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Culture War Roundup for the week of December 11, 2023

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Three months ago, LessWrong admin Ben Pace wrote a long thread on the EA forums: Sharing Info About Nonlinear, in which he shared the stories of two former employees in an EA startup who had bad experiences and left determined to warn others about the company. The startup is an "AI x-risk incubator," which in practice seems to look like a few people traveling around exotic locations, connecting with other effective altruists, and brainstorming new ways to save the world from AI. Very EA. The post contains wide-ranging allegations of misconduct mostly centering around their treatment of two employees they hired who started traveling with them, ultimately concluding that "if Nonlinear does more hiring in the EA ecosystem it is more-likely-than-not to chew up and spit out other bright-eyed young EAs who want to do good in the world."

He, and it seems to some extent fellow admin Oliver Habryka, mentioned they spent hundreds of hours interviewing dozens of people over the course of six months to pull the article together, ultimately paying the two main sources $5000 each for their trouble. It made huge waves in the EA community, torching Nonlinear's reputation.

A few days ago, Nonlinear responded with a wide-ranging tome of a post, 15000 words in the main post with a 134-page appendix. I had never heard of either Lightcone (the organization behind the callout post) or Nonlinear before a few days ago, since I don't pay incredibly close attention to the EA sphere, but the response bubbled up into my sphere of awareness.

The response provides concrete evidence in the form of contemporary screenshots against some of the most damning-sounding claims in the original article:

  • accusations that when one employee, "Alice", was sick with COVID in a foreign country and nobody would get her vegan food so she barely ate for two days turned into "There was vegan food in the house and they picked food up for her, but on one of the days they wanted to go to a Mexican place instead of getting a vegan burger from Burger King."

  • accusations that they promised another, "Chloe", compensation around $75,000 and stiffed her on it in various ways turned into "She had a written contract to be paid $1000/monthly with all expenses covered, which we estimated would add up to around $70,000."

  • accusations that they asked Alice to "bring a variety of illegal drugs across the border" turned into "They asked Alice, who regularly traveled with LSD and marijuana of her own accord, to pick up ADHD medicine and antibiotics at a pharmacy. When she told them the meds still required a prescription in Mexico, they said not to worry about it."

The narrative the Nonlinear team presents is of one employee with mental health issues and a long history of making accusations against the people around her came on board, lost trust in them due to a series of broadly imagined slights, and ultimately left and spread provable lies against them, while another who was hired to be an assistant was never quite satisfied with being an assistant and left frustrated as a result.

As amusing a collective picture as these events paint about what daily life at the startup actually looked like, they also made it pretty clear that the original article had multiple demonstrable falsehoods in it, in and around unrebutted claims. More, they emphasized that they'd been given only a few days to respond to claims before publication, and when they asked for a week to compile hard evidence against falsehoods, the writers told them it would come out on schedule no matter what. Spencer Greenberg, the day before publication, warned them of a number of misrepresentations in the article and sent them screenshots correcting the vegan portion; they corrected some misrepresentations but by the time he sent the screenshots said it was too late to change anything.

That's the part that caught my interest: how did the rationalist community, with its obsession with establishing better epistemics than those around it, wind up writing, embracing, and spreading a callout article with shoddy fact-checking?

From a long conversation with Habryka, my impression is that a lot of EA community members were left scarred and paranoid after the FTX implosion, correcting towards "We must identify and share any early warning signs possible to prevent another FTX." More directly, he told me that he wasn't too concerned with whether they shared falsehoods originally so long as they were airing out the claims of their sources and making their level of epistemic confidence clear. In particular, the organization threatened a libel suit shortly before publication, which they took as a threat of retaliation that meant they should and must hold to their original release schedule.

My own impression is that this is a case of rationalist first-principles thinking gone awry and applied to a domain where it can do real damage. Journalism doesn't have the greatest reputation these days and for good reason, but his approach contrasts starkly with its aspiration to heavily prioritize accuracy and verify information before releasing it. I mention this not to claim that they do so successfully, but because his approach is a conscious deviation from that, an assertion that if something is important enough it's worth airing allegations without closely examining contrary information other sources are asking you to pause and examine.

I'd like to write more about the situation at some point, because I have a lot to say about it even beyond the flood of comments I left on the LessWrong and EA mirrors of the article and think it presses at some important tension points. It's a bit discouraging to watch communities who try so hard to be good from first principles speedrun so many of the pitfalls broader society built guardrails around.