Above the Narrative

Sometimes you write about a thing and that thing… happens.

I spent all of February working on a post about the mainstream narrative of American society: who gets to tell it, what happens when that narrative is challenged, and how Rationality relates to it. I finished a 5,000-word draft on Friday night and went to sleep intending to make a few final edits on Saturday. I woke up to the New York Times story about SlateStarCodex and the ensuing shitstorm, an illustration of everything I was writing about. Then Claire Lehmann invited me to write about the matter for Quillette, so I spent the long weekend furiously condensing 5,000 words down to 1,800 and tying it to the NYT piece.

The result is The Narrative and Its Discontents. Please go ahead and read it! I’m quite happy with how it turned out, and the lively discussion on the Quillette forum. This post is a follow up on The Narrative’s manufacturers and its discontents.

Journalist

Hot take: calling Cade Metz a piece of shit on Twitter or sharing his address is counterproductive. The main goal of his article is to establish among people who read the NYT that Rationalists are cringe, and you’re just reinforcing that narrative on his own home turf.

Going through Metz’s writing or personal correspondence hoping to find something problematic is even worse. That’s just handing your soul to the devil — the same devil that employs Metz.

Metz’s article is a hit piece in the sense of causing harm to its subject, but it certainly wasn’t a knockout. It uses words like “controversial”, “contrarian”, and “contentious” a lot, words that just mean something the NYT doesn’t like. But it’s not really a heartfelt denunciation, and smart readers’ ears perk up when they hear the mainstream describe someone as “contrarian”.

The word “racist” had to appear in the article too — that’s just in the Times’ style guide now — but at least they didn’t force it in the title. The fact that Metz spent eight months on the story and produced no more damning evidence than Scott having once agreed with Charles Murray on a non race-related topic reflect positively on Scott for anyone who pays attention and didn’t have their mind already made up. The article was so anemic I thought it would be funny to claim that Metz actually wrote it to protect Rationalists. But it became hard to say that with a straight face after Scott himself accused the NYT of publishing “something as negative as possible” as vengeance.

Something similar played out back in June. Out of respect for Scott’s wishes for anonymity, I wrote Metz and his editors asking them to withhold his full name by appealing to their journalistic integrity and desire for consistency. Maybe my approach was doomed regardless, but the “torrent of online abuse” Metz says he received certainly didn’t help. As someone who writes online, albeit to a smaller audience, I receive my own steady trickle. I can assure you that being told to fuck myself is not making me change what I write to be nicer to the people telling me that.

I’m not against defending yourself aggressively when the situation calls for it. The best way to dissuade a bully is often to punch them the nose. But Metz is not a bully, and the punches didn’t land.

Anyone writing about Rationality from within The Narrative will just be hopelessly confused, and not just in conflating Scott and Rationalists with Peter Thiel and Silicon Valley. Metz wrote: “On the internet, many in Silicon Valley believe, everyone has the right not only to say what they want but to say it anonymously.” Thiel certainly doesn’t believe that! Metz’s article is a laundry list of names of technologists and online writers, with no ability to understand who believes what and why. The main line of argument is “people who read Scott also read XYZ, so they must all believe the same thing”. Well, it turns out that a lot of them read the Times as well. So what now?

In Rationality, argument screens off authority. In The Narrative there is little argument, only authority as mediated by credentials. So Metz quotes somebody as a “scholar who closely follows and documents the Rationalists”. I don’t know if that person has written a single word worth reading about Rationalists, but she has a PhD in media studies so Metz has to take her opinions seriously. Her quote is mild criticism about “the consequences” of “disruptive thought”. Now there’s a whole subreddit dedicated to calling SlateStarCodex readers fascists. Anyone who wanted a damning quote could just go there and click on any link. But Metz wasn’t looking to do that and he can’t quote Redditors either — they don’t have PhDs.

That’s also why Eliezer is called a “self-described” AI researcher, by the way — his lack of official credentials. You can go and read a whole stack of AI research papers by Eliezer, of course, but a journalist can’t, or at least thinks they’re not allowed to. I told Metz in June that Rationalists don’t believe you have to have a degree in epidemiology to read a paper about a virus’ reproduction number. He probably thought I’m crazy.

Poor Kelsey Piper even asked Metz to “prove statistically which side was right”. Metz just leaves that sentence hanging toward the end of his article with no follow up, as if it’s a strange artifact he doesn’t know what to do with. Statistical inference is difficult even for scientists. To ask it of a journalist is totally hopeless. Metz even put the words “Bayesian reasoning” in scare quotes, as if it’s some magic spell reserved for a caste of wizards. If the man can’t even read or reason, how could expect him to prove anything about you?

You may think that the last part is hyperbole, but it’s not. Here’s a fresh New York Times story about the dangers of careful reading and critical thinking. It suggests that you try to find trusted sources instead of relying on your own capacity for reason. At this point I don’t know if they’re trolling or expecting anyone to take that at face value, but they certainly don’t demand critical thinking of their own staff.

If eight months of research on Rationalists haven’t tempted Metz to dabble in the forbidden arts of thinking, swearing at him won’t help. It makes no sense to judge Metz by Rationalist epistemological standards either. He’s not out to make any statistical inferences about whether Scott is a good or bad person. He’s just out to gather some quotes from other credentialed servants of The Narrative, sprinkle some contemporary buzzwords, and lay the bundle at The Narrative’s altar. If he gets fired, another person will take his place and write the exact same articles with the exact same frequency of the words “racist” and “controversial” and “unfettered” in each one until they are all replaced by GPT-5 to cut costs.

I had a chance once to observe an excellent journalist at her craft. I was impressed that it’s a real skill, putting together who said and did what to whom and when from dozens of interviews with less-than-reliable sources into a coherent plot. I assume that at some point Metz demonstrated that skill himself to get his job, and that he’s capable of doing decent reporting on the next tech company who raises some money to develop some gadget.

But the skill of reporting by itself is utterly insufficient for writing about ideas, to the point where a journalist can forget that ideas are a thing worth writing about. And so Metz stumbled on one of the most prolific generators of ideas on the internet and produced 3,000 words of bland gossip. It’s lame, but it’s not evil.

Nerd-Politician-Troll

What should be done with The Narrative itself? How should a person live free and sane in a polity ruled by a semi-coherent story full of holes and contradictions?

As I just said, going after individual people is pointless. The Narrative is produced in a decentralized manner. Any pundit/expert/academic who is called out on their bullshit will at most be replaced and used as proof that the remaining experts are wise and benevolent. These are mostly well-meaning if conformist people, and whatever violent energy they have is aimed mostly at settling internal scores among themselves.

One may be tempted to reject The Narrative outright, to declare it all a mountain of lies and proclaim the opposite of what it says. But reversed stupidity is not intelligence, and reversing the New York Times just lands you in Q Anon. The fact that you’re not allowed to say in polite society that COVID-19 escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology or that election fraud is widespread or that Epstein was murdered doesn’t prove that those things are true. It is exactly because these issues are unlikely to be settled by conclusive evidence anytime soon that they are useful to The Narrative in smoking out conspiracists to publicly shame.

A reasonable stance is just to ignore it, to focus on your own hobbies as long as they’re sufficiently removed from political power. In the bygone pre-COVID years of 2017-2019, the Narrative was monomaniacally focused on the story of Trump’s collusion with Russia. The New York Times wrote several articles per day reinforcing the importance of the story, the progress of the investigation, and Trump’s imminent demise. And the end result was… absolutely nothing. If you spent those two years refusing to think or offer an opinion about Trump and Russia, you were vindicated.

Visakan Veerasamy has been keeping a thread of the hot narrative topics as they come. How many of them mattered even a month after they captured everyone’s attention?

If you do engage, you can go meta, talking about epistemology and speech norms. The Narrative’s universality forces it to remain uncomplicated — it can deal in simple binaries of good vs. evil but can’t comprehend meta-discussion or humor enough to get angry at them. And it really has no sense of irony.

This leads me to my preferred method of subverting The Narrative while having fun and staying safe — trolling.

Here’s the theory. There are three main goals of engaging in argument: for truth, for power, for lulz. The first is the way of the nerd, she argues sincerely hoping to arrive at mutual understanding and correct beliefs. The second is the politician, using arguments as weapons to lower the status of her opponents and raise herself into a position of authority. The third is the troll, seeking a good laugh and to expose the absurdity of the entire discourse.

I propose that the three operate on a rock-paper-scissors dynamic.

A good-faith nerd is utterly predictable to a politician who will twist the nerd’s words and confound her with contradictions and ad hominems, tying any objective statement made by the nerd to bad intentions and unsavory groups.

A sincere nerd however can make a troll appear childish and scared to engage. If a nerd can enforce their frame, “here’s what I believe and why I believe it, how about you?”, the troll doesn’t have many options of winning the argument.

But a troll can beat a politician who cares mostly about their own status by demolishing everyone’s status and refusing to be tied down to any tribe. The troll must stay impartial, not committed to any group’s ideology but making them all appear equally ridiculous. The goal is to discredit the entire frame of the argument a politician uses, the motte and the bailey, The Narrative itself and what it claims its enemies are.

An example of this approach is Justin Murphy’s famous Greta tweet, which achieved an incredibly high ratio of people getting angry to people being able to explain why they’re angry:

“Not even being provocative” is a great touch. It’s a giveaway to intelligent people who are familiar with Justin, but further obfuscation to anyone seeing this out of context. This inspired my own attempt that I’m proudest of:

I wrote my tweet in reaction to two weeks of people arguing whether the Capitol rioters were domestic terrorists plotting a coup or freedom-loving citizens or a false flag psy-op. But the frame of “legitimate democracy vs. Q Anon” is the frame of The Narrative itself, which means that Q is not in the least a threat to it. A nation’s ruling elite cannot be overthrown by clowns in face paint, but they do lose a modicum of power whenever are made to look like clowns themselves.

But I’m not really out to overthrow anything. A troll doesn’t seek power, he just seeks to shake off the interference of power in his life and pursuit of lulz. The same is true of the Rationalist, who should avoid seeking power or coolness if his goal is to improve his own ability to think and recognize truth.

This is not an abnegation of having impact on the real world. It’s playing the long game. Scott wrote that truth begets power, but only on a very long time scale. In the short-term it is power that begets power and corrupts truth.

Engaging with The Narrative sincerely, with either sincere acceptance or sincere animus, is a game of power. The former is submission, the latter is self-destruction. It is better to be a nerd among nerds on nerd topics, and a troll among politicians on political topics. If the New York Times sets out to write a story about you and ends up with boring and muddled gossip, that means you’re doing it right.

8 thoughts on “Above the Narrative

  1. Lots of good observations and a very disappointing mention of Alice as a supposedly excellent journalist. She might be more eloquent than the average woke propagandist from Jezebel, but it doesn’t change the fact that she’s still a very predictable activist of the Narrative. Improved GPT doesn’t matter if it operates on the same boring input: progressive women = admire, low-status men = bully.

    I know you’re personally invested, but please don’t fall for the common trick of the Narrative: “noisy woke circles made four steps forward, I made one back, so you may think that I’m trustworthy and balanced”.

    :(

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Criticism is my way of expressing appreciation, so, uh…

    …your main point is wrong. Nerds beat politicians. Trolls don’t.

    Historically, successful reform movements succeed by pushing their sincere beliefs so publicly and insistently that they can’t be ignored. This accomplishes several things:
    1. Gets the status-quo institutions to perceive a threat and waste social / political / actual capital on counterproductive crackdowns.
    2. Builds popular awareness and support (in part thanks to said crackdowns).
    3. Makes clear that “what’s mine is mine, what’s yours is negotiable”– i.e. the institutions will have to be the ones to change if they want the tension to go away.

    In contrast, trolling has a paralyzing effect– it makes people feel like things can’t and won’t change. (The essay E Unibus Pluram is my go-to argument for this point.) Irony is the opiate of the elites.

    If you really want Rationalism to win, you should be asking how to get the NYT to publish ten more articles like Metz’s in the next two years.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Historically, successful reform movements succeed by pushing their sincere beliefs so publicly and insistently that they can’t be ignored. This … [b]uilds popular awareness and support

      I think this is only true if you can actually get the public, or a large part of it, to agree with you or at least see your point of view as reasonable. If your sincere and true beliefs are far enough outside the prevailing narrative(s) that even people who don’t pay that much attention to the narrative still reject those beliefs as too incompatible with their narrative-influenced expectations to be worth considering, then instead of building popular awareness and support you’ll just have made the public think of you as not credible.

      I agree with you, though, that trolling isn’t likely to cause positive change.

      Like

    2. Even in your model, “successful reform movements” are exceedingly unpleasant to those in power, who would try to suppress them. And so the first goal of any nascent reform movement should be to defend itself from suppression, for example by making itself less legible to power — trolling. It takes a long time to get to being able to enforce “what’s mine is mine”, 99% of reform movements (think of all the ones that you think would be bad reforms, like Q Anon or whatever) don’t get there.

      Once you are in power there’s no need for trolling, you can just have your way.

      Like

      1. I don’t think you’re correct about that. Historically speaking I think most successful reform movements seem to come from a place of great and extreme sincerity and truth, not from trolling. Saying what you actually think with total sincerity, and backing it up with logic and reason and honest emotion, is both rare and powerful. That’s part of the reason SSC became so influential in the first place, was Scott’s commitment to saying the truth and backing it up, basically his willingness to be more intellectuslly honest than anyone else makes him worth reading even when you don’t agree with him 100%

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  3. My general take is that the best response to a hit piece against a community is not a slander campaign against the author, or even not a fact-by-fact rebuttal of points made in a hit piece. I think the most productive response is a kind and sincere recollection of why the community is important for us. I wish the members could effectively demonstrate the positive effect the community had in their lives, the improvements in thought and important lessons the community realized, and what benefits the members gained by uniting together. This is the chance for people to remind themselves why what they are doing is important, and a chance to attract third party observers who could be interested.

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  4. I think the perspective of Rationality as ‘outside’ The Narrative is a little off.

    The Narrative is dominant / default / reference viewpoint. Until recently, it was securely in power. Now it’s haemorrhaging – thanks to social media, people have alternative sources of truth. The Narrative is still the strongest narrative, but there are plenty of others.

    It isn’t really a positive development. The Narrative might not be a completely accurate reflection of the territory, but compared to some of the alternatives – like QAnon Narrative for example – it’s sane.

    And, regardless of quality / truthiness of the alternatives, the fundamental problem which seems to be driving the endlessly escalating political madness is that there’s no longer a Single Source of Truth for vast majority of population.

    Agreement, discussion is nigh impossible if people pretty much live in different realities. People don’t agree on basic epistemology and/or facts.

    But, it might be an opportunity. Prediction markets could become Source of Truth. I don’t see any other way it gets better. And Rationality – it’s just a different narrative, really.

    Like

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