Abuse in the Rationality/EA Community

Introduction:

This is a quick writeup of several alleged cases of sexual abuse in the Rationalist/EA community. Many of the cases discussed here are fairly well known. However many people are new to the community and not all the cases are as widely known. I wrote up all the cases I am familiar with that I can describe with publicly available links. I am aware of other cases but I could not find public sources and one cannot make private info public without the participation of the victims. I did make some assertions I cannot publicly cite but I tried to limit these as much as I could.

Another reason to collect accounts is to talk about trends in the community response. I will mention a few tentative conclusions at the end of this post.

Brent:

Brent Dill was a long time rationalist community member. For example, he led the structure building project at Berkeley’s Summer Solstice. He was also close personal friends with multiple community leaders. In particular, he was good friends with Duncan Sabien and Michael Valentine Smith (the head of Curriculum and a co-founder at CFAR respectively).

Brent was involved in (at least) two relationships that were considered abusive. One of the people who had been involved with Brent, “Persephone”, made a post about abusive behavior on Facebook that did not name Brent explicitly but nevertheless was clear to insiders. At first, Brent apologized for his behavior and this apology seemed to be broadly accepted by the Bay Area rationalists.

ACDC, an advisory panel that was meant to evaluate disputes in the CFAR alumni community, looked into these accusations. The panel decided against banning Brent and concluded that:

Summary:

– We think Brent and D had a relationship that caused lasting damage to D; we think Brent was partially culpable in this (we also think that both Brent and D would agree with both of these sentiments)

– We do not think Brent is a “bad actor,” or “malignant psychopath” or similar – We are choosing not to ban Brent from any of CFAR’s spaces

– We do feel that Brent may have some kinds of “poor judgment” that might adversely impact his appropriateness for some kinds of authority

We believe that Brent is fundamentally oriented towards helping people grow to be the best versions of themselves. In this way, he is aligned with CFAR’s goals and strategy and should be seen as an ally.

Later multiple very serious accusations were made publicly.

Accusation 1

Accusation 2

Accusation 3

Here are some representative quotes the accusations:

Brent had a habit of responding to me saying I wanted to break up, or that I didn’t want to do a scene, with something like “If you deprive me of this thing I want, you’re doing violence to me; please just punch me in the face so it can be universally recognised as violence.” Refusing to punch him and sticking to my guns re. my preferences would go nowhere, and often he’d self-injure to get me to agree to do what he wanted.

My ability to be the engine for this group depends on my confidence. I am confident when I know I have money, sexual access to youthful and attractive women, and true power in my demesne. What can you do?” — Brent

Brent pushed back against that idea. He told me that previous partners had been manipulated, by their therapists, into thinking that he was abusive and that he interpreted me seeking therapy as me losing trust in him.[about Brent]

” There were fewer times, but probably still dozens, that he didn’t ensure I had a safeword when going into a really heavy scene, or disrespected my safeword when I gave it. Safewording was never safe. It routinely led to him complaining, afterwards, about the fact that I’d ended the scene, and was occasionally completely disregarded.” [about Brent]

Here is another summary by Ozy.

Many elements of these reports had been independently confirmed by trustworthy people (ex: Julia Wise confirms Brent pushed someone into signing a sex contract). After allegations became public, Duncan Sabien wrote a piece apologizing for Brent and posted it on his facebook. CFAR eventually issued a series of apologies and both Duncan and Mike left CFAR. The community consensus seems to be that Valentine’s departure was related to Brent but Duncan was leaving anyway. It is not obvious from the outside what information was known to CFAR or other community leaders before the accusations became public.

CFAR announces Brent is banned

Updates from CFAR

CFAR admits substantial mistakes

Later the Berkeley REACH created a panel to investigate Brent. To no one’s surprise, they found he was guilty. However, the Reach panel declined to post their Brent investigation, fearing legal action.

Autumn

Here is  my writeup while the events while they were occurring:

Detailed logs have been released detailing abuse between two rationalists/rational-adjacents Autumn and Iris. The shortest summary of the logs is roughly the following:

There is an audio recording of Autumn admitting she raped Iris, her former partner. After Iris broke up with Autumn and specifically said that she was unsure if she wanted to continue their sexual relationship, Autumn had sex with Iris while the latter was incapacitated due to substance use. Autumn also harassed Iris repeatedly after Iris accused her of rape by ignoring Iris’s requests to be left alone. This information was brought to the attention of a Seattle rationality organization and a Seattle group house. These organizations were difficult to work with. I cannot personally confirm the account in the logs but the logs are comprehensive.

The abuse described in the logs seems quite serious. In particular, the logs document the following:

  • Autumn raped Iris
  • Autumn abused Iris
  • Autumn would not stop trying to contact Iris
  • Iris had to barricade her room
  • Autumn was physically and verbally aggressive. In particular, she did not respect the above barricade

A partner of Autumn describes the timeline of events:

It is now March 31st. We’ve recently received contact with SEARCH’s new board asking for more direct contact, and while we’ve been afforded that, we’ve also been told that they were not aware of the public statements made in this channel, nor were they aware of attempts to contact them after the initial failed conversation in February. We’ve also been told that people on the panel have not been engaged with Discord for their own mental health, but have attempted to maintain open lines of communication otherwise.

To summarize the timeline of events, Zylphia first contacted the Territory sometime in November about allegations against Autumn and was not taken seriously. Tara tried to contact again in December while she was visiting Iris before her move to the Bay Area, got in touch with someone claiming to represent the Territory, made herself available, and then was never followed up with. In early January, Zylphia got a message from Florence that SEARCH and the Territory had made their initial decision to allow Autumn back, pending completion of a consent class; this was apparently despite never having spoken to Tara or listening to the audio logs she sent. This is when someone leaked the screenshot containing that Facebook message and the whole process became public, as we felt it was no longer possible to work entirely privately with these organizations.

By the end of April, soon after allegations became public as opposed to reported privately, Autumn was banned.

A postmortem about how the Autumn affair was handled

Michael Vassar and Andrew Rettek

Mike Vassar was a hugely influential member of the rationalist community. He was cited as a large influence by Scott Alexander. Many founding members of CFAR were close collaborators of his. He was active since the very early days of the community. For unclear reasons, he did not do much writing of his own.

Mike was a co-founder of a medical startup MetaMed based in New York. At the very least Mike and another senior employee Andrew Rettek had very sketchy relationships with a low-level employee. However, that employee accused both of abuse.

Abuse allegation thread  (Twitter Version)

Continuation with more details (Twitter Version)

Eventually, Mike Vassar lost his good standing in the community. For example, he has gotten banned from several large community parties. Anna Salamon, a CFAR cofounder and prior friend of Mike, recently disavowed him in a lesswrong comment.

However, there has not been much of an official response. In February 2019 Reach began an investigation.  However, the investigation was paused. As I understand it they paused the investigation because of fears of legal liability.

Kathy Forth

Kathy Forth was an effective altruist who was heavily concerned about sexual abuse in the EA community. The community consensus is the following: She was a victim of sexual assault. However, she also engaged in many forms of serious misbehavior. She falsely accused multiple people and was extremely disruptive.

Kathy herself was accused of sexual assault. Eventually, Kathy committed suicide. I am not sure what actions were taken to limit Kathy’s interactions with the EA community. But she was certainly active online and part of the wider EA community until she committed suicide. The extent of her misbehavior was not public until after her suicide.

I want to be clear I did not directly investigate the claims that Kathy made false accusations and otherwise misbehaved. But trusted people such as Scott Alexander and Kelsey Piper (Unit of Caring) seem to agree on many relevant facts.

Scott Alexander on Kathy

Kelsey Piper (Unit of Caring) on Kathy

Kathy’s Suicide Note

Allegations of serious misbehavior by Kathy

There was a substantial discussion of secrecy after the Kathy situation came to light. Here are some examples:

Jbeshir comments on the above link

Jbeshir on secrecy in the EA community and CEA’s policies

More discussion of Secrecy by Jbeshir

A quote from the above link:

 I’m not sure what all is the appropriate actual action to take from any of this- I know of CFAR’s community dispute council, I know of reports to Julia at CEA, I know there’s an anti-abuse list somewhere that women in the community are supposedly told about and can query (I can’t; I only heard about it by chance conversation. I have no confidence that it is reliably shared with new arrival women either). Kathy Forth’s post names one name I had heard the accusations against (Giego) and two names I had not (Roko and Adam Saffron); the only thing I can confirm is that reports to the existing dispute mechanisms are not broadcast anywhere, the list of who has been banned from EA Global is not public or usable by non-CEA events or organizations to my knowledge (as Kathy’s comment about Roko indicates- their existing reports did not prevent them from doing things to others nor make people aware of them), bad things are not talked about much due to a cultural distaste for callouts making it low status to do so, and the Bay Area section of the community tends to have a bad case of “I got my safety through my inner circle social connections and I don’t see why I should care to tell anyone else”.

Alison

Alison was originally from the Caribbean. She married endecision (username). This relationship went south and both parties accused the other of abuse.  Alison talked for a long time on her blog about her abuser without naming who her alleged abuser was. Endecision made a public post and Alison replied.

endecision’s description of her relationship with Alison (Tumblr version requiring login)

Alison’s Reply to endecision

Later Alison seems to have gotten into issues in the Bay. In one incident Alison is accused by Bobby of repeatedly violating his boundaries despite him clearly saying no. Alison got a two-week ban from the REACH (Rationalist community center) for doing this. Alison described  the events as follows:

“In the case of the second person (an example of the main thesis), I’m genuinely not sorry because I know who I was speaking to, and the context in which he said he didn’t want to be touched (when I jokingly Super Hugged them during a boardgame) and when they were laughing with me (eg when we bumped hands in board game and I was like OH NOES THE HORROR and they were lmao). If they actually do have a problem with this, then I’m sorry. But in the overwhelmingly likely case that they clearly telegraphed with all of their actions, they were happy.”

Bobby had the following to say about Alison’s description of events.

And then I wake up the next day, and it turns out that Alison has created this entire story where I was actually really happy the entire time and the people I reported them to are villains creating mountains out of friendly interactions, and – no. No fucking way.

Other Cases and Misc issues:

Jacy Reese was a popular animal rights effective altruist. However many allegations of sexual misbehavior came to light. Some of the accusations dated to his college years. However, the Centre for Effective Altruism says these occurred over several time periods. Jacy himself offered to make a public apology and resignation. Here is a third-party article about Jacy.

Giego/Diego is a rationalist discussed in some earlier links. It seems like the community consensus that is guilty of serious sexual misbehavior. But I do not know of a good public source for what happened.

There is also apparently a confidential list of alleged abusers. People who are considering dating someone can query this list. But the list does not function as a public resource. It is also unclear to me how well known the list is.

Tentative Conclusions

Institutional responses are likely to be slow in the absence of public pressure

There is currently no process for reliably making information public. REACH investigations have the potential to serve this role. But currently REACH is blocked by liability risk.

Archive Links

In case these archive links get taken down I also have an archive on my computer.

Brent:

Accusation 1

Accusation 2

Accusation 3

CFAR’s statement standing by Brent

Duncan (former CFAR head of curriculum) Sabien’s response to Brent

Ozy’s Public Callout of Brent

CFAR announces Brent is banned

Updates from CFAR

CFAR admits substantial mistakes

The Reach panel declined to post their Brent investigation, fearing legal action

Autumn:

My writeup while the events were occurring

A postmortem about how the Autumn affair was handled

Mike Vassar and Andrew

Abuse allegation thread

Continuation with more details

Anna Salamon denounces Vassar

In February Reach was already investigating

JBeshir making a case for more openness in discussing bad behavior

Jacy:

Jacy Reece’s Resignation/Apology

A third party article about Jacy

Alison:

Endecision’s description of their relationship

Allison’s Reply to endecision

Allison REACH incident:

Allison own’s interpretation of the events

Kathy:

Scott Alexander on Kathy

Kelsey (Unit of Caring) on Kathy

Kathy’s Suicide Note

Allegations of serious misbehavior by Kathy

Jbeshir comments on the above link

Jbeshir on secrecy in the EA community and CEA’s policies

More discussion of Secrecy by Jbeshir

Rational Feed

Scott:

Links 8-19 by Scott Alexander – Standard SSC links post.

Rationalist:

Building Up To An Internal Family Systems Model by Kaj Sotala – ‘Internal Family Systems (IFS) is a psychotherapy school/technique/model which lends itself particularly well for being used alone or with a peer. For years, I had noticed that many of the kinds of people who put in a lot of work into developing their emotional and communication skills, some within the rationalist community and some outside it, kept mentioning IFS. In this post, I’ll try to describe and motivate IFS in terms which are less likely to give people in this audience the same kind of a “no, that’s nonsense” reaction as I initially had.’

AI:

Jeff Hawkins On Neuromorphic AGI Within 20 Years by steve2152 – ‘I just listened to AI podcast: Jeff Hawkins on the Thousand Brain Theory of Intelligence, and read some of the related papers. Jeff Hawkins is a theoretical neuroscientist; you may have heard of his 2004 book On Intelligence. Earlier, he had an illustrious career in EECS, including inventing the Palm Pilot. He now runs the company Numenta, which is dedicated to understanding how the human brain works (especially the neocortex), and using that knowledge to develop bio-inspired AI algorithms.’ Jess gives multiple arguments why AGI is likely within the next 20 years including the claim that ‘Every part of the neocortex is running the same algorithm’.

EA:

Questions We Ask Ourselves Making Grant by Open Philanthropy – Some questions: ‘What role would this play in the ecosystem? What need is it filling? Who is best placed to assess the need? Who are we are betting on with this grant? Is this the right grantee for this project? Are we the right funders? What’s the appropriate size and duration for funding? How should we think about the cost-effectiveness of this grant? How could this grant end up having no impact? How will we evaluate this grant?’

Political:

Lee Kuan Yew Review by TracingWoodgrains – The conclsuion of a four part series on the man who ran Singapore during its rise to riches. Parts: 1) Growth & redistribution. 2) You are free to agree 3)Race, language, and uncomfortable questions 4) The pathway to power

Podcast:

Is Screen Time Bad For You by Rationally Speaking – ‘It’s common wisdom that spending a lot of time on your smartphone, or checking social media like Facebook and Twitter, takes a psychological toll. It makes us depressed, insecure, anxious, and isolated — or so people say. But is there any research to back that up? Julia discusses the evidence with professor Andy Przybylski, director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute.’

Judea Pearl: Cause Effect by Waking Up with Sam Harris – ‘Sam Harris speaks with Judea Pearl about his work on the mathematics of causality and artificial intelligence. They discuss how science has generally failed to understand causation, different levels of causal inference, counterfactuals, the foundations of knowledge, the nature of possibility, the illusion of free will, artificial intelligence, the nature of consciousness, and other topics.’

On Books And Learning by EconTalk – ‘Software Engineer Andy Matuschak talks about his essay “Why Books Don’t Work” with EconTalk host Russ Roberts. Matuschak argues that most books rely on transmissionism, the idea that an author can share an idea in print and the reader will absorb it. And yet after reading a non-fiction book, most readers will struggle to remember any of the ideas in the book. Matuschak argues for a different approach to transmitting ideas via the web including different ways that authors or teachers can test for understanding that will increase the chances of retention and mastery of complex ideas.’

Rational Feed

Political:

Diana Fleischman And Geoffrey Miller Audience QA by Jacob Falkovich – ‘This is the audience Q&A with Diana Fleischman and Geoffrey Miller at the NYC Rationality meetup, following up on my own interview which you can find here. Content note: the audience comprised rationalists of many ethnicities, orientations, and gender expressions and we asked questions that could offend many ethnicities, orientations, and gender expressions.’

Rational Feed

Scott:

Squareallworthy On UBI Plans by Scott Alexander – ‘I want to signal-boost Tumblr user squareallworthy‘s analysis of various UBI plans. He finds that most of them fail on basic math – they rely on funding schemes that wouldn’t come close to covering costs. The rest are too small to actually lift people out of poverty. None of them are at all credible. These plans fail even though they cheat and give themselves dictatorial power. “End corporate welfare, then redirect the money to UBI!” But if it was that easy to end corporate welfare, wouldn’t people have done it already, for non-UBI related reasons? “We’ll get a UBI by ending corporate welfare” is an outrageous claim. And even the plans that let themselves make it fail on basic math.’

Political:

Power Buys You Distance From The Crime by Aceso Under Glass – ‘Taxes are typically meant to be proportional to money (or negative externalities, but that’s not what I’m focusing on). But one thing money buys you is flexibility, which can be used to avoid taxes. Because of this, taxes aimed at the wealthy tend to end up hitting the well-off-or-rich-but-not-truly-wealthy harder, and tax cuts aimed at the poor end up helping the middle class.’

Misc:

Learning Day by Open AI – ‘At OpenAI, each Thursday is Learning Day: a day where employees have the option to self-study technical skills that will make them better at their job but which aren’t being learned from daily work. We’ve found that the biggest contributions at OpenAI come from cross-functional experts, so we either need to hire them or grow them here. Before Learning Day, we very rarely saw people grow cross-functionally—for example, employees coming from a software background rarely picked up machine learning (something equally rare in other organizations except academia). Since Learning Day, this kind of growth has become very common.’

Rational Feed

Rationalist:

Advice Wiki by Robin Hanson – Why advice is systematically bad and how a wiki could help.

AI:

Predicting Patient Deterioration by DeepMind – ‘Artificial intelligence can now predict one of the leading causes of avoidable patient harm up to two days before it happens, as demonstrated by our latest research published in Nature. Working alongside experts from the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), we have developed technology that, in the future, could give doctors a 48-hour head start in treating acute kidney injury (AKI), a condition that is associated with over 100,000 people in the UK every year.’

Political:

Mistake Versus Conflict Theory Of Against Billionaire Philanthropy by Zvi Moshowitz – ‘Where we disagree is why anyone is opposing billionaire philanthropy. We disagree that Scott’s post is a useful thing to write. I agree with everything he says, but expect it to convince less than zero people to support his position. Scott laid out our disagreement in his post Conflict vs. Mistake. Scott is a mistake theorist. That’s not our disagreement here. Our disagreement is that he’s failing to model that his opponents here are all pure conflict theorists.’