On standing up sans backbone

Note: To get myself into the spirit of writing this post, tonight I watched the 2019 movie Mr. Jones, about the true story of the coverup of Stalin’s 1932-3 mass famine by New York Times journalist Walter Duranty. Recommended!

In my last post, I wrote that despite all my problems with Cade Metz’s New York Times hit piece on Scott Alexander, I’d continue talking to journalists—even Metz himself, I added, assuming he’d still talk to me after my public disparagement of his work. Over the past few days, though, the many counterarguments in my comments section and elsewhere gradually caused me to change my mind. I now feel like to work with Metz again, even just on some quantum computing piece, would be to reward—and to be seen as rewarding—journalistic practices that are making the world worse, and that this consideration overrides even my extreme commitment to openness.

At the least, before I could talk to Metz again, I’d need a better understanding of how the hit piece happened. What was the role of the editors? How did the original hook—namely, the rationalist community’s early rightness about covid-19—disappear entirely from the article? How did the piece manage to evince so little curiosity about such an unusual subculture and such a widely-admired writer? How did it fail so completely to engage with the rationalists’ ideas, instead jumping immediately to “six degrees of Peter Thiel” and other reductive games? How did an angry SneerClubber, David Gerard, end up (according to his own boast) basically dictating the NYT piece’s content?

It’s always ripping-off-a-bandage painful to admit when trust in another person was wildly misplaced—for then who else can we not trust? But sometimes that’s the truth of it.

I continue to believe passionately in the centrality of good journalism to a free society. I’ll continue to talk to journalists often, about quantum computing or whatever else. I also recognize that the NYT is a large, heterogeneous institution (I myself published in it twice); it’s not hard to imagine that many of its own staff take issue with the SSC piece.

But let’s be clear about the stakes here. In the discussion of my last post, I described the NYT as “still the main vessel of consensus reality in human civilization” [alright, alright, American civilization!]. What’s really at issue, beyond the treatment of a single blogger, is whether the NYT can continue serving that central role in a world reshaped by social media, resurgent fascism, and entitled wokery.

Sure, we all know that the NYT has been disastrously wrong before: it ridiculed Goddard’s dream of spaceflight, denied the Holodomor, relegated the Holocaust to the back pages while it was happening, published the fabricated justifications for the Iraq War. But the NYT and a few other publications were still the blockchain of reality, the engine of the consensus of all that is, the last bulwark against the conspiracists and the anti-vaxxers and the empowered fabulists and the horned insurrectionists storming the Capitol, because there was no ability to coordinate around any serious alternative. I’m still skeptical that there’s a serious alternative, but I now look more positively than I did just a few days ago on attempts to create one.

To all those who called me naïve or a coward for having cooperated with the NYT: believe me, I’m well aware that I wasn’t born with much backbone. (I am, after all, that guy on the Internet who famously once planned on a life of celibate asceticism, or more likely suicide, rather than asking women out and thereby risking eternal condemnation as a misogynistic sexual harasser by the normal, the popular, the socially adept, the … humanities grads and the journalists.) But whenever I need a pick-me-up, I tell myself that rather than being ashamed about my lack of a backbone, I can take pride in having occasionally managed to stand even without one.

66 Responses to “On standing up sans backbone”

  1. Jimmy Says:

    I’m impressed that you changed your mind on this one. “Standing without a backbone” sounds like exactly the virtue of courage applied when it’s hard, and I am viscerally proud of you on this one. I hope more people see this and are inspired to do the same.

  2. Sabine Says:

    For the most part the problem isn’t the journalists, it’s the editors. Especially if the writers aren’t employed at the outlet, doing the requested edits makes the difference between getting paid and having spent a lot of time on nothing. The very reason so many people have taken to unedited outlets is that too many editors want to put a spin on stories that journalists didn’t want them to have. (And that’s leaving aside that they decide what information gets and doesn’t get published.)

    I’m not saying it’s a problem always and everywhere, and I have no idea whatsoever what happened in this particular case, but it’s certainly an issue I have encountered. Hell, it’s the very reason I now have a YouTube channel, where I can say “well, actually” as often as I want.

    Still, I think you shouldn’t talk to journalists again who drag you into inaccurate reports like this, because it’s the only way you can show your disapproval.

  3. bertie Says:

    Yes, what Sabine says!
    I also think that in your post you’ve nicely articulated the problem of the apparent necessity of the institutional free press, along with the increasing unfitness of such to fulfill their necessary function.
    Personally, I assume that alternatives will be found, and that this will happen more quickly than expected.
    Best, Bertie

  4. Alessandro Strumia Says:

    The problem is not one journalist. The problem is the politics behind, that needs votes of selected groups painted as victims. That’s why anybody who doubts must be targeted and bitten on the ankles. Not nice, but it’s not like Soviet Union. You risk your job, not your life.

  5. Greg Guy Says:

    You have to think about this institutionally, not personally. The traditional media needs advertising dollars just like any other media – in this day and age this means clickbait. This means long-form discussion of complex ideas is a serious liability as people might not bother reading the piece, get bored after a few sentences, not pass the piece on to their friends,etc. Reducing everything to outrage is part of a well-understood recipe to keep readers engaged and make sure they pass on the article to other readers.

    Much has been written about the downfall of traditional media in the internet age. We are in a transitional stage as people realise that these institutions are no longer fit for purpose and that everyone now needs to make an effort to search out legitimate alternative news services for themeselves.

  6. Dan Portman Says:

    I think you need to calm down. Sorry but Scott Alexander, you and me doesn’t matter at the end of the day. Talking about the holocaust, Stalin etc in context to Scott is frankly bizarre…

  7. Meow Says:

    How about listen to some Mozart or Beethoven?
    My daily favorite classical music is always and only Debussy’s.
    But the fountain of youth in Mozart’s music and the courage, vatality in Beethoven’s always cheer me up when I am upset.
    I really don’t know how to make you feel better, I guess facing all the evilness, betray, lies.. being a robot or like vampire shutting down their emotion just much easier option.

  8. Richard Gaylord Says:

    scott says “I’ll continue to talk to journalists often, about quantum computing or whatever else.”. of course you will, and at great length. the question you and your therapist can try to figure out is why.

  9. Anon2 Says:

    One of the reasons you had for ousting Trump was that it will curb wokism by no longer providing a justification of their behaviors.

    No that Trump is gone, you should probably act on your own reasoning and review the behaviors of NYT with a more objective perspective.

  10. Steve Says:

    Scott, I don’t really understand your stance in the penultimate paragraph. You mention the NYT being on the wrong side of history on _major_ issues that caused millions of innocent deaths. On at least one of these issues it was actually in the driver’s seat, delivering the propaganda that justified the tragic war.

    But you are willing to give them a free pass because they are on the good side in your view on some issues, which, as much as I would try to steelman your argument, are inconsequential at best, and historically likely insignificant.
    Sure, in your view, the “storming of the capitol” and “anti-vax conspiracy” are possible stepping stones to much worse tragedies and events on a grand scale, but surely they are not more significant than the major tragedies that actually took place already, while the NYT was cheering.

  11. Gadi Says:

    I’m glad you had the experience of being on the receiving side of a “journalistic agenda”. I’ll try to push you gently in the direction of suspecting Trump experienced similar attacks, daily, and imagine how it could be. Maybe your empathetic instincts would allow you for once to try to seek out the truth.

  12. Mike W Says:

    “still the main vessel of consensus reality in human civilization” if you only consider the United States as human civilization … which is the reality for most Americans.

    I think there are a fair number of other news organisations which not only do a fair job of covering the 4.25% who live in the US, but do a better job of covering the other 95.75%.

  13. Victor V Albert Says:

    Re news sources, I read almost exclusively Reuters. It’s the only site where you can’t tell the political leanings of authors by reading their articles.

  14. Jon Awbrey Says:

    Speaking of Spines …

    On February 13, 2021 forty-three Republican Senators forever tied their names to a man who led a murderous mob against the Government of the United States. The few Republicans who voted to bring the man to justice need to leave the party while they still have a chance. Abandon all hope for the ones who remain.

  15. Mike Says:

    Consider reading the Financial Times. It’s the newspaper that newspapers ought to be. It has an international perspective too, including good reporting on the developing world that American papers tend to neglect.

    We don’t really have an American Financial Times, unfortunately. Perhaps the WSJ used to serve some of this purpose, but it was never as good as FT, and declined after getting bought by Murdoch.

    Bloomberg’s news business seems to be improving, and might reach FT levels of quality, but they don’t do enough non-finance reporting, and also being personally owned by Bloomberg himself will limit their journalism as long as he is involved in politics (as when they weren’t able to report about his primary campaign).

    But the FT is great, if you want reliable reporting and consensus reality.

  16. David Roman Says:

    Like Mike implies in the comment above, you totally overrate NYT. Honestly, I wouldn’t say it’s in the top 5 of AMERICAN papers now. I used to work for WSJ & Bloomberg News and recommend both. FT too.

  17. Nick Nolan Says:

    Thank you for being so reasonable.

    Skipping from reasonable and even harsh criticism to extreme rejection and hostility, not a good trend. Ability to comprehend the complexity and subtlety of real life is in short supply.

    I consider all the following to be true at the same time:

    1. NYT continues to produce excellent journalism. Usually, that journalism happens in groups larger than one, on subjects they can relate to.
    2. Changes in the editorial structure of NYT may mean that there less internal feedback and scrutiny. Quality may vary significantly.
    3. NYT journalists feel they are under extreme scrutiny and attacks from social media groups. The tendency to close ranks and the mind happens to them just as it happens to everyone else. This reduces constructive feedback from peers.
    4. (incentive to commit a crime) The fact that Cade Metz’s new book is coming out next month, Genius Makers:The Mavericks Who Brought AI to Google, Facebook, and the World may have something to do with the article being shallow and extremely provocating. It’s a typical advertisement for the social media age. Rail up reactions, insult and provocate.

    As someone who is very sympathetic towards the rationalist community, I feel that the community should receive more and tougher criticism from outside, not less. Hopefully, it’s better in the future.

  18. jonathan Says:

    Scott: You obviously have no obligation to take my advice, but here it is in case you find it valuable —

    I think you do a lot of good for science communication by talking to journalists about your specialty, so that they can better inform the public about quantum computing and related areas. They would write the articles anyway, so it’s much better they talk to you first! I think you should 100% keep doing this (as long as you’re comfortable with it, it doesn’t cut into other valuable activities too much, etc).

    I think it’s right to be wary trusting a journalist who wants to write about something else, especially a more controversial topic or figure, and especially one of your friends, since it’s much more likely they have a political axe to grind, or will just issue cliches about weird nerds with ties to scary Silicon Valley bogeymen (just because that’s an easy story to write). But it’s still probably okay to do this, just…very very carefully.

    (By the way, I think that the net effect of your quotes in Cade’s article were positive for Scott, and he probably would have written it anyway. It’s not like it would have been better if he’d spoken only to Gerard, and not you or David Friedman).

    I think that if a specific journalist has shown him or herself to be acting in bad faith (in your view), and especially if you feel they’ve violated your trust, then it’s best to not act as a source for that journalist anymore. Call it playing tit for tat — Incentives and all that.

  19. Rahul Says:

    I think it’s fundamentally a problem of having a heterogeneous audience for a newspaper that has a strong incentive to maximize readership for revenues.

    The clickbait that will work for the masses is what sells and leads to hype and misinformation that alienates a certain, enlightened class of reader.

    In the long run I doubt we will have mass market media that appeals to a wide demographic unless it solves the funding problem.

    In India we see this extensively today from news channels to movies since the tastes and discernment of the bottom and the top (however you chose to measure it) are so wide apart.

    The article that appeals to a redneck will scarcely be the same as would appeal to the typical uber educated professional.

  20. Rahul Says:

    I agree with David above.

    It would be interesting to see if there’s statistics on the average income or education of a WSJ reader vs a NYT reader.

    Journalists must write for their typical reader.

  21. Nick Nolan Says:

    Steve #10

    On at least one of these issues it was actually in the driver’s seat, delivering the propaganda that justified the tragic war.

    I don’t think this is a completely fair assessment. I don’t think anyone was in the driver’s seat in the NYT.

    If a propagandist is someone who understands what they are doing and maintains control, then NYT was not doing propaganda. NYT simply lost their senses like most of the United States. It was a failure of journalism, but mainstream institutions made by mainstream people can’t be expected to see failures in Zeitgeist. Only some individuals and small groups can do that.

    The time between 9/11 and the wars was the time of unity, purpose, bloodthirst, and insanity. I consider it as one of the most disgusting experiences in my lifetime.

  22. Pascal Says:

    In defense of the NYT on the Irak war: they did allow Paul Krugman to express a contrarian opinion in his opinion page.

  23. Scott Says:

    Pascal #22: The problem, as far as I remember, was not that the opinion columns were beating the drums for war, but simply that Judith Miller’s reporting about the nuclear program was built on hoaxes. Interestingly, just like with Walter Duranty in 1933, the problem seems to have been a single high-placed reporter who simply repeated the lies of high-placed sources rather than honestly conveying the realities on the ground (together, of course, with an editorial culture that enabled that reporter).

  24. Scott Says:

    Dan Portman #6:

      Talking about the holocaust, Stalin etc in context to Scott is frankly bizarre…

    Sorry, did I say anything to suggest or imply that Scott taking down his blog for 6 months was comparable to the Holocaust?

    As far as I’m concerned, the ongoing collapse of Enlightenment norms of discussion and debate across the Western world, and its replacement by dueling self-certain authoritarianisms, really is a huge problem, commensurate with any of the worst problems that the world has ever faced. But I’m well aware that we’re talking here about only a tiny slice of the problem!

  25. Jiro Says:

    “As someone who is very sympathetic towards the rationalist community, I feel that the community should receive more and tougher criticism from outside, not less.”

    How’s that relevant here? Metz basically lied. While technically a lie is still a type of criticism, I suggest that it is not the type of criticism which it is good for us to receive.

  26. Bobboccio Says:

    Scott, I just wanted to say what a moving post this is. Thank you for sharing. Maybe I’ll have to do some ruminating on my own.

  27. Huck Bennett Says:

    Dear Scott, please take it easy on yourself!

  28. Ernie Davis Says:

    Quoting post #24
    Dan Portman #6:

    Talking about the holocaust, Stalin etc in context to Scott is frankly bizarre…

    Sorry, did I say anything to suggest or imply that Scott taking down his blog for 6 months was comparable to the Holocaust?

    As far as I’m concerned, the ongoing collapse of Enlightenment norms of discussion and debate across the Western world, and its replacement by dueling self-certain authoritarianisms, really is a huge problem, commensurate with any of the worst problems that the world has ever faced. But I’m well aware that we’re talking here about only a tiny slice of the problem!
    As regards the first point: What you said, or what you seemed to be saying is that this latest kerfluffle with Scott Alexander has shaken your faith in the Times in the way that none of its previous failings had done. And like Dan Portman and others above, I’m having trouble following that.

    As regards the second point: I don’t see that “the collapse of Enlightenment norms of discussion” is worse than many other times in history: The “low, dishonest decade” (Auden) of the 1930s, the lies that Orwell castigated constantly in the late 30s and 40s, McCarthyism and defenders of Stalin in the 50s, the Western Mao enthusiasts in the 60s and so on.

    I don’t think that there is any substitute for the mainstream print media in general or the Times in particular. The Times employs 1600 journalists who work in 150 countries. The AP employs more than 2000 journalists who report from all over the world. The WSJ as of 2012 had around 2000 journalists in 51 countries. And likewise the other important mainstream papers. This is, by and large, a highly trained, highly professional cohort. I don’t know how one would create an alternative of anything like the quality and scope. Certainly the smaller media often find important stories that the MSM misses or ignores, but as far as I’ve seen, the overwhelming majority of important stories broken over the last decades have been from a handful of established print media: NYT, Washington Post, WSJ, Guardian.

  29. fred Says:

  30. Joshua Brulé Says:

    Posts like this are (an example of) why I enjoy your writing so much: you try to live up to your ideals, but you actually change your mind when reality isn’t so welcoming. If only we could all live up to such a standard. It’s hard to be objective, but I don’t think that I would have done “better” – I just had the advantage that I didn’t start with such a strong attachment to the idea of the NYT as the arbiter of “consensus reality”

    Honestly, I think you’re being too hard on yourself. “Naive”? Sure. “Coward”? Ridiculous. You actually put up your predictions and roll with the punches when they turn out to be wrong. This puts you leaps and bounds ahead of people who aren’t willing to try.

  31. GM Hurley Says:

    Interesting, your observation that “The NYT is “still the main vessel of consensus reality in human civilization.” ”

    In a 2020 survey in the UK, findings were “Of those adults that follow the news, 62% say that they are most likely to turn to the BBC for news that they trust the most, followed by almost 1 in 10 (8%) saying they would turn to Sky News and 5% saying ITV.” The NYT must have been too small a percentage to register.

    So your view is that, although the UK has only just done Brexit, we’ve already left human civilisation. I wasn’t expecting it to happen so quickly.

  32. ike Says:

    having born witness to quite a few urban cocaine-fuelled night life depravities that are basically unspeakable, let me assure you that those humanities grads and journalists are _not_ the socially adept. the socially adept are enjoying themselves. those hurling accusations at others are those left at the sidelines at the depravities, reassuring themselves that way that their lack of late night success is merely a sign of their supreme virtue.

  33. ike Says:

    (disclaimer: i, of course, didn’t partake myself. mostly i mostly indulged in people watching, it’s
    incredible fun in those settings, like super 3d cinema)

  34. J Says:

    Ernie Davis #26, you might want to look for « Reuters » and « Agence France Presse » (I guess you wouldn’t count Al Jazeera, Xinhua and Tass as within your civilization)

    Joshua Brulé #30, +1

  35. James Says:

    I always enjoy your perspective, Scott, and find you to have the strongest backbone of anyone I am familiar with on the internet.

  36. clayton Says:

    the only time this discussion felt scary to me was when this contention of yours, that the NYT is “‘still the main vessel of consensus reality in human civilization’ [alright, alright, American civilization!]”, became so bitterly contested — one must be able to hold in one’s mind simultaneously the truth of that statement and the certainty that there are truths worth pondering and improving upon that go beyond that consensus. But we need that consensus in order to build on it.

    Thanks for all you do in these trying times, Scott A!

  37. Aapje Says:


    But the NYT and a few other publications were still the blockchain of reality, the engine of the consensus of all that is, the last bulwark against the conspiracists and the anti-vaxxers and the empowered fabulists and the horned insurrectionists storming the Capitol

    I would argue that these publications (and other radicalized institutions where moderate and conservative voices are no longer allowed to apply their checks and balances), are actually a major driver of conspiracy thinking and people turning to other sources of news and facts.

    In my opinion it is also not just those alternative news sources that are increasingly dis-informing people, but also those radicalized institutions. On many of the ‘culture war’ topics, progressive dogma involves false conspiracy theories, spread by publications like the NYT. Increasingly, scientists are pressured to conform to this dogma as well and their papers are withdrawn for being ‘immoral,’ rather than wrong.

    The more I hear these people/institutions complain about conspiracy thinking and people disbelieving facts, while spreading many conspiracy theories & falsehoods themselves and silencing those who point out the errors, the more my disgust increases.

    The people who dismiss these institutions for preferring dogma over fact and for being biased against them (because they are white, male, lower class, etc) are actually right in my opinion. Dogma rules the day and the bias is strong. Even the allegation that there is a conspiracy is not that outlandish, because we see journalists striking out on their own and declaring that this frees them to finally say what they want to say, which they cannot do as part of any institution. Of course, it is not a conspiracy in the puppet master sense, but more of an extremely oppressive environment where a large number of people coordinate to enforce dogma (which is very evident by oppressive actions often happening in concert or in rapid succession).

    Unfortunately, the people who dismiss these institutions then often turn to those who are no less dogmatic, biased and who also lack checks and balances. But I do understand it, because those alternatives are at least biased in their favor.

    The solution to these issues is not to try to prop up the status of the NYT or bemoan the lack of alternatives, but to do things that encourage those alternatives and/or reforms at the NYT (and radicalized institutions in general).

    I tell myself that rather than being ashamed about my lack of a backbone, I can take pride in having occasionally managed to stand even without one.

    One of the reason why I admire my grandfather a lot is that he hid people from the Nazis despite being a coward and despite having a family. There were quite a few in the resistance who clearly loved the danger and who were young single guys. Many of them seem to have enjoyed the war much more than peacetime.

    Although this doesn’t take away from the fact that they risked their lives as well.

  38. Meow Says:

    Scott, have you watched Kung Fu Panda(2008,DreamWork Animation),if you haven’t, you could share with your Lily!
    Highly recommend!

  39. J Says:

    Clayton #36,
    Personally I’d follow Harari in that we all belong to the same civilization, but let’s accept “American civilization” means something important, and let’s not spent to much time on jokes any American alien would feel obliged to make at this point [You want to include the very American Hugo Chavez and Augusto Pinochet over the not very American Alan Turing and Paul Erdős?]. I’m still puzzled. Obviously the opinions promoted by NYT either match Fox or does not matter for most of the red tribe. Is it possible you actually meant “Blue tribe civilization”? If yes, what metrics make you think that the NYT is that important for the blue tribe?

  40. James Cropcho Says:

    More than ever, we need people thinking in public like this.

    Onwards and upwards, Scott.

  41. JimV Says:

    There’s a difference between not having a backbone and seeking the good in people.

    I have a rule I try to follow (but don’t always remember to, in the heat of the moment): before criticizing someone for some behavior, try to think whether there is some excusable reason for that behavior–some reason you might find yourself having to behave the same way in some circumstances.

    I used to have to travel (before there were any aids besides road maps) to unfamiliar places to do field service on turbines, or consult with utility workers. I had to drive slowly, especially in cities, so I could read the street signs and find the right streets to turn on. So when somebody ahead of me is driving more slowly than i would like, I remember that.

    One can always think of bad, inexcusable reasons for behavior we dislike, as many commenters above have done, but without some charity we will wind up with no friends and no society.

    We can still argue with each other, to try to make our points of view understandable, but I don’t see trading insults as worthwhile. Yes, I can see myself doing that under the sway of strong emotions, but I also know I will regret it later. I guess that is a necessary addition to the rule above: not only something I might do myself, but something necessary to do which won’t be regretted in hindsight.

  42. George H. Says:

    Scott, Wow.
    Well first I wanna suggest you get back to some quantum computing. (a saner space.)
    and second to applaud the comments of the SSC community, well done.
    (I think demonstrating how to have a civil discussion is what SSC and now ACT is best at.)
    Re media: IMHO we are all along the road to realizing that all media stories might not
    only be wrong, but completely backwards. Long for podcasts are the future… Going to listen to you with Lex Fridman.

  43. Meow Says:

    Not every good effort will lead to the good result we want,
    Sorry about it… on the good side, the other Scott’s identity DID NOT get revealed and we learned something deeper about journalism together with you, next similar situation, you will be more experienced, and dealing with it better, and life continues…
    Cheer up, you nerd, so many people care about you.

  44. Meow Says:

    You spend weeks of your time purely out of friendship, which distinguishes you from all the hypocrite, well-calculated, selfish creatures.

    You have tried your best, nobody should blame you, you are not God, you did everything you can as a friend to help with all your problems and not so well yourself, give yourself a break!

    Ask the other Scott, does he think it is fair to call you a coward? Some call you that are lack basic judgment and humanity, they are so twisted mind.

    I thought” h8rs are gonna h8″. Why bother?

  45. Mark Srednicki Says:

    I just want to point to this take by Freddie deBoer (which, among other virtues, quotes Scott’s original post):


  46. Scott Says:

    Meow #43:

      the other Scott’s identity DID NOT get revealed…

    Yes it did, but only because Scott chose to reveal it, after rearranging his life to have an independent income stream and be basically uncancellable. It’s a classic example of turning a disaster into an opportunity—he’s settled into what looks like a far better equilibrium than the one the NYT forced him out of, which makes me smile.

    Anyway, thanks for the kind words!

  47. raginrayguns Says:

    It was nice to see you point out in the last post the way the article insinuated falsehoods that it wouldn’t state. I think you should continue reading the New York Times, and take note of this whenever you see it. If it’s pervasive, you’ll have your answer. If it’s a rare aberration, then yes, you’ll want to know what happened to make this article different.

  48. Nick Says:

    I have an unrelated technical question.

    Determining whether an arbitrary Turing machine program will halt or not is semidecidable in general, as an unbounded search will find a solution if there is one and won’t if there isn’t. But it is decidable to determine if an arbitrary program will halt at a specified step. So if I give you a program and a halt step and tell you that the program will halt at that step, you can verify that claim decidably.

    Is there an established name for that halt step? Or generally, for a piece of accompanying information that changes a semidecidable problem to a decidable one?

    I’m thinking something in the neighborhood of “witness” or “certificate”, but those don’t sound right.

  49. Scott Says:

    Nick #48: Halting step? Claimed runtime?

  50. William Gasarch Says:

    No backbone?
    you have plenty of backbone NOW.

    Pondering an ascetic life when you were younger – not sure if thats a backbone thing.

    Blogging about it KNOWING that you will be attacked by SJW (a word I learned from your blog) took A LOT of backbone.

    Discussing what happened with the NYT in an honest and non-self-serving way took A LOT OF BACKBONE. And rethinking stuff is also a sign of BACKBONE.

    There are plenty of other examples of things you have blogged about that took backbone.

  51. Yovel Says:

    I actually thought you had some good points in the last article. However, I wanted you to know that as a long- time reader of your blog, I deeply appreciate your ability to change your mind.
    Plus, I disagree with you on some political topics, so it gives me hope that I could change your mind about them, if I only had time 😉

  52. Nick Says:

    Scott #49: That’s the particular case, but I’m looking for the general name (if there is one, which I assume there is). The accompanying information might be more elaborate than just one number. For example, a program that is claimed to quasihalt would have to be accompanied by a step and also a proof that the program quasihalts at that step. So a step in one case, and a step and a proof together in the other case.

    I feel like there must a name for the accompanying information in general. Surely computability theorists have thought about it. Witness, certificate, attestation, advice, these are all words that are nearby but not quite right.

    Or if there isn’t an established name, what would be a good one?

  53. Tom Grey Says:

    Writing what you believe is true does require backbone.

    Do you really always do that?

    When I was working, I would censure myself, a bit, to avoid the Woke police (PC-nazis). By not telling all the truth I believed, tho I was able to avoid telling things I thought were untrue.

    In retirement, I’m more free – it looks like Scott Alexander is, too.

    “I continue to believe passionately in the centrality of good journalism to a free society.” Good journalism doesn’t include 2 years of hyping a false “Russian Collusion” hoax, no matter how much the eyeball owning readers want it to to be true.

    Hate is fanned, often in the past and still today, by bad journalists giving out Fake News.

  54. J Says:

    Nick #52, a promise?

  55. Whomever Says:

    It is counterproductive to enable sense making apparatuses which no longer function.

    The fact they still have access to experts will confuse those who don’t realise they are broken.

    Support those sense making apparatuses which still work, and make new ones.

    One can still trust individuals, but not institutions because the incentive structure has changed. Previously media sold adverts to everyone, and needed to be balanced to maintain a large audience for the advertisers. Internet giants ate that business. Now they rely on their subscribers. But subscribers are not interested in the truth — only in having their world view validated.

  56. Colton Says:

    I’m proud of you for changing your mind Scott, and you always were and still are welcome to the in-person rationalist meetups. Those that had a problem with having their info given to the NYT said their part and it’s over now.

    It’s strange that your previous essay states you are against walled gardens as a tenured academic. Universities have some of the thickest walls around: dedicated campus, grant and donation money, lots of prestige, and high financial, intellectual, and social standards for attendance.

    You are no coward, but I wish you had a better appreciation that the NYT is not “In Favor of Niceness, Community, and Civilization” as Scott A said it. At best, it is a soulless corporate machine optimizing for what it thinks readers want. At worst, it is a fix for serial tattletales and gossips addicted to the power rush of taking people down and dictating public opinion. There is no incentive to be honest or fair. Employees are not fired when they get it wrong or hurt someone. They have infinite facts to chose from to say whatever they want to say. They have endless tricks to color the language, manipulate context, and prime readers’ emotions to imply what is never stated. When they get caught in an outright lie, they publish a small correction the next day where no one reads it.

    The idea of a few mass media corporations as the engine of consensus is laughable. What consensus? Whom do they consult? They print whatever the editors and execs want. This kind of organization will always feel threatened by free thinkers, especially when the free thinkers have the audacity to be right.

  57. Scott Says:

    Colton #56: Thanks for kind words; I really appreciate them.

    After covid is over, maybe I’ll try attending another meetup. I hope I’ve grown as a person, and I also hope anyone upset by how I went about trying to defend the rationalist community will see their way to forgiving me.

    It’s not so much that I’m against walled gardens, as that I don’t see how it’s possible (if it ever was), outside perhaps of the NSA or secretive corporations or a few other settings, to address a dozen or more people without effectively addressing the entire world, if the world has any interest in what you have to say. Today’s events served as a dramatic illustration of that.

  58. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    For the record, the New York Times editorial board was clearly and repeatedly against the Iraq War, both before the war started, and even more so after it started. The way that Cade Metz treated both Scott Alexander and his sources like our Scott sounds deeply problematic to me. But that’s Metz and maybe his editor, not the New York Times as a whole. The way that people are condemning the New York Times for its Iraq War coverage just shows you that probably most of us here aren’t ready to be objective journalists or editors ourselves.

    Even a lot of the faint praise here is wrong. It is true that they let Judith Miller run riot on the issue of WMDs, and it is true that the Times didn’t maximally resist the drumbeat towards war otherwise as (with hindsight) they should have. But it is just not true that they wanted or encouraged the Iraq War, it is also not true that “no one was in the driver’s seat”, and it is not true that they only let Krugman weigh in against. Fundamentally the Bush Administration instigated the Iraq War, and their major accomplices in the media were Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, and certainly not The New York Times. In order to enable the Iraq War, the Bush Administration also waged a propaganda campaign against Democrats and the objective media, exploiting still-strong emotions over 9/11 as a weapon. The New York Times editorial board mostly resisted the infection before the war started, only not completely. They also later apologized for their mistake with Judith Miller, and they were vehemently against the war as it dragged on year after year, and could have been ended to limit the damage.


    Mar 9, 2003: Saying No to War – “If it comes down to a question of yes or no to invasion without broad international support, our answer is no. Even though Hans Blix said that Saddam Hussein was not in complete compliance with UN orders to disarm, the report of the inspectors on Friday was generally devastating to the American position.”

    Mar 3, 2003: The Rush to War – “The United States should not invade Iraq without broad international support.”

    Feb 23, 2003: Power and Leadership – “Our own guess is that the war is likely to go well in the short run, but that the long run will be messy, difficult and dangerous.”

    Feb 14, 2003: Elusive Al Qaeda Connections – “There is little hard evidence of such a connection [between Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden], and the administration should stop peddling that line to the American people.”

    Feb 2, 2003: An Improvised March to War – “Even the rationale for war seems to change from day to day.”

    Jan 26, 2003: The Race To War – “We urge the administration to brake the momentum toward war.”

    Jan 20, 2003: A Stirring in the Nation – “Crowds of peaceable protesters represented a large segment of the American public that remains unconvinced that the Iraqi threat warrants the use of military force at this juncture.”

    Jan 10, 2003: The Iraq Dossier – “There can be no wavering from the goal of disarming Iraq, but all chances of doing so peacefully should be explored before the world is asked to decide on war.”

  59. Gerard Says:

    Greg Kuperberg #58

    Even the earliest statement on your list demonstrates that the NYT position was already one of accepting the logic of war.

    > There can be no wavering from the goal of disarming Iraq, but all chances of doing so peacefully should be explored before the world is asked to decide on war.

    How many times in history has a nation accepted to be disarmed peacefully ?

    What would the reaction be if a major nation’s primary news outlet stated “There can be no wavering from the goal of disarming the US.” ?

  60. Jean Passpartout Says:

    One thought here. The left likes to frame things in terms of “communities” that actually don’t exist to bootstrap power and importance. “Communities of Color”, “The LBGTQ community”, etc. This can cut both ways. So here there is “The Rationalist Community” which also really doesn’t exist, but you have to declare that you are either in it or out of it. It’s dumb, and I suggest that all the synthetic “communities” are not really that useful as constructs. Stick with individuals and their positions on specific issues. Please. And thank you for not smoking.

  61. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Aapje #37,

    No doubt true that the NYT has some occasional wacky left wing crap. But the quantity and “far out level” is nothing compared to, say, the National Review, let alone Fox News, or the truly insane right wing nuts on the radio.

  62. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Gerard #59 – “Even the earliest statement on your list demonstrates that the NYT position was already one of accepting the logic of war.”

    No, the word “already” is not correct. The Times editors began 2003 by lending some credence to the Bush Administration concerning Saddam Hussein and WMDs. As the weeks went on, they didn’t become more convinced. They went through cycles of taking one step toward Bush, and then two steps away. By the time the war started, they weren’t at all convinced, but they wrote with a tone of resignation that there would be a war.

    Above all, this was a war that dragged on for years because the Bush Administration continued it. Within months of the initial invasion, the Times realized that the whole thing was botched and was against further war. It’s incorrect to blame the entire long war on people who merely acquiesced to it at the beginning. I didn’t bother to quote the many reports and editorials that the Times published from March 2003 to the bulk of withdrawal in 2009-10, but they are there. The Times consistently wanted less war rather than more. If the Bush Administration had initially fooled the Times on WMDs with tactics like Judith Miller, then unlike Fox News, the Times didn’t stay fooled for all that long.

    There is a 0-1-law way of talking about wars that might be meant as committed pacifism, but which I think isn’t very good pacifism. You could talk as if anyone who was fooled by the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 (as the vast majority of Americans were) shared equal guilt for the whole Vietnam War that followed. Or you could talk as if anyone who was fooled by false sightings of Japanese planes over San Francisco in 1942 (as again the vast majority of Americans were) shared equal guilt for everything that the US did with domestic Japanese internment camps. But true guilt in each of these cases wasn’t very equal at all.

  63. Aapje Says:

    Raoul Ohio #61

    They often seem far more reasonable than they are, because their lies get the backing of an entire establishment. It’s fairly easy to look better when your stuff isn’t fact checked well, but the stuff of others is.

    There truly is a constant stream of falsehoods that is used to convince people of conspiracy theories. For example, Glenn Greenwald wrote 2 days ago about a false claim by the NYT that was used to back up a conspiracy theory that you see repeated all over the place.

    Note that the NYT was perfectly willing to base its reporting of this ‘fact’ on only anonymous sources when doing so allowed them to spread a story that supports their politics, even though newspapers constantly publish political stories confidently describing ‘facts’ that later turn out to be false, based on anonymous sources.

    And when criticized over using anonymous sources with an agenda that use the NYT to spread lies, they don’t react by fact-checking those sources better or expressing doubts about the validity of those claims in their reporting, but they instead start doxing people that the NYT decides to write a story about, who are not the problem (after all, those who want to spread lies to the media usually reach out to them, rather than wait to be written about).

    You’d almost question their commitment to the truth…

  64. ultimaniacy Says:

    Gerard #59:

    “How many times in history has a nation accepted to be disarmed peacefully ?”

    At least twice — Ukraine in 1994, and Libya in 2003. I’ll let you know if I find any others.

  65. Nick Nolan Says:

    Discussion continues. Will Wilkinson wrote thought provoking article Grey Lady Steel Man to his Model Citizen newsletter.

    It seems that people who have generally positive but critical attitude towards rationalist community seem to contribute more and more.

    I count people like Scott Aaronson, Will Wilkinson, Glen Weyl and at least temporarily Jonathan Haidt in the recent Rationally Speaking episode among those people.

  66. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    That’s also true. A sweeping statement like that nobody ever disarms voluntarily is also pacifism done wrong. Libya wasn’t much of a disarmament, but Ukraine voluntarily gave up a huge nuclear arsenal. Besides those examples, South Africa voluntarily ended a comprehensive WMD program, including six nuclear weapons.

    In context, the New York Times specifically stated in one of their last masthead editorials in March 2003 before the Iraq War started that Saddam Hussein was starting to comply with international demands, and that there was every reason not to rush to war. I remember at the time that, given Hussein’s fearsome reputation, it was counterintuitive that he wanted to comply. Of course, he was rightfully worried that he would be deposed and killed if he didn’t. The next step in reasoning after that also came in a rush and hadn’t completely sunk in, that Bush wasn’t going to take yes for an answer. Eventually the New York Times amply documented all of this.

Leave a Reply

Comment Policy: All comments are placed in moderation and reviewed prior to appearing. Comments can be left in moderation for any reason, but in particular, for ad-hominem attacks, hatred of groups of people, or snide and patronizing tone. Also: comments that link to a paper or article and, in effect, challenge me to respond to it are at severe risk of being left in moderation, as such comments place demands on my time that I can no longer meet. You'll have a much better chance of a response from me if you formulate your own argument here, rather than outsourcing the job to someone else. I sometimes accidentally miss perfectly reasonable comments in the moderation queue, or they get caught in the spam filter. If you feel this may have been the case with your comment, shoot me an email.

You can now use rich HTML in comments! You can also use basic TeX, by enclosing it within $$ $$ for displayed equations or \( \) for inline equations.