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.