Some thoughts on the New York Times' Slate Star Codex profile
About 12 years ago, I was facebook friends with a handful of garrulous libertarian types, and I had a great time debating with them, as I was (and still am, really) a liberal institutionalist. Debating with them really forced me to take my beliefs out of my gut and start to build more stringent rational/ethical/philosophical underpinnings, and I learned quite a bit. These guys were brilliant debaters, and were absolutely superior in logical reasoning and forming rational arguments than I was.
In 2011, they invited me to join a facebook group that was called "The Right Stuff". It was filled with even more garrulous libertarian types. At first, a few were making what I thought were ironic philosophical arguments for pretty abhorrent stuff, and I was entertained because I thought it was good to attempt a defense of enlightenment, liberal values against fascism/monarchism/anti-semitism/explicit racism. But two things happened.
One, is I found it impossible to articulate a purely rational basis for human rights. I realized that "rationalism" is actually downstream from moral values, which are inherently irrational (in an existentialist sense, in that we decide what is good and what is bad and start reasoning from there). As such, I would routinely get destroyed in these debates because I would mistakenly assume that the folks who were advancing fascist/dark enlightenment ideas had similar first principles that I had.I was unable to articulate a more "rational" defense of enlightenment values, and I admit I was getting slapped around by rhetorically superior fascists. This leads to the second thing.
Second, I realized pretty fast that for a not trivial number of The Right Stuff members, there was no irony at all. They were really fascists, and when they talked about racial superiority and genocide, they weren't doing it to sharpen small "L" liberal thinking, they were actually advocating for fascism/racial hierarchies/genocide. By starting with the premise of "rationality" and then executing feats of rhetorical sleight of hand to hide the ball on what their actual first principles are, they were making extremely effective and appealing arguments for fascist thought and the dark enlightenment. It was chilling.
It was also 2011, Obama hadn't even wrapped his first term. I took my lesson, left the group, and blocked most of those garrulous libertarian types, who by the time I left the group, were less and less ironically advancing fascist thinking.
Then 2016 happened, and I realized I had witnessed one of the seed pods that would erupt into the alt-right. The corrosion was much worse than I thought, and I realized that those garrulous libertarian proto-fascists had spent the intervening five years planting anti-enlightenment thought into the fertile ground of right wing media and various other frustrated and "neglected" subgroups (think Gamergate).
What we face now is significant portions of the demos no longer buying into enlightenment values. Civil society had fallen asleep on its watch, and its ability to articulate why things like human rights matter, why democracy matters, why institutions matter, had almost completely atrophied. In my view, that's why so much of the early Resistance was less cogent argument and more folks who in their guts still believed in enlightenment society being unable to articulate why, and coming up with catchy slogans as substitutes for a robust defense of small "L" liberal society.
All of which is to say, one of the issues I have with strongly advocating for rationalist debate (which I agree, can be very good!) is that "rationalist" debates is one of the most effective mind-viruses the proto-fascists I discussed earlier use to inject their corrosive beliefs into the minds of unsuspecting targets. "Rationalist" positions like "what, why can't I just talk about The Bell Curve" and "despite making up only 14% of the population..." are, much, much more often than not, just starting points for very effective rhetoric that convinces people that our (still, barely) enlightenment society is bad and should be scrapped. I see that corrosion as an existential threat to the existence of liberal democracy as we know it.
The solution I currently apply has two parts. Firstly, I only engage in "rationalist" debates with those I am reasonably sure are arguing form a place of good faith. Good faith to me is both a willingness to be rational and change one's mind in the face of superior evidence, but it is also not actually questioning the inherent moral equality of all people, and the accompanying believes that make liberal, enlightened thought possible.
Second, I really just bought into existentialism, and I now just accept certain values as articles of faith. I don't debate certain first principles. I hold some truths to be self-evident and thus in no need of strictly rational defense.
All of which is to say, in our current struggle with a much more corroded base of support for small "L" liberal, enlightened society, in which we are actively engaged with a proto-fascist mind-virus that has infected many people, I don't see the value in wide open, un-moderated platforms. I also am very, very suspicious of people who are attracted to "edgy" topics, because I don't know if they are arguing from a position of good faith, or if they're a fascist looking to infect more minds.
Anyways, I think, on the whole, there are some very good sources of good faith rationalist discussion of "edgy" topics. Pretty much anything Tyler Cowen puts out is excellent in this regard, and I think on the whole, Slate Star Codex was more good faith than not.
Great post! Really got me thinking.
So my perspective on this is interesting because I run a moderately popular philosophy discussion group / drinking club thing (or at least I did pre-pandemic) here in Seattle that attracts a lot of SSC-style rationalists, and my experience has been pretty mixed.
Most notably, on at least three occasions that I can recall we've had to expel rationalists who turned out to be deeply into really evil dark enlightenment shit and who were using the group to try to recruit, as well as harassing people and just generally being assholes.
That puts rationalists in the running for the title of most-frequently-expelled-ideological-subculture, alongside Jordan Peterson fans, Hindutva cranks, and various flavors of anarcho-capitalists and conspiracy theorists. And we take a pretty relaxed approach to moderation, since heated disagreement is part of the point of the group, so to get kicked out you really need to be doing stuff like blowing up at people, making threats, engaging in sexually harassment, or advocating for truly heinous points of view.
Now don't get me wrong, we get some rationalist who are great too. In fact, in one of the cases where we had to kick someone out it was actually another rationalist who clued me in that the guy was bad news, because he recognized some of the subcultural DE jargon he was using.
But the modal rationalist who shows up to our group is just a slightly odd young man who works in tech and believes strange, very religious-sounding, things about artificial intelligence. This being Seattle, we've got a number of regulars who actually do AI stuff for a living, and it can sometimes feel like they're stuck running some sort of weird de-radicalization center for people who have spent too much time on the LessWrong forums. I'm only half joking! I have met 19 year olds who appeared to be experiencing genuine anxiety over Roko's Basilisk.
So, I dunno. I've read a fair bit of SSC and found it sometimes interesting and sometimes kind of daft. I have mixed feelings about the larger subculture. I like the effective altruism and the bayesian rationality parts of it, but I think it has some really weird corners that don't seem terribly healthy, along with a small but genuinely dark underbelly where it intersects with the scary neo-reactionary stuff.
I’m back with a post-coffee, hotter take.
Metz and Alexander and the entire Rationalist community and every one of us is subject to the good guys/bad guys illusion. We almost all intuitively believe we are good people. Whatever we take pride in is part of what makes us good. Anyone who seems to challenge an idea we take pride in is bad. People who band together in “mobs” or “news rooms” or “communities” who spend significant time challenging things we consider to be not just good, but core to our very being, are Very Bad. Judging others as Very Bad is a defense mechanism to avoid confronting the evidence we might not be Very Good, and resulting justification also ends up makes us feel Very Good! Meanwhile our all out attack feeds their need to defend and the loop goes on, fueling tribalism forever. For Metz and the NYT, anti-racism is Good, skepticism is Bad. For Rationalists, logic is Good, feelings are Bad.
None of this is a particularly hot take. But Metz’s reference to the onslaught of hate mail he got from SSC fans suggests it was a pivotal moment in his decision that this movement was rotten to the core. You see the same crystallization of extreme opposition in the face of “mobs” from the likes of Lindsay Graham (Kavanaugh hearings), McConnell (Jan 6), even anti-racism post Charlottesville. It’s just ironic that collective action rooted in anger and self righteousness will almost always backfire. To be super cliche, this is why MLKs nonviolence philosophy was the most successful social change movement in modern history.
Quick pitch for Effective Altruism: the poorest people in the world have ~40x less than Americans (incomes of <$1000/year, and no social safety nets), so money spent helping them goes way further.
FWIW, here are the counts of political affiliation on the 2019 SSC Poll
Social Democrat: 2297
The NYT is a bad outlet, that does bad reporting. It misuses it’s name and access to give bad journalists the possibility of writing bad faith articles on topics that other journalist don’t have access too, or that other journalists report as news rather than idiotic takes on society.
It’s about time for people outside of the NYT to stop having tortured introductions on how the 7th bad quality/bad faith article coming from the NYT this week, actually doesn’t represent the paper.
Let’s treat as what it is, a press room filled with bad people, both morally and at their job. If it closed down tomorrow, we’d be in a better place.
I think it is odd that the tech section of the newspaper has such a broad view of what constitutes political extremism. This article does a good job pointing out how rationalists have heterodox and someone interesting world views. But the frame of the article is that these opinions should have you barred from polite society (I think?).
But why are we raking Scott Alexander over the coals for a slightly approving cite of Charles Murray when Charles Murray is still a senior fellow at aei? Shouldn’t the times run a similar hit piece on aei and all the normal republicans who probably read and line Charles Murray’s stuff?
Who gets to decide what kind of political/philosophical views are scandalous? The New York Times tech section seems to have decided that views which are substantially to the left of Marco Rubio are hugely problematic if you are influential in the tech sector. I don’t think this makes a ton of sense. Especially since if you were in finance with similar views there wouldn’t be any coverage. My suspicion is this is because finance and politics reporters are a lot more moderate than tech and culture reporters so their views on what kind of political views are news worthy differ massively.
This is a worthy tribute to SSC because it is extremely long.
To be really cynical, the piece sure seems to doing the heavy lifting of giving people justification to assume any “rational” objection or counterpoint to modern progressive thought is, indeed, rooted in racism or sexism. That even attempting to center logic over emotion is a tool of white supremacy. (For the record, I am with Matt in the “somewhere in the middle of Alexander and Lowery” self-assessment, maybe a bit closer to Alexander, but I think the “rationalist” inclination to view human emotion as a flaw to outmaneuver instead of a feature to appreciate is a bug.) The six degrees of guilt by association was totally ridiculous but was the heart of the piece. Ironic that Metz linked to the Blue Team/Red Team piece but didn’t seem to read it with a shred of introspection.
I read the Metz article after people in the SB comments mentioned it earlier today, and while after reading this post and Siskind's (I'm saying it) reply I certainly see its flaws, I don't think it constitutes nearly the 'hit job' people seem to think it is. In particular I don't think that Metz' article really suggests that Silicon Valley is sexist and racist as Matt says it does.
The NYT article starts off noting the diverse and influential readership of SSC. Most of the people who are quoted seem to have an appreciation for it, even as some point out the free-speech-absolutist posture that made it idiosyncratic. The article sites SSC within 'Rationalism', and tries to engage a little bit with what that is (mentioning effective altruism) and gets into why this might be particularly appealing to Silicon Valley types, as it appears to be. It's not very in-depth, but I think it's mostly the article Matt wanted!
Because the blog up and vanished when the NYT 'threatened' to give it and it's not-really-anonymous author some press, I think Metz' article is at some pains to give an explanation of why his reporting got such a frosty reception, and it's in the service of this that he dredges up a list of past statements of Siskind's that might explain his aversion to publicity. Clearly Metz and/or his editor really blew it here and wound up insinuating that Siskind expressed specific views that he actually had not, but as Matt notes the broader point that Siskind had written things that would be deemed controversial about race-adjacent topics is completely true, and with slightly less laziness this section could have been totally fine! Importantly, though, these views are only attributed to Siskind himself and not 'Silicon Valley' in general.
The connection to the latter and Peter Thiel is made a little further down in noting another episode in which a prominent Rationalist was eager to avoid associations between their movement and reactionary politics, but Metz doesn't make Thiel and Siskind sound more personally connected than they really are, nor does he say that any other Valley people had sexist or racist views. The episode just serves as an analogy to the furious reaction Metz apparently received from Siskind's fans when they got wind the NYT might publish his name.
In sum, I don't read the NYT article as unduly critical of Rationalism or Silicon Valley or as suggesting that people shouldn't discuss or read controversial ideas. Clearly they bungled their attempt to explain what those controversial ideas actually were in this case, but I see incompetence, not malice. Metz was trying to write an article about Rationalism and its traction among tech elites, which as Matt notes is a perfectly newsworthy subject. Then this weird thing happened with SSC shutting down and that kind of 'became the story' in a way that probably Metz did not originally intend and which seems to have sent the project off the rails in some respects.
I'm afraid people are really amped up over this 'cancel culture' thing and so are primed to read an intent into an article like Metz' that I think isn't really there. Taking the pattern to an extreme, over on his Substack Siskind seems to think the Times misrepresented his views in order to get back at him for not cooperating with their reporting efforts, but if he really believes that I have a tin foil hat to sell him.
What drives me absolutely crazy about self-congratulatory blogs like SCC is that the authors and supporters have incredible blind spots. They support “fearless inquiry” yet that fearless inquiry into social issues somehow always supports retrograde positions of maybe 100 years ago. For instance, “fearless inquiry” into whether women are as smart as men (our brains are physically smaller and we have a different mix of grey/white matter).
Somehow there’s never a “fearless inquiry” as to whether, say men shouldn’t be allowed to vote, and perhaps not even allowed to hold political office. If I were myself not into reading the room, I could build an extremely compelling, if unethical, case for it. And a lot of people who enjoy stroking their chins over the Bell Curve would get extremely angry to suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of “maybe people like you are inferior and deserve social status.”
I am not at all sure about this, but I think it's possible that Cade Metz violated or at least pushed the edges of the NYT policy on anonymity for sources (you said this isn't so interesting, and it's a bit conspiratorial, so maybe not so valuable, but I'm curious what folks think).
He offered anonymity to Mason (https://twitter.com/webdevMason/status/1275516063489253376), and the policy says, "The Times sometimes agrees not to identify people who provide information for our articles. Under our guidelines, anonymous sources should be used only for information that we think is newsworthy and credible, and that we are not able to report any other way." (https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/14/reader-center/how-the-times-uses-anonymous-sources.html?fbclid=IwAR0mSjKDLl3K8gTNFfkEuTz8mribAzZkQUpxbDbQEgNMSoRdfL2skAowqOs)
This doesn't seem to qualify!
Anyway, hadn't seen this discussed, so I thought I might add it.
Someone needs to assemble a fund for the best hundred or two hundred little newspapers out there, so that donors can spread their wealth effectively.
Small newspapers are a vital part of a diversified media ecosystem, and they are dying. As they die, local mischief goes unreported.
MY retweeted a plea from Seung Min Kim to support local newspapers. But how do I do that?
1) There's no reason to think that the local paper closest to me is the neediest or most deserving.
2) There's no reason to think that if I support my paper here, then Arizonans will support their paper and Louisianans will support their paper. I cannot enforce their behavior.
But the "Indie paper index fund," or whatever it's called, curated by Ms. Kim or someone else knowledgeable, would allow for effective altruism applied to the problem of keeping locals alive. Your money goes to a variety of papers across the country that are still doing real journalism.
Please, someone set this up! Give it an ActBlue page!
(Tangentially related to the main topic, via diversifying the informational ecosphere, as well as EA.)
I tried to read some SSC after all this controversy started and...man, it's amazing to me that THIS is what's causing such an uproar. What I've ready mostly feels like kinda boring conservative viewpoints wrapped up in a package of writing that is so dense and obtuse as to make it feel far more intellectually stimulating than it is. (Any editor worth their salt would have him cut at least a quarter of his text in every post.) To each their own, I guess; maybe there's more to it that I'm not seeing, but I do find it borderline unreadable.
Not saying that in any way justifies the weird NYT hit piece; just that it's shocking that this blog, of all things, blew up enough about it for it to become such a flashpoint anyway.
Rationalism is quite frustrating, too. It so often feels like an excuse people give to absolve themselves of the responsibility to think critically on any topic. That sex differences in personality paper is a perfect example. In my experience, people cite that paper (and similar research) as an example that gender roles are "real" instead of "socially constructed" (which then often leads to less-than-progressive opinions on trans people), when in fact, it seems to actually show the opposite (that gender roles are highly contingent on the type of society they're being expressed in). You can't escape interpretation; every fact has to be interpreted, so saying whether something is "true" or "false" is only the first, and easiest, part of the problem. It also seems like a kind of sad life to lead. "Sorry, we can't go out and enjoy the arts, that would be frivolous because the money would be more rationally spent donating to effective charities." Kinda dreary!
It’s semantics vs. pragmatics.
The rationalist crowd leans very hard on semantics, which means they can communicate very clearly and directly. But it also makes them seem socially inept, and also sort of obtuse about things like racist dogwhistles.
Meanwhile the journalists lean very hard on pragmatics. They’re constantly looking for implicatures in the use of language and assume the plain semantic meaning is irrelevant. This is good for journalists, it means they can read between the lines and try to see the motivation behind PR and political bullshit.
But when they run into rationalists this mental habit isn’t very helpful. They end up seeming very paranoid, refusing to see the obvious semantic meaning of the claims being made, instead looking for implicatures that aren’t there.
> But something about the internet is making people into infantile conformists with no taste or appreciation for the life of the mind and frankly I’m sick of it.
It's the dunking, which doesn't just get you little hearts, it encourages followers/observers to swarm the target and maybe ruin their life.
Dunking is just short-form bullying for people who never got to be the bully. It marks the victim as unworthy of defense so others know it is safe to pile on.
Stop dunking if you actually care about this. Or don't, collect your hearts, keep growing your clout, and blame the engineers.