Center for Applied Rationality (CFAR)Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI)Leverage Research
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I appreciate Zoe Curzi's revelations of her experience with Leverage.  I know how hard it is to speak up when no or few others do, and when people are trying to keep things under wraps.

I haven't posted much publicly about my experiences working as a researcher at MIRI (2015-2017) or around CFAR events, to a large degree because I've been afraid.  Now that Zoe has posted about her experience, I find it easier to do so, especially after the post was generally well-received by LessWrong.

I felt moved to write this, not just because of Zoe's post, but also because of Aella's commentary:

I've found established rationalist communities to have excellent norms that prevent stuff like what happened at Leverage. The times where it gets weird is typically when you mix in a strong leader + splintered, isolated subgroup + new norms. (this is not the first time)

This seemed to me to be definitely false, upon reading it.  Most of what was considered bad about the events at Leverage Research also happened around MIRI/CFAR, around the same time period (2017-2019).

I don't want to concentrate on the question of which is "worse"; it is hard to even start thinking about that without discussing facts on the ground and general social models that would apply to both cases.  I also caution against blame in general, in situations like these, where many people (including me!) contributed to the problem, and have kept quiet for various reasons.  With good reason, it is standard for truth and reconciliation events to focus on restorative rather than retributive justice, and include the possibility of forgiveness for past crimes.

As a roadmap for the rest of the post, I'll start by describing some background, describe some trauma symptoms and mental health issues I and others have experienced, and describe the actual situations that these mental events were influenced by and "about" to a significant extent.

Background: choosing a career

After I finished my CS/AI Master's degree at Stanford, I faced a choice of what to do next.  I had a job offer at Google for machine learning research and a job offer at MIRI for AI alignment research.  I had also previously considered pursuing a PhD at Stanford or Berkeley; I'd already done undergrad research at CoCoLab, so this could have easily been a natural transition.

I'd decided against a PhD on the basis that research in industry was a better opportunity to work on important problems that impact the world; since then I've gotten more information from insiders that academia is a "trash fire" (not my quote!), so I don't regret this decision.

I was faced with a decision between Google and MIRI.  I knew that at MIRI I'd be taking a pay cut.  On the other hand, I'd be working on AI alignment, an important problem for the future of the world, probably significantly more important than whatever I'd be working on at Google.  And I'd get an opportunity to work with smart, ambitious people, who were structuring their communication protocols and life decisions around the content of the LessWrong Sequences.

These Sequences contained many ideas that I had developed or discovered independently, such as functionalist theory of mind, the idea that Solomonoff Induction was a formalization of inductive epistemology, and the idea that one-boxing in Newcomb's problem is more rational than two-boxing.  The scene attracted thoughtful people who cared about getting the right answer on abstract problems like this, making for very interesting conversations.

Research at MIRI was an extension of such interesting conversations to rigorous mathematical formalism, making it very fun (at least for a time).  Some of the best research I've done was at MIRI (reflective oracles, logical induction, others).  I met many of my current friends through LessWrong, MIRI, and the broader LessWrong Berkeley community.

When I began at MIRI (in 2015), there were ambient concerns that it was a "cult"; this was a set of people with a non-mainstream ideology that claimed that the future of the world depended on a small set of people that included many of them.  These concerns didn't seem especially important to me at the time.  So what if the ideology is non-mainstream as long as it's reasonable?  And if the most reasonable set of ideas implies high impact from a rare form of research, so be it; that's been the case at times in history.

(Most of the rest of this post will be negative-valenced, like Zoe's post; I wanted to put some things I liked about MIRI and the Berkeley community up-front.  I will be noting parts of Zoe's post and comparing them to my own experience, which I hope helps to illuminate common patterns; it really helps to have an existing different account to prompt my memory of what happened.)

Trauma symptoms and other mental health problems

Back to Zoe's post.  I want to disagree with a frame that says that the main thing that's bad was that Leverage (or MIRI/CFAR) was a "cult".  This makes it seem like what happened at Leverage is much worse than what could happen at a normal company.  But, having read Moral Mazes and talked to people with normal corporate experience (especially in management), I find that "normal" corporations are often quite harmful to the psychological health of their employees, e.g. causing them to have complex PTSD symptoms, to see the world in zero-sum terms more often, and to have more preferences for things to be incoherent.  Normal startups are commonly called "cults", with good reason.  Overall, there are both benefits and harms of high-demand ideological communities ("cults") compared to more normal occupations and social groups, and the specifics matter more than the general class of something being "normal" or a "cult", although the general class affects the structure of the specifics.

Zoe begins by listing a number of trauma symptoms she experienced.  I have, personally, experienced most of those on the list of cult after-effects in 2017, even before I had a psychotic break.

The psychotic break was in October 2017, and involved psychedelic use (as part of trying to "fix" multiple deep mental problems at once, which was, empirically, overly ambitious); although people around me to some degree tried to help me, this "treatment" mostly made the problem worse, so I was placed in 1-2 weeks of intensive psychiatric hospitalization, followed by 2 weeks in a halfway house.  This was followed by severe depression lasting months, and less severe depression from then on, which I still haven't fully recovered from.  I had PTSD symptoms after the event and am still recovering.

During this time, I was intensely scrupulous; I believed that I was intrinsically evil, had destroyed significant parts of the world with my demonic powers, and was in a hell of my own creation.  I was catatonic for multiple days, afraid that by moving I would cause harm to those around me.  This is in line with scrupulosity-related post-cult symptoms.

Talking about this is to some degree difficult because it's normal to think of this as "really bad".  Although it was exceptionally emotionally painful and confusing, the experience taught me a lot, very rapidly; I gained and partially stabilized a new perspective on society and my relation to it, and to my own mind.  I have much more ability to relate to normal people now, who are also for the most part also traumatized.

(Yes, I realize how strange it is that I was more able to relate to normal people by occupying an extremely weird mental state where I thought I was destroying the world and was ashamed and suicidal regarding this; such is the state of normal Americans, apparently, in a time when suicidal music is extremely popular among youth.)

Like Zoe, I have experienced enormous post-traumatic growth.  To quote a song, "I am Woman": "Yes, I'm wise, but it's wisdom born of pain.  I guess I've paid the price, but look how much I've gained."

While most people around MIRI and CFAR didn't have psychotic breaks, there were at least 3 other cases of psychiatric institutionalizations by people in the social circle immediate to MIRI/CFAR; at least one other than me had worked at MIRI for a significant time, and at least one had done work with MIRI on a shorter-term basis.  There was, in addition, a case of someone becoming very paranoid, attacking a mental health worker, and hijacking her car, leading to jail time; this person was not an employee of either organization, but had attended multiple CFAR events including a relatively exclusive AI-focused one.

I heard that the paranoid person in question was concerned about a demon inside him, implanted by another person, trying to escape.  (I knew the other person in question, and their own account was consistent with attempting to implant mental subprocesses in others, although I don't believe they intended anything like this particular effect).  My own actions while psychotic later that year were, though physically nonviolent, highly morally confused; I felt that I was acting very badly and "steering in the wrong direction", e.g. in controlling the minds of people around me or subtly threatening them, and was seeing signs that I was harming people around me, although none of this was legible enough to seem objectively likely after the fact.  I was also extremely paranoid about the social environment, being unable to sleep normally due to fear.

There are even cases of suicide in the Berkeley rationality community associated with scrupulosity and mental self-improvement (specifically, Maia Pasek/SquirrelInHell, and Jay Winterford/Fluttershy, both of whom were long-time LessWrong posters; Jay wrote an essay about suicidality, evil, domination, and Roko's basilisk months before the suicide itself).  Both these cases are associated with a subgroup splitting off of the CFAR-centric rationality community due to its perceived corruption, centered around Ziz.  (I also thought CFAR was pretty corrupt at the time, and I also attempted to split off another group when attempts at communication with CFAR failed; I don't think this judgment was in error, though many of the following actions were; the splinter group seems to have selected for high scrupulosity and not attenuated its mental impact.)

The cases discussed are not always of MIRI/CFAR employees, so they're hard to attribute to the organizations themselves, even if they were clearly in the same or a nearby social circle.  Leverage was an especially legible organization, with a relatively clear interior/exterior distinction, while CFAR was less legible, having a set of events that different people were invited to, and many conversations including people not part of the organization.  Hence, it is easier to attribute organizational responsibility at Leverage than around MIRI/CFAR.  (This diffusion of responsibility, of course, doesn't help when there are actual crises, mental health or otherwise.)

Obviously, for every case of poor mental health that "blows up" and is noted, there are many cases that aren't.  Many people around MIRI/CFAR and Leverage, like Zoe, have trauma symptoms (including "cult after-effect symptoms") that aren't known about publicly until the person speaks up.

Why do so few speak publicly, and after so long?

Zoe discusses why she hadn't gone public until now.  She first cites fear of response:

Leverage was very good at convincing me that I was wrong, my feelings didn't matter, and that the world was something other than what I thought it was. After leaving, it took me years to reclaim that self-trust.

Clearly, not all cases of people trying to convince each other that they're wrong are abusive; there's an extra dimension of institutional gaslighting, people telling you something you have no reason to expect they actually believe, people being defensive and blocking information, giving implausible counter-arguments, trying to make you doubt your account and agree with their bottom line.

Jennifer Freyd writes about "betrayal blindness", a common problem where people hide from themselves evidence that their institutions have betrayed them.  I experienced this around MIRI/CFAR.

Some background on AI timelines: At the Asilomar Beneficial AI conference, in early 2017 (after AlphaGo was demonstrated in late 2016), I remember another attendee commenting on a "short timelines bug" going around.  Apparently a prominent researcher was going around convincing people that human-level AGI was coming in 5-15 years.

This trend in belief included MIRI/CFAR leadership; one person commented that he noticed his timelines trending only towards getting shorter, and decided to update all at once.  I've written about AI timelines in relation to political motivations before (long after I actually left MIRI).

Perhaps more important to my subsequent decisions, the AI timelines shortening triggered an acceleration of social dynamics.  MIRI became very secretive about research.  Many researchers were working on secret projects, and I learned almost nothing about these.  I and other researchers were told not to even ask each other about what others of us were working on, on the basis that if someone were working on a secret project, they may have to reveal this fact.  Instead, we were supposed to discuss our projects with an executive, who could connect people working on similar projects.

I had disagreements with the party line, such as on when human-level AGI was likely to be developed and about security policies around AI, and there was quite a lot of effort to convince me of their position, that AGI was likely coming soon and that I was endangering the world by talking openly about AI in the abstract (not even about specific new AI algorithms). Someone in the community told me that for me to think AGI probably won't be developed soon, I must think I'm better at meta-rationality than Eliezer Yudkowsky, a massive claim of my own specialness [EDIT: Eliezer himself and Sequences-type thinking, of course, would aggressively disagree with the epistemic methodology advocated by this person].  I experienced a high degree of scrupulosity about writing anything even somewhat critical of the community and institutions (e.g. this post).  I saw evidence of bad faith around me, but it was hard to reject the frame for many months; I continued to worry about whether I was destroying everything by going down certain mental paths and not giving the party line the benefit of the doubt, despite its increasing absurdity.

Like Zoe, I was definitely worried about fear of response.  I had paranoid fantasies about a MIRI executive assassinating me.  The decision theory research I had done came to life, as I thought about the game theory of submitting to a threat of a gun, in relation to how different decision theories respond to extortion.

This imagination, though extreme (and definitely reflective of a cognitive error), was to some degree re-enforced by the social environment.  I mentioned the possibility of whistle-blowing on MIRI to someone I knew, who responded that I should consider talking with Chelsea Manning, a whistleblower who is under high threat.  There was quite a lot of paranoia at the time, both among the "establishment" (who feared being excluded or blamed) and "dissidents" (who feared retaliation by institutional actors).  (I would, if asked to take bets, have bet strongly against actual assassination, but I did fear other responses.)

More recently (in 2019), there were multiple masked protesters at a CFAR event (handing out pamphlets critical of MIRI and CFAR) who had a SWAT team called on them (by camp administrators, not CFAR people, although a CFAR executive had called the police previously about this group), who were arrested, and are now facing the possibility of long jail time.  While this group of people (Ziz and some friends/associates) chose an unnecessarily risky way to protest, hearing about this made me worry about violently authoritarian responses to whistleblowing, especially when I was under the impression that it was a CFAR-adjacent person who had called the cops to say the protesters had a gun (which they didn't have), which is the way I heard the story the first time.

Zoe further talks about how the experience was incredibly confusing and people usually only talk about the past events secretively.  This matches my experience.

Like Zoe, I care about the people I interacted with during the time of the events (who are, for the most part, colleagues who I learned from), and I don't intend to cause harm to them through writing about these events.

Zoe discusses an unofficial NDA people signed as they left, agreeing not to talk badly of the organization.  While I wasn't pressured to sign an NDA, there were significant security policies discussed at the time (including the one about researchers not asking each other about research).  I was discouraged from writing a blog post estimating when AI would be developed, on the basis that a real conversation about this topic among rationalists would cause AI to come sooner, which would be more dangerous (the blog post in question would have been similar to the AI forecasting work I did later, here and here; judge for yourself how dangerous this is).  This made it hard to talk about the silencing dynamic; if you don't have the freedom to speak about the institution and limits of freedom of speech, then you don't have freedom of speech.

(Is it a surprise that, after over a year in an environment where I was encouraged to think seriously about the possibility that simple actions such as writing blog posts about AI forecasting could destroy the world, I would develop the belief that I could destroy everything through subtle mental movements that manipulate people?)

Years before, MIRI had a non-disclosure agreement that members were pressured to sign, as part of a legal dispute with Louie Helm.

I was certainly socially discouraged from revealing things that would harm the "brand" of MIRI and CFAR, by executive people.  There was some discussion at the time of the possibility of corruption in EA/rationality institutions (e.g. Ben Hoffman's posts criticizing effective altruism, GiveWell, and the Open Philanthropy Project); a lot of this didn't end up on the Internet due to PR concerns.

Someone who I was collaborating with at the time (Michael Vassar) was commenting on social epistemology and the strengths and weaknesses of various people's epistemology and strategy, including people who were leaders at MIRI/CFAR.  Subsequently, Anna Salamon said that Michael was causing someone else at MIRI to "downvote Eliezer in his head" and that this was bad because it meant that the "community" would not agree about who the leaders were, and would therefore have akrasia issues due to the lack of agreement on a single leader in their head telling them what to do.  (Anna says, years later, that she was concerned about bias in selectively causing downvotes rather than upvotes; however, at the time, based on what was said, I had the impression that the primary concern was about coordination around common leadership rather than bias specifically.)

This seemed culty to me and some friends; it's especially evocative in relation to Julian Jaynes' writing about bronze age cults, which detail a psychological model in which idols/gods give people voices in their head telling them what to do.

(As I describe these events in retrospect they seem rather ridiculous, but at the time I was seriously confused about whether I was especially crazy or in-the-wrong, and the leadership was behaving sensibly.  If I were the type of person to trust my own judgment in the face of organizational mind control, I probably wouldn't have been hired in the first place; everything I knew about how to be hired would point towards having little mental resistance to organizational narratives.)

Strange psycho-social-metaphysical hypotheses in a group setting

Zoe gives a list of points showing how "out of control" the situation at Leverage got.  This is consistent with what I've heard from other ex-Leverage people.

The weirdest part of the events recounted is the concern about possibly-demonic mental subprocesses being implanted by other people. As a brief model of something similar to this (not necessarily the same model as the Leverage people were using): people often pick up behaviors ("know-how") and mental models from other people, through acculturation and imitation. Some of this influence could be (a) largely unconscious on the part of the receiver, (b) partially intentional or the part of the person having mental effects on others (where these intentions may include behaviorist conditioning, similar to hypnosis, causing behaviors to be triggered under certain circumstances), and (c) overall harmful to the receiver's conscious goals. According to IFS-like psychological models, it's common for a single brain to contain multiple sub-processes with different intentions. While the mental subprocess implantation hypothesis is somewhat strange, it's hard to rule out based on physics or psychology.

As weird as the situation got, with people being afraid of demonic subprocesses being implanted by other people, there were also psychotic breaks involving demonic subprocess narratives around MIRI and CFAR. These strange experiences are, as far as I can tell, part of a more general social phenomenon around that time period; I recall a tweet commenting that the election of Donald Trump convinced everyone that magic was real.

Unless there were psychiatric institutionalizations or jail time resulting from the Leverage psychosis, I infer that Leverage overall handled their metaphysical weirdness better than the MIRI/CFAR adjacent community.  While in Leverage the possibility of subtle psychological influence between people was discussed relatively openly, around MIRI/CFAR it was discussed covertly, with people being told they were crazy for believing it might be possible.  (I noted at the time that there might be a sense in which different people have "auras" in a way that is not less inherently rigorous than the way in which different people have "charisma", and I feared this type of comment would cause people to say I was crazy.)

As a consequence, the people most mentally concerned with strange social metaphysics were marginalized, and had more severe psychoses with less community support, hence requiring normal psychiatric hospitalization.

The case Zoe recounts of someone "having a psychotic break" sounds tame relative to what I'm familiar with.  Someone can mentally explore strange metaphysics, e.g. a different relation to time or God, in a supportive social environment where people can offer them informational and material assistance, and help reality-check their ideas.

Alternatively, like me, they can explore these metaphysics while:

  • losing days of sleep
  • becoming increasingly paranoid and anxious
  • feeling delegitimized and gaslit by those around them, unable to communicate their actual thoughts with those around them
  • fearing involuntary psychiatric institutionalization
  • experiencing involuntary psychiatric institutionalization
  • having almost no real mind-to-mind communication during "treatment"
  • learning primarily to comply and to play along with the incoherent, shifting social scene (there were mandatory improv classes)
  • being afraid of others in the institution, including being afraid of sexual assault, which is common in psychiatric hospitals
  • believing the social context to be a "cover up" of things including criminal activity and learning to comply with it, on the basis that one would be unlikely to exit the institution within a reasonable time without doing so

Being able to discuss somewhat wacky experiential hypotheses, like the possibility of people spreading mental subprocesses to each other, in a group setting, and have the concern actually taken seriously as something that could seem true from some perspective (and which is hard to definitively rule out), seems much more conducive to people's mental well-being than refusing to have that discussion, so they struggle with (what they think is) mental subprocess implantation on their own.  Leverage definitely had large problems with these discussions, and perhaps tried to reach more intersubjective agreement about them than was plausible (leading to over-reification, as Zoe points out), but they seem less severe than the problems resulting from refusing to have them, such as psychiatric hospitalization and jail time.

"Psychosis" doesn't have to be a bad thing, even if it usually is in our society; it can be an exploration of perceptions and possibilities not before imagined, in a supportive environment that helps the subject to navigate reality in a new way; some of R.D. Liang's work is relevant here, describing psychotic mental states as a result of ontological insecurity following from an internal division of the self at a previous time. Despite the witch hunts and so on, the Leverage environment seems more supportive than what I had access to. The people at Leverage I talk to, who have had some of these unusual experiences, often have a highly exploratory attitude to the subtle mental realm, having gained access to a new cognitive domain through the experience, even if it was traumatizing.

World-saving plans and rarity narratives

Zoe cites the fact that Leverage has a "world-saving plan" (which included taking over the world) and considered Geoff Anders and Leverage to be extremely special, e.g. Geoff being possibly the best philosopher ever:

Within a few months of joining, a supervisor I trusted who had recruited me confided in me privately, “I think there’s good reason to believe Geoff is the best philosopher who’s ever lived, better than Kant. I think his existence on earth right now is an historical event.”

Like Leverage, MIRI had a "world-saving plan".  This is no secret; it's discussed in an Arbital article written by Eliezer Yudkowsky.  Nate Soares frequently talked about how it was necessary to have a "plan" to make the entire future ok, to avert AI risk; this plan would need to "backchain" from a state of no AI risk and may, for example, say that we must create a human emulation using nanotechnology that is designed by a "genie" AI, which does a narrow task rather than taking responsibility for the entire future; this would allow the entire world to be taken over by a small group including the emulated human. [EDIT: See Nate's clarification, the small group doesn't have to be MIRI specifically, and the upload plan is an example of a plan rather than a fixed super-plan.]

I remember taking on more and more mental "responsibility" over time, noting the ways in which people other than me weren't sufficient to solve the AI alignment problem, and I had special skills, so it was uniquely my job to solve the problem.  This ultimately broke down, and I found Ben Hoffman's post on responsibility to resonate (which discusses the issue of control-seeking).

The decision theory of backchaining and taking over the world somewhat beyond the scope of this post.  There are circumstances where back-chaining is appropriate, and "taking over the world" might be necessary, e.g. if there are existing actors already trying to take over the world and none of them would implement a satisfactory regime.  However, there are obvious problems with multiple actors each attempting to control everything, which are discussed in Ben Hoffman's post.

This connects with what Zoe calls "rarity narratives".  There were definitely rarity narratives around MIRI/CFAR.  Our task was to create an integrated, formal theory of values, decisions, epistemology, self-improvement, etc ("Friendliness theory"), which would help us develop Friendly AI faster than the rest of the world combined was developing AGI (which was, according to leaders, probably in less than 20 years).  It was said that a large part of our advantage in doing this research so fast was that we were "actually trying" and others weren't.  It was stated by multiple people that we wouldn't really have had a chance to save the world without Eliezer Yudkowsky (obviously implying that Eliezer was an extremely historically significant philosopher).

Though I don't remember people saying explicitly that Eliezer Yudkowsky was a better philosopher than Kant, I would guess many would have said so.  No one there, as far as I know, considered Kant worth learning from enough to actually read the Critique of Pure Reason in the course of their research; I only did so years later, and I'm relatively philosophically inclined.  I would guess that MIRI people would consider a different set of philosophers relevant, e.g. would include Turing and Einstein as relevant "philosophers", and I don't have reason to believe they would consider Eliezer more relevant than these, though I'm not certain either way.  (I think Eliezer is a world-historically-significant philosopher, though not as significant as Kant or Turing or Einstein.)

I don't think it's helpful to oppose "rarity narratives" in general.  People need to try to do hard things sometimes, and actually accomplishing those things would make the people in question special, and that isn't a good argument against trying the thing at all.  Intellectual groups with high information integrity, e.g. early quantum mechanics people, can have a large effect on history.  I currently think the intellectual work I do is pretty rare and important, so I have a "rarity narrative" about myself, even though I don't usually promote it.  Of course, a project claiming specialness while displaying low information integrity is, effectively, asking for more control and resources that it can beneficially use.

Rarity narratives can have the effects of making a group of people more insular, more concentrating relevance around itself and not learning from other sources (in the past or the present), making local social dynamics be more centered on a small number of special people, and increasing pressure on people to try to do (or pretend to try to do) things beyond their actual abilities; Zoe and I both experienced these effects.

(As a hint to evaluating rarity narratives yourself: compare Great Thinker's public output to what you've learned from other public sources; follow citations and see where Great Thinker might be getting their ideas from; read canonical great philosophy and literature; get a quantitative sense of how much insight is coming from which places throughout spacetime.)

The object-level specifics of each case of world-saving plan matter, of course; I think most readers of this post will be more familiar with MIRI's world-saving plan, especially since Zoe's post provides few object-level details about the content of Leverage's plan.


Rarity ties into debugging; if what makes us different is that we're Actually Trying and the other AI research organizations aren't, then we're making a special psychological claim about ourselves, that we can detect the difference between actually and not-actually trying, and cause our minds to actually try more of the time.

Zoe asks whether debugging was "required"; she notes:

The explicit strategy for world-saving depended upon a team of highly moldable young people self-transforming into Elon Musks.

I, in fact, asked a CFAR instructor in 2016-17 whether the idea was to psychologically improve yourself until you became Elon Musk, and he said "yes".  This part of the plan was the same [EDIT: Anna clarifies that, while some people becoming like Elon Musk was some people's plan, there was usually acceptance of people not changing themselves; this might to some degree apply to Leverage as well].

Self-improvement was a major focus around MIRI and CFAR, and at other EA orgs.  It often used standard CFAR techniques, which were taught at workshops.  It was considered important to psychologically self-improve to the point of being able to solve extremely hard, future-lightcone-determining problems.

I don't think these are bad techniques, for the most part.  I think I learned a lot by observing and experimenting on my own mental processes.  (Zoe isn't saying Leverage's techniques are bad either, just that you could get most of them from elsewhere.)

Zoe notes a hierarchical structure where people debugged people they had power over:

Trainers were often doing vulnerable, deep psychological work with people with whom they also lived, made funding decisions about, or relied on for friendship. Sometimes people debugged each other symmetrically, but mostly there was a hierarchical, asymmetric structure of vulnerability; underlings debugged those lower than them on the totem pole, never their superiors, and superiors did debugging with other superiors.

This was also the case around MIRI and CFAR.  A lot of debugging was done by Anna Salamon, head of CFAR at the time; Ben Hoffman noted that "every conversation with Anna turns into an Anna-debugging-you conversation", which resonated with me and others.

There was certainly a power dynamic of "who can debug who"; to be a more advanced psychologist is to be offering therapy to others, being able to point out when they're being "defensive", when one wouldn't accept the same from them.  This power dynamic is also present in normal therapy, although the profession has norms such as only getting therapy from strangers, which change the situation.

How beneficial or harmful this was depends on the details.  I heard that "political" discussions at CFAR (e.g. determining how to resolve conflicts between people at the organization, which could result in people leaving the organization) were mixed with "debugging" conversations, in a way that would make it hard for people to focus primarily on the debugged person's mental progress without imposing pre-determined conclusions.  Unfortunately, when there are few people with high psychological aptitude around, it's hard to avoid "debugging" conversations having political power dynamics, although it's likely that the problem could have been mitigated.

[EDIT: See PhoenixFriend's pseudonymous comment, and replies to it, for more on power dynamics including debugging-related ones at CFAR specifically.]

It was really common for people in the social space, including me, to have a theory about how other people are broken, and how to fix them, by getting them to understand a deep principle you do and they don't.  I still think most people are broken and don't understand deep principles that I or some others do, so I don't think this was wrong, although I would now approach these conversations differently.

A lot of the language from Zoe's post, e.g. "help them become a master", resonates.  There was an atmosphere of psycho-spiritual development, often involving Kegan stages There is a significant degree of overlap between people who worked with or at CFAR and people at the Monastic Academy [EDIT: see Duncan's comment estimating that the actual amount of interaction between CFAR and MAPLE was pretty low even though there was some overlap in people].

Although I wasn't directly financially encouraged to debug people, I infer that CFAR employees were, since instructing people was part of their job description.

Other issues

MIRI did have less time pressure imposed by the organization itself than Leverage did, despite the deadline implied by the AGI timeline; I had no issues with absurdly over-booked calendars.  I vaguely recall that CFAR employees were overworked especially around workshop times, though I'm pretty uncertain of the details.

Many people's social lives, including mine, were spent mostly "in the community"; much of this time was spent on "debugging" and other psychological work.  Some of my most important friendships at the time, including one with a housemate, were formed largely around a shared interest in psychological self-improvement.  There was, therefore, relatively little work-life separation (which has upsides as well as downsides).

Zoe recounts an experience with having unclear, shifting standards applied, with the fear of ostracism.  Though the details of my experience are quite different, I was definitely afraid of being considered "crazy" and marginalized for having philosophy ideas that were too weird, even though weird philosophy would be necessary to solve the AI alignment problem.  I noticed more people saying I and others were crazy as we were exploring sociological hypotheses that implied large problems with the social landscape we were in (e.g. people thought Ben Hoffman was crazy because of his criticisms of effective altruism). I recall talking to a former CFAR employee who was scapegoated and ousted after failing to appeal to the winning internal coalition; he was obviously quite paranoid and distrustful, and another friend and I agreed that he showed PTSD symptoms [EDIT: I infer scapegoating based on the public reason given being suspicious/insufficient; someone at CFAR points out that this person was paranoid and distrustful while first working at CFAR as well].

Like Zoe, I experienced myself and others being distanced from old family and friends, who didn't understand how high-impact the work we were doing was.  Since leaving the scene, I am more able to talk with normal people (including random strangers), although it's still hard to talk about why I expect the work I do to be high-impact.

An ex-Leverage person I know comments that "one of the things I give Geoff the most credit for is actually ending the group when he realized he had gotten in over his head. That still left people hurt and shocked, but did actually stop a lot of the compounding harm."  (While Geoff is still working on a project called "Leverage", the initial "Leverage 1.0" ended with most of the people leaving.) This is to some degree happening with MIRI and CFAR, with a change in the narrative about the organizations and their plans, although the details are currently less legible than with Leverage.


Perhaps one lesson to take from Zoe's account of Leverage is that spending relatively more time discussing sociology (including anthropology and history), and less time discussing psychology, is more likely to realize benefits while avoiding problems.  Sociology is less inherently subjective and meta than psychology, having intersubjectively measurable properties such as events in human lifetimes and social network graph structures.  My own thinking has certainly gone in this direction since my time at MIRI, to great benefit.  I hope this account I have written helps others to understand the sociology of the rationality community around 2017, and that this understanding helps people to understand other parts of the society they live in.

There are, obviously from what I have written, many correspondences, showing a common pattern for high-ambition ideological groups in the San Francisco Bay Area.  I know there are serious problems at other EA organizations, which produce largely fake research (and probably took in people who wanted to do real research, who become convinced by their experience to do fake research instead), although I don't know the specifics as well.  EAs generally think that the vast majority of charities are doing low-value and/or fake work.  I also know that San Francisco startup culture produces cult-like structures (and associated mental health symptoms) with regularity.  It seems more productive to, rather than singling out specific parties, think about the social and ecological forces that create and select for the social structures we actually see, which include relatively more and less cult-like structures.  (Of course, to the extent that harm is ongoing due to actions taken by people and organizations, it's important to be able to talk about that.)

It's possible that after reading this, you think this wasn't that bad.  Though I can only speak for myself here, I'm not sad that I went to work at MIRI instead of Google or academia after college.  I don't have reason to believe that either of these environments would have been better for my overall intellectual well-being or my career, despite the mental and social problems that resulted from the path I chose.  Scott Aaronson, for example, blogs about "blank faced" non-self-explaining authoritarian bureaucrats being a constant problem in academia.  Venkatesh Rao writes about the corporate world, and the picture presented is one of a simulation constantly maintained thorough improv.

I did grow from the experience in the end.  But I did so in large part by being very painfully aware of the ways in which it was bad.

I hope that those that think this is "not that bad" (perhaps due to knowing object-level specifics around MIRI/CFAR justifying these decisions) consider how they would find out whether the situation with Leverage was "not that bad", in comparison, given the similarity of the phenomena observed in both cases; such an investigation may involve learning object-level specifics about what happened at Leverage.  I hope that people don't scapegoat; in an environment where certain actions are knowingly being taken by multiple parties, singling out certain parties has negative effects on people's willingness to speak without actually producing any justice.

Aside from whether things were "bad" or "not that bad" overall, understanding the specifics of what happened, including harms to specific people, is important for actually accomplishing the ambitious goals these projects are aiming at; there is no reason to expect extreme accomplishments to result without very high levels of epistemic honesty.


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I want to add some context I think is important to this.

Jessica was (I don't know if she still is) part of a group centered around a person named Vassar, informally dubbed "the Vassarites". Their philosophy is complicated, but they basically have a kind of gnostic stance where regular society is infinitely corrupt and conformist and traumatizing and you need to "jailbreak" yourself from it (I'm using a term I found on Ziz's discussion of her conversations with Vassar; I don't know if Vassar uses it himself). Jailbreaking involves a lot of tough conversations, breaking down of self, and (at least sometimes) lots of psychedelic drugs.

Vassar ran MIRI a very long time ago, but either quit or got fired, and has since been saying that MIRI/CFAR is also infinitely corrupt and conformist and traumatizing (I don't think he thinks they're worse than everyone else, but I think he thinks they had a chance to be better, they wasted it, and so it's especially galling that they're just as bad).  Since then, he's tried to "jailbreak" a lot of people associated with MIRI and CFAR - again, this involves making them paranoid about MIRI/CFAR and convincing them to take lots of drugs. The combinat... (read more)

Including Olivia, and Jessica, and I think Devi. Devi had a mental breakdown and detransitioned IIHC

Digging out this old account to point out that I have not in fact detransitioned, but find it understandable why those kinds of rumours would circulate given my behaviour during/around my experience of psychosis. I'll try to explain some context for the record.

In other parts of the linked blogpost Ziz writes about how some people around the rationalist community were acting on or spreading variations of the meme "trans women are [psychologically] men". I experienced this while dating AM (same as mentioned above). She repeatedly brought up this point in various interactions. Since we were both trans women this was hurting us both, so I look back with more pity than concern about malice. At some point during this time I started treating this as a hidden truth that I was proud of myself for being able to see, which I in retrospect I feel disgusted and complicit to have accepted. This was my state of mind when I discussed these issues with Zack reinforcing each others views. I believe (less certain) I also broached the topic with Michael and/or Anna at some point which probably went... (read more)

I want to point out that the level of mental influence being attributed to Michael in this comment and others (e.g. that he's "causing psychotic breaks" and "jailbreaking people" through conversation, "that listening too much to Vassar [causes psychosis], predictably") isn't obviously less than the level of mental influence Leverage attributed to people in terms of e.g. mental objects. Some people in the thread are self-congratulating on the rationalists not being as crazy and abusive as Leverage was in worrying that people were spreading harmful psychological objects to each other, and therefore isolating these people from their friends. Yet many in this comment thread are, literally, calling for isolating Michael Vassar from his friends on the basis of his mental influence on others.

Yes, I agree with you that all of this is very awkward.

I think the basic liberal model where everyone uses Reason a lot and we basically trust their judgments is a good first approximation and we should generally use it.

But we have to admit at least small violations of it even to get the concept of "cult". Not just the sort of weak cults we're discussing here, but even the really strong cults like Heaven's Gate or Jamestown. In the liberal model, someone should be able to use Reason to conclude that being in Heaven's Gate is bad for them, and leave. When we use the word "cult", we're implicitly agreeing that this doesn't always work, and we're bringing in creepier and less comprehensible ideas like "charisma" and "brainwashing" and "cognitive dissonance".

(and the same thing with the concept of "emotionally abusive relationship")

I don't want to call the Vassarites a cult because I'm sure someone will confront me with a Cult Checklist that they don't meet, but I think that it's not too crazy to argue that some of these same creepy ideas like charisma and so on were at work there. And everyone knows cults can get weird and end in mental illness. I agree it's weird that you can get tha... (read more)

It seems to me like in the case of Leverage, them working 75 hours per week reduced the time the could have used to use Reason to conclude that they are in a system that's bad for them. 

That's very different from someone having a few conversation with Vassar and then adopting a new belief and spending a lot of the time reasoning about that alone and the belief being stable without being embedded into a strong enviroment that makes independent thought hard because it keeps people busy.

A cult in it's nature is a social institution and not just a meme that someone can pass around via having a few conversations.

Perhaps the proper word here might be "manipulation" or "bad influence".

I think "mind virus" is fair. Vassar spoke a lot about how the world as it is can't be trusted. I remember that many of the people in his circle spoke, seemingly apropos of nothing, about how bad involuntary commitment is, so that by the time someone was psychotic their relationship with psychiatry and anyone who would want to turn to psychiatry to help them was poisoned. Within the envelope of those beliefs you can keep a lot of other beliefs safe from scrutiny. 

The thing with "bad influence" is that it's a pretty value-laden thing. In a religious town the biology teacher who tells the children about evolution and explains how it makes sense that our history goes back a lot further then a few thousands years is reasonably described as bad influence by the parents. The religion teacher gets the children to doubt the religious authorities. Those children then can also be a bad influence on others by also getting them to doubt authorities. In a similar war Vassar gets people to question other authorities and social conventions and how those ideas can then be passed on. Vassar speaks about things like Moral Mazes []. Memes like that make people distrust institutions. There are the kind of bad influence that can get people to quit their job. Talking about the biology teacher like they are intend to start an evolution cult feels a bit misleading.

It seems to me that, at least in your worldview, this question of whether and what sort of subtle mental influence between people is possible is extremely important, to the point where different answers to the question could lead to pretty different political philosophies.

Let's consider a disjunction: 1: There isn't a big effect here, 2: There is a big effect here.

In case 1:

  • It might make sense to discourage people from talking too much about "charisma", "auras", "mental objects", etc, since they're pretty fake, really not the primary factors to think about when modeling society.
  • The main problem with the relevant discussions at Leverage is that they're making grandiose claims of mind powers and justifying e.g. isolating people on the basis of these, not actual mental influence.
  • The case made against Michael, that he can "cause psychotic breaks" by talking with people sometimes (or, in the case of Eric B, by talking sometimes with someone who is talking sometimes with the person in question), has no merit. People are making up grandiose claims about Michael to justify scapegoating him, it's basically a witch hunt. We should have a much more moderated, holistic picture where ther
... (read more)

I agree I'm being somewhat inconsistent, I'd rather do that than prematurely force consistency and end up being wrong or missing some subtlety. I'm trying to figure out what went on in these cases in more details and will probably want to ask you a lot of questions by email if you're open to that.

Yes, I'd be open to answering email questions.

This misses the fact that people’s ability to negatively influence others might vary very widely, making it so that it is silly to worry about, say, 99.99% of people strongly negatively influencing you, but reasonable to worry about the other 0.01%. If Michael is one of those 0.01%, then Scott’s worldview is not inconsistent.

If it's reasonable to worry about the .01%, it's reasonable to ask how the ability varies. There's some reason, some mechanism. This is worth discussing even if it's hard to give more than partial, metaphorical hypotheses. And if there are these .01% of very strong influencers, that is still an exception to strong liberal individualism.
That would still admit some people at Leverage having significant mental influence, especially if they got into weird mental tech that almost no one gets into. A lot of the weirdness is downstream of them encountering "body workers" who are extremely good at e.g. causing mental effects by touching people's back a little; these people could easily be extremal, and Leverage people learned from them. I've had sessions with some post-Leverage people where it seemed like really weird mental effects are happening in some implicit channel (like, I feel a thing poking at the left side of my consciousness and the person says, "oh, I just did an implicit channel thing, maybe you felt that"), I've never experienced effects like that (without drugs, and not obviously on drugs either though the comparison is harder) with others including with Michael, Anna, or normal therapists. This could be "placebo" in a way that makes it ultimately not that important but still, if we're admitting that 0.01% of people have these mental effects then it seems somewhat likely that this includes some Leverage people. Also, if the 0.01% is disproportionately influential (which, duh), then getting more detailed models than "charisma" is still quite important.
-1[comment deleted]1y

One important implication of "cults are possible" is that many normal-seeming people are already too crazy to function as free citizens of a republic.

In other words, from a liberal perspective, someone who can't make their own decisions about whether to hang out with Michael Vassar and think about what he says is already experiencing a severe psychiatric emergency and in need of a caretaker, since they aren't competent to make their own life decisions. They're already not free, but in the grip of whatever attractor they found first.

Personally I bite the bullet and admit that I'm not living in a society adequate to support liberal democracy, but instead something more like what Plato's Republic would call tyranny. This is very confusing because I was brought up to believe that I lived in a liberal democracy. I'd very much like to, someday.

I think there are less extreme positions here. Like "competent adults can make their own decisions, but they can't if they become too addicted to certain substances." I do think manipulation by others can rise to the level of drugs and is an exceptional case, not proof that a lot of people are fundamentally incapable of being free.  

I think the principled liberal perspective on this is Bryan Caplan's: drug addicts have or develop very strong preferences for drugs. The assertion that they can't make their own decisions is a declaration of intent to coerce them, or an arrogation of the right to do so. I don't think that many people are "fundamentally incapable of being free." But it seems like some people here are expressing grievances that imply that either they themselves or some others are, right now, not ready for freedom of association. The claim that someone is dangerous enough that they should be kept away from "vulnerable people" is a declaration of intent to deny "vulnerable people" freedom of association for their own good. (No one here thinks that a group of people who don't like Michael Vassar shouldn't be allowed to get together without him.)

drug addicts have or develop very strong preferences for drugs. The assertion that they can't make their own decisions is a declaration of intent to coerce them, or an arrogation of the right to do so.

I really don't think this is an accurate description of what is going on in people's mind when they are experiencing drug dependencies. I've spent a good chunk of my childhood with an alcoholic father, and he would have paid most of his wealth to stop being addicted to drinking, went through great lengths trying to tie himself to various masts to stop, and generally expressed a strong preference for somehow being able to self-modify the addiction away, but ultimately failed to do so. 

Of course, things might be different for different people, but at least in the one case where I have a very large amount of specific data, this seems like it's a pretty bad model of people's preferences. Based on the private notebooks of his that I found after his death, this also seemed to be his position in purely introspective contexts without obvious social desirability biases. My sense is that he would have strongly preferred someone to somehow take control away from him, in this specific domain of his life.

This seems like some evidence that the principled liberal position is false - specifically, that it is not self-ratifying. If you ask some people what their preferences are, they will express a preference for some of their preferences to be thwarted, for their own good. Contractarianism can handle this sort of case, but liberal democracy with inalienable rights cannot, and while liberalism is a political philosophy, contractarianism is just a policy proposal, with no theory of citizenship or education.
2NancyLebovitz1y [] A sidetrack, but a French surgeon found that Baclofen (a muscle relaxant) cured his alcoholism by curing the craving. He was surprised to find that it cured compulsive spending when he didn't even realize he had a problem. He had a hard time raising money for an official experiment, and it came out inconclusive, and he died before the research got any further.
This is more-or-less Aristotle's defense of (some cases of) despotic rule: it benefits those that are naturally slaves (those whose deliberative faculty functions below a certain threshold) in addition to the despot (making it a win-win scenario).

Aristotle seems (though he's vague on this) to be thinking in terms of fundamental attributes, while I'm thinking in terms of present capacity, which can be reduced by external interventions such as schooling.

Thinking about people I know who've met Vassar, the ones who weren't brought up to go to college* seem to have no problem with him and show no inclination to worship him as a god or freak out about how he's spooky or cultish; to them, he's obviously just a guy with an interesting perspective.

*As far as I know I didn't know any such people before 2020; it's very easy for members of the educated class to mistake our bubble for statistical normality.

Thinking about people I know who've met Vassar, the ones who weren't brought up to go to college* seem to have no problem with him and show no inclination to worship him as a god or freak out about how he's spooky or cultish; to them, he's obviously just a guy with an interesting perspective.

This is very interesting to me! I'd like to hear more about how the two group's behavior looks diff, and also your thoughts on what's the difference that makes the difference, what are the pieces of "being brought up to go to college" that lead to one class of reactions?

I have talked to Vassar, while he has a lot of "explicit control over conversations" which could be called charisma, I'd hypothesize that the fallout is actually from his ideas. (The charisma/intelligence making him able to credibly argue those)

My hypothesis is the following:  I've met a lot of rationalists + adjacent people. A lot of them care very deeply about EA and AI alignment. In fact, it seems to me to be a core part of a lot of these people's identity ("I'm an EA person, thus I'm a good person doing important work"). Two anecdotes to illustrate this:
- I'd recently argued against a committed EA person. Eventually, I started feeling almost-bad about arguing (even though we're both self-declared rationalists!) because I'd realised that my line of reasoning questioned his entire life. His identity was built deeply on EA, his job was selected to maximize money to give to charity. 
- I'd had a conversation with a few unemployed rationalist computer scientists. I suggested we might start a company together. One I got: "Only if it works on the alignment problem, everything else is irrelevant to me". 

Vassar very persuasively argues against EA and work done at MIRI/CFAR... (read more)

What are your or Vassar's arguments against EA or AI alignment? This is only tangential to your point, but I'd like to know about it if EA and AI alignment are not important.

The general argument is that EA's are not really doing what they say they do. One example from Vassar would be that when it comes to COVID-19 for example there seem to be relatively little effective work by EA's. In contrast Vassar considered giving prisoners access to personal equipment the most important and organized effectively for that to happen. 

EA's created in EA Global an enviroment where someone who wrote a good paper warning about the risks of gain-of-function research doesn't address that directly but only talks indirectly about it to focus on more meta-issues. Instead of having conflicts with people doing gain-of-function research the EA community mostly ignored it's problems and funded work that's in less conflict with the establishment. There's nearly no interest in learning from those errors in the EA community and people rather avoid conflicts.

If you read the full comments of this thread you will find reports that CEA used legal threats to cover up Leverage related information. 

AI alignment is important but just because one "works on AI risk" doesn't mean that the work actually decreases AI risk. Tying your personal identity to being someone who works to d... (read more)

Did Vassar argue that existing EA organizations weren't doing the work they said they were doing, or that EA as such was a bad idea? Or maybe that it was too hard to get organizations to do it?

He argued

(a) EA orgs aren't doing what they say they're doing (e.g. cost effectiveness estimates are wildly biased, reflecting bad procedures being used internally), and it's hard to get organizations to do what they say they do

(b) Utilitarianism isn't a form of ethics, it's still necessary to have principles, as in deontology or two-level consequentialism

(c) Given how hard it is to predict the effects of your actions on far-away parts of the world (e.g. international charity requiring multiple intermediaries working in a domain that isn't well-understood), focusing on helping people you have more information about makes sense unless this problem can be solved

(d) It usually makes more sense to focus on ways of helping others that also build capacities, including gathering more information, to increase long-term positive impact

If you for example want the critcism on GiveWell, Ben Hoffman was employed at GiveWell and made experiences that suggest that the process based on which their reports are made has epistemic problems. If you want the details talk to him. 

The general model would be that between actual intervention and the top there are a bunch of maze levels. GiveWell then hired normal corporatist people who behave in the dynamics that the immoral maze sequence describes play themselves out.

Vassar's action themselves are about doing altruistic actions more directly by looking for who are most powerless who need help and working to help them. In the COVID case he identified prisoners and then worked on making PPE available for them.

You might see his thesis is that "effective" in EA is about adding a management layer for directing interventions and that management layer has the problems that the immoral maze sequence describes. According to Vassar someone who wants to be altrustic shouldn't delegate his judgements of what's effective and thus warrents support to other people.

2[comment deleted]1y
Link? I'm not finding it
I think what you're pointing to is: I'm getting a bit pedantic, but I wouldn't gloss this as "CEA used legal threats to cover up Leverage related information". Partly because the original bit is vague, but also because "cover up" implies that the goal is to hide information. For example, imagine companies A and B sue each other, which ends up with them settling and signing an NDA. Company A might accept an NDA because they want to move on from the suit and agreeing to an NDA does that most effectively. I would not describe this as company A using legal threats to cover up B-related information.

Yep, I think the situation is closer to what Jeff describes here, though, I honestly don't actually know, since people tend to get cagey when the topic comes up.

In the timeframe CEA and Leverage where doing together the Pareto Fellowship. If you read the common knowledge post you find people finding that they were mislead by CEA because the announcement didn't mention that the Pareto Fellowship was largely run by Leverage.

On their mistakes page CEA, they have a section about the Pareto Fellowship but it hides the fact that Leverage was involved in the Pareto Fellowship but says "The Pareto Fellowship was a program sponsored by CEA and run by two CEA staff, designed to deepen the EA involvement of promising students or people early in their careers."

That does look to me like hiding information about the cooperation between Leverage and CEA. 

I do think that publically presuming that people who hide information have something to hide is useful. If there's nothing to hide I'd love to know what happened back then or who thinks what happened should stay hidden. At the minimum I do think that CEA witholding the information that the people who went to their programs spend their time in what now appears to be a cult is something that CEA should be open about in their mistakes page. 

Yep, I think CEA has in the past straightforwardly misrepresented (there is a talk on the history of EA by Will and Toby that says some really dubious things here, IIRC) and sometimes even lied in order to not mention Leverage's history with Effective Altruism. I think this was bad, and continues to be bad.

My initial thought on reading this was 'this seems obviously bad', and I assumed this was done to shield CEA from reputational risk.

Thinking about it more, I could imagine an epistemic state I'd be much more sympathetic to: 'We suspect Leverage is a dangerous cult, but we don't have enough shareable evidence to make that case convincingly to others, or we aren't sufficiently confident ourselves. Crediting Leverage for stuff like the EA Summit (without acknowledging our concerns and criticisms) will sound like an endorsement of Leverage, which might cause others to be drawn into its orbit and suffer harm. But we don't feel confident enough to feel comfortable tarring Leverage in public, or our evidence was shared in confidence and we can't say anything we expect others to find convincing. So we'll have to just steer clear of the topic for now.'

Still seems better to just not address the subject if you don't want to give a fully accurate account of it. You don't have to give talks on the history of EA!

I think the epistemic state of CEA was some mixture of something pretty close to what you list here, and something that I would put closer to something more like "Leverage maybe is bad, or maybe isn't, but in any case it looks bad, and I don't think I want people to think EA or CEA is bad, so we are going to try to avoid any associations between these entities, which will sometimes require stretching the truth".

"Leverage maybe is bad, or maybe isn't, but in any case it looks bad, and I don't think I want people to think EA or CEA is bad, so we are going to try to avoid any associations between these entities, which will sometimes require stretching the truth"

That has the collary: "We don't expect EA's to care enough about the truth/being transparent that this is a huge reputational risk for us."

It does look weird to me that CEA doesn't include this on the mistakes page when they talk about Pareto. I just sent CEA an email to ask:


On I see "The Pareto Fellowship was a program sponsored by CEA and run by two CEA staff, designed to deepen the EA involvement of promising students or people early in their careers. We realized during and after the program that senior management did not provide enough oversight of the program. For example, reports by some applicants indicate that the interview process was unprofessional and made them deeply uncomfortable."

Is there a reason that the mistakes page does not mention the involvement of Leverage in the Pareto Fellowship? [1]



They wrote back, linking me to [] ("we're working on a couple of updates to the mistakes page, including about this")
I talked with Geoff and according to him there's no legal contract between CEA and Leverage that prevents information sharing. All information sharing is prevented by organization internal NDA's.

Huh, that's surprising, if by that he means "no contracts between anyone currently at Leverage and anyone at CEA". I currently still think it's the case, though I also don't see any reason for Geoff to lie here. Maybe there is some technical sense in which there is no contract between Leverage and CEA, but there are contracts between current Leverage employees, who used to work at CEA, and current CEA employees? 

What he said is compatible with Ex-CEA people still being bound by the NDA's they signed they were at CEA. I don't think anything happened that releases ex-CEA people from NDAs. The important thing is that CEA is responsible for those NDA and is free to unilaterally lift them if they would have an interest in the free flow of information. In the case of a settlement with contracts between the two organisations CEA couldn't unilaterally lift the settlement contract. Public pressure on CEA seems to be necessary to get the information out in the open.

Talking with Vassar feels very intellectually alive. Maybe, like a high density of insight porn. I imagine that the people Ben talks about wouldn't get much enjoyment out of insight porn either, so that emotional impact isn't there.

There's probably also an element that plenty of people who can normally follow an intellectual conversation can't keep up a conversation with Vassar and then are filled after a conversation with a bunch of different ideas that lack order in their mind. I imagine that sometimes there's an idea overload that prevents people from critically thinking through some of the ideas.

If you have a person who hasn't gone to college, they are used to encountering people who make intellectual arguments that go over their head and have a way to deal with that. 

From meeting Vassar, I don't feel like he has the kind of charisma that someone like Valentine has (which I guess Valentine has downstream of doing a lot of bodywork stuff). 

This seems mostly right; they're more likely to think "I don't understand a lot of these ideas, I'll have to think about this for a while" or "I don't understand a lot of these ideas, he must be pretty smart and that's kinda cool" than to feel invalidated by this and try to submit to him in lieu of understanding.

The people I know who weren't brought up to go to college have more experience navigating concrete threats and dangers, which can't be avoided through conformity, since the system isn't set up to take care of people like them. They have to know what's going on to survive. This results in an orientation less sensitive to subtle threats of invalidation, and that sees more concrete value in being informed by someone.

In general this means that they're much more comfortable with the kind of confrontation Vassar engages in, than high-class people are.

This makes a lot of sense. I can notice ways in which I generally feels more threatened by social invalidation than actual concrete threats of violence.
This is interesting to me because I was brought up to go to college, but I didn't take it seriously (plausibly from depression or somesuch), and I definitely think of him as a guy with an interesting perspective. Okay, a smart guy with an interesting perspective, but not a god. It had never occurred to me before that maybe people who were brought up to assume they were going to college might generally have a different take on the world than I do.

I talked and corresponded with Michael a lot during 2017–2020, and it seems likely that one of the psychotic breaks people are referring to is mine from February 2017? (Which Michael had nothing to do with causing, by the way.) I don't think you're being fair.

"jailbreak" yourself from it (I'm using a term I found on Ziz's discussion of her conversations with Vassar; I don't know if Vassar uses it himself)

I'm confident this is only a Ziz-ism: I don't recall Michael using the term, and I just searched my emails for jailbreak, and there are no hits from him.

again, this involves making them paranoid about MIRI/CFAR and convincing them to take lots of drugs [...] describing how it was a Vassar-related phenomenon

I'm having trouble figuring out how to respond to this hostile framing. I mean, it's true that I've talked with Michael many times about ways in which (in his view, and separately in mine) MIRI, CfAR, and "the community" have failed to live up to their stated purposes. Separately, it's also true that, on occasion, Michael has recommended I take drugs. (The specific recommendations I recall were weed and psilocybin. I always said No; drug use seems like a very bad idea giv... (read more)

I don't want to reveal any more specific private information than this without your consent, but let it be registered that I disagree with your assessment that your joining the Vassarites wasn't harmful to you. I was not around for the 2017 issues (though if you reread our email exchanges from April you will understand why I'm suspicious), but when you had some more minor issues in 2019 I was more in the loop and I ended out emailing the Vassarites (deliberately excluding you from the email, a decision I will defend in private if you ask me) accusing them of making your situation worse and asking them to maybe lay off you until you were maybe feeling slightly better, and obviously they just responded with their "it's correct to be freaking about learning your entire society is corrupt and gaslighting" shtick. 

I'm having trouble figuring out how to respond to this hostile framing. I mean, it's true that I've talked with Michael many times about ways in which (in his view, and separately in mine) MIRI, CfAR, and "the community" have failed to live up to their stated purposes. Separately, it's also true that, on occasion, Michael has recommended I take drugs. (The specific recommendations I recall were weed and psilocybin. I always said No; drug use seems like a very bad idea given my history of psych problems.)


Michael is a charismatic guy who has strong views and argues forcefully for them. That's not the same thing as having mysterious mind powers to "make people paranoid" or cause psychotic breaks! (To the extent that there is a correlation between talking to Michael and having psych issues, I suspect a lot of it is a selection effect rather than causal: Michael told me once that he specifically seeks out people who are high in Eysenckian psychoticism.) If someone thinks Michael is wrong about something, great: I'm sure he'd be happy to argue about it, time permitting. But under-evidenced aspersions that someone is somehow dangerous just to talk to are not an argument.

I more or les... (read more)

Thing 0:


Before I actually make my point I want to wax poetic about reading SlateStarCodex.

In some post whose name I can't remember, you mentioned how you discovered the idea of rationality. As a child, you would read a book with a position, be utterly convinced, then read a book with the opposite position and be utterly convinced again, thinking that the other position was absurd garbage. This cycle repeated until you realized, "Huh, I need to only be convinced by true things."

This is extremely relatable to my lived experience. I am a stereotypical "high-functioning autist." I am quite gullible, formerly extremely gullible. I maintain sanity by aggressively parsing the truth values of everything I hear. I am extremely literal. I like math.

To the degree that "rationality styles" are a desirable artifact of human hardware and software limitations, I find your style of thinking to be the most compelling.

Thus I am going to state that your way of thinking about Vassar has too many fucking skulls.

Thing 1:

Imagine two world models:

  1. Some people want to act as perfect nth-order cooperating utilitarians, but can't because of human limitations. They are extremely scrupulous, so they feel
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I enjoyed reading this. Thanks for writing it. 

One note though: I think this post (along with most of the comments) isn't treating Vassar as a fully real person with real choices. It (also) treats him like some kind of 'force in the world' or 'immovable object'. And I really want people to see him as a person who can change his mind and behavior and that it might be worth asking him to take more responsibility for his behavior and its moral impacts. I'm glad you yourself were able to "With basic rationality skills, avoid contracting the Vassar, then [heal] the damage to [your] social life." 

But I am worried about people treating him like a force of nature that you make contact with and then just have to deal with whatever the effects of that are. 

I think it's pretty immoral to de-stabilize people to the point of maybe-insanity, and I think he should try to avoid it, to whatever extent that's in his capacity, which I think is a lot. 

"Vassar's ideas are important and many are correct. It just happens to be that he might drive you insane."

I might think this was a worthwhile tradeoff if I actually believed the 'maybe insane' part was unavoidable, and I do not believ... (read more)

I think that treating Michael Vassar as an unchangeable force of nature is the right way to go—for the purposes of discussions precisely like this one. Why? Because even if Michael himself can (and chooses to) alter his behavior in some way (regardless of whether this is good or bad or indifferent), nevertheless there will be other Michael Vassars out there—and the question remains, of how one is to deal with arbitrary Michael Vassars one encounters in life.

In other words, what we’ve got here is a vulnerability (in the security sense of the word). One day you find that you’re being exploited by a clever hacker (we decline to specify whether he is a black hat or white hat or what). The one comes to you and recommends a patch. But you say—why should we treat this specific attack as some sort of unchangeable force of nature? Rather we should contact this hacker and persuade him to cease and desist. But the vulnerability is still there…

I think you can either have a discussion that focuses on an individual and if you do it makes sense to model them with agency or you can have more general threat models. 

If you however mix the two you are likely to get confused in both directions. You will project ideas from your threat model into the person and you will take random aspects of the individual into your threat model that aren't typical for the threat.

I am not sure how much 'not destabilize people' is an option that is available to Vassar.

My model of Vassar is as a person who is constantly making associations, and using them to point at the moon. However, pointing at the moon can convince people of nonexistent satellites and thus drive people crazy. This is why we have debates instead of koan contests.

Pointing at the moon is useful when there is inferential distance; we use it all the time when talking with people without rationality training. Eliezer used it, and a lot of "you are expected to behave better for status reasons look at my smug language"-style theist-bashing, in the Sequences. This was actually highly effective, although it had terrible side effects.

I think that if Vassar tried not to destabilize people, it would heavily impede his general communication. He just talks like this. One might say, "Vassar, just only say things that you think will have a positive effect on the person." 1. He already does that. 2. That is advocating that Vassar manipulate people. See Valencia in Worth the Candle.

In the pathological case of Vassar, I think the naive strategy of "just say the thing you think is true" is still correct.

Menta... (read more)

I think that if Vassar tried not to destabilize people, it would heavily impede his general communication.

My suggestion for Vassar is not to 'try not to destabilize people' exactly. 

It's to very carefully examine his speech and its impacts, by looking at the evidence available (asking people he's interacted with about what it's like to listen to him) and also learning how to be open to real-time feedback (like, actually look at the person you're speaking to as though they're a full, real human—not a pair of ears to be talked into or a mind to insert things into). When he talks theory, I often get the sense he is talking "at" rather than talking "to" or "with". The listener practically disappears or is reduced to a question-generating machine that gets him to keep saying things. 

I expect this process could take a long time / run into issues along the way, and so I don't think it should be rushed. Not expecting a quick change. But claiming there's no available option seems wildly wrong to me. People aren't fixed points and generally shouldn't be treated as such. 

This is actually very fair. I think he does kind of insert information into people.

I never really felt like a question-generating machine, more like a pupil at the foot of a teacher who is trying to integrate the teacher's information.

I think the passive, reactive approach you mention is actually a really good idea of how to be more evidential in personal interaction without being explicitly manipulative.


I think I interacted with Vassar four times in person, so I might get some things wrong here, but I think that he's pretty disassociated from his body which closes a normal channel of perceiving impacts on the person he's speaking with. This thing [] looks to me like some bodily process generating stress / pain and being a cause for disassociation. It might need a body worker to fix whatever goes on there to create the conditions for perceiving the other person better. Beyond that Circling might be an enviroment in which one can learn to interact with others as humans who have their own feelings but that would require opening up to the Circling frame.
I think this line of discussion would be well served by marking a natural boundary in the cluster "crazy." Instead of saying "Vassar can drive people crazy" I'd rather taboo "crazy" and say: Personally I care much more, maybe lexically more, about the upside of minds learning about their situation, than the downside of mimics going into maladaptive death spirals, though it would definitely be better all round if we can manage to cause fewer cases of the latter without compromising the former, much like it's desirable to avoid torturing animals, and it would be desirable for city lights not to interfere with sea turtles' reproductive cycle by resembling the moon too much.
My problem with this comment is it takes people who: * can't verbally reason without talking things through (and are currently stuck in a passive role in a conversation) and who: * respond to a failure of their verbal reasoning * under circumstances of importance (in this case moral importance) * and conditions of stress, induced by * trying to concentrate while in a passive role * failing to concentrate under conditions of high moral importance by simply doing as they are told - and it assumes they are incapable of reasoning under any circumstances. It also then denies people who are incapable of independent reasoning the right to be protected from harm.
EDIT: Ben is correct to say we should taboo "crazy." This is a very uncharitable interpretation (entirely wrong). The highly scrupulous people here can undergo genuine psychological collapse if they learn their actions aren't as positive utility as they thought. (entirely wrong) I also don't think people interpret Vassar's words as a strategy and implement incoherence. Personally, I interpreted Vassar's words as factual claims then tried to implement a strategy on them. When I was surprised by reality a bunch, I updated away. I think the other people just no longer have a coalitional strategy installed and don't know how to function without one. This is what happened to me and why I repeatedly lashed out at others when I perceived them as betraying me, since I no longer automatically perceived them as on my side. I rebuilt my rapport with those people and now have more honest relationships with them. (still endorsed) Beyond this, I think your model is accurate.

The highly scrupulous people here can undergo genuine psychological collapse if they learn their actions aren’t as positive utility as they thought.

“That which can be destroyed by the truth should be”—I seem to recall reading that somewhere.

And: “If my actions aren’t as positive utility as I think, then I desire to believe that my actions aren’t as positive utility as I think”.

If one has such a mental makeup that finding out that one’s actions have worse effects than one imagined causes genuine psychological collapse, then perhaps the first order of business is to do everything in one’s power to fix that (really quite severe and glaring) bug in one’s psyche—and only then to attempt any substantive projects in the service of world-saving, people-helping, or otherwise doing anything really consequential.

Thank you for echoing common sense!
What is psychological collapse? For those who can afford it, taking it easy for a while is a rational response to noticing deep confusion [] , continuing to take actions based on a discredited model would be less appealing, and people often become depressed when they keep confusedly trying to do things that they don't want to do. Are you trying to point to something else? What specific claims turned out to be false? What counterevidence did you encounter?

Specific claim: the only nontrivial obstacle in front of us is not being evil

This is false. Object-level stuff is actually very hard.

Specific claim: nearly everyone in the aristocracy is agentically evil. (EDIT: THIS WAS NOT SAID. WE BASICALLY AGREE ON THIS SUBJECT.)

This is a wrong abstraction. Frame of Puppets seems naively correct to me, and has become increasingly reified by personal experience of more distant-to-my-group groups of people, to use a certain person's language. Ideas and institutions have the agency; they wear people like skin.

Specific claim: this is how to take over New York.

Didn't work.

I think this needs to be broken up into 2 claims: 1 If we execute strategy X, we'll take over New York. 2 We can use straightforward persuasion (e.g. appeals to reason, profit motive) to get an adequate set of people to implement strategy X. 2 has been falsified decisively. The plan to recruit candidates via appealing to people's explicit incentives failed, there wasn't a good alternative, and as a result there wasn't a chance to test other parts of the plan (1). That's important info and worth learning from in a principled way. Definitely I won't try that sort of thing again in the same way, and it seems like I should increase my credence both that plans requiring people to respond to economic incentives by taking initiative to play against type will fail, and that I personally might be able to profit a lot by taking initiative to play against type, or investing in people who seem like they're already doing this, as long as I don't have to count on other unknown people acting similarly in the future. But I find the tendency to respond to novel multi-step plans that would require someone do take initiative by sitting back and waiting for the plan to fail, and then saying, "see? novel multi-step plans don't work!" extremely annoying. I've been on both sides of that kind of transaction, but if we want anything to work out well we have to distinguish cases of "we / someone else decided not to try" as a different kind of failure from "we tried and it didn't work out."
This is actually completely fair. So is the other comment.
This seems to be conflating the question of "is it possible to construct a difficult problem?" with the question of "what's the rate-limiting problem?". If you have a specific model for how to make things much better for many people by solving a hard technical problem before making substantial progress on human alignment, I'd very much like to hear the details. If I'm persuaded I'll be interested in figuring out how to help. So far this seems like evidence to the contrary, though, as it doesn't look like you thought you could get help making things better for many people by explaining the opportunity.
You are making a false dichomaty here. You are assuming that everything that has a negative effect on a person is manipulation. As Vassar himself sees the situation people believe a lot of lies for reasons of fitting in socially in society. From that perspective getting people to stop believing in those lies will make it harder to fit socially into society. If you would get a Nazi guard at Ausschwitz into a state where the moral issue of their job can't be disassociated anymore, that's very predicably going to have a negative effect on that prison guard. Vassar position would be that it would be immoral to avoid talking about the truth about the nature of their job when talking with the guard in a motivation to make life easier for the guard.
To the extent I'm worried about Vassar's character, I am as equally worried about the people around him. It's the people around him who should also take responsibility for his well-being and his moral behavior. That's what friends are for. I'm not putting this all on him. To be clear.

I think it's a fine way of think about mathematical logic, but if you try to think this way about reality, you'll end up with views that make internal sense and are self-reinforcing but don't follow the grain of facts at all. When you hear such views from someone else, it's a good idea to see which facts they give in support. Do their facts seem scant, cherrypicked, questionable when checked? Then their big claims are probably wrong.

The people who actually know their stuff usually come off very different. Their statements are carefully delineated: "this thing about power was true in 10th century Byzantium, but not clear how much of it applies today".

Also, just to comment on this:

It is called Taking Ideas Seriously and using language literally. It is my personal favorite strategy, but I have no other options considering my neurotype.

I think it's somewhat changeable. Even for people like us, there are ways to make our processing more "fuzzy". Deliberately dimming some things, rounding others. That has many benefits: on the intellectual level you learn to see many aspects of a problem instead of hyperfocusing on one; emotionally you get more peaceful when thinking about things; a... (read more)

On the third paragraph: I rarely have problems with hyperfixation. When I do, I just come back to the problem later, or prime myself with a random stimulus. (See Steelmanning Divination.) Peacefulness is enjoyable and terminally desirable, but in many contexts predators want to induce peacefulness to create vulnerability. Example: buying someone a drink with ill intent. (See "Safety in numbers" by Benjamin Ross Hoffman. I actually like relaxation, but agree with him that feeling relaxed in unsafe environments is a terrible idea. Reality is mostly an unsafe environment. Am getting to that.) I have no problem enjoying warm fuzzies. I had problems with them after first talking with Vassar, but I re-equilibrated. Warm fuzzies are good, helpful, and worth purchasing. I am not a perfect utilitarian. However, it is important that when you buy fuzzies instead of utils, as Scott would put it, you know what you are buying. Many will sell fuzzies and market them as utils. I sometimes round things, it is not inherently bad. Dimming things is not good. I like being alive. From a functionalist perspective, the degree to which I am aroused (with respect to the senses and the mind) is the degree to which I am a real, sapient being. Dimming is sometimes terminally valuable as relaxation, and instrumentally valuable as sleep, but if you believe in Life, Freedom, Prosperity And Other Nice Transhumanist Things then dimming being bad in most contexts follows as a natural consequence. On the second paragraph: This is because people compartmentalize. After studying a thing for a long time, people will grasp deep nonverbal truths about that thing. Sometimes they are wrong; without the legibility of the elucidation, false ideas such gained are difficult to destroy. Sometimes they are right! Mathematical folklore is an example: it is literally metis among mathematicians. Highly knowledgeable and epistemically skilled people delineate. Sometimes the natural delineation is "this is tru

I mostly see where you're coming from, but I think the reasonable answer to "point 1 or 2 is a false dichotomy" is this classic, uh, tumblr quote (from memory):

"People cannot just. At no time in the history of the human species has any person or group ever just. If your plan relies on people to just, then your plan will fail."

This goes especially if the thing that comes after "just" is "just precommit."

My expectation is that interaction with Vassar is that the people who espouse 1 or 2 expect that the people interacting are incapable of precommitting to the required strength. I don't know if they're correct, but I'd expect them to be, because I think people are just really bad at precommitting in general. If precommitting was easy, I think we'd all be a lot more fit and get a lot more done. Also, Beeminder would be bankrupt.

This is a very good criticism! I think you are right about people not being able to "just."

My original point with those strategies was to illustrate an instance of motivated stopping about people in the community who have negative psychological effects, or criticize popular institutions. Perhaps it is the case that people genuinely tried to make a strategy but automatically rejected my toy strategies as false. I do not think it is, based on "vibe" and on the arguments that people are making, such as "argument from cult."

I think you are actually completely correct about those strategies being bad. Instead, I failed to point out that I expect a certain level of mental robustness-to-nonsanity from people literally called "rationalists." This comes off as sarcastic but I mean it completely literally.

Precommitting isn't easy, but rationality is about solving hard problems. When I think of actual rationality, I think of practices such as "five minutes of actually trying" and alkjash's "Hammertime." Humans have a small component of behavior that is agentic, and a huge component of behavior that is non-agentic and installed by vaguely agentic processes (simple conditioning, mimicry, social... (read more)

I found many things you shared useful. I also expect that because of your style/tone you'll get down voted :(

Michael is very good at spotting people right on the verge of psychosis

...and then pushing them.

Michael told me once that he specifically seeks out people who are high in Eysenckian psychoticism.

So, this seems deliberate. [EDIT: Or not. Zack makes a fair point.] He is not even hiding it, if you listen carefully.

Michael told me once that he specifically seeks out people who are high in Eysenckian psychoticism.

So, this seems deliberate.

Because high-psychoticism people are the ones who are most likely to understand what he has to say.

This isn't nefarious. Anyone trying to meet new people to talk to, for any reason, is going to preferentially seek out people who are a better rather than worse match. Someone who didn't like our robot cult could make structurally the same argument about, say, efforts to market Yudkowsky's writing (like spending $28,000 distributing copies of Harry Potter and the Methods to math contest winners): why, they're preying on innocent high-IQ systematizers and filling their heads with scary stories about the coming robot apocalypse!

I mean, technically, yes. But in Yudkowsky and friends' worldview, the coming robot apocalypse is actually real, and high-IQ systematizers are the people best positioned to understand this important threat. Of course they're going to try to market their memes to that neurotype-demographic. What do you expect them to do? What do you expect Michael to do?

There's a sliding scale ranging from seeking out people who are better at understanding arguments in general to seeking out people who are biased toward agreeing with a specific set of arguments (and perhaps made better at understanding those arguments by that bias). Targeting math contest winners seems more toward the former end of the scale than targeting high-psychoticism people. This is something that seems to me to be true independently of the correctness of the underlying arguments. You don't have to already agree about the robot apocalypse to be able to see why math contest winners would be better able to understand arguments for or against the robot apocalypse.

If Yudkowsky and friends were deliberately targeting arguments for short AI timelines at people who already had a sense of a foreshortened future, then that would be more toward the latter end of the scale, and I think you'd object to that targeting strategy even though they'd be able to make an argument structurally the same as your comment.

Yudkowsky and friends are targeting arguments that AGI is important at people already likely to believe AGI is important (and who are open to thinking it's even more important than they think), e.g. programmers, transhumanists, and reductionists. The case is less clear for short timelines specifically, given the lack of public argumentation by Yudkowsky etc, but the other people I know who have tried to convince people about short timelines (e.g. at the Asilomar Beneficial AI conference) were targeting people likely to be somewhat convinced of this, e.g. people who think machine learning / deep learning are important.

In general this seems really expected and unobjectionable? "If I'm trying to convince people of X, I'm going to find people who already believe a lot of the pre-requisites for understanding X and who might already assign X a non-negligible prior". This is how pretty much all systems of ideas spread, I have trouble thinking of a counterexample.

I mean, do a significant number of people not select who they talk with based on who already agrees with them to some extent and is paying attention to similar things?

If short timelines advocates were seeking out people with personalities that predisposed them toward apocalyptic terror, would you find it similarly unobjectionable? My guess is no. It seems to me that a neutral observer who didn't care about any of the object-level arguments would say that seeking out high-psychoticism people is more analogous to seeking out high-apocalypticism people than it is to seeking out programmers, transhumanists, reductionists, or people who think machine learning / deep learning are important.

The way I can make sense of seeking high-psychoticism people being morally equivalent to seeking high IQ systematizers, is if I drain any normative valance from "psychotic," and imagine there is a spectrum from autistic to psychotic. In this spectrum the extreme autistic is exclusively focused on exactly one thing at a time, and is incapable of cognition that has to take into account context, especially context they aren't already primed to have in mind, and the extreme psychotic can only see the globally interconnected context where everything means/is connected to everything else. Obviously neither extreme state is desirable, but leaning one way or another could be very helpful in different contexts.  

See also: indexicality.

On the other hand, back in my reflective beliefs, I think psychosis is a much scarier failure mode than "autism," on this scale, and I would not personally pursue any actions that pushed people toward it without, among other things, a supporting infrastructure of some kind for processing the psychotic state without losing the plot (social or cultural would work, but whatever).

I wouldn't find it objectionable. I'm not really sure what morally relevant distinction is being pointed at here, apocalyptic beliefs might make the inferential distance to specific apocalyptic hypotheses lower.

Well, I don't think it's obviously objectionable, and I'd have trouble putting my finger on the exact criterion for objectionability we should be using here. Something like "we'd all be better off in the presence of a norm against encouraging people to think in ways that might be valid in the particular case where we're talking to them but whose appeal comes from emotional predispositions that we sought out in them that aren't generally either truth-tracking or good for them" seems plausible to me. But I think it's obviously not as obviously unobjectionable as Zack seemed to be suggesting in his last few sentences, which was what moved me to comment.

I don't have well-formed thoughts on this topic, but one factor that seems relevant to me has a core that might be verbalized as "susceptibility to invalid methods of persuasion", which seems notably higher in the case of people with high "apocalypticism" than people with the other attributes described in the grandparent. (A similar argument applies in the case of people with high "psychoticism".)
That might be relevant in some cases but seems unobjectionable both in the psychoticism case and the apocalypse case. I would predict that LW people cluster together in personality measurements like OCEAN and Eysenck, it's by default easier to write for people of a similar personality to yourself. Also, people notice high rates of Asperger's-like characteristics around here, which are correlated with Jewish ethnicity and transgenderism (also both frequent around here).
It might not be nefarious. But it might also not be very wise. I question Vassar's wisdom, if what you say is indeed true about his motives. I question whether he's got the appropriate feedback loops in place to ensure he is not exacerbating harms. I question whether he's appropriately seeking that feedback rather than turning away from the kinds he finds overwhelming, distasteful, unpleasant, or doesn't know how to integrate. I question how much work he's done on his own shadow and whether it's not inadvertently acting out in ways that are harmful. I question whether he has good friends he trusts who would let him know, bluntly, when he is out of line with integrity and ethics or if he has 'shadow stuff' that he's not seeing. I don't think this needs to be hashed out in public, but I hope people are working closer to him on these things who have the wisdom and integrity to do the right thing.
Rumor has it that [] is due to Vassar recommended drugs. In the OP that case does get blamed on CFAR's enviroment without any mentioning of that part. When talking about whether or not CFAR is responsible for that stories factors like that seem to me to matter quite a bit. I'd love whether anyone who's nearer can confirm/deny the rumor and fill in missing pieces.

As I mentioned elsewhere, I was heavily involved in that incident for a couple months after it happened and I looked for causes that could help with the defense. AFAICT No drugs were taken in the days leading up to the mental health episode or arrest (or people who took drugs with him lied about it).

I, too, asked people questions after that incident and failed to locate any evidence of drugs.

As I heard this story, Eric was actively seeking mental health care on the day of the incident, and should have been committed before it happened, but several people (both inside and outside the community) screwed up. I don't think anyone is to blame for his having had a mental break in the first place.

I now got some better sourced information from a friend who's actually in good contact with Eric. Given that I'm also quite certain that there were no drugs involved and that isn't a case of any one person being mainly responsible for it happening but multiple people making bad decisions. I'm currently hoping that Eric will tell his side himself so that there's less indirection about the information sourcing so I'm not saying more about the detail at this point in time.

Edit: The below is only one mid sized part of a much larger and weirder story. While it was significant, there were a lot of other things also going very wrong with my life, and without those vulnerability factors I would likely have not run into major problems from just the parts described in this post. (also minor changes to the 3rd to last bullet point)

I think it probably makes sense to clarify some parts of the story relevant to the discussions here.

  • My psychosis was brought on by many factors, particularly extreme physical and mental stressors and exposure to various intense memes. I have written a document explaining this in more detail which I have shared with some people privately, and can share with others who were involved or have reason to be interested, but covering it in detail is beyond the scope of this post (which I'll mostly keep to the Vassar-related aspects).
  • At the time of my psychotic break I believed that someone from Vassar's group had spiked me with LSD, though I no longer believe this (I can't totally rule it out, but it does seem implausible, and my physical and mental health were poor enough that my quite vivid experiences are explainable as placebo/the sta
... (read more)

Thank you for sharing such personal details for the sake of the conversation.

Thanks for sharing the details of your experience. Fyi I had a trip earlier in 2017 where I had the thought "Michael Vassar is God" and told a couple people about this, it was overall a good trip, not causing paranoia afterwards etc.

If I'm trying to put my finger on a real effect here, it's related to how Michael Vassar was one of the initial people who set up the social scene (e.g. running singularity summits and being executive director of SIAI), being on the more "social/business development/management" end relative to someone like Eliezer; so if you live in the scene, which can be seen as a simulacrum, the people most involved in setting up the scene/simulacrum have the most aptitude at affecting memes related to it, like a world-simulator programmer has more aptitude at affecting the simulation than people within the simulation (though to a much lesser degree of course).

As a related example, Von Neumann was involved in setting up post-WWII US Modernism, and is also attributed extreme mental powers by modernism (e.g. extreme creativity in inventing a wide variety of fields); in creating the social system, he also has more memetic influence within that system, and could more effectively change its boundaries e.g. in creating new fields of study.

2017 would be the year Eric's episode happened as well. Did this result in multiple conversation about "Michael Vassar is God" that Eric might then picked up when he hang around the group?
I don't know, some of the people were in common between these discussions so maybe, but my guess would be that it wasn't causal, only correlational. Multiple people at the time were considering Michael Vassar to be especially insightful and worth learning from.
I haven't used the word god myself nor have heard it used by other people to refer to someone who's insightful and worth learning from. Traditionally, people learn from prophets and not from gods.
Can someone please clarify what is meant in this conext by 'Vassar's group', or the term 'Vassarites' used by others? My intution previously was that Michael Vassar had no formal 'group' or insitution of any kind, and it was just more like 'a cluster of friends who hung out together a lot', but this comment makes it seem like something more official.

While "Vassar's group" is informal, it's more than just a cluster of friends; it's a social scene with lots of shared concepts, terminology, and outlook (although of course not every member holds every view and members sometimes disagree about the concepts, etc etc). In this way, the structure is similar to social scenes like "the AI safety community" or "wokeness" or "the startup scene" that coordinate in part on the basis of shared ideology even in the absence of institutional coordination, albeit much smaller. There is no formal institution governing the scene, and as far as I've ever heard Vassar himself has no particular authority within it beyond individual persuasion and his reputation.

Median Group is the closest thing to a "Vassarite" institution, in that its listed members are 2/3 people who I've heard/read describing the strong influence Vassar has had on their thinking and 1/3 people I don't know, but AFAIK Median Group is just a project put together by a bunch of friends with similar outlook and doesn't claim to speak for the whole scene or anything.

As a member of that cluster I endorse this description.

Michael and I are sometimes-housemates and I've never seen or heard of any formal "Vassarite" group or institution, though he's an important connector in the local social graph, such that I met several good friends through him.
3Eli Tyre1y
Thank you very much for sharing. I wasn't aware of any of these details.
6Scott Alexander1y
If this information isn't too private, can you send it to me?
I've forwarded you the document. It's kinda personal so I'd prefer it not be posted publicly, but I'm mostly okay with it being shared with individuals who have reason to want to understand better.

I feel pretty defensive reading and responding to this comment, given a previous conversation with Scott Alexander where he said his professional opinion would be that people who have had a psychotic break should be on antipsychotics for the rest of their life (to minimize risks of future psychotic breaks). This has known severe side effects like cognitive impairment and brain shrinkage and lacks evidence of causing long-term improvement. When I was on antipsychotics, my mental functioning was much lower (noted by my friends) and I gained weight rapidly. (I don't think short-term use of antipsychotics was bad, in my case)

It is in this context that I'm reading that someone talking about the possibility of mental subprocess implantation ("demons") should be "treated as a psychological emergency", when the Eric Bryulant case had already happened, and talking about the psychological processes was necessary for making sense of the situation. I feared involuntary institutionalization at the time, quite a lot, for reasons like this.

If someone expresses opinions like this, and I have reason to believe they would act on them, then I can't believe myself to have freedom of speech. That ... (read more)

I don't remember the exact words in our last conversation. If I said that, I was wrong and I apologize.

My position is that in schizophrenia (which is a specific condition and not just the same thing as psychosis), lifetime antipsychotics might be appropriate. EG this paper suggests continuing for twelve months after a first schizophrenic episode and then stopping and seeing how things go, which seems reasonable to me. It also says that if every time you take someone off antipsychotics they become fully and dangerous psychotic again, then lifetime antipsychotics are probably their best bet. In a case like that, I would want the patient's buy-in, ie if they were medicated after a psychotic episode I would advise them of the reasons why continued antipsychotic use was recommended in their case, if they said they didn't want it we would explore why given the very high risk level, and if they still said they didn't want it then I would follow their direction.

I didn't get a chance to talk to you during your episode, so I don't know exactly what was going on. I do think that psychosis should be thought of differently than just "weird thoughts that might be true", as more of a whole-body n... (read more)

I don’t remember the exact words in our last conversation. If I said that, I was wrong and I apologize.

Ok, the opinions you've described here seem much more reasonable than what I remember, thanks for clarifying.

I do think that psychosis should be thought of differently than just “weird thoughts that might be true”, since it’s a whole-body nerve-and-brain dysregulation of which weird thoughts are just one symptom.

I agree, yes. I think what I was afraid of at the time was being called crazy and possibly institutionalized for thinking somewhat weird thoughts that people would refuse to engage with, and showing some signs of anxiety/distress that were in some ways a reaction to my actual situation. By the time I was losing sleep etc, things were quite different at a physiological level and it made sense to treat the situation as a psychiatric emergency.

If you can show someone that they're making errors that correspond to symptoms of mild psychosis, then telling them that and suggesting corresponding therapies to help with the underlying problem seems pretty reasonable.

Thanks, if you meant that, when someone is at a very early stage of thinking strange things, you should talk to them about it and try to come to a mutual agreement on how worrying this is and what the criteria would be for psych treatment, instead of immediately dehumanizing them and demanding the treatment right away, then I 100% agree.

I think if someone has mild psychosis and you can guide them back to reality-based thoughts for a second, that is compassionate and a good thing to do in the sense that it will make them feel better, but also kind of useless because the psychosis still has the same chance of progressing into severe psychosis anyway - you're treating a symptom.

If psychosis is caused by an underlying physiological/biochemical process, wouldn't that suggest that e.g. exposure to Leverage Research wouldn't be a cause of it?

If being part of Leverage is causing less reality-based thoughts and nudging someone into mild psychosis, I would expect that being part of some other group could cause more reality-based thoughts and nudge someone away from mild psychosis. Why would causation be possible in one direction but not the other?

I guess another hypothesis here is that some cases are caused by social/environmental factors and others are caused by biochemical factors. If that's true, I'd expect changing someone's environment to be more helpful for the former sort of case.

[probably old-hat [ETA: or false], but I'm still curious what you think] My (background unexamined) model of psychosis-> schizophrenia is that something, call it the "triggers", sets a person on a trajectory of less coherence / grounding; if the trajectory isn't corrected, they just go further and further. The "triggers" might be multifarious; there might be "organic" psychosis and "psychic" psychosis, where the former is like what happens from lead poisoning, and the latter is, maybe, what happens when you begin to become aware of some horrible facts. If your brain can rearrange itself quickly enough to cope with the newly known reality, your trajectory points back to the ground. If it can't, you might have a chain reaction where (1) horrible facts you were previously carefully ignoring, are revealed because you no longer have the superstructure that was ignore-coping with them; (2) your ungroundedness opens the way to unepistemic beliefs, some of which might be additionally horrifying if true; (3) you're generally stressed out because things are going wronger and wronger, which reinforces everything.

If this is true, then your statement:

. I think if someone has mild psychosis a
... (read more)
8Rafael Harth1y
There is this basic idea (I think from an old blogpost that Eliezer wrote) that if someone says there are goblins in the closet, dismissing them outright is confusing rationality with trust in commonly held claims, whereas the truly rational thing is to just open the closet and look. I think this is correct in principle but not applicable in many real-world cases. The real reason why even rational people routinely dismiss many weird explanations for things isn't that they have sufficient evidence against them, it's that the weird explanation is inconsistent with a large set of high confidence beliefs that they currently hold. If someone tells me that they can talk to their deceased parents, I'm probably not going to invest the time to test whether they can obtain novel information this way; I'm just going to assume they're delusional because I'm confident spirits don't exist. That said, if that someone helped write the logical induction paper, I personally would probably hear them out regardless of how weird the thing sounds. Nonetheless, I think it remains true that dismissing beliefs without considering the evidence is often necessary in practice.
If someone tells me that they can talk to their deceased parents, I'm probably not going to invest the time to test whether they can obtain novel information this way; I'm just going to assume they're delusional because I'm confident spirits don't exist.

This is failing to track ambiguity in what's being refered to. If there's something confusing happening--something that seems important or interesting, but that you don't yet have words to well-articulate it--then you try to say what you can (e.g. by talking about "demons"). In your scenario, you don't know exactly what you're dismissing. You can confidently dismiss, in the absence of extraordinary evidence, that (1) their parents's brains have been rotting in the ground, and (2) they are talking with their parents, in the same way you talk to a present friend; you can't confidently dismiss, for example, that they are, from their conscious perspective, gaining information by conversing with an entity that's naturally thought of as their parents (which we might later describe as, they have separate structure in them, not integrated with their "self", that encoded thought patterns from their parents, blah blah blah etc.). You can say "oh well yes of course if it's *just a metaphor* maybe I don't want to dismiss them", but the point is that from a partially pre-theoretic confusion, it's not clear what's a metaphor and it requires further work to disambiguate what's a metaphor.

As the joke goes, there's nothing crazy about talking to dead people. When dead people respond, then you start worrying.

I don’t think we need to blame/ostracize/cancel him and his group, except maybe from especially sensitive situations full of especially vulnerable people.

Based on the things I am reading about what has happened, blame, ostracism, and cancelling seem like the bare minimum of what we should do.

Vassar has had, I think about 6, transfems gravitate to him, join his projects, go on his quests, that I’ve heard. Including Olivia, and Jessica, and I think Devi. Devi had a mental breakdown and detransitioned IIHC. Jessica had a mental breakdown and didn’t detransition. Olivia became an agent of mental breakdown, compulsively breaking others via drug trips because they went through gates they shouldn’t’ve.

This is really, really serious. If this happened to someone closer to me I'd be out for blood, and probably legal prosecution.

Let's not minimize how fucked up this is.

Olivia, Devi and I all talked to people other than Michael Vassar, such as Anna Salamon. We gravitated towards the Berkeley community, which was started around Eliezer's writing. None of us are calling for blame, ostracism, or cancelling of Michael. Michael helped all of us in ways no one else did. None of us have a motive to pursue a legal case against him. Ziz's sentence you quoted doesn't implicate Michael in any crimes.

The sentence is also misleading given Devi didn't detransition afaik.

Jessicata, I will be blunt here. This article you wrote was [EDIT: expletive deleted] misleading. Perhaps you didn't do it on purpose; perhaps this is what you actually believe. But from my perspective, you are an unreliable narrator.

Your story, original version:

  • I worked for MIRI/CFAR
  • I had a psychotic breakdown, and I believed I was super evil
  • the same thing also happened to a few other people
  • conclusion: MIRI/CFAR is responsible for all this

Your story, updated version:

  • I worked for MIRI/CFAR
  • then Michael Vassar taught me that everyone is super evil, including CFAR/MIRI, and told me to use drugs in order to get a psychotic breakdown and liberate myself from evil
  • I actually used the drugs
  • I had a psychotic breakdown, and I believed I was super evil
  • the same thing also happened to a few other people
  • conclusion: I still blame MIRI/CFAR, and I am trying to downplay Vassar's role in this

If you can't see how these two stories differ, then... I don't have sufficiently polite words to describe it, so let's just say that to me these two stories seem very different.

Lest you accuse me of gaslighting, let me remind you that I am not doubting any of the factual statements you made. (I actually tried to... (read more)

I could be very wrong, but the story I currently have about this myself is that Vassar himself was a different and saner person before he used too much psychedelics. :( :( :(

Non-agenda'd question: about when did you notice changes in him?

9Eliezer Yudkowsky1y
My autobiographical episodic memory is nowhere near good enough to answer this question, alas.

Do you have a timeline of when you think that shift happened? That might make it easier for other people who knew Vassar at the time to say whether their observation matched yours.

That... must have hurt a lot.

(I hope your story is right.)

I saw some him make some questionable drug use decisions at Burning Man in 2011 and 2012, including larger than normal doses, and I don't think I saw all of it.
A lot of people take a lot of drugs on big events like Burning Man with little issue. In my observation, it's typically the overly frequent and/or targeted psychedelic use that causes such big changes at least in those that start of fairly stable.
you publicly describe your suffering as a way to show people that MIRI/CFAR is evil.

Could you expand more on this? E.g. what are a couple sentences in the post that seem most trying to show this.

Because it seems like you call it bad when you attribute it to MIRI/CFAR, but when other people suggest that Vassar was responsible, then it seems a bit like no big deal, definitely not anything to blame him for.

I appreciate the thrust of your comment, including this sentence, but also this sentence seems uncharitable, like it's collapsing down stuff that shouldn't be collapsed. For example, it could be that the MIRI/CFAR/etc. social field could set up (maybe by accident, or even due to no fault of any of the "central" people) the conditions where "psychosis" is the best of the bad available options; in which case it makes sense to attribute causal fault to the social field, not to a person who e.g. makes that clear to you, and therefore more proximal causes your breakdown. (Of course there's disagreement about whether that's the state of the world, but it's not necessarily incoherent.)

I do get the sense that jessicata is relating in a funny way to Michael Vassar, e.g. by warping the narrative around him while selectively posing as "just trying to state facts" in relation to other narrative fields; but this is hard to tell, since it's also what it might look like if Michael Vassar was systematically scapegoated, and jessicata is reporting more direct/accurate (hence less bad-seeming) observations.

Where did jessicata corroborate this sentence "then Michael Vassar taught me that everyone is super evil, including CFAR/MIRI, and told me to use drugs in order to get a psychotic breakdown and liberate myself from evil" ? 

I should note that, as an outsider, the main point I recall Eliezer making in that vein is that he used Michael Vassar as a model for the character who was called Professor Quirrell. As an outsider, I didn't see that as an unqualified endorsement - though I think your general message should be signal-boosted.

The claim that Michael Vassar is substantially like Quirrell seems to me strange. Where did you get the claim that Eliezer modelled Vassar after Quirrell? To make the claim a bit more based on public data, take Vassar's TedX []talk. I think it gives a good impression of how Vassar thinks. There are some official statistics that claim for Jordan that life expectancy, so I think there's a good chance that Vassar here actually believes what he says. If you however look deeper then Jordan's life expectancy is not as high as is asserted by Vassar. Given that the video is in the public record that's an error that everybody can find who tries to check what Vassar is saying. I don't think it's in Vassar's interest to give a public talk like that with claims that are easily found to be wrong by factchecking. Quirrell wouldn't have made an error like this but is a lot more controlled. Eliezer made Vassar president of the precursor of MIRI. That's a strong signal of trust and endorsement.

Eliezer has openly said Quirrell's cynicism is modeled after a mix of Michael Vassar and Robin Hanson.

But from my perspective, you are an unreliable narrator.

I appreciate you're telling me this given that you believe it. I definitely am in some ways, and try to improve over time.

then Michael Vassar taught me that everyone is super evil, including CFAR/MIRI, and told me to use drugs in order to get a psychotic breakdown and liberate myself from evil

I said in the text that (a) there were conversations about corruption in EA institutions, including about the content of Ben Hoffman's posts, (b) I was collaborating with Michael Vassar at the time, (c) Michael Vassar was commenting about social epistemology. I admit that connecting points (a) and (c) would have made the connection clearer, but it wouldn't have changed the text much.

In cases where someone was previously part of a "cult" and later says it was a "cult" and abusive in some important ways, there has to be a stage where they're thinking about how bad the social context was, and practically always, that involves conversations with other people who are encouraging them to look at the ways their social context is bad. So my having conversations where people try to convince me CFAR/MIRI are evil is expected given what el... (read more)

What I'm saying is that the Berkeley community should be. Supplying illicit drugs is a crime (but perhaps the drugs were BYO?). IDK if doing so and negligently causing permanent psychological injury is a worse crime, but it should be.

I'm not going to comment on drug usage in detail for legal reasons, except to note that there are psychedelics legal in some places, such as marijuana in CA.

It doesn't make sense to attribute unique causal responsibility for psychotic breaks to anyone, except maybe to the person it's happening to. There are lots of people all of us were talking to in that time period who influenced us, and multiple people were advocating psychedelic use. Not all cases happened to people who were talking significantly with Michael around the time. As I mentioned in the OP, as I was becoming more psychotic, people tried things they thought might help, which generally didn't, and they could have done better things instead. Even causal responsibility doesn't imply blame, e.g. Eliezer had some causal responsibility due to writing things that attracted people to the Berkeley scene where there were higher-variance psychological outcomes. Michael was often talking with people who were already "not ok" in important ways, which probably affects the statistics.

Please see my comment on the grandparent.

I agree with Jessica's general characterization that this is better understood as multi-causal rather than the direct cause of actions by one person.

Relevant bit of social data: Olivia is the most irresponsible-with-drugs person I've ever met, by a sizeable margin; and I know of one specific instance (not a person named in your comment or any other comments on this post) where Olivia gave someone an ill-advised drug combination and they had a bad time (though not a psychotic break).

I don't remember specific names, but something similar happened at one of the first rationality minicamps. Technically, this was not about drugs but some supplements (i.e. completely legal things), but there was someone mixing various kinds of powders and saying "yeah, trust me, I have a lot of experience with this, I did a lot of research, it is perfectly safe to take a dose this high, really", and then an ambulance had to be called. So, I assume you meant that Olivia goes even far beyond this, right?

My memory of the RBC incident you're referring to was that it wasn't supplements that did it, it was a caffeine overdose from energy drinks leading into a panic attack. But there were certainly a lot of supplements around and they could've played a role I didn't know about.

When I say that I believe Olivia is irresponsible with drugs, I'm not excluding the unscheduled supplements, but the story I referred to involved the scheduled kind.

I've posted an edit/update above after talking to Vassar.

A question for the 'Vassarites', if they will: were you doing anything like the "unihemispheric sleep" exercise (self-inducing hallucinations/dissociative personalities by sleep deprivation) the Zizians are described as doing?

No. All sleep deprivation was unintentional (anxiety-induced in my case).

I banned him from SSC meetups for a combination of reasons including these

If you make bans like these it would be worth to communicate them to the people organizing SSC meetups. Especially, when making bans for safety reasons of meetup participants not communicating those bans seems very strange to me.

Vassar lived a while after he left the Bay Area in Berlin and for decisions whether or not to make an effort to integrate someone like him (and invite him to LW and SSC meetups) such kind of information is valuable and Bay people not sharing it but claiming that they do anything that would work in practice like a ban feels misleading. 

For reasons I don't fully understand and which might or might not be related to this, he left the Bay Area. This was around the time COVID happened, so everything's kind of been frozen in place since then.

I think Vassar left the Bay area more then a year before COVID happened. As far as I remember his stated reasoning was something along the lines of everyone in the Bay Area getting mindkilled by leftish ideology.

It was on the Register of Bans, which unfortunately went down after I deleted the blog. I admit I didn't publicize it very well because this was a kind of sensitive situation and I was trying to do it without destroying his reputation.

If there are bans that are supposed to be enforced, mentioning that in the mails that go out to organizers for a ACX everywhere event would make sense. I'm not 100% sure that I got all the mails because Ruben forwarded mails for me (I normally organize LW meetups in Berlin and support Ruben with the SSC/ACX meetups), but in those there was no mention of the word ban.

I don't think it needs to be public but having such information in a mail like the one Aug 23 would likely to be necessary for a good portion of the meetup organizers to know that there an expectation that certain people aren't welcome. seems to have happened after that point in time. Vassar not only attended a Slate Star Codex but was central in it and presenting his thoughts.

I organized that, so let me say that:

  • That online meetup, or the invitation to Vassar, was not officially affiliated to or endorsed by SSC. Any responsibility for inviting him is mine.
  • I have  conversed with him a few times, as follows:
  • I met him in Israel around 2010. He was quite interesting, though he did try to get me to withdraw my retirement savings to invest with him. He was somewhat persuasive. During our time in conversation, he made some offensive statements, but I am perhaps less touchy about such things than the younger generation.
  • In 2012, he explained  Acausal Trade to me, and that was the seed of  this post. That discussion was quite sensible and I thank him for that.
  • A few years later, I invited him to speak at LessWrong Israel.  At that time I thought him a mad genius -- truly both.  His talk was verging on incoherence, with flashes of apparent insight.
  • Before the online meetup, 2021, he insisted on a preliminary talk; he made statements that produced twinges of persuasiveness. (Introspecting that is kind of interesting, actually.) I stayed with it for 2 or more hours before begging off, because it was fascinating in a way. I was able to analyze
... (read more)

It seems to me that despite organizing multiple SSC events you had no knowledge that Vassar was banned from SSC events. Neither had anyone reading the event anouncement to the extend that they would tell you that Vassar was banned before the event happened.

To me that suggests that there's a problem of not sharing information about who's banned to those organizing meetups in an effective way, so that a ban has the consequence one would expect it to have.

It might be useful to have a global blacklist somewhere. Possible legal consequences, if someone decides to sue you for libel. (Perhaps the list should only contain the names, not the reasons?) EDIT: Nevermind. There are more things I would like to say about this, but this is not the right place. Later I may write a separate article explaining the threat model I had in mind.
Legal threats matter a great deal for what can be done in a situation like this. When it comes to a "global blacklist" there's the question about governance. Who decides who's on and who isn't. When it comes to SSC or ACX meetups the governance question is clear. Anybody who's organizing a meetup under those labels should follow Scott's guidance. That however only works if that information is communicated to meetup organizers.

So, it's been a long time since I actually commented on Less Wrong, but since the conversation is here...

Hearing about this is weird for me, because I feel like, compared to the opinions I heard about him from other people in the community, I kind of... always had uncomfortable feelings about Mike Vassar? And I say this without having had direct personal contact with him except, IIRC, maybe one meetup I attended where he was there and we didn't talk directly, although we did occasionally participate in some of the same conversations online.


By all accounts, it sounds like he's always been quite charismatic in person, and this isn't the first time I've heard someone describe him as a "wizard." But empirically, there are some people who're very charismatic who propagate some really bad ideas and whose impacts on the lives of people around them, or on society at large, can be quite negative. As of last I was paying attention to him, I wouldn't have expected Mike Vassar to have that negative an effect on the lives of the people around him, but I was always stuck in an awkward position of feeling like I was surrounded by people who took him more seriously than I felt like he ought ... (read more)

I met Vassar once. He came across as extremely charismatic (with a sort of charisma that probably only works on a particular type of people, which includes me), creating the impression of saying wise and insightful things (especially if you lack relevant domain knowledge), while in truth he was saying a lot of stuff which was patently absurd. Something about his delivery was so captivating, that it took me a while to "shake off the fairy dust" and realize just how silly some of his claims were, even when it should have been obvious from the start. Moreover, his worldview seemed heavily based on paranoidal / conspiracy-theory type of thinking. So, yes, I'm not too surprised by Scott's revelations about him.

He came across as extremely charismatic (with a sort of charisma that probably only works on a particular type of people, which includes me), creating the impression of saying wise and insightful things (especially if you lack relevant domain knowledge), while in truth he was saying a lot of stuff which was patently absurd.

Yeah, it definitely didn't work on me. I believe I wrote this thread shortly after my one-and-only interaction with him, in which he said a lot of things that made me very skeptical but that I couldn't easily refute, or had much time to think about before he would move on to some other topic. (Interestingly, he actually replied in that thread even though I didn't mention him by name.)

It saddens me to learn that his style of conversation/persuasion "works" on many people who otherwise seem very smart and capable (and even self-selected for caring about being rational). It seems like pretty bad news as far as what kind of epistemic situation humanity is in (e.g., how easily we will be manipulated by even slightly-smarter-than-human AIs / human-AI systems).

Oh, this is because the OP that I was replying to [] did mention him by name:
-10[comment deleted]1y

I was always stuck in an awkward position of feeling like I was surrounded by people who took him more seriously than I felt like he ought to be taken.

Heh, the same feeling here. I didn't have much opportunity to interact with him in person. I remember repeatedly hearing praise about how incredibly smart he is (from people whom I admired), then trying to find something smart written by him, and feeling unimpressed and confused, like maybe I wasn't reading the right texts or I failed to discover the hidden meaning that people smarter than me have noticed.

Hypothesis 1: I am simply not smart enough to recognize his greatness. I can recognize people one level above me, and they can recognize people one level above them, but when I try to understand someone two levels above me, it's all gibberish to me.

Hypothesis 2: He is more persuasive in person than in writing. (But once he impressed you in person, you will now see greatness in his writing, too. Maybe because of halo affect. Maybe because now you understand the hidden layers of what he actually meant by that.) Maybe he is more persuasive in person because he can make his message optimized for the receiver; which might be a good thing... (read more)

Not a direct response to you, but if anyone who hasn't talked to Vassar is wanting an example of Vassar-conversation that may be easier to understand or get some sense from than most examples would (though it'll have a fair bit in it that'll probably still seem false/confusing), you might try Spencer Greenberg's podcast with Vassar.

As a datapoint: I listened to that podcast 4 times, and took notes 3 of those 4 times, to try and clearly parse what he's saying. I certainly did not fully succeed. 

My notes.

It seems like he said some straightforwardly contradictory things? For instance, that strong conflict theorists trust their own senses and feelings more, but also trust them less?

I would really like to understand what he's getting at by the way, so if it is clearer for you than it is for me, I'd actively appreciate clarification.

i tried reading / skimming some of that summary

it made me want to scream 

what a horrible way to view the world / people / institutions / justice 

i should maybe try listening to the podcast to see if i have a similar reaction to that 

Seeing as how you posted this 9 days ago, I hope you did not bite off more than you could chew, and I hope you do not want to scream anymore.

In Harry Potter the standard practice seems to be to "eat chocolate" and perhaps "play with puppies" after exposure to ideas that are both (1) possibly true, and (2) very saddening to think about.

Then there is Gendlin's Litany (and please note that I am linking to a critique, not to unadulterated "yay for the litany" ideas) which I believe is part of Lesswrong's canon somewhat on purpose. In the critique there are second and third thoughts along these lines, which I admire for their clarity, and also for their hopefulness.

Ideally [a better version of the Litany] would communicate: “Lying to yourself will eventually screw you up worse than getting hurt by a truth,” instead of “learning new truths has no negative consequences.”

This distinction is particularly important when the truth at hand is “the world is a fundamentally unfair place that will kill you without a second thought if you mess up, and possibly even if you don’t.”

EDIT TO CLARIFY: The person who goes about their life ignoring the universe’s Absolute Neutrality is very fundamentally

... (read more)

There's also these 2 podcasts which cover quite a variety of topics, for anyone who's interested:
You've Got Mel - With Michael Vassar
Jim Rutt Show - Michael Vassar on Passive-Aggressive Revolution

I haven't seen/heard anything particularly impressive from him either, but perhaps his 'best work' just isn't written down anywhere?
My impression as an outsider (I met him once and heard and read some things people were saying about him) was that he seemed smart but also seemed like kind of a kook...

I have replied to this comment in a top-level post.

Since comments get occluded you should refer to an edit/update somewhere at the top if you want it to be seen by those who already read your original comment.
2Yoav Ravid1y
Is this the highest rated comment on the site?

Okay, meta: This post has over 500 comments now and it's really hard to keep a handle on all of the threads. So I spent the last 2 hours trying to outline the main topics that keep coming up. Most top-level comments are linked to but some didn't really fit into any category, so a couple are missing; also apologies that the structure is imperfect.

Topic headers are bolded and are organized very roughly in order of how important they seem (both to me personally and in terms of the amount of air time they've gotten). 

... (read more)

This is hugely helpful, a great community service! Thanks so much, mingyuan.

I find something in me really revolts at this post, so epistemic status… not-fully-thought-through-emotions-are-in-charge?

Full disclosure: I am good friends with Zoe; I lived with her for the four months leading up to her post, and was present to witness a lot of her processing and pain. I’m also currently dating someone named in this post, but my reaction to this was formed before talking with him.

First, I’m annoyed at the timing of this. The community still seems in the middle of sensemaking around Leverage, and figuring out what to do about it, and this post feels like it pulls the spotlight away. If the points in the post felt more compelling, then I’d probably be more down for an argument of “we should bin these together and look at this as a whole”, but as it stands the stuff listed in here feels like it’s describing something significantly less damaging, and of a different kind of damage. I’m also annoyed that this post relies so heavily on Zoe’s, and the comparison feels like it cheapens what Zoe went through. I keep having a recurring thought that the author must have utterly failed to understand the intensity of the very direct impact from Leverage’s operations on Zoe. Mo... (read more)

I want to note that this post (top-level) now has more than 3x the number of comments that Zoe's does (or nearly 50% more comments than the Zoe+BayAreaHuman posts combined, if you think that's a more fair comparison), and that no one has commented on Zoe's post in 24 hours. [ETA: This changed while I was writing this comment. The point about lowered activity still stands.]

This seems really bad to me — I think that there was a lot more that needed to be figured out wrt Leverage, and this post has successfully sucked all the attention away from a conversation that I perceive to be much more important. 

I keep deleting sentences because I don't think it's productive to discuss how upset this makes me, but I am 100% with Aella here. I was wary of this post to begin with and I feel something akin to anger at what it did to the Leverage conversation.

I had some contact with Leverage 1.0 — had some friends there, interviewed for an ops job there, and was charted a few times by a few different people. I have also worked for both CFAR and MIRI, though never as a core staff member at either organization; and more importantly, I was close friends with maybe 50% of the people who worked at ... (read more)

It seems like it's relatively easy for people to share information in the CFAR+MIRI conversation. On the other hand, for those people who have actually the most central information to share in the Leverage conversation it's not as easy to share them. 

In many cases I would expect that private in person conversation are needed to progress the Leverage debate and that just takes time. Those people at leverage who want to write up their own experience likely benefit from time to do that.

Practically, helping Anna get an overview over timeline of members and funders and getting people to share stories with Aella seems to be the way going forward that's largely not about leaving LW comments.

I agree with the intent of your comment mingyuan, but perhaps the reason for the asymmetry in activity on this post is simply due to the fact that there are an order of magnitude (or several orders of magnitude?) more people with some/any experience and interaction with CFAR/MIRI (especially CFAR) compared to Leverage?

I think some of it has got to be that it's somehow easier to talk about CFAR/MIRI, rather than a sheer number of people thing. I think Leverage is somehow unusually hard to talk about, such that maybe we should figure out how to be extraordinarily kind/compassionate/gentle to anyone attempting it, or something.

I agree that Leverage has been unusually hard to talk about bluntly or honestly, and I think this has been true for most of its existence.

I also think the people at the periphery of Leverage, are starting to absorb the fact that they systematically had things hidden from them. That may be giving them new pause, before engaging with Leverage as a topic.

(I think that seems potentially fair, and considerate. To me, it doesn't feel like the same concern applies in engaging about CFAR. I also agree that there were probably fewer total people exposed to Leverage, at all.)

...actually, let me give you a personal taste of what we're dealing with?

The last time I choose to talk straightforwardly and honestly about Leverage, with somebody outside of it? I had to hard-override an explicit but non-legal privacy agreement*, to get a sanity check. When I was honest about having done so shortly thereafter, I completely and permanently lost one of my friendships as a result.

Lost-friend says they were traumatized as a result of me doing this. That having "made the mistake of trusting me" hurt their relationships with other Leveragers. That at the time, they wished they'd lied to me, which stung.

I t... (read more)

I'm finally out about my story here! But I think I want to explain a bit of why I wasn't being very clear, for a while.

I've been "hinting darkly" in public rather than "telling my full story" due to a couple of concerns:

  1. I don't want to "throw ex-friend under the bus," to use their own words! Even friend's Leverager partner (who they weren't allowed to visit, if they were "infected with objects") seemed more "swept-up in the stupidity" than "malicious." I don't know how to tell my truth, without them feeling drowned out. I do still care about that. Eurgh.

  2. Via models that come out of my experience with Brent: I think this level of silence, makes the most sense if some ex-Leveragers did get a substantial amount of good out of the experience (sometimes with none of the bad, sometimes alongside it), and/or if there's a lot of regrettable actions taken by people who were swept up in this at the time, by people who would ordinarily be harmless under normal circumstances. I recognize that bodywork was very helpful to my friend, in working through some of their (unrelated) trauma. I am more than a little reluctant to put people through the sort of mob-driven invalidation I felt, in the

... (read more)
Any thoughts on why this was coming about in the culture? If anyone feels that way (like the lost friend) and wants to talk to me about it, I'd be interested in learning more about it.
* I could tell that this had some concerning toxic elements, and I needed an outside sanity-check. I think under the circumstances, this was the correct call for me. I do not regret picking the particular person I chose as a sanity-check. I am also very sympathetic to other people not feeling able to pull this, given the enormous cost to doing it at the time. This is not a strong systematic assessment of how I usually treat privacy agreements. My harm-assessment process is usually structured a bit like this [] , with some additional pressure from an "agreement-to-secrecy," and also factors in the meta-secrecy-agreements around "being able to be held to secrecy agreements" and "being honest about how well you can be held to secrecy agreements." No, I don't feel like having a long discussion about privacy policies right now. But if you care? My thoughts on information-sharing policy were valuable enough to get me into the 2019 Review. If you start on this here, I will ignore you.

The fact that the people involved apparently find it uniquely difficult to talk about is a pretty good indication that Leverage != CFAR/MIRI in terms of cultishness/harms etc.

Yes; I want to acknowledge that there was a large cost here. (I wasn't sure, from just the comment threads; but I just talked to a couple people who said they'd been thinking of writing up some observations about Leverage but had been distracted by this.)

I am personally really grateful for a bunch of the stuff in this post and its comment thread. But I hope the Leverage discussion really does get returned to, and I'll try to lend some momentum that way. Hope some others do too, insofar as some can find ways to actually help people put things together or talk.

Seems to me that, given the current situation, it would probably be good to wait maybe two more days until this debate naturally reaches the end. And then restart the debate about Leverage.

Otherwise, we risk having two debates running in parallel, interfering with each other.

The comments section of this post is full of CFAR and MIRI employees attempting to do collaborative truth-seeking. The only comments made by Leverage employees in comparable threads were attempts at reputation management. That alone tells you a lot!

Then it is good that this debate happened. (Despite my shock when I saw it first.) It's just the timing with regards to the debate about Leverage that is unfortunate.

-9Puxi Deek1y
-35Kenny 1y

By way of narrowing down this sense, which I think I share, if it's the same sense: leaving out the information from Scott's comment about a MIRI-opposed person who is advocating psychedelic use and causing psychotic breaks in people, and particularly this person talks about MIRI's attempts to have any internal info compartments as a terrible dark symptom of greater social control that you need to jailbreak away from using psychedelics, and then those people have psychotic breaks - leaving out this info seems to be not something you'd do in a neutrally intended post written from a place of grave concern about community dynamics.  It's taking the Leverage affair and trying to use it to make a point, and only including the info that would make that point, and leaving out info that would distract from that point.  And I'm not going to posture like that's terribly bad inhuman behavior, but we can see it and it's okay to admit to ourselves that we see it.

And it's also okay for somebody to think that the original Leverage affair needed to be discussed on its own terms, and not be carefully reframed in exactly the right way to make a point about a higher-profile group the author... (read more)

not something you'd do in a neutrally intended post written from a place of grave concern about community dynamics


I'm not going to posture like that's terribly bad inhuman behavior, but we can see it and it's okay to admit to ourselves that we see it

These have the tone of allusions to some sort of accusation, but as far as I can tell you're not actually accusing Jessica of any transgression here, just saying that her post was not "neutrally intended," which - what would that mean? A post where Gricean implicature was not relevant?

Can you clarify whether you meant to suggest Jessica was doing some specific harmful thing here or whether this tone is unendorsed?

Okay, sure.  If what Scott says is true, and it matches my recollections of things I heard earlier - though I can attest to very little of it of my direct observation - then it seems like this post was written with knowledge of things that would make the overall story arc it showed, look very different, and those things were deliberately omitted.  This is more manipulation than I myself would personally consider okay to use in a situation like this one, though I am ever mindful of Automatic Norms and the privilege of being more verbally facile than others in which facts I can include but still make my own points.

See Zack's reply here and mine here. Overall I didn't think the amount of responsibility was high enough for this to be worth mentioning.

First, I’m annoyed at the timing of this. The community still seems in the middle of sensemaking around Leverage, and figuring out what to do about it, and this post feels like it pulls the spotlight away...

I want to second this reaction (basically your entire second paragraph). I have been feeling the same but hadn't worked up the courage to say it.

I am also mad at what I see to be piggybacking on Zoe’s post, downplaying of the harms described in her post, and a subtle redirection of collective attention away from potentially new, timid accounts of things that happened to a specific group of people within Leverage and seem to have a lot of difficulty talking about it.

I hope that the sustained collective attention required to witness, make sense of and address the accounts of harm coming out of the psychology division of Leverage doesn’t get lost as a result of this post being published when it was.

For a moment I actually wondered whether this was a genius-level move by Leverage, but then I decided that I am just being paranoid. But it did derail the previous debate successfully.

On the positive side, I learned some new things. Never heard about Ziz before, for example.


Okay, this is probably silly, but... there is no connection between the Vassarites and Leverage, right? I just realized that my level of ignorance does not justify me dismissing a hypothesis so quickly. And of course, everyone knows everyone, but there are different levels of "knowing people", and... you know what I mean, hopefully. I will defer to judgment of people from Bay Area about this topic.

Outside of "these people probably talked to each other like once every few months" I think there is no major connection between Leverage and the Vassarites that I am aware of.


I mostly assumed this; I suppose in the opposite case someone probably would have already mentioned that. But I prefer to have it confirmed explicitly.

The community still seems in the middle of sensemaking around Leverage, and figuring out what to do about it, and this post feels like it pulls the spotlight away.

I'm assuming that sensemaking is easier, rather than harder, with more relevant information and stories shared. I guess if it's pulling the spotlight away, it's partially because it's showing relevant facts about things other than Leverage, and partially because people will be more afraid of scapegoating Leverage if the similarities to MIRI/CFAR are obvious. I don't like scapegoating, so I don't really care if it's pulling the spotlight away for the second reason.

If the points in the post felt more compelling, then I’d probably be more down for an argument of “we should bin these together and look at this as a whole”, but as it stands the stuff listed in here feels like it’s describing something significantly less damaging, and of a different kind of damage.

I don't really understand what Zoe went through, just reading her post (although I have talked with other ex-Leverage people about the events). You don't understand what I went through, either. It was really, really psychologically disturbing. I sound paran... (read more)

I don't really understand what Zoe went through, just reading her post (although I have talked with other ex-Leverage people about the events). You don't understand what I went through, either. It was really, really psychologically disturbing. I sound paranoid writing what I wrote, but this paranoia affected so many people. 

It would have probably better if you would have focused on your experience and drop all of the talk about Zoe from this post. That would make it easier for the reader to just take the information value from your experience.

I think that your post is still valuable information but that added narrative layer makes it harder to interact with then it would have been if it would have been focused more on your experience.

One example for this is comparing Zoe’s mention of someone at Leverage having a psychotic break to the author having a psychotic break. But Zoe’s point was that Leverage treated the psychotic break as an achievement, not that the psychotic break happened. 

From the quotes in Scott's comment, it seems to me also the case that Michael Vassar also treated Jessica's and Ziz's psychoses as an achievement.

it seems to me also the case that Michael Vassar also treated Jessica's [...] psycho[sis] as an achievement

Objection: hearsay. How would Scott know this? (I wrote a separate reply about the ways in which I think Scott's comment is being unfair.) As some closer-to-the-source counterevidence against the "treating as an achievement" charge, I quote a 9 October 2017 2:13 p.m. Signal message in which Michael wrote to me:

Up for coming by? I'd like to understand just how similar your situation was to Jessica's, including the details of her breakdown. We really don't want this happening so frequently.

(Also, just, whatever you think of Michael's many faults, very few people are cartoon villains that want their friends to have mental breakdowns.)

Thanks for the counter-evidence.

First, I’m annoyed at the timing of this. The community still seems in the middle of sensemaking around Leverage, and figuring out what to do about it, and this post feels like it pulls the spotlight away.

If we're trying to solve problems rather than attack the bad people, then the boundaries of the discussion should be determined by the scope of the problem, not by which people we're saying are bad. If you're trying to attack the bad people without standards or a theory of what's going on, that's just mob violence.

I... think I am trying to attack the bad people? I'm definitely conflict-oriented around Leverage; I believe that on some important level treating that organization or certain people in it as good-intentioned-but-misguided is a mistake, and a dangerous one. I don't think this is true for MIRI/CFAR; as is summed up pretty well in the last section of Orthonormal's post here. I'm down for the boundaries of the discussion being determined by the scope of the problem, but I perceive the original post here to be outside the scope of the problem. 

I'm also not sure how to engage with your last sentence. I do have theories for what is going on (but regardless I'm not sure if you give a mob a theory that makes it not a mob).

This is explicitly opposed to Zoe's stated intentions. Other people, including me and Jessica, also want to reveal and discuss bad behavior, but don't consent to violence in the name of our grievances. Agnes Callard's article is relevant here:I Don’t Want You to ‘Believe’ Me. I Want You to Listen. [] We want to reveal problems so that people can try to understand and solve those problems. Transforming an attempt to discussion of abuse into a scapegoating movement silences victims, preventing others from trying to interpret and independently evaluate the content of what they are saying, simplifying it to a bid to make someone the enemy. Historically, the idea that instead of trying to figure out which behaviors are bad and police them, we need to try to quickly attack the bad people, is how we get Holocausts and Stalinist purges. In this case I don't see any upside.

I perceive you as doing a conversational thing here that I don't like, where you like... imply things about my position without explicitly stating them? Or talk from a heavy frame that isn't explicit? 

  1. Which stated intentions? Where she asks people 'not to bother those who were there'? What thing do you think I want to do that Zoe doesn't want me to do? 
  2. Are you claiming I am advocating violence? Or simply implying it?
  3. Are you trying to argue that I shouldn't be conflict oriented because Zoe doesn't want me to be? The last part feels a little weird for someone to tell me, as I'm good friends with Zoe and have talked with her extensively about this.
  4. I support revealing problems so people can understand and solve them. I also don't like whatever is happening in this original article due to reasons you haven't engaged with.
  5. You're saying transforming an attempt to discuss abuse into scapegoating silences victims, keeps other ppl from evaluating the content, and simplifies it a bid to make someone the enemy. But in the comment you were responding to, I was talking about Leverage, not the author of this post. I view Leverage and co. as bad actors, but you sort of... reframe it to make it sound like I'm using a conflict mindset towards Jessica?
  6. You're also not engaging with the points I made, and you're responding to arguments I don't condone.

I don't really view you as engaging in good faith at this point, so I'm precommitting not to respond to you after this.

Flagging that... I somehow want to simultaneously upvote and downvote Benquo's comment here. 

Upvote because I think he's standing for good things. (I'm pretty anti-scapegoating, especially of the 'quickly' kind that I think he's concerned about.) 

Downvote because it seems weirdly in the wrong context, like he's trying to punch at some kind of invisible enemy. His response seems incongruous with Aella's actual deal.  

I have some probability on miscommunication / misunderstanding. 

But also ... why ? are you ? why are your statements so 'contracting' ? Like they seem 'narrowizing' of the discussion in a way that seems like it philosophically tenses with your stated desire for 'revealing problems'. And they also seem weirdly 'escalate-y' like somehow I'm more tense in my body as I read your comments, like there's about to be a fight? Not that I sense any anger in you, but I sense a 'standing your ground' move that seems like it could lead to someone trying to punch you because you aren't budging. 

This is all metaphorical language for what I feel like your communication style is doing here. 

Thanks for separating evaluation of content from evaluation of form. That makes it easy for me to respond to your criticism of my form without worrying so much that it's a move to suppress imperfectly expressed criticism.

The true causal answer is that when I perceive someone as appealing to a moralistic framework, I have a tendency to criticize their perspective from inside a moralistic frame, even though I don't independently endorse moralizing. While this probably isn't the best thing I could do if I were perfectly poised, I don't think this is totally pointless either. Attempts to scapegoat someone via moralizing rely on the impression that symmetric moral reasoning is being done, so they can be disrupted by insistent opposition from inside that frame.

You might think of it as standing in territory I think someone else has unjustly claimed, and drawing attention to that fact. One might get punched sometimes in such circumstances, but that's not so terrible; definitely not as bad as being controlled by fear, and it helps establish where recourse/justice is available and where it isn't, which is important information to have! Occasionally bright young people with a moral compass ge... (read more)

The true causal answer is that when I perceive someone as appealing to a moralistic framework, I have a tendency to criticize their perspective from inside a moralistic frame, even though I don't independently endorse moralizing.


hmmm, well i gotta chew on that more but

Aella seems like a counter-productive person to stand your ground against. I sense her as mainly being an 'advocate' for Zoe. She claims wanting to attack the bad people, but compared with other commenters, I sense less 'mob violence' energy from her and ... maybe more fear that an important issue will be dropped / ignored. (I am not particularly afraid of this; the evidence against Leverage is striking and damning enough that it doesn't seem like it will readily be dropped, even if the internet stops talking about it. In fact I hope to see the internet talking about it a bit less, as more real convos happen in private.) 

I'm a bit worried about the way Scott's original take may have pulled us towards a shared map too quickly. There's also a general anti-jessicata vibe I'm getting from 'the room' but it's non-specific and has a lot to do with karma vote patterns. Naming these here for the sake of group awareness ... (read more)

I think it seems hard to find a disagreement because we don't disagree about much here. Aella was being basically cooperative in revealing some details about her motives, as was Logan. But that behavior is only effectively cooperative if people can use that information to build shared maps. I tried to do that in my replies, albeit imperfectly & in a way that picked a bit more of a fight than I ideally would have. At leisure, I do this. I'm working on a blog post trying to explain some of the structural factors that cause orgs like Leverage to go wrong in the way Zoe described. I've written extensively about both scapegoating and mind control outside the context of particular local conflicts, and when people seem like they're in a helpable state of confusion I try to help them. I spent half an hour today using a massage gun on my belly muscles, which improved my reading comprehension of your comment and let me respond to it more intelligently. But I'm in an adversarial situation. There are optimizing processes trying to destroy what I'm trying to build, trying to threaten people into abandoning their perspectives and capitulating to violence. It seems like you're recommending that I build new capacities instead of defending old ones. If I'm deciding between those, I shouldn't always get either answer. Instead, for any process damaging me, I should compare these two quantities: (A) The cost of replacement - how much would it cost me to repair the damage or build an equivalent amount of capacity elsewhere? (B) The cost of preventing the damage. I should work on prevention when B<A, and building when A>B. Since I expect my adversaries to make use of resources they seize to destroy more of what I care about, I need to count that towards the total expected damage caused (and therefore the cost of replacement). If I'd been able to costlessly pause the world for several hours to relax and think about the problem, I would almost certainly have been able to write a b
Well I feel somewhat more relaxed now, seeing that you're engaging in a pretty open and upfront manner. I like Tai Chi :) The main disagreement I see is that you are thinking strategically and in a results-oriented fashion about actions you should take; you're thinking about things in terms of resource management and cost-benefit analysis. I do not advocate for that. Although I get that my position is maybe weird? I claim that kind of thinking turns a lot of situations into finite games. Which I believe then contributes to life-ending / world-ending patterns. ... But maybe a more salient thing: I don't think this situation is quite as adversarial as you're maybe making it out to be? Or like, you seem to be adding a lot to an adversarial atmosphere, which might be doing a fair amount of driving towards more adversarial dynamics in the group in general. I think you and I are not far apart in terms of values, and so ... I kind of want to help you? But also ... if you're attached to certain outcomes being guaranteed, that's gonna make it hard...

I don't understand where guarantees came into this. I don't understand how I could answer a question of the form "why did you do X rather than Y" without making some kind of comparison of the likely outcomes of X and Y.

I do know that in many cases people falsely claim to be comparing costs and benefits honestly, or falsely claim that some resource is scarce, as part of a strategy of coercion. I have no reason to do this to myself but I see many people doing it and maybe that's part of what turned you off from the idea.

On the other hand, there's a common political strategy where a dominant coalition establishes a narrative that something should be provided universally without rationing, or that something should be absolutely prevented without acknowledging taboo tradeoffs. Since this policy can't be implemented as stated, it empowers people in the position to decide which exceptions to make, and benefits the kinds of people who can get exceptions made, at the expense of less centrally connected people.

It seems to me like thinking about tradeoffs is the low-conflict alternative to insisting on guaranteed outcomes.

Generalizing from your objection to thinking about things in terms of r... (read more)

Uhhh sorry, the thing about 'guarantees' was probably a mis-speak. 

For reference, I used to be a competitive gamer. This meant I used to use resource management and cost-benefit analysis a lot in my thinking. I also ported those framings into broader life, including how to win social games. I am comfortable thinking in terms of resource constraints, and lived many years of my life in that mode. (I was very skilled at games like MTG, board games, and Werewolf/Mafia.) 

I have since updated to realize how that way of thinking was flawed and dissociated from reality.

I don't understand how I could answer a question of the form "why did you do X rather than Y" without making some kind of comparison of the likely outcomes of X and Y.

I wrote a whole response to this part, but ... maybe I'm missing you. 

Thinking strategically seems fine to the extent that one is aligned with love / ethics / integrity and not acting out of fear, hate, or selfishness. The way you put your predicament caused me to feel like you were endorsing a fear-aligned POV. 

"Since I expect my adversaries to make use of resources they seize to destroy more of what I care about," "But I'm in an adversaria

... (read more)
I'm talking about optimizing processes coordinating with copies of themselves, distributed over many people. My blog post Civil Law and Political Drama [] is a technically precise description of this, though Towards optimal play as Villager in a mixed game [] adds some color that might be helpful. I don't think my interests are opposed to the autonomous agency of almost anyone. I do think that some common trigger/trauma behavior patterns are coordinating against autonomous human agency. The gaming detail helps me understand where you're coming from here. I don't think the right way to manage my resource constraints looks very much like playing a game of MtG. I am in a much higher-dimensional environment where most of my time should be spent playing/exploring, or resolving tension patterns that impede me from playing/exploring. My endorsed behavior pattern looks a little more like the process of becoming a good MtG player, or discovering that MtG is the sort of thing I want to get good at. (Though empirically that's not a game it made sense to me to invest in becoming good at - I chose Tai Chi instead for reasons!) I endorse using the capacities I already have, even when those capacities are imperfect. When responding to social conflict, it would almost always be more efficient and effective for me to try to clarify things out of a sense of open opportunity, than from a fear-based motive. This can be true even when a proper decision-theoretic model the situation would describe it as an adversarial one with time pressure; I might still protect my interests better by thinking in a free and relaxed way about the problem, than tensing up like a monkey facing a physical threat. But a relaxed attitude is not always immediately available to me, and I don't think I want to endorse always taking the time to detrigger before respondi

optimizing processes coordinating with copies of themselves, distributed over many people

Question about balance: how do you not end up reifying these in your mind, creating a paranoid sense of 'there be ghosts lurking in shadows' ? 

This question seems central to me because the poison I detect in Vassar-esque-speak is 

a) Memetically more contagious stories seem to include lurking ghosts / demons / shadows because adding a sense of danger or creating paranoia is sticky and salient. Vassar seems to like inserting a sense of 'hidden danger' or 'large demonic forces' into his theories and way of speaking about things. I'm worried this is done for memetic intrigue, viability, and stickiness, not necessarily because it's more true. It makes people want to listen to him for long periods of time, but I don't sense it being an openly curious kind of listening but a more addicted / hungry type of listening. (I can detect this in myself.) 

I guess I'm claiming Vassar has an imbalance between the wisdom/truth of his words and the power/memetic viability of his words. With too much on the side of power. 

b) Reifying these "optimizing processes coordinating" together, maybe "aga... (read more)

Mostly just by trying to think about this stuff carefully, and check whether my responses to it add up & seem constructive. I seem to have been brought up somehow with a deep implicit faith that any internal problem I have, I can solve by thinking about - i.e. that I don't have any internal infohazards. So, once I consciously notice the opportunity, it feels safe to be curious about my own fear, aggression, etc. It seems like many other people don't have this faith, which would make it harder for them to solve this class of problem; they seem to think that knowing about conflicts they're engaged in would get them hurt by making them blameworthy; that looking the thing in the face would mark them for destruction. My impression is that insofar as I'm paranoid, this is part of the adversarial process I described, which seems to believe in something like ontologically fundamental threats that can't be reduced to specific mechanisms by which I might be harmed, and have to be submitted to absolutely. This model doesn't stand up to a serious examination, so examining it honestly tends to dissolve it. I've found psychedelics helpful here. Psilocybin seems to increase the conscious salience of fear responses, which allows me to analyze them. In one of my most productive shrooms trips, I noticed that I was spending most of my time pretending to be a reasonable person, under the impression that an abstract dominator wouldn't allow me to connect with other people unless I passed as a simulacrum of a rational agent. I noticed that it didn't feel available to just go to the other room and ask my friends for cuddles because I wanted to, and I considered maybe just huddling under the blankets scared in my bedroom until the trip ended and I became a simulacrum again. Then I decided I had no real incentive do to this, and plenty of incentive to go try to interact with my friends without pretending to be a person, so I did that and it worked. THC seems to make paranoid thoughts mo
Thanks for your level-headed responses. At this point, I have nothing further to talk about on the object-level conversation (but open to anything else you want to discuss). For information value, I do want to flag that... I'm noticing an odd effect from talking with you. It feels like being under a weighted blanket or a 'numbing' effect. It's neither pleasant nor unpleasant. My sketchpad sense of it is: Leaning on the support of Reason. Something wants me to be soothed, to be reassured, that there is Reasonableness and Order, and it can handle things. That most things can be Solved with ... correct thinking or conceptualization or model-building or something. So, it's a projection and all, but I don't trust this "thing" whatever it is, much. It also seems to have many advantages. And it may make it pretty hard for me to have a fully alive and embodied conversation with you. Curious if any of this resonates with you or with anyone else's sense of you, or if I'm off the mark. But um also this can be ignored or taken offline as well, since it's not adding to the overall conversation and is just an interpersonal thing.
I did feel inhibited from having as much fun as I'd have liked to in this exchange because it seemed like while you were on the whole trying to make a good thing happen, you were somewhat scared in a triggered and triggerable way. This might have caused the distortion you're describing. Helpful and encouraging to hear that you picked up on that and it bothered you enough to mention.
Your response here is really perplexing to me and didn't go in the direction I expected at all. I am guessing there's some weird communication breakdown happening. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ I guess all I have left is: I care about you, I like you, and I wish well for you. <3
It seems like you're having difficulty imagining that I'm responding to my situation as I understand it, and I don't know what else you might think I'm doing.
I read the comment you're responding to as suggesting something like "your impression of Unreal's internal state was so different from her own experience of her internal state that she's very confused".
I was relying on her self-reports, like []
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8Ben Pace1y
What do you think the problem is that Jessica is trying to solve? (I'm also interested in what problem you think Zoe is trying to solve.)

One of the things that can feel like gaslighting in a community that attracts highly scrupulous people is when posting about your interpretation of your experience is treated as a contractual obligation to defend the claims and discuss any possible misinterpretations or consequences of what is a challenging thing to write in the first place.

I feel like here and in so many other comments in this discussion that there's important and subtle distinctions that are being missed. I don't have any intention to conditionlessly accept and support all accusations made (I have seen false accusations cause incredible harm and suicidality in people close to me). I do expect people who make serious claims about organizations to be careful about how they do it. I think Zoe's Leverage post easily met my standard, but that this post here triggered a lot of warning flags for me, and I find it important to pay attention to those.

Speaking of highly scrupulous...

I think that the phrases "treated as a contractual obligation" and "any possible misinterpretations or consequences" are both hyperbole, if they are (as they seem) intended as fair summaries or descriptions of what Aella wrote above.

I think there's a skipped step here, where you're trying to say that what Aella wrote above might imply those things, or might result in those things, or might be tantamount to those things, but I think it's quite important to not miss that step.

Before objecting to Aella's [A] by saying "[B] is bad!" I think one should justify or at least explicitly assert [A—>B]

Yes, and to clarify I am not attempting to imply that there is something wrong with Aella's comment. It's more like this is a pattern I have observed and talked about with others. I don't think people playing a part in a pattern that has some negative side effects should necessarily have a responsibility frame around that, especially given that one literally can't track all various possible side effects of actions. I see epistemic statuses as partially attempting to give people more affordance for thinking about possible side effects of the multi context nature of online comms and that was used to good effect here, I likely would have had a more negative reaction to Aella's post if it hadn't included the epistemic status.

I empathise with the feeling of slipperyness in the OP, I feel comfortable attributing that to the subject matter rather than malice.

If I had an experience that matched zoe's to the degree jessicata's did (superficially or otherwise) I'd feel compelled to post it. I found it helpful in the question of whether "insular rationalist group gets weird and experiences rash of psychotic breaks" is a community problem, or just a problem with stray dude.

Scott's comment does seem to verify the "insular rationalist group gets weird and experiences rash of psychotic breaks" trend, but it seems to be a different group than the one named in the original post.

The community still seems in the middle of sensemaking around Leverage

Understanding how other parts of the community were similar/dissimilar to Leverage seems valuable from a sensemaking point of view.

Lots of parts the post sort of implicitly presents things as important, or asks you to draw conclusions without explicitly pointing out those conclusions.

I think you may be asking your reader to draw the conclusion that this is a dishonest way to write, without explicitly pointing out that conclusion :-) Personally, I see nothing wrong with presenting only observations.

Yeesh. I don't think we should police victims' timing. That seems really evil to me. We should be super skeptical of any attempts to tell people to shut up about their allegations, and "your timing is very insensitive to the real victims" really does not pass the smell test for me.

Some context, please. Imagine the following scenario:

  • Victim A: "I was hurt by X."
  • Victim B: "I was hurt by Y."

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, whether it happens the same day, the next day, or week later. Maybe victim B was encouraged by (reactions to) victim A's message, maybe it was just a coincidence. Nothing wrong with that either.

Another scenario:

  • Victim A: "I was hurt by X."
  • Victim B: "I was also hurt by X (in a different way, on another day etc.)."

This is a good thing to happen; more evidence, encouragement for further victims to come out.

But this post is different in a few important ways. First, Jessicata piggybacks on Zoe's story a lot, insinuating analogies, but providing very little actual data. (If you rewrote the article to avoid referring to Zoe, it would be 10 times shorter.) Second, Jessicata repeatedly makes comparison between Zoe's experience at Leverage and her experience at MIRI/CFAR, and usually concludes that Leverage was less bad (for reasons that are weird to me, such as because their abuse was legible, or because they provided space for people to talk about demons and exorcise them). Here are some quotes:

I want to disagree with a frame that says th

... (read more)

I don't think "don't police victims' timing" is an absolute rule; not policing the timing is a pretty good idea in most cases. I think this is an exception. 

And if I wasn't clear, I'll explicitly state my position here: I think it's good to pay close attention to negative effects communities have on its members, and I am very pro people talking about this, and if people feel hurt by an organization it seems really good to have this publicly discussed. 

But I believe the above post did not simply do that. It also did other things, which is frame things I perceive in misleading ways, leave out key information relevant to a discussion (as per Eliezer's comment here), and also rely very heavily directly on Zoe's account at Leverage to bring validity to their own claims when I perceive Leverage as have been being both significantly worse and worse in a different category of way. If the above post hadn't done these things, I don't think I would have any issue with the timing.


Someone in the community told me that for me to think AGI probably won't be developed soon, I must think I'm better at meta-rationality than Eliezer Yudkowsky, a massive claim of my own specialness.

Just zooming in on this, which stood out to me personally as a particular thing I'm really tired of. 

If you're not disagreeing with people about important things then you're not thinking. There are many options for how to negotiate a significant disagreement with a colleague, including spending lots of time arguing about it, finding a compromise action, or stopping collaborating with the person (if it's a severe disagreement, which often it can be). But telling someone that by disagreeing they're claiming to be 'better' than another person in some way always feels to me like an attempt to 'control' the speech and behavior of the person you're talking to, and I'm against it.

It happens a lot. I recently overheard someone (who I'd not met before) telling Eliezer Yudkowsky that he's not allowed to have extreme beliefs about AGI outcomes. I don't recall the specific claim, just that EY's probability mass for the claim was in the 95-99% range. The person argued that because EY disagrees w... (read more)

I affirm the correctness of Ben Pace's anecdote about what he recently heard someone tell me.

"How dare you think that you're better at meta-rationality than Eliezer Yudkowsky, do you think you're special" - is somebody trolling?  Have they never read anything I've written in my entire life?  Do they have no sense, even, of irony?  Yeah, sure, it's harder to be better at some things than me, sure, somebody might be skeptical about that, but then you ask for evidence or say "Good luck proving that to us all eventually!"  You don't be like, "Do you think you're special?"  What kind of bystander-killing argumentative superweapon is that?  What else would it prove?

I really don't know how I could make this any clearer.  I wrote a small book whose second half was about not doing exactly this.  I am left with a sense that I really went to some lengths to prevent this, I did what society demands of a person plus over 10,000% (most people never write any extended arguments against bad epistemology at all, and society doesn't hold that against them), I was not subtle.  At some point I have to acknowledge that other human beings are their own people... (read more)

The irony was certainly not lost on me; I've edited the post to make this clearer to other readers.

I'm glad you agree that the behavior Jessica describes is explicitly opposed to the content of the Sequences, and that you clearly care a lot about this. I don't think anyone can reasonably claim you didn't try hard to get people to behave better, or could reasonably blame you for the fact that many people persistently try to do the opposite of what you say, in the name of Rationality.

I do think it would be a very good idea for you to investigate why & how the institutions you helped build and are still actively participating in are optimizing against your explicitly stated intentions. Anna's endorsement of this post seems like reasonably strong confirmation that organizations nominally committed to your agenda are actually opposed to it, unless you're actually checking. And MIRI/CFAR donors seem to for the most part think that you're aware of and endorse those orgs' activities.

When Jessica and another recent MIRI employee asked a few years ago for some of your time to explain why they'd left, your response was:

My guess is that I could talk over Signal voice for 30 minutes or in person for 15 minutes on the 15th, with an upcoming other commitment providing a definite cutoff poi

... (read more)

Anna's endorsement of this post seems like reasonably strong confirmation that organizations nominally committed to your agenda are actually opposed to it,

Presumably Eliezer's agenda is much broader than "make sure nobody tries to socially enforce deferral to high-status figures in an ungrounded way" though I do think this is part of his goals.

The above seems to me like it tries to equivocate between "this is confirmation that at least some people don't act in full agreement with your agenda, despite being nominally committed to it" and "this is confirmation that people are actively working against your agenda". These two really don't strike me as the same, and I really don't like how this comment seems like it tries to equivocate between the two.

Of course, the claim that some chunk of the community/organizations Eliezer created are working actively against some agenda that Eliezer tried to set for them is plausible. But calling the above a "strong confirmation" of this fact strikes me as a very substantial stretch.

It's explicitly opposition to core Sequences content, which Eliezer felt was important enough to write a whole additional philosophical dialogue about after the main Sequences were done. Eliezer's response when informed about it was:

is somebody trolling? Have they never read anything I’ve written in my entire life? Do they have no sense, even, of irony?

That doesn't seem like Eliezer agrees with you that someone got this wrong by accident, that seems like Eliezer agrees with me that someone identifying as a Rationalist has to be trying to get core things wrong to end up saying something like that.

I don't think this follows. I do not see how degree of wrongness implies intent. Eliezer's comment rhetorically suggests intent ("trolling") as a way of highlighting how wrong the person is; he is free to correct me if I am wrong, but I am pretty sure that is not an actual suggestion of intent, only a rhetorical one.

I would say moreover, that this is the sort of mistake that occurs, over and over, by default, with no intent necessary. I might even say that it is avoiding, not committing, this sort of mistake, that requires intent. Because this sort of mistake is just sort of what people fall into by default, and avoiding it requires active effort.

Is it contrary to everything Eliezer's ever written? Sure! But reading the entirety of the Sequences, calling yourself a "rationalist", does not in any way obviate the need to do the actual work of better group epistemology, of noticing such mistakes (and the path to them) and correcting/avoiding them.

I think we can only infer intent like you're talking about if the person in question is, actually, y'know, thinking about what they're doing. But I think people are really, like, acting on autopilot a pretty big fraction of the time; n... (read more)

This seems exactly backwards, if someone makes uncorrelated errors, they are probably unintentional mistakes. If someone makes correlated errors, they are better explained as part of a strategy. I can imagine, after reading the sequences, continuing to have the epistemic modesty bias in my own thoughts, but I don't see how I could have been so confused as to refer to it in conversation as a valid principle of epistemology.

Behavior is better explained as strategy than as error, if the behaviors add up to push the world in some direction (along a dimension that's "distant" from the behavior, like how "make a box with food appear at my door" is "distant" from "wiggle my fingers on my keyboard"). If a pattern of correlated error is the sort of pattern that doesn't easily push the world in a direction, then that pattern might be evidence against intent. For example, the conjunction fallacy will produce a pattern of wrong probability estimates with a distinct character, but it seems unlikely to push the world in some specific direction (beyond whatever happens when you have incoherent probabilities). (Maybe this argument is fuzzy on the edges, like if someone keeps trying to show you information and you keep ignoring it, you're sort of "pushing the world in a direction" when compared to what's "supposed to happen", i.e. that you update; which suggests intent, although it's "reactive" rather than "proactive", whatever that means. I at least claim that your argument is too general, proves too much, and would be more clear if it were narrower.)

The effective direction the epistemic modesty / argument from authority bias pushes things, is away from shared narrative as something that dynamically adjusts to new information, and towards shared narrative as a way to identify and coordinate who's receiving instructions from whom []. People frequently make "mistakes" as a form of submission [], and it shouldn't be surprising that other types of systematic error function as a means of domination, i.e. of submission enforcement.
(I indeed find this a more clear+compelling argument and appreciate you trying to make this known.)
I mean, there is a word for correlated errors, and that word is "bias"; so you seem to be essentially claiming that people are unbiased? I'm guessing that's probably not what you're trying to claim, but that is what I am concluding? Regardless, I'm saying people are biased towards this mistake. Or really, what I'm saying it's the same sort of phenomenon that Eliezer discusses here [] . So it could indeed be construed as a strategy as you say; but it would not be a strategy on the part of the conscious agent, but rather a strategy on the part of the "corrupted hardware" itself. Or something like that -- sorry, that's not a great way of putting it, but I don't really have a better one, and I hope that conveys what I'm getting at. Like, I think you're assuming too much awareness/agency of people. A person who makes correlated errors, and is aware of what they are doing, is executing a deliberate strategy. But lots of people who make correlated errors are just biased, or the errors are part of a built-in strategy they're executing, not deliberately, but by default without thinking about it, that requires effort not to execute. We should expect someone calling themself a rationalist to be better, obviously, but, IDK, sometimes things go bad? I mean people don't necessarily fully internalize everything they read, and in some people the "hold on what am I doing?" can be weak? <shrug> I mean I certainly don't want to rule out deliberate malice like you're talking about, but neither do I think this one snippet is enough to strongly conclude it.
In most cases it seems intentional but not deliberate. People will resist pressure to change the pattern, or find new ways to execute it if the specific way they were engaged in this bias is effectively discouraged, but don't consciously represent to themselves their intent to do it or engage in explicit means-ends reasoning about it.
Yeah, that sounds about right to me. I'm not saying that you should assume such people are harmless or anything! Just that, like, you might want to try giving them a kick first -- "hey, constant vigilance, remember?" :P -- and see how they respond before giving up and treating them as hostile.
"How dare you think that you're better at meta-rationality than Eliezer Yudkowsky, do you think you're special" reads to me as something Eliezer Yudkowsky himself would never write.

I don't recall the specific claim, just that EY's probability mass for the claim was in the 95-99% range. The person argued that because EY disagrees with some other thoughtful people on that question, he shouldn't have such confidence.


I think people conflate the very reasonable "I am not going to adopt your 95-99% range because other thoughtful people disagree and I have no particular reason to trust you massively more than I trust other people" with the different "the fact that other thoughtful people mean there's no way you could arrive at 95-99% confidence" which is false. I think thoughtful people disagreeing with you is decent evidence you are wrong but can still be outweighed.

If you're not disagreeing with people about important things then you're not thinking.

This is a great sentence. I kind of want it on a t-shirt.

I sought a lesson we could learn from this situation, and your comment captured such a lesson well.

This is reminiscent of the message of the Dune trilogy. Frank Herbert warns about society's tendencies to "give over every decision-making capacity" to a charismatic leader. Herbert said in 1979:

The bottom line of the Dune trilogy is: beware of heroes. Much better rely on your own judgment, and your own mistakes.

If you're not disagreeing with people about important things then you're not thinking.

Indeed. And if the people object against someone disagreeing with them, that would imply they are 100% certain about being right.

I recently overheard someone (who I'd not met before) telling Eliezer Yudkowsky that he's not allowed to have extreme beliefs about AGI outcomes.

On one hand, this suggests that the pressure to groupthink is strong. On the other hand, this is evidence of Eliezer not being treated as an infallible leader... which I suppose is a good news in this avalanche of bad news.

(There is a method to reduce group pressure, by making everyone write their opinion first, and only then tell each other the opinions. Problem is, this stops working if you estimate the same thing repeatedly, because people already know what the group opinion was in the past.)

Kate Donovan messaged me to say:

I think four people experiencing psychosis in a period of five years, in a community this large with high rates of autism and drug use, is shockingly low relative to base rates.


A fast pass suggests that my 1-3% for lifetime prevalence was right, but mostly appearing at 15-35.

And since we have conservatively 500 people in the cluster (a lot more people than that attended CFAR workshops or are in MIRI or CFAR's orbit), 4 is low. Given that I suspect the cluster is larger and I am pretty sure my numbers don't include drug induced psychosis, just primary psychosis.

The base rate seems important to take into account here, though per Jessica, "Obviously, for every case of poor mental health that 'blows up' and is noted, there are many cases that aren't." (But I'd guess that's true for the base-rate stats too?)

This is a good point regarding the broader community. I do think that, given that at least 2 cases were former MIRI employees, there might be a higher rate in that subgroup.

EDIT: It's also relevant that a lot of these cases happened in the same few years. 4 of the 5 cases of psychiatric hospitalization or jail time I know about happened in 2017, the other happened sometime 2017-2019. I think these people were in the 15-35 age range, which spans 20 years.

I'm a complete outsider looking in here, so here's an outsider's perspective (from someone in CS academia, currently in my early 30s).

I've never heard or seen anyone, in real life, ever have psychosis. I know of 0 cases. Yeah, I know that people don't share such things, but I've heard of no rumors either.

By contrast, depression/anxiety seems common (especially among grad students) and I know of a couple of suicides. There was even a murder! But never psychosis; without the internet I wouldn't even know it's a real thing.

I don't know what the official base rate is, but saying "4 cases is low" while referring to the group of people I'm familiar with (smart STEM types) is, from my point of view, absurd.

The rate you quote is high. There may be good explanations for this: maybe rationalists are more open about their psychosis when they get it. Maybe they are more gossipy so each case of psychosis becomes widely known. Maybe the community is easier to enter for people with pre-existing psychotic tendencies. Maybe it's all the drugs some rationalists use.

But pretending the reported rate of psychosis is low seems counterproductive to me.

I lived in a student housing cooperative for 3 years during my undergrad experience. These were non-rationalists. I lived with 14 people, then 35, then 35 (somewhat overlapping) people.

In these 3 years I saw 3 people go through a period of psychosis.

Once it was because of whippets, basically, and updated me very very strongly away from nitrous oxide being safe (it potentiates response to itself, so there's a positive feedback loop, and positive feedback loops in biology are intrinsically scary). Another time it was because the young man was almost too autistic to function in social environments and then feared that he'd insulted a woman and would be cast out of polite society for "that action and also for overreacting to the repercussions of the action". The last person was a mixture of marijuana and having his Christianity fall apart after being away from the social environment of his upbringing.

A striking thing about psychosis is that up close it really seems more like a biological problem rather than a philosophic one, whereas I had always theorized naively that there would be something philosophically interesting about it, with opportunities to learn or teach in a way that conn... (read more)

Thanks for this account. Feels like there's more to the story here. Two of the cases you gave do sound like they had some mental thing (Christianity, social fear) that precipitated the psychosis, even if the psychosis itself was non-mental.

I agree with other commenters that you are just less likely to see psychosis even if it's there, both because it's not ongoing in the way that depression and anxiety are, and because people are less likely to discuss it. I was only one step away from Jessica in the social graph in October of 2017 and never had any inkling that she'd had a psychotic episode until just now. I also wasn't aware that Zack Davis had ever had a psychotic episode, despite having met him several times and having read his blog a bit. I also lived with Olivia during the time that she was apparently inspiring psychosis in others. 

In fact, the only psychotic episodes I've known about are ones that had news stories written about them, which suggests to me that you are probably underestimating the extent to which people keep quiet about the psychotic episodes of themselves and those close to them. It seems in quite poor taste to gossip about, akin to gossiping about friends' suicide attempts (which I also assume happen much more often than I hear about — I think one generally only hears about the ones that succeed or that are publicized to spread awareness).

Just for thoroughness, here are the psychotic epis... (read more)

I feel like people keep telling me that psychosis around me should be higher than what I hear about, which is irrelevant to my point: my point is the frequency in which I hear about psychosis in the rationalist community is like an order of magnitude higher than the frequency I hear about it elsewhere.

It doesn't matter whether people hide psychosis among my social group; the observation to explain is why people don't hide psychosis in the rationalist community to the same extent.

For example, you mention 2 separate example of Bay Area rationalists making the news for psychosis. I know of no people in my academic community who have made the news for psychosis. Assuming equal background rates, what is left to explain is why rationalists are more likely to make the news when they get psychosis.

Another example: there have now been 1-2 people who have admitted to psychosis in blog posts intended as public callouts. I know of no people in my academic community who have written public callout blog posts in which they say they've had psychosis. Is there an explanation for why rationalists who've had psychosis are more likely to write public callout blog posts?

Anyway, this discussion feels kind of moot now that I've read Scott Alexander's update to his comment. He says that several people (who knew each other) all had psychosis around the same time in 2017. No reasonable person can think this is merely baseline; some kind of social contagion is surely involved (probably just people sharing drugs or drug recommendations).

5Alex Vermillion1y
I think part of it is that this isn't related to your social network, but your news habits and how your news sources cover your social network. You probably don't read newspapers that are as certain to write about your neighbor having any kind of "psychosis", but you read forums that tell you about Rationalists doing the same.
0Puxi Deek1y
Them leaving out the exact details of what went on with their groups make the whole discussion sketchy. Maybe they just want to keep the conversation to themselves. If that's the case, why are they posting on LW?

Sampling error. Psychosis is not an ongoing thing, yielding many fewer chances to observe it than months or years long depression or anxiety. Psychosis often manifests when people are already isolated due to worsening mental health, whereas depression and anxiety can be exactly exacerbated by the situations in which you would observe it i.e. socializing. Nor would people volunteer their experience due to much greater stigma.

I am not comparing "number of psychosis among my friends" to "number of depression episodes among my friends". I am comparing "number of psychosis among my friends" to "number of psychosis among rationalists". Any sampling errors should apply equally to the rationalists (or if not, that demands an explanation). The observation is that there's a lot more reported psychosis among rationalists than reported psychosis among (say) CS grad students. I don't have an explanation (and maybe there's an innocuous one), but I don't think people should be denying this fact.

A hypothesis is that rationalists are a larger gossip community, so that e.g. you might hear about psychosis from 4 years ago in people you're nth-degree socially connected with, where maybe most other communities aren't like that?

Certainly possible! I mentioned this hypothesis upthread.

I wonder if there are ways to test it. For instance, do non-Bay-Arean rationalists also have a high rate of reported psychosis? I think not (not sure though), though perhaps most of the gossip centers on the Bay Area.

Are Bay Area rationalists also high in reported levels of other gossip-mediated things? I'm trying to name some, but most sexual ones are bad examples because of the polyamory confounder. How about: are Bay rationalists high in reported rates of plastic surgery? How about abortion? These seem like somewhat embarrassing things that you'd normally not find out about, but that people like to gossip about.

Or maybe people don't care to gossip about these things on the internet, because they are less interesting the psychosis.

I’m someone with a family history of psychosis and I spend quite a lot of time researching it—treatments, crisis response, cultural responses to it. There are roughly the same number of incidences of psychosis in my immediate to extended family than are described in this post in the extended rationalist community. Major predictive factors include stress, family history and use of marijuana (and, to a lesser extent, other psychedelics). I don’t have studies to back this up but I have an instinct based on my own experience that openness-to-experience and risk-of-psychosis are correlated in family risk factors. So given the drugs, stress and genetic openness, I’d expect generic Bay Area smart people to have a fairly high risk of psychosis compared to, say, people in more conservative areas already.

(Sort of; you did say "more gossipy -> more widely known", but I wanted to specifically add the word "larger", the point being that a small + extra gossipy community would have a higher that usual report rate, and so would a large + extra gossipy (+ memory-ful) community; but the larger one would have more raw numbers, so you'd get a wrong estimate of the proportional rate if you estimated the size of the relevant reference class using intuitions based on small gossip communities. And maybe even a less gossipy but larger network would still have this effect; like, I *never* hear gossip about people in communities I'm not a part of, even if I talk to some people from those communities, so there's more structure than just the rate of gossip. It's more a question of how large is the "gossip-percolation connected component".)
See PhoenixFriend's comment [] , there were multiple cases I didn't know about, so a lot of people's thoughts about this post are recapitulating sampling bias from my own knowledge (which is from my own social network, e.g. oversampling trans people and people talking with Michael). This confirms that people are avoiding volunteering the information that they had a psychotic break.

PhoenixFriend alleges multiple cases you didn't know about, but so far no one else has affirmed that those cases existed or were closely connected with CFAR/MIRI.

I think it's entirely possible that those cases did exist and will be affirmed, but at the moment my state is "betting on skeptical."

See also studies about base-rate here: []
? 😭😤😂🤔🤔🤔

Thank you for writing this, Jessica. First, you've had some miserable experiences in the last several years, and regardless of everything else, those times sound terrifying and awful. You have my deep sympathy.

Regardless of my seeing a large distinction between the Leverage situation and MIRI/CFAR, I agree with Jessica that this is a good time to revisit the safety of various orgs in the rationality/EA space.

I almost perfectly overlapped with Jessica at MIRI from March 2015 to June 2017. (Yes, this uniquely identifies me. Don't use my actual name here anyway, please.) So I think I can speak to a great deal of this.

I'll run down a summary of the specifics first (or at least, the specifics I know enough about to speak meaningfully), and then at the end discuss what I see overall.

Claim: People in and adjacent to MIRI/CFAR manifest major mental health problems, significantly more often than the background rate.

I think this is true; I believe I know two of the first cases to which Jessica refers; and I'm probably not plugged-in enough socially to know the others. And then there's the Ziz catastrophe.

Claim: Eliezer and Nate updated sharply toward shorter timelines, other MIRI researchers... (read more)

: People in and adjacent to MIRI/CFAR manifest major mental health problems, significantly more often than the background rate.

I think this is true

My main complaint about this and the Leverage post is the lack of base-rate data. How many people develop mental health problems in a) normal companies, b) startups, c) small non-profits, d) cults/sects? So far, all I have seen are two cases. And in the startups I have worked at, I would also have been able to find mental health cases that could be tied to the company narrative. Humans being human narratives get woven. And the internet being the internet, some will get blown out of proportion. That doesn't diminish the personal experience at all. I am updating only slightly on CFAR or MIRI. And basically not at all on "things look better from the outside than from the inside."

In particular, I want to remind people here that something like 30-40% of grad students at top universities have either clinically diagnosed depression or anxiety (link). I think given the kind of undirected, often low-paid, work that many have been doing for the last decade, I think that's the right reference class to draw from, and my current guess is we are roughly at that same level, or slightly below it (which is a crazy high number, and I think should give us a lot of pause). 

I want to remind people here that something like 30-40% of grad students at top universities have either clinically diagnosed [emphasis mine] depression or anxiety (link)

I'm confused about how you got to this conclusion, and think it is most likely false. Neither your link, the linked study, or the linked meta-analysis in the linked study of your link says this. Instead the abstract of the linked^3 meta-analysis says:

Among 16 studies reporting the prevalence of clinically significant symptoms of depression across 23,469 Ph.D. students, the pooled estimate of the proportion of students with depression was 0.24 (95% confidence interval [CI], 0.18-0.31; I2 = 98.75%). In a meta-analysis of the nine studies reporting the prevalence of clinically significant symptoms of anxiety across 15,626 students, the estimated proportion of students with anxiety was 0.17 (95% CI, 0.12-0.23; I2 = 98.05%).

Further, the discussion section of the linked^3 study emphasizes:

While validated screening instruments tend to over-identify cases of depression (relative to structured clinical interviews) by approximately a factor of two67,68, our findings nonetheless point to a major public health problem among Ph

... (read more)
Note that the pooled prevalence is 24% (CI 18-31). But it differs a lot across studies, symptoms, and location. In the individual studies, the range is really from zero to 50% (or rather to 38% if you exclude a study with only 6 participants). I think a suitable reference class would be the University of California which has 3,190 participants and a prevalence of 38%.
Sorry, am I misunderstanding something? I think taking "clinically significant symptoms", specific to the UC system, as a given is wrong because it did not directly address either of my two criticisms: 1. Clinically significant symptoms =/= clinically diagnosed even in worlds where there is a 1:1 relationship between clinically significant symptoms and would have been clinically diagnosed, as many people do not get diagnosed 2. Clinically significant symptoms do not have a 1:1 relationship with would have been clinically diagnosed.
Well, I agree that the actual prevalence you have in mind would be roughly half of 38% i.e. ~20%. That is still much higher than the 12% you arrived at. And either value is so high that there is little surprise some severe episodes of some people happened in a 5-year frame.
The UC Berkeley study was the one that I had cached in my mind as generating this number. I will reread it later today to make sure that it's right, but it sure seems like the most relevant reference class, given the same physical location.
I had a look at the situation in Germany and it doesn't look much better. 17% of students are diagnosed with at least one psychical disorder. This is based on the health records of all students insured by one of the largest public health insurers in Germany (about ten percent of the population): []
I feel like the paragraph you cited just seems like the straightforward explanation of where my belief comes from? 24% of people have depression, 17% have anxiety, resulting in something like 30%-40% having one or the other. I did not remember the section about the screening instruments over-identifying cases of depression/anxiety by approximately a factor of two, which definitely cuts down my number, and I should have adjusted it in my above comment. I do think that factor of ~2 does maybe make me think that we are doing a bit worse than grad students, though I am not super sure.

Sorry, maybe this is too nitpicky, but clinically significant symptoms =/= clinically diagnosed, even in worlds where the clinically significant symptoms are severe enough to be diagnosed as such.

If you instead said in "population studies 30-40% of graduate students have anxiety or depression severe enough to be clinically diagnosed as such were they to seek diagnosis" then I think this will be a normal misreading from not jumping through enough links.

Put another way, if someone in mid-2020 told me that they had symptomatic covid and was formally diagnosed with covid, I would expect that they had worse symptoms than someone who said they had covid symptoms and later tested for covid antibodies. This is because jumping through the hoops to get a clinical diagnosis is nontrivial Bayesian evidence of severity and not just certainty, under most circumstances, and especially when testing is limited and/or gatekeeped (which is true for many parts of the world for covid in 2020, and is usually true in the US for mental health). 

Ah, sorry, yes. Me being unclear on that was also bad. The phrasing you give is the one I intended to convey, though I sure didn't do it.

Thanks, appreciate the update!

Additionally, as a canary statement: I was also never asked to sign an NDA.

I think CFAR would be better off if Anna delegated hiring to someone else.

I think Pete did (most of?) the hiring as soon as he became ED, so I think this has been the state of CFAR for a while (while I think Anna has also been able to hire people she wanted to hire).

It's always been a somewhat group-involved process, but yes, I was primarily responsible for hiring for roughly 2016 through the end of 2017, then it would have been Tim. But again, it's a small org and always involved some involvement of the whole group. 

Without denying that it is a small org and staff usually have some input over hiring, that input is usually informal.

My understanding is that in the period when Anna was ED, there was an explicit all-staff discussion when they were considering a hire (after the person had done a trial?). In the Pete era, I'm sure Pete asked for staff members' opinions, and if (for instance) I sent him an email with my thoughts on a potential hire, he would take that info into account, but there was not institutional group meeting. 

if one believed somebody else were just as capable of causing AI to be Friendly, clearly one should join their project instead of starting one's own.

Nitpicking: there are reasons to have multiple projects, for example it's convenient to be in the same geographic location but not anyone can relocate to any place.

Sure - and MIRI/FHI are a decent complement to each other, the latter providing a respectable academic face to weird ideas. Generally though, it's far more productive to have ten top researchers in the same org rather than having five orgs each with two top researchers and a couple of others to round them out. Geography is a secondary concern to that.
4Vanessa Kosoy1y
A "secondary concern" in the sense that, we should work remotely? Or in the sense that everyone should relocate? Because the latter is unrealistic: people have families, friends, communities, not anyone can uproot themself.

A secondary concern in that it's better to have one org that has some people in different locations, but everyone communicating heavily, than to have two separate organizations.

I think this is much more complex than you're assuming. As a sketch of why, costs of communication scale poorly, and the benefits of being small and coordinating centrally often beats the costs imposed by needing to run everything as one organization. (This is why people advise startups to outsource non-central work.)

4Vanessa Kosoy1y
This might be the right approach, but notice that no existing AI risk org does that. They all require physical presence.
Anthropic [] does not require consistent physical presence.
2Vanessa Kosoy1y
AFAICT, Anthropic is not an existential AI safety org per se, they're just doing a very particular type of research which might help with existential safety. But also, why do you think they don't require physical presence?
If you're asking why I believe that they don't require presence, I've been interviewing with them and that's my understanding from talking with them. The first line of copy on their website is Sounds pretty much like a safety org to me.
6Vanessa Kosoy1y
Are you talking about "you can work from home and come to the office occasionally", or "you can live on a different continent"? I found no mention of existential risk on their web page. They seem to be a commercial company, aiming at short-to-mid-term applications. I doubt they have any intention to do e.g. purely theoretical research, especially if it has no applications to modern systems. So, what they do can still be meritorious and relevant to reducing existential risk. But, the context of this discussion is: can we replace all AI safety orgs by just one org. And, Anthropic is too specialized to serve such a role.
I believe Anthropic doesn't expect its employees to be in the office every day, but I think this is more pandemic-related than it is a deliberate organizational design choice; my guess is that most Anthropic employees will be in the office a year from now.

First, thank you for writing this.

Second, I want to jot down a thought I've had for a while now, and which came to mind when I read both this and Zoe's Leverage post.

To me, it looks like there is a recurring phenomenon in the rationalist/EA world where people...

  • ...become convinced that the future is in their hands: that the fate of the entire long-term future ("the future light-cone") depends on the success of their work, and the work of a small circle of like-minded collaborators
  • ...become convinced that (for some reason) only they, and their small circle, can do this work (or can do it correctly, or morally, etc.) -- that in spite of the work's vast importance, in spite of the existence of billions of humans and surely at least thousands with comparable or superior talent for this type of work, it is correct/necessary for the work to be done by this tiny group
  • ...become less concerned with the epistemic side of rationality -- "how do I know I'm right? how do I become more right than I already am?" -- and more concerned with gaining control and influence, so that the long-term future may be shaped by their own (already-obviously-correct) views
  • ...spend more effort on self-experimenta
... (read more)

I worked for CFAR full-time from 2014 until mid to late 2016, and have worked for CFAR part-time or as a frequent contractor ever since. My sense is that dynamics like those you describe were mostly not present at CFAR, or insofar as they were present weren't really the main thing. I do think CFAR has not made as much research progress as I would like, but I think the reasoning for that is much more mundane and less esoteric than the pattern you describe here.

The fact of the matter is that for almost all the time I've been involved with CFAR, there just plain hasn't been a research team. Much of CFAR's focus has been on running workshops and other programs rather than on dedicated work towards extending the art; while there have occasionally been people allocated to research, in practice even these would often end up getting involved in workshop preparation and the like.

To put things another way, I would say it's much less "the full-time researchers are off unproductively experimenting on their own brains in secret" and more "there are no full-time researchers". To the best of my knowledge CFAR has not ever had what I would consider a systematic research and development program -- ... (read more)

Maybe offtopic, but the "trying too hard to try" part rings very true to me. Been on both sides of it.

The tricky thing about work, I'm realizing more and more, is that you should just work. That's the whole secret. If instead you start thinking how difficult the work is, or how important to the world, or how you need some self-improvement before you can do the work effectively, these thoughts will slow you down and surprisingly often they'll be also completely wrong. It always turns out later that your best work wasn't the one that took the most effort, or felt the most important at the time; you were just having a nose-down busy period, doing a bunch of things, and only the passage of time made clear which of them mattered.

2[comment deleted]1y

Does anyone have thoughts about avoiding failure modes of this sort?

Especially in the "least convenient possible world" where some of the bullet points are actually true -- like, if we're disseminating principles for wannabe AI Manhattan Projects, and we're optimizing the principles for the possibility that one of the wannabe AI Manhattan Projects is the real deal, what principles should we disseminate?

Most of my ideas are around "staying grounded" -- spend significant time hanging out with "normies" who don't buy into your worldview, maintain your sense of humor, fully unplug from work at least one day per week, have hobbies outside of work (perhaps optimizing explicitly for escapism in the form of computer games, TV shows, etc.) Possibly live somewhere other than the Bay Area, someplace with fewer alternative lifestyles and a stronger sense of community. (I think Oxford has been compared favorably to Berkeley with regard to presence of homeless people, at least.)

But I'm just guessing, and I encourage others to share their thoughts. Especially people who've observed/experienced mental health crises firsthand -- how could they have been prevented?

EDIT: I'm also curious how to ... (read more)

IMO, A large number of mental health professionals simply aren't a good fit for high intelligence people having philosophical crises. People know this and intuitively avoid the large hassle and expense of sorting through a large number of bad matches. Finding solid people to refer to who are not otherwise associated with the community in any way would be helpful.

I know someone who may be able to help with finding good mental health professionals for those situations; anyone who's reading this is welcome to PM me for contact info.

There's an "EA Mental Health Navigator" now to help people connect to the right care.

I don't know how good it is yet. I just emailed them last week, and we set up an appointment for this upcoming Wednesday. I might report back later, as things progress.

Unfortunately, by participating in this community (LW/etc.), we've disqualified ourselves from asking Scott to be our doctor (should I call him "Dr. Alexander" when talking about him-as-a-medical-professional while using his alias when he's not in a clinical environment?). I concur with your comment about having trouble finding a good doctor for people like us. p(find a good doctor) is already low and difficult given the small n (also known as the doctor shortage). If you combine p(doctor works well with people like us), the result may rapidly approach epsilon. It seems that the best advice is to make n bigger by seeking care in a place with a large per capita population of the doctors you need. For example, by combining [] with the US Census ACS 2013 population estimates (,%20Estimates,%20and%20Projections%3APopulation%20Total&g=0100000US%240400000&y=2013&tid=ACSDT1Y2013.B01003&hidePreview=true&tp=true), we see that the following states had >=0.9 primary care doctors per 1,000 people: * District of Columbia (1.4) * Vermont (1.1) * Massachusetts (1.0) * Maryland (0.9) * Minnesota (0.9) * Rhode Island (0.9) * New York (0.9) * Connecticut (0.9)

Does anyone have thoughts about avoiding failure modes of this sort?

Meredith from Status451 here. I've been through a few psychotic episodes of my own, often with paranoid features, for reasons wholly unrelated to anything being discussed at the object-level here; they're unpleasant enough, both while they're going on and while cleaning up the mess afterward, that I have strong incentives to figure out how to avoid these kinds of failure modes! The patterns I've noticed are, of course, only from my own experience, but maybe relating them will be helpful.

  • Instrumental scrupulousness is a fantastic tool. By "instrumental scrupulousness" I simply mean pointing my scrupulousness at trying to make sure I'm not doing something I can't undo. More or less what you describe in your edit, honestly. As for how much is too much, you absolutely don't want to paralyse yourself into inaction through constantly second-guessing yourself. Real artists ship, after all!
  • Living someplace with good mental health care has been super crucial for me. In my case that's Belgium. I've only had to commit myself once, but it saved my life and was, bizarrely, one of the most autonomy-respecting experiences I've ev
... (read more)

I do think that encouraging people to stay in contact with their family and work to have good relationships is very useful. Family can provide a form of grounding that having small talk with normies while going dancing or persuing other hobbies doesn't provide. 

When deciding whether a personal development group is culty I think it's a good test to ask whether or not the work of the group lead to the average person in the group having better or worse relationships with their parents. 

I agree, and think it's important to 'stay grounded' in the 'normal world' if you're involved in any sort of intense organization or endeavor. You've made some great suggestions. I would also suggest that having a spouse who preferably isn't too involved, or involved at all, and maybe even some kids, is another commonality among people who find it easier to avoid going too far down these rabbit holes. Also, having a family is positive in countless other ways, and what I consider part of the 'good life' for most people.
It would be both surprising news, and immensely bad news, to learn that only a tiny group of people could (or should) work on such a problem -- that would mean applying vastly less parallel "compute" to the problem, relative to what is theoretically available, and that when the problem is forbiddingly difficult to begin with.  

I have substantial probability on an even worse state: there's *multiple* people or groups of people, *each* of which is *separately* necessary for AGI to go well. Like, metaphorically, your liver, heart, and brain would each be justified in having a "rarity narrative". In other words, yes, the parallel compute is necessary--there's lots of data and ideas and thinking that has to happen--but there's a continuum of how fungible the compute is relative to the problems that need to be solved, and there's plenty of stuff at the "not very fungible but very important" end. Blood is fungible (though you definitely need it), but you can't just lose a heart valve, or your hippocampus, and be fine.

I didn't mention it in the comment, but having a larger pool of researchers is not only useful for doing "ordinary" work in parallel -- it also increases the rate at which your research community discovers and accumulates outlier-level, irreplaceable genius figures of the Euler/Gauss kind.

If there are some such figures already in the community, great, but there are presumably others yet to be discovered.  That their impact is currently potential, not actual, does not make its sacrifice any less damaging.

Yep. (And I'm happy this overall discussion is happening, partly because, assuming rarity narratives are part of what leads to all this destructive psychic stuff as you described, then if a research community wants to work with people about whom rarity narratives would actually be somewhat *true*, the research community has as an important subgoal to figure out how to have true rarity narratives in a non-harmful way.)

Most of these bullet points seem to apply to some degree to every new and risky endeavor ever started. How risky things are is often unclear at the start. Such groups are build from committed people. Small groups develop their own dynamics. Fast growth leads to social growing pains. Lack of success leads to a lot of additional difficulties. Also: Evaporative cooling. And if (partial) success happens even more growth leads to needed management level etc etc. And later: Hindsight bias. 

Without commenting on the object level, I am really happy to see someone lay this out in terms of patterns that apply to a greater or lesser extent, with correlations but not in lockstep.

[Edit: I want to note that this is represents only a fraction of my overall feelings and views on this whole thing.]

I don't want to concentrate on the question of which is "worse"; it is hard to even start thinking about that without discussing facts on the ground and general social models that would apply to both cases.

I feel some annoyance at this sentence. I appreciate the stated goal of just trying to understand what happened in the different situations, without blaming or trying to evaluate which is worse.

But then the post repeatedly (in every section!) makes reference to Zoe's post, comparing her experience at Leverage to your (and others') experience at MIRI/CFAR, taking specific elements from her account and drawing parallels to your own. This is the main structure of the post!

Some more or less randomly chosen examples (ctrl-f "Leverage" or "Zoe" for lots more):

Zoe begins by listing a number of trauma symptoms she experienced.  I have, personally, experienced most of those on the list of cult after-effects in 2017, even before I had a psychotic break.


Zoe further talks about how the experience was incredibly confusing and people usually only talk about the past event

... (read more)

This feels especially salient because a number of the specific criticisms, in my opinion, don't hold up to scrutiny, but this is obscured by the comparison to Leverage.

Like for any cultural characteristic X, there will be healthy and unhealthy versions. For instance, there are clearly good healthy versions of "having a culture of self improvement and debugging", and also versions that are harmful. 

For each point Zoe contends that (at least some parts of Leverage) had a destructive version, and you point out that there was a similar thing at MIRI/CFAR. And for many (but not all) of those points, 1) I agree that there was a similar dynamic at MIRI/CFAR, and also 2) I think that the MIRI CFAR version was much less harmful than what Zoe describes.

For instance,

Zoe is making the claim that (at least some parts of) Leverage had an unhealthy and destructive culture of debugging. You, Jessica, make the claim that CFAR had a similar culture of debugging, and that this is similarly bad. My current informed impression is that CFAR's self improvement culture both had some toxic elements and is/was also an order of magnitude better than what Zoe describes.

Assuming that for a moment that my ... (read more)

Ok. After thinking further and talking about it with others, I've changed my mind about the opinion that I expressed in this comment, for two reasons.

1) I think there is some pressure to scapegoat Leverage, by which I mean specifically, "write off Leverage as reprehensible, treat it as 'an org that we all know is bad', and move on, while feeling good about our selves for not being bad they way that they were". 

Pointing out some ways that MIRI or CFAR are similar to Leverage disrupts that process. Anyone who both wants to scapegoat Leverage and also likes MIRI has to contend with some amount of cognitive dissonance. (A person might productively resolve this cognitive dissonance by recognizing what I contend are real disanalogies between the two cases, but they do have to come to terms with it at all.)

If you mostly want to scapegoat, this is annoying, but I think we should be making it harder, not easier, to scapegoat in this way.

2) My current personal opinion is that the worst things that happened at MIRI or CFAR are not in the same league as what was describes as happening in (at least some parts of) Leverage in Zoe's post, both in terms of the deliberateness of the bad dynami... (read more)

I'm not sure what writing this comment felt like for you, but from my view it seems like you've noticed a lot of the dynamics about scapegoating and info-suppression fields that Ben and Jessica have blogged about in the past (and occasionally pointed out in the course of these comments, though less clearly). I'm going to highlight a few things.

I do think that Jessica writing this post will predictably have reputational externalities that I don't like and I think are unjustified. 

Broadly, I think that onlookers not paying much attention would have concluded from Zoe's post that Leverage is a cult that should be excluded from polite society, and hearing of both Zoe's and Jessica's post, is likely to conclude that Leverage and MIRI are similarly bad cults.

I totally agree with this. I also think that to the degree to which an "onlooker not paying much attention" concludes this is the degree to which they are habituated to engaging with discussion of wrongdoing as scapegoating games. This seems to be very common (though incredibly damaging) behavior. Scapegoating works on the associative/impressionistic logic of "looks", and Jessica's post certainly makes CFAR/MIRI "look" bad. This... (read more)

I appreciate this comment, especially that you noticed the giant upfront paragraph that's relevant to the discussion :)

One note on reputational risk: I think I took reasonable efforts to reduce it, by emailing a draft to people including Anna Salamon beforehand. Anna Salamon added Matt Graves (Vaniver) to the thread, and they both said they'd be happy with me posting after editing (Matt Graves had a couple specific criticisms of the post). I only posted this on LW, not on my blog or Medium. I didn't promote it on Twitter except to retweet someone who was already tweeting about it. I don't think such reputation risk reduction on my part was morally obligatory (it would be really problematic to require people complaining about X organization to get approval from someone working at that organization), just possibly helpful anyway.

Spending more than this amount of effort managing reputation risks would seriously risk important information not getting published at all, and too little of that info being published would doom the overall ambitious world-saving project by denying it relevant knowledge about itself. I'm not saying I acted optimally, just, I don't see the people complaining about this making a better tradeoff in their own actions or advising specific policies that would improve the tradeoff.

Anyone using this piece to scapegoat needs to ignore the giant upfront paragraph about "HEY, DON'T USE THIS TO SCAPEGOAT"

I think that's literally true, but also they way you wrote this sentence implies that that is unusual or uncommon.

I think that's backwards. If a person was intentionally and deliberately motivated to scapegoat some other person or group, it is an effective rhetorical move to say "I'm not trying to punish them, I just want to talk freely about some harms."

By pretending that you're not attacking the target, you protect yourself somewhat from counter attack. Now you can cause reputational damage, and if people try to punish you for doing that, you can retreat to the Motte of "but I was just trying to talk about what's going on. I specifically said not to punish any one!"

and has no plausible claim to doing justice, upholding rules, or caring about the truth of the matter in any important relevant sense.

This also seems to strong too me. I expect that many movement EAs will read the  post Zoe's and think "well, that's enough information for me to never have anything to do with Geoff or Leverage." This isn't because they're not interested in justice, it's because they don't have time time or the interest to investigate every allegation, so they're using some rough heuristics and policies such as "if something looks sufficiently like a dangerous cult, don't even bother giving it the benefit of the doubt."

When I was drafting my comment, the original version of the text you first quoted was, "Anyone using this piece to scapegoat needs to ignore the giant upfront paragraph about 'HEY DON'T USE THIS TO SCAPEGOAT' (which people are totally capable of ignoring)", guess I should have left that in there. I don't think it's uncommon to ignore such disclaimers, I do think it actively opposes behaviors and discourse norms I wish to see in the world.

I agree that putting a "I'm not trying to blame anyone" disclaimer can be a pragmatic rhetorical move for someone attempting to scapegoat. There's an alternate timeline version of Jessica that wrote this post as a well crafted, well defended rhetorical attack, where the literal statements in the post all clearly say "don't fucking scapegoat anyone, you fools" but all the associative and impressionistic "dark implications" (Vaniver's language) say "scapegoat CFAR/MIRI!" I want to draw your attention to the fact that for a potential dark implication to do anything, you need people who can pick up that signal. For it to be an effective rhetorical move, you need a critical mass of people who are well practiced in ignoring literal speech, who understand... (read more)

This works as a general warning against awareness of hypotheses that are close to but distinct from the prevailing belief. The goal should be to make this feasible, not to become proficient in noticing the warning signs and keeping away from this.

I think the feeling that this kind of argument is fair is a kind of motivated cognition that's motivated by credence. That is, if a cognitive move (argument, narrative, hypothesis) puts forward something false, there is a temptation to decry it for reasons that would prove too much, that would apply to good cognitive moves just as well if considered in their context, which credence-motivated cognition won't be doing.

Full disclosure: I am a MIRI Research Associate. This means that I receive funding from MIRI, but I am not a MIRI employee and I am not privy to its internal operation or secrets.

First of all, I am really sorry you had these horrible experiences.

A few thoughts:

Thought 1: I am not convinced the analogy between Leverage and MIRI/CFAR holds up to scrutiny. I think that Geoff Anders is most likely a bad actor, whereas MIRI/CFAR leadership is probably acting in good faith. There seems to be significantly more evidence of bad faith in Zoe's account than in Jessica's account, and the conclusion is reinforced by adding evidence from other accounts. In addition, MIRI definitely produced some valuable public research whereas I doubt the same can be said of Leverage, although I haven't been following Leverage so I am not confident about the latter (ofc it's in principle possible for a deeply unhealthy organization to produce some good outputs, and good outputs certainly don't excuse abuse of personnel, but I do think good outputs provide some evidence against such abuse).

It is important not to commit the fallacy of gray: it would risk both judging MIRI/CFAR too harshly and judging Leverage in... (read more)

Plus a million points for "IMO it's a reason for less secrecy"!

If you put a lid on something you might contain it in the short term, but only at the cost of increasing the pressure: And pressure wants out, and the higher the pressure the more explosive it will be when it inevitably does come out. 

I have heard too many accounts like this, in person and anecdotally, on the web and off for me to currently be interested in working or even getting to closely involved with any of the organizations in question. The only way to change this for me is to believably cultivate a healthy, transparent and supportive environment. 

This made me go back and read "Every Cause wants to be a Cult" (Eliezer, 2007), which includes quotes like this one:
"Here I just want to point out that the worthiness of the Cause does not mean you can spend any less effort in resisting the cult attractor. And that if you can point to current battle lines, it does not mean you confess your Noble Cause unworthy. You might think that if the question were, “Cultish, yes or no?” that you were obliged to answer, “No,” or else betray your beloved Cause."

Thought 2: From my experience, AI alignment is a domain of research that intrinsically comes with mental health hazards. First, the possibility of impending doom and the heavy sense of responsibility are sources of stress. Second, research inquiries often enough lead to "weird" metaphysical questions that risk overturning the (justified or unjustified) assumptions we implicitly hold to maintain a sense of safety in life. I think it might be the closest thing in real life to the Lovecraftian notion of "things that are best not to know because they will drive you mad". Third, the sort of people drawn to the area and/or having the necessary talents seem to often also come with mental health issues (I am including myself in this group).

That sounds like MIRI should have a councillor on it's staff.