Something I find unfortunate is the apparent lack of enthusiasm for Wei Dai and his online content in the effective altruism community. His posts and comments on LessWrong seem to me to be clear, important, and relevant to effective altruism. And yet I rarely see his content referenced in the community (especially when compared to people like Nick Bostrom, Carl Shulman, and Eliezer Yudkowsky).
I wonder what the reasons are for this. Some ideas I can think of are:
- Wei is not really on board with altruism. You can see posts like “Shut Up and Divide?” and comments like this where he says “I think a highly rational person would have high moral uncertainty at this point and not necessarily be described as ‘altruistic’.” I don’t think this is common knowledge though, so people who encounter just his philosophical ideas (without going through a lot of his output, and possibly being disappointed by his views on altruism) should still be enthusiastic.
- He often emphasizes uncertainty, so EAs might think there isn’t much “actionable” insights in his writings. But EAs themselves often seem uncertain, so I don’t think this really explains anything.
- Although Wei writes about philosophical problems, he doesn’t write so much about empirical issues in global poverty and health.
- He doesn’t seem to do a lot of self-promotion.
- He seems like a “quiet nerd” based on this post about fashion. But isn’t this true for many other people popular in EA?
- His anti-academia bent. He doesn’t really write papers. (Even though he has an impressive list of online output.)
- He does not comment on Facebook very much.
- Maybe it’s not so surprising that people aren’t so enthusiastic about any particular person. There are probably other people who are like this that even I am not paying attention to.
- I’m wrong about one of my assumptions (that Wei’s writings are relevant, or that EAs aren’t paying attention).
Overall I’m still pretty confused about this.
“Yes, you’re a freak and nobody but you and a few other freaks can ever get any useful thinking done” (Eliezer to Wei; source)
February 2019 update: My impression is that since I wrote this page (in January 2018), Wei has been making a lot more comments on LessWrong (after September 2017, he hardly made any comments until the end of February 2018, when he began making comments again). During 2018, LessWrong 2.0 also left beta. My feeling is that Wei’s comments have been getting a lot of upvotes and that people are paying attention to him. I’m therefore tempted to conclude that the reason was “He doesn’t seem to do a lot of self-promotion” (namely, self-promotion in the form of leaving public comments). If this really is the case, it’s depressing to me that this sort of continual reminder is necessary in order for people to figure out who is “smart”.