Scott Alexander vs NYT: Meta-Analysis, Part 1
This week the New York Times published the piece on Scott Alexander that led him to shut down his blog, SlateStarCodex, for six months. The consensus is that it is very negative, but I fell down a rabbit hole reading everyone's explanations for exactly why; this situation seems to have struck a cord connecting the media, tech, Rationalism, cancel culture, and lots of other things everybody like to write about. Given the situation, I thought a Meta-Analysis / Review of various takes on it might be in order.
Call it practice in Steelmanning; call it Erisology; call it what you like. I call it good fun.
While I do not endorse any of the takes below, I find it interesting how different they all were. My goal is to summarize the author's position in a way they might agree with, but since everybody has something to say about it, this will take up as many posts as seem appropriate as I write it. Only at the end will I give my Real World opinion. (I tried to back up my articulation with quotes from the original pieces, but for brevity I left some things out; if you think I've misread a piece below (or if you wrote it and want to correct me), I'll be very happy to hear feedback!)
Article #1: Scott Alexander
(Statement on New York Times Article)
Scott was displeased with the article, but seemed unsurprised with the way it came out. He complains about a few cases in particular where the author of the piece (Metz) seemed to imply Scott believed things he did not, or was associated with people he either doesn't know or doesn't associate with. The main example others keep citing is Scott's association with Charles Murray, infamous author of The Bell Curve. Scott summarizes:
The Times points out that I agreed with Murray that poverty was bad, and that also at some other point in my life noted that Murray had offensive views on race, and heavily implies this means I agree with Murray’s offensive views on race. This seems like a weirdly brazen type of falsehood for a major newspaper.
In another example, Scott used a comparison to Voldemort when talking about a particular group of feminists that had harassed people in his circle. And so on, like this.
Scott confesses that the NYT didn't literally lie about him, but definitely seemed to raise their eyebrows suggestively and trying to point to any nefarious--albeit weak--connections to Problematic Ideas they could think of.
I don’t want to accuse the New York Times of lying about me, exactly, but if they were truthful, it was in the same way as that famous movie review which describes the Wizard of Oz as: “Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again."
What is Scott's model of this phenomenon? He thinks it was an intentional hit piece, likely made as harsh as possible by the NYT staff as retaliation for the bad publicity they received 6 months ago (when Scott shut down his blog). He's upset, but he asks that nobody retaliate as he prefers to just move on with his life.
I have no particular call for action. Please don’t cause any trouble for the journalist involved, both because that would be wrong, and because I suspect he did not personally want to write this and was pressured into it as part of the Times’ retaliatory measures against me.
One sentence summary: The NYT article was negative on purpose and tried to hurt Scott by disingenuously connecting him to bad things/people; probably this was retaliation from the NYT organization rather than one journalist (Metz) who had it out for him.
Article #2: Fredrik DeBoer
(Scott Alexander is not in Gizmodo Media Slack)
Freddie is mad, and he makes it clear. He's mad at the NYT, he's mad at Metz, he's mad at Media in general, but he's also (slightly less) mad at Rationalists.
[T]he mainstream media has been a complete and utter failure in its most basic functions for decades, an absolute cesspit of bad reporting... I hate Silicon Valley, significantly more than the average member of the media who is critical of it, and would enjoy it if all the individual companies burn to the ground... Rationalism is almost totally contrary to my philosophy and ethic of the world. I don’t think rationality exists. I don’t fuck with the libertarianism and techno triumphalism endemic to that space...
...as many problems I have with [Rationalists], none of it matches my contempt for the media, for The New York Times, and for Cade Metz... When the New York Times dies it will be a profoundly positive day for journalism and for all of us.
His model is broadly similar to Scott's, with one important caveat: he thinks the problem is endemic to Media, not a one-off retaliatory hit-piece but a broad trend of race-to-the-bottom, throw-everybody-under-the-bus-to-get-more-publicity journalism.
In Freddie's model, there's seems to be the Ingroup (e.g. NYT, Ivy League, Blue Checkmark, Slack, "pure careerism and influence trading", "thirty three year old white person who speaks like a Black teenager" to win Social Justice Points) and the Outgroup (e.g. Scott, Silicon Valley, Joe Rogan, SubStack, "has a real job", "outside of the official channels"). If you live in the former cloud, you get to have nice pieces written about you by Serious Journalists in Serious Papers; if you're in the latter cloud, you get thrown under the bus as soon as someone stands to gain from it.
People like me, who live in the Outgroup cloud but have small enough following, can survive for a long time (Freddy (unfairly, I think) counts himself in that group: "I’m a lonely voice on a lowly WordPress"). But when someone like Scott gets big enough, they become a target for a takedown. It's not merely that they see Scott as a threat (although "SubStack is a threat to the hegemony of establishment media"); he's dispensable by virtue of being an Outsider, and some journalist can win some Serious Journalism points by bashing him.
What do we do about it? Freddie doesn't give answers, instead mourning a difficult problem that he can't do anything to solve ("I’m a lonely voice on a lowly WordPress"). He hopes the NYT will tank but he doesn't implore us to do anything to make that happen.
One sentence summary: The NYT article was negative on purpose and tried to hurt Scott by disingenuously connecting him to bad things/people; this is because Metz saw his chance for a opportunistic takedown piece that wins him some acclaim in the highly competitive world of journalism.
Article #3: Jacob Falkovich
(The Narrative and Its Discontents)
Jacob tells a story about stories:
To a first approximation, the capital-N Narrative running our society is written by the prestige legacy media, which receives The Narrative from experts in academia and government, and spreads it with the help of Hollywood and the education system... They mostly hail from the middle and upper-middle classes, mostly have university degrees, and mostly vote Democrat.
This word cloud (academia, legacy media, mostly Democrat, Hollywood, etc.) isn't quite the same as Freddie's Ingroup above, but it's similar, and the dynamics are largely the same. The Narrative stems is spread largely by the Ingroup Cloud, but when those same academic legacy media Hollywood Democrats start to speak their mind, they become The Enemy. For example:
When Elon Musk tweeted a meme about rejecting The Narrative, the Times responded with an article that consisted of his name and a salad of loosely connected words with negative associations like “incel,” “Trump,” and “racist.”
Like Freddie and Scott, Jacob blames the NYT (and more generally legacy media) for publishing pieces like this one; it is bad and they should feel bad. Unlike Scott, Jacob doesn't think Scott was targeted per se, and unlike Freddie, he doesn't see anyone involved as a bad person per se. Metz and the NYT serve The Narrative not for some shallow status game, but rather because in their minds, The Narrative is Just. Of course they associate Scott with Murray and Elon with Trump; they are all against The Narrative, and as such, must be all the same. Scott isn't special; he's just the latest casualty in a war.
The Narrative is not a good proxy for actual Truth, and it often destroys what lies in its path. Once you realize that, you have to decide where you stand in the war.
You can seek to reform the institutions that produce [The Narrative], as many academics and journalists are bravely attempting; you can fight to topple and replace it, alongside Balaji or myriad other challengers; or you can step on the difficult path to rationality and try to make some sense of the world with the power of your own reason.
I'll let you guess which path he chooses.
One sentence summary: The NYT article was negative because Metz and the NYT think Scott is actually bad, primarily because he speaks from outside The Narrative they represent.
Article #4: Elizabeth Spiers
(Slate Star Clusterfuck)
Elizabeth isn't buying any of this bullshit about conspiracy or retaliation against Scott:
At the risk of puncturing egos: they are not thinking about Scott or the site at all. Even the reporter working on the story has no especial investment in its subject. That reporter is also probably working on six other stories at the same time, thinking about their friends, family, what their kid needs to do in Zoom school tomorrow, [etc]... They do not sit around thinking about how they’re going to “get” people they write about, and when subjects think they do, it’s more a reflection of the subject’s self-perception (or self-importance) and, sometimes, a sprinkling of unadulterated narcissism.
What about Elon Musk? What about Balaji? Isn't Tech Media super negative?
No it is not, my friends. You just don’t notice it when it isn’t. This is a cognitive bias: your brain is wired to perceive threats in a way that it does not perceive neutral or positive information.
Within the bubble of Rationalists / Techies, criticism of Scott probably seems like criticizing the Pope does to Catholics: targeted, heretical, despicable. But most people have never heard of Scott, even after he took down his blog and Twitter blew up over it. Most people who read the NYT piece will not have heard of Scott, and would never have if the piece had not been written.
How many readers does Scott have, tens of thousands? The last SSC survey had 8000 replies, so if 10x as many read SSC as fill out surveys then he's at ~80,000, and his work is free. The NYT in 2020 reported 5,251,000 subscribers worldwide, including ~3.5 million for digital news alone; millions of people are paying to read what they write. And you think the NYT coordinated to try to humiliate Scott as retaliation? As though they have time for that while being the world's leading news publication?
Please. This isn't a David and Goliath story, where the Goliath NYT has to strike a blow against Scott before he Davids all over the place; this is a David and Godzilla story, where Godzilla barely even notices there are Davids under his feet.
Elizabeth points out that she liked SSC, and has subscribed to ACX because she finds Scott's writing useful and insightful sometimes. But she thinks Rationalists have (and Scott in particular has) glaring biases that are ignored at convenient times, like this one. The Metz piece was, at its core, what journalism is supposed to be: it called out Scott and the Rationalist / Tech community for its blindspots.
What journalism seeks to do is illuminate the areas where destructive means are being utilized to achieve ends that might actually be virtuous or worthy in some other way. This is useful, in the public interest, and good for the tech industry in the long term.
Because Elizabeth believes the piece was good, her only call to action is for so-called Rationalists:
[P]ay careful attention to what you’re afraid they’re going to write, and why you wouldn’t want it to be public. Then apply some rational thinking.
One sentence summary: The NYT article was negative because Scott is actually bad in the ways the article suggested; his blog and his readers have significant blind spots and biases, which good journalism seeks to enlighten, lest they spread to more of the public.
Halftime (?) Summary
That's all for today; I have several other pieces worth talking about but this is getting long. As a kind of summary, consider the following two-axis model of the four pieces above:
As the spacing indicates, the calls to action will get increasingly intense in Part 2.