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Controversial Activism Is Problematic

EA mostly advocates controversial causes where they know that a lot of people disagree with them. In other words, there exist lots of people who think EA’s cause is bad and wrong.

AI Alignment, animal welfare, global warming, fossil fuels, vaccinations and universal basic income are all examples of controversies. There are many people on each side of the debate. There are also experts on each side of the debate.

Some causes do involve less controversy, such as vitamin A supplements or deworming. I think that, in general, less controversial causes are better independent of whether they’re correct. It’s better when people broadly agree on what to do, and then do it, instead of trying to proceed with stuff while having a lot of opponents who put effort into working against you. I think EA has far too little respect for getting wider spread agreement and cooperation, and not trying to proceed with action on issues where there are a lot of people taking action on the other side who you have to fight against. This comes up most with political issues but also applies to e.g. AI Alignment.

I’m not saying it’s never worth it to try to proceed despite large disagreements, and win the fight. But it’s something people should be really skeptical of and try to avoid. It has huge downsides. There’s a large risk that you’re in the wrong and are actually doing something bad. And even if you’re right, the efforts of your opponents will cancel out a lot of your effort. Also, proceeding with action when people disagree basically means you’ve given up on persuasion working any time soon. In general, focusing on persuasion and trying to make better more reasonable arguments that can bring people together is much better than giving up on talking it out and just trying to win a fight. EA values persuasion and rational debate too little.

Suppose you want to make the world better in the short term without worrying about a bunch of philosophy. We try to understand the situation we’re in, what our goal is, what methods would work well, what is risky, etc. So how can we analyze the big picture in a fairly short way that doesn’t require advanced skill to make sense?

We can look at the world and see there are lots of disagreements. If we try to do something that lots of people disagree with, we might be doing something bad. It’s risky. Currently in the world, a ton of people on both sides of many controversies are doing this. Both sides have tons of people who feel super confident that they’re right, and who donate or get involved in activism. This is especially common with political issues.

So if you want to make the world better, two major options are:

  • Avoid controversy
  • Help resolve controversy

There could be exceptions, but these are broadly better options than taking sides and fighting in a controversy. If there are exceptions, correctly knowing about them would probably require a bunch of intellectual skill and study, and wouldn’t be compatible with looking for quicker, more accessible wins. A lot of people think their side of their cause is a special exception when it isn’t.

The overall world situation is there are far too many confident people who are far too eager to fight instead of seeking harmony, cooperation, working together, etc. Persuasion is what enables people to be on the same team instead of working against each other.

Causes related to education and sharing information can help resolve controversy, especially when they’re done in a non-partisan, unbiased way. Some education or information sharing efforts are clearly biased to help one side win, rather than focused on being fair and helpful. Stuff about raising awareness often means raising awareness of your key talking points and why your side is right. Propaganda efforts are very different than being neutral and helping enable people to form better opinions.

Another approach to resolving controversy is to look at intellectual thought leaders, and how they debate and engage with each other (or don’t), and try to figure out what’s going wrong there and what can be done about it.

Another approach is to look at how regular people debate each other and talk about issues, and try to understand why people on both sides aren’t being persuaded and try to come up with some ideas to resolve the issue. That means coming to a conclusion that most people on both sides can be happy with.

Another approach is to study philosophy and rationality.

Avoiding controversy is a valid option too. Helping people avoid blindness by getting enough Vitamin A is a pretty safe thing to work on if you want to do something good with a low risk that you’re actually on the wrong side.

A common approach people try to use is to have some experts figure out which sides of which issues are right. Then they feel safe to know they’re right because they trust that some smart people already looked into the matter really well. This approach doesn’t make much sense in the common case that there are experts on both sides who disagree with each other. Why listen to these experts instead of some other experts who say other things? Often people already like a particular conclusion or cause then find experts who agree with it. The experts offer justification for a pre-existing opinion rather than actually guiding what they think. Listening to experts can also run into issues related to irrational, biased gatekeeping about who counts as an “expert”.

In general, people are just way too eager to pick a side and fight for it instead of trying to transcend, avoid or fix such fighting. They don’t see cooperation, persuasion or harmony as powerful or realistic enough tools. They are content to try to beat opponents. And they don’t seem very interested in looking at the symmetry of how they think they’re right and their cause is worth fighting for, but so do many people on the other side.

If your cause is really better, you should be able to find some sort of asymmetric advantage for your side. If it can give you a quick, clean victory that’s a good sign. If it’s a messy, protracted battle, that’s a sign that your asymmetric advantage wasn’t good enough and you shouldn’t be so confident that you know what you’re talking about.

Elliot Temple on December 5, 2022


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