In an incredibly disappointing development, Scott Alexander of slatestarcodex.com has taken down his blog after a discussion with a New York Times reporter. According to Scott, the reporter told him that his real name will be published in a planned upcoming article. Scott made it clear to the reporter that he has received many death threats during the time he has been writing his blog, and did not want his full name available (Scott Alexander is not his actual name). The reporter apparently did not see that as a sufficient reason not to publish his name.
I have no particular opinion on the New York Times, apart from being aware that it is one of the most popular US news outlets (I’m not American). However, this sort of behaviour is surely one of the reasons people are losing faith in ‘mainstream’ journalism. This is a disaster, because a truth-seeking and impartial Fourth Estate is a vital prerequisite of a functional democracy. Yet when news outlets intimidate independent voices, deliberately or not, trust is lost. The trust lost in the New York Times here will be significant – Scott’s readership is large and most are very intelligent. The overwhelming majority don’t have a grudge against the NYT – at least they didn’t before this incident. The NYT stands to lose a thousand times what it might gain from one unreasonable article. This seems utterly mad!
I do have strong opinion about slatestarcodex.com on the other hand – that it’s one of the most worthwhile and valuable sites on the net. In several years of reading the site, I’ve formed an impression of Scott as an incredibly articulate and reasonable centrist with a compassionate, fact-based and mild-mannered style. His work engages with topics of great importance – futurism and AI-risk, social trends (from a more scientific perspective than most), his own profession of psychiatry, and establishing reason and respect in our current climate of political and social toxicity.
The most common criticism of the site is that it’s comment section includes a minority who hold to extreme politics views (depending who is criticising, this is either far-left or far-right). Although the comments section is hardly representative of Scott’s work (like many readers, I consider Scott’s thoughts more interesting than the comment sections) technically this claim is true, but it is also misguided. I don’t like some views expressed in the comments and probably wouldn’t like the people that express them, but any person that wishes to silence the entire site for this is incredibly ignorant. Besides, slatestarcodex.com contains not only these people’s views but incredibly sophisticated rebuttals of these views. Scott himself has written several incredible articles doing so – the anti-neoreactionary FAQ is a great example addressing problematic far-right claims, and the far-left has equally had several of it’s arguments torn apart, particuarly their recent record on social issues. Scott has received and published extensive lists of death threats from both these groups.
The truth isn’t afraid of falsehoods in a fair fight. That’s what slatestarcodex.com is (at least more than any other site I’ve encountered) – an arena for arguments where the rules are logic, evidence and respect. Extreme views aren’t always censored there, but they’re almost always ADDRESSED AND REFUTED. Instead of censorship which does everything short of proving what the extremist is arguing, they’re silenced only if they step over the line into personal attacks or strictly defined hate-speech (incitation to violence, aggressive or threatening behaviour is not tolerated). The rest of the time, they get to find out how poorly their arguments hold up under real scrutiny. Which approach is better if you’re really looking to convince intelligent people of the truth?
Silencing the entire site like this shows the increasing lurch towards information-totalitarianism shown by both the left and right in recent years. And the total disregard for the collatoral damage of those interested in apolitical and non-partisian topics (Scott and his contribution to AI-risk discussions is a very prominent example) won’t achieve anything good – aside from interfering in important topics, it will just bring anyone that tries these tactics the resentment by a circle of reasonable and thoughtful people that anyone intelligent person would want on their side!
For what it’s worth, I recommend my small readership tap any contacts they might have if they think it could help Scott and slatestarcodex.com in the current situation. This might all just be a mistake on the part of the New York Times – they still have a chance to prove it so!
Official slatestarcodex.com closing announcement
Don’t De-Anonymize Scott Alexander petition site
I signed the petition after hearing the news from another source. But I don’t agree that the NYT decision to connect online Scott Alexander with his real name is utterly mad. Given the extent of his readership and the intellectual influence involved, Scott is a figure of widespread interest. And journalists have a first-order rule to err on the side of publishing information rather than withholding it.
Still, there are excellent reasons for not revealing his full identity, as you point out. And it’s not like he focuses on raving against carbon taxes and works for an oil company – NYT readers get no useful additional information from knowing his identity. He’s a psychiatrist, just like he repeatedly mentions on his blog. Standard journalistic practices, interpreted in a simplistic way, might suggest publishing his name, but intelligently applied journalistic ethics would say otherwise.
Which leads to my diagnosis: NYT is trying to avoid being judged. Here we see the same timidity that (in their minds) requires them to play “he said, she said” with Trump administration lies. Only in the slatestarcodex case, the feared critics are probably on the left. By reinterpreting their journalistic ethics, reporters can dodge a lot of that criticism while pretending they’re just doing their jobs. Compared to the blatant abandonment of journalistic purpose in “he said, she said” both-sides-ism, this development is only a slight worsening, in my view. The race to the bottom just got a tiny bit faster, but it was pretty fast already.