Posted on Thursday, May 4th 2017
(last updated Monday, June 14th 2021)
In this post I develop a distinction between mechanisms for spreading EA ideas according to how likely they are to keep the nuance of the ideas intact. I then use this distinction to argue that movement builders ought to prefer mechanisms for spreading EA ideas that retain the nuance of the ideas.
This consideration has led CEA to be skeptical of attempts to spread EA ideas through mechanisms like the mass media and to instead prefer other mechanisms of spreading EA ideas.
Fidelity The key term in this model is "fidelity." Therefore it will be useful to define this term. By fidelity I have in mind nothing more than the classic dictionary definition of "adherence to fact or detail" or "accuracy; exactness."
As an example, imagine I am shooting a movie on an old camera. If the image captured by the camera causes it to seem as though I am wearing a blue shirt when actually my shirt is red, then the image captured by the camera is low fidelity.
The “Telephone Game” Effect
Imagine the childhood party staple: the Telephone Game. In the telephone game one player whispers a message to another which is then passed through a line of people until the message is finally announced. Invariably, the announced message is very different from the original, often to comedic effect.
This game works because whispering is a relatively low-fidelity way of transmitting information. The participant must understand the previous message, hold it in their mind, and then successfully transmit the message to the next person. As it turns out, this is no trivial task, and so the message becomes increasingly distorted with each pass.
Different ways of communicating ideas demonstrate the Telephone Game Effect to different degrees.
For example, imagine that the first person had simply written the message down and then passed the message to the next person who also wrote it down and so on. We might expect that the final message would be much closer to the original than in the telephone game, but we might also expect some distortions due to factors like poor handwriting.
Alternatively, we could imagine that the message is written in an email and then transmitted via email forward from person to person. Here we might expect that the final recipient of the email will have an exact copy of the original message.
The basic idea is that we can put mechanisms for spreading a message on a continuum between mechanisms that retain almost nothing of the original message and those that retain almost everything of the original message. Those that retain most of the original message are very high fidelity and those that retain little of the original message are very low fidelity.
Spreading EA Ideas
In the case of spreading EA ideas, the problem of fidelity takes a slightly different form than in the Telephone Game. In general, the problem we face is not that the audience will fail to receive the intended message. Instead, the problem of fidelity is that "effective altruism" contains a large number of nuanced and interrelated ideas. Some methods of spreading these ideas require stripping away either the depth of the ideas or their nuance, or both.
When the context gets stripped away, those who receive the ideas leave with something that's similar to effective altruism, but different. Thus, when we hear the EA message repeated back to us, we get sentences like "EA is about earning all the money you can and donating it to GiveWell charities" or "EAs only care about interventions that are supported by randomized controlled trials." To a certain extent we can influence the sentences we get back by being more clever about how we frame our ideas, but it seems unlikely that framing can do all the work.
A great example is the concept of Earning to Give.
The core idea of Earning to Give is nuanced and sophisticated. It includes complicated considerations like replaceability, comparative advantage, career capital, the fungibility of resources and so on. In fact, Will published a 15 page paper on the topic in peer-reviewed philosophy journal, Ben wrote a 100 page master's thesis on the topic and 80K has written about this topic extensively on their blog.
Unfortunately, while a philosophy journal or a research blog are high fidelity methods of transmission, the mass media is not. So, when Will and other early promoters of Earning to Give presented simplistic version of the idea in the mass media, it is perhaps unsurprising that headlines like the following resulted:"Forget your dreams. Earn to Give.," "Join Wall Street. Save the world.," and "The young professionals who believe their best chance at trying to save the world is by joining Wall Street and making millions." These articles communicate the core concepts of earning to give in varying degrees of fidelity, but, unsurprisingly, none come close to explaining the idea with the fidelity that a philosophy paper or series of blog posts can.
In some cases this is fine. The articles linked to above likely reached many orders of magnitude more people than Will's philosophy paper. Will and other EAs engaged in those interviews with the hope that reaching more people would be worth the inevitable simplifications and distortions involved in media depictions. Yet, low fidelity mechanisms of spreading EA ideas gain this increased distribution at the expense of risking spreading ideas that are related to, but importantly different from, the ideas we want to spread.
How can we judge the relative fidelity of different mechanisms for spreading EA?
We can analyze the fidelity of a particular mechanism for spreading EA by looking at four components:
- Breadth: How many ideas can you explore?
- Depth: How much nuance can you add to the ideas?
- Environment: Will the audience be in an environment that is conducive to updating their opinions?
- Feedback: Can you adapt your message over time to improve its fidelity?
An example of an extremely low fidelity method of communicating EA would be during a heated political discussion on Twitter.
Given Twitter's character limit you can neither explore many ideas nor explore the ideas in any depth, nor get much useful feedback, and since politics is a very bad environment for updating, this would fail all four components.
An example of a high fidelity method of communicating EA would be a lengthy personal conversation. In this context you could cover a large number of ideas in great detail in an environment (face-to-face conversation) that is particularly well-suited to updating. A similarly high-fidelity method of spreading EA would be a multi-day, in-person conference with experts in the EA community (e.g. EA Global).
When combined with additional models and assumptions we can begin to construct a general case for being cautious about spreading EA ideas through low fidelity mechanisms. I explain how this consideration interacts with other models below.
The Awareness/Inclination Model
Owen Cotton-Barratt has developed a model of movement growth called the Awareness/Inclination Model according to which we can compress knowledge of EA into two dimensions: how much they know about the ideas (awareness) and how favorably they feel, or would feel, towards the ideas (inclination). One implication of this model is that increasing awareness without increasing inclination can cause increased adoption of the ideas in the short term but at the expense of decreasing the total potential number of people that might adopt the ideas in the future (given some assumptions).
Given the assumption that many people would respond favorably to EA ideas if they understood them, it seems plausible that low fidelity mechanisms for spreading EA ideas increase the probability that we increase awareness for the ideas without increasing inclination. Articles like "Join Wall Street. Save the world." may be doing a good job of increasing awareness without doing a good job of increasing inclination (as some criticisms of the piece suggests) and thus may be decreasing the maximum number of people that might adopt the ideas in the future.
On the other hand, high fidelity mechanisms for spreading EA ideas (e.g. conferences) may do a much better job of increasing both inclination and awareness.
The dilution model of movement collapse
A common concern about spreading EA ideas is that the ideas will get "diluted" over time and will come to represent something much weaker than they do currently. For example, right now when we talk about which cause areas are high impact, we mean that the area has strong arguments or evidence to support it, has a large scope, is relatively neglected, and is potentially solvable.
Over time we might imagine that the idea of a high impact cause comes to mean that the area has some evidence behind it and has some plausible interventions that one could perform. Thus, in the future, adherence to EA ideas might imply relatively little difference from the status quo.
I'm uncertain about whether this is a serious worry. Yet, if it is, spreading messages about EA with low fidelity would significantly exacerbate the problem. As the depth and breadth of ideas gets stripped away, we should expect the ideas around EA to weaken over time which would eventually cause them to assume a form that is closer to the mainstream.
Changes in CEA strategy
This model (along with other models and observations) has resulted in a number of concrete changes in CEA strategy. Some of these are listed and briefly explained below:
- Decreased focus on mass media
- Historically, spreading EA via the mass media was a key focus of CEA. Over time it became clear that the mass media is not particularly well suited to spreading ideas with high fidelity. Therefore, we have pivoted away from this focus and towards higher-fidelity methods like books and podcasts.
- Focus on being local and in-person
- Many CEA projects focus on causing people to meet together to talk about EA with people close to them (e.g. EA Global, EAGx, and local community building). One reason for this focus is that in-person interactions have the potential to be especially high fidelity. People seem to update better when talking to each other in person, and in-person communication allows the conversation to focus on areas of misconception or disagreement.
- Academic credibility and the EA brand
- CEA has become more interested in establishing the academic credibility of some of our ideas. Academia provides a high fidelity method of spread ideas and can help create more high fidelity opportunities to spread ideas in the future.