The Scott Alexander saga
It was nominally a blog, written by a Bay Area psychiatrist who called himself Scott Alexander (a near anagram of Slate Star Codex). It was also the epicenter of a community called the Rationalists, a group that aimed to re-examine the world through cold and careful thought.
In a style that was erudite, funny, strange and astoundingly verbose, the blog explored everything from science and medicine to philosophy and politics to the rise of artificial intelligence. It challenged popular ideas and upheld the right to discuss contentious issues. This might involve a new take on the genetics of depression or criticism of the #MeToo movement. As a result, the conversation that thrived at the end of each blog post — and in related forums on the discussion site Reddit — attracted an unusually wide range of voices.
Alexander, who prefaces some of his own posts with an “epistemic status,” by which he rates his own confidence in the opinions to follow, thought the media, too, should present its findings in shades of gray. […]
Alexander’s role in the community is difficult to encapsulate—an e-book of his collected S.S.C. posts runs to about nine thousand pages—but one might credit him with two crowning contributions. First, he has been instrumental in the evolution of the community’s self-image, helping to shape its members’ understanding of themselves not as merely a collection of individuals with shared interests and beliefs but as a mature subculture, one with its own jargon, inside jokes, and pantheon of heroes. Second, he more than anyone has defined and attempted to enforce the social norms of the subculture, insisting that they distinguish themselves not only on the basis of data-driven argument and logical clarity but through an almost fastidious commitment to civil discourse. (As he puts it, “liberalism conquers by communities of people who agree to play by the rules.”) If one of the bedrock beliefs in Silicon Valley is that the future ought to be determined by a truly free market in ideas, one emancipated from the influence of institutional incumbents and untainted by the existing ideological polarities, Slate Star Codex is often held up as an example of what the well-behaved Internet can look like—a secret orchard of fruitful inquiry.
My contention is that Siskind’s [Scott Alexander] prose—which I view as representative of a larger style—works through a sort of logorrheic beigeness. Siskind is good at giving readers the sense that they are being intelligent—that they are thinking about serious issues at considerable length. In practice, he says… not quite nothing, but very little, at least on a moment to moment basis. Instead he engages in a litany of small bullshits—shoddy arguments that at their best compound into banality, but at their worst compound into something deeply destructive, all made over such length that smoking guns are hard to find, which is of course the point.
Tyler Cowen on the rationalist community:
Well, I enjoy all those sources, and I read them. That’s obviously a kind of endorsement. But I would approve of them much more if they called themselves the irrationality community. Because it is just another kind of religion. A different set of ethoses. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but the notion that this is, like, the true, objective vantage point I find highly objectionable. And that pops up in some of those people more than others. But I think it needs to be realized it’s an extremely culturally specific way of viewing the world.