Responses and Testimonies on EA Growth

by AppliedDivinityStudies15 min read10th Mar 20213 comments

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Follow up to Monday's post Why Hasn't Effective Altruism Grown Since 2015?. See discussions on r/scc, LessWrong and EA Forum.

I'm honored to have received responses from Scott Alexander, Katja Grace (AI Impacts), Peter Hurford (Rethink Priorities), and Rob Bensinger (MIRI), among many other insightful replies.

This is a long post, so I'm going to put the summary first:

  • EA has shifted from "earning to give" to "talent-focus", leading to less of as mass movement.
  • By some metrics, EA is continuing to grow. Most notably, non-Open Phil donations to Give Well causes are way up the last few years.
  • Good Ventures is intentionally holding off increased giving while Give Well and Open Philanthropy build capacity.

In short: EA is stagnating in some ways, and not in others. Overall, this seems to be according to plan, and is not a failure of growth funding to achieve its stated cause.

EA has shifted from "money-focus" to "talent-focus", and is bottlenecked by research debt

Scott Alexander provides a useful history: Around 2014, Good Ventures stepped in and started providing a huge amount of money. For comparison, Giving What We Can has recorded $222 million in donations ever, Good Ventures gives around that much every year. This made "earning to give" much less compelling. [1]

Second, as EA has grown, it's become harder and harder to rise quickly and get a "good" job at a top institution:

there's a general sense that most things have been explored, there are rules and institutions, and it's more of a problem of learning an existing field and breaking into an existing social network rather than being part of a project of building something new.

These are both compelling to me, but we shouldn't be fatalistic about the latter and just accept that intellectual movements have limited capacity. Effective altruism is aware of the problem, or at least of something similar From MIRI:

Imagine that you have been tasked with moving a cube of solid iron that is one meter on a side. Given that such a cube weighs ~16000 pounds, and that an average human can lift ~100 pounds, a naïve estimation tells you that you can solve this problem with ~150 willing friends.

But of course, a meter cube can fit at most something like 10 people around it. It doesn't matter if you have the theoretical power to move the cube if you can't bring that power to bear in an effective manner. The problem is constrained by its surface area.

What's the solution? From Distill's opening essay on Research Debt:

Achieving a research-level understanding of most topics is like climbing a mountain. Aspiring researchers must struggle to understand vast bodies of work that came before them, to learn techniques, and to gain intuition. Upon reaching the top, the new researcher begins doing novel work, throwing new stones onto the top of the mountain and making it a little taller for whoever comes next.

...The climb is seen as an intellectual pilgrimage, the labor a rite of passage. But the climb could be massively easier. It’s entirely possible to build paths and staircases into these mountains. The climb isn’t something to be proud of.

The climb isn’t progress: the climb is a mountain of debt.

So if it's gotten harder to build something new, we shouldn't take it as the natural result of building a mountain of knowlege. We should see it as a failure of the community to distill that knowledge, perform the interpretive labor, and build a path for future scholars. Research distillation is one possibility. Another is tackling the problem from new disciplines.

Consider Leopold Aschenbrenner's Global Priorities Institute paper on Existential risk and growth. He wrote this as an undergraduate, and it's now cited on the 80,000 hours problem profile for Economic Growth. Why was this possible? I would argue it's because academic macroeconomics has been relatively neglected as an tool for EA-relevant problems. There are plenty of RCTs and development economists, but few people seem to be taking this perspective.

That's not a critique of EA's diversity. If you take a quick look at GiveWell's team page, you'll see a pretty wide variety of academic backgrounds. It's not like it's all Oxford philosophers.

But I think the problem persists because of how we conceive of EA-relevant work, and the relative lack of mature institutions. The other shortcut to the top of the mountain is research advising. But generally this requires being part of an existing EA institution, which requires prior research experience, and as Scott noted, it's just become very difficult to break in.

And in EA's defense, it's not as if academia has this solved either. Major universities are basically not growing either, and it is becoming harder to get to the top of many fields. See also Benjamin Jones on the The Burden of Knowledge.


EA hasn't stopped growing

Peter Hurford shared a much more comprehensive list of EA growth metrics. Some of them are going up, some are stagnating or going down. Here's a non-comprehensive list of evidence in favor of growth from 2015-2018:

  • 80k pageviews
  • EA subreddit
  • 80k newsletter signups
  • Donations recorded in EA survey

And in favor of stagnation:

  • Google search interest
  • Pageviews of Wikipedia page for Effective Altruism
  • The Life You Can Save web traffic
  • EA survey respondents who identify as EA
  • Non-Open Phil Give Well donations (though this is now up recently)
  • Give Well unique visitors

Robert Wiblin notes that "It's worth keeping in mind that some of these rows are 10 or 100 times more important than others". If you're really curious, the whole post is great.

Still, it's complicated. Some of these are measures of active interest. So you might argue that if 70k people read the Wikipedia page for EA every year, that's a huge win. People who are already part of the community aren't going to be referencing the page every year, so this implies some kind of growth.

In other cases, I'm less convinced. 80k newsletter signups are increasing but EA survey respondents are stagnant, which I interpret to mean the newsletter is just growing within the existing EA community, rather than reaching new people.

u/xarkn also provides a short analysis showing that posts on EA forum are accelerating.

Rob Bensinger says that growth has been averted because there are downsides to being a larger movement. Peter's post confirms that:

the result of the intentional effort across several groups and individuals in EA over the past few years to focus on high-fidelity messaging and growing the impact of pre-existing EAs and deliberate decisions to stop mass marketing, Facebook advertising, etc. The hope is that while this may bring in fewer total people, the people it does bring in will be much higher quality on average.

On the same theme of "stagnation as a choice", mingyuan points out that Good Ventures is intentionally holding off increased giving while GiveWell and OpenPhil build capacity. She links to these helpful posts (1, 2). Rob ads "They also think they can find more valuable things to spend the money on than bednets and GiveDirectly."

Katja Grace points out that I'm essentially double-counting OpenPhil stagnation, and should really be focusing on GiveWell's non-OpenPhil numbers, which you'll note are way up:

Katja also links to this post from late 2020 where Open Phil says "We have allocated an additional $100 million for GiveWell top charities, GiveWell standout charities, and GiveWell Incubation Grants in the year-end period (beyond what we've already granted to GiveWell-recommended charities earlier this year)." GiveWell hasn't released 2020 data so this hasn't shown up yet, but will presumably look like a large jump over 2019.

She also debates my interpretation of GWWC growth, and argues that cumulative growth is a win for EA even if the rate is decelerating.

I pretty much agree with all of her points, except the conclusion:

I'm inclined to interpret this evidence as mildly supporting 'EA has grown since 2015', but it doesn't seem like much evidence either way. I think we should at least hold off on taking for granted that EA hasn't grown since 2015 and trying to explain why.

Even if we're not sure about the rate of growth, there's no need to "hold off" trying to explain it. Perhaps I should have titled my post something like:

  • Why isn't EA growing even faster?
  • If EA is growing, why doesn't it show up in some statistics?
  • Assuming EA hasn't grown, why not?

These framings all survive Katja's criticism, and the bulk of my post makes sense under any of them. If we're only about 50% sure EA is stagnating, it's still worth trying to understand why.

If I had to rewrite it today, it would be with the framing "Given that we're pouring a substantial amount of money into EA community growth, why doesn't it show up in some of these metrics?"

The other big question, whether having an EA mindset is innate, remains relevant whether we are attempting to grow or merely grow faster.


Other explanations

u/skybrian2 writes that the global health stuff is pretty much solved, we know where donations will have the most impact. At the same time, US politics has gotten a lot worse, and there are now more compelling non-EA causes.

I find this pretty compelling. In 2015 non-EA work didn't feel quite as critical. In 2017, it felt like fixing US politics was a prerequisite to making progress on many other problems.

u/fubo argues that social graphs are saturated, there's been burn out and a demographic shift.

I wrote earlier that the median SSC survey respondent was 30 in 2019. So it's reasonable to think that over the last few years people started setting down, wanting to own homes, start families and so on. That all assumes that it's a single cohort, but this seems reasonable.

Edit: An earlier version of this post missed some of the comments from the cross-post on EA forum. Here are some highlights:
Brain Tan mentions that the number of local groups is growing quickly. Though again I would note that the rate of change peaked in 2015.

David Moss shares this chart saying "I fear that most of these metrics aren't measures of EA growth, so much as of reaping the rewards of earlier years' growth...  looking at years in EA and self-reported level of engagement, we can see that it appears to take some years for people to become highly engaged".

I have a different interpretation, which is that less engaged people are much more likely to churn out of the movement entirely and won't show up in this data.


Testimonies

There were lots of great responses, some quoted in full, others excepted below. This is not an exhaustive list, and obviously you shouldn't assume that it's a random sample. I won't provide too much commentary, except to say what surprised me:

  • Lots of people come across Yudkowsky/LW as teenagers, which aligns with my earlier hypothesis about the SSC survey data.
  • A few people mentioned being Christians in EA, despite the "godlessness" of the rationalist movement
  • There seems to be a lot of recent growth among elite university chapters, confirming the notion that EA has pivoted from attempting to be a mass movement to trying to recruit talent
  • A lot of people confirm that they already felt a strong predisposition towards rationalist/EA ideas and that they have been largely "unable" to convince people. On the other hand, Peter Hurford writes that several people in the EA survey say they were "convinced". I'm not sure this is actually incompatible, it depends on which people you're talking about.

Without further ado, here are some of the notes I received.

Sabrina Chwalek

I think google search results and dollars donated aren't capturing a huge section of the movement for a simple reason: we're still students. If you look at CEA's strategy, they're focusing "recruitment efforts on students and young professionals" and prioritizing the long-term growth of the movement. Most of the community building grants are going to university groups who are successfully recruiting undergrads, but those undergrads aren't donating yet. And since most university groups introduce people to EA through their internal fellowships and programming, there's less of a need to go google what EA is. (For example, Brown EA only started two years ago and >100 people have gone through our fellowship programs.) Plus, CEA's 2020 report says they doubled the number of attendees at their events last year.

I can't speak on behalf of CEA and other EA orgs, but it seems plausible that the stagnation in movement growth would coincide with the decision to focus on student groups. I believe CEA is also trying to prioritize attracting highly engaged EAs, rather than just semi-involved community members, which means it's less important to have a larger number of less-engaged people.

Based off my experience facilitating fellowship groups, people seem to fall into the following buckets for how innate EA is. First, EA all makes sense. These are the rare people who've already heard about EA or Less Wrong and are EA-aligned. Second, they're passionate about one cause area in the movement (global health and development, animal welfare, etc.) and end up being exposed to other cause areas and ideas through our fellowship programs. (The second group of people is significantly more common than the first.) Third, they're initially put off by EA/don't understand the movement, but for whatever reason things fall into place during the fellowship. Then the remaining group of people don't engage for various reasons.

In response to your final paragraph, my own experience joining EA was very natural. I came across 80,000 Hours in high school and definitely felt like "wow, there's an entire movement of people who see the world like I do and want to do the most good they can." However, I don't think EA has to be intuitive for people who can become engaged members. In the beginning, I mostly cared a lot about global health and development and was consequently really hooked by the idea of effective giving and expanding our moral circles. It took me a couple years before I fully came around to longtermism and the significance of x-risks, and I'm still grappling with how longtermism fits into my tentative career options. Spending more time in the movement opened my eyes to a range of other ideas and cause areas.

Anonymous

My origin story is: I read Yudkowskys old essay on the FAQ to the meaning of life, and I was instantly converted. Since then I followed LessWrong, and later joined Effective Altruism when that popped up, as well as starting to read SSC.

hat is it about it: I think it's just someone smart reasoning seriously on the most important topics and trying to get it right. To this day I have probably found most of the new interesting ideas I have ever encountered from here.

Marshall Quander Polaris

The changes to my philosophical outlook due to the rationalist community and other subsequent education have just been cleaning up around the edges, i.e. figuring out what exactly I think is a better state of the world, what I think a moral person is, etc.

Anonymous

I first encountered the rationalsphere through the original lesswrong sequences back when I was a child. The feeling that I got when reading them was definitely that they "fit into place". I don't recall much in the way of "revolutionary new concepts overturning my conception of the world", but rather mostly a combination of "that's roughly what I thought, explained eloquently and in more detail" and "I haven't really thought seriously about that specific topic before, but yeah, that seems right".

...I had a similar reaction to EA upon encountering it, thinking something along the line of "yeah, that's pretty obviously the right thing to do."

...Think along the lines of someone making a remark about you being "willing to bite that bullet" on some issue, but where you just feel like "bite what bullet?"

Anonymous

Perhaps the big growth in effective altruism is getting to the point where we are spreading the beliefs and spirit of reform without necessarily needing others to join the community. I have no evidence for this, not even anecdotal, but if we can change the charitable sector's mindset to pay more attention to outcomes assessment and cost effectiveness, that's a victory even if no one considers themselves an EA.

James

My experience of reading Yudkowsky's sequences back in 2012 was revelatory. My experience of reading Peter Singer and existential risk stuff matches yours, but that all happened after the sequences.

Anonymous

I was very resistant to EA for a long time. EA acquaintances tried to convert me and failed; the whole view of the world they were promulgating seemed very flat. Maybe a year later, I came across a blog post from a Christian Effective Altruist. In his telling, it was obvious that as a Christian, it is right to give money to the poor --- and, furthermore, God doesn't show favoritism, and neither should you. This blog post basically converted me. It opened up a way to being something-like-an-effective-altruist without having to be a utilitarian. It turned EA from being about math to being about being-turned-outward, receptive to the humanity of everyone else, not just the people closest to you.  (This scope is expanding for me also to e.g. animals.)

...All of this is to say, I was probably innately open to being turned toward a pretty radical moral system --- the 10% was not the sticking point for me. I am also not innately an Effective Altruist --- I am super turned off by utilitarianism and am indeed probably not an Effective Altruist at all. But I did have some sort of conversion experience that resulted in me taking the GWWC pledge --- it made caring about e.g. global health over other causes 'click' for me in a way that utilitarian arguments failed to.

Trenton Bricken

Personal anecdote: I was raising money for charities, got fed up as they seemed silly and googled "what is the most effective charity" leading to givewell. Separately came across Nick Bostrom and read superintelligence and it all just made sense. This was all before I knew what EA was or that it was an umbrella for all of this.

Mathematics Grad Student

My experience is that these things were not inside me all along. I never thought "wow, everyone else is an idiot" or "wow, these people get it." I just thought "oh, cool, that makes sense."

Before encountering SSC and LessWrong about five years ago, I had opinions like "death is the natural order of things" (I am now anti-nonconsensual-death) and "polyamory is bad" (I have since discovered that I somewhat prefer polyamory to monogamy). These are somewhat extreme examples; on most topics rationalist writing didn't change my mind so much as just introduce me to ideas I had never thought about before, but which I promptly recognized as valuable/useful. A lot of it feels obvious-in-retrospect but not something I would have thought of on my own. EA (with the exception of AI stuff, which took me a while to come around on) is the thing which felt most immediately deeply obvious as soon as I encountered the idea, but even then it is not something I would have generated independently.

I will add a couple of caveats. One is that although rationalist and EA ideas were novel to me when I encountered them, it is plausible that some people are more "innately receptive" to these ideas than others, and I am toward the more receptive end of the distribution. Another is that I am not as serious about rationalism or EA as some. I don't regularly read LessWrong and have read only some random subset of the Sequences (though I do regularly or semiregularly read other rationalist blogs, e.g. SSC/ACX and a few of the things on its blogroll). Likewise, I donate 10% but I have not switched careers for EA reasons. (Yet, growth mindset...?)

Long Cao

Yes, it was certainly an eye-opening/enlightenment event. Helped me notice bias in daily reasoning, improved (to some minor extent) my decision making which resulted in positive gain.

I was from a 3rd-world country where education is more like ornament, and people always do differently from what they say.

Floris Wolswijk

Somewhere in 2013 I spend some time in the summer learning about ethics and Peter Singer gave one lecture during that course. This led me to think something along the lines of "I'm a student living on say 1000 euro per month, if I start work and earn 2000+, I should be able to donate 10% of that". Reading one or two EA-related books later, I was (and still am) organizing a local group and donating 10% of my income.

All that to say that I think I was very open to the ideas and was/am still using a similar style of reasoning that appealed to me. It does give me some warm fuzzies to donate, but mostly I think it's the right thing to do and not that difficult to do.

At the same time, with our local group I think that we've spoken to 800+ people in person over the years and that has resulted in only marginal changes. Hopefully some will donate more effectively (e.g. family and friends come to me to ask about a recommendation related to climate change), and at least one person has since taken the GWWC Pledge.

Anonymous

Firstly, I should say that most of my exposure to EA has been through Christians in EA, a rare convergence of beliefs that definitely makes me an outlier in this generally godless movement. However, I think I'm pretty engaged in the broader EA movement as both a consumer (blogs, books, podcasts) and as a participant (I've been to a student conference, and am part of an EA fellowship right now, and I'm planning to use the PhD I'm currently working on to either donate a lot of money or to directly work on global health or biosecurity).

I saw your reddit post and I agree that EA seems more to express something people already agree with than to change their mind. While some people feel like EA is too demanding, my Christian beliefs and my own optimising mindset had already converged on Singer-style utilitarianism even if I'd never read Singer, and finding EA was actually a relief - firstly, that I'm not alone in this, and secondly, I can stop feeling guilty about everything and instead focus my guilt on a small number of important things.

There are a finite number of people with this kind of mindset and I expect we've reached most of them, at least with the current EA pitch. For all that we focus on the rational appeal, the emotional appeal of the ideas is probably more important - you have to care about being effective in addition to caring about helping others, and those don't seem particularly well correlated.

Most of the potential for future growth is probably going to be in different cultural contexts, but that's inherently harder and slower since we basically need "translators" to stumble on EA and then get involved. We may be at the point of diminishing returns for more recruitment, but on the other hand maintaining the movement at its current size will require new recruitment. I personally think there's potential to get more Christians involved by emphasising how well EA complements Christian doctrine, I imagine there are ways to do this in other cultural contexts as well. I actually know a Muslim EA that I'm planning to discuss this with on Sunday in the context of movement building, I think your post will give me lots to think about so I might link to that.

However, I'm not sure if telling people about EA achieves nothing if they don't join us, as you say people mostly agree with our ideas but just don't identify with the movement. That suggests to me that we have plenty to work with. This is going to be harder to quantify, but optimistically I'd hope we could make AI research think more about safety, make politics (voters and politicians) more concerned about the long term future, speed up the development of vegan substitutes for animal products, and make the average person think more critically about charity and where the money actually goes. These are ambitious goals, but I don't think they're beyond the capabilities of a small but well resourced and committed group. Some progress towards these goals seems likely anyway but hopefully it's not too arrogant to think we can have an amplifying role.

80,000 hours probably has a lot of impact, even if people just go through an "EA phase" then loose interest, they'll hopefully end up on a more EA trajectory and then stick with it as the path of least resistance. Hopefully. I guess it could instead be world ending if we tell people how powerful AI and molecular biology are, and we convince them to change careers but also talk so much about ethics that it bores them.

James Brooks

I strongly identify with your quote from John Nerst's Origin story. Since I was a child I have wanted to deeply understand everything then fix it. I went on a round the world travel and while on it wrote about 70k words on what I then called practical philosophy.  I got home, searched to see if anything similar had been written and found the sequences which contained a superset of what I had already written. Started attending then quickly organising the lesswrong meetups, went on a CFAR course and while staying in the bay areas after that ended going to an EA meetup because I heard there was good conversation and free pizza (nothing to do with the EA part). My transition from rationality to EA was very slow. I don't even know why it was slow. I thought many of the ideas were true, maybe it was all too much to take in. I still feel overwhelmed by it all ~ 8 years later.

I have made my two closest friends EA 'adjacent', one literally stopped me mid conversation to set up a monthly donation to GiveWell the first time I mentioned it. They read Slate Star and Zvi ... but would not attend a meetup or call themselves EA or anything like that.

I just had a chat with a student today who got super into the idea of 80k within seconds of me starting to explain it. (my explanation was something like "they are a charity that gives career advice to people who want to make a positive difference in the world, they literally have a page of the most important areas to improve the world and advice on finding one that should work well for you" that's all I needed to say)

Most conversations about EA to people who have not heard it are a debate about some particular concern or general "that's seems like a good idea" then the conversation moves on never to return to it.

Footnotes [1] An earlier draft of this post mischaracterized Scott Alexander's views. See this comment for details, or read the original in full.

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Thanks for the post! It's cool to see people updating their beliefs in public :) Also you refer to me as 'he' but I'm a girl.

Appreciate the solid follow-up :)