The Truth Will Cost You Dearly
How the New York Times keeps everyone in line
The truth is an elusive thing. If want you to find it, you have to value it above all else. But even if you do, there’s no guarantee: you could still spend a lifetime searching in vain. In my experience, the truth hides in the darkest corners – in the most unfashionable places – where very few are looking.
The easiest way to interfere with people in their search for truth is to influence the status of certain ideas and thus the status of those who hold these ideas. As everyone knows, there are opinions on certain subjects that are much more fashionable – in other words, higher status – than others. If you hold such an opinion, you get to be part of the cool kids; you get to write for the New York Times, teach at Harvard, become a government advisor, or run an NGO. If you hold the opposite opinion, you have to sit with the uncool kids; you risk losing your job and getting kicked off all social media. This carrot-and-stick approach tends to tip the scales – the marketplace of ideas – significantly in favor of one side.
The effect is most readily observed in all topics that have to do with politics. And because this area continues to expand, the number of topics that are influenced in the way described above is also increasing, seemingly without limit. We have reached a point today where it is difficult to find a functioning marketplace of ideas outside, say, mathematics and physics.
Scott Aaronson, the author of the great book Quantum Computing Since Democritus, which I highly recommend reading, expands in one of his blog posts on his values. At one point he writes about himself:
" [What do you call someone] … who’s happiest when telling the truth for the cause of social justice … but who, if told to lie for the cause of social justice, will probably choose silence or even, if pushed hard enough, truth?"
I would say Beta, the disappointed lover, but that might be a little too harsh.
Why does he not just always tell the truth? Because he puts his loyalty to The Party above the truth. It is not pretty to watch. Of course, no one will ever force Aaronson to lie, but he certainly will not be looking for evidence that questions The Party. There is nothing for him to gain, so why would his mind ever go there? And if he is presented with such evidence, he will “probably choose silence.” It should be obvious that, with this mindset, any hope of finding the truth is sadly lost.
Scott Alexander has developed a strategy similar to Aaronson, although his crimestop is not nearly as good, and he has considerably more trouble with the “choosing silence” part. On the subject of the controversial book The Bell Curve, he writes:
Earlier this week, I objected when a journalist dishonestly spliced my words to imply I supported Charles Murray's The Bell Curve. Some people wrote me to complain that I handled this in a cowardly way - I showed that the specific thing the journalist quoted wasn’t a reference to The Bell Curve, but I never answered the broader question of what I thought of the book. They demanded I come out and give my opinion openly. Well, the most direct answer is that I've never read it.
And why would he read it? Again, why would his mind go there? He knows that the stick is waiting for him there; maybe the truth as well, but at what cost?
He continues on the understandably radioactive topic of race and IQ:
But that's kind of cowardly too - I've read papers and articles making what I assume is the same case. So what do I think of them? This is far enough from my field that I would usually defer to expert consensus, but all the studies I can find which try to assess expert consensus seem crazy. A while ago, I freaked out upon finding a study that seemed to show most expert scientists in the field agreed with Murray's thesis in 1987 - about three times as many said the gap was due to a combination of genetics and environment as said it was just environment. Then I freaked out again when I found another study (here is the most recent version, from 2020) showing basically the same thing (about four times as many say it’s a combination of genetics and environment compared to just environment). I can't find any expert surveys giving the expected result that they all agree this is dumb and definitely 100% environment and we can move on (I'd be very relieved if anybody could find those, or if they could explain why the ones I found were fake studies or fake experts or a biased sample, or explain how I'm misreading them or that they otherwise shouldn't be trusted. If you have thoughts on this, please send me an email).
Alexander is struggling with the collision between the truth and The Party. He would be “very relieved” if someone could end his suffering by showing him that, the Party and the truth are the same thing after all. Alas, there seems to be no relief in sight.
Moreover, he is aware that he cannot investigate this matter himself, as he might end up on the wrong side, and the cost is simply too high – the stick too big:
I've vacillated back and forth on how to think about this question so many times, and right now my personal probability estimate is "I am still freaking out about this, go away go away go away". And I understand I have at least two potentially irresolveable biases on this question: one, I'm a white person in a country with a long history of promoting white supremacy; and two, if I lean in favor then everyone will hate me, and use it as a bludgeon against anyone I have ever associated with, and I will die alone in a ditch and maybe deserve it. So the best I can do is try to route around this issue when considering important questions.
As a friend of mine put it when I sent him the above quotes: “wow.” That is an incredible admission from someone who belongs to the “Rationalists” community, who pride themselves on their ruthless commitment to the truth.
But it is perfectly understandable: If the cost of coming out “in favor” of an issue is that “everyone will hate me, and use it as a bludgeon against anyone I have ever associated with, and I will die alone in a ditch and maybe deserve it,” who would want to honestly investigate that issue? Just like Alexander, most would rather avoid the whole problem and when confronted with evidence would, like Aaronson, rather keep quiet or shout: “I am still freaking out about this, go away go away go away.”
Who would risk dying “alone in a ditch” just for the pursuit of truth? And even then, as I mentioned earlier, you are not guaranteed to find it. Imagine coming out on the “wrong side” of the issue in question, courageously placing the truth above all else, suffering all the consequences – taking the beating with the stick – only to later discover you erred: The Party was right, and you were wrong. What an inconceivably cruel fate that would be. What an unbelievable – almost inhuman – level of courage is required to still embark on this path. So, understandably, only a few do.
All this begs the important question of who wields the mighty stick that the Scotts fear so much. As is so often the case, it is those who also hand out the carrots: The New York Times (and similar media outlets).
In fact, the NYT has already whacked Alexander with the stick once. In June 2020 Alexander deleted his blog and published a post titled “NYT IS THREATENING MY SAFETY BY REVEALING MY REAL NAME, SO I AM DELETING THE BLOG“ in anticipation of an NYT article that would expose his real name. Even after many people – including Paul Graham, Sam Altman, Steven Pinker, and more – signed a petition publicly urging the NYT not to mention his real name, the article was published anyway. The hit piece appeared in the NYT time at the beginning of 2021.
More importantly, the NYT did it all without directly accusing him of any crimethink, as Scott Aaronson correctly pointed out:
The trouble with the NYT piece is not that it makes any false statements, but just that it constantly insinuates nefarious beliefs and motives, via strategic word choices and omission of relevant facts that change the emotional coloration of the facts that it does present. I repeatedly muttered to myself, as I read: “dude, you could make anything sound shady with this exact same rhetorical toolkit!”
The rationalist community and many others concluded that the NYT had failed in canceling Alexander: his Substack had grown in the process, he was not banned from any social media platforms, no outraged mob formed, and not only the entire Rationalist community but also the entire tech community now stood behind him. A victory against the New York Times, or so the story goes.
I fundamentally disagree with this interpretation of the events and think almost the exact opposite should be the moral of the story. The New York Times swung the stick at Alexander even though people like Steven Pinker and Paul Graham implored them not to; they did so despite not having any evidence of crimethink. What message does that send? True, Alexander survived, but they showed they can bring down the stick on anyone, no matter how big he is or how important his friends are – and no matter if he did anything “wrong” in the first place – all without suffering any repercussions. They showed not only how powerful they are, but also how unaccountable.
This whole exercise is best understood as a show of power designed to intimidate not only Alexander but all onlookers. And it worked. Although Alexander survived, his PTSD from the attack still shows when he yells, “I am still freaking out about this, go away go away go away.”
Now, imagine what level of pressure people inside the traditional institutions – say, academia – are under, if this is what happens to independent people looking for the truth. Imagine how tasty that carrot is and how scary that stick is if your livelihood depended on it and no one would publicly come out to defend you.
That is how all the Harvard experts can continually be so wrong on everything from inflation to Covid-19. They have to care about their career and livelihood above all else, including the truth. If those academics had optimized for the truth, they would not be at Harvard in the first place.
What you should take away from this is the following. Your confidence in institutional truth-seeking should depend on how likely you believe it is that those people will muster the almost inhuman courage to pursue the truth, whatever the cost. Consequently, my confidence that any consensus emerging out of these institutions corresponds to the truth – or even to a reasonable interpretation of all available data – is extremely low.
They say, “If the news is fake, imagine history.” but equally important:
(A brief addendum: Just as I was about to publish this article, it was announced that Peter Daszak has received another grant from the government (NIH) to do the same research that probably caused the Covid-19 pandemic: studying bat coronaviruses in the wild. You would think that someone whose research not only failed to prevent a pandemic (or prepare us in any way), but may have even started this whole mess, would lose his job, but instead, he gets $600,000+ to continue his research. In other words, Daszak may have lost sight of the truth, but not the carrot – and he knows that only one of the two is relevant to his career.)
Thank you to Allen Farrington for edits and contributions.