The sad state of Rationality Zürich - Effective Altruism Zürich included

by roland3 min read27th Feb 201851 comments

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Personal Blog

Epistemic status: Personal experience.

This is another post in the spirit of:

Edit: I know that not everyone in the communities is aware of what is going on or involved with it, this was another reason for me to post this publicly.

I used to be a member of Rationality and EA Zürich before I was excluded by leading figures. Actually I was the organizer of the first Zürich meetup.

I will name people because they are all public figures in the sense that they are leaders and organizers of said events and I think it is time to name people and no longer allow them to hide behind anonymity. As mentioned in the 3rd posting above a major cause of problems in the community is the fear of being confrontational, etc...

The people involved in this are(names obfuscated with ROT-13):

Marko Thiel, organizer of Rationality Zürich

Michal Pokorný organizer of Rationlity Zürich and EA Zürich, CFAR alumnus

Daniel Wünn, organizer of EA Zürich.

There is also a closed facebook group named "Rationality Zürich" of which I was a member.

In Dec 2017 I posted a question in this group asking members for experiences with Circling because I was interested and I heard members talking about it so I thought that maybe someone would share their experiences. To my surprise I didn't get much feedback. Only later I managed to connect the dots with the following events.

A few days later I got a message from Michal Pokorný and Daniel Wünn saying that I was no longer welcome in the Rationality/EA Zürich meetups. The provided reason was that people felt uncomfortable about me and one example would be me talking about dating and sex. We had a group discussion about the latter topic in one EA meeting. Several people where engaged in that discussion some very vehemently, so it wasn't as if I was forcing the topic, but anyways I'm getting ahead of myself.

I was surprised and taken aback by this, especially since this happened over fb messages and not in a personal conversation. Nevertheless I said if talking about sex and dating was the problem I wouldn't mind not talking about that. I got the answer "This is not enough and really we don't have any concrete points that you could change, it's just a general feeling on our side so there is nothing you can do other than stay away."(I'm paraphrasing the main points here).

I specifically requested Michal to Double Crux since it is rationality technique to deal with disagreements, but he declined. Also declined where several further attempts to discuss the issue. Michal being a CFAR alumnus should know better how to deal with disagreements, or so I thought.

I tried to talk to Marko who is the owner of the fb group but he was evasive. This was in Dec 2017.

Finally in Feb 4th 2018 I managed to meet Marko in person and talk about the situation. My first surprise was when I learned that contrary to my suspicion it was actually Marko who had the idea of excluding me from Rationaliy Zürich, but as it later turned out not for the originally stated reasons(sex and dating topics). Marko's explanation which he forwarded after much talking and prodding on my side was that he and others felt uncomfortable talking about events they had done outside of Rationality meetups without my presence, e.g. Circling or Newtonmas celebrations to which I wasn't invited. They would rather not have me in the group in order to be able to talk more freely about those events.

I asked Marko if his attitude doesn't contradict the tenets of EA and he replied, "I'm not really an EA".

Don't get me wrong, I don't have any problem with people meeting on their own outside of events, we all have different levels of friends and acquaintances.

But why should this be a reason for excluding me from Rationality meetings?

Also shouldn't the point of events like Newtonmas be to include as many people as possible so as to provide an alternative for Christmas? Especially important for expats like myself for whom Christmas can be a particularly tough time as it is for anyone living away from family.

Another thing that needs emphasizing is that the stated reason, me talking about sex and dating were just an excuse and that explains why my refraining from talking about this topic would not be enough.

Recently I attended an EA meetup here in Zürich(I was still allowed to go to those) and afterwards had a conversation with Daniel. Summarizing what he said:

  • I was still allowed to come but not exactly welcome
  • He mentioned issues regarding my appearance that made people uncomfortable, e.g. I'm a tall guy and sometimes shirts can be a little bit short for me, causing my lower back to be exposed when I sit, not really an issue if you don't stand behind me or besides me. He pointed this out as something that made people feel uncomfortable. I wonder if a woman wearing a crop top would elicit a similar criticism?

Regarding the size of the Rationality Zürich group. In the last events I attended back in 2017 there where always remarkably few people, around 4 or 5 including myself. But apparently the group is still too big for some.

I told the culprits that I was going to post this on LW so after enough delay and since I didn't get any further reaction I'm doing this now. Feel free to comment and criticize.




Personal Blog

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50 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 5:10 AM
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I want to give the organisers the benefit of the doubt. As an organiser I would find it hard to respond to this with care. At the same time I don't always get along with everyone. And there is no expert skill process to solve that problem. In an ideal world everything would just work. We could resolve our differences, and we could move forward. We don't live in that world.

It's unfortunate that you didn't fit the group socially. As the external community it would be wrong of us to pressure a local friend group to do anything.

I understand your disappointment here. The frustrations of probably what you think is someone not trying to make it work. My advice to you is that if you want to live in a better world - be a better person. Demonstrate by example. Be inclusive, start a group. Organise events. I know of more than one city with multiple streams of meetups with different cultures, attendees and flavours. You can do that.

Hi! I'm Michael aka Rai, one of the organizers involved. Here's my take.

Roland creeps me out in a S1 way. I am not comfortable holding conversations (especially about personal things) around him. One day, I realized that I am not the only person feeling uncomfortable about Roland.

One of my chief aims as the current de-facto organizer of Rationality Zurich is to have a social group which is pleasant for the people involved, and I have come to believe that Roland's presence at the meetups is net negative, especially (but not exclusively) for the kinds of things which I would like to do more of at Rationality Zurich. Circling is a good example of those things.

I think there are ways Roland could change that would make me feel less creeped out, and maybe reverse the decision (mine was to ban Roland from meetups I organize) - roughly, more social intelligence or empathy. But fixing that is not my responsibility.

roughly, more social intelligence or empathy

Hello Michael, I'm taking your criticism at face value here, although it doesn't add up with what Marko told me. He claimed that he was the one that convinced you to ban me. Anyways if social intelligence or empathy is something I lack that might be things that can be hard to fix, first because to a certain extent those are innate and second since no one in Rationality Zürich or EA provided any actionable advice or feedback.

Anyways if social intelligence or empathy is something I lack that might be things that can be hard to fix, first because to a certain extent those are innate

If that's the case then banning is the correct cause of action. Banning is the tool that's used when fixing is available option.

When it comes to your interaction here, I see that you claim that Marko said that he isn't an EA which he denies and that he told you he convinced Michael which also wasn't his position.

Both of those behaviors are social moves that make it unpleasant to interact with you and if you interact on a regular basis like that, it's a reason for the people in Zurich not to want you to be around.

There is a difference of claims relating to who said what. But why do you automatically assume that I'm the one not being truthful?

I (somewhat charitbly) believe that both of these were honest misunderstandings on Roland's part and don't think he has been intentionally untruthful anywhere.

I don't think he's intentionally lying. That would be relatively easy to fix from his side. It's likely rather about listening in a way where he understands where the other person is coming from.

The pattern about not listening well also fits with what you said about fondness for conspiracy thinking (9/11 truth).

ChristianKL please see my reply here

As one of the multiple people creeped out by Roland in person, I'd like to say that I endorse a norm in which community members and organizers don't have to justify themselves or submit to dispute moderation here.

I support teaching better behavior to people who are imposing externalities on others, but what is the maximum value of n, where n is the number of people who have left your group because of someone's bad/creepy behavior, which you're willing to trade in order to teach an individual how to control their behavior?

I'm not going to respond to any responses here, because my view is that this should be a closed case, and isn't worth the time.

This is Marko. First I want to say that everything Roland says here is either correct or plausible to me, except for one misunderstanding: I am indeed an EA, just not an organizer of EA Zurich, and I don’t tell EA Zurich what to do.

Roland, you seem to be confused about who the „instigator“ is. The answer is, each one of us three has preferred you not to be at meetups for some time, each for his own reasons, it just took a while for that to become common knowledge. Noone had to persuade anyone.

As Roland notes, a lot of our reasons for the decision to exclude him are social/emotional. But even if we were just „task groups“ I think he would be a net negative contributor to both LW and EA.

Roland’s views are often very categorical: „Effective Altruists are the new hippies“, „Christianity is a death cult“, etc. This simplistic thinking makes it hard to learn from him and for him to learn from others.

Roland has some pet topics such as 9/11 truth and Thai prostitutes that he brings up frequently and that derail and degrade the quality of discussion.

Roland is generally hostile towards altruism and advocates against current EA endeavors, without constructively offering improvements or alternatives.

I also expect (low confidence) that the number of people who do not come to meetups because Roland was there is higher than 1.

I wholeheartedly agree with Elo’s advice. I am not interested in mediation, but would reluctantly agree to it if other community members think that's a good idea.

Dear Roland,

thank you for sharing.

Full disclaimer: My name is Florian and I'm a somewhat regular attendee of the Zurich meetups and know everyone involved. I just met Roland in person as I decided he needed it most at this moment. I want to talk to everyone else involved – full confidentiality ensured by the gods of signaling – and then decide if this event was a feature or a bug of the community in question and take things from there, based on that decision. Of course, again, with the full consent of everyone involved.

(I am sure there is some kind of bug involved as I heard about this issue here as opposed to elsewhere more locally, but it may as well lie with me as with anybody else.)

If I get enough upvotes (hint, hint!) , I may be able to share my progress in a separate post within four weeks.

(edit one: clarified to say I just met Roland in person as opposed to I just got to know him )

Dear Florian,

thanks for taking your time to meet me. :)

We’re only getting one side of the story here; and also—taking your account of the facts as the unvarnished truth, for argument’s sake—I can easily see multiple plausible interpretations of the events you describe. Some of them reflect quite negative indeed on the organizers of the mentioned events/groups. Others, likewise, reflect quite negatively on you, and leave the named people largely blameless. I have nowhere near enough information to favor either type of interpretation—though let me say that, on priors, and given my experiences, I don’t find either sort of interpretation to be any more or less plausible than the other.

But there are two comments I’d like to make, that do not depend on which interpretation of your account is the true one.

First: thank you for posting this. We should have more accounts like this. There is far too much insularity and secrecy in and among our “rationalist communities”; more openness would benefit everyone (except those who deserve to be harmed by it).

Second: this is another in a long series of things I have both witnessed and have been told about, over the span of many years, which increasingly convinces me that the idea of “rationalist communities” is, and always has been, fundamentally misguided and detrimental. What is on display in this account are the consequences of conflating social groups (i.e., groups of friends/acquaintances, who enjoy each other’s company and like to engage in general-purpose social activities together) with task groups (i.e., organizations, formally constituted for some purpose, whose membership and activities are subordinate to that purpose). (Note that this characterization does not depend on which interpretation of the OP’s account we favor; it holds in any event short of him making the entire thing up from whole cloth!)

the consequences of conflating social groups with task groups

I run my local group as a split group. Tasks happen and social group stuff happens separately. That seems to keep the problem at bay. I don't get along with everyone socially, but we come together for tasks.

Interesting. I don't really know enough to respond beyond to say it sounds like there is more going on that is not being disclosed.

I'm one of the organisers mentioned in the post, and for now I would like to say that we are still in the process of clarifying this whole issue, I will react to this post by Roland as soon as I have a clearer picture of what is going on and how we could resolve this.

  1. I don't know the facts of the matter and have not heard the other side of the story. Hence, I cannot determine whether the group was justified in excluding you or not. I think the same goes for most people here.
  2. If you feel a group associated with EA/LW has acted unfairly towards you, you have a right to air your grievances.
  3. I'd say publicly naming groups and decisions you believe, rightly or wrongly, to be unjust is good. Events like this happen far too often behind closed doors. Transparency is something we should strive for.
  4. Ultimately, the Zurich EA group is not an official organisation representing EA. They are just a bunch of people who decide to meet up once in a while. They can choose who they do and do not allow into their group, regardless of how good/bad their reasons, criteria or disciplinary procedures are.

> Ultimately, the Zurich EA group is not an official organisation representing EA. They are just a bunch of people who decide to meet up once in a while. They can choose who they do and do not allow into their group, regardless of how good/bad their reasons, criteria or disciplinary procedures are.

Fair enough. I decided to post this just for the benefit of all. Lots of people in the group don't know what is going on.

Perhaps we should try to find a respected member of the Less Wrong community to offer to mediate in this dispute, but if the organisers aren't interested in mediation, there isn't really anything that can be done.

I've been an organiser for 3 years. I've attended 5 meetups on two continents and met people. I would be willing to mediate. Pm me if you want.

I'm the Los Angeles organizer and can confirm that Elo seems to be fairly put together, as these things go(though we only met for a few hours.)

Thank you for the offer Elo, atm I am trying to catch & hold the hot potato (Shoutout to Duncan for posting the community space principles!), but I will contact you for additional advice regarding mediating as my toolbox can use a few hammers more ^

Elo I wouldn't mind. But how would you mediate? Over the internet?

Yes. Conversations. I'd probably go something like:

  • Individual conversations. *Get a good understanding of the story on each side.
  • Get preferred outcomes from each side.
  • Communicate the story to each and the outcomes they want.
  • search for a path through that. Possibly together. Be patient and understanding of who you are with. Don't do everything at once. Make sure you can effectively repeat back a story to the person who told it to you. To make sure that you understood it. Pm for more.

I've send you a PM, please check your inbox. thanks

Copied from the Heterodox Effective Altruism facebook group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/1449282541750667/):

Giego Caleiro I've read the comments and now speak as me, not as Admin:
It sems to me that the Zurich people were right to exclude Roland from their events. Let me lay out the reasons I have, based on extremely partial information:

1) IF Roland brings back topics that are not EA, such as 9/11 and Thai prostitutes, it is his burden to both be clear and to justify why those topics deserve to be there.

2) The politeness of EAs is in great part the reason that some SJWs managed to infiltrate it. Having regulations and rules that determine who can be kicked out is bad, because it is a weapon that the SJWs have been known to wield with great care and precision. That is, I much prefer a group where people are kicked out without justification than one in which reason is given (I say this as someone who was kicked out of at least 2 physical spaces related to EA, so it does not come lightly). Competition drives out SJWs, so I would recommend to Roland to create a new meeting that is more valuable than it's predecessor, and attract people to it. (this community was created by me, with me as an admin, precisely for those reasons. I believed that I could legitimately help generate more valuable debate than previous EA groups, including the one that I myself created, but feared would be taken over by more SJWish types. This one is protected).

3) Another reason to be pro-kicking out: I and Tartre run a facebook chat group where I make a point of never explaining kicking anyone out. As far as I can tell, it has the best density of interesting topics of any facebook chat related to rationalists and EAs. It is necessary to be selective.

4) That said: Being excluded from social groups is horrible, it feels like dying to a lot of people, and it makes others fear it happening to them like the plague. So it allows for the kind of pernicious coordination in (DeScioli 2013) and full blown Girardian Scapegoating. There's a balance that needs to be struck to avoid SJWs from taking little bureocracies, then mobbing people out, thus tyrannizing others into condescention with whatever is their current day flavour of acceptable speech.

5) Because being excluded from social groups is horrible, HEAs need to create a welcoming network of warmth and kindness towards those who are excluded or accused. We don't want people to feel like they are dying, we don't want they hyppocampi compromised and their serotonin levels lowered. Why? Because this happens to a LOT of people when they transition from being politically left leaning to being politically right leaning (or when they take the sexual strategy Red Pill). If we, HEAs, side with the accusers, the scapegoaters, the mob, we will be one more member of the Ochlocracy. This is both anti-utilitarian, as the harm to the excluded party is nearly unbearable, and anti-heterodox, as in all likelihood at least in part a person was excluded for not sharing a belief or behavioral pattern with those who are doing the excluding. So I highly recommend that, on priors, HEAs come forth in favor of the person.

During my own little scapegoating event, Divia Caroline Eden was nice enough to give me a call and inquire about psychological health, make sure I wasn't going to kill myself and that sort of thing (people literally do that, if you have never been scapegoated, you cannot fathom what it is like, it cannot be expressed in words) and maybe 4 other people messaged me online showing equal niceness and appreciation.

Show that to Roland now, and maybe he'll return the favor when and if it happens to you. As an HEA, you are already in the group of risk.

(Moderator note: I banned Diego partially for a long history of inflamatory commenting, but mostly for various highly deceptive and manipulative actions he took in the Bay Area community. This comment doesn’t have much to do with that, but it reminded me that he was still around.)

various highly deceptive and manipulative actions

I tentatively think when making strong accusations, one should: a) be more precise b) let the chance for the other person to reply

His ban from the Bay Area Rationalist and EA community was the result of like at least 100 hours of various mediation activities, with lots of discussion with both Diego and dozens of other people. I agree that this should be part of the process, but we are far beyond that being the right thing to do now (or two years ago).

ok that's good to know, thanks for the info!

I'm following through my critique (a). Sharing with permission from someone that was living at Event Horizon during the rent incident:

Diego said he was charging us more than standard rent and putting that money back into the house. Several people asked him how much more, and he gave them conflicting answers, like (not verbatim) “well you aren’t paying any more than normal for your room” and (again not verbatim) “I don’t know how much, maybe $1000-2000?” Eventually we all did the math together and found out we were paying about $16k for a $12k place and had been for 2 months with very little of the surplus put back into the house.

I also somewhat followed through (b) by reaching out to Diego asking zir if ze had additional comments on the ban.

Giego I agree with your post in general.

> IF Roland brings back topics that are not EA, such as 9/11 and Thai prostitutes, it is his burden to both be clear and to justify why those topics deserve to be there.

This is just a strawman that has cropped up here. From the beginning I said I don't mind dropping any topic that is not wanted. This never was the issue.

If you are rather kicked out without reason than with, and others rather with than without, then o̶b̶v̶i̶o̶u̶s̶l̶y̶ the simple way to satisfy everyone is that you let the kicked-out choose whether they receive a reason.

Saying that something is obvious instead of providing reasons doesn't bring the discourse forward.

I didn't mean I don't need to provide reasons, I meant I just provided them.