Grey Lady Steel Man
Slate Star Codex enthusiasts should probably apologize to Cade Metz
This weekend, the New York Times published a piece by Cade Metz about Scott Siskind, the brilliant blogging psychiatrist formerly known as Scott Alexander, and the so-called “rationalist” community that grew up around his former blog, Slate Star Codex (SSC), which Siskind sunk to the bottom of the sea this summer because Metz was working on an article about him and the SSC scene but wouldn’t promise not to refer to Siskind by his real name. (SSC recently re-launched as Astral Codex Ten here on Substack. I highly recommend it.)
Now, I didn’t find Metz’s piece particularly illuminating because I’ve been in and around this community to various degrees since its inception. Yet I didn’t find it especially objectionable, either. This has put me way out of step with practically everyone else who has ever been in and around SSC circles. The drama around Slate Star Codex, Scott’s real last name, and the New York Times makes it abundantly clear that Siskind inspires intense loyalty. But this fierce loyalty, when joined with Siskind’s self-admittedly irrational fixation on keeping the general public in the dark about his real identity (which he did not actually do much to conceal), has created a sort of group-think reality distortion field around the whole fiasco that SSC partisans can’t seem to penetrate.
In particular, the hostility toward Metz and the piece he produced after Siskind finally chose to identify himself strikes me as astoundingly blind to the fact that Metz was confronted with such a dramatic, unexpected, unsettling experience — was assailed with a massive wave of “retaliatory” hostility — the first time around simply because he wanted to write an ordinary article according to his understanding of his publication’s rules. If it didn’t occur to you that the article Metz eventually did write about SSC after undergoing all that grief might at some level be trying to ask and answer the question, “What the fucking hell happened to me the first time I tried this and why?” then you should probably ask yourself why it didn’t. I’ll get back to that.
This piece is long. It took me several days to write it. To be frank, I’m a little nervous that hardcore Siskind/SSC supporters, many of whom are pretty close friends, will get angry with me. I don’t normally feel this way when I know I’m about to disagree intellectually with friends. I tend to happily lean into it, let ‘er rip, and needle my dear interlocutors with passive-aggressive trash talk. That I feel unusually wary now reflects my social closeness to the subject, sure. But I don’t think that’s the principal reason for my jitters. I believe that this little controversy is mainly a story of identity, loyalty, and commitment — and the way those things predictably lead to irrational behavior, unwarranted enmity and failures of basic sympathy and moral imagination. Yet I know that a bunch of folks, including some friend, won’t just disagree with my view; they’ll find it offensive and consider it a personal attack. I also worry a bit that I’ll get some grief of one form or another. But I’m used to that.
Anyway, these kinds of nerves tend to make me rhetorically hyper-sensitive, which leads me to repeatedly refine, amplify, clarify and expand at junctures where my already pretty sensitive dialectical instincts anticipate resistance, annoyance, or objection. So, I’m sorry for the prolix digressiveness of this. It does seem appropriate for an essay focused on Scott Alexander Siskind, though.
I am not a member of the out-group, exactly
Since emotions around this are so hot and more than a little tribal it might help to say that it’s not like I’m some sort of bellicose, ignorant stranger to the “rationalist” community that has congregated around Siskind’s truly captivating, mind-expanding blog. Slate Star Codex grew out of Eliezer Yudkowksy’s Less Wrong, which grew out of Robin Hanson’s Overcoming Bias, which I read from the beginning because I’ve been friendly with Robin since my days at the Mercatus Center in the early Aughts. I’ve been to Robin’s house. He invited me to give a talk at the Center for the Study of Public Choice. My literary better half even wrote an amazing piece about Robin, his wife Peggy, and their conflicting attitudes toward cryonic preservation for, yes, the New York Times.
To my mind, Tyler Cowen is the revered if under-recognized elder patron of this whole scene thanks to his role in building out the libertarian/iconoclast faction of the George Mason econ department, his strongly pro-blogging attitude and example, and the fact that the growth of each of these successive blog-based rationalist communities owes a great deal to the publicity and promotion that Tyler gave them on Marginal Revolution, his popular and enduring blog with Alex Tabarrok. I bring this up because I worked pretty closely with Tyler at Mercatus, from time to time. I was his debate partner against Betsey Stevenson and Jeff Sachs for a big event sponsored by The Economist in New York City (we won — no big deal). And I organized a conference for him and Robin based on a paper they wrote together on disagreement and self-deception from the Bayesian epistemic perspective that dominates the rationalist scene.
For what it’s worth, this paper persuaded me that rigorously consistent Bayesian updating is inconsistent with personal coherence, persistent social loyalty and the ability to make trustworthy credible commitments to non-defection — the thing that makes positive-sum cooperation possible. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the point of it. But that’s nevertheless one of the reasons I don’t find it surprising that many loyal SSC partisans are unwilling to even consider updating in Cade Metz’s direction.
Anyway, the upshot here is that I was deeply embedded in the social and intellectual networks that SSC grew out of. I was already pickling in the ethos of Robin’s Overcoming Bias when it launched; I followed Less Wrong pretty closely as it grew; and I remember reading and liking Scott Siskind’s posts there (under a handle I don’t remember now — Update: Yvain) before he started his own thing at Slate Star Codex, which I read sporadically but pretty often over the years.
I’ll add that I’m also pretty familiar with some of the unsavory characters in Metz’s article, whose inclusion in the story Siskind and his supporters seem to regard as a scurrilous smear. Well, I commissioned and edited Peter Thiel’s most infamous piece of writing. I’ve had long conversations with several of the extremely sharp, philosophically inclined guys he likes to employ at his companies and foundation. I’ve seen his office in the Presidio and its breathtaking views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Palace of Fine Arts. Curtis Yarvin, the neo-fascist theorist bankrolled by Thiel, used to comment on my blog pretty frequently under his nom de plume Mencius Moldbug. I’m sure I understand how these guys operate, and what it means when they’re hanging around, better than most of Siskind’s readers.
However, to be perfectly clear, none of this is to say that I did or do consider myself a member of the Overcoming Bias/Less Wrong/Slate Star Codex communities. I never thought of myself as member of the broader rationalist community. But I’ve always been hanging around, popping in and out to listen, sort of like Curtis Yarvin, I guess, but … less Satanic? I’ve always been profoundly interested in what it means to overcome bias and to be less wrong. But when I first came into close contact with the idiosyncratic rationalism of the George Mason econ culture, I was already pretty far along in my development, but on orthogonal and somewhat conflicting lines. I did find it all pretty exciting, though, and it shaped my thinking on a bunch of different dimensions. For a while, I took on more than a little of its style and attitude. It made me feel smarter.
Still, at the time I was an advanced Ph.D. student in philosophy with a pretty strong background in epistemology, metaethics, and the philosophy of mind and language. I was (still am) pretty deep into the tradition of “naturalized” epistemology that came out of Quine. By that time, it had more or less merged with empirical cognitive science and, on the more theoretical side, with work in “social epistemology” on the role that community, identity and social norms play in the production of scientific knowledge and belief generally. It’s an equally rigorous but rather “thicker”, “messier” way of getting at what it takes to suss out truth.
That’s why I’ve also always been more than a little bemused by the reductive, psychologically and sociologically naive way that economists, finance quants, engineers and analytic philosophers (the ones from the more a priori, less naturalistic side of the tradition) tend to go about thinking about these questions. But those are, without question, the types most attracted to the Overcoming Bias/Less Wrong/Slate Star Codex style of rationalism.
Over time, my bemusement grew to annoyance and frustration over what I began to see as a self-congratulatory, increasingly ideological inclination to conflate the idiosyncratic ethos of their homogenous, self-selected community with the generally necessary conditions for intellectual freedom, scientific discovery, and technological innovation. I’ve observed a tendency to slip into the under-baked assumption that the marketplace of ideas just can’t work, and therefore can’t bestow its blessings upon humanity, unless it operates along lines that SSC-style rationalists find comprehensible and congenial. The deeper this assumption sinks in, the more it generates wariness verging on hostility toward institutions that traffic in ideas and information on terms rationalists dislike.
What’s black and white and read all over?
Take, for example, the New York Times, one of the world’s premier knowledge-gathering institutions. (Don’t laugh! Keep reading.) When Metz first set out to write his story about “Scott Alexander” and Slate Star Codex, he said that it was against policy to keep Siskind’s real name out of the story. There’s evidently a great deal of confusion at the Times, and in journalism generally, about the conditions under which the subject of a story’s request to remain anonymous ought to be honored. This is especially confusing when anyone with access to a search engine can pretty easily work out somebody’s real name in a couple minutes. Does it need to be the case that it’s highly unlikely that anyone will be able to identify the subject if the reporter doesn’t? This is just hard. I’m not sure what the rule ought to be. I doubt it’s possible to formulate a rule adequate to the dizzying and unpredictable variability of life’s symphony of convoluted circumstances.
That said, it seems pretty clear to me, and it eventually became clear enough to Siskind, that Metz was just trying do some completely normal journalism while adhering to the Times’ anonymity rule as he understood it. He did nothing that a reasonable, representative outside observer would consider to be a provocation. All the action was on Siskind’s side. He panicked, nuked his entire site, and the SSC community rose up in rabid fury at what they interpreted as a hostile bid to destroy their online Elysium. All because some dude just wanted to commit a mundane act of journalism!
Until recently, I was a writer for the Times Magazine, and the idea that anyone on the organization’s masthead would direct a reporter to take down a niche blogger because he didn’t like paywalls, or he promoted a petition about a professor, or, really, for any other reason, is ludicrous; stories emerge from casual interactions between curious reporters and their overtaxed editors. […]
But the rationalists, despite their fixation with cognitive bias, read into the contingencies a darkly meaningful pattern. Alexander, whose role has been to help explain Silicon Valley to itself, was taken up as a mascot and a martyr in a struggle against the Times, which, in the tweets of Srinivasan, Graham, and others, was enlisted as a proxy for all of the gatekeepers—the arbiters of what it is and is not O.K. to say, and who is allowed, by virtue of their identity, to say it. As Eric Weinstein, a podcast host and managing director at Peter Thiel’s investment firm, tweeted, “I believe that activism has taken over.” Here was the first great salvo in a new front in the culture wars.
This is perfectly said. On the same front, Elizabeth Spiers has written a wonderfully illuminating essay, “Slate Star Clusterfuck,” that homes in on the distorted thinking about journalism that Siskind and his supporters are tangled in. You should read it to learn about “negativity bias” and why it is that “hit pieces” are mostly a myth. But you should also stick around for her fascinating account of her personal history with Balaji Srinivasan and Peter Thiel, who spent a fortune to destroy (cancel?) Gawker, which Spiers co-founded.
I can’t diagnose careless, biased, error-ridden thinking about journalism better than Spiers has, but I’d emphasize a couple of things. 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. It very literally banks on its reputation for reliability. The Times obsesses over the fact that conservatives say they don’t trust it, but also apparently won’t trust it as long as the paper refuses to violate its fundamental duty not to intentionally misinform readers. They agonize over this bind because they care intensely about whether and how broadly they are trusted; they want to be trusted by everybody, both because it’s a lovely ideal and because they think they’ll make more money that way. But the idea that trust should be based in trustworthiness is considered a bedrock, non-negotiable value.
I’d argue that this sort of commitment to trust through trustworthiness is one of the main distinguishing markers that separates producers of “real” journalism from producers of propaganda. This doesn’t guarantee a lack of bias. Far from it. But it does guarantee genuine and earnest concern about both the reality and perception of bias and tends to produce sincere, concerted efforts to mitigate it.
In contrast, the sub-group of rationalists around Scott Siskind tends, as he tends, to be pretty dismissive of the observation that it’s a real problem that they are overwhelmingly white and male and clustered in a very narrow of range of heavily white, male analytical symbol manipulation occupations. That they mostly don’t see, and mostly don’t care, that this very dismissiveness counts as evidence of the sort of self-selection bias they dismiss illustrates the problem. Communities like this are almost always inwardly focused and naturally evolve toward serving the social and emotional needs of the types of people who opt in and stick around. It doesn’t matter if a community is explicitly organized around ideals of objectivity, truth-orientation and unbiased rationality if the community in fact functions to serve different needs. The incentives that structure and bind communities push members toward the performance of the community’s values in the conventionally accepted style. But it’s a small miracle when the norms of performance faithfully embody the community’s professed values and reliably generate the intended output.
I learned this the hard way when I was a serious Ayn Rand devotee in my early-to-mid-twenties. One thing the Objectivist community taught me to do was to regard the skeptical distrust, eye-rolling heavy sighs and antagonism of outsiders as evidence of their irrationality and a validation of my specialness in getting it. I think SSC-style rationalists are rather less prone to this, since, according to Bayesian principles, the simple fact that smart, well-informed people disagree with you counts as at least weak evidence that you’re wrong and ought to move you at least a little bit in their direction. But the same commitment, if wedded to community standards for the performance of rationality misaligned with avowed principles, will tend to summon the cunning of motivated cognition, which can easily lead you to find a million reasons to conclude that people who disagree with you are actually less smart and informed than they may seem. It can lead you to diagnose disagreement in a way that neutralizes its intellectual force by “explaining” the non-rational mechanisms that produce it. Members of “rah-rah Reason!” communities, just like members of any other sort of community, can always find a way to trap themselves inside their bubble. It’s a homo sapiens specialty! That’s why it can be hard to see that the biases you’re not concerned about and let each get away with dismissing make you untrustworthy — and that that’s why you’re not more widely trusted.
Despite its many problems, the Times is widely trusted. But that creates its own problems for a generally trustworthy fact-gathering enterprise. Nearly everyone is motivated to conceal, bend or shade the truth to their advantage, especially to the New York Times — because it is extraordinarily reliable and, therefore, widely trusted. If you can pull one over on a Times reporter and get them to shout your preferred story through their megaphone, a huge number of people will believe it. That’s why the SSC community is more disgruntled about Metz’s piece than they would be if it had appeared at, say, Buzzfeed (which has great journalists but less reach and trust). And that’s another reason why it’s literally impossible for the Times, and other outlets with similar reputations for accuracy and journalistic integrity, to not constantly fuck up.
Navigating the maze of lies, gaslighting, spin, bullshit
Journalism isn’t science. It’s often more like low-grade war with hostile subjects. People who are newsworthy often wish that they weren’t and are often straight-up antagonistic. If you’re a reporter, they will respond as if you personally have it out for them (very unlikely) and are an enemy of their interests (often true, because people often don’t want others to know the truth about them). They will lie to you. They will recruit people you’re less likely to suspect of lying to you to lie to you. They may try to intimidate you and your family — or wink and look the other way when their allies do. They may refuse to give their real name, even if you already found it. They may even hurt themselves to hurt your story if they really, really, really don’t want it written.
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.
That Scott Siskind’s name is Scott Siskind is a fact relevant to a story about him, period. That’s why it seems insanely paranoid to journalists like Lewis-Kraus to infer that Cade Metz, or the New York Times itself, in all its abstract corporate majesty, must harbor some vendetta because they think it makes sense to use your name in a story about you.
Siskind’s hedged concessions
What’s especially interesting to me is that, in the piece that launched Astral Codex Ten, Scott comes to grips with the fact that he wigged out — sort of. He gets it. He learned something from it. He updated his priors, overcame some biases and made himself less wrong. He writes:
As much crappy political stuff as there is in both the news industry and the blogsphere these days, I don't think this was a left-right political issue. I think the New York Times wanted to write a fairly boring article about me, but some guideline said they had to reveal subjects' real identities, if they knew them, unless the subject was in one of a few predefined sympathetic categories (eg sex workers).
He’s come to see that nobody at the Times was animated by ill will or had undertaken some nefarious ideological mission. It was just a guy doing his job all along. So, when Scott utterly lost his shit, it wasn’t because Metz or the Times had done anything that reasonable person would anticipate leading to such an operatic response. Siskind seems to see that now. He gets that he’s responsible for his reaction to his perception of the consequences that might have been brought about by his loss of anonymity. Neither Metz nor the Times sought to bring them about. The critical, volatile variable in the whole episode is the surprising ferocity of his attachment to anonymity, and he knows it:
As for the Times' mistakes: I think they just didn't expect me to care about anonymity as much as I did. In fact, most of my supporters, and most of the savvy people giving me advice, didn't expect me to care as much as I did.
Siskind offers a plausible explanation for why his anonymity mattered so much to him — i.e., blogging under his real name almost strangled his career in the crib, he “still had this really strong sense that [his] career hung on this thread of staying anonymous,” and it’s apparently important to remain something of an enigma to your psychiatry patients. Yet he grasps that the scale of his sense of threat at the prospect of losing his poorly defended anonymity was irrational:
After all that, yeah, I had a phobia of being doxxed. But psychotherapy classes also teach you to not to let past traumas control your life even after they've stopped being relevant. Was I getting too worked up over an issue that no longer mattered?
A phobia is “an extreme or irrational fear of something,” by the way. In the end, Scott does more or less acknowledge that he got too worked up — that he was letting past trauma control his life. And he pretty clearly suggests that the entire shitstorm, which he also realizes created something of an undeserved nightmare for Metz and others at the Times, arose from his wild overreaction to his admittedly irrational fear.
Nevertheless, he hedges … a lot.
Realistically, my anonymity let me feel safe and comfortable. But it probably wasn't literally necessary to keep me alive. I feel bad admitting this, like I conscripted you all into a crusade on false pretenses. Am I an entitled jerk for causing such a stir just so I can feel safe and comfortable? I'm sure the New York Times customer service representatives who had to deal with all your phone calls thought so.
Siskind sees that’s it’s definitely reasonable to see him as an entitled jerk, but he’s not actually admitting that he is. On the contrary, he ends up arguing (in typically illuminating and entertaining terms!) that, sure, he was irrational … but! There’s a higher rationality to acting so crazy that folks you feel so antagonized by decide to back away and just leave the rabid dog alone. As he goes on, Siskind continues to tendentiously characterize reporting true, publicly available facts about people, such as their names, with “doxxing,” the exposure of identifying information with malicious intent to cause harm.
I think he does this, despite having conceded that there was no malicious intent in his case, because he thinks it’s nevertheless seriously wrong to communicate certain facts about a person if they’d rather they stay under their hat. More than that, Siskind suggests that people should not be allowed to freely communicate those facts without express permission — even if others have good reason to want to know. He seems to me to be saying that our interest in the privacy and impunity of anonymity generally outweigh our interest in freely speaking and receiving information about identity without the subject’s consent.
I don't think whatever claim the public has on me includes a right to know my name if I don't want them to. … I would rather we get whatever pathologies come from people being able to invent Bitcoin scot-free, than get whatever pathologies come from anyone being allowed to dox anyone else if they can argue that person is “influential”.
I don’t see this as an argument so much as an expression of passionately held preference. Siskind is a man of truly dazzling intelligence, dialectical ability, and analytical thoroughness, yet he doesn’t spare a single second to consider any of implications of what he’s saying here. He doesn’t attempt to set out the most credible version of the opposing position and then show why it is mistaken. There is no attempt to specify the pathologies that might come with a right to anonymity or estimate how much harm they might cause. There isn’t even a gesture of an argument to the effect that the damage produced by those pathologies would not be worse than the damage produced by the status quo.
We’re just left with an implied but entirely unsupported argument for censorship — for prior restraint of speech that would reveal someone’s identity to the public without their consent. I reckon if Siskind actually intended to propose a new regime of censorship to secure a new right to say whatever you want online without fear of cancellation, he’d supply an argument.
You gotta fight! … for the right! … to shiiiiiitpost!
Eventually, Siskind makes it clear why he really thinks the Times’ anonymity policy is wrong: no one will hazard to say what they really think unless we can feel confident that others cannot trace our words back to us.
Does everyone eventually feel so unsafe that we completely abandon the public square to professional-opinion-havers, talking heads allowed to pontificate because they have the backing of giant institutions? What biases does that introduce to the discussion? And if we want to avoid that, is there any better way then a firm stance that people's online pseudonymity is a basic right, not to be challenged without one hell of a compelling public interest? Not just "they got kinda big, so now we can destroy them guilt-free", but an actual public interest?
This is not what rationalists looks like at their best. This is what it looks like when a rationalist is emotional but confident that his audience will vibe along. Siskind knows his readership will give the desired answers to the each of his leading, rhetorical questions. It’s commiseration, which is fine. But Siskind also seems to be reassuring his loyal and sympathetic audience that they were not, in fact, “conscripted … into a crusade on false pretenses.” Or, if they kinda were (because Metz was actually blameless and Scott massively overreacted out of irrational fear) it remains that their participation in the quite nasty group assault on Metz and the Times was not altogether unjustified. It was righteous! It does not need to be reconsidered! Because the Times and its anonymity rule, even if completely standard, perpetuates a pernicious injustice that merits forceful resistance. That’s the spirit of it.
The fact that this is a series of rhetorical questions and many of us would honestly answer most of them the “wrong” strongly suggests that this is addressed to Siskind’s devoted readership, not the rest of us. He’s justifying their reaction, sense of grievance, and threatened victimization to them. He’s helping them justify it to themselves by inviting them to supply the answers that make everything feel okay. Rational justification for the “right” answers isn’t needed because this is rationalization. To acknowledge the existence, much less the reasonableness, of the “wrong” answers would interfere with community self-exoneration — with the comforting sense of reassurance that “we are not the baddies.”
But there’s nothing here to persuade skeptical outsiders that Siskind and the SSC community’s rash and bullying reaction to a journalist doing journalism was justified, despite Siskind’s concessions. If we’re meant to take this as a serious argument for a right to anonymity, it’s just a bad argument. It’s not persuasive.
The argument against a right to anonymity
I am a professional opinion-haver who sometimes has the backing of giant institutions. But, let me tell you, those institutions will definitely cut you loose if you’re perceived to be a problem.
And, no, everyone will not eventually feel too unsafe to opine without a net. There’s simply no reason to think that they will. Social media and the fact that everyone carries a recording studio everywhere they go certainly does make many of us feel oppressed by visibility and omnipresent looming judgment. But the same technology has massively expanded the public square and left it absolutely teeming with people who otherwise could not have any had any voice in it. I don’t remember a time when I’ve been exposed to such a wide array of opinions from such an incredibly diverse set of people.
For example, I have followed some non-pseudonymous-seeming Nigerians on Twitter and I learned that these individuals are not in the least woke or afraid at all to say what they think. They didn’t seem to need a fake name or air cover from the Brookings Institution to be frank. Yet their opinions would have been invisible to me without the same technology that makes so many of us feel anxious and paranoid about being constantly watched and judged.
People do need safe spaces to talk — places where they are not constantly surveilled and feel free to speak their minds at ease. For some of us Gen Xers, the public Internet felt like that for a little while, but that’s mostly because we were a relatively uniform, self-selected group of early adopters, the rest of the world hadn’t shown up yet, and the platforms that connect everybody to everybody hadn’t been invented. The Internet of platforms cannot be a truly safe place in part because the prevalence of pseudonymity and the difficulty of verifying real identities makes it too easy to infiltrate notionally private online spaces and render them “unsafe.”
I think we all understand the freedom afforded by pseudonymity and the attraction to it. But anyone who has grown up around the Internet understands that anonymity, by releasing us from the credible threat of social sanction, enables the indulgence of some of our worst impulses and can easily lead to a toxic flood of bigotry, hatred and disinformation. This can lead in turn to the normalization of abhorrent views and the reversal of hard-won social progress. Personally, I think there’s a compelling public interest in preventing this, which is why I think a default norm that encourages people to take responsibility for their words by speaking them under the banner of their actual name is highly desirable. It’s definitely unnerving when your reputation is on the line whenever you speak, but that kind of accountability forces us to consider perspectives other than our own. It makes us, literally, responsible.
There are plenty of circumstances in which it’s risky to speak in your real voice and ventriloquism is safer. Members of vulnerable minorities, people in abusive relationships, and those who live under genuine tyrannies often have little choice but to disguise their voices. That’s why newspapers do make exceptions to the default rule of identifying the subjects of stories by name.
But a world in which norms of acceptable speech are vigorously contested and policed is not tyrannical. It’s just the world. Specifically liberal societies of free and equal citizens will fail without the enforcement of norms of freedom, equality, dignity and mutual respect. But those norms cannot be upheld without the enforcement of conventional rules about what we can say to and about others, or about what kind of society we ought to aspire to, without fear of social blowback. Those norms are constitutive of a society of equal freedom, not a form of oppression.
But honoring a basic right to pseudonymity would push the expected cost of defying these norms toward zero, which practically guarantees an increasing supply of speech corrosive to the basic conditions of a liberal order. That’s why I think, in democratic societies where the basic rights of citizens are relatively well-protected, it’s warranted to regard pseudonymous authors with suspicion, unless the content of their speech makes it clear why secrecy is a legitimate need for them. But when the content of their speech suggests that they know they’re defying norms of acceptable speech and that’s why they’ve sought anonymity, it’s fair to be extra suspicious.
And it’s worth emphasizing again that a binding right to anonymity would seem to require censorship and the punishment of people who reveal secret identities without permission. Oh, wait! Can you actually enforce a basic right to security in anonymity if anonymous speakers can out other anonymous speakers whenever they like free from fear of social or legal consequences? Whoops.
Now, I’m not arguing against a basic right to anonymity because I think Siskind offered a serious argument for it. He didn’t. I’m laying it out so that Siskind’s supporters (a) can see that there is a very reasonable argument against it, (b) can’t just take it for granted that there is a strong case for the impermissibility of publicly revealing jealously guarded real names, and therefore (c) ought to seriously consider whether they can really justify last summer’s jihad against the Times, regardless of the jusifiability of Siskind’s initial overreaction. I’d like to think that all this (d) puts open-minded SSC fans in a position to see the article Metz finally wrote in a different and more charitable light.
A mile in Metz’s shoe leather
It ought to go without saying, but maybe it helps to say it anyway: Cade Metz is a human being whose life, subjectivity and safety are every bit as important as Scott Siskind’s. If you want to understand the article that Metz finally produced after Siskind rearranged his life and left the pseudonymous closet on his own terms, it’s essential at least try to imagine what this whole thing might have been like from his perspective. Here’s my simulation.
Somebody tells Metz about SSC, he finds it really interesting, wants to write some kind of article about Siskind, his popular and influential blog, and the fascinating community around it. He starts to do some preliminary research. I have no idea how this went, exactly, but the order doesn’t really matter much. Metz contacts Siskind and at some point he tells Scott that he already knows his real name and at some point Scott tells Metz it’s very important that he doesn’t use his real name. Metz says, sorry, house rules say I have to use your real name. To Metz, things are already getting pretty interesting. He’s a reporter. He’s not going to take what people tell him at face value. He’s probably wondering why Scott’s really sweating so hard about his real name. Then, at some point Siskind flips the fuck out and tells the Times that he’s going to burn SSC to the ground if they don’t promise not to use his real name. At this juncture basically any competent reporter is going to think, “Whoa! Yeah, there’s something deeper here for sure.”
Well, the Times won’t promise, so Siskind actually does it. This seems super-crazy and the natural journalistic response to it is “What the hell is this man hiding? What’s he so afraid I’ll find on his blog?”
Let’s pause to acknowledge that Siskind eventually acknowledged that he had been behaving in way that seemed incredibly suspicious to outside observers and that it does make a great deal of completely non-malicious sense for a journalist to tune into this. It’s interesting, though, that this apparently hadn’t occurred to him. “Contacts in the news industry” had to tell him.
[I don’t] think it was going to be a hit piece, at least not at first. I heard from most of the people who the Times interviewed. They were mostly sympathetic sources, the interviewer asked mostly sympathetic questions, and someone who knows New York Times reporters says the guy on my case was their non-hit-piece guy; they have a different reporter for hatchet jobs. After I torched the blog in protest, they seem to have briefly flirted with turning it into a hit piece, and the following week they switched to interviewing everyone who hated me and asking a lot of leading questions about potentially bad things I did. My contacts in the news industry said even this wasn't necessarily sinister. They might have assumed I had something to hide, and wanted to figure out what it was just in case it was a better story than the original. Or they might have been deliberately interviewing friendly sources first, in order to make me feel safe so I would grant them an interview, and then moved on to the unfriendly ones after they knew that wouldn't happen. I'm not sure. But the pattern doesn't match "hit piece from the beginning".
Honestly, this sets my journalistic Spidey sense a’tingling. Scott Siskind is as far from dumb and oblivious as it gets. He’s a truly brilliant student of humanity, a scientist of the mind. Don’t you find it hard to believe that it simply never occurred to a man this acutely observant that most anyone observing the panicked haste of his frantic behavior would land on “He’s hiding something” as the most likely explanation?
Claiming that he needed to have this explained to him by in-the-know media experts is a cleverly elliptical way of denying that he was hiding anything. It hadn’t even occurred to him that it might look that way! Obviously, if he had been hiding something, he wouldn’t have needed to be told that he looked like it. But he did need to be told … he says. So I guess we can cross “hiding something” off our list of hypotheses? Well … if I’m a cynical reporter jaded by the crafty legerdemain of unreliable narrators, the dazzling logical tidiness of this bit of en passant self-exoneration might get me to circle and underline “hiding something.” That wouldn’t be anything even close to a conclusion, mind you. It would just be a hunch worth seriously investigating.
(While we’re getting our Leo Strauss on, don’t sleep on the exquisite subtlety of the suggestion that you’d need to be a news industry insider to see anything suspicious in Scott freaking out about his real name going public and then nuking his massive, precious website and community forum. It certain wasn’t his buddy from college or one of his hundreds of brilliant friends who informed poor dense Scott of the newsman-only “hiding something” optics of his behavior. It only came up when he got around to chatting with his “contacts in the news industry!” This is art.)
Okay, back to the story. So … then a thundering herd of Siskind’s supporters and allies mob the New York Times and seriously harass Metz:
I woke up the next morning to a torrent of online abuse, as did my editor, who was named in the farewell note. My address and phone number were shared by the blog’s readers on Twitter. Protecting the identity of the man behind Slate Star Codex had turned into a cause among the Rationalists.
Note the restraint. Note the utter lack of self-pity. The events here are central to the story, but his feelings aren’t, so Metz includes the events and leaves out his feelings. He makes zero hay from this awful thing that was unfairly inflicted on him. He almost seems embarrassed to bring it up at all. This isn’t what you’d do if you were writing a “hit piece,” is it? But if you were a reporter and this had happened to you, don’t you think you’d wonder why it did? Don’t you think you’d think there was a story in that?
Anyway, the shitstorm creates a bit of a crisis at the paper. Maybe they decide that exacerbating the situation by publishing an objectively not-very-important story is just not worth it. Maybe the experience has been so unpleasant for Metz he’d rather drop it than continue to be victimized by hysterical rationalists just for making the mistake of getting curious about them. Maybe the Times decides that Scott’s case for being treated as an exception to the general non-anonymity rule is actually pretty persuasive, but whatever the story might have been, he’s now made it about his real name, so there’s no way to write that story that doesn’t use it or result in it coming out. Whatever the case may be, the story doesn’t get written. I don’t know if Metz kept researching or just let it go until Siskind’s big reveal. Not sure if it matters.
Siskind eventually relaunches as Astral Codex Ten and writes a long post about the controversy that Cade Metz experienced from ground zero. The essay is half mea culpa and half self-exculpatory. It feels a bit like he’s very elliptically negotiating to not have a story written about him even though he just let the cat out of the bag. Now, if you were Metz, do you think you’d have gotten over the sense that Siskind flipped out and made your life scary and weird because there were some things on SSC he didn’t want the world to trace back to his real name? Isn’t it pretty interesting, then, that this essay about the fateful episode isn’t really that interested in why psychiatric patients need distance from their doctors but is very interested in making an argument that the freedom to be able to say whatever you think with perfect immunity from social and professional consequences is so important that maybe it ought to be a basic right? Is that really what’s he’s saying? That maybe there ought to be a gag order that applies to anyone who knows somebody’s secret identity? If you're Cade Metz, maybe the force of this would not escape you?
In any case, how could you read all that, in the context of everything that has transpired, and not feel even more confident in your suspicion that the whole drama was really about Siskind’s terror of taking a hit for stuff on his website that many psychiatric patients — female patients, black patients, woke patients — might find pretty offensive. No explanation makes more sense than this. So, naturally, Metz is going to be interested in what that possibly offensive content was, because it looks like the key to the entire story.
And there really was/is some pretty untoward stuff on there. A bunch of people in the community, Scott included, really are interested in neoreactionary thinking. In a recently leaked email exchange, Siskind admits to finding a lot worthwhile in it and confesses that he’s hard on neo-reactionaries in public in part to throw people off the scent. Curtis Yarvin/Mencius Moldbug really is a familiar and known quantity who does hang around the community, even if he’s not a central figure. Peter Thiel gives him money.
Speaking of Peter Thiel … Why does the SSC community go after the Times and an innocent journalist so hard? Is it not relevant that Peter Thiel is a big fan, really is a reactionary billionaire opposed to democracy who really does have an insanely creepy, secretive company named after Sauron’s all-seeing eye that just happens to develop technology that would be very useful for a fascist surveillance state, and did destroy Gawker just because it revealed information about him that he didn’t want revealed? Of course it’s relevant. Thiel protege Balaji Srinivasan is a big deal in Silicon Valley, he’s widely admired among SSC enthusiasts, he sees journalists as the enemy, and he’s willing to play dirty to intimidate and silence them. Here’s what Scott himself says about him:
I got an email from Balaji Srinivasan, a man whose anti-corporate-media crusade straddles a previously unrecognized border between endearing and terrifying. He had some very creative suggestions for how to deal with journalists. I'm not sure any of them were especially actionable, at least not while the Geneva Convention remains in effect.
This isn’t the sort of email you send to someone unless you’re already pretty friendly, is it?
Well, suppose you’re a journalist in the corporate media and Scott Siskind and his vast network of followers did deal with you in an extremely unfriendly way when you proposed to say something he didn’t want said about him. Are you going to see this as irrelevant to an accurate understanding of the character of Siskind and the SSC community? Of course you won’t.
I want to urge Siskind’s irked supporters to consider that when Metz brings up Charles Murray, Voldemort feminists, unusually collegial engagement with neo-reactionary thought, and speculation about tech being male-heavy because women for some reason just get bored by numbers and gadgets, it’s not because he’s writing a hit job — it’s because these are the kinds of things Siskind was terrified his employer and patients would connect to him. Huh? Why would you aim directly at the realization of Siskind’s fears if not out of spite and malice? Well, the most interesting things about Slate Star Codex, from an outside perspective, are (1) that it’s influential in Silicon Valley, and its enthusiastic fans include incredibly rich and powerful people whose technologies and businesses affect all our lives; (2) one day Siskind burnt it all down and summoned a vengeful horde to attack an innocent reporter and assail America’s best newspaper.
Now, the rules of America’s best newspaper don’t allow for speculation about motives and Siskind wasn’t talking. But the rules definitely allow for laying out facts and letting readers draw their own conclusions. Well, all the allegedly “negative” stuff on SSC is illustrative of why Siskind might panic and spike his blog. That powerful and influential men like Thiel and Balaji, who infamously harbor vitriolic hatred for snooping journalists, number among Siskind’s fans is very interesting given how Siskind weaponized his rationalist readership to protect the anonymity that protects his reputation — especially since Siskind himself tells us that Balaji was advising him on how to fuck over journalists. Creating a mob of rationalists may seem a bit puzzling. Why would such smart people be so willing to enlist in a mercenary army fighting for the greater glory of Scott Siskind’s psychiatric practice? Well, if you see it in the light of the Siskind’s relentless promotion of the idea that the marketplace of ideas will end up abandoned and shuttered unless we come to treat anonymity as a basic right, it starts to make sense.
Okay, do I know that Metz was ever thinking the way I’ve imagined or ever had anything like this in mind? I do not. It’s sheer speculation. But so are Siskind’s claims that Metz’s article was intended to be “negative.” You can’t infer that it was a “hatchet job” or an “attack” when there is a perfectly plausible account of the piece that does not require malicious motives. Siskind’s belief that “they misrepresented me as retaliation for my publicly objecting to their policy of doxxing bloggers” is absurd in just the way that Elizabeth Spiers and Gideon Lewis-Kraus have elucidated. If there is any reason to give credence to Siskind’s suspicion that Metz “did not personally want to write this and was pressured into it as part of the Times’ retaliatory measures against me,” he has not shared it. I mean, that’s crazytown speculation.
However, trying to keep Metz out of it suggests that Siskind has a functioning conscience. I’m sure he knows that Metz never did and still had not done anything wrong. He’s said as much. And he knows he’s responsible for getting him mobbed and doxxed. There’s just no way around that. And Siskind knows he’s once again attacking the same innocent guy because … well because he just obviously is. Shifting the blame onto the Times, however clumsily, suggests that he feels bad about it. It suggests that he knows he’s being unjust. But he’s doing it anyway.
I’m not asking Siskind/Codex admirers to accept my account of Metz’s article, my characterization of the New York Times, or my theory of SSC’s demise. I’m asking them to them to acknowledge that they’re reasonable and more likely than they had thought. I’m asking them to be good Bayesians. And good people. Cade Metz never did anything to you. Just come a little my way.