The Triumphant Return of Scott Alexander, Overcorrecting Towards Niceness, and Taking Charitability Too Far
A lot of my subscribers are from the extended Slate Star Codex community and are here because I’m part of that community. A significant amount of those that aren’t are Marginal Revolution readers or here from Andrew Sullivan’s The Weekly Dish, both of which have at least some overlap on the readership Venn diagram with SSC. So most of you probably know this already, but Scott coming back into the light is a big deal.
For those of you who don’t know his work, some explanation is in order. Briefly, Scott is the no-shit-honest-to-god best writer of any kind on the internet. This is partially because of his approach to information; he takes the time to learn an awful lot about an awful lot of things, specializing in psychology-related topics but able to speak intelligently on nearly anything else. He’s sometimes still fleshing out his knowledge of the topics he writes about (sometimes selecting a topic specifically to educate himself on it) but he rarely if ever over-represents what he knows - he’s not trying to trick you into thinking he’s even smarter than he is.
Backing this up, his prose and general philosophical approach to writing are incredible; the man can write. It doesn’t matter what he’s writing about, either - you find yourself 20 paragraphs deep in an article about some fringe aspect of anti-depressants, and somehow you are having a good time. He’s the guy who can sell anything to anyone, but in this case he’s selling obscure knowledge that, if not exactly directly useful, expands your worldview and eventually lets you understand the world a little better in a general applies-to-everything sense.
Regardless of whether or not you agree about Scott’s value, it’s important that you understand his work means a great deal to a lot of people. In a world where journalistic laziness is the norm and editorial teams care about the truth only so far as it can be used to promote their particular political goals, Scott ended up being a rare source of I promise I’ll get to some criticism in a bit. But before I do that, it’s important that you know why Scott and Slate Star Codex went away in the first place.
Last summer, the comments section of Slate Star Codex was suddenly abuzz; Scott’s blog had showed up on the radar of the New York Times and a tech writer named Cade Metz had decided to write a piece on the Slate Star Codex community. This was mildly exciting, but also potentially disturbing for a number of reasons. One of the concerns at the time was that the SSC community were both allowed to and reliably would talk about subjects their betters at the NYT had deemed verboten. Since this category of banned speech generally includes “anything even slightly outside of the party line of conventional left-side politics”, there were immediate fears that this attention could be harmful. If the NYT deemed it profitable to cast the site as an evil-right-wing-thing, at the least there would have been an influx of anti-right combatives whom nobody expected to differentiate between friend or foe as the swept across the site’s related communities. At the most you’d expect doxing, deplatforming and demonetization efforts; people related to the site had been swatted in ways that seemed related to the site’s detractors before.
In addition to being worried for the site, Scott was worried for his own safety and hireability:
Last week I talked to a New York Times technology reporter who was planning to write a story on Slate Star Codex. He told me it would be a mostly positive piece about how we were an interesting gathering place for people in tech, and how we were ahead of the curve on some aspects of the coronavirus situation. It probably would have been a very nice article.
Unfortunately, he told me he had discovered my real name and would reveal it in the article, ie doxx me. “Scott Alexander” is my real first and middle name, but I’ve tried to keep my last name secret. I haven’t always done great at this, but I’ve done better than “have it get printed in the New York Times“.
I have a lot of reasons for staying pseudonymous. First, I’m a psychiatrist, and psychiatrists are kind of obsessive about preventing their patients from knowing anything about who they are outside of work. You can read more about this in this Scientific American article – and remember that the last psychiatrist blogger to get doxxed abandoned his blog too. I am not one of the big sticklers on this, but I’m more of a stickler than “let the New York Times tell my patients where they can find my personal blog”. I think it’s plausible that if I became a national news figure under my real name, my patients – who run the gamut from far-left to far-right – wouldn’t be able to engage with me in a normal therapeutic way. I also worry that my clinic would decide I am more of a liability than an asset and let me go, which would leave hundreds of patients in a dangerous situation as we tried to transition their care.
The second reason is more prosaic: some people want to kill me or ruin my life, and I would prefer not to make it too easy. I’ve received various death threats. I had someone on an anti-psychiatry subreddit put out a bounty for any information that could take me down (the mods deleted the post quickly, which I am grateful for). I’ve had dissatisfied blog readers call my work pretending to be dissatisfied patients in order to get me fired. And I recently learned that someone on SSC got SWATted in a way that they link to using their real name on the blog. I live with ten housemates including a three-year-old and an infant, and I would prefer this not happen to me or to them. Although I realize I accept some risk of this just by writing a blog with imperfect anonymity, getting doxxed on national news would take it to another level.
Given these worries, Scott asked the NYT times to not publish his name; they told him, politely, that he could fuck right off and they’d do no more or no less than exactly what they liked. They had an ironclad, unchangeable policy of printing everyone’s real name:
When I expressed these fears to the reporter, he said that it was New York Times policy to include real names, and he couldn’t change that.
Of course, this “we can’t help it” excuse was a lie, as explained here by NYT standards editor Phil Corbett:
Besides the reporter, at least one editor must know the identity of the source. Use of anonymous sources in any story must be approved by a high-ranking editor, usually a department head like the International editor or the Washington bureau chief, or their deputies. When the anonymous sourcing is central to the story, it generally must be approved by an even higher-ranking editor like a deputy managing editor.
Scott was not famous as a shrink; his fame started and ended with his blog. No allegations were made at any time that he was a bad doctor; the identity of his non-famous real world self added nothing to the story. So an email to an editor could have solved this problem, were the reporter or the editor at all sympathetic. Indeed, they broke the rule often for people in situations similar to Scott. The most known example of this was Chapo Trap House star Virgil Texas, who the Times allowed to remain anonymous in a similar profile article:
Fans held on to one another as they marched through it to get to a live taping. Inside the venue, they sat in folding chairs as water rose at their feet. When the bathrooms began flooding, the manager decided the night was canceled, and fans begrudgingly slushed their way out.
The Chapo co-host Virgil Texas (he lives and works under that pseudonym) went to a nearby bar for a beer.
In the worst case, the NYT went hunting for Scott. The best reason to doubt they did this is simply one of energy - does the mighty NYT have the free time to deign to crush an small-time internet personality who has stepped out of line? But nobody reasonably really doubts that their ideology wouldn’t allow this - they’ve fired their own editors for allowing open discourse in the last year. It’s not a question of whether they’d want to crush Scott, just whether or not they they spent the time or energy here.
In the best case scenario, they didn’t approach Scott with a set plan of punishing him for wrong-think. In this story, they weren’t deliberately fishing for material for a hit piece so much as they were simply unwilling to grant him continued anonymity. But this version still isn’t much better - it’s clear they break their own rules all the time for people with suitable political speech. They just didn’t think Scott would make a better friend than sacrifice.
In a last ditch effort to keep his real name out of print, Scott shut down his entire blog, politely asked his readers to express their displeasure at this development to the NYT editorial staff and went into near-complete hiding for half a year. This tactic had some apparent limited success; the NYT faced a significant outcry and found that only the vilest of the the Twitter trolls particularly supported them destroying this particular political enemy for funsies. The NYT never officially changed their minds about doxing Scott, but they quietly shit-canned the article; it never saw the light of day.
A large amount of damage was still unavoidable; Scott’s name wasn’t impossible to find in the first place, and left-wing internet trolls seized on the controversy to make it as visible as possible. When the first wave of harassments started to hit his workplace, they decided it was time to part ways. Scott spent the last half year setting up new work in his field and a new Substack that he hopes will be somewhat more cancel-proof, but he’s only now returning to the public eye.
Given all this, you’d think Scott would be enraged at the New York Times, or have strong opinions on what they did. His actual reaction is much more bizarre - he first firmly denies even a slight possibility that the obviously-politically-motivated NYT could have possibly been politically motivated in this case:
Before we go any further: your conspiracy theories are false. An SSC reader admitted to telling a New York Times reporter that SSC was interesting and he should write a story about it. The reporter pursued the story on his recommendation. It wasn't an attempt by the Times to crush a competitor, it wasn't retaliation for my having written some critical things about the news business, it wasn't even a political attempt to cancel me. Someone just told a reporter I would make a cool story, and the reporter went along with it.
He then simultaneously admits that the NYT absolutely does hit pieces against people they perceive as enemies while also making the absurd claim that they have exactly one hit piece guy who does 100% of their hit pieces, and that somehow nobody in the world has ever noticed this before:
Nor do I think it was going to be a hit piece, at least not at first. I heard from most of the people who the Times interviewed. They were mostly sympathetic sources, the interviewer asked mostly sympathetic questions, and someone who knows New York Times reporters says the guy on my case was their non-hit-piece guy; they have a different reporter for hatchet jobs. After I torched the blog in protest, they seem to have briefly flirted with turning it into a hit piece, and the following week they switched to interviewing everyone who hated me and asking a lot of leading questions about potentially bad things I did.
He then apologizes for taking the only actions available to him to prevent them from hurting him for sport, and then apologizes that the person who tried to destroy him had to - hold your gasps - hear some complaints about trying to ruin someone’s life for no reason when the choice not to do so was immediately and easily available to them:
I also owe the Times apologies for a few things I did while fighting them. In particular, when I told them I was going to delete the blog if they didn't promise not to dox me, I gave them so little warning that it probably felt like a bizarre ultimatum. At the time I was worried if I gave them more than a day's warning, they could just publish the story while I waited; later, people convinced me the Times is incapable of acting quickly and I could have let them think about it for longer.
Also, I asked you all to email an NYT tech editor with your complaints. I assumed NYT editors, like Presidents and Senators, had unlimited flunkies sorting through their mailbags, and would not be personally affected by any email deluge. I was wrong and I actually directed a three to four digit number of emails to the personal work inbox of some normal person with a finite number of flunkies. That was probably pretty harrowing and I'm sorry.
He then (very weirdly) tries to minimize the dangers to his life and livelihood the NYT (mostly successfully) tried to inflict on him by saying that his life wouldn’t especially ruined compared to a normal person going through the same kind of life ruining events, and that he might not literally die from it:
Why didn't I do this? Partly because it wasn't true. I don't think I had particularly strong arguments on any of these points. The amount I dislike death threats is basically the average amount that the average person would dislike them. The amount I would dislike losing my job...and et cetera. Realistically, my anonymity let me feel safe and comfortable. But it probably wasn't literally necessary to keep me alive.
In a subsequent post, Scott eventually gets around to what he wants people’s takeaway to be:
I'm not interested in further pursuing a vendetta against the New York Times and I'm not going to respond to interview requests about it. I'd prefer my story not get used to support any political points more complicated than "newspapers should not reveal anonymous bloggers' real names", especially not Grand Narratives About Media.
Minimally charitable transition:
Please leave my friends at the NYT alone! I don’t believe they came after me for wrong-think - even though that’s a thing they do. I certainly won’t believe that this had anything to do with politics - the part where they preserve suitably-left public figure’s anonymity but could give a shit about mine Just Couldn’t Be Political.
Why is Scott like this? Why is one of the smartest guys in the room being intentionally being so apparently dense here? I believe it boils down to two reasons:
Reason 1: Scott is convinced he can be friends with the left, and wants this desperately.
In the pre-shutdown comments section of Slate Star Codex, people from the left showed up and found that people of all ideologies were allowed to argue their points on equal footing, having their ideas succeed or fail on the strength of the arguments behind them rather than an unfair advantage provided by the moderation. This was an open playground for ideas - did you think communism in the best governmental system? If so, great - in that comments section you had a chance to argue that point. Did you think abortion was wrong? You could feel free to convince other people, but you’d have to bring your A-game; people were allowed to argue back just as hard.
Almost to a man, people on the left hated this. Anywhere else on the internet they were likely to go had an entirely different system, one where if you complained and were on the left you could get your opponent silenced or banned. Reddit is this way; Twitter is this way; Facebook is this way. The only exceptions to this rule were and are places clearly assigned as right-wing websites, like Breitbart or The Blaze. Besides that, the rest of the internet had been theirs as if by birthright for years - finding that they had to compete on even ground at SSC, most of them simply declined to and left for bluer pastures.
Meta Note: I want to make clear that this was not absolutely universal - there are and were several left-leaning people on the site who were not only willing but absolutely capable of competing in that environment. “Most” does not by any means mean “All” in this situation.
But all this meant that there was a demographic imbalance on the site - there were a lot of people on the right and not a lot of people on the left. Scott dealt with this not by accepting it for what it was, but instead by making a rule: People on the right could and would be banned for being assholes, or for arguing in bad faith. They had to toe a narrow line of charitability and well-supported arguments. People on the left, by contrast, did not have to do this; only the very most flagrant of rule-flouters and jerks would have any moderating action taken towards them.
This never worked (places like Reddit were still more biased in their favor, and it was still easier not to participate) but Scott never gave up goal of being left-acceptable Scott here dreamt that he could make minor concessions and pull the latter day left into the fold of honest debate and intellectual flexibility. They responded to this, in large part, by mostly thinking of him as an alt-right Nazi.
What Scott seems to want is for the left to discover him and react by seeing that he’s making some pretty good points; he hopes that the parts of the left he notices being clearly wrong will correct themselves so long as they are exposed to some good-faith arguments. But the left in the US is mostly like the NYT, and the NYT isn’t interested in anything but absolute, 0% deviation from the party line.
Or see this current situation, where the NYT went to great pains to cut his throat and he’s still hanging around outside their window with a boombox, hoping that if he looks reasonable enough they will some day come back and say “You know what? We were wrong - let’s have an honest conversation. Let’s see if you have some good points to make”. Him abandoning this dream would mean abandoning the political alignment he wants to like him - he just won’t do it.
So you have this sad picture: you have a guy who lives in San Francisco, who lives in an environment within SF that’s hippy-dippy even by SF standards and who works in a profession in which the vast majority of the professionals are heavily left-leaning. These are the people he knows; these are the people he likes, and who he wants to like him. On the flip side, he believes that both sides should have a chance to talk; he thinks both sides could benefit from honest argument with people who disagree. To the people he knows, this makes him, if not an out-and-out Nazi, at least some sort of far right kook who is actively helping Evil Republicans hurt people.
And he, knowing he’s not wrong about the open-and-honest discourse thing, keeps trying to convince them that maybe working towards completely silencing all political opposition isn’t the best thing. They hate him for it, and there’s nothing he can do that isn’t either abandoning his friends or his principles.
Reason 2: Scott is over-committed to charitability.
The SSC blog comments rules were pretty simple; comments should be true, necessary and kind, or at least any two of those; the idea is that if you are going to say something mean, it should at least be true and needed. Similarly, if you are going to say something useless, it should at least be true and not hurt anybody. This rule has served the community pretty well - it eliminates a lot of the kind of talk that leads to somebody eventually saying “libtard”, for instance.
There’s another unstated rule, though: people in the community are supposed to charitably assume good faith on the part of the people they question. You aren’t supposed to assume bad motivations or dishonesty on the part of people you disagree with.
In some ways, this is a pretty good rule; if you’ve been around the internet a bit, you’ve certainly seen people dismissing all Republican arguments with bad-faith accusations (after all, aren’t all Republicans just bigots who hate the poor?) or all Democrat arguments the same way (After all, aren’t they a bunch of virtue-signaling idiots who accuse people of racism as a dirty trick to win arguments?). And the greater SSC communities have adopted this hard - if you bring up a person’s or movements greater motivations, you get called on it right away.
The downside to this stance is that it fails in situations where people pretty clearly have bad motivations. Scott’s pretty committed to this idea, so in this situation he’s a little bit trapped; if he notices that the New York Times treat him differently in identical circumstances from people who line up with their politics better, he can’t attribute it to the obvious explanation - he has to come up with something different. So you get what you got above - this can’t possibly be a hit, because the NYT has exactly one hit guy who they use for 100% of hits, right? That’s something a sane person would believe, right? And getting fired from your job and being vulnerable to death threats don’t matter unless they somehow matter more to you then they would to any other person, right?
When you combine these two things, you get what you are seeing: Scott desperately wants to believe that he can win over the left and be accepted and important in their world, even though the left has made it clear they want none of this to the extent a non-monolithic group can make things clear. At the same time, this desire makes it really easy to correct towards over-charitability - even when it’s clear the NYT has treated him unfairly for reasons that almost certainly have to do with politics, he believes he can’t and shouldn’t acknowledge the most probable explanation.
I want to reiterate what I said at the head of this article - Scott is the best and very possibly the smartest writer on the internet. If the worst thing I can find to say about him is that he wants people he likes to like him and that he refuses to acknowledge when they’ve tried to hurt him, that’s not that bad. He still writes the best articles on the internet, and I’ll still learn a lot from him. I’m still subscribing to his blog, even though he’s graciously made it available for free.
If he’s allowing the left to do harm in this situation, I still can’t judge him too harshly - after all, the harm is directed at him; it’s his harm to do with what he pleases. But I hate to see him chase after people who will never like him, and I hate to see him defend people who tried to destroy him once and are probably going to do so again within the year.
If you take one thing from this post, take this: I feel strongly enough about Scott’s work that I’ve been worried and angry for him through this whole process, and strongly enough that I’m a little bit mad at him for now pretending as if nothing all that bad was done to him. That probably says something a bit weird about me, but it says something wonderful about his work; it really is that good. So go, read it; subscribe if you can. If the NYT and similar outlets have their way, it won’t be an opportunity you have forever.