EA - Sharing Information About Nonlinear by Ben Pace

The Nonlinear Library

Sep 7 2023 • 54 mins

Welcome to The Nonlinear Library, where we use Text-to-Speech software to convert the best writing from the Rationalist and EA communities into audio. This is: Sharing Information About Nonlinear, published by Ben Pace on September 7, 2023 on The Effective Altruism Forum. Epistemic status: Once I started actively looking into things, much of my information in the post below came about by a search for negative information about the Nonlinear cofounders, not from a search to give a balanced picture of its overall costs and benefits. I think standard update rules suggest not that you ignore the information, but you think about how bad you expect the information would be if I selected for the worst, credible info I could share, and then update based on how much worse (or better) it is than you expect I could produce. (See section 5 of this post about Mistakes with Conservation of Expected Evidence for more on this.) This seems like a worthwhile exercise for at least non-zero people to do in the comments before reading on. (You can condition on me finding enough to be worth sharing, but also note that I think I have a relatively low bar for publicly sharing critical info about folks in the EA/x-risk/rationalist/etc ecosystem.) tl;dr: If you want my important updates quickly summarized in four claims-plus-probabilities, jump to the section near the bottom titled "Summary of My Epistemic State". When I used to manage the Lightcone Offices, I spent a fair amount of time and effort on gatekeeping - processing applications from people in the EA/x-risk/rationalist ecosystem to visit and work from the offices, and making decisions. Typically this would involve reading some of their public writings, and reaching out to a couple of their references that I trusted and asking for information about them. A lot of the people I reached out to were surprisingly great at giving honest references about their experiences with someone and sharing what they thought about someone. One time, Kat Woods and Drew Spartz from Nonlinear applied to visit. I didn't know them or their work well, except from a few brief interactions that Kat Woods seems high-energy, and to have a more optimistic outlook on life and work than most people I encounter. I reached out to some references Kat listed, which were positive to strongly positive. However I also got a strongly negative reference - someone else who I informed about the decision told me they knew former employees who felt taken advantage of around things like salary. However the former employees reportedly didn't want to come forward due to fear of retaliation and generally wanting to get away from the whole thing, and the reports felt very vague and hard for me to concretely visualize, but nonetheless the person strongly recommended against inviting Kat and Drew. I didn't feel like this was a strong enough reason to bar someone from a space - or rather, I did, but vague anonymous descriptions of very bad behavior being sufficient to ban someone is a system that can be straightforwardly abused, so I don't want to use such a system. Furthermore, I was interested in getting my own read on Kat Woods from a short visit - she had only asked to visit for a week. So I accepted, though I informed her that this weighed on my mind. (This is a link to the decision email I sent to her.) (After making that decision I was also linked to this ominous yet still vague EA Forum thread, that includes a former coworker of Kat Woods saying they did not like working with her, more comments like the one I received above, and links to a lot of strongly negative Glassdoor reviews for Nonlinear Cofounder Emerson Spartz's former company "Dose". Note that more than half of the negative reviews are for the company after Emerson sold it, but this is a concerning one from 2015 (while Emerson Spartz was CEO/Cofounder): "All of these super positive reviews are being commissioned by upper management. That is the first thing you should know ...