It’s wonderful how the mind has a way of cultivating clarity in the background, away from the gaze of the mind’s eye and as the mind itself is preoccupied with other thoughts, on matters considered only a few days ago to be too complicated to synthesise into a unified whole.
Recap: On February 14, the New York Times published a profile of Slate Star Codex, the erstwhile blog penned by Scott Alexander Siskind that had become one of the internet’s few major water coolers for rationalists. Siskind had previously appeared to make peace with the newspaper’s decision to reveal his full name – he hadn’t been using his last name on the blog – in the profile, but since February 14 at least, he has seemingly taken a vindictive turn, believing the New York Times doxxed him on purpose for “embarrassing” them.
Somewhat separately, many of Siskind’s supporters have rejected the profile as an unfaithful portrayal of the blog’s significance in the rationalism community and for its allegedly overtly conspiratorial overtones about the blog’s relationship with powerful figures in Silicon Valley. Many of these supporters have since decided to boycott Cade Metz, the New York Times reporter who crafted the profile.
A few days ago, I put down my thoughts about this affair to clarify them for myself as well as, less importantly, lay out my views. Since then, but especially this morning, I’ve realised the essence of my struggle with composing that post. A shade less than 100% of the time, I start a post with thoughts on some subject, and by the time I’m through a thousand words, I discover a point or two I need to make that stitches the thoughts together. I’d struggled to find this point with the SSC affair but I now I think I have some clarity:
(The sources for claims in the points below are available in my first post.)
- The New York Times profile’s simpler mistakes are a significant problem, and I agree with those supporters’ decision boycott the reporter. But I would also encourage them to find other reporters they’d rather speak to – and do so. Even if this means their words start to appear in publications whose other contents may be objectionable (like, say, Quillette), they will still be part of the public conversation instead of finding themselves silenced.
- On a related note: it’s quite amusing that a community so wedded to a particular impression of its identity and self-perception thought it would be profiled by the New York Times in line with this perception. Granted, this may not have been an entirely foreseeable outcome, but the magnitude of the supporters’ reactions seems disproportionate to the chances of Siskind’s and their views being lost in translation (from their PoV).
- The New York Times‘ decision to reveal Scott Alexander’s last name for the profile is difficult to understand, even as it’s not hard to see that the profile could have been composed together with Siskind’s objections and his reasons. Some commentators have advanced an argument that free speech, an absolute version of which Siskind as well as the rationalists’ community desires, is incompatible with anonymity – but be this as it may, it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with Metz’s and the newspaper’s decision-making process itself and only smells like post-hoc justification.
- Siskind’s allegation, based on some things people “in the know” told him, that the New York Times doxxed him because he embarrassed them (with his decision to unplug his blog from the internet after Metz first told him Metz might have to reveal his full identity) is more laughable the more you think of it, no? I’m also curious as to why Siskind goes from apparently making his peace with the newspaper’s decision to reveal his last name to taking steps to ensure his “survivability” in a scenario where his full name is known to all to, finally, resorting to invoking a vague authority (“people in the know”) – as if to advance a justification for his victimisation.