Slate Star Codex vs. the New York Times

Last spring a New York Times reporter named Cade Metz interviewed a San Francisco-based psychiatrist who called himself Scott Alexander about his influential Slate Star Codex blog.

Alexander requested that the NYT article not reveal his real name, and the reporter said that was against NYT policy.  Alexander responded by taking down his blog.

A huge controversy ensued, involving journalistic ethics, Internet anonymity, “toxic ideas,” free speech, the culture of Silicon Valley, the clash between self-described rationalists and self-described progressives and much else.

Since then Alexander has started a new blog under his real name, Scott Siskind.

I find the whole debate highly interesting, but don’t have any particular wisdom of my own to add, except to say that I think Scott Siskind is in the right. 

Instead I have gathered links for anybody who’s interested in delving into it.


Slate Star Codex and Silicon Valley’s War Against the Media by Gideon Lewis-Kraus for The New Yorker.  A reasonably impartial overview.

NYT Is Threatening My Safety by Revealing My Real Name, So I Am Deleting This Blog by “Scott Alexander” for Slate Star Codex.

Still Alive by Scott Siskind for Astral Codex Ten.

Silicon Valley’s Safe Space by Cade Metz for The New York Times.

Statement on the New York Times article by Scott Siskind for Astral Codex Ten.

[Added Later]  Radicalizing the Romanceless by Scott Alexander for Slate Star Codex.  This is the post from 2014 in which he said that certain feminists “are blurring the already thin line between ‘feminism’ and ‘literally Voldemort’.”  I thank Cade Metz for the link, because I never would read this interesting post if he had not linked to it.

Also, here’s a link to an explanation of the motte and bailey fallacy.

[Added Still Later]  Who is Scott Alexander and what is he about? by Jason Crawford, author of The Roots of Progress. This is a list of Scott Alexander’s greatest hits.

In defense of interesting writing on controversial topics by Matthew Yglesias for Slow Boring.  The title of this blog is taken from the sociologist Max Weber’s saying that politics consists of slow boring on hard boards.  I more or less agree with his view of Siskind, his blog and the rationalist movement.

You may ask: If I am so impressed by Scott Alexander Siskind, why isn’t he on my blogroll?  I suppose the reason was that most of his posts were on topics I’m not interested in.  But anyway, he is now.

[Update 2/16/2021]  I didn’t originally intend to write so much about Scott Alexander Siskind and his blogs, but I became interested in his old posts and spent a lot of time yesterday reading them.  Here are links to several of the good ones.

The Anti-Reactionary FAQ on Slate Star Codex.  An analysis and rebuttal of the “Dark Enlightenment” and other philosophies of self-described reactionaries.

Gender Imbalances Are Mostly Not Due to Offensive Attitudes and Contra Grant on Exaggerated Differences on Slate Star Codex. An argument that the differences between representation of women and men in different occupations is due to average differences in preferences, not differences in abilities.  Also a plea for respecting good faith disagreement on these issues.

Coronavirus: Links, Discussion, Open Thread on Astral Codex Ten.  A good summary of the current situation and warning against complacency.

S.A. Siskind is highly intelligent, deeply learned, intellectually honest, witty, readable and well-meaning.  I have great respect for him have frequently quoted him and often link to his posts. 

But I have to say I also disagree with him in fundamental ways.  He sees things that other people miss, but also overlooks things I think are obvious.

For example, he believes in basing decisions on data, but he privileges data from official sources—for example, he accepts the figures given by the U.S. Department of Defense on civilian casualties in the various U.S. wars, rather than unofficial sources such as the Lancet, which quote much higher figures. 

He believes in a philosophy called Effective Altruism.  This means you should focus your charitable giving on where it will do the most good, rather than on the things you care about the most.  It would be better to contribute to elimination of some minor but overlooked disease in Africa than to give to your church or to homeless shelters in your own city.

The problem with this is that it overlooks the emotional component in altruism.  If you separate altruism from feelings of sympathy, you risk eliminating the altruism.

Also, the best contribution we Americans could make to the rest of the world would be to stop bombing foreign countries, stop using economic sanctions to starve foreign countries into submission, stop subsidizing warlords and oppressive dictators, stop assassinations and torture and commit to obeying international law and our own laws. 

This is outside his frame of reference.

Siskind lacks a sense of crisis.  He doesn’t consider that an economic crisis, a resource crisis, a climate crisis or a global war may very well turn his world, and everybody else’s, upside down.

He worries more about the lack of information and critical thinking skills among the ignorant many, than about the concentration of wealth and power in the unaccountable few.  He focuses on conflicts of ideas, not on struggles for power.  He has good insights, but also many blind spots.

Or, to put it another way, he is a progressive and I am (as I am coming to realize) a populist.

[Afterthought 2/21/2021]

The issue between Scott Suskind and the New York Times was the issue of whether he deserved anonymity.  Yet the NYT publishes articles all the time based on false statements by anonymous official sources.  This includes the false claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the whole Russiagate goose chase and more recently the false report that a Capitol police officer was killed by being struck on the head with a fire extinguisher.

Yes, the NYT publishes many good articles.  Yes, Fox News and the rest of the Murdoch press may be worse.  But the NYT can no longer be trusted as an impartial seeker of accurate knowledge.  I recommend the following:

Scott Alexander is not in the Gizmodo Media Slack by Freddie deBoer.

A grand anticlimax: the New York Times on Scott Alexander by Scott Aaronson on Shtetl-Optimized.

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