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Scott Alexander vs NYT: Meta-Analysis, Part 3

See Part 1 and Part 2. This took longer than expected both for personal reasons, and also because the articles are on average much longer than those in Part 1 and 2.

Article #9: Matt Yglesias

Matt outlines what he sees as the syllogism underlying the NYT article:

• Scott Alexander’s blog is popular with some influential Silicon Valley people. • Scott Alexander has done posts that espouse views on race or gender that progressives disapprove of. • Therefore, Silicon Valley is a hotbed of racism and sexism.

Even if the conclusion is true (Matt doesn't take a stance), this syllogism does not hold, and worse, it is boring compared to the real story of SSC and Rationalists: an intellectually-diverse movement, followed by high-brow thinkers across the political spectrum, who have many counter-intuitive (but potentially correct) ideas for how to improve the world. (And yes, this includes some tech executives.) By focusing on the "hey look at these examples of Scott's questionable views of race" angle, Metz writes an article that is not merely "terrible" but also doesn't even try to hit the most interesting points.

Matt outlines a few of the most important Rationalist ideas, in his view. First, what's the uniting feature of "Rationalists"?

Rationalists’ big thing is that the natural human process of cognition is capable of reaching accurate results, but that’s not really the default mode. And rationalists are not just aware of this — they think it’s a big problem, and they try really hard to push back on it and develop better reasoning skills.

They also tend to do unusual things like make public probabilistic predictions for specific events and then grade themselves to see how over/under-confident they might be, or publicly admit their intellectual mistakes. (Weirdos!)

Second, rationalists come across as abrasive and unable to "read the room"; they are willing to argue and share data on topics that are volatile and politically-charged. At their worst, Rationalists are like the person discussing car accident statistics at a funeral: like, ok I get where you're coming from, but COME ON MAN, this isn't the time for this! In this way, Rationalists tend to be willing to bet on any outcome (even death and disaster), and put a number on any probability (even that which would be exploited by nefarious actors).

Third, as a political movement, what do Rationalists stand for? An important example for Matt is Effective Altruism, badly summarized by Metz as "an effort to remake charity by calculating how many people would benefit from a given donation." This is one aspect of EA, but Matt emphasizes others, including Neglectedness (you can do more good / dollar of charity by donating to causes others have overlooked) and Tractability (some problems can be actually solved cheaply, and it's efficient to consider those). EAs also emphasize that you can (and should!) try to quantify these things; if you just donate to what sounds good to you, you'll make all kinds of mistakes.

When you look at the possible effect of charitable donations, you discover that ordinary people in wealthy countries have the opportunity to literally save lives around the world every year, if they focus their dollars effectively. These thoughts have led many, including Scott (and me), to give at least 10% of their annual earnings to charities with unusually high impacts. Matt implores us: isn't that a Rationalist story worth telling?

In some sense, I think Matt wrote the article he wishes Metz would have written: a thoughtful and challenging look at Scott, SSC, and the broader Rationalist community to see what they get right, what they're biases / failure modes seem to be, and how we can learn from them in both respects. The closest thing to a Call To Action is an impassioned appeal to read more diverse sources rather than any one single arbiter of news and interpretation.

One Sentence Summary: The NYT article was wrong and terrible in all the ways people think it was, but worst of all, it misses all the aspects of Rationalism that are legitimately interesting.

Article #10: Gideon Lewis-Kraus

Gideon sets out to write a balanced and comprehensive overview of the ordeal, as it stood at the time. This was, mind you, in 9 July 2020, after Scott shut down his blog and called out the NYT (22 June 2020) but long before the actual NYT article appeared (13 Feb 2021). But much of the anger and conspiracy-theorizing from SSC supporters was already in place, and Metz was already receiving more than his share of angry messages for an article he had yet to write. So here we get a perspective from the past!

(Also most other posts on this topic linked to Gideon's as a summary worth reading, so I felt a need to include it for completeness. It's technically paywalled, sorry!)

This piece contains an intensive summary of a lot of the things Rationalists--and Scott in particular--explicitly stand for:

S.S.C. has become perhaps the premier public-facing venue of the “rationalist” community [...], dedicated to the prospect that, with training and effort, our natural cognitive biases can be overcome. ...common interests tend to include artificial intelligence, transhumanism, an appreciation for the subtleties of statistical thinking, and the effective-altruism movement. ...they distinguish themselves not only on the basis of data-driven argument and logical clarity but through an almost fastidious commitment to civil discourse. ...daunting to outsiders unfamiliar with the concepts of “pareidolia” or the “motte-and-bailey fallacy.” ...the gracious acceptance of one’s own error (or “failure mode”) ought to be regarded as a high-status move rather than something to be stigmatized.

And so on. He's thorough! He cutely attempts to use Rationalist language throughout: "efforts to, as the community puts it, 'update his priors'...", "acceptance of one's own error (or 'failure mode')...", "the rationalists' talk of 'skin in the game'...", and so on. It's like he's trying to give the reader a flavor of this obscure and bizarre subculture, in the way a scientist in a movie would explain about an alien civilization. "E.T. phone home. E.A. update priors."

Touted as Scott's highest value is the principle of charity. In Scott's words: "if you don’t understand how someone could possibly believe something as stupid as they do, that this is more likely a failure of understanding on your part than a failure of reason on theirs.” This commitment to civil discourse, coupled to the Rationalist tendency to treat argument as sport, and a "near-pathological commitment to reinventing the wheel" on topics others would call settled, gives rise to a distasteful willingness to hold court with people and ideas no Good Person would even consider.

Rationalists usually point out that these debates represent a tiny fraction of the community’s total activity, and that they are overrepresented in the comments section of S.S.C. by a small but loud and persistent cohort—one that includes, for example, Steve Sailer, a peddler of “scientific racism.” [...] Still, the rationalists’ general willingness to pursue orderly exchanges on objectionable topics, often with monstrous people, remains not only a point of pride but a constitutive part of the subculture’s self-understanding.

Scott himself seems to hold some Problematic opinions; Gideon points out that Scott seems to broadly agree with James Damore's infamous Google memo, his stance of "hereditarian left", and Untitled, Scott's notorious indictment of a certain branch of the feminist movement. Hmm, Gideon wonders, mightn't this be why Scott deleted his blog? Not for his pseudonymity, but because he worried about what might happen if people in the mainstream discovered some of these opinions?

At the end, Gideon reframes the whole issue in the language of Scott's discussion of American political tribes. Scott focuses on the war between Red and Blue tribes (roughly, but not exactly, Republican and Democrat (read the post)), but Gideon is more interested in the Gray tribe that Scott identifies as an offshoot of Blue. The association seems to be: {Gray Tribe} ⊂ {Blue Tribe}, {SSC readers} ⊂ {Gray Tribe} and {Silicon Valley} ⊂ {Gray Tribe}, but {Media} ⊂ {Blue Tribe} - {Gray Tribe}. Therefore the war between SV and Media and this current battle between SSC and Media can be understood as a civil war within the Blue Tribe: Blues-Who-Are-Grays = Grays vs Blue-But-Not-Grays.

One Sentence Summary: The NYT was just doing what journalists do, which is uncover interesting ideas, people, and groups, digging down to the most interesting core; Rationalists are interesting, in part, because lack social awareness, they cavort with Bad Ideas, and many of them are affiliated with Silicon Valley.

I couldn't find the author's name on the blog's website; I wasn't familiar with The Scholar's Stage and so at first I assumed it was anonymous. Then I found the blog on Twitter, which lists the author's last name, and on Patreon I got the first name. But... should I reveal them? Am I becoming part of the problem, doxxing random bloggers just to get clicks?? (Just kidding, he has a public Blogger account and commonly shares his own name.)

Article #11: Tanner Greer

Tanner (the titular Scholar I think) has read the posts I have been summarizing; they list most of them at the beginning of their post, plus some I wasn't aware of. (But they didn't spend countless hours and tens of thousands of words dissecting and comparing them, so I'm still original in what I'm doing!) Tanner's piece is centered around the fact that everyone seems to reducing the whole issue to a simple dichotomy--maybe something like "NYT vs SSC"--by flattening an interesting set of related questions to a single one that suits their particular purpose.

And these questions are legitimately interesting and varied! Let's go over them briefly (though I recommend reading the whole article, it's very good):

1) Was it ok to “out” Scott Alexander’s true identity as Scott Siskind?

No, because Scott's patients and friends were put at risk for basically no reason.

2) Did this specific New York Times article (“Silicon Valley’s Safe Space”) misrepresent the content of Slate Star Codex, the contours of the broader rationalist community, or the nature of their connection with Silicon Valley?

Yes. Sure, the Rationalist community responded badly, but it was because the NYT piece was legitimately bad. If you read a piece like Gideon's (above, #10!) you will see a well-written and insightful criticism of Scott and SSC from somebody that actually understands something about them. And, to their credit, Rationalists have mostly nice things to say about Gideon's piece, in spite of his negativity. So contra Elizabeth Spiers (Part 1, #4!), Tanner thinks Rationalists aren't just seeing any negative press as being in bad faith.

3) Assuming things were misrepresented, why did that happen? Was it a premeditated “hit job” or revenge piece? Or is there a better explanation for what happened than that?

No, with high confidence it was not revenge. Sure, Metz doesn't get Rationalists; sure, Metz wrote a bad article; sure, Metz may even be schilling for The Narrative of the NYT; but he doesn't "have it out" for Scott in the way Rationalists have been lamenting. Gideon is somewhere between Elizabeth (Part 1, #4!) and Jacob Falkovich (Part 1, #3!) on this: Rationalists do need to get over their ego on this one, and furthermore, the NYT article is more simply explained by its staff/editors seeing every story through the same lens: (something like) race and gender issues, institutional inequality, and hating Donald Trump.

(As an aside: Tanner backs up Jacob's assertion of NYT serving "The Narrative" in a quote from an ex-Times editor:

Most editors wanted to know, every day, before the first morning meeting: “What are you hearing? What have you got?” It was a shock on arriving at the New York Times in 2004, as the paper’s movie editor, to realize that its editorial dynamic was essentially the reverse. By and large, talented reporters scrambled to match stories with what internally was often called “the narrative.” We were occasionally asked to map a narrative for our various beats a year in advance, square the plan with editors, then generate stories that fit the pre-designated line.

[Emphasis Tanner's, I think.] Hmm...)

4) Do journalists have the right to uproot the lives of their subjects lives with negative coverage? Do communities so targeted have the right to impose costs on journalists... that are “just doing their job?”

There's no question in Tanner's mind who is holding the power here: It's the journalists. If we want to talk about "punching up" and "punching down", it's very clearly the NYT punching down at Scott and SSC. And this gives Rationalists and Scott-fans some right to get upset, and even fight back, against their perceived enemy.

Journalists resist this message. They have so long internalized that their role is "speaking truth to power” that they fail to see when they are the power. So let me be explicit: if you have a staff position at the New York Times you are the power. When you are writing for that paper you have the power to determine what millions of people will think about an individual, movement, or event. You have the power to decide the first thing people will find when they Google search your subject—forever. That is power. If every piece you file does not have you in awe at your own responsibility, you are doing this wrong.

Yes, NYT writers have a hard job, and they are routinely juggling many stories at once and battling difficult-to-manage expectations and deadlines; they will write a negative piece and forget about it the next week. But on the other hand...

...for the subjects of a piece—say for the 7000 rationalists committed enough to their community to take the annual seventy-plus question SSC questionnaire—this sort of thing is a once-in-a-lifetime event. [...] From this perspective it is hard to be sympathetic to Times editors upset with the torrent of angry e-mails they have received in response to all this. They are in a position of terrible power. If communities like these are not ready to defend themselves, who else will keep those wielding this power honest?

If there's one thing the NYT should understand, it is the passion of an subjugated minority class against a powerful institution that seeks to oppress them.

[10/3: Tanner has three more questions listed, and promises to answer them in a follow-up post which has not yet appeared; I reserve the right to add them to this review after-the-fact.]

One Sentence Summary: The NYT article was genuinely bad, making misleading claims about the badness of Scott and the Rationalists, but it is likely that this was just due to poor writing and ideological bias at the NYT; subsequent takes appear to conflate distinct questions about this, as well as what it implies.

Article #12: Robert Rhinehart

Rob's article is not explicitly about Scott Alexander or SSC, not even in passing. If it had been written a few months later (Jan 2021 as opposed to Oct 2020, the actual publication date), it would naturally fit the rest of this review without removing a single phrase. Maaaaybe Robert was upset about Scott shutting down his blog, and that partially motivated his piece, but it's impossible to tell from the piece itself.

This piece is weird. At its worst, this piece is rambly, over-the-top, and off-putting, making the harshest criticisms imaginable with not a lot of on-the-ground evidence to back it up. But at its best, this piece is a fortune-teller predicting months in advance the conversation we are all having now; it seemed so prescient that I couldn't resist including it in the review.

Rob's thesis is something like this: there's a quasi-infinite landscape of ideas that can be written about, and it's bizarre how little of it actually gets written. All we keep seeing are the same few points of view. Why don't people share their thoughts? Where is all the writing? It's absent because there is a giant, evil, octopus-like monster strangling us all: an octopus called the New York Times.

We were drowning in content. There were tweets and stories and shows and articles and articles and articles. But they were all the same. Nobody was really saying anything. They were not allowed to. Anybody that tried had to quickly change or leave or be destroyed. They could only say very specific things about very specific topics in very specific ways at very specific times. Fuck. That. I see it now. I see that information and truth and freedom have been oppressed. I had been silenced. We had all been bound and gagged and silenced, not directly, but indirectly, by a strange, complex, invisible, sinister force. But I see it now. I see it so clearly. There was a "guild of truth" telling us that there was a central narrative of mankind. Truth was branded. We are all being controlled and oppressed and enslaved by the evil octopus of the New York Times. [...] The New York Times has slowly monopolized and subverted our freedoms and the truth without us even realizing it. It is the great deceiver. The prince of lies. The great trickster. The great oppressor. This evil is ancient.

There's some serious Biblical energy here. Some serious Moloch energy.

The evidence is not in what is written and discussed, but in what is not written and not discussed. The octopus controls what is allowed to be discussed. News and newspapers are not dying; this is a lie that feeds the octopus. The octopus killed all the other newspapers, that's what happened! They are all that's left, them and the tentacles that serve them. The Narrative serves the octopus by telling us the octopus is good and just and right. The journalists serve the octopus because they're told they have to, even though they are good people. Readers trust the octopus because they think their friends do, and because they think they will be damaged if they don't. It's all so broken and so pathological that we can hardly see that real discourse is shriveling on the vine.

So what to do about it?

First, Rob implores you to go cancel your NYT subscription (remember, this was months before the NYT article about Scott, which led to the current anger and #blocktheNYT). Do it now. Don't click another link. Don't follow them on Twitter. If you write, don't write for them, ever. Don't even reply to them to tell them why they're wrong or bad or whatever. That's what they want. You can't kill the octopus directly; you have to starve it. Read this one article about why you need to ignore the NYT, and then ignore the NYT from now until forever.

It is not that the New York Times is doing a bad job. It is not that it needs help or reform or policies or competition or money or certain people. It needs to not exist.

Literally, he says, if you have a chance to burn down the building without hurting anyone, he says to do it. And plant a tomato garden in its ashes.

Second, Rob implores you to write what you really think. Yes you, whether you already have a blog or have never written a thing before, write write write!

You live and interpret the world around you every day. You tell stories about these things to your friends every day! You are a journalist! And we need your help. You think all journalists went to school for journalism and carry little notepads and tape recorders and wear eyeglasses? Lies. Everyone is a journalist.

Who cares what you write, as long as you write! Remove your chains and go forth into the landscape of ideas to find something on your own!

Write about race. Do it. I dare you. Are black people different from white people? Are they the same? Does it matter? Do these very words trigger you? Write about it! Write about sex, real nasty kinky dirty sex. Now write a really wholesome peace on the spiritual aspects of marriage. Write about rape. Write about God. Write about drugs. Criticize the government. Praise the government. Do it.

In a nutshell, Rob calls for the democratization of news and media. Nothing is taboo, or at least nothing needs to be; writing is free, and you can write what you want. Then others will disagree, and they can write too. The NYT octopus was smothering us, but no more. Today is a new day! Tear down the hierarchy the NYT presides over, and let a thousand tomatoes grow in the ashes. The call to action is exceptionally clear:

Kill it. Kill the octopus. Replace it with your own beautiful brain that is freshly liberated. You can breathe now. You can write. You can think whatever you want now! Anything at all! Go forth and be free. And never, ever, look back.

One Sentence Summary: The NYT is evil, strangling journalism and readers alike with its evil, tentacle-like appendages; it cannot be salvaged, so you must starve it by ignoring it forever.

Honorable Mentions

I found a few other articles interesting, but they won't make it into my final analysis, either because they are behind a paywall and/or they overlap too much with those I already highlighted. Still, they were well-written and seemed worth mentioning.

One Sentence Summary: The NYT article was disingenuous in its portrayal of Scott and SSC, making repeated innuendos suggesting he and his readership are in league with nefarious thinkers and Bad Ideas.

One Sentence Summary: The NYT article was misleading in suggesting that Scott or his readership (a) is primarily "right-wing" or (b) is "the embodiment of Silicon Valley's psyche."

Final Halftime

So ends my analysis of secondary sources; if your favorite didn't make the cut, sorry, I did my best. Some of the new sources are hard to classify on my two-axis model, and even harder to pin down in a four-word summary; but I made an effort to do it anyway, by throwing away all the useful nuance of their articles.

By some miracle, I fit it all in one square!

N.B. 1: Strictly speaking, I have no idea how upset Robert Rhinehart is about the NYT article; however, since he appears to be maximally angry at everything the NYT does, I made an educated guess.

N.B. 2: Elizabeth Spiers and Gideon Lewis-Kraus seemed to be minimally upset and offered no call to action; I couldn't in good conscience put either of them beside / above the other, so I merged their boxes.

N.B. 3: It doubles the fun if you imagine Matt Yglesias saying his summary in his own voice!

So, I'm done reviewing; I hope my summaries were fair to all involved, as I tried to keep my own opinions to a minimum. Now all that's left is to share my own thoughts on the issue, which I will do in Part 4.

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