Scott Alexander Vs. The New York Times

"Like an octopus, the New York Times has many arms. If you attack one, the others will get you."

 

After the New York Time’s despicable hit piece on Scott Alexander, Scott has issued a defense.

I believe they misrepresented me as retaliation for my publicly objecting to their policy of doxxing bloggers in a way that threatens their livelihood and safety. Because they are much more powerful than I am and have a much wider reach, far more people will read their article than will read my response, so probably their plan will work.

Of course, Scott gives several odious examples of NYT willfully deceiving people.

You might think this is bad faith. If the New York Times made any mistakes they simply need to issue a retraction. But they’ve been writing this article for several months now, and the deception is transparent in the content. Nobody can read Scott’s defense of himself and come away thinking this was just an oopsie. In Scott’s own words,

I don’t want to accuse the New York Times of lying about me, exactly, but if they were truthful, it was in the same way as that famous movie review which describes the Wizard of Oz as: “Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.”

"Never attribute to malice what can be explained by ignorance" is a good rule. I tested this situation for ignorance. It didn't make any sense. Malice is the next best explanation.

An essay from Robert Rhinehart resonates right now. Scott Linked to it at the end of his post. Here’s the most important part,

The next step of ridding ourselves of the octopus is to stop feeding it. Stop feeding the octopus. Just stop. Stop reading the New York Times. Right now. Never again visit that awful web site or look at that awful paper or that tweet or that awful article. Do not have that conversation. Do not click or press on the link your friend sent you who is trapped in its clutches. It is a boogeyman and if you fear it it will only get stronger and if you ignore it it will go away.

It reminds of a classic Simpsons episode that depicts the same important point.

While people are charged up and in war-mode, it’s important to remember that although these sorts of hit pieces are all-too-frequent for publications like this, they are a drop in the bucket. Robert Wiblin comments on the issue,

The NYT has about 4,500 staff and publishes 150-200 stories a day! As with any vast org—like a university or government agency—its output ranges from fantastic to terrible, and generalisations about the whole are less useful than evaluations of specific teams or individuals.

A few of my thoughts on about how Scott handled the situation,

As with any of these symbiotic relationships between the media and the organism they latch themselves onto, this will no-doubt increase Scott’s subscriber count and income. Don’t forget the most important thing Jordan Peterson has ever said, “I’ve figured out how to monetize the Social Justice Warriors.” This is the same tactic Trump used to get people tribalized. While Jordan Peterson and Donald Trump are different in about a thousand different very important ways, they are similar in this, they both played their part in the symbiotic relationship to accrue money and fame.

Scott isn’t like that.

I’m sure he likes the money and he has said that he wants to use it for altruistic purposes, I don’t think he likes the fame. The attention isn’t particularly pleasurable to a introverted rationalist like Scott, and it comes packaged with being the subject of a lot of hostility, anger, and even death threats. We think it’s okay to mercilessly dehumanize famous people, and just like the Asch experiment would suggest, we think it’s okay because other people think it’s okay. Scott is smart enough to see the risk in being the subject of hate by ideologically possessed online communities - those indoctrinated by the NYTs into thinking Scott is some kind of racist, and so the awful things they say and do against Scott if “fighting racism in all it’s forms”

I also think Scott is unusually concerned with being a good person, and he recognizes how the (social) media outrage machine debases society. Between that and the downside of fame, Scott has reasoned himself into not playing along. Everything he has written has maintained a tone of diffusion. Scott deserves an A+.

Unfortunately, to a large extent, it doesn’t matter. The NYTs has leeched itself onto him and no matter what he does he cannot pry it off. Scott has become richer, more famous, and society has become a little worse. It will never stop until we, “just don’t look” and let the leeches die of starvation.

And yes, I see the irony.

The Me I cannot See

 Several characters in my life lied to me. They told me they don’t care what other people think. Maybe you’ve heard this? It’s very 90s teenage apathy, but lots of kids are still totally into this fashion statement. I can’t take it seriously.

Besides being an incredibly inhuman proposition as all humans, the social creatures that they are, care immensely what other humans think, the paradox within the statement screams absurdity. Why are you telling me that you don’t care what I think if you don’t care what I think? Clearly, you care enough to try to convince me that you don’t. If you don’t care what I think you wouldn’t say it, and you definitely wouldn’t say it as often as you do.

I’m not so different. Scratch that, I’m not different at all. I care what other people think but I don’t like to think that I do. So I fool myself. I recognize the paradox of saying it out loud, so I have to layer on a more sophisticated version of self-foolery. “I don’t care what other people think so much that I don’t feel the need to say it,” I tell myself.

I feel the weight of what goes on in other people’s heads even when I don’t admit it. I see one version of myself, and then I see me through their eyes, and those can be very different pictures. I tell myself that the real picture - the genuine me - is the one I see of myself, not the one I see through others. After all, I’m the closest thing to me. I am me. So of course I know the real me better than anyone else, right?

Wrong. I am the worst person in the world to judge the real me. I may have proximity as an advantage, but I am severely disadvantaged by having the incentive to self-deceive. I don’t just have skin in the game, I have all the skin in the game. My whole entirety is invested in this game. I am the easiest person in the world for me to fool because I have the most motivation to believe my own deception.

Ever play that game that shows you a zoomed-in picture and you have to guess what the object is? At some point being any closer obscures one’s ability to see. So I’d better care what people think because they’re not staring at the molecules in the strawberry, they’re staring at the strawberry. Other people view an angle of me that I am in no position to assess. I am way too close to me to see me.



1 Year of Corona

 At the time I'm writing this, Coronavirus has killed 2.25 million people worldwide and 447 thousand Americans. It took about a year for this to happen. 

For comparison, the world's biggest killer heart disease killed 18 million people worldwide last year and 665 thousand Americans. 2nd biggest killer Cancer killed 9.5 million worldwide and 600 thousand Americans.

Causes of death that are a little closer to the virus (give or take half a million deaths) would be diabetes which killed about 1.5 million worldwide and 270 thousand Americans, or digestive diseases which killed about 2.5 million worldwide and 250 thousand Americans.

Let me include a few caveats. We haven't been through a year since Coronavirus first entered the scene yet. And once it did enter the scene of public awareness (March-ish) it took a while for it to get going. Also, this includes all the things the government and people did to reduce the spread. I don't know how many lives were saved by wearing masks and social distancing and reducing travel and shutting down / limiting certain sectors of the economy, but I don't think it's unreasonable to guess that we could have had twice as many deaths or more. By comparing the virus to things like heart disease you might think I'm saying it's no big deal. If you think that, you're an idiot. More on that later.

I also don't know how many of these deaths should count as lives saved vs. merely postponed. If the inevitability is that 50-70% of us gets the virus, if not last year then this year, or next year, then the main value of preventing it last year is in the fact that we didn't let hospitals get overrun by all the people with the virus at the same time. Clearly, not all getting the virus at the same time saves lives, but the difference in lives saved is significantly different depending on whether the counterfactual is getting the virus at different times vs. not getting the virus at all.

Frustrated with people's unwillingness to talk concretely about how bad the virus was, last March I made an overly broad prediction that the most likely scenario is that it kills closer to 1 million worldwide than 100K or 10M. It has killed 2.25 million now which is probably worse than I thought, but definitely within the bounds of what I expected. I said this was "really bad" in contrast to "just bad" or "really really bad" because a second diabetes suddenly emerging is obviously not something we want, it's also not the scariest thing trying to kill you today.

At the time, this all seemed optimistic compared to the smart people I listened to and pessimistic compared to the average person I listened to. Looking back, I probably could have adjusted my expectations to exactly what the smart people I listened to were saying to be more accurate. Instead, I did my own thinking and ended up less accurate.

...

I still feel like this is very much a thing:
-"It's wild to see polarization on Coronavirus. One group's panic seems to be driving another's nonchalance and vice versa. While there is definitely a political overlay, it seems to be something deeper for most people: An instinctive belief that the world is hard to wake up from sleepwalking, or that the world is full of dumb panic." -Michael Dougherty
I don't talk about Coronavirus with people even when they say things I know are wrong, because I know what they say about each other. In some groups you can never be skeptical enough and others you can never be too skeptical.

I know people who remind me to "be safe" because the Coronavirus is very serious. And then some people ask me whether I'm nervous about letting my kids go back to school. It seems like they're very worried about my personal safety, which doesn't make a lot of sense. As I mentioned before, heard disease kills more people than Coronavirus and it selects for the same age bracket (65+), yet nobody is telling me to be careful of heart disease.

Of course, heart disease is not something you can "watch out" for. Heart disease is the result of a long history of life decisions. So a more appropriate comparison might be a car accident. Car accidents don't kill as many people as Coronavirus, but it's more selective for younger males like me. My risk of dying from a car accident compared to my risk of dying from Coronavirus is close enough that I don't know which is actually more likely to kill me. Yet nobody is doing this, "be careful out there" stuff.

I've decided to take their words to only mean, "I care about you". Message received. It's just a shame that they don't care about me enough to allow me to say words I think are true without undesirable social repercussions. Funny how that works.

...

Speaking of things I think are true but can't say, Coronavirus came from a lab.

Probably.


I start by not believing in coincidences, and the fact that the virus originated next to the Wuhan Institute of Virology is a big coincidence. Now you have to argue me out of believing it came from a lab.

Here's the thing, maybe there's some good evidence that it did not come from the lab, but if so I can't find it because the topic is smothered in stupid bullshit.

"The lab leak hypothesis is a racist conspiracy theory"
"Trump said suggested it came from a lab"
"All the experts all say it came from a wet market"

To the people saying these things, if you would kindly shut up so people with real evidence can have their voices heard that would be greeeat.

Currently, betting markets have, "Credible claim by 2024 that COVID-19 likely originated in a lab?" at 17%. Here's the thing, if it did come from a lab I'm not sure that A) we find a smoking gun and B) one of the listed public health agencies say so rather than just ignore it.

...

Vaccines are being rolled out and nobody is doing it better than Israel.


The United States is doing better than most but could be doing a lot better. And I do think more vaccines faster is better.

I don't think anyone who is nervous about getting a vaccine is a stupid idiot or anything. The truth is we don't know the long-term effects of the vaccine. We haven't had enough time to possibly do that. But any risks have to be compared to the risk of the virus. The vaccine would have to be pretty bad to be worse than Covid-19. Will the vaccine kill a million people? Because it would have to do a lot worse than that to outweigh the damage Covid-19 will do without it.

Besides, what are we going to do? Let the pandemic continue on for five more years and then check in on the test group to see how they're doing?

It might be rational for you as an individual to wait. You could let others take it and then see how they're doing later while you get the assurance that the vaccinated people around you won't infect you with the virus. But I'm not of the mindset that I'm a better or worse guinea pig than anyone else. As much as I'm biased in favor of myself, I'm a less than average productive member of society so I'm probably a better than average guinea pig. 

Here's a bet: Will Coronavirus take more lives in 2021 than in 2020? I'm saying yes. I'm tempted to say twice as many. Largely because last year Corona didn't really get going until April last year, and then it stayed at about 6,000 deaths a day and it stayed that way until October. And now to start the year we're at twice as many deaths per day and at the rate at which countries are rolling out vaccines a substantial portion of the population won't be vaccinated until we're already through most of the year.

Actually, yes. I'll predict 4 million deaths in 2021. That's more than twice as many deaths than 2020 in the same year we introduce the vaccine. Let's check back in a year to see how this does. See you there.

Peta and speciesist language, Christian Fundamentalists and Kadabra

 Peta says,

This is literally the same argument ultra-conservative fundamentalist Christian moms made about the Kadabra Pokemon card

"Pokemon promote the occult instead of proper Biblical values and should thus be destroyed." -Universal Life Church
"Pokemon promote the occult instead of proper Biblical values and should thus be destroyed."
-Universal Life Church

The problem with both of them is that whether in the form of a word or a pentagram, symbols only mean what they're intended to mean. Nobody who calls another person a dog has anything against dogs.

---

This post is about my society's relentless confusion over symbols and reality. Other examples like this include:

1. "What are you, Gay?" (and tiny American flags falling on the ground)

Rationalists and Stories

Tyler Cowen's TED talk Be Suspicious of Simple Stories is one of my favorite talks of all time. It's not saying anything new or controversial. He's relaying some pretty mainstream wisdom grounded in psychology. Our brains are more like story processing machines than logic processing machines. We like to think the prefrontal cortex is in charge because of course the smart thing is in charge of the stupid thing. But it isn't so. The less logical part of our brain that uses instinct, intuition, and most importantly previous patterns is what motivates most of our behavior. The prefrontal cortex tells stories about it afterward. This is groundbreaking if you've never heard it, but it's hardly controversial.

I think back to an old acquaintance of mine who evaluated this TED talk negatively. She studied theater. She was familiar with a long list of classical fiction in both in film and novel. She had a close relationship with stories. I suspect she felt like this talk of Cowen's was an attack on stories, so she felt like she had to defend them. She didn't have any criticism of what Cowen actually said, rather she just went on about how good and important and fulfilling stories could be, which is nothing Cowen or I would disagree with.

It's hard to reason people out of the story-telling mindset. I guess one has to do it with a better story. But rational people are stubborn in that they're always trying to reason people out of their positions, even if they know the literature on how poorly reason accomplishes persuasion. This makes me think they're not rational after all, but rather they've built a more complicated infrastructure of stories to better hide the fact that they're just like everyone else.

Responsibility Starts At Choice

It's very easy to avoid responsibility. All you have to do is chase causal mechanisms beyond any choice you had. For example:

"I had bad parents"

"I had a bad society"

"I had bad genes"

Ultimately, every last influence of choice came from factors we didn't choose. So are any of us responsible for anything?

Prideful Humility

"I'm the most humble person in the world" is a line so slathered in irony that no real human being could possibly utter it with a straight face. We humans do not deceive so directly, rather, we deceive in layers. We do not state out loud that we're humble, the paradox is too obvious. We illustrate how humble we are by posturing our humility indirectly.

Why does the left make me mad? No really, why?

 


Right-wing propaganda, idiocy and ideology all make me roll my eyes, but when the same comes from the left I feel a different emotion - like I have to suppress anger. Why would this be? I have a few hypotheses:

Money is Time

 


"Time is money" expresses the sentiment that the time you spend could be used to make money. But the opposite is true too - money is time.