's request got community approval if you look at it's karma response while yours didn't.

I think ignoring the fact that your post got single digit karma and ending your "RFC" after only five days and a single person commenting when there's no reason to rush it, is a bad sign when it comes to the question to whether you are likely trustworthy when it comes to handling sensitive private data. 

Ben Pace was the person who was previously planning a census for this year before cancelling it, so if he sent you the brainstorm doc to help, presumably you have the official LessWrong stamp of approval.

I think the post is slightly misleading in that it represents it as "The LessWrong census" (i.e. something done by the less wrong team), instead of a survey by a less wrong user.

This is an important distinction. For example, I trust the less wrong team with my personal information much more than a random user.

I'm open to suggestions on titles and phrasing! I am not claiming to be a member of the site administration. I am claiming the lineage of the LessWrong Demographics Census, which I do not believe was ever actually run by the official LessWrong team.

For the moment, I've put up a sentence in the opening of the census stating that I'm a user, not an administrator.

Scott Alexander isn't the official LessWrong team but he was someone who actually earned had more authority. He was someone with community trust.

they did make a request for comments, which you can see in the backlinks.

What are backlinks?  I don't see any such links in the post.  

[ edit: no, really.  Are "backlinks" actually a thing?  I have this link, but if there's a generalized way to get such links, I'd like to learn it. ]

Regardless, this claims to be "THE" general census, not "A survey of users".  It should ABSOLUTELY be agreed by the mods in advance if it is to be official, and probably removed or retitled if not.

The request for comment post is here.

If any member of the LessWrong administration team asks me to remove this or retitle this, I'll cheerfully comply. Ben Pace, one of the site admins, was aware of my intent to do this before I put up the Request for Comment and his response was to send me a Google Doc full of brainstormed questions. I took that as light encouragement to go ahead.

As to what absolutely should be done: I'll bet you ten bucks at 5:1 neither the 2009 or the 2011 censuses were run by a site administrator or received official advance agreement by the mods. I am not claiming to be a member of the site administration. I am claiming the lineage of the LessWrong Demographics Census.

I generally like surveys! Here's a silly little survey I did that 100 people filled out, here's a survey John Wentworth did on people's technical background that 250 people that I know informs his writing. I think small surveys that directly answer key questions are very cheap and worthwhile.

It's important to do a good job on a survey that you try to make the schelling annual survey for ~10k people on the site to complete. One user made a mess of it in 2017 and the survey died (link, same link with different comments), and another user also didn't succeed in reviving in 2020 (link).

I think it'd be a nice-to-have to get an annual survey going, especially if it was run by someone who was trying to test particular hypotheses. For instance, if it were me, a bunch of questions on how users use the site that will help the LW team inform new feature development. 

So I think it's fine for you to do a basic demographics-and-beliefs survey, though I think it's a bit much to demand/expect everyone to take your survey. Calling it "General Census" is a demand that people should actually fill it out that you have to develop buy-in for. Maybe you get lucky and everyone actually fills it out, but if it doesn't then those who filled it out will be unhappy with you for making them spend effort on a stag hunt where they didn't get the stag, and also people will trust you less-than-baseline in the future for such stag hunts.

I don't want to block people from trying things (which is why I didn't try to in our brief PMs and shared you on the q's I'd gathered), nor am I freely endorsing any user who wants to run a survey that tries to take up 100s of hours of LW users.

I want to do a good job on this one. The decision to mostly re-use previous questions was a deliberate attempt to return to the Scott Alexander era, and my main changes were in trying to avoid what I see as the flaws in 2017 and 2020. 2017 used special software that wound up with software issues, so I went back to Google Forms. 2020 didn't get seen by very many people, so I made an effort to get this one more visibility. So far nobody has mentioned a software issue and we already have more responses than 2020, so I'm feeling relatively good about how it's going. 

The goal of having a clear return to form overrode most of the new questions I wanted to explore. The remnants of that are the "Do You Organize Less Wrong Meetups?" question (I'm curious what percentage of people who read LW go to meetups, and what percentage of people who go to meetups run them!) and the "Most Important Lesson" question that I plan to feed directly into Meetups-In-A-Box activities to emphasize those lessons. In the end I decided I wanted the census to look familiar and reliable, so the new questions in Section 10 are mostly goofy and everything else is pretty standard.

"Demand" seems a bit stronger than I wanted to communicate but we might have a difference in connotations. It's now called the Unofficial General Census, which might lower that somewhat. I was going for "encourage" rather than "demand." Still, if this attempt flops and people subtract some of my Calling For Stag Hunt points, I would find that reasonable and fair. I'm also happy with the amount of endorsement; this census isn't official, I'm not associated with the LessWrong team, most surveys shouldn't wind up in front of the whole site, but this census isn't blocked or dis-endorsed either.

Thanks. All seems good here to me.

It seems like the request for comments had single-digit karma, which is a sign that it didn't found approval.