Effective Altruism and the LessWrong-o-sphere: an observation

Ozy has an excellent post up titled “On Exclusion”, that makes a distinction between anti-evangelistic, non-evangelistic, and evangelistic groups. Anti-evangelistic groups  are the ones that active throw up barriers to entry–religions that prefer members be born into them, like Judaism. Evangelistic groups are the obvious ones–political movements, Christianity.

The interesting case is non-evangelistic groups. They just don’t care one way or the other. If someone randomly encounters the group and likes what they see, it will be easy to join, but non-evangelistic groups also don’t mind turning many potential members off:

So let’s imagine Joe comes in to his local anime convention. Joe likes watching anime! He would be very interested in the panels! But Joe thinks that all those people running around in costumes are very weird. It’s not even Halloween. They should get a life. Why are people hugging each other when they don’t even know each other? What’s this ‘pocky’ stuff? Why are fourteen-year-olds squealing about ‘yaoi’? That’s porn! You shouldn’t talk about porn in public! Why are there suddenly a bunch of people dancing? Why is that man selling body pillows? If you can’t get laid you should at least have the dignity not to mention it. Joe feels that anime conventions have a long way to go before they are inclusive of him.

I think that the otaku community would be perfectly justified in saying “Joe, cosplay, hugging, pocky, dancing, public conversation about porn, and body pillows are all part of what it means to be a member of our community. It’s fine if you watch anime and don’t want to be around people who like cosplay and body pillows, but we’re not going to change our community so it caters to Joe-like preferences.”

Ozy applies this to the LessWrong community (which I’m going to be using here to refer to the actual website LessWrong and various descendant communities):

For instance, I think Less Wrong should be nonevangelistic. I think my friends are awesome and I love hanging out with them, but I’m not convinced that we offer any unique insights that can’t be found just as well elsewhere, and I don’t think anyone has enough information to make correct predictions about the Singularity. On the other hand, someone who believes very strongly in raising the sanity waterline might think Less Wrong should be evangelistic: they believe the world would be a much better place if everyone had just read the Sequences.

Similarly, I think Less Wrong should be aimed at people who have what I called the not geek not autism thing. This is purely selfish: I like not-geek-not-autism people, I am one myself, and I would be annoyed at having to find a new community. On the other hand, someone else might have joined Less Wrong because they want to become more epistemically or instrumentally rational. They are probably going to spend a lot of time muttering to themselves about how half of these people aren’t interested in self-improvement at all, and there is all this low-hanging fruit just sitting there, and WHY ARE YOU PEOPLE CUDDLING ALL THE TIME WHAT DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH ANYTHING

My observation here is that even more typical LessWrongers–people who buy into the ideology more than Ozy does–rarely seem to want LessWrong to be evangelistic. I think Eliezer Yudkowsky does, maybe a few CFAR folks do, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anybody else express real enthusiasm for evangelism. Sure, people may talk about “raising the sanity waterline,” but when they do I tend to get a “toying with something that’s probably hopeless” vibe.

The Effective Altruism movement, on the other hand, is very evangelistic. Everyone’s very interested in how we convince more people to support proven interventions to fight global poverty (or in some cases other causes, like ending factory farming). And I think this explains why the two communities, in spite of their overlap, end up looking so very different in practice. A major function of LessWrong is to act as a safe space for obnoxious contrarians. EA can be contrarian but people are much more likely to worry about whether a particular contrarian idea is worth pushing, and if so how to most effectively push it.

I was originally going to call this post, “Effective Altruism and the LessWrong-o-sphere: a proposal,” but I don’t really have much to propose. The separating out of EA and LessWrong is already happening (in the Bay Area–in Oxford they were much less entangled to begin with). But sometimes it may be helpful to be consciously aware of the divide.

This isn’t to say people people can’t participate in both communities, any more than anime fans can’t be part of EA. But there’s a difference between being an anime fan in EA and expecting anime fandom and EA to be deeply entangled. Likewise, it probably doesn’t make sense to expect EA and LessWrong to remain deeply entangled.

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