News, Jobs and Higher Education

Anonymous contributors answer: How should the effective altruism community think about diversity?


I genuinely think you get snowball effects from the composition of a community. If a group of people are similar in a certain way, you’re more likely to get more people like that. I think you can end up in bad situations where you have basically no people from X group in the movement, and then that maybe means you can’t ever get people from X group in the movement. That seems really bad to me.


The following are excerpts from interviews with people whose work we respect and whose answers we offered to publish without attribution. This means that these quotes don’t represent the views of 80,000 Hours, and indeed in some cases, individual pieces of advice explicitly contradict our own. Nonetheless, we think it’s valuable to showcase the range of views on difficult topics where reasonable people might disagree.

This entry is most likely to be of interest to people who are already aware of or involved with the effective altruism (EA) community.

But it’s the fourteenth in this series of posts with anonymous answers — many of which are likely to be useful to everyone. Four of the most popular entries have been:

  1. “What’s some underrated general life advice?”?
  2. “How have you seen talented people fail in their work?”
  3. “What’s the thing people most overrate in their career?”

A list of all entries can be found at the bottom of the page.

Did you just land on our site for the first time? After this you might like to read about 80,000 Hours’ key ideas.

In April 2019 we posted some anonymous career advice from someone who wasn’t able to go on the record with their opinions. It was well received, so we thought we’d try a second round, this time interviewing a larger number of people we think have had impressive careers so far.

It seems like a lot of successful people have interesting thoughts that they’d rather not share with their names attached, on sensitive and mundane topics alike, and for a variety of reasons. For example, they might be reluctant to share personal opinions if some readers would interpret them as “officially” representing their organizations.

As a result we think it’s valuable to provide a platform for people to share their ideas without attribution.

The other main goal is to showcase a diversity of opinions on these topics. This collection includes advice that members of the 80,000 Hours team disagree with (sometimes very strongly). But we think our readers need to keep in mind that reasonable people can disagree on many of these difficult questions.

We chose these interviewees because we admire their work. Many (but not all) share our views on the importance of the long-term future, and some work on problems we think are particularly important.

This advice was given during spoken interviews, usually without preparation, and transcribed by us. We have sometimes altered the tone or specific word choice of the original answers, and then checked that with the original speaker.

As always, we don’t think you should ever put much weight on any single piece of advice. The views of 80,000 Hours, and of our interviewees, will often turn out to be mistaken.

How should the effective altruism community think about diversity?

Distinguish different types of diversity

I distinguish epistemic diversity, from racial and gender diversity. I think these two things are both important, but very different. People sometimes bundle them together, but I think they’re at best weakly correlated.

You get snowball effects from the composition of a community

I think we want to do a lot better than we are currently on racial and gender diversity. Especially better in as visible a way as possible.

I think that’s for three reasons, in order of importance.

One is that, there’s a possibility of being rendered by the social justice movement as toxic. Probably that would be my number one pick for the most likely existential risk to the EA community. They care a lot about racial and gender diversity, so our caring about it a lot too mitigates that risk.

A second is that I genuinely think you get snowball effects from the composition of a community. If a group of people are similar in a certain way, you’re more likely to get more people like that. I think you can end up in bad situations where you have basically no people from X group in the movement, and then that maybe means you can’t ever get people from X group in the movement. That seems really bad to me.

Third is implicit bias. If we have this strong stereotype of what a good EA looks like, maybe there are good potential EAs who don’t fit that stereotype, who we’re missing out on as a result of implicit bias.

Be aware of selecting against people without a social safety net

EA seems extremely non-diverse to me in terms of class, race, and gender. The current advice probably selects against certain groups, like poorer people who don’t have a social safety net.

It’s all well and good to say “don’t give locally” if your family are all well taken-care of, and you don’t know anyone in dire hardship. It becomes a much more demanding requirement if you have a family who require support from you. In those cases I don’t think many people would be comfortable saying, “yeah, just don’t worry about supporting your family”.

So in and of itself I think that selects for people who are sufficiently well-off such that they and the people they care most about are at least taken care of. They have an income they can give to effective charities, or they can afford to spend time thinking about where the best place to give is etc.

Similarly, wanting people to be risk-tolerant with their career — that is a privileged thing to be able to do. Even having the option to go to university selects against some disadvantaged groups.

And there’s probably a snowball effect there, where once you have a sufficiently non-diverse group it’s hard to make it more diverse. It can just become a place where some people don’t feel like they belong, because there aren’t other people like them in the group, and that’s kind of unfortunate.

There’s a question of “is this kind of diversity desirable?” And I think yes, because if you don’t have it, it really suggests that something is wrong. For example, if you’re consistently not seeing women in your community, it’s reasonable to think, “well, there are a lot of women who would agree with these ideas, so why is there such a gender imbalance?”

Lacking diversity is evidence of something bad

I take a pretty strong stance that lacking diversity is evidence of something bad. If you don’t buy that, you have to think the arguments and ideas of effective altruism somehow aren’t compelling to women or racial minorities or other groups that aren’t well represented in effective altruism. If you don’t think the arguments should only be compelling to one gender or race of people, you should stop and ask “why don’t I see the proportion of people I’d expect to see given the nature of the ideas?”

When I find myself to be the only person of my group in the room, I want to leave

For me, diversity is important for several reasons.

First, so that people feel included and can add their own talents. There is an old economics paper which suggests that one of the main historical causes of growth rates is simply population, i.e. that larger countries grew faster while isolated island populations could draw on fewer ideas and were less productive. Without visibly including minority groups, EA will miss out on talent.

Second, diversity is important so that majority-group EAs can promulgate their ideas more successfully. When I see a paper with 10 authors, or even a post on the EA forum or a blog that thanks 10 people, and all of them appear to be male, I won’t read the article. It is a quality signal, and I don’t have enough time to read everything.

It is similar to poor typesetting: it may be a perfectly fine article, with sensible and important points, but if it has sloppy punctuation, bizarre line breaks, or is in a hard-to-read font, I feel justified in not reading it. Not including women is analogous to sloppy punctuation because it signals low effort on the part of the authors, who could with a little extra effort have included some. It is analogous to bizarre line breaks in that it signals being in some isolated bubble, and work done in an isolated bubble tends to be worse in quality.

It is analogous to being in a hard-to-read font because I do not want to put in the extra effort to suffer through reading something that starts off by pissing me off. Good writers — or speakers, or whatever — make the reader’s job easy. Most people will spell check their articles despite the extra effort it might take, because it’s worth it to attract readers and avoid embarrassment. The same principle applies within the EA community.

Finally, I fear that these cycles are self-perpetuating. When I find myself to be the only person of my group in the room, I want to leave. I feel put on the spot, bearing the weight of “representing” my group. Even if no one is thinking it, I’m thinking they are thinking of me as the “minority group” person, and it frankly makes my contributions worse due to that extra stress. I’ve come very, very close to leaving the room on several occasions, and if EA keeps going down this direction I’ll have to find a substitute.

I think it also colours others’ perceptions of me and of the arguments that I make. Sometimes, I find myself talking with a white man, and he’ll think I am wrong about something with such force that, startled, I momentarily conclude I must have been incorrect. Thinking on it later, I will realise I was indeed correct and be very frustrated. This can in principle happen with anyone of any race/gender/class/etc., but in practice, it’s only happened with well-off white men, my impression is that it is based on my minority group status, and I have not been treated so badly in any community except the EA community, even in my deeply imbalanced line of work.

I have literally been asked “what are you doing here?” at EA events by people who don’t know me and assume I’m lost or something. Heck, I’ve been asked this when I was a speaker at the event. The biases can be ridiculous, and the “lesser” ones support the more egregious ones.

Diversity is really important, but maybe for different reasons than you hear

I actually do think diversity is really important. That doesn’t mean I agree with all the reasons people give that it’s important, or that I agree with others’ claims about the magnitude and nature of the benefits.

I think a lot of people make bad implicit arguments about why diversity is good. For example, there’s often this implication that if what you want is lots of perspectives to diversify your thinking, and point out flaws in your thinking, then the best way to get that is to pursue certain kinds of very visible demographic diversity. And I don’t think that holds. I don’t think that makes sense.

And I think a lot of people in the effective altruism community kind of overreact to that — they hear that, and then they just get so suspicious of this whole topic that they’re not listening to the parts of the argument that are actually good.

A lot of social justice people are just incredibly strident, and make a lot of bad arguments — and so it’s hard to listen to them. But I think they have a lot of good points too.

I do think there are genuinely good reasons to have diversity.

One is: if you walk into a room, and you see that everyone is just visibly, noticeably different from you in a particular way, I think you’ll have an intuitive gut-level sense that you don’t belong. And I think that’s important. It’s important to EA (effective altruism), and I think a lot of us who imagine you should just be able to get over it are people who haven’t had to deal with that. If you’re a man, it’s likely you don’t have experiences with female-dominated workplaces. So I think we tend to understate that.

And then there’s a loop, because that is a real thing — and then because it’s a real thing, I think people who see a crowd that has no visible demographic diversity in it, they kind of reasonably infer that whoever’s organising this whole thing just didn’t care. And then that makes them feel excluded in a different way.

So I think a lot of white men feel excluded in a group of white men, because they can tell that no one there was, like them, feeling a little weird about a group that was all white men. And so I think there’s an intuitive sense of exclusion that goes through two levels like that.

And then I do think that a lot of cultures, and communities, and companies naturally just have blind spots, and get confused between ‘what’s the right rational way to live’ and ‘what am I like?’, or ‘what are people similar to me like?’. They get confused between ‘who’s good’ and ‘who’s similar to me?’

In a perfect world, there would be some very well targeted way to fight that. But often when you force yourself to improve your diversity on these very measurable things, race and gender — that is one of the best available ways that I know of, practically, of forcing yourself to confront a lot of your biases.

Let’s say that you have a culture where people are very aggressive and confrontational all the time, and it’s a big time “ask” rather than “guess” culture. You might get used to kind of assuming that this is just the right, good, natural way to be. And that might make your culture less meritocratic, because there are definitely people who have a ton to offer but shut down in that kind of setting. And you might never notice this because you just notice that in your culture, people who have these qualities do well and people who don’t don’t. Well, now say that you force yourself to really prioritise demographic diversity. Now you’re more likely to be forced to deal with people who don’t have all the qualities you’re used to thinking of as natural and good.

And in theory, you could cook up other ways to notice and confront this kind of problem, but in practice I think this is a pretty good candidate for what ends up working. Sometimes when you just try to reach outside your bubble, in the most recognisable, measurable, visible way that you can — what you’ve done is you’ve reached outside of your bubble. And now that you’ve reached outside of your bubble you’re actually learning lessons about how to create an environment that is meritocratic. Instead of pretending to be meritocratic, but actually just biased towards people who are like you in every way.

I think these are three legitimate reasons to care about diversity, and I think you have a problem if your whole community, or your whole culture, or your whole company, is made up exclusively of white men. Or if it’s even overly heavily that. And I think people should care about that.

That’s in addition to the fourth issue, which is PR and brand and reputation — how people perceive you. But if it was just that, I wouldn’t care as much.

There are a lot of people who overplay the whole thing, who make a lot of bad arguments, who kind of demand that every community be exactly proportionate to American demographic percentages, which doesn’t make any sense — that’s not a reasonable goal. But I think there are good people who are turned off by non-diverse communities, because they recognise at some level these legitimate things I’ve talked about, and probably other benefits to diversity I’m not thinking of or articulating.

We shouldn’t discourage rich people from giving to less privileged people

I think it sucks that there’s not more diversity in effective altruism, but it also sucks when people think this means that those effective altruists that are pretty privileged are somehow doing a bad thing when they give to effective causes. For example, the meme of “the white saviour” is supposed to apply to a privileged white person who doesn’t actually care about the cause, or doesn’t know anything about it. But if we start to refer to any rich white person who gives money to less privileged people — even if they do genuinely care about the cause — as a “white saviour”, we will end up thinking that all that rich people should do is just give to the opera or something. If people are privileged, I want them to give away their resources to people that need them more. I’m not going to discourage them from doing that.

I think there were genuinely good arguments behind some of these images that people had, like the white saviour or the slum tourist, it’s just that people aren’t being precise enough about what they actually disagree with. You can’t take the white saviour idea and then say “white people should not try to help anyone.” That just seems like a really bad conclusion.

You can say, here’s what it’s pointing to that is wrong — thinking that you know more about what’s good for someone than they do, or not attempting to gather information, not genuinely caring, just trying to make yourself feel better etc. I think it’s good to point out these things, but that is very different than “white people shouldn’t help anyone”.

If you think there are historical injustices, then people giving a bunch of their time and money seems like one way of correcting that. It’s not necessarily that they’re doing something awesome — maybe they’re just doing something that they’re obligated to do from this privileged position — but then surely it’s still good for them to meet that obligation.

The burden for increasing diversity should fall on people in proportion to their current representation within the group

I think it’s frustrating when the burden for increasing diversity falls on the few members of the group who happen to be women, or in racial minorities. You either think that having more people from these groups is important, and it’s a bad sign if you don’t, or you don’t think that.

And basically I think that if you do think this is important, the burden should fall on people in proportion to their current representation within the group, It’s important to seek out experiences from people that might be an indicator of things that are going wrong, but that’s very different from asking women and minorities to do most of the work to increase the number of women and minorities in the group.

This happens a lot, and is extremely annoying for people in those minority groups.

I think the reason why people are so cautious about this is because they think you can’t understand what it’s like unless you’re in this position. And I think, even if that’s true, you can go find information about what it’s like. Having a survey, or an open call for other experiences you’ve had, and where you think we could improve — that’s a much lower burden compared to say, needing someone from a minority background to go to a committee meeting every week — that’s a huge burden. Or being the officer for diversity, that’s also a huge burden.

People should be rewarded for coming up with their own worldviews

I really wish there was more epistemic diversity. There’s a stereotype of EA, which is: everyone comes from an analytic philosophy or STEM background; everyone reads the same four blogs; if they’re reading outside of EA, let’s say about the causes of the industrial revolution, then they’ll read “A Farewell to Alms” by Gregory Clark, because that’s like the “EA approved” book on the topic.

And you end up in a quite closed epistemic circle. And I think that’s particularly bad for people who are in actual jobs where you’re extremely limited in terms of how much information you can consume. Because EA already produces far too much information for one person to consume, and so you can end up relying solely on that.

So I’d like there to be more historians, I’d like there to be more genuine economists, I’d definitely like there to be people with a hardcore policy/politics background. I just really like it when people try to figure out their own worldview, and that maybe takes years of thought — but then they come up with it, and share it, and I just find that enormously valuable.

In terms of solutions on the epistemic diversity front, one is lessening to some extent peer-updating norms. I think that’s very important when it comes to action, because otherwise you end up with unilateralists.

But a person who puts in the work to come up with their own worldviews can be viewed as “that person with the crazy views”, and kind of ostracised, rather than being rewarded for trying to figure things out for themselves. And I’d definitely like to see a shift there.

There’s a lack of political and age diversity

There’s a lack of diversity. The vast majority of EAs are left of centre: The 2017 survey had 309 EAs identifying as Left, 373 as Centre-Left, 4 identifying as Right, 31 as Centre Right. So that is 19 to 1 left-right, but if we weight Left as 2, Centre-Left as 1, Centre Right as 1, and Right as 2, it is 25 to 1 left to right ratio! If surveys were comparable, this says that, using the more moderate 19 to 1 left to right ratio, EA is more liberal than all but the most liberal types of US college professors: English literature and political science. EA is more liberal than music, performing art, fine art, theology, philosophy, and sociology professors!

Because of the dominance of the left in EA, the areas of diversity they are most focused on addressing are the left of centre issues of gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. But I think lack of political diversity is a big issue as well, and addressing it would produce higher EA growth potential with equal representation than the above diversity that the left emphasises. This is important as well to make sure we are not missing causes that conservatives may be more alert to. For instance, if it were true that fetuses should be valued similarly to born people, abortion would be the biggest source of mortality in the US, and perhaps globally an effective cause for the present generation.

Someone told me that conversations which advocate for open borders immigration are turning conservatives away from EA. We shouldn’t censor conversations like this, but they found that problematic.

How many people who work at EA orgs are openly politically conservative? How many EA org leaders are openly politically conservative?

We could be not thinking about important things because of that.

And probably lack of age diversity is the biggest one in terms of how much bigger EA could become — and the influence of older people is generally higher. I think there are lots of things we can do to become more inclusive to older people, like not using young people acronyms (like PM, IMO, etc), or at least defining them upon first use on a page and not assuming that everyone has a smartphone or uses social media. I think we should also try harder to recruit older people, which might involve more mass media (or going to professional meetups), rather than internet outreach.

One reason we might not be succeeding at recruiting more older people, is because they’re cautious of being associated with EA in case there is some major scandal and then that hurts their reputation.

Religion is a tougher one because it affects people’s values in a way that may be in tension with EA. Generally people think you can’t be whole-person rational and be religious. However, not all EAs are whole-person rational; it is possible to be compartmentalised rational.

Diversifying EA outside of cities I think could bring some valuable perspectives too.

There’s a lot of room for different causes

On epistemic diversity, I don’t think that there’s this extremely tight set of premises that bind people in EA, so there’s a lot of room for different cause areas. Some people are really interested in global development, others in animal welfare or the far-future. Some people are religious, others are non-religious — so the background assumptions can be quite different.

A lot of different views converge on something like a minimal version of EA, in the sense of just “do the most good you can do”. I don’t think that requires utilitarian ethics, for example. And so you should expect some level of epistemic diversity there, and it seems like a good thing to maintain and foster.

But not having epistemic diversity also doesn’t seem that bad if you’re forming a group based on epistemic beliefs — if you’re literally selecting for beliefs. If those beliefs are also highly correlated with some other beliefs and it’s just the case that some of the key premises aren’t shared by people who are, for example, more socially conservative, it’s not an obvious problem to me. It’s good to get your ideas tested, but you can get that from engaging well with outside groups rather than refusing to take a position in order to preserve epistemic diversity.

Something that would be bad even in this case is if there’s a way in which we’re excluding people. If you think it’s a good idea to have a community of effective altruists, and you want that community to be larger, then if you’re excluding people who agree with the ideas for some other reasons, that seems pretty bad and unnecessary.

Enjoy this?

Sign up to our twice-monthly newsletter to be notified about future entries in this series, and other new research:

Other relevant articles

  1. Your career can help solve the world’s most pressing problems
  2. Find a high impact job on our job board
  3. Career advice I wish I’d been given when I was young

All entries in this series

  1. What’s good career advice you wouldn’t want to have your name on?
  2. How have you seen talented people fail in their work?
  3. What’s the thing people most overrate in their career?
  4. If you’re a talented young person how risk averse should you be?
  5. How honest & candid should high-profile people really be?
  6. What’s some underrated general life advice?
  7. What are the biggest flaws of 80,000 Hours?
  8. What are the biggest flaws of the effective altruism community?
  9. How should the effective altruism community think about diversity?

The post Anonymous contributors answer: How should the effective altruism community think about diversity? appeared first on 80,000 Hours.

This content was originally published here.

Comments are closed.