Above the Narrative

by Jacob Falkovich10 min read25th Feb 202112 comments

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Cross-posted from Putanumonit.com


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, like, totally cringe. Going through his 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 unnecessary harm to its subject, but it certainly wasn’t a knockout. The word “racist” had to appear in the article — 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.

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Journalism does not hate you, nor does it love you, but you are a topic which it can use to sell advertising. To maximize the revenue from advertising, the story must follow a certain pattern. It does not matter much which journalist writes the story; as long as the journalists are selected for their ability to maximize the advertising revenue, the space of possible stories is quite limited.

What is the force that shapes the Narrative? It emerges as an eigenvalue of the matrix of public opinion. The Narrative is the eigen-opinion -- the opinion of those whose opinions matter according to that opinion. Currently, the set of "those whose opinions matter" centers around public officials, journalists, teachers; mostly left-wing, but in a quite specific way (e.g. Fredrik deBoer is not included).

The narrative has no person behind the driving wheel; it is what it is as a result of history, and it sustains itself by the power of self-interest. People who are important according to the Narrative, must support the Narrative, otherwise the Narrative would declare them unimportant, and everyone who cares about remaining important would avoid them. People who want to become important, and have sufficient social skills, understand that their best chance is by joining the Narrative -- both verbally, and by choosing the right kind of profession.

But then... how is it possible that Jacob can talk publicly against the Narrative in Quillette? (Or in Less Wrong?) Isn't Quillette also a news medium? Shouldn't the same rules apply to them? (And us?) If we accept the possibility of going against the flow, why not extend the same charity to New York Times?

To continue the metaphor, a matrix can have more than one eigenvector. There is the dominant Narrative, and there are smaller alternative narratives. The dominant Narrative has greater audience, but also greater competition. The alternative narratives have smaller rewards, but also more slack. Jacob's story is somewhat compatible with Quillette's (and Less Wrong's) narrative, and these media tolerate a larger range of stories.

I guess the lesson here is that greater audience imposes greater constraints on writing, through greater competition for greater rewards. When the entire country is your audience, then in some sense, the country has already decided which words you must write, and you better obey, or someone else will get your job.

Scholar's Stage would agree with the "does not hate you, nor does it love you" bit, but has a somewhat different take on it; the space of possible narratives would be limited even in the case that the writer didn't care about advertising revenue at all 

[The] need to reduce reality to a simple mental model is an inherent feature of human cognition. For the most part it is done automatically without much thought. We cannot avoid simplification—we speak of London doing this or China doing that not because such simplifications are true (there is no unitary agent named “London” or “China” doing anything) but because it is impossible to act in a complex world without such short cuts.

The problems of journalism are the problems of cognition on steroids. For the journalist, historian, or social scientist, the drive to reduce is acute and explicit. On top of the normal simplification we all do unconsciously, nonfiction writers must reduce twice more: The first round of reduction comes with investigation. Any subject is too large to be understood in toto.

 The investigator must decide where to focus her efforts, how to spend limited time, what sources to consult, what questions to ask, and what sort of evidence to be on the lookout for. Many of these things are not explicitly decided, but are forced upon the investigator by the nature of her tools and sources or by her preconceived sense of what is notable and what is not.

The second round of simplification, just as inherent to the journalistic enterprise as the first, is built into act of writing. The investigator has collected in her brain more that can ever be put on a page. Journalists in particular must condense what they have learned onto a very small space. This double reduction process is often described as “framing” a story. Reducing an entire movement—the histories, controversies, disagreements, defeats, glories, and quirks of thousands of unique individuals—to one comprehensible frame will always cut important things out. It is inevitable that some members of the covered group will be dissatisfied with the frame they have been forced into.

This process, far more than any explicit ideological agenda, is the source of most bias in journalism. This source of bias cannot be escaped. Stories without a frame are just an incoherent collection of facts too long and too varied to fit on a page. The bias imposed by framing is necessary—and sometimes even a good thing. [...]

The trouble comes when attachment to a given frame leads journalists into misperceiving their subjects, forcing them into a framework that does not really fit them. If you are primed to think of internet subcultures through the gamergate frame, gamergate is all you will ever find. In the terminology of the rationalists, it is a problem of “priors.” All that was required for a mess like this was a writer with wildly different priors and tight time demands to come into contact with a community they only had a superficial understanding of. No active malice is necessary.

And while he does note that the NYT explicitly wants particular narratives, he also mentions that the incentives involved are a bit more complicated than just going after advertising revenue:

This idea that the New York Times published things for “the clicks” is common but inaccurate. Vox publishes things for the clicks. The New York Times, like other top tier publications such as The New Yorker or the Washington Post, make their money from subscriptions and side services--like that high school trip to Peru that got a certain Times reporter fired. The New York Times is rolling in dough, and that dough has nothing to do with the virality of any given article. In fact, there is a good chance that uber-viral articles cost them more readers  than they gain from them. No one subscribed because of 1619 or the Cotton op-ed, but a lot of people did unsubscribed because of them!

Likewise most writers, regardless of publication, care very little about their hit count. At most publications individual writers are not even told site traffic stats for individual pieces. Only in rare cases is payment tied to popularity. What motivates writers and journalists is not clicks but prestige. They measure their self worth through the esteem of their fellow writers, and write to that end. For more on this see my post "Why Writers (And Think Tankers) Feud So Viciously."

I agree that advertising revenue is not an immediate driving force, something like "justifying the use of power by those in power" is much closer to it and advertising revenue flows downstream from that (because those who are attracted to power read the Times).

I loved the rest of Viliam's comment though, it's very well written and the idea of the eigen-opinion and being constrained by the size of your audience is very interesting.

Consider adapting this into a top-level post? I anticipate wanting to link to it (specifically for the "smaller audiences offer more slack" moral).

Ah, no thanks. It's just a rewording of (my understaning of) Jacob's article, plus an attempt to preempt the obvious question: "why does outgroup 'follow the narrative', but ingroup 'speaks their mind freely', ain't that a bit too convenient?".

Also, as Kaj's link suggests, my idea of "eigen-opinion" may be mathematically elegant, but it's not how things actually happened. Unless we take it one level above and say that NYT was constrained in their choice of narrative. Maybe, dunno. But the proximate cause of NYT reporters writing as they do is "being ordered to do so by their boss", which is quite boring explanation, so perhaps the real lesson here is not to skip boring explanations in favor of looking for mathematically elegant ones.

And... although I am not sure whether this is a good lesson... but maybe also not to try too hard to be charitable to assholes. (Of course, it is difficult to find the right amount of charity in situations where I already take sides.) I mean, in some sense my explanation was an attempt to partially excuse the NYT as being victims or maybe collaborators of a stronger force, as opposed to being an uncaused cause of bad things. But they had more agency that I attributed to them, and they knowingly used it for evil.

I like Scott as much as anyone, but I think your post points people in a subtly wrong direction.

This mindset is nigh-incomprehensible to people of The Narrative who are used to being guided by a single source of truth enforced by social consensus.

Actually the left argue among each other bitterly and non-stop.

Its main proponent is Balaji Srinivasan, who wants Silicon Valley to tell its own narrative of “technological progressivism”. It is a story of humanity’s biggest challenges, from education to climate change to death itself, being solved by decentralized technological innovation as opposed to centralized institutional regulation.

That story is a myth. The internet came from ARPA, hypertext was invented by the director of OSRD, public key cryptography was invented at GCHQ, pagerank and blockchain come from academia. And if you look for big ideas in computing that didn't come from government/military/academia, your next stop will be AT&T Bell Labs and IBM, megacorps that are bigger than many governments.

That’s just handing your soul to the devil — the same devil that employs Metz.

Metz's side is just proselytizing faith. (I think what we're seeing today is the age-old conflict between proselytizing faith and everything else, which started with Christianity but isn't unique to it.) You can say many bad things about it, but it doesn't have a monopoly on doxing, narrative building, censorship and so on. The only thing it has a monopoly on is proselytizing, and sadly I hear echoes of that in Eliezer and Scott's writings as well. It's a hard habit to break.

Agree with most of what you say, but isn't the blockchain the one invention where you can really say that it definitely wasn't created at a centralized institution? Or are you saying that it's likely that Satoshi was an academic, or got most of his ideas from the academy?

or got most of his ideas from the academy

Yes, in a very strong sense of "most". Check out David Chaum.

I assume you're referring to the 'vault' thing WP mentions there as "Recently credited by Alan Sherman"? Then no, Chaum is irrelevant to Satoshi except inasmuch as his Digicash was a negative example to the cryptopunks about the vulnerability of trusted third parties & centralization to government interference & micromanagers (some of whom, like Szabo, worked for him). The vault thing didn't inspire Satoshi because it inspired no one; if it had, it wouldn't need any Alan Sherman to dig it up in 2018. You will not find it cited in the Bitcoin whitepaper, it was never mentioned in any of the early mailing list discussions or private emails, it is not in any of Szabo's essays, it's not in the Cyphernomicon, etc etc. Nor could anyone have easily gotten it as it wasn't published and wasn't available online then or apparently until quite recently (given that the IA has no mirrors of the copy on Chaum's website - I've added a direct link in the WP article so hopefully availability will improve). In fact, this is the very first time I've so much as heard of it. If Satoshi 'got most of his ideas from the academy', it was definitely a different part of the academy... Chaum was irrelevant*.

Claiming Chaum's vault directly inspired Satoshi is just the typical academic colonizing practice of post hoc ergo propter hoc in fabricating an intellectual pedigree for a working system (Schmidhuber being the most infamous practitioner of this particular niche); it is not true, as a matter of causality or history. (And to their credit, they admit that, like most unpublished theses which are promptly buried in the university library never to be read again, it went "largely unnoticed", which is rather an understatement; looking at the citations of it in GS, they are all secret-sharing related, ignoring any proto-blockchain aspect, and skimming a few, I doubt any of the citers actually read it, which is pretty typical especially for hard-to-get theses.)

* Actually, I'd say Chaum's ideas were a huge obstacle for Satoshi. My read of the e-cash literature is that he was a deeply negative influence in creating a mathematically-seductive dead end that academics could, and did, mine for decades, coming up with countless subtle variants. But no amount of moon math turns Chaumian blinded credentials into Bitcoin. Satoshi's success could only have come from ignoring the entire literature springing from Chaum and coming up with a fundamentally different approach. Given the profoundly negative reaction to Bitcoin even among non-academics not sworn to Chaumian approaches, I am unable to imagine Bitcoin ever arising in American academia. That's just a radically ahistorical reading which requires assuming that anything which can be remotely associated with academics must be solely causally due to them.

Huh, interesting. Indeed it seems post hoc-ed in this case, I should've looked at bitcoin's history more closely before making a confident statement. Thanks!

Thanks. Sounds like he had a lot of the pieces beforehand, although I didn't find strong evidence that Satoshi got them from him. Could be an independent re-invention.

Jake, I'm glad you wrote the nerd-politician-troll thing here. I think I saw you (or someone) say something similar on Twitter months ago, and I wanted to link to it but I couldn't find it. I'm glad to have a concept handle for something that previously just felt like an annoyingly slippery feature of Twitter-style discourse. All models are wrong but some are useful--and I feel like I might get a lot of use out of this one.