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EA Misquoting Discussion Summary

I quit the Effective Altruism forum due to a new rule requiring all new posts and comments be basically put in the public domain without copyright, so anyone could e.g. sell a book of my posts without my consent (they’d just have to give attribution). More info. I had a bunch of draft posts, so I’m posting some of them here with minimal editing. In general, I’m not going to submit them as link posts at EA myself. If you think they should be shared with EA as link posts, please do it yourself. I’m happy for other people to share links to my work at EA or on social media. Please share stuff in whatever ways you think are good to do.

Let me summarize events from my perspective.

I read a book EA likes and found a misquote in it (and other problems).

Someone misquoted me twice in EA forum discussion. They seemed to think that was OK, not a big deal, etc. And no one in the audience took my side or said anything negative about misquotes.

The person who misquoted me (as well as anyone reading) didn’t want to talk about it or debate the matter.

In an open questions thread, I asked about EA’s norms regarding misquotes.

In response, someone misquoted the EA norms to me, which is pretty ironic and silly.

Their claim about EA norms was basically that misquotes aren’t important.

When I pointed out that they had misquoted, they didn’t really seem to care or think that was bad. Again, there were no signs the audience thought misquoting was bad, either.

Lizka, who was the person being misquoted since she wrote the EA norms document, commented on the matter. Lizka’s comment communicated:

  • She agrees with me that the norms were misquoted.
  • But she didn’t really mind or care.
  • EA has no strong norm against misquoting.
  • The attitude to misquotes is basically like typos: mistakes and accidents happen and we should be tolerant and forgiving about that.

Again, no one wanted to talk with me about the matter or debate it.

I wrote an article explaining that misquoting is bad. I compared misquoting to deadnaming because the misquoted norm was actually about deadnaming, and I thought that read as a whole it’s actually a good norm, and the same norm should be used for misquoting.

The EA norm on deadnaming is basically: first, don’t do it, and second, if it’s a genuine accident, that’s alright, but don’t do it again.

Whereas EA’s current misquoting norm is more like: misquotes are technically errors, so that’s bad, but no one particularly cares.

Misquotes are actually like deadnaming. Deadnaming involves exercising control over someone else’s name without their consent, when their name should be within their control. Misquotes involve exercising control over someone else’s words/speech without their consent, when their words/speech should be within their control. Misquotes and deadnaming both violate the personal boundaries of a person and violate consent.

Misquotes are also bad for reasons of scholarship, accuracy and truth seeking. I believe the general attitude of not caring about “small” errors is a big mistake.

Misquotes are accepted at EA due to the combination of not recognizing how they violate consent and victimize someone (like deadnaming), and having a culture tolerant of “small” errors and imprecision.

So, I disagree, and I have two main reasons. And people are not persuaded and don’t want to debate or give any counter-arguments. Which gets into one of the other main topics I’ve posted about at EA, which is debating norms and methodology.

All this so far is … fine. Whatever. The weird part comes next.

The main feedback I’ve gotten regarding misquoting and deadnaming is not disagreement. No one has clearly admitted to disagreeing with me and e.g. claimed that misquoting is not like deadnaming.

Instead, I’ve been told that I’m getting downvoted because people agree with me too much: they think it’s so obvious and uncontroversial that it’s a waste of time to write about.

That is not what’s happening and it’s a very bizarre excuse. People are so eager to avoid a debate that they deny disagreeing with me, even when they could tell from the title that they do disagree with me. None of them has actually claimed that they do think misquoting is like deadnaming, and should be reacted to similarly.

Partly, people are anti-misquoting in some weaker way than I am, just like they are anti-typos but not very strongly. The nuance of “I am more against misquoting than you are, so we disagree” seems too complex for some people. They want to identify as anti-misquoting, so they don’t want to take the pro-misquoting side of a debate. The actual issue is how bad misquoting is (or we could be more specific and specify 20 ways misquoting might be bad, 15 of which I believe, and only 5 of which they believe, and then debate the other 10).

I wrote a second article trying to clarify to people that they disagree with me. I gave some guided thinking so they could see it for themselves. E.g. if I pointed out a misquote in the sequences, would you care? Would it matter much to you? Would you become concerned and start investigating other quotes in the book? I think we all know that if I found a single misquote in that book, it would result in no substantive changes. I think it should; you don’t; we disagree.

After being downvoted without explanation on the second article about misquoting, I wrote an article about downvotes being evidence, in which I considered what different interpretations of downvotes and different reactions. This prompted the most mixed voting I’d gotten yet and a response saying people were probably just downvoting me because they didn’t see the point of my anti-misquoting articles because they already agree with me. That guy refused to actually say he agrees with me himself, saying basically (only when pressed) that he’s unsure and neutral and not very interested in thinking or talking about it. If you think it’s a low priority unimportant issue, then you disagree with me, since I think it’s very important. Does he also think deadnaming is low priority and unimportant? If not, then he clearly disagrees with me.

It’s so weird for people who disagree with me to insist they agree with me. And Lizka already clarified that she disagrees with me, and made a statement about what the EA norms are, and y’all are still telling me that the community in general agrees with me!?

Guys, I’ve struck a nerve. I got downvotes because people didn’t like being challenged in this way, and I’m getting very bizarre excuses to avoid debate because this is a sensitive issue that people don’t want to think or speak clearly about. So it’s important for an additional reason: because people are biased and irrational about it.

My opinions on this matter predate EA (though the specific comparison to deadnaming is a new way of expressing an old point).

I suspect one reason the deadnaming comparison didn’t go over well is that most EAers don’t care much about deadnaming either (and don’t have nuanced, thoughtful opinions about it), although they aren’t going to admit that.

Most deadnaming and most misquoting is not an innocent accident. I think people know that with deadnaming, but deny it with misquoting. But explain to me: how did the wording change in a quote that you could have copy/pasted? That’s generally not an innocent accident. How did you leave out the start of the paragraph and take a quote out of context? That was not a random accident. How did you type in a quote from paper and then forget to triple check it for typos? That is negligence at best, not an accident.

Negligently deadnaming people is not OK. Don’t do it. Negligently misquoting is bad too for more reasons: violates consent and harms scholarship.

This is all related to more complex and more important issues, but if I can’t persuade anyone of this smaller initial point that should be easy, I don’t think trying to say more complex stuff is going to work. If people won’t debate a relatively small, isolated issue, they aren’t going to successfully debate a complex topic involving dozens of issues of similar or higher difficulty as well as many books. One purpose of talking about misquoting is it it’s test issue to see how people handle debate and criticism, plus it’s an example of one of the main broader themes I’d like to talk about which is about the value of raising intellectual standards. If you can’t win with the small test issue that shouldn’t be very hard, you’ve gotta figure out what is going on. And if the responses to the small test issue are really bizarre and involve things like persistently denying disagreeing while obviously disagreeing … you really gotta figure out what is going on instead of ignore that evidence. So I’ve written about it again (this post).

If you want to find details of this stuff on the EA forum and see exactly what people said to me, besides what is linked in my two articles about misquoting that I linked above, you can also go to my EA user profile and look through my post and comment history there.

Elliot Temple on December 2, 2022


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