Replying to Jacobin’s Hitpiece About Effective Altruism, That Mentions Me by Name
McGoey lies flagrantly over and over again in the most sickening and dishonest ways imaginable
“Elite Universities Gave Us Effective Altruism, the Dumbest Idea of the Century,” claims McGoey, in a dramatic display that she has not, in fact, spent very much time considering the dumbest idea of the century—a century that has contained Qanon, flat eartherism, and the Holocaust. McGoey’s hit piece follows the usual absurd formulation that involves going through a survey of random members of the EA movement, before pointing out allegedly objectionable things they’ve said, and concluding that the movement must be burnt to the ground. All in all, McGoey’s article is the same old nonsense that one comes to expect in such articles—and it’s just as unpersuasive as one would expect. It’s also full of a breathtaking array of lies and deception—the type of stuff one would expect from infowars, not Jacobin.
This article is bad—really bad. Every term is incorrectly defined, the reasoning is fallacious, the facts are all wrong, and libelous accusations are hurled based on paper-thin justifications. It is rare that reading articles makes me actively angry. This one did.
In an attempt to piece together some semblance of a narrative in the deeply odd endeavor of running through a cherry orchard, knocking a few very specific cherries down, before claiming that no cherry-picking has been done, McGoey begins her article by noting that the title of “Future of Humanity Institute,” is “grandiose even by the standards of an elite institution”. This represents the epitome of the shallowness of criticisms of EA—sure, EA saved hundreds of thousands of lives, is reducing existential threats significantly, and is preventing tons of animals from being horrifically tortured in factory farms, but on the other hand, it gives its institutes self-aggrandizing names.
I imagine McGoey going to a village of people, many of whom have been saved by anti-malarial bednets distributed by EA and proclaiming “yes, your lives were saved, I guess that’s nice, but the institute that did it had some people who have made some questionable comments that we woke white westerners find objectionable—and also, they have a dumb name.” I’d imagine the response of those whose children have no longer been killed by malaria would be “thanks for the heads up, but we’ll still take the bednets.”
Of course, it’s unclear if this is actually intended as an objection to EA—as is often true of these articles. Often, they’ll just include paragraph after paragraph of snarky remark, such that it’s utterly unclear what the objection is supposed to be, but all of it ends up giving the impression that there’s something deeply nefarious up with those effective altruists—grandiosity of institutes and all.
McGoey’s next claim is that EA is bad because Nick Bostrom said racist things. She ties this in to the first point by saying that, if EA is so grand and forward-thinking, why is Bostrom—a prominent member—so bad? She of course ignores the fact that Bostrom has been criticized by lots of—and perhaps most—EAs; that fact would not conveniently fit her narrative. Now, as I’ve already said, I don’t find Bostrom’s comments objectionable—and I certainly think they’re not evidence of current objectionable sentiment given his repeated condemnation of them for the last 27 years—8 years before I was born. If your apology is older than I am, it ought to stick. Additionally, I think that Richard is right—even if Bostrom’s statement was objectionable, it was not indicative of objectionable sentiment; it was merely indicative of low decoupling.
But let’s even grant that Bostrom’s statement was horrible, racist, and evil. Let’s go further—let’s imagine that Bostrom is a murderous child molester who personally tortures puppies in his basement. All of this would make quite a good case for Bostrom’s shunning and prosecution—but it certainly wouldn’t make any argument at all against EA as a movement. Thus, what Bostrom said wasn’t objectionable, even if it was his apology should be sufficient to make him no longer responsible for it, and even if you deny that, it wasn’t indicative of objectionable sentiment, and even if you deny that and think Bostrom is evil, this says precisely and exactly nothing that should cause anyone to reject EA. But aside from those four lethal problems with the objection, this is a very good objection.
The main problem, according to Bostrom, was the use of a racial slur and not, his statement suggests, his commitment to pseudoscientific ideas about racial difference.
Nothing that Bostrom said was pseudoscientific. Bostrom claimed that the average IQ of black people is lower than that of non-black people. This is undeniable. Now, some people think that this has to do with genetics, others with environmental features—but no one denies the existence of a gap. What people generally call “pseudoscientific” is the notion that the difference is genetic—but no one denies the mere existence of a gap. To quote my earlier article.
The claim that Bostrom made is that “black people have a lower average IQ than mankind in general.” This is undeniably true—now, it may very well be do to environmental factors, but no one seriously denies this result. To quote Brookings
African Americans score lower than European Americans on vocabulary, reading, and math tests, as well as on tests that claim to measure scholastic aptitude and intelligence. The gap appears before children enter kindergarten and it persists into adulthood. It has narrowed since 1970, but the typical American black still scores below 75 percent of American whites on almost every standardized test. This statistic does not imply, of course, that all blacks score below all whites. There is a lot of overlap between the two groups. Nonetheless, the test score gap is large enough to have significant social and economic consequences.
Kevin Drum of Mother Jones says
First off, there is a black-white gap in IQ scores.² Nobody thinks otherwise. Nor is it likely that this is due to test bias or other test construction issues. The gap really does exist. The only question is: what causes it? Is it possible that it’s due entirely to genetic differences between blacks of African ancestry and whites of European ancestry? I doubt it for these reasons:
Here’s one proof that there’s a gap. We know that poorer countries tend to have lower IQs—when one is afflicted by pollution and parasites, for example, their IQ goes down. But Africa is the poorest continent—so we’d expect just from poverty for black people to have lower IQs than others.
Thus, it is McGoey who is being either pseudoscientific or confused. The statement Bostrom made is, in a literal sense, true. No one seriously disputes it. It’s the explanation that has produced the scientific dispute—and the genetic view is what’s alleged to be pseudoscience.
McGoey next launches into a bizarre rapid-fire screed of errors and falsehoods.
Bostrom is an advocate of longtermism, a once-niche concept now in vogue thanks to a bestselling 2022 book, What We Owe the Future, by William MacAskill, a pioneer of the effective altruism (EA) movement. The gist of longtermism is that future people, however distant, have equal moral value to people alive today.
This is NOT the gist of longtermism. As I—along with MacAskill—have pointed out repeatedly, but no one seems to listen, there are two types of longtermism: strong and weak. Strong longtermism says the future is orders of magnitude more important than the present, weak longtermism just says we should be doing a lot more to improve the future. They happen to have exactly the same practical implications given the sheer neglectedness of the future. Thus, strong longtermism can be the dumbest idea ever proposed by anyone—it’s not—and weak longtermism, and thus the longtermist movement, would still be on firm foundations.
To illustrate this point, which I’ll do because this is a distinction that every critic of effective altruism seems to get wrong, imagine one thought Ayn Rand was smart and right. This would be crazy. But refuting the ‘Ayn Rand is smart and right position’ would not refute libertarianism, because that is one—though not the only—way one can be a libertarian. Thus, if one were writing a critique of libertarianism, a successful strategy would not be merely pointing to a few objectionable quotes from libertarians, before pointing out Ayn Rand’s philosophy sounds weird, before declaring it a job well done. Yet this is pretty much the approach people take to criticizing EA—including McGoey.
Though seemingly innocuous, this view has drawn support from reactionary conservatives and tech gurus who flood Bostrom and MacAskill with millions in research grants.
McGoey doesn’t see it as relevant to name any of the “reactionary conservatives and tech gurus” who are giving funding to Bostrom and MacAskill. It’s unclear what examples would be given of reactionary conservatives—at least, prominent ones. No doubt, there is at least one reactionary conservative that has donated at least one dollar to an organization that one of these people works at, but there are also no-doubt reactionary conservatives that have donated to planned parenthood. In order to press the charge that EA is objectionably in the clutches of “reactionary conservatives and tech gurus” one ought to give examples of this—not merely abstractly claim they are. There are a relatively small number of big EA donors—I can’t think of any that are reactionary conservatives. EAs are overwhelmingly left wing with “72% affiliated with the Left or Center Left politically.”
Of course, such a claim, that EA is in the clutches of those villainous conservatives is apparently too obvious to require either a citation or any supportive evidence.
Only in Jacobin will you find a non-political movement that is mostly left-wingers accused of being dangerous because it’s in the clutches of conservatives—particularly wealthy conservative donors who may or may not exist.
But even if we grant that there are lots of “reactionary conservatives and tech gurus” who are giving funding to Bostrom and MacAskill, this wouldn’t undermine EA at all. If a movement is non-political, it doesn’t much matter the political affiliation of some of the funders.
This reminds me of a quote that I wrote in my article, “How to write a bad article about any movement ever,” where I explained how to vaguely criticize a movement without saying anything substantive.
Recently (X) has been getting a lot of attention. Many big names like (unpopular person) have said great things about (X). But is this attraction a good thing? Should we be happy about (X)? Or could it be something more sinister? Fundamentally, (X) is a quasi-religious fundamentalist movement—and it’s downright dangerous.
When (unpopular person) supports (X), you know there might be something sinister going on—(unpopular person) has a long history of doing bad things. And we mustn’t let people like (unpopular person) jeopardize our society—put it in their sinister clutches.
It seems that McGoey has followed the script so completely that she said (unpopular person) supports (X), rather than giving specific names. You can’t make this stuff up.
In a 2015 conference hosted by Google, organizers enthused that “effective altruism could be the last social movement we ever need.” A deeply implausible statement, of course, but one that has managed somehow to serve as a rallying cry for the idealistic rich.
Strangely, McGoey links to one of her articles, which quotes someone else quoting someone else saying that, rather than linking to the original article. But the person of made the statement is Kerry Vaughan, who is now a harsh critic of EA. Finding one statement that one finds objectionable from a person who is no longer an EA at a conference, with no context, is not a good way to object to a social movement.
What is it about effective altruism and offshoots like longtermism that make them so appealing to tech billionaires who flood MacAskill and his pals with grants, book endorsements, and invitations to California retreats?
There are four EA billionaires—five before the decline of SBF. There are 2,668 billionaires total. Thus, the puzzling phenomena in need of explanation is why roughly .15% of billionaires are pro-EA. Hmm… there must be a sinister explanation here—of this pernicious phenomenon of four billionaires being EAs.
If there were four billionaire socialists, McGoey wouldn’t claim this as evidence of the horrors of socialism and it being about serving the wealthy. This is thus just another isolated demand for rigor.
Here’s one explanation: billionaires have a lot of money to give. Most people don’t, so they don’t think too much about where to give. Thus, a larger portion of billionaires than the general population ends up supporting EA—just like a larger portion of billionaires donate to charity generally than the general public. Billionaires are also disproportionately intelligent and in silicon valley—and EA has disproportionately taken off among those that are.
The book did not, to the best of my knowledge, have billionaire book endorsements—at least publicly. Also, while there are some EA retreats, this is a minuscule portion of what EA actually spends its money on—and retreats are plausibly good for getting people engaged and teaching them things.
So we have a very banal explanation of less than .15% of billionaires supporting EA and several things that can explain it quite easily. But McGoey jumps off the train of sanity and divebombs immediately, providing a bizarre, partisan, and ludicrous explanation.
The short answer is that effective altruism, for all the hype about being a novel, game-changing approach, is at heart a conservative movement, which attempts to present billionaires as a solution to global poverty rather than its cause. The effective altruism movement has parasitically latched onto the back of the billionaire class, providing the ultrarich with a moral justification of their position.
Suppose one held the view that if all billionaires vanished from the face of the earth, the second coming of Jesus would occur, and the world would be saved—this may be McGoey’s view. They should still obviously be an effective altruist.
For one, even if you think that the economic structures that allow billionaires to exist are the cause of all of the world’s problems, this wouldn’t mean that extra billionaires at the margin are a bad thing. It’s hard to see how, for example, Dustin Moskovitz personally has made the world worse. Thus, one can be a socialist billionaire hater, and they should still support becoming a billionaire who earns to give.
There’s a very strong case for becoming a billionaire and earning to give. Bill Gates has saved many millions of lives. If you donate 1 billion dollars, given that the cost to save a human life is about 5000 dollars, you can save 200,000 lives. Thus, in order for a billionaire who earns a mere billion dollars—far less than most billionaires earn—to be a net detriment to society, they’ll have to cause around 200,000 deaths—assuming they earn to give. Now, maybe Jacobin thinks that the average billionaire causes more deaths than all of lack of healthcare does in the U.S., but this seems deeply implausible. One quick back-of-the-napkin math check of this is that if this were true, 2668 billionaires would cause 533,600,000 deaths. Now, maybe Jacobin thinks that capitalism as a whole has caused that many deaths, but certainly billionaires by themselves—relative to a world where there is identical capitalism but all of the billionaires instead of becoming wealthy just work at home depot—would not prevent 533,600,000 deaths.
Now, my view is that billionaires are a good thing—they get rich by producing valuable goods and services. But one doesn’t need to think that, or anything of the sort, to think that effective altruism is good, or even to think that billionaires earning to give is good.
But let’s grant that the process of becoming a billionaire causes a million deaths on average, so it’s thus bad enough to offset any gains from earning to give. Guess what, you should still be an effective altruist.
Even if you’re a billionaire you should still be an effective altruist. Even if you caused a million deaths—as would be required for this argument to work—you’re now a billionaire, so you have to do something with the money. Preventing a lot of deaths is the least that you can do. Even if one acquires their wealth unjustly, once they have it, they may as well use it for good. And this certainly wouldn’t undercut the case for being a non-billionaire effective altruist.
Now, maybe this would mean that growing the effective altruism movement is a bit dicey because it might cause more people to become billionaires. But this certainly wouldn’t undercut the case for doing any other effective altruist things. It wouldn’t undercut the case for working to end factory farming, donating to the against malaria foundation, or working on longtermism. There is no inference from ‘billionaires are satan’ to ‘therefore, effective altruism is bad.’
Rooted in a worldview that stretches from philosopher Peter Singer to the grandaddy of consequentialism, Jeremy Bentham (“Bentham’s bulldog” is the title of one effective altruism fan’s Substack), proponents of effective altruism champion the belief that measurable effects in terms of lives saved is the only rational way to make decisions about philanthropic expenditures.
FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, CAN ARTICLES CRITICIZING EA MAKE ONE UNIMBIGUOUSLY CORRECT FACTUAL STATEMENT?
Lots of EAs are consequentialists, but you very much don’t have to be a consequentialist or a utilitarian to be an effective altruist. As Richard Chappell points out, all you have to think is that it’s very important to make the world a better place—a proposition he labels Beneficentrism—in order to be an EA. This is very much like claiming that socialists are “Rooted in a worldview that stretches from philosopher John Rawls to GA Cohen.” Some are, some aren’t, one can hate both of them and still be a socialist.
I do appreciate the shoutout though.
In many ways, their interest in measurement is not particularly objectionable, nor new. Gilded Age robber barons like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller drew upon Taylorist management principles to insist that their giving was more scientific than earlier philanthropists. In every age, we see apologetics for extreme, concentrated wealth, and while the charitable causes shift, the rationales tend to be pretty much the same: my extreme wealth is good — no matter how concentrated and disproportionate — because others will inevitably benefit from it — if not today, then certainly tomorrow.
But EA isn’t apologetics for extremely concentrated wealth. My socialist friends are disproportionately effective altruists. EA says that we should try to do a lot of good, and describes specifics ways of doing so. This sounds banal, but virtually no one tries consciously to do the most good possible.
I unfortunately cannot comment on the claim about Gilded Age robber barons—this is not my area of expertise, and there was no reference provided. But even if robber barons are evil villains and supported effective donation, that wouldn’t be a mark against EA, any more than the fact that Hitler wore pants is a reason to oppose pants.
McGoey seems to mistake the claim that billionaires should spread their wealth around, give it to the poorest people on earth and use it to combat malaria—as well as to improve the trajectory of the future and combat factory farming—with the claim that they should hoard wealth. What a bizarre conflation. Only critics of EA seem to mistake one making the exact opposite of a claim with them making the claim.
“Earn to give” is the most recent instantiation of the supposedly rational justification of inequality. It’s the idea that people are morally beholden to maximize wealth however possible so they have more to give, leading in its most extreme interpretation to the insistence there may be no moral “good” after all in trying to save poor lives, because rich people are more “innovative” and thus more worthy.
Okay, I’m slightly regretting already saying “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, CAN ARTICLES CRITICIZING EA MAKE ONE UNIMBIGUOUSLY CORRECT FACTUAL STATEMENT?” because this would be a great time to use that quote. Holy cow is this inaccurate! As low as my opinion is of Jacobin’s editorial process, with whoppers like this, I am genuinely surprised this got published. The dishonesty is astounding.
Where to begin? For one, the claim is that one can do more good if the following two conditions are present
They donate a lot of their money.
They earn lots of money.
However, this doesn’t mean that saving the average rich life is more important than saving the average poor life, because virtually no rich people donate lots of money. Perhaps it means that it’s more important to save the lives of those who earn to give—given that they generally are able to save hundreds of lives—just as it would be more important to save a pharmacist that would cure a disease than a random other person. But this claim isn’t abhorrent or unintuitive at all.
I know of zero examples of effective altruists—prominent or otherwise—claiming that “there may be no moral “good” after all in trying to save poor lives, because rich people are more “innovative” and thus more worthy.” This is a bizarre non-sequitur—maybe it would justify the conclusion that it’s more important to save rich lives, if all else is equal, but it certainly doesn’t imply that saving poor lives is not at all good. Everyone of sense, especially effective altruists, thinks that it’s bad when people die—and effective altruists, unlike nearly all other movements, are in large part dedicated to saving the lives of the global poor as effectively as possible. They have, in fact, saved hundreds of thousands of lives—mostly of very poor people.
This is verging on slander. Claiming that earning to give—and EA broadly—thinks it’s not bad when poor people die, is perhaps the most deranged and dishonest claim I’ve ever read. How dare the author claim that those who are dedicating their career to saving lives as effectively as possible widely hold the belief that poor people dying isn’t bad at all?
The claim of those who earn to give is that it’s good to save lives, and we can do so with extra money. Thus, it’s good to earn money so that we can give it away to save lives. This does not imply—and those that earn to give would most fiercely rebuke—the claim that “rich people are more “innovative” and thus more worthy.” All people deserve well-being equally, as I’ve argued elsewhere.
But not even this is the extent of the lies. It’s easy to miss the first sentence in the sea of other lies, but the sentence gives the definition of earn to give as “the idea that people are morally beholden to maximize wealth however possible so they have more to give.” This is unimaginably dishonest. Earn to give is the idea that it’s good to earn a lot of money if you donate it to effective causes, because donation is good. It is not the idea that one is required to “maximize wealth however possible.” There’s a reason there is no citation for this—no one defines it this way.
In fact, EAs who advocate earning to give have been clear to explicitly rebuke such a notion—MacAskill coauthored an entire article about it. As Todd says “We don’t recommend taking a job that does a lot of harm in order to donate the money.”
The primary advocates of earning to give, when laying it out, are quite explicit in advocating that people don’t pursue unethical careers solely to earn to give, and McGoey DEFINES earn to give as the idea that one should pursue unethical careers to earn more money—and also that poor people’s lives don’t matter, neither of which have a citation. I didn’t realize how much worse articles could be than Torres’ articles are, but apparently, there is a vast gap between Torres and rock bottom.
How does McGoey defend that asinine claim that earn to give means that poor people’s lives don’t matter. By quote mining Nick Beckstead’s Ph.D thesis.
“It now seems more plausible to me that saving a life in a rich country is substantially more important than saving a life in a poor country, other things being equal,” wrote Nick Beckstead in his 2013 Rutgers PhD
Imagine if this was how we approached other movements—say, socialists. We started by defining socialism as the idea that black people are inferior, and then we defended this by pointing to random scattered pieces of writing of some socialists saying black people are inferior. Beckstead could be satan incarnate, and it wouldn’t undercut the case for effective altruism at all.
Now, I don’t have a very strong view on whether Beckstead was right. But Beckstead’s claim is that saving lives in rich countries has greater ripple effects—increasing innovation and so on—and thus reduces existential threats by more than saving lives in poor countries, if all else is equal. If true, as long as we think that innovation, for example, is good, then Beckstead would be right.
Of course, this wouldn’t mean that we should always save lives in rich countries rather than lives in poor countries—it just means we should when all else is equal. In point of fact, all else is not equal—it’s much easier to save lives in poor countries. This is why Beckstead has been very clear that he thinks the best way to improve the future is by donating to save lives. To quote Dylan Matthews
But in a set of slides he made in 2013, Beckstead makes a compelling case that while that’s certainly part of what caring about the far future entails, approaches that address specific threats to humanity (which he calls “targeted” approaches to the far future) have to complement “broad” approaches, where instead of trying to predict what’s going to kill us all, you just generally try to keep civilization running as best it can, so that it is, as a whole, well-equipped to deal with potential extinction events in the future, not just in 2030 or 2040 but in 3500 or 95000 or even 37 million.
In other words, caring about the far future doesn’t mean just paying attention to low-probability risks of total annihilation; it also means acting on pressing needs now.
For example: We’re going to be better prepared to prevent extinction from AI or a supervirus or global warming if society as a whole makes a lot of scientific progress. And a significant bottleneck there is that the vast majority of humanity doesn’t get high-enough-quality education to engage in scientific research, if they want to, which reduces the odds that we have enough trained scientists to come up with the breakthroughs we need as a civilization to survive and thrive.
So maybe one of the best things we can do for the far future is to improve school systems — here and now — to harness the group economist Raj Chetty calls “lost Einsteins” (potential innovators who are thwarted by poverty and inequality in rich countries) and, more importantly, the hundreds of millions of kids in developing countries dealing with even worse education systems than those in depressed communities in the rich world.
We live in a perverse upside-down world where if you make the claim that if all else is equal, it’s more important to save the lives of rich people, because that has more positive ripple effects, but all else is not equal, so you should prioritize saving poor lives, you’ll be ostracized, even if you “walk the walk” and dedicate a significant part of your life to helping the global poor, but if you just wax poetic about how horrific that statement is while doing nothing to help the global poor, you’re praised to the heavens.
For more on this, see Richard’s great article.
McGoey next says
Certainly, not everyone in the effective altruism movement agrees with Beckstead’s claim that saving rich lives is worthier than saving poor ones.
In fact, I haven’t seen any other person defending this in print. So not only is it not everyone, it’s not anyone else that I know of. The phrasing of worthier is also misleading, for the reasons I previously explained.
It is, however, those like him with the most extremist, pro-rich takes on trickle-down policies who seem to get the plum jobs at effective altruism research centers. On EA forums, meanwhile, hoi polloi frustration is mounting. There is growing realization that a hierarchical movement spearheaded by a handful of mediagenic men and the billionaires they worship might not be the world’s saviors after all.
McGoey gives no evidence for the claim that the people she describes are disproportionately likely to get jobs at EA firms. The “hoi polloi frustration,” that allegedly “is mounting” is just a few posts on the EA forum. And that’s good, EA is willing to introspect and criticize itself. I don’t generally agree with the criticisms, but it says something good about the movement that there are lots of people criticizing the Bostrom statement.
Many of the effective altruism proponents I met, meanwhile, spoke about ending global poverty but had never heard of the World Trade Organization (WTO) or the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This ignorance seemed not to perturb but to embolden them to make grand claims about the “facts” of the global economy.
Most people have not heard of any of those organizations. EAs are certainly more informed about them than the average population. But so what. I’d bet lots of socialists are ignorant about those things too—that’s not a mark against socialism. This elitist notion that a movement is terrible unless most people know about random specific economic institutions is an absurd one.
She next spends some time objecting to MacAskill’s—as well as the left wing economist Paul Krugman’s—idea that sweatshops are good. I haven’t looked into this dispute in detail, I lean towards the MacAskill view. McGoey’s claim is that MacAskill ignores, “reams of Global South scholarship on tax drain and the bullying of nations to accept draconian IMF loan conditions.” But this doesn’t contradict MacAskill’s claim at all. It could be the case both that sweatshops are good and that bullying by the IMF to shove it down the throat of reluctant countries is very bad.
But this is totally irrelevant to EA. None of the things that EAs advocate people actually do are jeopardized, in the slightest, by any arguments against sweatshops or the IMF. This is not a serious criticism. What a serious criticism would do is argue that the things that EA actually does are bad in some way. It wouldn’t just quote mine random EAs saying unintuitive things, before objecting to them strenuously, usually with no evidence.
McGoey’s next section is titled unscientific racism, and it’s targeted towards Bostrom’s allegedly hateful and racist statements.
It is odd to imagine that Sandberg does not realize that racial slurs were offensive in 1996 too. Even if we grant this absurd claim, the main problem with Bostrom’s email is not his writing style but the worldview underlying it.
Lots of people claim this, of course. But if we quote brilliant linguists who have studied the issue in detail, as I did in my defense of Bostrom, we get a very different picture. The N-word was always offensive when used to refer to a person, but merely referring to the word wasn’t in 1996. McWhorter, the source I cited, gives an example of it being uncensored in a radio show interview he did in 1995. I’m rather skeptical that there was a seismic shift between 1995 and 1996.
McGoey spends a lot of time reviewing the science on IQ differences. It seems plausible that she’s right—I haven’t looked into this in any great detail, but it does seem like the consensus is that IQ differences are environmental, not genetic. Okay, but Bostrom at no point claimed the opposite. He just claimed the existence of IQ differences. Generally, the thing that we think of as intelligence is correlated, at least to some degree with IQ. People with IQs of 160 are obviously smarter on average than people with IQs of 80.
She points out that IQ tests aren’t perfect. Fair enough. But even if they’re not perfect, as long as they correlate with intelligence—which we have lots of evidence for—then IQ differences will be good evidence of intelligence differences. We also have plausible mechanisms—countries in Africa disproportionately have both black people and famine, and we know that famine has a deleterious effect on IQ.
When it comes to national-level IQ rankings, the United States tends to rank lower than Mongolia, to name just one country. So, are Americans stupider than Mongolians? Presumably, Bostrom must think so, given his propensity for making gross generalizations based on flawed IQ measures.
Yes, I’d say so. I mean, we elected Bush after all…
And yet, oddly enough, that’s not the point he made — perhaps because maligning American intelligence writ large might piss off his white philanthropic donors. But “blacks,” on the other hand, he’s fine with disparaging.
This is a breathtakingly ridiculous statement. Bostrom made this statement when he was an undergraduate—when he had no “white philanthropic donors.” And the reason he didn’t choose the Mongolian statement was because it sounds less offensive, and the entire point of the exercise was to say a maximally offensive yet technically true statement.
Bostrom’s blanket claim about the intellectual inferiority of black people is therefore damaging and dangerous. We know this from studies of the empirical effects that stereotypical claims can have on lowered performances. What’s more, Bostrom knows this, or at least he should know it.
This is a good reason not to make this statement very much, and a reason why Bostorm’s statement was stupid. But the idea that he should have anticipated the societal effects of a private email he sent to a small group is an absurd one.
My concluding thoughts
This article is really bad. When one is criticizing some movement, the way they ought to do it is to point to the things that the movement explicitly advocates for, rather than attack statements of random members of the group, and the things that the movement does.
Some people claim Marx was a horrible anti-semite. I haven’t looked into this claim at all, I don’t know if it is true. But let’s imagine that it is. This wouldn’t discredit Marxism at all. It wouldn’t discredit the theory, nor would it be any reason to oppose the actions done by Marxists.
All that it would mean is that one prominent member of some movement has some ancillary reprehensible views. But this gives exactly no reason to think that the movement itself is bad.
It’s notable that over the entire course of this very long article, our author did not list a single thing that effective altruists do or advocate as a movement. Literally the entire article was criticizing random separate views of EAs. Now this might pass muster as a journalistic hit piece designed to discredit EA in the minds of gullible, foolish Jacobin readers, but it certainly will not as a serious criticism of EA. Even if every single claim in the article were true, the case for EA would be just as strong as it was before. As I’ve previously noted “Even if all EAs are terrible, you really should be doing something about malaria.”
I’ll end with six questions for McGoey, or those who agree with her article.
Who are the reactionary conservative millionaires that are currently funding MacAskill and Bostrom?
If there was only one billionaire funding EA, would that still be evidence that EA is fundamentally a conservative movement?
Why is the fact that lots of EAs have said bad things—even if true—a good reason to think the movement is bad?
What is the evidence for the claim that the most extreme version of earn to give says poor people’s lives don’t matter?
Can you give any source from anyone advocating Earn to Give that defines it as anything like “the idea that people are morally beholden to maximize wealth however possible.”
Do you have any objections to the things that actually existing EAs do—for example, malaria bednet distribution—or merely to the character of various EAs?
I eagerly await a response, though I’m almost certain that there won’t be one.
It bothers me how bad of a rep EA has gotten with many leftists. Ben Burgis, who I normally like a lot, just had a video with Krystal Ball bashing it and wrote an article criticizing it. I think EA fits very nicely with the goals of socialism. I don't see any conflict with "we should nationalize the heights of the economy and eliminate exploitative work contracts" and "we should donate money for malaria nets." I also think you can both believe in EA and think people like Bill Gates and Elon Musk are scumbags.
Although it is true that she is dishonest, I do not think that it is the most sickening and dishonest way possible. That seems like an exaggeration