The Slate Star Codex Blog & Its New York Time Profile

Here’s a timeline:

* A New York Times journalist wants to write an article about you and your online community.
* You don’t want to face that you have threatened your own well being and you fear that exposure of your choices will reveal some things many people won’t like.
* So you freak out and delete your whole blog and blame the New York Times for that.
* Your community reacts by viciously going after the New York Times.
* The New York Times is confirmed in its suspicion that there are dark sides to you and your community and writes that story.

Scott Alexander Suskin created a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As Elizabeth Spiers wrote:

I suggest an easier route than summoning an army of bots, oppo researchers, Dark Enlightenment (ironic labeling for whatever that constitutes) warriors, etc., to go after journalists whose work you don’t like: pay 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.

The New Yorker wrote July 9, 2020:

In a parenthetical aside, he asked that his supporters remain courteous: “Remember that you are representing me and the SSC community, and I will be very sad if you are a jerk to anybody. Please just explain the situation and ask them to stop doxxing random bloggers for clicks. If you are some sort of important tech person who the New York Times technology section might want to maintain good relations with, mention that.” This plea conformed with the online persona he has publicly cultivated over the years—that of a gentle headmaster preparing to chaperone a rambunctious group of boys on a museum outing—but, in this case, it seemed to lend plausible deniability to what he surely knew would be taken as incitement.

…Alexander’s appeal elicited an instant reaction from members of the local intelligentsia in Silicon Valley and its satellite principalities. Within a few days, a petition collected more than six thousand signatories, including the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, the economist Tyler Cowen, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, the cryptocurrency oracle Vitalik Buterin, the quantum physicist David Deutsch, the philosopher Peter Singer, and the OpenAI C.E.O. Sam Altman. Much of the support Alexander received was motivated simply by a love for his writing. The blogger Scott Aaronson, a professor of computer science at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote, “In my view, for SSC to be permanently deleted would be an intellectual loss on the scale of, let’s say, John Stuart Mill or Mark Twain burning their collected works.” Other responses seemed unwarranted by the matter at hand. Alexander had not named the reporter in question, but the former venture capitalist and cryptocurrency enthusiast Balaji Srinivasan, who has a quarrelsome Twitter personality, tweeted—some three hours after the post appeared, at 2:33 a.m. in San Francisco—that this example of “journalism as the non-consensual invasion of privacy for profit” was courtesy of Cade Metz, a technology writer ordinarily given over to enthusiastic stories on the subject of artificial intelligence. Alexander’s plea for civility went unheeded, and Metz and his editor were flooded with angry messages. In another tweet, Srinivasan turned to address Silicon Valley investors, entrepreneurs, and C.E.O.s: “The New York Times tried to doxx Scott Alexander for clicks. Just unsubscribing won’t change much. They can afford it. What will is freezing them out. By RTing #ghostnyt you commit to not talking to NYT reporters or giving them quotes. Go direct if you have something to say.”

Other prominent figures in Silicon Valley, including Paul Graham, the co-founder of the foremost startup incubator, Y Combinator, followed suit. Graham did not expect, as many seemed to, that the article would prove to be a “hit piece,” he wrote. “It’s revealing that so many worry it will be, though. Few would have 10 years ago. But it’s a more dangerous time for ideas now than 10 years ago, and the NYT is also less to be trusted.” This atmosphere of danger and mistrust gave rise to a spate of conspiracy theories: Alexander was being “doxxed” or “cancelled” because of his support for a Michigan State professor accused of racism, or because he’d recently written a post about his dislike for paywalls, or because the Times was simply afraid of the independent power of the proudly heterodox Slate Star Codex cohort.

The proliferation of such elaborate conjectures was hardly commensurate with the vision of Slate Star Codex as a touchstone of patience and disinterest. Alexander’s initial account of his exchange with Metz seemed to have seeded the escalation. For one thing, the S.S.C. code prioritizes semantic precision, but Metz—if Alexander’s account is to be taken at its word—had proposed not to “doxx” Alexander but to de-anonymize him. Additionally, it seems difficult to fathom that a professional journalist of Metz’s experience and standing would assure a subject, especially at the beginning of a process, that he planned to write a “mostly positive” story; although there often seems to be some confusion about this matter in Silicon Valley, journalism and public relations are distinct enterprises. Finally, the business model of the Times has little to do with chasing “clicks,” per se, and, even if it did, no self-respecting journalist would conclude that the pursuit of clicks was best served by the de-anonymization of a “random blogger.” The Times, although its policy permits exceptions for a variety of reasons, errs on the side of the transparency and accountability that accompany the use of real names. S.S.C. supporters on Twitter were quick to identify some of the Times’ recent concessions to pseudonymous quotation—Virgil Texas, a co-host of the podcast “Chapo Trap House,” was mentioned, as were Banksy and a member of isis—as if these supposed inconsistencies were dispositive proof of the paper’s secret agenda, rather than an ad-hoc and perhaps clumsy application of a flexible policy. Had the issue been with Facebook and its contentious moderation policies, which are applied in a similarly ad-hoc and sometimes clumsy way, the reaction in Silicon Valley would likely have been more magnanimous.

Until recently, I was a writer for the Times Magazine, and the idea that anyone on the organization’s masthead would direct a reporter to take down a niche blogger because he didn’t like paywalls, or he promoted a petition about a professor, or, really, for any other reason, is ludicrous; stories emerge from casual interactions between curious reporters and their overtaxed editors.

…But the rationalists, despite their fixation with cognitive bias, read into the contingencies a darkly meaningful pattern. Alexander, whose role has been to help explain Silicon Valley to itself, was taken up as a mascot and a martyr in a struggle against the Times, which, in the tweets of Srinivasan, Graham, and others, was enlisted as a proxy for all of the gatekeepers—the arbiters of what it is and is not O.K. to say, and who is allowed, by virtue of their identity, to say it.

…These conversations, about race and genetic or biological differences between the sexes, have rightfully drawn criticism from outsiders. But the rationalists, despite their fixation with cognitive bias, read into the contingencies a darkly meaningful pattern. Alexander, whose role has been to help explain Silicon Valley to itself, was taken up as a mascot and a martyr in a struggle against the Times, which, in the tweets of Srinivasan, Graham, and others, was enlisted as a proxy for all of the gatekeepers—the arbiters of what it is and is not O.K. to say, and who is allowed, by virtue of their identity, to say it.

…Alexander has long fretted over the likelihood that the presence of these fringe figures could tarnish the reputation of the blog and its community. In late 2013, he published “The Anti-Reactionary FAQ,” a thirty-thousand-word post now regarded as one of his first major contributions to the rationalist canon. The post describes the world view of a group, centered around a figure called Curtis Yarvin, also known as Mencius Moldbug, whose “neoreactionary” views—including an open desire for the restoration of feudalism and racial hierarchy—contributed to the intellectual normalization of what became known as the alt-right. Alexander could have banned neoreactionaries from his comments section, but, on the basis of the view that vile ideas should be countenanced and refuted rather than left to accrue the status of forbidden knowledge, he took their arguments seriously and at almost comical length—even at the risk that he might lend them legitimacy. Ultimately, he circumscribed or curtailed certain “culture war” threads. 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.

They have given safe harbor to some genuinely egregious ideas, and controversial opinions have not been limited to the comments.

…It remains possible that Alexander vaporized his blog not because he thought it would force Metz’s hand but because he feared that a Times reporter wouldn’t have to poke around for very long to turn up a creditable reason for negative coverage.

…Are they wrong to worry that a reporter would want to make them pay for it? In the case of Slate Star Codex versus the Times, the stridency and hyperbole of the reactions of Alexander’s cohort to his cause bear the classic markers of grandiosity: the conviction that they are at once potent and beleaguered.

The Nation posted Dec. 5, 2019:

The online magazine of the “intellectual dark web” is repackaging discredited race science

Quillette is Reid Ross’s fascist creep par excellence; it’s fascism creeping so close to liberalism that the radical ethicist Peter Singer was willing to write a short statement for the magazine condemning a protest against a racist professor, and erstwhile liberal Steven Pinker praised it as “a gust of fresh air.”

The constitutive ideology of Quillette comes out most clearly in the arena of race. At least five Quillette contributors—Kevin M. Beaver, Brian Boutwell, Adam Perkins, Jason Richwine, and John Paul Wright—have gone on white nationalist Stefan Molyneux’s show to discuss their “research” on topics like race, intelligence, and “criminality.” Richwine, who in the past wrote for white nationalist Richard Spencer’s website alternativeright.com, agreed with Molyneux’s assertion that there is a “hierarchy” of IQ extending from “Ashkenazi Jews and East Asians” on down in decreasing order to “the whites, and then the Hispanics, and then the blacks.” Boutwell declared, “It’s no secret…that there are differences that emerge across racial and ethnic groups for involvement in crime.” Wright has written that African Americans have a deficit in “executive function,” “self-control and IQ” that leads them to “commit more violent crime than any other group.” Perkins, who claims welfare recipients have a genetically based capacity to be “aggressive, antisocial,” and “unemployable,” has also appeared on the white nationalist show Reality Calls, which had a celebratory feature called “This Week on the Alt-Right.”

Quillette takes this racist HBD theory and launders it in lifeless prose. For example, one article declared its support for Charles Murray’s 1994 book The Bell Curve, and included the blandly articulated claim, “There are race differences in intelligence, with East Asians scoring roughly 103 on IQ tests, whites scoring 100, and Blacks scoring 85.” The Quillette authors themselves concluded, “There are, as yet, no good alternative explanations” for “racial differences in IQ scores” other than “genetics.”

Noah Smith writes:

I think Americans dramatically underrate how much better life will be without Nazis around.

And by “Nazis”, I do not mean Republicans, or conservatives, or Trump supporters, or people with racist attitudes in general. I specifically mean hardcore passionate white supremacists for whom white supremacist activism is a lifestyle. This is a relatively small fringe; most racists don’t make a lifestyle out of it.

But even though Nazis are a small fringe in America, they are a fractal fringe — they branch out and ramify and flow into any space that allows them. In the 1980s, a Nazi fringe tried to be part of the punk subculture. Punks responded by punching Nazis in the face and kicking them out of the subculture. In recent years, Nazis have tried to be part of the Black Metal subculture. Black Metal fans are responding by systematically excluding Nazis. Gamer culture has also tried to kick out infiltrating Nazis, with less success. And Nazis successfully infiltrated and destroyed 4chan.

The lesson is that Nazis will relentlessly infiltrate anywhere where the powers that be fail to expel them with extreme prejudice. They will infiltrate your web forum. They will infiltrate your blog comments. They will go anywhere where they are not forcibly expelled. And once they are allowed in a space, they will make it awful for everyone else in that space, like a single rat turd floating in your bowl of cereal.

The lesson the punks and metalheads learn is: Ban the Nazis, and things just get better. Yes, it can feel intolerant. But that’s the Paradox of Tolerance:

I suspect most people vastly underestimate how much better America as a whole will get when our current crop of Nazis finally gives up and goes away.

Given the dominant anti-social ethos of white nationalism in America, Noah Smith’s suggestion is not absurd. I don’t agree with it either because I like free speech, but I recognize it is economical for most people to automatically dismiss anyone associated with white nationalism due to the poor quality of the people in America who espouse white nationalism (e.g., the large numbers of criminals, deviants, fantasists and under-achievers in the movement). Just as many people are extreme left for psychological and social reasons, surely many people are extreme right for psychological and social reasons? White nationalism, antifa and BLM probably give many people an opportunity to burn and destroy and the ideological reasons for this behavior are not important to most participants. They just want release from moral norms.

If you spend hours posting/reading 4chan/pol, you’re probably anti-social.

Similarly, normies probably have rational reasons for wanting to avoid association with anybody in the porn industry, even though that might limit connection with some interesting people. For normies, that which is so different as to be socially unacceptable is disturbing.

Will Wilkinson writes:

Journalism isn’t science. It’s often more like low-grade war with hostile subjects. People who are newsworthy often wish that they weren’t and are often straight-up antagonistic. If you’re a reporter, they will respond as if you personally have it out for them (very unlikely) and are an enemy of their interests (often true, because people often don’t want others to know the truth about them). They will lie to you. They will recruit people you’re less likely to suspect of lying to you to lie to you. They may try to intimidate you and your family — or wink and look the other way when their allies do. They may refuse to give their real name, even if you already found it. They may even hurt themselves to hurt your story if they really, really, really don’t want it written.

Reporting is a hard job devoted in large measure to ferreting out truths that the subjects of the story you are writing are actively trying to conceal. I think it’s important to emphasize that there is simply no sense — none! — in which people who like to talk about epistemology on the Internet are more committed to objectivity and truth than experienced reporters who, in the service of truth, navigate mazes of lies, gaslighting, spin, bullshit and threats for a living.

That Scott Siskind’s name is Scott Siskind is a fact relevant to a story about him, period. That’s why it seems insanely paranoid to journalists like Lewis-Kraus to infer that Cade Metz, or the New York Times itself, in all its abstract corporate majesty, must harbor some vendetta because they think it makes sense to use your name in a story about you.

…He’s come to see that nobody at the Times was animated by ill will or had undertaken some nefarious ideological mission. It was just a guy doing his job all along. So, when Scott utterly lost his shit, it wasn’t because Metz or the Times had done anything that reasonable person would anticipate leading to such an operatic response. Siskind seems to see that now. He gets that he’s responsible for his reaction to his perception of the consequences that might have been brought about by his loss of anonymity. Neither Metz nor the Times sought to bring them about. The critical, volatile variable in the whole episode is the surprising ferocity of his attachment to anonymity, and he knows it…

Siskind sees that’s it’s definitely reasonable to see him as an entitled jerk, but he’s not actually admitting that he is. On the contrary, he ends up arguing (in typically illuminating and entertaining terms!) that, sure, he was irrational … but! There’s a higher rationality to acting so crazy that folks you feel so antagonized by decide to back away and just leave the rabid dog alone. As he goes on, Siskind continues to tendentiously characterize reporting true, publicly available facts about people, such as their names, with “doxxing,” the exposure of identifying information with malicious intent to cause harm.

I think he does this, despite having conceded that there was no malicious intent in his case, because he thinks it’s nevertheless seriously wrong to communicate certain facts about a person if they’d rather they stay under their hat. More than that, Siskind suggests that people should not be allowed to freely communicate those facts without express permission — even if others have good reason to want to know. He seems to me to be saying that our interest in the privacy and impunity of anonymity generally outweigh our interest in freely speaking and receiving information about identity without the subject’s consent.

…A bunch of people in the community, Scott included, really are interested in neoreactionary thinking. In a recently leaked email exchange, Siskind admits to finding a lot worthwhile in it and confesses that he’s hard on neo-reactionaries in public in part to throw people off the scent. Curtis Yarvin/Mencius Moldbug really is a familiar and known quantity who does hang around the community, even if he’s not a central figure. Peter Thiel gives him money…

I want to urge Siskind’s irked supporters to consider that when Metz brings up Charles Murray, Voldemort feminists, unusually collegial engagement with neo-reactionary thought, and speculation about tech being male-heavy because women for some reason just get bored by numbers and gadgets, it’s not because he’s writing a hit job — it’s because these are the kinds of things Siskind was terrified his employer and patients would connect to him. Huh? Why would you aim directly at the realization of Siskind’s fears if not out of spite and malice? Well, the most interesting things about Slate Star Codex, from an outside perspective, are (1) that it’s influential in Silicon Valley, and its enthusiastic fans include incredibly rich and powerful people whose technologies and businesses affect all our lives; (2) one day Siskind burnt it all down and summoned a vengeful horde to attack an innocent reporter and assail America’s best newspaper.

Now, the rules of America’s best newspaper don’t allow for speculation about motives and Siskind wasn’t talking. But the rules definitely allow for laying out facts and letting readers draw their own conclusions. Well, all the allegedly “negative” stuff on SSC is illustrative of why Siskind might panic and spike his blog. That powerful and influential men like Thiel and Balaji, who infamously harbor vitriolic hatred for snooping journalists, number among Siskind’s fans is very interesting given how Siskind weaponized his rationalist readership to protect the anonymity that protects his reputation — especially since Siskind himself tells us that Balaji was advising him on how to fuck over journalists. Creating a mob of rationalists may seem a bit puzzling. Why would such smart people be so willing to enlist in a mercenary army fighting for the greater glory of Scott Siskind’s psychiatric practice? Well, if you see it in the light of the Siskind’s relentless promotion of the idea that the marketplace of ideas will end up abandoned and shuttered unless we come to treat anonymity as a basic right, it starts to make sense.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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