Last September there were multiple public allegations that Brent caused grave harm to members of our community. We consider these allegations credible: we believe that Brent routinely manipulated those around him, and that he physically, sexually, and emotionally abused at least two of his partners.
Until these abuse allegations were made public, most of our staff were wholly unaware of them, and all of us were unaware of substantial portions of them. Nevertheless, we believe we had sufficient evidence long beforehand to notice that Brent might be harmful, and that even accounting for hindsight bias, our failure to investigate this hypothesis explicitly was a mistake. As a result, we allowed Brent to attend and assist at several CFAR events, which we now suspect afforded him social legitimacy and caused significant harm in expectation.1
CFAR messed up badly here. We have a responsibility to ensure that the events we host don’t pose undue risk to our attendees, and in this case we failed at that responsibility. What follows is a detailed account of the main mistakes we think we made regarding Brent.
Some community members advised us against publicly releasing this letter when we sent them a draft, out of concern that its length and detail would imply CFAR felt it was largely responsible for the harm caused by Brent. We do not believe this is the case. But we do think our actions caused significant harm in expectation, and that the mistakes we made were both serious and preventable. It is our hope that by clearly and openly acknowledging these errors, we can more credibly commit to avoiding such mistakes in the future.
Brent started commenting on LessWrong in 2012, and moved into a rationalist group house in Berkeley in 2014. He helped organize a variety of events involving other community members, including a solstice celebration and a camp at Burning Man. He also attended a variety of CFAR events: he was a participant at two workshops (Mainline 2015, Tier II 2017), and a volunteer or contractor at three more (MSFP 2015, Ops Workshop 2017, and ESPR 2017). He attended two alumni reunions, and came to at least three post-workshop afterparties, including two that took place after abuse allegations had been filed with the Alumni Community Disputes Council (ACDC).
During this time some CFAR staff members developed friendships with Brent. Brent described actively seeking out these friendships in order to raise his social standing, and at times stated a goal of eventually taking “control of CFAR.”2 Many of our staff, including those who were Brent’s friends, sometimes found his behavior, statements, or writings to be manipulative or unethical, and as a result they prevented Brent from attending a number of CFAR events (though in an ad-hoc fashion, rather than via a consistent formal policy). Unfortunately, none of us thought to search through Brent’s past writings online; if we had, we likely would have become far more alarmed.3
Of the interactions CFAR had with Brent, we consider the decision to let him assist at ESPR—a program we helped run for high school students—to have been particularly unwise. While we were not aware of any allegations of abuse at the time of that decision, many of us did feel that his behavior was sometimes manipulative, and that he was often dismissive of standard ethical norms. We consider it an obvious error to have ignored these behaviors when picking staff for a youth program.
Once the allegations about Brent became public, we notified ESPR students and their parents about them. We do not believe any students were harmed. However, Brent did invite a student (a minor) to leave camp early to join him at Burning Man. Beforehand, Brent had persuaded a CFAR staff member to ask the camp director for permission for Brent to invite the student. Multiple other staff members stepped in to prevent this, by which time the student had decided against attending anyway.
This student does not believe they were harmed. Nevertheless, we consider this invitation to have been a clear violation of common sense ethics. After this incident, CFAR made sure not to invite Brent back to any further youth programs, but we now think it was a mistake not to have gone further and banned Brent from all CFAR events. Additionally, while we believe the staff member’s action resulted mostly from Brent’s influence causing them not to register the risks, we and they nonetheless agreed that it would be best to part ways, in light both of this incident and a general shared sense of heading in different directions. They left CFAR’s employment in November 2018; they will not be in any staff or volunteer roles going forward, but they remain a welcome member of the alumni community.
In January 2018, one of Brent’s former partners approached ACDC, a semi-independent panel we set up to govern access to CFAR events and spaces, with allegations of Brent’s abuse. The panel reported to CFAR leadership (Tim and Anna), and included a member of our staff along with two outside volunteers. In April 2018, ACDC recommended against banning Brent, and CFAR leadership followed this recommendation.
In September 2018, three Medium posts (here, here and here) were published that described allegations of Brent’s abusive behavior. Most of the information in the first post (though not the latter two) had previously been contained in the allegations filed with ACDC, but ACDC’s information did not reach CFAR leadership, since ACDC decided (due to privacy concerns) not to describe the allegations in its report. After reading the Medium posts, and the many personal anecdotes about Brent these posts prompted others to share, it became obvious to us that our initial response to ACDC’s report had been terribly inadequate.4
While the report we had received from ACDC was a high-level summary, and did not mention that there were allegations of abuse, we nonetheless think CFAR leadership could and should have noticed that something was wrong. The report restated Brent’s oft-repeated narratives about himself almost verbatim, and largely read like a pro-Brent press release. Our failure to notice this could have caused substantial harm: had the Medium posts not come out, ACDC’s decision may well have made it easier for people to trust Brent, given the impression that an impartial panel had looked into the allegations of wrongdoing and exonerated him.
In the wake of these posts CFAR received a variety of public and private criticism about its handling of this situation. We think most of this criticism was correct. In particular, we think we clearly failed to pay enough attention to early clues that Brent might be harmful, to adequately design and resource ACDC,5 and to notice the partiality of its report.
Over the past several months, we spent considerable time trying to figure out why we made these mistakes. Here are what we think were two of the main factors:
Lack of Focus on Safety
As event organizers, we have a responsibility to help keep our attendees safe. Unfortunately, we think that until recently, we did not spend enough time figuring out how to detect and protect against potential bad actors. For the most part, we did not think of this as a core part of our job—we spent lots of time improving our workshop, curriculum, and internal operations, but little time on vetting our volunteers or guests. Going forward, we will err more on the side of caution when choosing whom to invite to workshops. We have also adopted new policies to help ensure that it’s socially and logistically easier for our staff to veto potential invitations and to register any concerns that may arise.
Insufficient Institutional Safeguards
A number of our staff feel that they were manipulated by Brent. In saying this, we do not mean to shift blame away from ourselves—if anything, we think the staff of an organization which exists to promote epistemic integrity should be held to an especially high bar on such matters. But our impression, unfortunately, is that Brent spent considerable effort trying to manipulate CFAR staff in particular—e.g. into ignoring their gut-level reactions to his manipulative conversational moves—and that these efforts sometimes worked.
In general, we think we underestimated the value of institutional procedures that are designed to work well even when the people involved are subject to manipulation.6 This dynamic seemed especially obvious during the setup of ACDC, for instance: in part because CFAR did not ensure the panel researched best practices for conducting investigations into alleged abuse, the panel failed to adopt policies (e.g. about when and how to reach out to more of an alleged abuser’s past partners to check for larger patterns) which could have helped it avoid issuing such a flawed report.
We have tried hard to figure out what went wrong here, but we may still be missing things. If you have information you’d like to share, please feel free to reach out to us (Tim or Anna); if you’d prefer to share with someone outside CFAR, Julia Wise (Community Liaison at CEA) is happy to receive feedback on our behalf.
While we think these mistakes caused serious risk, we know of no serious harm (certainly nothing like sexual abuse) which occured because of Brent’s interactions with CFAR. That said, we have heard from many who regret Brent’s impact on their life, and separately, we have heard from many who said they met Brent at a CFAR event and/or trusted him more because they saw him at such events. So it would unfortunately not surprise us to learn that these mistakes did cause such harm. ↩
Brent made this and similar statements to multiple CFAR staff. At the time, these statements mostly struck us as innocuous—an offer of help we did not want, rather than e.g. a declaration of adversarial intent. ↩
Among other things, we might have found that he had been kicked out of multiple previous communities. ↩
A number of community members contacted CFAR during these days, and worked hard to help us orient; we are grateful for this. ↩
Soon after the publication of the Medium posts, ACDC circulated a letter about its report which was deeply problematic, as described in our initial apology. At that point, it became clear to us that the panelists were in over their heads, and we disbanded ACDC. ↩
Our underestimation seems to us to be a symptom of some larger cultural assumptions that may be worth examining. This is unfortunately vague because that examination is still underway, but we expect to continue spending significant staff time on this, and think it will likely influence our internal procedures and curriculum. ↩