Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Ayn Rand's _Fountainhead_ and the New York Times

One of the subplots in Rand's novel involves a conflict between the wealthy owner of a major newspaper and his staff. The owner wants the paper to support the novel's protagonist, an architect who, having provided the design for a housing project on condition that nothing be changed, destroyed the project when that condition was violated. The staff, left wingers, probably young, under the intellectual influence of the novel's villain, want the paper to take the opposite position.

The staff wins.

I was reminded of that by news stories about the conflict on the New York Times over the decision to publish an op-ed by a Republican senator arguing for the use of troops in response to rioting. That position is apparently supported by about half the population, but was viewed by the more woke members of the Time's staff as not merely worth disputing but so far wrong that it should not have been permitted to pollute paper's pages, even as a signed op-ed. They won, the paper apologized for having published the op-ed, and the editor responsible resigned, presumably under pressure.

It sounds from news stories as though the conflict was between older staff members with conventional liberal views, including the view that the appropriate response to positions you disagreed with was to argue with them, and younger staff members who preferred that such positions never be seen at all. We don't know what the view of the paper's owner was or to what degree the decision was due to pressure by staff members, to what degree by the belief that it would gain more subscribers than it lost.

But it was still similar enough to remind me of a story I must have read some fifty years ago.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Slate Star Codex and The New York Times

Slate Star Codex is a blog run by a young psychiatrist with a very wide range of interests and an extraordinary amount of intellectual energy, posting under the name of Scott Alexander. In recent years, more than half of my online time has been spent reading and posting on it — one reason I have neglected this blog.

Scott posts thoughtful, intelligent, entertaining, often original essays. Some are book reviews, including reviews of two of my books. Some consist of carefully reading a collection of scientific articles on some topic and summarizing the results. One old one looked at articles on Alcoholics Anonymous and concluded that both the claim that research showed it worked and the claim that research showed it did not work were false, none of the studies adequately measuring its effects. A recent one, published before official sources switched from telling people not to wear masks to telling people to wear masks, analyzed the existing literature on the subject and concluded that, while the size of the effect was uncertain, wearing a mask substantially reduced the chance of spreading the disease if you had it and probably reduced by a little the chance of getting the disease if you didn't.

One post, some years ago, started by explaining that he had noticed some intelligent people online with odd ideas who called themselves neoreactionaries. He looked for a summary and defense of their views, was unable to find it, so wrote one. If you ignored the introduction, you would assume the piece was written by a supporter of the position.

Then he wrote another post explaining why they were wrong. 

Some of his posts are humor, of a somewhat special sort. A recent one described several fictional political systems, I think in part inspired by my recent Legal Systems book. The first was acausal democracy. 

Electing someone president, as we do, before the beginning of his term makes no sense, since we don't know how good a job he will do. So instead they hold the election at the end of his term, to see how many people approve of the job he has done. This leaves them with the problem of propagating the information backwards in time, so that the candidate who will get the highest approval is appointed.

To solve that problem they use the market, issuing bonds for each candidate which will be cancelled if he does not become president, pay an amount proportional to his vote at the end of his term if he does. The candidate whose bonds sell for the highest price, hence the one investors expect to get the highest approval if he is president, is elected.

Scott then described how the system is crashed by an unscrupulous candidate who figures out a way to game it — and goes on to his next fictional system.

All of this — I could go on for pages describing past articles — is only part, and not the largest part, of the reason I read the blog.

The typical article produced a comment thread of five hundred to a thousand comments. There were also open topic threads, where commenters were free to start conversations on anything they were interested in, again with a similar result.

The commenters ranged, politically, from socialists (and at least one self-identified communist) to anarcho-capitalists, religiously from believing Catholics to Atheists, professionally from a (literal) rocket scientist to a (literal) plumber. The conversation was intelligent and almost always civil. It was the only place I knew of online where I could have civil and interesting conversations across a wide range of views.

A little over a week ago I got an email from a New York Times journalist who wanted to interview me for an article on the blog. I spent a little over half an hour talking with him on the phone. It sounded as though it would be a friendly article, treating the blog as an interesting part of the intellectual life of the Silicon Valley community, which it is. 

He interviewed a number of other people and, via email, Scott. It is not hard, with a little research, to figure out what Scott's real name is, and the journalist had done so. Scott asked him not to include it in the article, explaining why doing so would have large negative effects on him. The journalist refused, claiming that NYT policy required him to publish the name of someone he wrote about. Scott responded by closing down the blog, which is why I have been using the past tense in referring to it. The article has not yet been published, and a fair number of people, myself among them, have been trying to persuade the NYT that if it is published it should not reveal Scott's real name.

Scott is basically a left winger with libertarian sympathies, intelligently critical of many parts of the left — he reminds me in that respect of George Orwell. The comments are open to a wide variety of people, including Trump supporters, libertarians,  pretty nearly anyone who is willing to engage in civil conversation. The result has been a good deal of hostility from people on the left, and I am worried that people on the Times will see it as a left vs right fight instead of an issue of internet privacy.

For one example of both why some on the left don't like Scott and why they are wrong, he wrote an essay arguing that Trump is not in fact particularly racist or hostile to gays, offering evidence both from Trump's speeches and from the election returns — apparently Trump did less well with whites and better with minorities than Romney. He did not publish the essay until after Trump had won, because he didn't want to encourage people to vote for him. But a lot of people, right and left, think the important question is not whether what you say is true but what side it supports.

Scott's explanation of why he shut down the blog. (Read this first)
A fairly detailed news article about the controversy. Like several others, it points out that the journalist's claim about NYT policy is inconsistent with past stories they have published, including a recent one on a podcast host who was identified only by his online pseudonym.
An essay about it by Larry Lessig
A comment on it by Scott Aaronson 
New Statesman article
How to find past posts by Scott, now that the blog has been deleted