Protesters and counter-protesters argue during a demonstration in New Orleans, Louisiana (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)

June 24, 2020   6 mins

It’s really hard to have a sensible, calm conversation online between people who disagree. It used to happen, a lot more, on the old blogosphere; these days, the mega-forums of Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr have made it much harder. You have to publicly shout about how terrible the enemy is for fear of being branded one of them.

This week, one of the few places that still let you have those conversations has shut down. I think it is a disaster. Let me explain why.

About two years ago, someone accused me of preparing to do a journalistic hatchet job. I had a book coming out, about a group of people called the rationalists, and their concerns about AI destroying humanity, but also about their approach to the world. One of them suggested that the book was going to be an attack on the rationalists: “I expect that any published piece will be hugely negative towards [the] community. Will anyone take the other side of such a bet?”

The book, for the record, wasn’t a hatchet job. But it would have been incredibly easy to do one, had I wanted. That’s why they’re paranoid; because there are people out to get them, and because they’re easy to get.

They’re easy to get because they’re weird. They’re weird in lots of ways, but the weirdest thing about them is that they are happy listening to, and debating, arguments they disagree with, and with criticising arguments that are “on their side” in whatever greater cultural battle is going on. That’s especially true of one key rationalist blog, Slate Star Codex, written by Scott Alexander, a pseudonymous psychiatrist who lives and works in the Bay Area of California. 

I should declare an interest at this point: I’m a huge fan of SSC. I think it’s an astonishing body of work; it ranges from in-depth discussions of studies into new antidepressants, to wide-ranging philosophical thinking about how we argue and why we disagree, to childish puns and short stories about hallucinatory cactus-people. Normally, I’d link to it — normally I’d have linked to it four or five times already — but today I can’t, for reasons that will become clear.

It’s part of the SSC ethos that “if you don’t understand how someone could possibly believe something as stupid as they do”, then you should consider the possibility that that’s because you don’t understand, rather than because they’re stupid; the “principle of charity”. So that means taking ideas seriously — even ones you’re uncomfortable with. And the blog and its associated subreddit have rules of debate: that you’re not allowed to shout things down, or tell people they’re racist; you have to politely and honestly argue the facts of the issue at hand. It means that the sites are homes for lively debate, rare on the modern internet, between people who actually disagree; Left and Right, Republican and Democrat, pro-life and pro-choice, gender-critical feminists and trans-activist, MRA and feminist.

And that makes them vulnerable. Because if you’re someone who wants to do a hatchet job on them, you can easily go through the comments and find something that someone somewhere will find appalling. That’s partly a product of the disagreement and partly a function of how the internet works: there’s an old law of the internet, the “1% rule”, which says that the large majority of online comments will come from a hyperactive 1% of the community. That was true when I used to work at Telegraph Blogs — you’d get tens of thousands of readers, but you’d see the same 100 or so names cropping up every time in the comment sections.

(Those names were often things like Aelfric225 or TheUnBrainWashed, and they were usually really unhappy about immigration.)

That’s why the rationalists are paranoid. They know that if someone from a mainstream media organisation wanted to, they could go through those comments, cherry-pick an unrepresentative few, and paint the entire community as racist and/or sexist, even though surveys of the rationalist community and SSC readership found they were much more left-wing and liberal on almost every issue than the median American or Briton. And they also knew that there were people on the internet who unambiguously want to destroy them because they think they’re white supremacists.

This has actually happened. For instance, Scott wrote a huge, long article explaining the views of the “Neoreactionaries”, a group of strange alt-right-affiliated thinkers who want to replace democracies with rule by hereditary kings. He also then wrote a huge, long “anti-Reactionary FAQ”, explaining why he thought they were wrong.

He has also written several things about how terrible Donald Trump is, but one of them suggested that he is not “openly racist”, as many people were suggesting, because Trump repeatedly said things about how much he loved Mexican people and wanted the Republican party to be “be the home in the future and forever more for African-Americans and the African-American vote”. He may or may not be racist, said Alexander, but he’s not being open about it.

And, of course, people read the explaining-the-Neoreactionaries post and decided he was a Neoreactionary; and they read the “Trump is awful but he’s not literally openly racist” post and decided he was pro-Trump.

That’s some of the background to an extraordinary row that’s broken out. A few weeks ago, a reporter at the New York Times started researching a piece about Slate Star Codex. The rationalist community became aware of it and became incredibly paranoid, for the reasons discussed above. 

The reporter got in touch with me. He was totally reasonable and I was (and remain) convinced that he was not going to do a hit job; he had read SSC, he was impressed by the breadth and depth of the thinking on display, and he was going to write a broadly positive piece. So I spoke to him, on the record. I also encouraged other people to, if they felt comfortable doing so. Better, I thought, that the piece had some voices speaking up in favour.

But then I had an email from the reporter saying that the NYT editors wouldn’t let him write the piece without giving Scott Alexander’s real name. And, on Tuesday morning, SSC had been taken down, replaced with a single post saying: “NYT Is Threatening My Safety By Revealing My Real Name, So I Am Deleting The Blog”.

(That’s why I’m not linking to any of it.)

I’m wary of “the internet makes me unsafe” arguments, because a lot of the time I think it’s overstated. Perhaps it is in this case. But Alexander has reasons to be scared. Recently, some people had taken the most extreme comments on the SSC subreddit as evidence that he was “a homophobic transphobic alt-right neo-Nazi”. “I am a pro-gay Jew who has dated trans people and votes pretty much straight Democrat,” he wrote. “I lost distant family in the Holocaust. You can imagine how much fun this was for me.”

His pseudonym is not watertight; I once worked out his real name from clues on his blog, which I admit is a mildly creepy thing to do. Some other people did the same, but not out of passive interest: “Some people made entire accounts devoted to doxxing me in Twitter discussions whenever an opportunity came up,” he wrote. “A few people just messaged me letting me know they knew my real name and reminding me that they could do this if they wanted to.

“Some people started messaging my real-life friends, telling them to stop being friends with me because I supported racists and sexists and Nazis. Somebody posted a monetary reward for information that could be used to discredit me.

“One person called the clinic where I worked, pretended to be a patient, and tried to get me fired.”

He ended up having a mild nervous breakdown. I totally understand his being paranoid about being publicly named.

(And, I learn today, one SSC commenter seems to have been SWATted, ie had the police called on them in an attempt to get them shot by trigger-happy American cops, although whether that’s true or connected to the blog is an open question.)

I think accusations that Alexander personally or the community at large are sexist or racist are not true, or at least are reliant on definitions of those words that 95% or more of the population would disagree with. 

As I mentioned, the NYT journalist told me that his editors wouldn’t let him write a piece about Alexander without naming him; I suspect that is a Times policy thing. A tech journalist friend agrees, saying: “The NYT is one of those organisations that thinks its internal rules have the status of constitutional law.” That may be true, but the NYT leaves sources unnamed if there’s a reason to be worried about their safety; they’ve certainly allowed other people anonymity in similar situations recently.

What I find baffling is the idea that the public interest is served in publicly naming a blogger. If the NYT piece had been, as the rationalists feared, a hatchet job, then it would at least make sense to name him: “This psychiatrist is a RACIST, he should be fired”; I would disagree, but you could follow the reasoning. “This psychiatrist runs an excellent blog, but has many people online who want to destroy his career; here’s where they can find him, printed in the most famous newspaper in the world” is just crazy to me. (Alexander himself notes that psychiatrists in general “are kind of obsessive about preventing their patients from knowing anything about who they are outside of work”, for reasons given here.) Even the online groups who hate him most have refrained from publicly naming him in the past.

As I said, it’s hard to talk to people who disagree with you. These days, it feels even harder, and it feels as though people are even more willing to try to publicly shame people they disagree with rather than engage with them. Perhaps it was ever thus. But it felt like SSC was one of the few places that allowed this sort of serious conversation. I really, really hope the NYT sees fit to run the piece without naming Alexander, and that SSC is reinstated.

(Not least because, until that happens, about 20% of the links in all my UnHerd articles will be broken.)

By the way: the person who said my book was going to be a hatchet job offered to bet anyone who disagreed. Someone took him up on it; they agreed a $1,000 bet, proceeds going to a charity of the winner’s choice. It was Scott Alexander who bet against it, and won.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.