Bryan Caplan  

Read Scott Alexander

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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 the circumstances."

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 News fans?

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.

COMMENTS (16 to date)
Emily writes:

Scott's blog is great and I'm glad it's getting so much attention lately.

Bob Montgomery writes:

Your "virtue of tolerance" quote is wise, but it has been said before, notably by...Jesus:

If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?

Matthew 5:46-47

John Peer writes:

"A Thrive-Survive Theory Of The Political Spectrum" is the essay that sold me on him a couple of months ago. I found it very eye-opening and I've been catching up ever since.

Jeff writes:

Yes, he's excellent at crafting arguments in such a way that the people most likely to disagree will be prompted to at least stop and think about what he's saying, rather than dismiss it as being incongruous with their established beliefs.

Alejandro writes:

Don't miss his grand post against education, SSC Gives a Graduation Speech, which for some reason is not in his Top Posts page. I predict you will find it extremely enjoyable.

ThomasH writes:

He looks like my kind of Liberal.

David writes:

If you like Scott I bet you would also love The Last Psychiatrist.

Sniffnoy writes:

You might also want to check out his old blog. Probably less to your taste, but there's still a lot of good stuff there.

David Friedman writes:

"Then about two weeks ago, I discovered the mind of Scott Alexander."

Within a few days of when I did, oddly enough.

ThomasH writes:

I'm not sure I wholly agree with Bodhidharma's judgment of the Emperor.

Being or not being a homophobic bigot is sometimes (always?) an attitude that a person can choose. If many people in the Emperor's realm are homophobic bigots or were until a few years ago, maybe the Emperor should get points for his attitude. And more so if "tolerance" means protecting the victims of intolerance.

I agree that the Emperor should get more praise for having given up being a homophobic bigot (or at least acting like one) as a result of Bodhidharma's teaching and perhaps after great self struggle than if he'd grown up knowing that homophobic bigotry was wrong.

Now if this is just a parable about self righteousness, well taken.

E. Harding writes:

Coincidentally, I only started thoroughly looking through the Slate Star Codex archives beginning about October 20. Like Bryan, I find Scott to be truly an engaging thinker. And I'm surprised how close he lives to me (certainly within 20 miles)! Amazing how small the world is.

Bill Drissel writes:

Compactly: Tolerance is not a virtue when practiced by an agnostic.

Bill Drissel
Frisco, TX

Mark Plus writes:
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.

The "bizarre" part of Neoreaction depends on geography and historical timing. The Enlightenment cult ~ 300 years ago turned Western civilization onto a path that looks "bizarre" not only to contemporary non-Western civilizations, but also looks "bizarre" historically compared with the organic, traditional, hierarchical, patriarchal societies in Western Europe the Enlightenment's meddlers mocked, discredited and worked to overthrow so that they could replace them with central planning based on what they considered "rational" but untested new philosophical principles.

Plenty of otherwise bright people assume that this social ideology we've inherited from the Enlightenment has gotten locked in as a permanent feature of the human condition, but I wouldn't assume anything of the sort. It wouldn't surprise me if Western-derived societies in a few more centuries will regress to the mean and have more in common with pre-Enlightenment societies than with the ones we've seen since the American and French revolutions based on Enlightenment fads.

Martin-2 writes:

If you're familiar with Less Wrong you might know Scott as 'Yvain'. He has many great posts.

Joe Quirk writes:

Mr. Caplan and Mr. Friedman, the world awaits your response to Scott Alexander's The Non-Libertarian FAQ (aka Why I Hate Your Freedom)Version 2.0: Now With More Statism!

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