Slate Star Codex: No time for malice

This post benefited from valuable input and feedback from Thomas Manuel.

To the uninitiated: Scott Alexander Siskind is a noted member of the international community of rationalists and wrote the once-celebrated blog Slate Star Codex. I use the past tense because Siskind used to write this blog from the relative obscurity afforded by using only his first and middle names – ‘Scott Alexander’ – and which was threatened after a New York Times reporter got in touch to profile him, and then decided to ‘out’ his identity thanks to some editorial rule the reporter said he was was bound by.

Siskind, fearing for his privacy as well as the wellbeing of his clients (he’s a psychiatrist by profession) threatened to delete his entire blog if the reporter didn’t back off – and then proceeded to do so. At the time of the incident, Siskind also called for support from his readers, who flooded the New York Times with telephone calls, emails and online comments, cancelled their subscriptions in droves, and also doxxed (revealed online without permission and with an intent to harass) the reporter’s personal information. Siskind subsequently restored his blog posts and also moved to Substack, where he currently writes under the title ‘Astral Codex Ten’ using his full name.

The New York Times profile in question was published on February 14 under the authorship of reporter Cade Metz. Many members of the rationalists’ community centred on Slate Star Codex have described the article as a “hit job” and it has since become something of a referendum, at least on one other intellectual’s blog (Shtetl Optimized by Scott Aaronson), on the appropriate way to sanction journalists and/or news publishers that fail to properly represent the views of their subjects to their audience.

(I’m an occasional reader of Slate Star Codex, now Astral Codex Ten, but have never been a full participant of the rationalist movement. I occasionally pop in and out and absorb interesting ideas. I also don’t defend the rationalists, being aware of the tendency of most members of this community to over-rationalise, to debate ideas without paying attention to their social consequences, which often lie outside the realm of reason, and to be cynical of politics.)

Here are a few contiguous paragraphs from the article that I think capture its spirit and purpose:

Part of the appeal of Slate Star Codex, faithful readers said, was Mr. Siskind’s willingness to step outside acceptable topics. But he wrote in a wordy, often roundabout way that left many wondering what he really believed.

Mr. Aaronson, the University of Texas professor, was turned off by the more rigid and contrarian beliefs of the Rationalists, but he is one of the blog’s biggest champions and deeply admired that it didn’t avoid live-wire topics.

“It must have taken incredible guts for Scott to express his thoughts, misgivings and questions about some major ideological pillars of the modern world so openly, even if protected by a quasi-pseudonym,” he said.

It was the protection of that “quasi-pseudonym” that rankled Mr. Siskind when I first got in touch with him. He declined to comment for this article.

As he explored science, philosophy and A.I., he also argued that the media ignored that men were often harassed by women. He described some feminists as something close to Voldemort, the embodiment of evil in the Harry Potter books. He said that affirmative action was difficult to distinguish from “discriminating against white men.”

In one post, he aligned himself with Charles Murray, who proposed a link between race and I.Q. in “The Bell Curve.” In another, he pointed out that Mr. Murray believes Black people “are genetically less intelligent than white people.”

He denounced the neoreactionaries, the anti-democratic, often racist movement popularized by Curtis Yarvin. But he also gave them a platform. His “blog roll” – the blogs he endorsed – included the work of Nick Land, a British philosopher whose writings on race, genetics and intelligence have been embraced by white nationalists.

In 2017, Mr. Siskind published an essay titled “Gender Imbalances Are Mostly Not Due to Offensive Attitudes.” The main reason computer scientists, mathematicians and other groups were predominantly male was not that the industries were sexist, he argued, but that women were simply less interested in joining.

That week, a Google employee named James Damore wrote a memo arguing that the low number of women in technical positions at the company was a result of biological differences, not anything else – a memo he was later fired over. One Slate Star Codex reader on Reddit noted the similarities to the writing on the blog.

Mr. Siskind, posting as Scott Alexander, urged this reader to tone it down. “Huge respect for what you’re trying, but it’s pretty doomed,” he wrote. “If you actually go riding in on a white horse waving a paper marked ‘ANTI-DIVERSITY MANIFESTO,’ you’re just providing justification for the next round of purges.”

There are some obvious problems with the article. The foremost is that Metz makes some questionable assumptions about the foundations of Siskind’s arguments to the effect that Siskind sounds like a conservative, dogmatic person who draws on questionable scholarship to frame his thoughts. This is quite off-target. The article also oversimplifies some of the rationalist community’s positions, although this may be unavoidable in anything less than a book-length treatment of such an involved subject.

On the other hand, a not inconsiderable amount of the Slate Star Codex community’s derision towards the New York Times seems to be rooted in the idea that the newspaper is pursuing a smear campaign – ostensibly in retaliation for Siskind asking his (sizeable) audience to call on New York Times editors to not have his name outed, but who also went on to doxx Metz. Siskind wrote on his Substack after the article was published:

The New York Times backed off briefly as I stopped publishing, but I was also warned by people “in the know” that as soon as they got an excuse they would publish something as negative as possible about me, in order to punish me for embarrassing them.

The “in the know” bit sounds funny to me because, based on my experience at The Hindu at least, it’s extremely unlikely for a legacy newspaper to identify one person that’s giving one reporter a tough time as a threat to the extent that the institution, as such, considers intentionally doxxing him – not to mention an accusation like this also insults the intelligence of the people it. I agree with journalist and Gawker cofounder Elizabeth Spiers’s take on this view:

SSC is influential in a small but powerful corner of the tech industry. It is not, however, a site that most people, even at The New York Times, are aware exists—and certainly, the Times and its journalists are not threatened by its existence. They are not out to destroy the site, or “get” Scott, or punish him. At the risk of puncturing egos: they are not thinking about Scott or the site at all. Even the reporter working on the story has no especial investment in its subject.

I also agree with Will Wilkinson, a politics writer and author, on the limited point of the Slate Star Codex community’s conviction that Metz’s actions were malicious, that Metz or the New York Times were “out to get them”. Instead, Wilkinson argues, the community need only examine the sequence of events from Metz’s point of view to find that common sense offers a simpler and more rational explanation.

Somebody tells Metz about SSC, he finds it really interesting, wants to write some kind of article about Siskind, his popular and influential blog, and the fascinating community around it. He starts to do some preliminary research. … Metz contacts Siskind and at some point he tells Scott that he already knows his real name and at some point Scott tells Metz it’s very important that he doesn’t use his real name. Metz says, sorry, house rules say I have to use your real name. To Metz, things are already getting pretty interesting. He’s a reporter. He’s not going to take what people tell him at face value. He’s probably wondering why Scott’s really sweating so hard about his real name. Then, at some point Siskind flips the fuck out and tells the Times that he’s going to burn SSC to the ground if they don’t promise not to use his real name. At this juncture basically any competent reporter is going to think, “Whoa! Yeah, there’s something deeper here for sure.”

Well, the Times won’t promise, so Siskind actually does it. This seems super-crazy and the natural journalistic response to it is “What the hell is this man hiding? What’s he so afraid I’ll find on his blog?”

Let’s pause to acknowledge that Siskind eventually acknowledged that he had been behaving in a way that seemed incredibly suspicious to outside observers and that it does make a great deal of completely non-malicious sense for a journalist to tune into this. It’s interesting, though, that this apparently hadn’t occurred to him. “Contacts in the news industry” had to tell him.

But as it happens, Siskind had assumed similarly well before the New York Times article was published: that Metz or the newspaper may not be thinking as much about Slate Star Codex’s true identity as much as Siskind and the community was:

I think they just didn’t expect me to care about anonymity as much as I did. In fact, most of my supporters, and most of the savvy people giving me advice, didn’t expect me to care as much as I did. … Realistically, my anonymity let me feel safe and comfortable. But it probably wasn’t literally necessary to keep me alive. I feel bad admitting this, like I conscripted you all into a crusade on false pretenses. Am I an entitled jerk for causing such a stir just so I can feel safe and comfortable? I’m sure the New York Times customer service representatives who had to deal with all your phone calls thought so. …

In the New York Times‘ worldview, they start with the right to dox me, and I had to earn the right to remain anonymous by proving I’m the perfect sympathetic victim who satisfies all their criteria of victimhood. But in my worldview, I start with the right to anonymity, and they need to make an affirmative case for doxxing me. I admit I am not the perfect victim. The death threats against me are all by losers who probably don’t know which side of a gun you shoot someone with. If anything happened at work, it would probably inconvenience me and my patients, but probably wouldn’t literally kill either of us. …

I don’t think anyone at the Times bore me ill will, at least not originally. But somehow that just made it even more infuriating. In Street Fighter, the hero confronts the Big Bad about the time he destroyed her village. The Big Bad has destroyed so much stuff he doesn’t even remember: “For you, the day [I burned] your village was the most important day of your life. For me, it was Tuesday.” That was the impression I got from the Times. They weren’t hostile. I wasn’t a target they were desperate to take out. The main emotion I was able to pick up from them was annoyance that I was making their lives harder by making a big deal out of this. For them, it was Tuesday.

I sort of also see Siskind’s point here: it’s unreasonable to destabilise a community because it failed to explain the terms of its existence to an interloper. Instead, his anonymity and the reasons for it could have been part of the story, irrespective of Metz’s and others’ assertion that Scott Alexander’s last name wasn’t hard to find.

Some others, but also Wilkinson, have read this ‘privacy v. public interest’ contention a bit differently, by invoking Siskind’s presumed absolute right to free speech. I’m personally uncomfortable with the Slate Star Codex community’s view that the interference of Siskind’s right to free speech with his profession as a psychiatrist (and the wellbeing of his patients) shouldn’t be seen as a confounding factor in his decision to react with arguably disproportionate alarm when Metz expressed his intent to use Siskind’s full name – and that the newspaper isn’t very much to blame here. But I can’t be sure if this matters to how Metz constructed the Slate Star Codex profile.

Very broadly, Wilkinson questions the cons of free-speech absolutism not just vis-à-vis the topics that benefit from such a license (like white supremacy or “women have smaller brains”) but vis-à-vis the concept itself. He argues that the absolute right to free speech and a right to anonymity can’t go together, and it’s possible from a journalistic standpoint that Metz may have been encouraged by this incompatibility and by the fact of Siskind’s name showing up after a few searches on Google to ‘reveal’ his last name.

But I think this argument is neither here nor there – plus the profile doesn’t contain any evidence that this is how Metz approached the decision (some anecdotal reports I came across suggested Metz was simply following some newsroom rule). This alternative also doesn’t sit well with Spiers’s and Siskind’s shared belief that the New York Times may never care about the consequences of its gaze on a particular subject more than the subject will.

But the profile being what it is, Scott Aaronson – and I’m sure many others – have decided to boycott Cade Metz, meaning they won’t speak to him on future stories, in an effort to register their disapproval.

Is this fair? I think it’s hard to be sure, although I also suspect this question may be moot. Right now, I’ve yet to find a self-consistent explanation for either party to stand its ground. The verbosity of all the arguments in this debate, save for the New York Times profile itself, is also quite suspicious. I’m implicitly wary of arguments that overuse words because it’s a sign, to me, that the author is either attempting to massage the reader’s intelligence into accepting an otherwise unintelligent, and often deleterious, proposition or that the author is trying to make a point that they themselves don’t fully understand yet. (I may be guilty of either given the length of this post.)

For now, I can see why, without agreeing with it, Aaronson et al have decided to boycott Metz. The relationship between a reporter and their source has only one degree of freedom – trust – and that’s what Aaronson et al have resolved to strike at. But based on what I have read, I don’t see water in the community’s argument that Metz’s efforts have resulted in a “hit job” that violated their trust, of being represented ‘fairly’, by focusing on the rationalist community’s negative attributes. This seems like the rationalists are conflating journalism and reputation management – even considering the New York Times has one of the world’s largest newspaper audiences and a single misinformed article can deal significant reputational damage.

In Aaronson’s and Siskind’s telling, Metz did the rationalists a disservice by focusing on the “wrong” parts of what made Slate Star Codex awesome. But as Wilkinson, Spiers and others have argued, their very ability and freedom to collect as rationalists and openly discuss potentially dangerous or even antisocial ideas is hard to separate from the fact that the rationalists are also “overwhelmingly white and male and clustered in a very narrow of range of heavily white, male analytical symbol manipulation occupations” – a fact that the rationalists tend to dismiss as a distraction.

On the other hand, Metz’s article – while definitely not a “hit job” – is flawed where it seems to imply Siskind’s guilt by association with writers he’s quoted, topped off by the decision to reveal Siskind’s identity. At the same time, Metz is also justified in framing the article the way he did, or worked with his editor to do so.

This isn’t just in terms of, as Spiers put it, going where the story took him but also of revealing a relatively small and cloistered community to the larger world that mostly didn’t know the community existed. And I sense that the two parties couldn’t agree on the terms of this act of revelation.

This speaks to the larger question of yearning for objectivity where there is none. To one group, Slate Star Codex appeared to be yet another portal to fascism-curious thinking that is sustained not-inexplicably by yet another group of white men, and had some notable connections to Silicon Valley. To the other, Slate Star Codex was a salon at which certain people could gather to discuss topics that other members of society had decided they couldn’t debate without also contravening the limitations imposed on free speech.

The values underlying these positions are largely incommensurable, and I suspect the rationalists came away smarting not because they didn’t see the incommensurability but because they expected Metz or anyone else to be objective to the extent that the topics of conversation in the Slate Star Codex community and the demographic characteristics of the people who tended to have them wouldn’t matter.

I realise that this is an older, more-well-hashed debate, and I’m questioning myself whether this whole ‘scandal’ – on which many smarter people have expended tens of thousands of words – can be distilled to such a simple premise. But I’m more certain that disillusionment with the ‘view from somewhere’ is part of the story, even if ironically so considering the New York Times was synonymous with the futile pursuit of objectivity during the Trump presidency.