From the New Yorker:
How a controversial rationalist blogger became a mascot and martyr in a struggle against the New York Times.
By Gideon Lewis-Kraus
July 9, 2020
On June 22nd, visitors to Slate Star Codex, a long-standing blog of considerable influence, discovered that the site’s cerulean banner and graying WordPress design scheme had been superseded by a barren white layout. In the place of its usual catalogue of several million words of fiction, book reviews, essays, and miscellanea, as well as at least as voluminous an archive of reader commentary, was a single post of atypical brevity. “So,” it began, “I kind of deleted the blog. Sorry. Here’s my explanation.” The farewell post was attributed, like virtually all of the blog’s entries since its inception, in 2013, to Scott Alexander, the pseudonym of a Bay Area psychiatrist—the title “Slate Star Codex” is an imperfect anagram of the alias—and it put forth a rationale for this online self-immolation.
“Last week I talked to a New York Times technology reporter who was planning to write a story on Slate Star Codex,” the post continued. “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.” …
The final post went on, “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.” Alexander explained that he has a variety of reasons to prefer that his real name, which can be ascertained with minimal investigation, be left out of the paper of record. As a psychiatrist, he suspects that his relationships with his patients could be compromised if they were made aware of his “personal” blog, which gets six hundred thousand monthly page views.
That’s less than iSteve, although SSC’s pages are likely considerably longer.
… Many rationalist exchanges involve lively if donnish arguments about abstruse thought experiments; the most famous, and funniest, example, from LessWrong, led inexorably to the conclusion that anyone who read the post and did not immediately set to work to create a superintelligent A.I. would one day be subject to its torture. Others reflect a near-pathological commitment to the reinvention of the wheel, using the language of game theory to explain, with mathematical rigor, some fact of social life that anyone trained in the humanities would likely accept as a given. A minority address issues that are contentious and at times offensive. These conversations, about race and genetic or biological differences between the sexes, have rightfully drawn criticism from outsiders. Rationalists usually point out that these debates represent a tiny fraction of the community’s total activity, and that they are overrepresented in the comments section of S.C.C. by a small but loud and persistent cohort—one that includes, for example, Steve Sailer, a peddler of “scientific racism.”
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.
Monstrous, monstrous, I tell you!
They have given safe harbor to some genuinely egregious ideas, and controversial opinions have not been limited to the comments. It was widely surmised within the S.S.C. community, for example, that the arguments in the engineer James Damore’s infamous Google memo, for which he was fired, were drawn directly from an S.S.C. post in which Alexander explored and upheld research into innate biological differences between men and women. (As it turned out, the Damore memo was written before the post, but there was a noticeable overlap between them.) 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.
One of Alexander’s particularly controversial posts, written shortly after Donald Trump’s election, took up the question of whether it was accurate to call the President’s racism “overt.” Alexander, despite his unambiguous distaste for the President and endorsement (in swing states) of Hillary Clinton, presented evidence for the semantic claim that Trump’s actions did not qualify as “overt” racism. (Alexander is conscientious in his efforts to, as the community likes to put it, “update his priors,” and, since that post, he has not minced words about the President.) In 2017, Alexander identified himself as a member of the “hereditarian left,” defined as the ability to believe, on the one hand, that genetic differences play a determining role in human affairs and, on the other, that we ought to act as though they don’t. Often nothing at all appears to turn on such arguments. The rationalists regularly fail to reckon with power as it is practiced, or history as it has been experienced
Did I mention redlining?
, and they indulge themselves in such contests with the freedom of those who have largely escaped discrimination.
… Gideon Lewis-Kraus is a staff writer at The New Yorker. He is the author of the memoir “A Sense of Direction” and the Kindle Single “No Exit.”