The Book of Numbers and the NYT: On the Competing Priorities of Team Loyalty and Truth
There’s a story from the Bible that’s relevant to something I want to talk about. Bear with me.
In the book of Numbers, the Jewish people find themselves at the outskirts of the land of Canaan. God has promised them this land; according to him, it is theirs for the taking. He tells Moses to select 12 spies from the leadership of the twelve tribes of Israel and have them scout out Canaan. It’s important that these are leaders; these are people selected by the various tribes to represent them. These were people who could be reasonably expected to represent the will of their respective groups.
Moses instructs the spies to find out the usual stuff you’d want to know before a conquest - how numerous are the enemy fortresses? How fortified are they? How rich is the land? How good is the food? He tells them to maintain their courage and sends them out; after 40 days, all twelve return.
On returning from Canaan, two of the 12 spies give the go-ahead - the land is bitchin’, they say (rough paraphrase) and there’s nothing there the deity-backed Jewish military force can’t handle. The other ten are spooked; they claim there are giants in the land, and that attacking would be a disaster. After reporting fatalistic view to Moses, they then hopscotch over his head and poison the people with it; they are effective enough at this that the popular public outcry is not just to avoid the risk of invading Canaan, but to flee back to voluntary slavery in Egypt. God is peeved:
And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.”
Moses passes up on this opportunity to be a replacement Abraham, and convinces God to stay his hand on the “wiping out the Jewish people” plan. God opts to send the tribe back to the desert to wander for 40 years - one year for each day spent spying and coming to the wrong conclusions.
God’s anger here is understandable: He has spent a lot of time crafting Egyptian plagues to free the Jews. He’s fed them and protected them going through the desert; he’s sent real, visible evidence of his presence to them. All the evidence points to the conclusion that he can probably help them take Canaan. But the mindset of the former slaves won’t accept this - their mentality is poisoned by memories of slavery and fear. The Jews eventually return to Canaan, but not until the fearful older generation has succumbed to old age and left the fate of the people in the hands of a younger, stronger generation.
I’m going somewhere with this, I promise.
I just described one mindset to you. I’m now going to describe another.
Here’s Jesse Singal on the nyt a refusing to correct an easily proved factual error in their Scott Alexander revenge hit-piece:
Here’s Singal a few days later, talking about the same publication that refused to correct an easily proved factual error in a hit-piece:
Yes, they do hit-pieces to take revenge on people who cause a big fuss when the NYT tries to hurt them; yes, they lie, and refuse to correct those lies when pointed out. But god forbid we were to write them off for it.
Now take Scott Aaronson, talking about the NYT immediately after listing 14 ways they were dishonest in the same article, some of which were direct misrepresentations of his own words:
For each of the 14 points listed above, were I ever tempted to bang my head and say, “dammit, I wish I’d told Cade X, so his story could’ve reflected that perspective”—well, the truth of the matter is that I did tell him X! It’s just that I don’t get to decide which X’s make the final cut, or which ideological filter they’re passed through first.
He has direct knowledge of telling him several the stances he took in the article just weren’t so, and being ignored to go with the maximally-dishonest-and-damaging angle; he must be mad about this, right?
On reflection, then, I’ll continue to talk to journalists, whenever I have time, whenever I think I might know something that might improve their story. I’ll continue to rank bend-over-backwards openness and honesty among my most fundamental values. Hell, I’d even talk to Cade for a future story, assuming he’ll talk to me after all the disagreements I’ve aired here! [Update: commenters’ counterarguments caused me to change my stance on this; see here.]
That was a close one! It almost seemed like he had learned nothing by being used as a pawn to hurt somebody he likes. Let’s follow that post link to verify he’s learned the normal lesson you learn where someone twists your words to use them to hurt someone you don’t want harmed:
At the least, before I could talk to Metz again, I’d need a better understanding of how the hit piece happened. What was the role of the editors? How did the original hook—namely, the rationalist community’s early rightness about covid-19—disappear entirely from the article? How did the piece manage to evince so little curiosity about such an unusual subculture and such a widely-admired writer? How did it fail so completely to engage with the rationalists’ ideas, instead jumping immediately to “six degrees of Peter Thiel” and other reductive games? How did an angry SneerClubber, David Gerard, end up (according to his own boast) basically dictating the NYT piece’s content?
So, he’d at least give them a chance to explain away why they did a bunch of bad stuff, ignoring all the good and inventing most of the bad to take down someone for not believing in NYT-sanctioned ways and not wanting their anonymity blown to satisfy a NYT policy they only enforce for their enemies in the first place. But at least he doesn’t still hold them up as the only possible source of truth in the universe, the only way we as a society can correctly determine what’s real and what’s false (you might sense where this is going):
But let’s be clear about the stakes here. In the discussion of my last post, I described the NYT as “still the main vessel of consensus reality in human civilization” [alright, alright, American civilization!]. What’s really at issue, beyond the treatment of a single blogger, is whether the NYT can continue serving that central role in a world reshaped by social media, resurgent fascism, and entitled wokery.
So, they lie and they destroy their political enemies. They interviewed Scott Aaronson and he now has firsthand evidence of how this works; in the best case, this is a rogue supporter and the NYT has near-zero editorial oversight in place to prevent this stuff from happening. In the worst case, this is NYT sanctioned - it’s normal to destroy someone who doesn’t bow at the altar of the elite. Scott knows this - he couldn’t avoid knowing it, at this point - so why on earth would he still make excuses for them to this extent?
It makes more sense now, right?
Let’s move on to the other Scott, Scott Alexander. Here’s him talking about Ezra Klein, the closest thing we have to a human personification of the recent-years-NYT-ethos:
Ezra Klein is great. I know a lot of people throw shade on him for founding Vox. But as Van Gogh said about God creating the world, "We must not hold it against Him; only a master could make such a mistake". Ezra is a master and I was happy to be able to read his Why We're Polarized.
Here’s Ezra Klein’s feelings on Scott:
That “this tweet is unavailable” is all that remains of something positive Ezra said about Scott a few years ago, deleted as soon as Ezra sensed any association with Scott might be the least bit damaging to him. EDIT: The bit in italics here is wrong. Chris from the comments on this article pointed out that Klein periodically deletes all his tweets past a certain age to discourage cancel-mobs or similar. During the whole NYT-hunting-bloggers-who-disagree episode, Klein has been silent despite being in a position to help. He’d slit Scott’s throat for a nickel, but to Scott he’s a demi-god. I’ve already talked about Scott’s inability to hold the NYT to task for what it did to him; this is more of the same.
I’m bringing all of this together, I promise - stay with me just a little longer.
The Jewish people in the book of Numbers claimed to love and serve God; in the narrative of the story, he had shown them more than a dozen miracles by the time they arrived, against all odds, at the borders of the promised land. When they then refused to believe that their deity could do something as basic as influence their success in battle, it would be fair to ask what proof could possibly be sufficient besides the wealth of proof they had already experienced.
These authors are all people who claim to love truth, who say they love accuracy and who try to paint a picture of themselves that involves thoughtful analysis of data and arriving at correct. They are again and again confronted by today’s NYT being sort of shit - it’s completely in the pocket of one party; it fires people who allow other people to express opinions it doesn’t like; it sanctions poorly written hit pieces written to revenge the paper on those who ask it for the same kind of protections it offers its favorites. The kindest explanation for this is that they’ve completely lost meaningful editorial control of their paper. This wouldn’t be actively insidious, but it would make the paper a bit like a drunk elephant; too big and too powerful to be considered safely unpredictable.
They not only see this; they also know what it means. They aren’t stupid or the kind of personalities that miss those kinds of details. They just can’t bring themselves to be honest about it. These writers who are excellent in all other ways know the NYT and most NYT-adjacent personalities have either actively abandoned truth as a terminal value or at best have lost control of their organizations in a way that has the same practical effects, but where you find them talking about it it’s just to laud the paper and explain that today’s badness is just like yesterday’s; no matter how bad it gets, the proper protocol is always to close your eyes, cover your ears and sing a very loud song.
The Jewish people in Numbers were conditioned - their entire lives, they knew people in cities who owned land were invincible; there wasn’t anything you could do to them. They were in charge. Jesse and both Scotts have a different kind of conditioning - their entire lives the NYT was the place to be. The NYT had the good jobs. The NYT had the influence. But most importantly, the NYT was what the smart guys read; in terms of signaling, it was to print what NPR was to radio. Abandoning their devotion to the paper wouldn’t just be acknowledging that it isn’t very good anymore; it would have to counterbalance against a lifetime of believing that reading and believing a certain paper or certain radio show made you better than other people - better informed, better educated and more refined in ways that only the correct patronage could show. They could decide to let the evidence they’ve lived outweigh this conditioning, but they’ve chosen not to want to.
In Numbers, it was the Jewish adults who were punished for their unwillingness to resist their conditioning and believe the evidence of their eyes; they eventually returned to Canaan, but not until every adult had died and given way to a younger, stronger generation who had not known life as an adult under slavery. In the tale of Jesse and the Scotts, it’s us who gets the punishment.
These are excellent writers. These are people who generally think hard, research hard and work their way to interesting questions and answers most of us can’t approach. These are the kind of people we’d want to be able to rely on, especially in a world where our news media sources have never been more polarized or less reliable. But that unreliability means we need people like these writers to be willing to sacrifice certain things in their pursuit of truth, and these three have already given us their answer: they won’t consider it. We need them to lead us to water in the desert; they are in love with the leading producers of sand.
Another biblical quote is relevant here: A man can’t serve two masters. You can be committed to being right, or you can be committed to the right team, but you can’t be both. And just as it’s become clear what choice these men make when push comes to shove, it’s becoming increasingly clear that, should we wish to reach the promised land, we will need guides with a different set of priorities.