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COVID and Vitamin D…and some other things too.

This post is by Phil Price, not Andrew.

Way back in November I started writing a post about my Vitamin D experience. My doctor says I need more, in spite of the fact that I spend lots of time outdoors in the sun. I looked into the research and concluded that nobody really knows how much I need, but on the other hand the downside of taking a supplement is small. Anyway I started to write all of this up, thinking this blog’s readers might be interested in both the specifics (where do the Vitamin D recommendations come from, for instance) and the general approach (how one can, and perhaps should, consider the pros and cons of medical advice). But I never got around to finishing that post and thus it never appeared, and it’s not going to now because someone else has written a Vitamin D post that is much more topical, interesting, and current than mine was going to be: it looks at the question of whether Vitamin D protects against COVID. It is also, I think, a great example of how to think when faced with different sources of information that suggest different things. Some studies say this, some say that, common sense suggests X, but on the other hand it also suggests Y. We all face this kind of situation all the time.

So I’m just going to link to the blog post, later in this post, and recommend that you all go read it. But I want you to read the rest of my post first, so please do that. As a teaser I’m going to post the conclusions from the post I’m sending you to, but the real value of the post isn’t in these conclusions, it’s in the reasoning and research.

Does Vitamin D significantly decrease the risk of getting COVID?: 25% chance this is true. The Biobank and Mendelian randomization studies are strong arguments against this; the latitude, seasonal, and racial differences are only weak evidence in favor.

Does Vitamin D use at a hospital significantly improve your chances?: 25% chance this is true. I trust the large Brazilian study more than the smaller Spanish one, but aside from size and a general bias towards skepticism I can’t justify this very well.

Do the benefits of taking a Vitamin D supplement at a normal dose equal or outweigh the costs for most people?: 75% chance this is true. The risks are pretty low, and it will probably bring you closer to rather than further from a natural range if you’re a modern indoor worker (side effects are few; the most serious is probably kidney stones, so don’t take it if you have any tendency towards that). And maybe some day, after countless false leads and stupid red herrings, one of the claims people make about this substance will actually pan out. Who knows?

 

Those are the assessments of the blog’s author, Scott Siskind, they aren’t from me. But I think, given what he says in his post, that they’re quite reasonable.

I’m going to say a few words about the blog I’m sending you to, because there’s an interesting story there. Siskind is the guy who used to have the blog called Slate Star Codex. Here is a sample post from that blog that I think might interest the readership of this blog. I was late ‘discovering’ SSC: a friend turned me onto it about a year ago. It is entertaining and informative, and the author (who wrote under the pseudonym Scott Alexander) is great at both thinking about a wide range of topics and explaining how he thinks. But several months ago a New York Times reporter contacted ‘Scott Alexander’ and said the NYT was going to publish a piece about the blog and its readership, and would give Scott’s real name (Scott Siskind). Siskind objected, saying he used a pseudonym because he sometimes wrote about controversial topics and/or said controversial things and that revealing his real name would expose him to repercussions such as losing clients at his business. The NYT did not relent, so Siskind took down his blog, hoping that that would make the story sufficiently irrelevant that the Times wouldn’t run it. And indeed that seems to have happened, although it’s also possible that the editors of the Times took Siskind’s feelings into account. But now Siskind is back, with a new blog published under his own name. And the New York Times has run their article.

That NYT article is…strange. If you read the article, the impression you get about Slate Star Codex is nothing like the impression you get by actually reading Slate Star Codex. The friend who suggested SSC to me a year ago thinks this is an example of the biases of NYT journalists being reflected in their reporting, a suggestion I would have dismissed a couple of years ago but which I now give a fair amount of credence: there is some unhealthy Political Correctness in the Times’s newsroom and my friend has me pretty much convinced that it is having too much influence on the stories they write and the way they write them. Specifically, I suspect that the fact that Siskind wrote about some controversial topics in ways that the Times reporter didn’t like may have led to the odd description of Slate Star Codex in the Times article.

Be that as it may, Siskind has a new blog called Astral Codex Ten, and you should all go read this piece about the evidence about how much Vitamin D does or doesn’t protect against COVID. 

 

92 Comments

  1. Anoneuoid says:

    1) Your body requires certain levels of vitamins and minerals to function properly. If you are already low on one or more it will respond worse to stressors.

    2) These stressors also increase the rate of metabolism/waste of these vitamins and minerals since energy must be diverted from maintaining them.

    3) Giving random dosing schedules of vitamins and minerals to people is not going to lead to any clear results even if the study is properly run and interpreted (which is rare).

    If you went to the car mechanic and they didn’t check the oil, power steering fluid, tire pressure, etc and maybe added arbitrary amounts to every vehicle as if they were all the same, what would you think?

    • rm bloom says:

      Many cancer patients are very low in Vitamin D. Some are routinely given gigantic doses on the order of 100,000 IU / week.
      The extremes of hormonal and metabolic derangement in many disease states are seen in indicators, such as Vitamin D blood levels.

      The Vitamin D levels (at this particular pole of the wellness / disease spectrum) are low *because* of the profound disease.

      For the record, I take 2500 IU / day and 1000 mg C / day.

      • Anoneuoid says:

        For the record, I take 2500 IU / day and 1000 mg C / day.

        The problem is if you are young and healthy this is probably too much, at best it is excreted or never absorbed to begin with. If you are older or have some illness it is probably not enough.

        Hence the analogy to oil in your car. No one adds random amounts because it will spill over or still leave a deficit. They use a dipstick.

        • JG says:

          There is no way in hell 2500 IU/day is too much. D taken daily does accumulate over months in fatty tissue and overdoing it *is* a concern, though. (contrast to excess C which is quickly urinated out; there is evidence that higher amounts of C are tolerated without excretion when you’re badly ill and this suggests it’s useful)

          • Anoneuoid says:

            There is no way in hell 2500 IU/day is too much.

            Then why is the RDA apparently half of that?

            https://vitamindanswers.com/what-is-the-rda-of-vitamin-d/

            • Anonymous says:

              https://vitamindanswers.com/what-is-the-rda-of-vitamin-d/

              What Is The Generally Accepted Safe Upper Limit Of Vitamin D Intake?

              Although the recommended daily intake of vitamin D for most adults is only 600 IU, the general consensus is that a daily dose of up to 10,000 IU, or 250 micrograms, is safe. (3, 4​, ​5)

              Many vitamin D supplements reflect this consensus that higher doses are safe offering 1,000, 2,000, 5,000 and up to 10,000 IU per gelatin capsule.

              If daily doses of 10,000 IU were easily toxic, we can’t imagine these supplements being made freely accessible in most of the world, year after year. Likely, health authorities would have acted to remove them from the market to protect the populations.

              ​Moreover, according to the Vitamin D Council:

              “Exposing your skin for a short time will make all the vitamin D your body can produce in one day. In fact, your body can produce 10,000 to 25,000 IU of vitamin D in just a little under the time it takes for your skin to begin to burn” (6)

        • rm bloom says:

          Dear Doctor — yes I get the levels checked. Thank you! rm Bloom

          • Anoneuoid says:

            You get your vitamin C levels checked? That is pretty rare. Last I was at a hospital I asked if they could do it and was told they didn’t have a way.

            • Unanon says:

              Maybe others’ personal experiences are different than your personal experience? Maybe your personal experience doesn’t reflect general experience? There are obviously lab tests to detect ascorbic acid concentrations in plasma or serum.

              https://www.labcorp.com/tests/001805/vitamin-c

              https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28856210/

              • Anoneuoid says:

                I know there are labs that do it for $100+. But ascorbate is very reactive so you need to handle the sample with extra care (lower the pH, avoid light, avoid oxygen) and usually requires an expensive HPLC so such tests are very rare. They almost only done as part of a study or if the patient pays for it at one of those labs.

                So I very much doubt rm bloom has been getting vitamin c levels checked, at least not more than once, and really it can change greatly in a few days so that doesn’t mean much.

            • Kyle C says:

              rm bloom has previously mentioned getting remarkably bespoke health care.

              • rm bloom says:

                Remind me just what I have previously mentioned? I know I have spoken here of all manner of things; some of which, the purest of nonsense; and some not so. I do have a decent family doctor or two. They keep me “entertained while nature … uh …. effects the cure”

            • rm bloom says:

              The discussion was about Vitamin D, sir.
              Can you *possibly* restrain yourself from the urge to throw out error messages as if you were a compiler for god’s sake?

              • Anoneuoid says:

                You are the one who said you take a gram of vitamin c per day, which is an arbitrary amount. You have no idea what your actual needs are, and those will change as your health status changes.

    • Anoneuoid says:

      Then there is stuff like this:

      Regarding vitamin D pharmacokinetics: the actual active form is calcitriol, which has three hydroxy groups. This is produced by a series of enzymatic hydroxylations starting with cholecalciferol (1 hydroxy), and then calcifediol (2 hydroxy groups). So giving people calcifediol is going to act more quickly than cholecalciferol.

      Wikipedia states that, “At a typical daily intake of vitamin D3, its full conversion to calcifediol takes approximately 7 days.” And for high doses it’s probably slower if the enzymes are saturated. (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calcifediol which cites https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/87/6/1738/4633505)

      So I think giving emergency doses of cholecalciferol is a dumb move by doctors.

      Where do those hydroxyl groups come from? Obviously the body is using vitamin D as an electron source (reducing agent) for other molecules. It is an anti-oxidant, that is why it is produced in in the skin in response to an oxidative stressor to the skin (uv light). For a viral infection you probably want an increase in the least oxidated form.

      • JG says:

        I gather your point is that the author grabbed from wikipedia the form of Vit D that’s identified as active in calcium absorption and bone related hormonal signaling and jumped to the conclusion that this is also the primary or only form that’s useful in some less broadly accepted antiviral effect. It’s an interesting hypothesis that because donating an electron is part of some conversion to the ‘active’ form this might be antiviral. But: got evidence? Why ‘probably’? This is a rate limited step (7 days to convert a dose); why would electrons donated at that rate matter?

        • Anoneuoid says:

          Antioxidant levels are lower in many illnesses, vitamin D is an antioxidant, and all illnesses induce oxidative stress including covid.

          Vitamin D is a membrane antioxidant: thus Vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) and its active metabolite 1,25-dihydroxycholecalciferol and also Vitamin D2 (ergocalciferol) and 7-dehydrocholesterol (pro-Vitamin D3) all inhibited iron-dependent liposomal lipid peroxidation.

          https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8325381/

          Compared with several well-known antioxidants, vitamin D3 may be one of the most powerful antioxidants in biological organisms as shown in the present study.

          https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16179538/

          In conclusion, increasing evidence such as rising ROS production, decreased antioxidant molecules and demonstration that antioxidant treatments have clinical benefits in COVID-19 treatment supports the role of oxidative stress in the pathogenesis of COVID-19. Our study has shown that NT levels, which play an antioxidant role by neutralizing the increase in ROS, decrease in COVID-19 infection and have a negative correlation with symptom duration, and the level of NT on admission is a highly sensitive and cost-effective marker in COVID-19.

          https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7880846/

          The systemic OSS was strongly altered in critically ill COVID-19 patients as evidenced by increased lipid peroxidation but also by deficits in some antioxidants (vitamin C, glutathione, thiol proteins) and trace elements (selenium).

          https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33562403/

          Vitamin C was determined by high-performance liquid chromatography with photodiode detector (detection limit 1.5 mg/L). Vitamin C reference values in general population used to be above 5 mg/L. Seventeen paients (94.4%) had undetectable vitamin C levels and 1 patient had low levels (2.4 mg/L).

          To our knowledge, this is the first study to analyze the levels of vitamin C in patients with SARS-CoV-2-associated ARDS. Our study revealed that vitamin C levels are undetectable in more than 90% of the patients included.

          https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32847620/

          Our pilot study found low serum levels of Vitamin C and Vitamin D in most of our critically ill COVID-19 ICU patients. Older age and low Vitamin C level appeared co-dependent risk factors for mortality. Many were also insulin-resistant or diabetic, overweight or obese, known as independent risk factors for low Vitamin C and Vitamin D levels, and for COVID-19.These findings suggest the need to further explore whether caring for COVID-19 patients ought to routinely include measuring and correcting serum Vitamin C and Vitamin D levels, and whether treating critically ill COVID-19 warrants acute parenteral Vitamin C and Vitamin D replacement.

          https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32964205/

          As to:

          Why ‘probably’? This is a rate limited step (7 days to convert a dose); why would electrons donated at that rate matter?

          Because I don’t know anything about the absorption of different vitamin D forms or what else they may do. I also wouldn’t assume seven days in a healthy person (like that review summarizes) is the same as in a covid patient. Nor would I assume it is only oxidized enzymatically, but you can find many papers about cyp450s and oxidative stress when they malfunction: https://www.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/jctb.648

          • It’s also my understanding that vit D conversion requires Magnesium (as do about a gazillion other enzyme reactions). It’s widely believed in medicine that Mg deficiency at subclinical levels (ie. doesn’t cause siezures or other severe obvious symptoms) is widespread, like perhaps 30-50% of adults.

            https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/02/180226122548.htm

            https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Magnesium-HealthProfessional/

            Also Mg is required for proper synthesis of DNA, RNA, and the strong antioxidant glutathione

            It’s hard to measure magnesium, since it’s tightly controlled in the blood, and the most effective measure of how well it’s supplied to the rest of the body is a painful muscle biopsy.

            As a doctor, to the extent that you’re just giving vit D out, without encouraging people to take Mg supplements, you’re likely not really doing what you think you’re doing.

            • Anoneuoid says:

              Sure, magnesium is the main mineral I was thinking of.

              A big problem is we grow food in one place, then consume it and crap it out somewhere else. So how exactly are the minerals supposed to get back in the soil where the crops have access to it? Where is all that Mg2+ in wastewater going?

              • This is actually a major issue acknowledged by the people who are arguing for Mg supplementation. When you look at food Mg levels in databases produced by the USDA it’s based on lab data from the past often. Modern foods have lower levels of Mg, and plenty of people demonstrably don’t get even the RDA for Mg in their diet. And that may well not be enough. It seems like depending on the Ca hardness in your water, and various things in diets such as caffeine intake / urination frequency etc Mg levels can decline even with the RDA levels.

                So, yeah, this is an interesting area of research where we have clear mechanistic reasons to believe various things but kind of “dogmas” of the past are preventing decent research.

  2. Tom Passin says:

    I will second SSC, and the new one, AstralCodexTen, looks to be similar. Many of the posts are well worth reading, but know that they can be quite long.

  3. Joshua says:

    I’m surprised that there’s no mention of infection rate, and morbidity and mortality in Africa, in the discussion of interactions between vitamin D, race, and COVID outcomes.

    I’m also surprised that there’s no discussion of the potential for differences in the effects of getting vitamin D from sunlight or diet, as opposed to getting it from supplements.

    • You are right Joshua. I prefer to get my Vitamin D directly from sun. I also get tested for Vitamin D levels during the summer. Now I need to find out if D3 supplements confer the same levels as D3 from sun. I haven’t had the flu nor COVID even though it appears that I was exposed to individuals who had either the flu or COVID. Fundamentally, I feel healthier when I spend more time outdoors than being indoors.

      We should consider improving our immunity. And that really requires changes to diet and more moderate exercise.

  4. Joshua says:

    A discussion here of Slate Star Codex, the related NYT article, “Rationalists,” and other related topics.

    https://bloggingheads.tv/videos/61078

  5. Here’s the thing:

    1) we know that the human body requires vit D in several forms for multiple activities
    2) we know that the conversion of vit D to alternative forms is slow
    3) We know that conversion of vit D requires Magnesium, which many people have sub-optimal levels of
    4) We know that illness causes oxidative stress through numerous mechanisms including immune cells dumping oxidative chemicals
    5) We know that severe covid is improved by Dexamethasone, and other anti-inflammation / immune treatment (ie. severe covid is at least in part an immune hyperreactivity)
    6) We know that severe COVID patients have high levels of methemeglobin (oxidized hemoglobin)

    All of that suggests that the conversion from SARS-Cov-2 infected to severe COVID disease is a process of excessive growth and or excessive response to the virus resulting in hyper-immune response, high levels of oxidative stress, and destruction of the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood (through hyperoxidation of hemoglobin).

    I think this is all reasonably well understood now.

    What does that suggest for the mechanisms of how supplementation could help?

    1) We would expect vit C, E, and glutathione levels to be important for prevention of excess oxidation
    2) We would expect the immune modulation of vit D to be important for prevention of hyper-immune response
    3) Vit D may play an anti-oxidative role
    4) Magnesium should be expected to be important through its role in converting vit D and synthesizing glutathione and other known anti-inflammatory roles.
    5) High dose “hail mary” vit D supplementation should be expected to do basically nothing (because it’s too late)
    6) People who have high vit D levels prior to infection should be expected to do better and have lower risk for severe COVID
    7) Same for people with proper levels of Mg, glutathione, vit C, etc
    8) People with asthma, allergies, eczema and other hyper-immunity may be slightly less likely to get COVID, but if they do they should probably be more likely to get a severe case.

    I think that’s fair to say a reasonable mechanistic description of the predictions from the model.

    How consistent are these predictions with the observed data? I’m not sure, but when you read this linked article, several of the points fit with the model, such as lower seasonal and lattitude risk for severe COVID among those with higher sun exposure, while at the same time, high doses of vit D in hospitals do basically nothing… etc.

    To me, this once again is about doing science the right way: trying to come up with a model which makes predictions, and see if you can find where it’s wrong.

    • Anoneuoid says:

      3) Vit D may play an anti-oxidative role

      It is pretty obvious that is the central role, then the metabolites act as hormones to tell the body about the redox environment.

      Why else are levels are low in so many illnesses? Why do you need a vitamin produced in the skin after UV exposure to regulate calcium when the receptor determines the function of a hormone?

      There is just a fad to study extremely simplified signalling “pathways” (they are dynamic networks with much redundancy and feedbacks) instead of redox reactions which are the main thing that cells must perform and regulate.

  6. static says:

    “Siskind objected, saying he used a pseudonym because he sometimes wrote about controversial topics and/or said controversial things and that revealing his real name would expose him to repercussions such as losing clients at his business. “

    I think it was a little worse than that. He was worried about his patients knowing too much about him, which would impede their psychiatric care, that he could get fired, or that it would make it easier for his numerous enemies to harm him directly.

    “I have a lot of reasons for staying pseudonymous. First, I’m a psychiatrist, and psychiatrists are kind of obsessive about preventing their patients from knowing anything about who they are outside of work. You can read more about this in this Scientific American article – and remember that the last psychiatrist blogger to get doxxed abandoned his blog too. I am not one of the big sticklers on this, but I’m more of a stickler than “let the New York Times tell my patients where they can find my personal blog”. I think it’s plausible that if I became a national news figure under my real name, my patients – who run the gamut from far-left to far-right – wouldn’t be able to engage with me in a normal therapeutic way. I also worry that my clinic would decide I am more of a liability than an asset and let me go, which would leave hundreds of patients in a dangerous situation as we tried to transition their care.

    The second reason is more prosaic: some people want to kill me or ruin my life, and I would prefer not to make it too easy. I’ve received various death threats. I had someone on an anti-psychiatry subreddit put out a bounty for any information that could take me down (the mods deleted the post quickly, which I am grateful for). I’ve had dissatisfied blog readers call my work pretending to be dissatisfied patients in order to get me fired. And I recently learned that someone on SSC got SWATted in a way that they link to using their real name on the blog. I live with ten housemates including a three-year-old and an infant, and I would prefer this not happen to me or to them. Although I realize I accept some risk of this just by writing a blog with imperfect anonymity, getting doxxed on national news would take it to another level.”

    • anonymous says:

      OTOH, the NYT article says this:

      “I woke up the next morning to a torrent of online abuse, as did my editor, who was named in the farewell note. My address and phone number were shared by the blog’s readers on Twitter. Protecting the identity of the man behind Slate Star Codex had turned into a cause among the Rationalists.

      More than 7,500 people signed a petition urging The Times not to publish his name, including many prominent figures in the tech industry. “Putting his full name in The Times,” the petitioners said, “would meaningfully damage public discourse, by discouraging private citizens from sharing their thoughts in blog form.” On the internet, many in Silicon Valley believe, everyone has the right not only to say what they want but to say it anonymously.”

      • Phil says:

        Maybe people should have the right to say what they want anonymously, as long as what they’re saying is legal.

        As I noted on another blog comment, the Federalist Papers were written anonymously. Books by political insiders are sometimes anonymous. There are legitimate reasons people might prefer to be anonymous. There are also reasons that aren’t so good, but maybe it’s worth taking the bad with the good.

        Reporters use anonymous sources and protect their anonymity. Whoever posted the comment I’m responding did so anonymously! I feel like the reporter is kinda taking a dig at anonymity, as if it’s somehow bad to expect to be able to say things anonymously, but if that’s how he feels perhaps he should take up the cause of trying to keep reporters to stop using anonymous sources. (And perhaps he has! I don’t know.)

        In general I prefer when people stand behind what they say, but I definitely don’t have a knee-jerk anti-anonymity reaction, as it seems to me the reporter expects me to have.

  7. morris39 says:

    Too bad SSC is gone.I got a fair bit of insight into the diversity of commenters’ opinions written by people who had no need for insults to bolster their argument.

  8. Dzhaughn says:

    The redeeming feature of the NYT profile is that it is such a low quality hatchet job that citing it approvingly will instantly compromise anyone’s credibility. Pravda-esque.

  9. Fred says:

    The Spanish paper is an unmitigated mess.
    The randomization is done by wards, not patients and the treatment/control group is unbalanced by… baseline Vitamin D levels, the exact thing they are trying to figure out the importance of!
    The gender is also unbalanced which is a problem given that males tend to have a higher severity/mortality with respect to covid.
    Specifically, the control group had significantly lower Vitamin D levels than the treatment group and had a higher male ratio (60% vs 53%).
    So, given everything we know, we would expect the control group to do worse even if they were treated equally.

    In the end, one of the authors essentially backtracked and said “we never say in the article that it is a randomized control trial (RCT) but we consider an open randomized trial, and an observational study.”

    https://pubpeer.com/publications/DAF3DFA9C4DE6D1B7047E91B1766F0#11

  10. Certainly highlights the insurmountable opportunities for more credible research (as well as ethical journalism?).

  11. jd says:

    >an example of the biases of NYT journalists being reflected in their reporting, a suggestion I would have dismissed a couple of years ago

    I am surprised to read this. Why would research get the skeptical eye but journalism from the NYT not, up until now? Journalism is storytelling, and storytelling seems almost inherently biased by the teller. Sometimes research devolves into storytelling, but journalism is by nature storytelling.

    • Phil says:

      Reporters are people, and every person has their own set of beliefs, opinions, and values. Thus, other than items such as a formulaic announcement of the time of the next City Council meeting, every story is going to have a point of view. There is no such thing as a perfectly objective story. However, there is such a thing as a biased story. A story can be misleading, and if it’s misleading in a particular political or social direction then I’d call it “biased.” It is unavoidable, and in my opinion completely acceptable, that reporters write from a particular point of view, but if they slide out of the extremely broad region of parameter space that is “not clearly biased” and end up writing stories that are clearly biased, I have a problem with that.

      It’s not like I’ve done a formal study or survey of the NYT’s reporting (or anyone else’s), but my sense is that I’m seeing “biased” reporting from the Times more frequently than before. Here, jd, I’m not talking about the fact that every reporter has a point of view, I’m talking about the fact that the point of view distorts the news so that the reader comes away with beliefs that are seriously wrong.

      The SSC article is an example. I don’t know enough about “the Rationalists” to comment knowledgeably about the (large) part of the article that discusses them, but I do know enough about the blog itself to say that anyone who reads the NYT article will get a very incorrect impression of it. In principle that could just be due to generic bad reporting, but given the internal politics at the NYT that have been exposed over the past year or so I think it’s more likely that the reporter, Metz, did it on purpose.

      • jd says:

        Right, but I would argue that your distinction between writing from a point of view and your definition of bias is rather fuzzy, and may be often unknown to the writer themselves.
        “I’m talking about the fact that the point of view distorts the news so that the reader comes away with beliefs that are seriously wrong.” – I think this can be deliberate or unconscious, without a hard separation between “point of view” and “bias”.

        It just surprised me that a few years ago you would have dismissed that a NYT article would be written in such a way to distort the news. I haven’t extensively read the NYT, so I wouldn’t know. I just thought the statement was surprising. Maybe I am overly cynical.

        • Phil says:

          There are respected voices in the NYT newsroom (and perhaps editorial suite) arguing that the NYT previously placed too much emphasis on “neutral objectivity” and should write stories with more moral clarity. An example is: if a politician knowingly says something that isn’t true, say the politician “lied” rather than using a construction like “falsely claimed.” I think that’s new, or at least it’s new for that point of view to have so much sway.

          The funny thing is, I agree with it. One of my complaints about mainstream American journalism in general, and the NYT in particular, has been a curious reluctance to call balls and strikes. Instead of quoting vaccine advocates and anti-vaccine advocates and letting the public decide, I’d actually prefer that the reporters go ahead and tell us which one is right. They can still quote the anti-vaxxer, and tell us that yes, there’s a movement that believes these things, but they can go ahead and make this call.

          But I think that the NYT may be taking this “no need to strive for neutral objectivity” stance too far, at least in some cases.

          At any rate, I have good reason to think the Times doesn’t strive for neutrality the way it used to, and even though I don’t think ‘neutrality’ should necessarily be a goal I do think that the door is open for biased reporting in a way that wasn’t true before.

          • jd says:

            Interesting. I would disagree with you here – “I’d actually prefer that the reporters go ahead and tell us which one is right”. In your example, it becomes apparent which is ‘right’ if both sides are presented ‘neutrally’, and those who believe differently would not at all be dissuaded should the NYT “go ahead and tell us which one is right” (in fact, it might reinforce those people’s views).
            I certainly do not want any news outlet calling “balls and strikes” or telling me “which one is right”. I would prefer they didn’t. I actually think doing so will be detrimental to the news outlets because not only will it lead to bias, but will also lead to further skepticism and automatic reactionary responses to the news outlets deemed contrary towards one’s political views. Sounds like a good way to kill the ‘news’ to me and make it into nothing more than a pep rally for political sides.

  12. dl says:

    not so sure about all the positive comments about siskind here (nor the post itself)

    siskind seems like your bog standard conservative, albeit one who is particularly impressed with his own intellect.

    his “leaked” emails to topher brennan are one example that should make you think twice about this guy, e.g.:

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/68846dd4afb07ec20e6a63f4719ff197a259180234f9dec66b825bbf80d6efae.jpg?w=600&h=359

    • somebody says:

      I personally detest Slate Star Codex, but let’s be precise about the context here. This is in response to someone asking why Scott wastes his time with reactionary nonsense. Preceding this email, Scott describes reactionary ideas as a horrible chaotic mess that’s almost always wrong, but produces good ideas by random chance.

      • dl says:

        well, dude says a lot of things, i’ll give him that…

        …leaving “racism” etc aside though, i am surprised that so many intellectuals (at least here in comments) are impressed by the guy: the things I’ve seen from him seem like unfocused, verbose, and selective lit reviews from a dilettante …

        • Phil says:

          Siskind is interested in a lot of things, as am I — and this is true of lots of other people here on Andrew’s blog, too. One of the things he’s interested in is the effectiveness of Vitamin D at fighting COVID. I had tried a couple of months ago to find a summary of the recent research that put everything in perspective and made sense of the different lines of evidence pointing in different directions, and I couldn’t find such a thing…until I saw the article that I linked here. I don’t find it ‘unfocused’ at all, and I think ‘verbose’ is not an insult as long as the words are conveying information, as they did here.

          As for ‘selective’ and ‘dilettante’…I guess these go together. To try to read everything ever written about Vitamin D would be nuts, so of course he’s selective. And ‘dilettante’, well, nobody can be an expert about everything, and indeed most people aren’t experts about anything. He’s no more a dilettante on this subject than I would be, and I had started to write a somewhat similar post myself! If an expert won’t write a post like this, us ‘dilettantes’ have to step up.

          I think Siskind did an excellent job here, both in reading a good assortment of published work related to Vitamin D and COVID and in digesting it. If you disagree, perhaps you can point out some things in his post that you disagree with. That might be more productive than just calling him a dilettante.

          • somebody says:

            As an important-information-aggregator and prose write, I think the blog is fine. But what I personally can’t stand are:

            1. The “rationalist” type rhetorical strategy of trying to make analogies and personal feelings sound like science. Everything is updating priors and bayesianism and probability even when it’s not. I don’t think SSC is as bad as other blogs in its general orbit, but it’s definitely there. To take an example from above, the 25% and 50% and whatever are entirely equivalent to “probably not” and “maybe,” but downplay the knightian uncertainty in such judgements. You could say this is just making analogies in his own domain of understanding, but that clashes with

            2. A painfully naive understanding of science and statistics. He seems to hail from the old school of social sciences as a process of competing OLS models, and is annoying credulous of such evidence. For example, the “things to be explained link” (from 2012, to be fair, perhaps his views have evolved) in that screenshot is a collection of suggestively strong regressions of IQ against genes, races, and various other things without any kind of rigorous causal argument. This isn’t terribly unusual–expecting everyone who writes about science to be familiar with rubin’s causal model or pearl’s scm and connect mechanistic models of data generating processes to probability distributions would be limiting myself to reading just this blog, but it bothers me especially because of his rhetorical style and data-driven posturing.

            3. Rationalist contrarianism. He likes to talk about exploring “dangerous ideas”, but he, like economists, seems to give undue weight to ideas because they’re provocative. For example, in the linked post, he describes the unpleasant question of weighing the economic costs of economic shutdown

            > Coronavirus has killed about 100,000 Americans so far. How bad is that compared to other things?

            > Well, on the one hand, it’s about 15% as many Americans as die from heart attacks each year. If 15% more people died from heart attacks in the US next year, that would suck, but most people wouldn’t care that much. If some scientist has a plan to make heart attacks 15% less deadly, then sure, fund the scientist, but you probably wouldn’t want to shut down the entire US economy to fund them. It would just be a marginally good thing.

            > On the other hand, it’s also about the same number of Americans who died in the Vietnam War plus the Korean War plus 9/11 plus every school shooting ever. How much effort would you exert to prevent the Vietnam War plus the Korean War plus 9/11 plus every school shooting ever? Probably quite a lot!

            > Maybe part of this is that heart attack victims are generally (though not always!) older than 9/11 victims, so the cost in DALYs is lower. But the bigger problem is that there’s no arbitrage in the market for lives. Some normal good, like Toyota Camrys, sells for about the same price everywhere. There might be minor variations based on how far you go from a Toyota factory or something, but overall you wouldn’t expect the same Camry to sell for ten times as much in one city as another. Someone would arbitrage – buy the Toyotas in the cheap city and sell them in the expensive one! But the same reasoning fails when it applies to lives. Life has no single value denominated in dollars, attention, or outrage. So when we search for metaphors to tell us how bad 100,000 deaths from coronavirus are, our conclusion depends entirely on what metaphor we use. “It’s like 15% of heart attacks” sounds not-so-bad, and “it starts with the Vietnam War and gets worse from there” sounds awful, even though they’re the same number. There’s no way to fix this without somehow making all our intuitions collide against each other and equalize, which sounds really hard.

            This is all very verbalistic philosophizing. He sure did squeeze many words out of that idea. But it proceeds from a completely idiotic premise. Covid at that point had only killed 100,000 people BECAUSE of the economic slowdown. It wasn’t an economic slowdown to save 100,000 lives, but to save the much larger number of people who didn’t actually die but could have (not to mention this was in May). And the hypothetical he later proposes of “reopening the economy” is complete fantasy. Nobody could have “reopened the economy” if they tried. Many people stayed home themselves because they were scared, government orders or not. Airplanes were empty but not grounded.

            All this to say, I hate SSC because it postures itself as dedicated to scientific, rational, data based thinking, but it’s actually very bad at all those things. It’s really just playing with alternative ideas coupled to a newsfeed, which is fine, but dressed up in respectability politics. The core philosophy of the blog seems to be using the right words and trying not to be insulting.

            A real shame what happened to Scott though. He certainly doesn’t deserve that. Apparently the doxxing is because the NYTimes has a policy of always using real names if you have them. If that’s true, and I have my doubts, it’s much worse than a hit piece. Bureaucratic norms over common courtesy

            • Andrew says:

              Somebody:

              Regarding the whole “dangerous ideas” thing: there’s a lot of choice in what dangerous ideas to consider. We discussed this here and here, in the context of Steven Pinker’s question, “Would damage from terrorism be reduced if the police could torture suspects in special circumstances?” and his statement, “In every age, taboo questions raise our blood pressure and threaten moral panic. But we cannot be afraid to answer them.”

              • Joshua says:

                I find it ironic that people so dedicated to an unrelenting commitment to “dangerous ideas” (and with substantial power and financial resources to weild) would then attack a reporter for including Suskind’s name in an article, because Suskind didn’t want his name associated with some of the shit that people wrote on his blog.

                Reminds me of when people complaining about someone wishing them “happy holidays” complains about political correctness, or peope who have always enjoyed political privilege because of their identity complain about “identity politics.”

              • somebody says:

                I like dangerous ideas that raise your blood pressure, but as you’ve noted, backing out from there to “an idea is important because it raises your blood pressure” is incoherent.

                I suspect there’s an underlying attitude that emotions and moral outrage is the opposite of reason. If you take that as axiom, then something inspiring moral outrage is itself evidence that there must be something to it. But somethings something is morally outrageous BECAUSE it’s unreasonable. It outrages me when people claim that mac computers are slow for their price point. There isn’t something to that idea, it’s just wrong.

              • dl says:

                what about david freedman’s idea that salt may not raise your blood pressure…is that a dangerous idea that raises our blood pressure?

              • Chris A says:

                @Andrew,
                This is an aside, but did you know that you (or parallel universe you) feature in Scott’s book, Unsong? Apart from angels and Kabbalistic scholars it’s a pretty short list.

              • Andrew says:

                Chris:

                I’ll never have the lowest Erdos-Bacon number, but I now have an unbeatable Siskind-DeWitt number (unless one of those authors decides to mention the other), so there’s that.

            • Joshua says:

              somebody –

              > A real shame what happened to Scott though. He certainly doesn’t deserve that. Apparently the doxxing is because the NYTimes has a policy of always using real names if you have them. If that’s true, and I have my doubts, it’s much worse than a hit piece. Bureaucratic norms over common courtesy

              This characterization of “doxxing,” and “a hit piece” are, imo, not sustainable.

              It’s not at all unreasonable that the author (or the Times) would have a standard of not publishing such a piece with without including the author’s name. I see no reason why they’d have an obligation to do so – out of common courtesy or for it her reasons.

              Particularly since it was easy enough to find his name from a simple Google search of his blog name.

              On what basis should a reporter choose not to use a subject’s name because the The subject asked that not be used? That seems like an unrealistic standard to me.

              And the notion of a “hit piece” implies some kind or pre-meditated intent that I think doesn’t hold up to scrutiny when you read about the entire time line of what went down. Even Suskind himself, initially, made it clear that the author had a viable reason to use his name.

              Why shouldn’t Suskind assume responsibility for what he chose to be associated with, particularly since his name was easily discovered? Does he deserve some kind of special dispensation for being careless? Why would he?

              As to whether his views might have been incorrectly portrayed in the Times piece, that’s arguable, but that could just be questionable reporting on a somewhat ambiguous context. To go from that to a “hit piece” seems melodramatic to me.

              • Anonymouse says:

                “ It’s not at all unreasonable that the author (or the Times) would have a standard of not publishing such a piece with without including the author’s name.”

                It would be nice they did have standards, and hewewd to them, however it seems that they do not. They’ve voluntarily withheld the names of other subjects before.

                “ Particularly since it was easy enough to find his name from a simple Google search of his blog name.”

                The anonymity was to go the other way, a search of “scott siskind” did not reveal the blog until the siskind haters took it upon themselves to spread his name around.

                “ On what basis should a reporter choose not to use a subject’s name because the The subject asked that not be used?”

                Concerns of personal safety combined with the lack of newsworthiness of the actual legal name seems to be reasonable. What reasons did they have to withhold Virgil Texas’ real name?

                “ And the notion of a “hit piece” implies some kind or pre-meditated intent that I think doesn’t hold up to scrutiny when you read about the entire time line of what went down.”

                A dubious assessment, considering the lengths to which they went to misrepresent the subject of the article.

                “ Why shouldn’t Suskind assume responsibility for what he chose to be associated with, particularly since his name was easily discovered? ”

                Thats an uncharitable and leading question.

                “ As to whether his views might have been incorrectly portrayed in the Times piece, that’s arguable,”

                Not really.

                “ that could just be questionable reporting on a somewhat ambiguous context.”

                They had months to work on this, and the article itself became a bigger story than the subject of the article. If NYT is so incompetent as to print a shoddy article under these circumstances, its doubtful that the rest of their reporting is even as credible as this debacle.

              • Joshua says:

                > It would be nice they did have standards, and hewewd to them, however it seems that they do not. They’ve voluntarily withheld the names of other subjects before

                I’m not sure there needs to be a uniform and inflexible standard. I don’t know if they have a standard but it doesn’t seem to me that it would be unreasonable to have one. Why not be context specific to some extent – even if you have a standard?

                > The anonymity was to go the other way, a search of “scott siskind” did not reveal the blog until the siskind haters took it upon themselves to spread his name around.

                >> Concerns of personal safety combined with the lack of newsworthiness of the actual legal name seems to be reasonable. What reasons did they have to withhold Virgil Texas’ real name?

                Any number of subjects could not want their names used out of concerns for personal safety. The problem is that an author would have to assess such claims, in context, along with the possibility that those claims are exaggerated and with the possibility that there are other motivating factors for the subject to not want their name used.

                > A dubious assessment, considering the lengths to which they went to misrepresent the subject of the article.

                Yah, I don’t know how you determine with such confidence, intent. Maybe I’m just not a very good mind-reader.

                > Thats an uncharitable and leading question.

                If I were a psychiatrist I would certainly give long and hard thought before becoming heavily involved anonymously in a widely read blog where there were a lot of controversial issues being discussed. I would consider that as a fundamental responsibility on my part. A lot of people clearly knew who “Scott Alexander” was. If he was taking his anonymity so seriously out of a concern for his patients, he was taking a huge risk that no one would have come forward. That’s his right to do, but he knowingly took a risk and I don’t see him as some kind of innocent victim here.

                Further, if I were a patient of his, I”m not exactly sure how I’d feel about him hiding from me the fact that he was heavily involved in a community where a lot of controversial issues were being discussed.

                > Not really.

                OK. So – not much to discuss there as you’ve decided what is and isn’t arguable.

                > They had months to work on this, and the article itself became a bigger story than the subject of the article. If NYT is so incompetent as to print a shoddy article under these circumstances, its doubtful that the rest of their reporting is even as credible as this debacle.

                I suggest that your priors are coming into play here. That’s ok, so are mine. One of my priors is that I expect a certain degree of error in any reporting, whether it be the NYTimes or anywhere else.

            • Phil says:

              somebody,
              I think Siskind is a better and clearer thinker than you think he is. For instance, although you’re quite correct about the reason the 100,000 figure wasn’t higher, that is pretty much unrelated to Siskind’s point. If you replace 500,000 with 500,000 and scale all of the other numbers up by a factor of 5, his discussion still works: how to think about N deaths depends on the context in which you think about that number. You may be right that he could have made the same point in fewer words — although that may not be as easy as you think — but I think his point is fair, and although it’s not extremely insightful there is at least some insight there. His examples are well chosen.

              You may well have read more SSC articles than I have, but many of the ones I read were, I thought, good examples of rational thought. I think he’s especially good at explaining why he weights different sources of evidence the way he does. I don’t always agree with him, indeed I fairly often disagree, but I admire the way he lays out his thinking; I wish journal authors would follow his lead. Relatedly, to circle back to your first point: when someone gives his estimates as “25%” and “75%” and so on, you already know he’s not claiming precision. But I think it’s way better to give those numbers than to say just “probably not” and “very probably” or whatever. He has thought about where he stands and he’s telling us, I really don’t see anything to criticize about that.

              Joshua,
              I’m not sure how I feel about Siskind’s name being published by the Times. I wish I understood more about why the author and editor felt it was necessary. Actually I certainly have no objection to them doing it now, in the piece just written, but back when the article was first contemplated I think Siskind is probably right when he says it would have had a negative impact on him, and I don’t see why his real name was important to the story, so my inclination is to say it would have been bad for the Times to publish it. But I may be missing something, maybe there would have been a good reason for them to do so.

              The fact that it was possible to find the real name of the author of SSC by searching on “Scott Alexander” is not the relevant one, I think. The relevant question is whether you would find Slate Star Codex by searching for “Scott Siskind.” The answer is definitely have been Yes after the NYT published an article linking the two. As I said above, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing, but I’m not sure it’s a good thing either. I’d like to hear from the reporter.

              You say: “Why shouldn’t Suskind assume responsibility for what he chose to be associated with, particularly since his name was easily discovered? Does he deserve some kind of special dispensation for being careless? Why would he?” Yeah, I dunno. The Federalist Papers were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay and were immensely important in convincing people to ratify the Constitution…and they were all published anonymously (or rather pseudonymously). Publishing that way allows a person to write honestly when doing so under their own name would be problematic in some way, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re saying something abhorrent. In Siskind’s case, he didn’t use a heavy hand when moderating his blog comments, and I’m sure he wouldn’t want some of his commenters’ beliefs to be ascribed to him…which they quite possibly would be. Indeed, if you do some online searching you will see that this is happening right this second.

              I agree with you that the NYT article is not a ‘hit piece’, I just think it’s biased and misleading. To give an example, the Times piece says “the ideas they [the commenters on SSC] exchanged were often controversial — connected to gender, race and inherent ability, for example — and voices who might push back were kept at bay.” I have to confess to reading only a small fraction of the comments, in the times I read the blog, but this didn’t seem right from what I have seen of the blog. So I just picked an article that seemed likely to generate comments in both directions, if such comments were allowed on the blog — https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/11/25/race-and-justice-much-more-than-you-wanted-to-know/ — and there are, in fact, comments that ‘push back’ on the ‘controversial’ statements of other commenters. The claim that such voices were “kept at bay” is just wrong. You say that the assertion that the blog is mischaracterized is “arguable” but I don’t see the argument: the NYT article says something that is factually incorrect. And it’s not a trivial fact, either.

              • somebody says:

                > For instance, although you’re quite correct about the reason the 100,000 figure wasn’t higher, that is pretty much unrelated to Siskind’s point. If you replace 500,000 with 500,000 and scale all of the other numbers up by a factor of 5, his discussion still works: how to think about N deaths depends on the context in which you think about that number.

                I don’t think the discussion was just about contextualizing numbers or the exchangeability of lives. It’s also about policy.

                > Well, on the one hand, it’s about 15% as many Americans as die from heart attacks each year. If 15% more people died from heart attacks in the US next year, that would suck, but most people wouldn’t care that much. If some scientist has a plan to make heart attacks 15% less deadly, then sure, fund the scientist, but you probably wouldn’t want to shut down the entire US economy to fund them.

                Regardless of the numbers or the topic, this analogy doesn’t make any sense. 15% of heart attacks is the number of deaths that would be stopped by the intervention, while 100K is the number of deaths NOT stopped by the intervention. This analogy is completely backwards.

                > Suppose you reopened the economy tomorrow. You tried as hard as you could to put profits above people, squeezed every extra dollar out of the world regardless of human cost. And then you put a 1% tax on all that economic activity, and donated it to effective charity. Would that save more people than a strict lockdown? If a lockdown costs $5 trillion, then the 1% tax would make $50 billion. That’s about how much the Gates Foundation has spent, and they’ve saved about ten million lives. Ten million is higher than anyone expects US coronavirus deaths to be, so as far as I can tell this is a good deal.

                > Is spending resources on the coronavirus lockdown a good idea? A good idea compared to what? Compared to using resources efficiently, goodness no, not at all.

                Again, this is about policy, not just philosophical framing. He made a specific claim, that the coronavirus lockdown is not a good idea “compared to using resources efficiently.” But his imagined rational world would be a horribly inefficient mess. There’s no such thing as “reopened the economy tomorrow.” You can’t stop people from locking themselves down, which they did, You can’t ignore the effect on economic output of workers dropping dead and bodies in the streets, like there were in NYC. You can’t ignore the complete shutdown of the entire healthcare system, which is certain to happen if we “tried as hard as you could to put profits above people, squeezed every extra dollar out of the world regardless of human cost.” He frames the discussion as a philosophical quandary where the rational thing to do in a utilitarian moral calculus is morally abhorrent on its face, but his choice is actually between the failures we actually made and a utilitarian disaster where everyone who requires hospitalization for 6 months dies.

                I don’t really care if he’s a racist or a conservative or a liberal or a cuck or whatever. It just annoys me that he presents this hot nonsense as rational thinking.

              • Joshua says:

                Phil –

                I think the point is that a reporter has to decide on a general policy, about what to do if they’re writing a story and the subject of the story asks to remain anonymous – or have some other editorial power over the content of the story. I don’t think I’m in a position to judge what a reporter’s policy should be on how to handle that in different circumstances.

                That doesn’t mean that I have a problem with people wanting to remain anonymous when they write something. But then again, if someone writes something and they want to remain anonymous, then it’s still on them to deal with the consequences if their anonymity falls apart.

                But a journalist writing a story about someone is a whole different context from someone choosing to write something anonymously – so I don’t recall get the connection to the Federalist Papers.

                I don’t know that the issue is whether Siskind’s name was critical to the story, but whether the author of the story felt that the subject of his story should determine whether the name was used or not. At that point it becomes relevant as to what the reason is why Siskind wanted to not have his name associated with his blog. If it is because his blog had become a kind of symbol for people like Thiel? If so, is that a reason not to put his name in the story? How does the author judge?

                As for the “kept at bay” part of the Times piece, and there were others such as the guilt by association to Charles Murray, I don’t disagee that there were non trivial parts that were misleading. But my feeling was not that on the whole, the article mischaracterized the blog on the whole. For example, it mentioned an usually wide range of voices, and unusually civil tone, of Siskind asking commenters to tone it down. That’s not an excuse for the inaccuracies. I just wasn’t thinking, after reading the article, the author must have been talking about a different Slate Star Codex blog than the one I had read.

              • Phil says:

                somebody,
                Of course you’re welcome to dislike Slate Star Codex and/or Scott, who does indeed get things wrong sometimes. I forget on which threads I’ve already said that I think he gets things wrong and that I disagree with him on a fair number of things, so apologies if I’ve already said that but here it is again. I think SSC is very good in spite of its flaws, but of course you’re more than welcome to disagree.

                Joshua,
                I’m not sure a reporter has to decide on a general policy about whether to give an ‘anonymous’ author’s real name, perhaps they could decide it case-by-case. Or maybe they do need a general policy and I’m foolish to suggest that they don’t. I really don’t know.

                My point with the Federalist Papers is just that people sometimes have good reasons for not wanting their names to be associated with what they’ve written, perhaps a point I could have made in some better way that doesn’t seem like a non sequitur. I think some people (not necessarily you) think that Scott didn’t use his real name because he was saying awful things, which is indeed a common phenomenon on the Internet. And he does have some posts that…eh, I might have this wrong, but I think he even has a blog category “things I will someday regret writing” or something like that.

                You say “At that point it becomes relevant as to what the reason is why Siskind wanted to not have his name associated with his blog. If it is because his blog had become a kind of symbol for people like Thiel? If so, is that a reason not to put his name in the story? How does the author judge?” I’m not sure if these are rhetorical questions or not. I’ll treat them as genuine questions, to which I do not have the answer, of course. I’m not sure we can trust Scott on this, but he has offered an answer:

                I have a lot of reasons for staying pseudonymous. First, I’m a psychiatrist, and psychiatrists are kind of obsessive about preventing their patients from knowing anything about who they are outside of work. You can read more about this in this Scientific American article – and remember that the last psychiatrist blogger to get doxxed abandoned his blog too. I am not one of the big sticklers on this, but I’m more of a stickler than “let the New York Times tell my patients where they can find my personal blog”. I think it’s plausible that if I became a national news figure under my real name, my patients – who run the gamut from far-left to far-right – wouldn’t be able to engage with me in a normal therapeutic way. I also worry that my clinic would decide I am more of a liability than an asset and let me go, which would leave hundreds of patients in a dangerous situation as we tried to transition their care.

                The second reason is more prosaic: some people want to kill me or ruin my life, and I would prefer not to make it too easy. I’ve received various death threats. I had someone on an anti-psychiatry subreddit put out a bounty for any information that could take me down (the mods deleted the post quickly, which I am grateful for). I’ve had dissatisfied blog readers call my work pretending to be dissatisfied patients in order to get me fired. And I recently learned that someone on SSC got SWATted in a way that they link to using their real name on the blog. I live with ten housemates including a three-year-old and an infant, and I would prefer this not happen to me or to them. Although I realize I accept some risk of this just by writing a blog with imperfect anonymity, getting doxxed on national news would take it to another level.

                I’m not sure I really believe that second one, since (supposedly) if you wanted to find the real name of “Scott Alexander” that was easy to do. But anyway that’s what he said.

                Moving on: you are the second person who has told me the description of SSC in the NYT piece didn’t seem too far off the mark, whereas I (and quote a few other people) think the NYT piece makes the blog sound approximately like something Steve Sailer would write, or at least a place people like him dominate the discussion. I do think there are some unfortunate (and unfair) inaccuracies in the piece, but perhaps the main thing we are discovering is that different people can read the same article and get different impressions from it, which is hardly news.

              • Joshua says:

                Phil –

                I did read Scott’s take on the problems of having his name associated with his blog.

                I had a couple of thoughts on it. One was that yeah, it would suck if people were materially harmed by having his name put out there but, again, that’s really on him, imo, not the reporter. He knew that risk when he started writing the blog. That doesn’t meant the Times reporter should just say “Well, you should have thought it that earlier.” but just that I think it’s kind of weak for Siskind to make it like it’s the reporter’s responsibility. I think the whole “doxxing” frame is slanted that way.

                Another thought I had was that I’ve always looked somewhat askance at the view that some psychiatrists take towards the practice of keeping anything personal about themselves from their clients. I kind of like, from an intellectual angle, the notion of using counter-transference as part of the therapeutic bag of tricks. I’ve always wondered whether putting up a supposed wall was kind of play acting, and limiting in the end. As a teacher I’ve always had a similar skepticism about the supposed wisdom of teachers not divulging anything personal to students. I think personal disclosure can be a useful tool. But I don’t doubt that there is reasonable disagreement there and a potential for harm and the precautionary principle would apply for Siskind’s situation. I guess I just instinctively push back against Siskind on that, as a kind of anti-hietarchical reflex. Kind of like when a doctor or professor calls people by first name but expects the formal address of Dr. or Professor. That annoys me and in a way I guess I make an association there, that the practice of not divulging anything personal is a bit of an (ironic in this case) concession to “credentialism.”

          • anon says:

            Maybe the reason you think he “did an excellent job” is precisely that you are a dilettante too.

        • elin says:

          If you read the comments regularly this is not be a surprise.

    • bjs12 says:

      “bog standard conservative”? He is a Democrat who voted for Elizabeth Warren. I suppose that is something a conservative could do, but not likely a “bog standard” one. Ironically, Scott has written before about how conservatives think he’s liberal and liberals think he’s conservative.

      “particularly impressed with his own intellect”? This is unfair and unkind. Scott consistently qualifies his thought processes and conclusions with uncertainty. Given the state of most writing, perhaps you are unfamiliar with what it looks like when someone uses their (limited) intellect to think and seek truth rather than just shout red-tribe/blue-tribe.

    • Rick G says:

      Scott is without a doubt one of the most intellectually honest and epistemically charitable (and charitable in the traditional sense) writers alive today. This opinion is held by many people I know and respect from across the political spectrum. But the low quality of what passes for political commentary today in big media outlets leads people to believe he is a bog standard X (where X is something they don’t like). And he definitely gets criticism from all anti-X, for all X, which really just means he thinks clearly and writes openly and honestly about interesting ideas.

      This is a guy who wrote an entire FAQ, dozens of pages, about why reactionaries are wrong, but is now getting guff for people who think he is a reactionary, just because he had the temerity to propose that some canon anti-reactionary views could be factually suspect.

      It’s a great blog.

      • Clyde Schechter says:

        Couldn’t agree more. SSC was one of the best websites around. Yes, the posts were long, but in terms of value for time invested, it had few peers.

        Fortunately, Astral Codex Ten is off to a great start and looks like it will be just as good as the original.

        • morris39 says:

          Agree with your assessment except for brevity. Scott seemed too verbose. I mostly skimmed and backtracked if something interesting popped up. There was too much repetition of the same point.
          If you want to convey an argument/idea this is what works for me. Introduce the idea; elucidate; summarize and conclude. If the presented theme consists of a number of ideas, clearly state the links.

    • Phil says:

      I looked at a couple of those — had to type those long links in by hand! Poor me! — but I don’t know what I’m looking for. Can you direct me to something specific?

      Also, maybe I need to mention that just because I think Siskind writes a great blog doesn’t mean I think he’s always right or agree with everything he says; in fact I think he is sometimes wrong and I disagree with some things he says. If you’re just trying to convince me that Siskind has opinions or beliefs that differ from mine, you don’t really need to convince me, I already know this. But I assume you’re writing for other people too.

      • Joshua says:

        Phil –

        Here’s another article you might want to read.

        https://www.newyorker.com/culture/annals-of-inquiry/slate-star-codex-and-silicon-valleys-war-against-the-media

        I linked above to a blogging heads TV video (I listened to it as a podcast on “The Wright Show” when I was working out) where, I think, a good argument is made as to why (1) the NYTimes piece wasn’t a “hit piece” even if there were legit critixcism and (2) there’s a good faith critique (By Will Wilkinson) of Siskind’s (over)reaction to the article.

        I’d be curious to read your response if you find the time.

        • Joshua says:

          Phil –

          I’d be particularly interested to read whether you have any second thoughts if you listen to that podcast (or perhaps even read the New Yorker article) about this following comment of yours:

          > but given the internal politics at the NYT that have been exposed over the past year or so I think it’s more likely that the reporter, Metz, did it on purpose.

          I think that both make a pretty good argument as to why your argument there is rather implausible.

        • Phil says:

          That New Yorker article is really good; it certainly conveys a more accurate impression of the SSC blog than the NYT article does. I think both articles could have done better simply by quoting some long sections of some blog posts, but perhaps there are copyright reasons for not doing so. But the New Yorker article lost me at the very end when it made it sound like people defending “Scott Alexander” are either fanboys or people with money at stake. I am neither, and until reading the NYT article and now the New Yorker article I knew nothing about SSC being a symbol or major player in any kind of movement. You can take my blog post here at face value: I like the blog, especially the way Scott explains his reasoning and his uncertainties, and I think the NYT article does not accurately portray it. Other than that I know nothing about any of this stuff.

          Joshua and dl, I feel like this is getting very meta: how do I feel about a podcast about Siskind’s response to the NYT article about the people who comment on Siskind’s blog. Perhaps then someone can write about how Phil Price feels about a podcast about Siskind’s response to the NYT article about people who comment on Siskind’s blog, and then someone else can write about that, and so on ad infinitum. But we have already reached the ‘ad nauseum’ stage.

          All I’ll say is that if you want to get an impression of what Slate Star Codex is like, the best way is to read some posts on Slate Star Codex. I’m certainly not averse to reading, or listening to, someone else’s thoughts about it — maybe they’ll have some insights that you will appreciate — but if you spend more time letting other people tell you how you should feel about the blog than you do actually reading it, I think you’re making a big mistake. Everyone who reads this blog — meaning Andrew’s blog, the one we are all reading right now — is capable of reading SSC and forming their own opinions.

          To answer your question, Joshua: nothing in that New Yorker article changes my mind about anything significant related to SSC. I did not listen to the podcast. I don’t like podcasts, I find them very slow and inefficient and much prefer the written word. When I watch a podcast I do so at 1.25x. This is not to criticize in the least the many people who do like podcasts. I wish I liked podcasts! I wish I liked Terry Gross interviews! People enjoy them so much, and I wish I did too. But I don’t.

          • Joshua says:

            Phil –

            I’ve always liked SSC. I’ve always been gobsmacked by how productive and smart Siskind is, kind of the way that I’m blown away by Andrew. I have used SSC as a touchstone reference on a couple of issues, because I think he tends to have a pretty thorough analysis and while I don’t think he’s as bias free as he may think himself to be, on an overall scale I think he’s relatively even-handed and serious about at least attempting to hold himself accountable for his biases.

            I learned about the context of the kerfuffle from the podcast. And I think that Wilkinson has an interesting take. I sometimes like listening to one person interrogating another person’s views. And I’m not in a particular rush to reach some end point. I like the journey. Sure – sometimes I get bored and sometimes I get inpatient. So I fast forward.

            I never knew about SSC as some kind of symbol, nor did I know anything at all about the Rationalists. That’s why I liked first the Times piece, then the podcast, where I learned about the New Yorker article. I’m a but more informed as a result of the podcast. One drop in a vast emptiness. I can’t get the full picture just from reading Suskind’s take.

            My goal with none of this is to see an accurate portrayal of SCC. Your idea of looking to have other people tell me how to feel about him or his blog seems bizarre. There’s none of that going on.

            I’ve already read the blog a number of times. I have my opinion of it from that. I’m looking to place my impression in a larger context. I’m looking to see other people’s take on it. I’m looking to learn more about the context of the blog and Siskind that I couldn’t learn just from the blog itself. I like seeing Robert Wright’s take on it because I’m familiar with a lot of his views, as journalist for decades, and his take on what’s been happening with the Times lately.

            After listening to Wilkinson’s take, and after reading the New zYorelee piece, I’ve concluded that the “hit job” take, that Metz set out with some kind of anti-Suskind agenda, is pretty implausible. Although I don’t think it’s implausible that as the events unfolded, Metz came to want to convey something about Rationalists, and SSC’s role within thar group, end eventually about the way he was treated by that group after he told Siskindnhe was going to run the story without keeping him anonymous.

            • Phil says:

              Given our different takes on Metz’s article — with me thinking its representation of the blog is greatly at variance with the actual one (and much more negative) and you thinking it conveys approximately the right impression — perhaps it’s unsurprising that we have different assessments of Metz’s mindset. I don’t see how a fair-minded reporter could describe the blog that way, and, ipso facto, I don’t think Metz was fair-minded. You don’t see the description as biased, so you have no problem believing Metz was fair-minded. Given that two people (you included) have said they think the description is basically fine, I suppose I should recalibrate: sure, OK, maybe Metz was trying to describe the blog accurately and somehow the way he did it left it open to a far different interpretation (and, to most readers, a far more negative one). That’s possible.

            • conchis says:

              I think Will’s attempt to see things from the reporter’s perspective is valuable, and he makes a plausible (though far from watertight) argument for thinking Metz’ piece wasn’t necessarily motivated by malice. That said, (a) lack of malice doesn’t change the fact that the piece ended up as a combination of not-very-illuminating and in-important-respects-actively-misleading, (b) I think Will’s characterisation of Scott’s fears as crazy and irrational is rather unfair, and (c) he seems to me to end up defending an awkward position where NYT reporters are allowed to believe conspiracy theories but noone else is.

              NB: Would have commented at Will’s, but apparently only paid subscribers are allowed to comment there!!

              • Joshua says:

                Phil, cinchis –

                Another take. Also interesting, imo.

                https://www.slowboring.com/p/slate-star-codex

                Phil –

                Maybe what this boils town to, as you say, is the inevitable that you and I have different “priors” on SSC, so inevitably we’d have different takes on any given portrayal of hhe blog.

                But again, I wasn’t looking to the article for a portrayal of the blog or Siskind. I wasn’t concerned about the accuracy of the portrayal as a primary interest. I felt no real attachment to that aspect of the article. My primary focus was just to learn more and get more context – without assuming that context was objective.

                I guess I think that people expect too much from such pieces. I dunno, I get frustrated with the narrative that our media has become too shallow and biased because I don’t really have a view that it was anything other than that (I was raised in a home where my father read I.F. Stone on a weekly basis) , AND, I expect to have to discount whatever I read for some level of bias.

                conchis –

                I mostly agree – but I don’t get (c).

              • conchis says:

                re (c) Will seems to argue that it’s totally reasonable for Metz to infer from the fact that Scott values pseudonymity, that he’s hiding something really juicy (“something something racist something something sexist something something Peter Thiel”), but that it’s not at all reasonable for Scott and co to infer from a weak article that says “something something racist something something sexist something something Peter Thiel” that the NYT has it in for him. Whatever you think of the merits, this seems like a double standard to me.

              • Andrew says:

                Conchis:

                From Will’s post, I take the point that blogger Scott Alexander and reporter Cody Metz had different goals and perspectives. I don’t think it was out of line for Scott to get annoyed at Cody’s article. I’ve been in the news on occasion, and I like positive or neutral coverage but I don’t like negative coverage. When I see negative coverage, I get angry, especially when I see it as unfair (for example here). I also agree with Will that we can visualize a sequence of events that spun out as it did, without Cody every trying to harm Scott. As I’ve discussed with Phil, I liked many of Scott’s posts, but I wasn’t particularly interested in his stuff about red and blue tribes. Just as some readers like my posts about statistics but don’t like the posts about politics. And for others it’s the reverse. As I guess must be the case with Scott too. To the extent that Cody’s article was about Scott’s blog, it’s too bad it focused on what were to me the least interesting content of the blog. On the other hand, to the extent that Cody’s article is about the Thiel nexus on social media, using Scott’s blog as starting point . . . for that, I can see why they focus on Scott’s less interesting (to me) political posts.

                Regarding Will’s blog only allowing paid commenters: One of the many reasons I’m grateful for Columbia University is that they pay me enough that I feel comfortable blogging completely for free.

  13. Phil, thanks for pointing to Scott Alexander’s blog. It was a real revelation. I started out by clicking on the link to the Vitamin study, but the review attracted my attention, and I read the whole thing (it felt like reading a New Yorker article, one of the long ones). What an amazing blog, never seen anything like this before.

    His thoughts on schooling and its mind-numbing effects especially resonated with me.

    • Phil says:

      I’m glad you appreciated it. I think Suskind is great at explaining why he believes what he believes, and pointing out what parts of his rationale he is sure of and what parts he’s unsure about. The Vitamin D story that I linked is a good example, but there are many other good examples. But: I don’t want my endorsement of this particular blog post to be taken as meaning I think he’s right about everything. I think he gets stuff wrong sometimes.

      • bjs12 says:

        He continues to write as Scott Alexander, even though he has published his real name. His copyright statement and his comments in the comment-section of his blog also say Scott Alexander. I think you should follow his lead and do the same. (I can’t (quickly) find a way to write that without it seeming passive-aggressive. I don’t mean it that way. I’m just saying :)

  14. JDK says:

    https://www.amjmed.com/article/S0002-9343(15)00509-4/fulltext#sec7
    https://khn.org/news/how-michael-holick-sold-america-on-vitamin-d-and-profited/

    These are two very interesting links regarding Vitamin D and how our current recommendations have been influenced by the vitamin d lobbyists. Testing is problematic, recommended levels benefit the supplement industry but not so much the consumer and the optimal level for health is far from straightforward. Bottom line – get your vitamins from food and in this case responsible sun exposure.

    • Phil says:

      Thanks for those links.

      Unfortunately I already discarded my draft blog post, which was the only place I had kept a record of another paper related to Vitamin D that I would add to this short list. That paper looked at where the recommended level for Vitamin D (in blood) came from, and found that…well, it’s sort of a long story, but in essence: it was (according to the paper) set so that, if everybody had that amount, nearly nobody would have insufficient Vitamin D. But (again, according to the paper) there appears to be a lot of interpersonal variation in how much Vitamin D people need, so if everybody is at that level or above, most people have far, far more Vitamin D than they need. And that’s fine as far as it goes, but somehow the nuance here was not properly understood by most physicians, with the result that people whose level is below that amount are labeled “Vitamin D – deficient”; thus many people whose Vitamin D levels are perfectly adequate or even high are labeled “deficient.” If that really is the situation, it’s sort of interesting and difficult to figure out what the right messaging actually is: given the difficulty or impossibility of knowing how much Vitamin D a given person needs, it does make sense to recommend that their level should be kept high enough to be sure they’re definitely getting enough, but at the same time it seems wrong to say that X% of the population is deficient in Vitamin D if the real number is more like 0.2*X%.

  15. Jon says:

    The Nytimes article was more about the readers and their view of the blog than Siskind or the blog itself.

    Most of the critics take the article’s quotes out of context to attack it. They quote the statement about Siskind agreeing with Charles Murray, but conveniently leave out the articles description of Siskind repudiating neo-reactionaries.

    It appears the only thing that would satisfy the critics would be unmitigated praise of the blog and Siskind.

    • Phil says:

      I’m not sure where you get that “unmitigated praise” thing, especially about Siskind. I think the article gives NYT readers the impression that the blog did not allow comments by “social justice warriors”: it says “the ideas they [the commenters on SSC] exchanged were often controversial — connected to gender, race and inherent ability, for example — and voices who might push back were kept at bay.” But this is not true, there is plenty of push-back. It’s just wrong.

      It appears the only thing that would satisfy the critics would be factually accurate reporting.

      • Jon says:

        The fact that the article states “
        represented a wide cross-section of viewpoints. “They range politically from communist to anarcho-capitalist, religiously from Catholic to atheist”

        Seems to refute your point. It says that “social justice warriors” “struggled to be heard” , which makes it unclear whether they were blocked, ignored, or criticized. Furthermore social justice warrior is often a pejorative description of someone who wants to shut down discussions. The article states they were viewed as a threat to free speech.

      • Jon says:

        Phil, also my read of the “kept at bay” was a description of discussions within a subgroup of the leadership of the tech community, not merely the blog itself. Also to me, “kept at bay” does not necessarily mean banned: it can mean not invited to certain forums, shunned, ignored, or made unwelcomed.

        None of this surprises me: people often don’t invite people from other tribes to their dinner parties.

  16. Rahul says:

    While I didn’t find the conclusions of Scott Alexander too compelling I love the format:

    i.e.

    Proposition: “25% chance this is true.”

    I wish papers and other commentary came with such clear summaries rather than all kinds of uninterpretable gobbledygook. Readers need to be told answers they care about. Priors and posteriors are not something a non-statistical lay reader wants to be told.

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