Saturday, March 30, 2013

Talk to each other

At first, I didn't realize I could just talk to anyone in this movement. I knew there were other people interested in effective altruism, and I was really glad about that, but I figured they were too busy and important to talk to me.

A while ago, I read a claim about effective altruism that seemed unrealistic to me. I didn't want to publicly argue with the writer in the comments section, so I did nothing. It literally didn't occur to me that I could just email him and say, “How did you get that number? It doesn't sound right to me.” A year later, I was having a beer with him. That's how small a world it is.

I've seen this reluctance to communicate go pretty wrong in some cases – people making public critiques of organizations without bothering to get good information from the organization in question. I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they made the mistake I did, which was to assume that people won't write you back. So let this be an announcement: you really can write to them, and in my experience they really do write back.

Talking to each other isn't just about correcting mistakes. It's also about getting support.

In most of the communities I'm part of, there are elders. In the world of folk dance and music, there are old men who know fiddle tunes you've never dreamed of and gray-haired women who have been organizing dances for decades. If you're a young dancer or musician who wants to learn how to make things happen, there are older people who want to teach you.  I think it's similar in many communities.

But in this circle, we have hardly any elders.  Peter Singer is probably the closest.  In a way, this is kind of cool – the effective altruism movement is growing and changing quickly, and it's mostly made up of young people. That's exciting, but it also means there's not much experience to go on.  A lot of us are isolated and having one-way interactions (reading) rather than back-and-forth conversations.  And a lot of us are probably struggling with problems that others have already dealt with.

Okay, Peter Singer probably really is too busy and important to talk to most of us. But I'm continually surprised by the people who write to me and want to connect.  It makes me very happy.

If you have questions about effective altruism, please ask.  You can ask me – I might not know the answer, but I probably know someone who does. I might know people in your area that you can meet in person.  Write to any of the organizations: GiveWell and Giving What WeCan for charity evaluation, 80,000 Hours for career stuff, The Life You Can Save, Effective Animal Activism, Leverage Research, Center for Applied Rationality.  What is there to lose?

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