Read Scott Alexander
By Bryan Caplan
I find fascinating new things to read every day. But it’s been a long time since I found a fascinating new thinker to read – someone who makes me say, “Tell me everything.” Then about two weeks ago, I discovered the mind of Scott Alexander. I’ve been reading him heavily ever since.
I’ve actually admired several of Scott’s pieces before, especially his essays on anti-depressants and reactionaries. I just never realized the same man wrote them, or thought to peruse his broader body of work. Once I connected the dots, a benefactor referred me to Scott’s page of top posts. I’ve been devouring his voluminous writings ever since. My original plan was to share random highlights, but his “I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup” is packed with more random highlights than most professors’ life work. Three of my favorites:
On the virtue of tolerance:
The Emperor summons before him
Bodhidharma and asks: “Master, I have been tolerant of innumerable
gays, lesbians, bisexuals, asexuals, blacks, Hispanics, Asians,
transgender people, and Jews. How many Tolerance Points have I earned
for my meritorious deeds?”
Bodhidharma answers: “None at all”.
The Emperor, somewhat put out, demands to know why not.
Bodhidharma asks: “Well, what do you think of gay people?”
The Emperor answers: “What do you think I am, some kind of homophobic bigot? Of course I have nothing against gay people!”
And Bodhidharma answers: “Thus do you gain no merit by tolerating them!”
On the demography of Less Wrong:
On last year’s survey, I found that of American LWers who identify
with one of the two major political parties, 80% are Democrat and 20%
Republican, which actually sounds pretty balanced compared to some of
these other examples.
But it doesn’t last. Pretty much all of those “Republicans” are
libertarians who consider the GOP the lesser of two evils. When allowed
to choose “libertarian” as an alternative, only 4% of visitors continued
to identify as conservative. But that’s still…some. Right?
When I broke the numbers down further, 3 percentage points of those
are neoreactionaries, a bizarre local sect that wants to be ruled by a
king. Only one percent of LWers were normal everyday
God-‘n-guns-but-not-George-III conservatives of the type that seem to
make up about half of the United States.
On civility and proportion:
What would Russell Brand answer, if we asked him to justify his decision to be much angrier at Fox than ISIS?
He might say something like “Obviously Fox News is not literally
worse than ISIS. But here I am, talking to my audience, who are mostly
white British people and Americans. These people already know that ISIS
is bad; they don’t need to be told that any further. In fact, at this
point being angry about how bad ISIS is, is less likely to genuinely
change someone’s mind about ISIS, and more likely to promote
Islamophobia. The sort of people in my audience are at zero risk of
becoming ISIS supporters, but at a very real risk of Islamophobia. So
ranting against ISIS would be counterproductive and dangerous.
On the other hand, my audience of white British people and Americans
is very likely to contain many Fox News viewers and supporters. And Fox,
while not quite as evil as ISIS, is still pretty bad. So here’s
somewhere I have a genuine chance to reach people at risk and change
minds. Therefore, I think my decision to rant against Fox News, and
maybe hyperbolically say they were ‘worse than ISIS’ is justified under
I have a lot of sympathy to hypothetical-Brand, especially to the part about Islamophobia. It does seem really possible to denounce ISIS’ atrocities to a population that already hates them in order to weak-man
a couple of already-marginalized Muslims. We need to fight terrorism
and atrocities – therefore it’s okay to shout at a poor girl ten
thousand miles from home for wearing a headscarf in public. Christians
are being executed for their faith in Sudan, therefore let’s picket the
people trying to build a mosque next door.
But my sympathy with Brand ends when he acts like his audience is likely to be fans of Fox News.
In a world where a negligible number of Redditors oppose gay marriage
and 1% of Less Wrongers identify conservative and I know 0/150
creationists, how many of the people who visit the YouTube channel of a
well-known liberal activist with a Che-inspired banner, a channel whose
episode names are things like “War: What Is It Good For?” and “Sarah
Silverman Talks Feminism” – how many of them do you think are big Fox
In a way, Russell Brand would have been braver taking a stand
against ISIS than against Fox. If he attacked ISIS, his viewers would
just be a little confused and uncomfortable. Whereas every moment he’s
attacking Fox his viewers are like “HA HA! YEAH! GET ‘EM! SHOW THOSE
IGNORANT BIGOTS IN THE outgroup WHO’S BOSS!”
Brand acts as if there are just these countries called “Britain” and
“America” who are receiving his material. Wrong. There are two parallel
universes, and he’s only broadcasting to one of them.
Last thought: Reading Scott is humbling. Why? Because he’s better than me on several dimensions I deeply value. He’s calmer. He’s more patient. He’s probably more inter-disciplinary. And ideas aren’t even his day job.