There was recently a negative article about me and my blog in the New York Times. Most of you already know the history behind this, but for anyone referred here by NYT, this is where I give my side and defend myself.
Like many people in the early 2000s, I started a blog when I was in college. To stay anonymous, I wrote it under my first and middle names – Scott Alexander – while leaving out my last name. I continued writing in it through medical school, residency, and until the present. Although I’ve never personally been involved in the tech industry, my blog became very popular among people in tech because it discussed ideas centering around scientific and technological progress, especially artificial intelligence.
In early 2020, I learned the New York Times wanted to write an article about me. They had discovered my real name and wanted to reveal it to the world. Their original pitch – and I don’t know if it was true or not – was that they were interested in how I warned about the coronavirus pandemic very early and urged people to wear face masks before this was standard advice.
I was grateful for the interest, but still objected that I didn’t want my real name revealed to everyone. I think patients having too personal a relationship with their psychiatrist interferes with care. Patients being able to read my daily thoughts about everything – including medicine and psychiatry – would inevitably cause this sort of inappropriately personal relationship. This is the standard consensus in the psychiatric profession – see this Scientific American article for more information, and it was the advice I received from various past mentors and other psychiatrists I consulted about this. The article also made me concerned for my safety, since there are some scary stories about Internet-famous people whose identities get revealed getting stalked or attacked or something.
When I discussed this with the New York Times, they said they were going to reveal my real name anyway. As a protest and an attempt to prevent this from happening, I deleted my blog and replaced it with a post condemning the New York Times’ actions. The post “went viral”, 513,000 people read it, hundreds (thousands?) of people cancelled their New York Times subscriptions in protest, and it was a major scandal. There were some news stories about it at the time – you can read some of them eg here or here. I was proud to receive support from voices like Harvard professor Steven Pinker, Wikipedia founder Larry Sanger, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, science broadcaster Liv Boeree, and Atlantic editor Yascha Mounk.
The New York Times backed off briefly as I stopped publishing, but I was also warned by people “in the know” that as soon as they got an excuse they would publish something as negative as possible about me, in order to punish me for embarrassing them. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in hiding, so I took various steps to make this more survivable, including quitting my previous job so my employers and coworkers would not get embroiled in my problems, and taking some steps to improve my personal safety. After doing all these things, I started blogging again, this time under my real name so that I would not be under the constant threat of doxxing in the future. Predictably, the NYT piece came out soon after, and predictably, it was very negative. I want to respond to four main negative claims in the article – there are more, but these should give a general sketch of why I feel it was unfair:
1. The article tries to connect me to Charles Murray and The Bell Curve, saying:
In one post, he aligned himself with Charles Murray, who proposed a link between race and IQ in “The Bell Curve.” In another, he pointed out that Murray believes Black people “are genetically less intelligent than white people.”
This is true only insofar as I once expressed agreement with an unrelated position of Charles Murray’s, where he thinks that telling poor people “learn to code” is not a compassionate or sufficient response for dealing with poverty, and that we need to act more decisively by providing poor people with a stable income. You can read the full post involved by following the link, but the paragraph that mentions Murray is:
The only public figure I can think of in the southeast quadrant with me is Charles Murray. Neither he nor I would dare reduce all class differences to heredity, and he in particular has some very sophisticated theories about class and culture. But he shares my skepticism that the 55 year old Kentucky trucker can be taught to code, and I don’t think he’s too sanguine about the trucker’s kids either. His solution is a basic income guarantee, and I guess that’s mine too.
The Times points out that I agreed with Murray that poverty was bad, and that also at some other point in my life noted that Murray had offensive views on race, and heavily implies this means I agree with Murray’s offensive views on race. This seems like a weirdly brazen type of falsehood for a major newspaper.
2. In their litany of reasons I am bad, the Times says I compared some feminists to Voldemort. Their exact words are:
He described some feminists as something close to Voldemort, the embodiment of evil in the Harry Potter books.
This is true only in the sense that in 2014, I applied this comparison to a specific group of feminists who I accused of bullying and taunting people in a way that made them traumatized and suicidal. I describe my specific concern in the linked post. Lots of other feminists are great, and I continue to support gender equality.
Also, this became a weird go-to thing for people who wanted to do hatchet jobs to hit me with, so much so that sometime before 2017 I edited the post involved telling people not to do that. I can’t remember exactly when this happened, but here’s the 2017 archive.is version showing the change already existed then. For at least the past three years, the paragraph in question has looked like this:
The journalist involved hasn’t known about Slate Star Codex for three years, so this is undoubtedly the version he read, and he still chose to make this attack. I have 1,557 other posts worth of material he could have used, and the sentence he chose to go with was the one that was crossed out and included a plea for people to stop taking it out of context.
3. The Times also presented a more general case that I was a bad ally to women in tech. I deny this claim. I have repeatedly blogged about studies suggesting that women are underrepresented in tech not because of explicit discrimination on the part of tech companies, but because women lose interest in tech very early, at least by high school (high school computer science classes are something like 80% male, the same as big tech companies). The post that most effectively sums up my thoughts on this topic is Contra Grant On Exaggerated Differences. I continue to believe these studies are true, I’ve spoken with some of the researchers who have performed them, and the New York Times itself has previously written about and praised these same studies. I think understanding the reasons behind gender imbalances in tech is vital towards figuring out how to address them better than we’re addressing them now. There is no evidence that women are inherently any less intelligent or any worse at math than men, and I have tried to make this very clear in all of my posts on the subject - for example in the Contra Grant post linked above, where I say, quote, “My research suggests no average gender difference in ability”.
4. They further presented a more general case that I am six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon-style linked to right-wing / pro-Trump figures in Silicon Valley like Peter Thiel. This is true – I can think of a friend of mine who also knows Peter Thiel. In fact, I met Peter Thiel once, kind of unexpectedly, at a party, long before Trump was in the news, and exchanged about two sentences of conversation with him (I don’t think he had the slightest idea who I was, nor was there any reason he should have). I have never personally met the other right-wing figures named in the article. I wrote a 30,000 word condemnation of one of them on my blog a few years ago, and we have since had some email exchanges about to what degree this was unfair. I received a sympathetic email from another of them about the Times article. Others I have had literally no contact with. Again, it would not surprise me if I was a few degrees of social separation from some of these people. I don’t feel like this means I have done anything wrong, and I assume most people are a few degrees of social separation away from a Republican or Trump supporter. I myself am a Democrat, voted Warren (IIRC) in the primary, and Biden in the general.
Many of the points in the article besides these four are equally flawed, but I hope this is enough to establish the general pattern.
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.”
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.
I’ve already done what everybody with a bone to pick against the media has - moved to Substack and made a lot of money. But I’m heartbroken about the collateral damage that the article will inflict on my friends, my family, my (probably extremely confused right now) patients, the communities I’m part of, and the causes I care about. However much I deserve this, they all deserve it much less. I’m deeply sorry to all of them for the part I probably played in giving them what will probably be a difficult and awkward few weeks.
Please do not contact me about the New York Times situation unless you have a very specific and important request. For the sake of my own peace of mind, I am hoping to stop thinking about it the moment I hit “publish” on this post. Your not contacting me about it will help me in this process. I appreciate your support.
I am writing this as a necessary ritual to avoid silence being taken as evidence of guilt. I have no particular call for action. Please don’t cause any trouble for the journalist involved, both because that would be wrong, and because I suspect he did not personally want to write this and was pressured into it as part of the Times’ retaliatory measures against me.
I will probably miss tomorrow’s Open Thread in the interests of keeping this on the top of the blog. Normal posting will resume on Monday.