Mídia errou ao promover falso consenso científico contra possível escape laboratorial
O coronavírus causador da Covid-19 veio de um animal ou de um laboratório? Esse foi um dos debates científicos mais acalorados de 2021. Pesquisadores ainda procuram uma resposta para essa questão, mas, durante um bom tempo, a imprensa tratou-a como encerrada, promovendo um consenso que não existia.
Até meados do ano, muitos jornais levavam a sério apenas uma explicação para a origem do vírus: ele teria sido transmitido por um animal. Outras hipóteses eram chamadas de teorias da conspiração ou “história fantasiosa”, como escreveu a agência de checagem Lupa. Um texto do Globo afirmou que “o vírus não foi criado em laboratório” e que a tese do escape laboratorial interessa “a quem não quer controle sobre o desmatamento, sobre o tráfico de animais, sobre a caça” (?).
Depois, o discurso mudou. A Folha, por exemplo, cobriu o assunto com sobriedade em reportagens, colunas e editorial. O Fantástico, da TV Globo, ouviu vários pesquisadores que não descartam a hipótese do escape laboratorial. Em outros países – principalmente nos Estados Unidos – a reviravolta foi ainda maior.
Por que a imprensa errou tanto antes?
Para começar, faltou o velho e bom ceticismo. Muitas reportagens usaram como referência o estudo “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2”, de Kristian G. Andersen et al., publicado na Nature Medicine em março do ano passado,1 que dizia mostrar “claramente que o SARS-CoV-2 não é uma construção de laboratório ou um vírus propositalmente manipulado”.
Veículos limitaram-se a propagandear o artigo, e alguns foram até mais longe. “Estudo desmente teoria conspiratória”, disse o Estadão em um texto de checagem de fatos. “Os boatos de que o vírus foi manipulado pela China não passam de uma mentira. E a ciência prova”, publicou a Superinteressante.
Uma leitura atenta evitaria essas conclusões equivocadas. Diz o estudo (grifos meus):
In theory, it is possible that SARS-CoV-2 acquired RBD mutations […] during adaptation to passage in cell culture, as has been observed in studies of SARS-CoV.
Although the evidence shows that SARS-CoV-2 is not a purposefully manipulated virus, it is currently impossible to prove or disprove the other theories of its origin described here. However, since we observed all notable SARS-CoV-2 features, including the optimized RBD and polybasic cleavage site, in related coronaviruses in nature, we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.
More scientific data could swing the balance of evidence to favor one hypothesis over another.
Apesar da forte crença dos autores na origem natural do vírus, eles não descartavam a possibilidade de ele ter saído de um laboratório. (Essa posição foi posteriormente confirmada por Andersen.)
Dois meses depois, na Immunity, Rachel L. Graham e Ralph S. Baric (este, um dos mais conhecidos pesquisadores de coronavírus) elogiaram o trabalho de Andersen et al., mas advertiram: “Transparência e investigação científica aberta serão essenciais para resolver esta discussão, observando que atualmente a evidência forense de escape natural é deficiente, e outras explicações permanecem razoáveis”.
Pelo visto, os jornalistas discordavam.
O presidente Donald Trump se referiu ao patógeno por diversas vezes como “vírus chinês” e o governo americano ajudou a divulgar uma teoria conspiratória —já desmentida por estudos científicos independentes— segundo a qual o coronavírus teria “escapado” de um laboratório de biossegurança em Wuhan.
Há diversas hipóteses sobre a origem laboratorial, e algumas de fato soam conspiratórias – por exemplo, a ideia de que o vírus seria uma arma biológica. Outras, como um vazamento acidental, são mais razoáveis – talvez menos prováveis que as hipóteses de origem animal, mas longe de serem impossíveis. Toda essa nuance se perdeu na mídia, contaminada pelas declarações de Trump.
Até por isso, nos EUA a coisa foi bem pior. Veículos como o Washington Post e o site Vox reconheceram erros e reescreveram textos. O Facebook e o Instagram censuraram publicações de usuários. A agência PolitiFact anulou um de seus artigos de checagem de fatos.
Nesse ambiente, cientistas que não descartavam a hipótese da origem laboratorial sentiram-se pressionados a evitar o assunto. Quem ousava dizer que o escape laboratorial era plausível colocava a sua imagem e a sua carreira em risco.
Ainda hoje, muitos preferem não se manifestar sobre esse e outros assuntos polêmicos, principalmente quando sua posição difere da adotada pela imprensa. Mesmo opiniões cuidadosas e nuançadas tendem a ser evitadas, pois são facilmente distorcidas ou mal compreendidas pela mídia e pelo público.
Isso complica ainda mais o trabalho dos jornais, que muitas vezes se guiam por manifestações públicas – principalmente em redes sociais – para descobrir o “consenso” entre especialistas. O resultado pode ser desastroso: o anúncio de um falso consenso, que existe apenas entre personalidades conhecidas por jornalistas. Algumas chegam a ganhar status de autoridade na mídia – suas opiniões viram a “voz da ciência”, e os que delas discordam são estigmatizados.
Disse Jonathan Chait na New York:
But Twitter is the milieu in which the opinions of elite reporters take shape. And very often it is a petri dish of tribalism and confirmation bias. This dynamic is why conservative media is virtually devoid of serious journalism and overrun with propaganda. The idiotic conformity of the right’s pseudo-journalistic apparatus should inspire horror, not complacency or (worse still) envy. If progressive and mainstream media wish to avoid following this path, the lab-leak fiasco should be a case study.
Para evitar essa armadilha, os jornalistas devem fazer mais do básico: apurar bem. Isso inclui buscar também especialistas fora das redes sociais.2 O Twitter não representa a diversidade da comunidade científica. Redes sociais e academia funcionam de maneira distinta, com diferentes incentivos (até por isso, muitas pessoas com bastante audiência nas primeiras não têm muita relevância na segunda).3
A imprensa passou a aceitar a hipótese do escape laboratorial só depois da saída de Trump da presidência, da publicação de textos de autores e cientistas de renome e de uma declaração do diretor-geral da Organização Mundial da Saúde.4 Não precisaria ter esperado tudo isso se tivesse trabalhado com esmero desde o começo. A velha desculpa de que “a evidência mudou” não cabe nesse caso – nunca houve evidência forte o suficiente para decretar a origem natural como comprovada.
Exageros a favor do outro lado também são possíveis, até porque a hipótese da origem laboratorial contém detalhes muito palatáveis à narrativa jornalística – como mostram, por exemplo, as fascinantes reportagens do Wall Street Journal, da Newsweek e da Vanity Fair sobre o tema.
É difícil encontrar o equilíbrio.
Não se trata de cobrar tratamento igual a diferentes hipóteses – o que poderia resultar em uma falsa equivalência –, mas tratamento mais preciso, que represente bem o que a ciência tem a dizer. Não raro, isso inclui diferentes hipóteses com diferentes probabilidades – e, nesses casos, a imprensa deve mostrar que a hipótese mais provável não é a única possível ou correta, e que as menos prováveis não são necessariamente impossíveis ou falsas.
We [journalists, doctors, scientists, and fact-checkers] all face the temptation to write and speak with authority, even when we know in our hearts that our knowledge is human and therefore limited. Using words that say this is the best we know now, and that circumstances may change, is one of the most powerful ways of conveying this.
Journalists and fact-checkers have professional obligations to be as honest with the public as possible, but we do the public a disservice when we give them the feeling that we have all the answers.
It is not in our nature to appreciate uncertainty. It makes most of us queasy and uncomfortable. But it’s clearly part of the learning process, and it’s something we really can’t avoid. Of all the lessons we’ve learned from COVID-19, getting comfortable with the uncertainty is one of the healthiest responses.
Além de desinformar, coberturas desastradas como a aqui discutida aumentam a desconfiança do público e fazem a festa dos reais propagadores de teorias conspiratórias. “Quem garante que, agora, o que a imprensa chama de mentira é mesmo mentira?”
Infelizmente, talvez aos leitores reste mesmo desconfiar, especialmente de reportagens que transmitem uma ideia de certeza – com alusões a supostos consensos e a estudos que “provam” algo – ou que incluem citações em uníssono dos mesmos especialistas de sempre, populares nas redes sociais.
Cabe dizer ainda que uma eventual confirmação da origem natural do vírus não atenuaria os erros aqui descritos. O mesmo vale, por exemplo, para a reportagem da Folha sobre os dados de vacinas vencidas – a confirmação de que algumas delas realmente estavam vencidas não repara o erro do jornal.
Um trabalho cuidadoso beneficiaria a todos. A imprensa não continuaria a perder tanta credibilidade. A comunidade científica teria um ambiente mais saudável para debates. E a sociedade seria mais bem servida por ambas.
↑ Destaque para os textos de Nicholas Wade (“Origin of Covid — Following the Clues“) e Donald G. McNeil Jr. (“How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love the Lab-Leak Theory“) em maio no Medium e o de Nicholson Baker (“The Lab-Leak Hypothesis“) em janeiro na New York. Eli Vieira traduziu o artigo de Wade na Gazeta do Povo.
Agence France-Presse. “Em resposta aos EUA, laboratório de Wuhan nega ser fonte de novo coronavírus”. Folha de S.Paulo, 19 de abril de 2020.
Agencia EFE. “OMS desmente teoria da conspiração de que o coronavírus saiu de laboratório”. O Estado de S. Paulo, 21 de abril de 2020.
“Para um terço dos americanos, coronavírus foi criado em laboratório, diz pesquisa”. O Globo, 14 de abril de 2020.
Maurício Moraes. “Na web, teorias da conspiração apontam China e EUA como criadores da Covid-19”. Agência Lupa, 4 de agosto de 2020.
Ana Lucia Azevedo. “Natural ou vazado de um laboratório: entenda a polêmica científica sobre a origem da Covid-19”. O Globo, 29 de maio de 2021.
Ana Bottallo, Everton Lopes Batista. “Lacuna sobre origem do coronavírus preocupa mas pode demorar para ser preenchida”. Folha de S.Paulo, 12 de junho de 2021.
Reinaldo José Lopes. “Origem do coronavírus em laboratório não pode ser descartada, mas fonte natural é mais provável”. Folha de S.Paulo, 29 de maio de 2021.
“A origem do vírus”. Editorial. Folha de S.Paulo, 31 de maio de 2021.
Álvaro Pereira Júnior. “Cientistas investigam hipóteses sobre a origem do coronavírus; entenda”. Fantástico, 6 de junho de 2021.
Álvaro Pereira Júnior. “Polêmica sobre origem da Covid esquenta após imagens de morcegos no que seria laboratório de Wuhan”. Fantástico, 20 de junho de 2021.
Ana Carolina Amaral. “Coronavírus tem origem natural e não foi feito em laboratório, mostra estudo”. Folha de S.Paulo, 18 de março de 2020.
Alessandra Monnerat. “Coronavírus: estudo desmente teoria conspiratória sobre criação em laboratório da China”. O Estado de S. Paulo, 19 de março de 2020.
Carolina Fioratti. “Sim, o coronavírus veio da natureza – e não de um laboratório”. Superinteressante, 19 de março de 2020.
James Gorman, Carl Zimmer. “Scientist Opens Up About His Early Email to Fauci on Virus Origins”. The New York Times, 14 de junho de 2021.
Marcelo Leite. “Ninguém provou que Trump e Bolsonaro erraram origem do Sars-CoV-2”. Folha de S.Paulo, 8 de maio de 2021.
Marcelo Coelho. “Biden e a Madame Morcego reavivam o que seriam fake news da origem da Covid”. Folha de S.Paulo, 1º de junho de 2021.
Reuters. “China prende jornalista australiana sem divulgar acusação formal”. Folha de S.Paulo, 1º de setembro de 2020.
Paulina Firozi. “Tom Cotton keeps repeating a coronavirus fringe theory that scientists have disputed”. The Washington Post, 17 de fevereiro de 2020.
Eliza Barclay. “The conspiracy theories about the origins of the coronavirus, debunked”. Vox, 4 de março de 2020.
Daniel Funke. “Tucker Carlson guest airs debunked conspiracy theory that COVID-19 was created in a lab”. PolitiFact, 16 de setembro de 2020.
Carl Zimmer, James Gorman, Benjamin Mueller. “Scientists Don’t Want to Ignore the ‘Lab Leak’ Theory, Despite No New Evidence”. The New York Times, 27 de maio de 2021.
Jonathan Chait. “How Twitter Cultivated the Media’s Lab-Leak Fiasco”. New York, 26 de maio de 2021.
Jeremy Page, Betsy McKay, Drew Hinshaw. “The Wuhan Lab Leak Question: A Disused Chinese Mine Takes Center Stage”. The Wall Street Journal, 24 de maio de 2021.
Rowan Jacobsen. “Exclusive: How Amateur Sleuths Broke the Wuhan Lab Story and Embarrassed the Media”. Newsweek, 2 de junho de 2021.
Katherine Eban. “The Lab-Leak Theory: Inside the Fight to Uncover COVID-19’s Origins”. Vanity Fair, 3 de junho de 2021.
Angie Drobnic Holan. “Can scientific uncertainties about COVID-19 be fact-checked?”. Poynter, 28 de maio de 2021.
Estêvão Gamba, Sabine Righetti. “Milhares no Brasil tomaram vacina vencida contra Covid; veja se você é um deles”. Folha de S.Paulo, 2 de julho de 2021.
Nicholson Baker. “The Lab-Leak Hypothesis”. New York, 4 de janeiro de 2021.
Michael Worobey. “Dissecting the early COVID-19 cases in Wuhan”. Science, 18 de novembro de 2021.
Kristian G. Andersen et al. “The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2”. Nature Medicine, 17 de março de 2020.
Rachel L. Graham, Ralph S. Baric. “SARS-CoV-2: Combating Coronavirus Emergence”. Immunity, 8 de maio de 2020.
Edward C. Holmes et al. “The origins of SARS-CoV-2: A critical review”. Cell, 18 de agosto de 2021.
Jesse D. Bloom et al. “Investigate the origins of COVID-19”. Science, 14 de maio de 2021.
“A imprensa e a hidroxicloroquina”. Nota Bene, 29 de dezembro de 2020.
Guy Rosen. “An Update on Our Work to Keep People Informed and Limit Misinformation About COVID-19”. Facebook, 16 de abril de 2020.
“WHO calls for further studies, data on origin of SARS-CoV-2 virus, reiterates that all hypotheses remain open”. World Health Organization, 30 de março de 2021.
“A miséria da crítica jornalística”. Nota Bene, 17 de fevereiro de 2021.
Zeynep Tufekci. “How the Twitter/Media Feedback Loop Can Work to Undermine Our Understanding”. Insight, 27 de maio de 2021.
Matthew Yglesias. “The media’s lab leak fiasco”. Slow Boring, 26 de maio de 2021.
Nicholas Wade. “Origin of Covid — Following the Clues”. Medium, 2 de maio de 2021.
Donald G. McNeil Jr. “How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love the Lab-Leak Theory”. Medium, 17 de maio de 2021.
Many scholars know that Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind is full of errors and inaccuracies, but from time to time I stumble upon smart people – academics, researchers, public intellectuals – praising the book. They should read some reviews first.
Actually, one may be enough. Charles C. Mann did a great job exposing some of the problems in the book in 2015, for the Wall Street Journal.
Nobody can be an expert about everything, and it’s not exactly surprising that Mr. Harari’s sweeping summations are studded with errors—there are always fleas on the lion, as a teacher of mine once told me. The question is whether there is a lion under the fleas. “Sapiens” is learned, thought-provoking and crisply written. It has plenty of confidence and swagger. But some of its fleas are awfully big.
There’s a whiff of dorm-room bull sessions about the author’s stimulating but often unsourced assertions. Or perhaps I should use a more contemporary simile: “Sapiens” reminded me occasionally of a discussions on Reddit, where users sound off about supposed iron laws of history. This book is what these Reddit threads would be like if they were written not by adolescent autodidacts but by learned academics with impish senses of humor. As I write, my daughter is glumly making flashcards full of names and dates for an AP Euro exam. I bet she wishes she had a textbook like “Sapiens.” Me? I’m not so sure. I like the book’s verve and pop but wish it didn’t have all those fleas.
His examples are great.
A good example how ‘Sapiens’ works.
Harari makes his readers believe that a 20-year life expectancy for 45-year-olds means that foragers enjoyed good health.
In fact that suggests worse health than England in 1850 (when health there was by any standard absolutely miserable).
Some popular books suggest that hunter-gatherers were healthy.
This historical study finds that 49% of children in the studied hunter-gatherer societies died during childhood:
Is there competing evidence that suggests that the popular books are right?
The idea that hunter-gatherers lived wonderful lives and that we got cheated when we switched to agriculture is one of the dumbest ideas believed by smart people. I opened Sapiens, saw that, and immediately put it down.
In 2019, on his blog:
Recently I read, rather by accident than design, short lives of several contemporary economists. What struck me was their bareness. The lives sounded like CVs. Actually, there was hardly any difference between their CVs and their lives (to the extent that I could tell).
Can you have a boring life and be a first-rate social scientist? To some extent, probably yes. […] But I think it is unlikely: because it in human nature, however smart we may be, to understand certain things or to look at different and new aspects of an issue, only when we face the problem ourselves.
Orderly and boring lives are a privilege of rich and orderly societies. We all (perhaps except when we are 25) wish to lead such lives. But they are also very limited lives: the range of emotions and choices that we experience is narrow.
But if our life is a CV, can we understand human choices and human nature—a precondition for being a great social scientist? By asking that question, are we not asking whether well-behaved individuals in orderly and rich societies can really produce breakthroughs in social sciences. Or will their lessons remain circumscribed to orderly and rich societies only and to orderly and boring people, and not carry over to the rest of the world?
Puni-los com o fim da fila prejudica também a sociedade; é melhor deixá-los agir ou talvez até ajudá-los
Cidades brasileiras têm adotado medidas contra os chamados “sommeliers de vacina” – quem escolhe ou rejeita imunizantes de laboratórios específicos. Tais ações podem ser danosas para a sociedade. Deixá-los agir ou até mesmo ajudá-los pode ser melhor do que puni-los.
O castigo mais comum é o envio ao fim da fila: a pessoa que se recusa a receber a vacina oferecida no posto precisa aguardar semanas ou meses até ter uma nova oportunidade de se vacinar – e nada garante que ela conseguirá o imunizante desejado.
A ideia é incentivar a população a aceitar a vacina disponível, independentemente da marca. Espera-se que as pessoas prefiram isso a continuar sem vacina por mais tempo.
Mas essas medidas parecem menosprezar o impacto dos que preferem a punição – os sommeliers mais convictos, com forte preferência ou rejeição à vacina de um determinado laboratório. Ao irem para o fim da fila, eles prejudicam não apenas a si próprios, mas toda a sociedade, que fica com um número maior de pessoas não vacinadas por um período mais longo. É o que tem ocorrido em algumas cidades – em São Paulo, já são mais de 2 mil.
Em comparação, os sommeliers em lugares sem punição buscam incessantemente a marca desejada e logo se vacinam – se não no mesmo dia, provavelmente na mesma semana. Sim, até encontrar o imunizante, eles podem atrapalhar – ocupam lugar em filas, tomam o tempo de profissionais nos postos etc. –, mas menos do que os punidos com o fim da fila, que circulam não vacinados por muito mais tempo.
Se a prioridade é vacinar o maior número de pessoas no período mais curto possível, as medidas contra os sommeliers não ajudam – pelo contrário, podem ser danosas para a sociedade. Políticas de saúde não devem ser guiadas por populismo punitivista (que já faz um grande estrago na segurança pública).
O que fazer, então? Talvez o melhor seja simplesmente nada – deixar os sommeliers agirem. Afinal, não há evidência de que eles estejam causando muitos problemas.
Outra ideia, mais controversa, é ajudá-los. Se a sociedade se prejudica ao puni-los, talvez se beneficie ao ajudá-los.
As prefeituras poderiam, por exemplo, divulgar (em sites, cartazes etc.) as vacinas disponíveis em cada posto, tornando públicas informações que já circulam em sites e grupos de WhatsApp e Telegram. (A Prefeitura de São Paulo faz isso para a segunda dose; poderia fazer também para a primeira.) Com isso, os sommeliers deixariam de atrapalhar e tomariam logo a vacina, e teríamos mais vacinados em menos tempo.
Quem tem um motivo mais “legítimo” para escolher uma vacina específica – gravidez, amamentação, condições médicas, viagens importantes – poderia achá-la com facilidade e não passaria pelo constrangimento de ver sua necessidade confundida com reles capricho. E quem não tem preferência por marca alguma poderia se beneficiar de filas menores em postos preteridos pelos sommeliers.
Claro, nem tudo são flores. Essa ideia aumenta a complexidade do sistema e também pode dar errado.
Ela poderia transmitir a equivocada mensagem de que não há problema em escolher, estimulando pessoas sem forte preferência, normalmente indiferentes à marca da vacina, a virar sommelier.
Postos com as vacinas mais procuradas poderiam ter filas muito longas. E um possível acúmulo das menos desejadas poderia levar ao vencimento de doses.
Por outro lado, é possível que o aumento no número de sommeliers seja mínimo, que um sistema de senhas ou agendamento amenize filas mais longas e que as vacinas não cheguem a vencer (a oferta é insuficiente).
Aparentemente, não temos dados o suficiente para saber se essa ideia daria certo. Experimentá-la por um tempo pode gerar alguma evidência a nortear o melhor caminho a seguir.
Quem defende a vacinação diz que, geralmente, é melhor prevenir do que remediar. Ajudar os sommeliers pode prevenir a sociedade dos males causados por eles.
Back in February, the New York Times published a story about Scott Alexander (Slate Star Codex). This generated some interesting comments, and my plan was to read all – or at least most – of them and publish some bits here. Unfortunately (or not – it probably wouldn’t be a good use of my time), things happened, and I didn’t have time to do so. Nonetheless, I’m posting a few quotes from three articles here.
Matthew Yglesias, “In defense of interesting writing on controversial topics” (Slow Boring):
But in progressive circles, it is common to observe the norm that because the struggle against racism and misogyny is important, it is impolite to dissent from an anti-racist claim or argument unless you have some overwhelmingly important reason for doing so.
In the (liberal, coastal, urban, very political) circles that I travel, everyone (especially parents) knows and acknowledges that men and women are, on average, different in ways that end up mattering for the distribution of outcomes. But everyone also believes that sexism and misogyny are significant problems in the world, and that the people struggling against those problems are worthy of admiration and praise. So to leap into a conversation about sexism and misogyny yelling “WELL ACTUALLY GIOLLA AND KAJONIUS FIND THAT SEX DIFFERENCES IN PERSONALITY ARE LARGER IN COUNTRIES WITH MORE GENDER EQUALITY” would be considered a rude and undermining thing to do. This is just to say that most people are not rationalists — they believe that statements can be evaluated on grounds beyond truth and falsity. There is suspicion of the guy who is “just asking questions.”
The pure vision of the rationalists and the belief that statements could or should be read devoid of context or purely literally strikes me as untenable. But I think that in the Trump era, journalism as a whole has tilted too far in Lowrey’s direction, with too much room-reading and groupthink and not enough appreciation of the value of annoying people with inconvenient observations.
I think contemporary society is willing itself into a state of incredible stupidity by wanting to evaluate the worthwhileness of reading something purely on the basis of whether or not it’s correct.
But even more so, social media incentivizes the wrong kind of reading. Today you read someone from a rival school of thought in order to find the paragraph or sentence that, when pulled out of context and paired with a witty Twitter quip, will garner you lots of little hearts.
That said, the way you learn things and get smarter is to read strong writers and try to understand what they’re saying — not by trying to pick it apart for clout or finding ways to caricature and snark about it. Instead, try to understand what it is the writer is saying and why people believe that.
Will Wilkinson, “Grey Lady Steel Man” (Model Citizen):
The level of contempt for the New York Times is unwarranted, ideological, and totally out of control. Yeah, the place has plenty of problems. It’s a massive bureaucratic institution that is, thanks to its incredible reach and the nature of its mission, inevitably at the center of the national and global conversation about issues that people are literally killing each other over. (That’s often the story!) It gathers and publishes an epic amount of information at a furious pace in a way that requires thousands of thorny judgment calls every single day. So yeah, it’s gonna fuck up. Because it is massively influential, people are going to be pissed off by those fuck-ups — all the time.
This can lead to a radically distorted picture, since the astonishing amount of stellar, expert reportorial and editorial judgment embodied in each and every edition is completely invisible. The New York Times (and the Post and the Journal) nails difficult judgment calls like Stephon Curry nails threes. But just imagine if ESPN only ever showed clips of the superhuman, laser-guided mayor of downtown shooting airballs and clanking it off the side of the backboard. It happens! Well, that’s what’s going on here. So I’m going to pound the table and insist, once again, that the New York Times ranks among our best and most valuable institutions devoted to the rapid discovery and dissemination of relevant and/or interesting truths about the human world — news.
Believe it or not (but you should believe it), the culture of the Times (and similar outfits) is profoundly committed to objectivity, verifiable fact and unbiased reporting. (When I write fact-heavy opinion pieces for the Times, they get fact-checked, which is not pretty rare.) Does it suffer from bias? Of course it does! It is produced by humans. Is it hampered by a lack of viewpoint diversity? Of course it is! Sorting and self-selection dynamics push all sorts of professions in the direction of cultural and ideological homogeneity. However, the same dynamic affects informal, leisure-time affinity groups, like the SSC community, in spades.
The professional culture of New York Times is _far _more concerned to correct for the biases of self-selection than the culture that’s evolved around Scott Siskind’s blogs, for the simple and obvious reason that it has a powerful rubber-hitting-the-road incentive to care.
Reporting is a hard job devoted in large measure to ferreting out truths that the subjects of the story you are writing are actively trying to conceal. I think it’s important to emphasize that there is simply no sense — none! — in which people who like to talk about epistemology on the Internet are more committed to objectivity and truth than experienced reporters who, in the service of truth, navigate mazes of lies, gaslighting, spin, bullshit and threats for a living.
Good points. It’s interesting how wrong Scott Alexander and some of his fans can get when they talk about journalism.
And one funny bit by Scott Sumner, “Understanding middlebrow” (The Money Illusion):
The NYT has 7.5 million subscribers, mostly progressives in the 90-99% range. These people feel very smart, and they are in fact smarter than 90% of the population. So there’s no point bemoaning the fact that the NYT is not about to tell it’s readers that, “Actually, we provide middlebrow news analysis, and if you want brilliant inspired analysis you need to read blogs like SlateStarCodex.”
Yes, the NYT story is awful in all the ways that are currently being discussed by its critics, but the fundamental problem is inescapable. Any time a powerful middlebrow entity (which wrongly thinks it’s highbrow) evaluates an actual highbrow entity, you will end up with a mixture of resentment and incomprehension. This case is no different. It’s just how things work.
Scott Alexander should view this story as a badge of honor. “My insights are so subtle that even the NYT was in over its head trying to figure me out.”
That reminded me of Bertrand Russell in A History of Western Philosophy:
A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says is never accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something that he can understand. I would rather be reported by my bitterest enemy among philosophers than by a friend innocent of philosophy.
Ezra Klein, in the New York Times:
California has the highest poverty rate in the nation, when you factor in housing costs, and vies for the top spot in income inequality, too. […] California is dominated by Democrats, but many of the people Democrats claim to care about most can’t afford to live there.
There is an old finding in political science that Americans are “symbolically conservative” but “operationally liberal.” Americans talk like conservatives but want to be governed like liberals. In California, the same split political personality exists, but in reverse: We’re often symbolically liberal, but operationally conservative.
This is a crisis that reveals California’s conservatism — not the political conservatism that privatizes Medicare, but the temperamental conservatism that stands athwart change and yells “Stop!” In much of San Francisco, you can’t walk 20 feet without seeing a multicolored sign declaring that Black lives matter, kindness is everything and no human being is illegal. Those signs sit in yards zoned for single families, in communities that organize against efforts to add the new homes that would bring those values closer to reality. Poorer families — disproportionately nonwhite and immigrant — are pushed into long commutes, overcrowded housing and homelessness. Those inequalities have turned deadly during the pandemic.
“If you’re living eight or 10 people to a home, it’s hard to protect yourself from the virus,” Senator Wiener told me. “Yet what we see at times is people with a Bernie Sanders sign and a ‘Black Lives Matter’ sign in their window, but they’re opposing an affordable housing project or an apartment complex down the street.”
There is a danger — not just in California, but everywhere — that politics becomes an aesthetic rather than a program. It’s a danger on the right, where Donald Trump modeled a presidency that cared more about retweets than bills. But it’s also a danger on the left, where the symbols of progressivism are often preferred to the sacrifices and risks those ideals demand.
The most impressive people I know care a lot about what people think, even people whose opinions they really shouldn’t value […]. But what makes them unusual is that they generally care about other people’s opinions on a very long time horizon—as long as the history books get it right, they take some pride in letting the newspapers get it wrong.
You should trade being short-term low-status for being long-term high-status, which most people seem unwilling to do. A common way this happens is by eventually being right about an important but deeply non-consensus bet. But there are lots of other ways–the key observation is that as long as you are right, being misunderstood by most people is a strength not a weakness. You and a small group of rebels get the space to solve an important problem that might otherwise not get solved.
Ross Douthat thinks so. In the New York Times:
The place of Foucault in 2021 is not just a matter of academic interest; his changing position tells us a great deal about recent evolutions of both the left and the right.
If Foucault’s thought offers a radical critique of all forms of power and administrative control, then as the cultural left becomes more powerful and the cultural right more marginal, the left will have less use for his theories, and the right may find them more insightful.
To be provocative, you could say that the French philosopher was a satanic figure in multiple senses of the term: personally a wicked hedonist who rejected limits on adult appetites (whether or not the Tunisia allegations are true, Foucault explicitly argued for the legitimacy of pederasty) and philosophically a skeptical accuser, like the Satan who appears in the Book of Job, ready to point the finger at the cracks, cruelties and hypocrisies in any righteous order, to deconstruct any system of power that claims to have truth and virtue on its side.
In turn, that makes his work useful to any movement at war with established “power-knowledge,” to use Foucauldian jargon, but dangerous and somewhat embarrassing once that movement finds itself responsible for the order of the world. And so the ideological shifts of the pandemic era, the Foucault realignment, tells us something significant about the balance of power in the West — where the cultural left increasingly understands itself as a new establishment of “power-knowledge,” requiring piety and loyalty more than accusation and critique.
You could imagine a timeline in which the left was much more skeptical of experts, lockdowns and vaccine requirements — deploying Foucauldian categories to champion the individual’s bodily autonomy against the state’s system of control, defending popular skepticism against official knowledge, rejecting bureaucratic health management as just another mask for centralizing power.
But left-wingers with those impulses have ended up allied with the populist and conspiratorial right. Meanwhile, the left writ large opted instead for a striking merger of technocracy and progressive ideology: a world of “Believe the science,” where science required pandemic lockdowns but made exceptions for a March for Black Trans Lives, where Covid and structural racism were both public health emergencies, where scientific legitimacy and identity politics weren’t opposed but intertwined.
The impulse to establish legitimacy and order informs a lot of action on the left these days. The idea that the left is relativistic belongs to an era when progressives were primarily defining themselves against white heteronormative Christian patriarchy, with Foucauldian acid as a solvent for the old regime. Nobody watching today’s progressivism at work would call it relativistic: Instead, the goal is increasingly to find new rules, new hierarchies, new moral categories to govern the post-Christian, post-patriarchal, post-cis-het world.
To this end, the categories of identity politics, originally embraced as liberative contrasts to older strictures, are increasingly used to structure a moral order of their own: to define who defers to whom, who can make sexual advances to whom and when, who speaks for which group, who gets special respect and who gets special scrutiny, what vocabulary is enlightened and which words are newly suspect, and what kind of guild rules and bureaucratic norms preside.
His thoughts on life choices, education, prestige, and other subjects.
Though I liked programming, I didn’t plan to study it in college. In college I was going to study philosophy, which sounded much more powerful. It seemed, to my naive high school self, to be the study of the ultimate truths, compared to which the things studied in other fields would be mere domain knowledge. What I discovered when I got to college was that the other fields took up so much of the space of ideas that there wasn’t much left for these supposed ultimate truths. All that seemed left for philosophy were edge cases that people in other fields felt could safely be ignored.
Computer Science is an uneasy alliance between two halves, theory and systems. The theory people prove things, and the systems people build things. I wanted to build things. I had plenty of respect for theory — indeed, a sneaking suspicion that it was the more admirable of the two halves — but building things seemed so much more exciting.
The problem with systems work, though, was that it didn’t last. Any program you wrote today, no matter how good, would be obsolete in a couple decades at best. People might mention your software in footnotes, but no one would actually use it. And indeed, it would seem very feeble work. Only people with a sense of the history of the field would even realize that, in its time, it had been good.
I wanted not just to build things, but to build things that would last.
One day I went to visit the Carnegie Institute, where I’d spent a lot of time as a kid. While looking at a painting there I realized something that might seem obvious, but was a big surprise to me. There, right on the wall, was something you could make that would last. Paintings didn’t become obsolete. Some of the best ones were hundreds of years old.
[T]he most important thing I learned, and which I used in both Viaweb and Y Combinator, is that the low end eats the high end: that it’s good to be the “entry level” option, even though that will be less prestigious, because if you’re not, someone else will be, and will squash you against the ceiling. Which in turn means that prestige is a danger sign.
One day in late 1994 […] there was something on the radio about a famous fund manager. He wasn’t that much older than me, and was super rich. The thought suddenly occurred to me: why don’t I become rich? Then I’ll be able to work on whatever I want.
Meanwhile I’d been hearing more and more about this new thing called the World Wide Web. Robert Morris showed it to me when I visited him in Cambridge, where he was now in grad school at Harvard. It seemed to me that the web would be a big deal. I’d seen what graphical user interfaces had done for the popularity of microcomputers. It seemed like the web would do the same for the internet.
If I wanted to get rich, here was the next train leaving the station.
I knew that online essays would be a marginal medium at first. Socially they’d seem more like rants posted by nutjobs on their GeoCities sites than the genteel and beautifully typeset compositions published in The New Yorker. But by this point I knew enough to find that encouraging instead of discouraging.
One of the most conspicuous patterns I’ve noticed in my life is how well it has worked, for me at least, to work on things that weren’t prestigious. Still life has always been the least prestigious form of painting. Viaweb and Y Combinator both seemed lame when we started them. I still get the glassy eye from strangers when they ask what I’m writing, and I explain that it’s an essay I’m going to publish on my web site. Even Lisp, though prestigious intellectually in something like the way Latin is, also seems about as hip.
It’s not that unprestigious types of work are good per se. But when you find yourself drawn to some kind of work despite its current lack of prestige, it’s a sign both that there’s something real to be discovered there, and that you have the right kind of motives. Impure motives are a big danger for the ambitious. If anything is going to lead you astray, it will be the desire to impress people. So while working on things that aren’t prestigious doesn’t guarantee you’re on the right track, it at least guarantees you’re not on the most common type of wrong one.
[…] I worked hard even at the parts I didn’t like. I was haunted by something Kevin Hale once said about companies: “No one works harder than the boss.” He meant it both descriptively and prescriptively, and it was the second part that scared me. I wanted YC to be good, so if how hard I worked set the upper bound on how hard everyone else worked, I’d better work very hard.
 There is a general lesson here that our experience with Y Combinator also teaches: Customs continue to constrain you long after the restrictions that caused them have disappeared. […]
Which in turn implies that people who are independent-minded (i.e. less influenced by custom) will have an advantage in fields affected by rapid change (where customs are more likely to be obsolete).
The Resident Contrarian:
A few years back, my wife was at a baby shower hosted by a friend by a mutual acquaintance. In a conversation with the hostess, my wife learned they were in a tough financial position – they were always broke, and no amount of budgeting seemed to help them get ahead; they had cut every cost they could and things were just getting worse and worse. She admitted to my wife that she just felt like she was sinking further and further underwater, and didn’t see any way out for her or her family.
Note: The hostess and her husband were both doctors. They had a combined income somewhere upwards of $200,000 a year, and as the conversation developed my wife learned that their problems started and stopped with the hostess not being able to save quite as much as she’d like once the payments on their very nice house and current-year cars were made. At the time she leaned on my wife for emotional support over finances, our family of four’s income was less than $30,000 a year.
You should know the hostess wasn’t mean-spirited in the least, and we liked her then and continue to do so. But she did have a kind of tunnel vision I’ve since noticed is increasingly common: If you came from a family that did pretty well financially, went to college and then immediately started to do pretty well yourself, it’s hard to get any kind of context for what life is like at lower income levels. This isn’t a matter of the relatively-wealthy being dumb or insensitive; it’s just legitimately difficult to get a handle on what it’s like in a life you’ve never lived, and often being legitimately confused as to why anyone would opt to make less money instead of improving their lot with training and education.
In that spirit, I’d like to offer my services as a sort of has-been-poor guide, to fill you in on what it’s like on the other side of the tracks.
This reminded me of these great (and sad) Reddit threads: