De-sneering my life

If I’m being honest, the most exciting recent development in my life is this: a little over a month ago, I stopped checking “SneerClub” (a place I’d previously resolved not even to name here, but I think an exception is warranted now). Permanently, cold turkey. I won’t even visit to read their sneers about this post. I’ve made progress cutting down on other self-destructive social media fixations as well. Many friends suggested this course to me, and I thank them all, though I ultimately had to follow my own path to the obvious.

Ironically, the SneerClubbers themselves begged me to stop reading them (!), so presumably for once they’ll be okay with something I did (but if not, I don’t care). If any of them still have something to say to me, they can come to this blog, or email me, or if they pass through Austin, set up a time to hash it out over chips and queso (my treat). What I’ll no longer do is spend hours every week binge-reading a forum of people who’ve adopted nastiness and bad faith as their explicit principles. I’ll no longer toss and turn at night wondering how it came about that two thousand Redditors hate Scott Aaronson so much, and what I could say or do (short of total self-abnegation) that would make them hate me less. I plan to spend the freed-up time being Scott Aaronson.

Resolving to ignore one particular online hate pit—and then sticking to the resolution, as so far I have—has been a pure, unmitigated improvement to my quality of life. If you don’t believe me, ask my wife and kids. I recommend this course to anyone.

You could sensibly ask: why did I ever spend time worrying about an anti-nerds-like-me forum that’s so poisonous for its targets and participants alike? After long introspection, I think the answer is: there’s a part of me, perhaps a gift from the childhood bullies, that’s so obsessed with “society’s hatred of STEM nerds,” that it constantly seeks out evidence to confirm that its fears are justified—evidence that it can then wave in front of the rest of my brain to say “you see?? what did I always tell you?” And alas, whenever that part of my brain seeks such evidence, the world dutifully supplies mountains of it. It’s never once disappointed.

Now the SneerClubbers—who are perceptive and talented in their cruelty, if in nothing else—notice this about me, and gleefully ridicule me for it. But they’re oblivious to the central irony: that unlike the vast majority of humankind, or even the vast majority of social justice activists, they (the SneerClubbers) really do hate everyone like me. They’re precisely what the paranoid part of my brain wrongly fears that everyone else I meet is secretly like. They’re like someone who lectures you about your hilariously overblown fear of muggers, while simultaneously mugging you.

But at least they’re not the contented and self-confident bullies of my childhood nightmares, kicking dirt down at nerds from atop their pinnacle of wokeness and social adeptness. If you spend enough time studying them, they themselves come across as angry, depressed, pathetic. So for example: here’s one of my most persistent attackers, popping up on a math thread commemorating Michael Atiyah (one of the great mathematicians of the 20th century), just to insult Atiyah—randomly, gratuitously, and a few days after Atiyah had died. Almost everything posted all over Reddit by this individual—who uses the accurate tagline “unpleasantly radical”—has the same flavor. Somehow seeing this made it click for me: wait a second, these are the folks are lecturing me about my self-centeredness and arrogance and terrible social skills? Like, at least I try to be nice.

Scott Alexander, who writes the world’s best blog and is a more central target of SneerClub than I’ve been, recently announced that he asked the moderators of r/ssc to close its notorious “Culture War” thread, and they’ve done so—moving the thread to a new home on Reddit called “TheMotte.”

For those who don’t know: r/ssc is the place on Reddit to discuss Scott’s SlateStarCodex blog, though Scott himself was never too involved as more than a figurehead.  The Culture War thread was the place within r/ssc to discuss race, gender, immigration, and other hot-button topics.  The thread, which filled up with a bewildering thousands of comments per week (!), attracted the, err … full range of political views, including leftists, libertarians, and moderates but also alt-righters, neoreactionaries, and white nationalists. Predictably, SneerClub treated the thread as a gift from heaven: a constant source of inflammatory material that they could use to smear Scott personally (even if most of the time, Scott hadn’t even seen the offending content, let alone endorsing it).

Four months ago, I was one of the apparently many friends who told Scott that I felt he should dissociate the Culture War thread from his brand. So I congratulate him on his decision, which (despite his eloquently-expressed misgivings) I feel confident was the right one. Think about it this way: nobody’s freedom of speech has been curtailed—the thread continues full steam at TheMotte, for anyone who enjoys it—but meanwhile, the sneerers have been deprived of a golden weapon with which to slime Scott. Meanwhile, while the sneerers themselves might never change their minds about anything, Scott has demonstrated to third parties that he’s open and reasonable and ready to compromise, like the debater who happily switches to his opponent’s terminology. What’s not to like?

A couple weeks ago, while in Albuquerque for the SQuInT conference, I visited the excellent National Museum of Nuclear Science and History.  It was depressing, as it should have been, to tour the detailed exhibits about the murderous events surrounding the birth of the nuclear era: the Holocaust, the Rape of Nanking, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was depressing in a different way to tour the exhibits about the early Atomic Age, and see the boundless optimism that ‘unleashing the power of the atom’ would finally usher in a near-utopia of space travel and clean energy—and then to compare that vision to where we are now, with climate change ravaging the planet and (in a world-historic irony) the people who care most about the environment having denounced and marginalized the most reliable source of carbon-free energy, the one that probably had the best chance to avert our planet’s terrifying future.

But on the bright side: how wonderful to have born into a time and place when, for the most part, those who hate you have only the power to destroy your life that you yourself grant them. How wonderful when one can blunt their knives by simply refusing to open a browser tab.

68 Responses to “De-sneering my life”

  1. David Says:

    Just a heads up: your penultimate paragraph is repeated.

    And anyone who spends a lot of their time sneering at others probably should seek psychiatric help.

  2. Scott Says:

    David #1: Thanks!! Fixed.

  3. MC Says:

    I’ve largely unplugged from social media for (some?) similar reasons, namely the generation of such sneeriness in myself and multitudes of others, and general addictiveness, two phenomena that I think are related. Life is a little less exciting, but in virtually every regard, it’s been a great improvement.

    the […] full range of political views, including leftists, libertarians, and moderates but also alt-righters, neoreactionaries, and white nationalists

    Ha. I’m reminded of Reverend Lovejoy listing the world’s religious as “Christian, Jew, or miscellaneous” (as Apu stands by). Though I don’t fully believe in a single political spectrum, I’m pretty sure there are a lot of such miscellaneous between moderates and alt-righters.

  4. Ewin Says:

    I’ve heard someone call the style of thinking that motivates seeking out cruel and disparaging comments “masochistic epistemology”: whatever hurts is true.

    Your reasons for reading SneerClub sound pretty similar; it’s kind of a uniquely modern problem, since only now, with the internet, can we find heaps of comments supporting any opinion we can think of.

  5. Sad anon Says:

    Scott, I am happy to hear your quality of life has improved!

    But I want to express a desperate plea, and I don’t know where to put it. Please, please somebody listen: the Culture War threads really were pretty bad. Scott Alexander is wrong – very wrong – when he says they were ideologically balanced. He, by his own admission, barely ever visited those threads!

    I’ve participated in those threads for over 2 years before becoming so bitter, so disillusioned, losing so much hope for the ideal of rational debate convincing people fairly, that I’ve started reading sneerclub as a cathartic break from the people I find in the culture war threads – the people who sound so calm and rational, who solemnly nod along to how online feminism is at times excessive, and then turn around and conclude “also ethnostates are a good idea and blacks are genetically inferior”. (Is it just a couple of bad actors? No, because they are heavily upvoted, and my counterarguments are downvoted.)

    I’ve lost a *lot* of respect for Scott Alexander when he refused to even notice they are bad. slatestarcodex was my favorite blog, and in some ways it still is, but I can no longer read it in the same light if I think that Scott Alexander looks at his fans, sees so many white nationalists, goes “yup, no problem here”. Then he posts misleading statistics about the subreddit membership (hint: if you filter the survey results to frequent commenters, they indicate the majority of them are rightwing, the opposite of Scott Alexander’s assertion).

    I’m not sure if I’m allowed to include links in your blog comments; I’d be happy to substantiate my claims with (for example) highly-upvoted Culture War comments advocating white nationalism, or highly-upvoted comments saying the Charlottesville murderer was right, or highly-upvoted comments saying the democrats’ endgame is to kill the “red tribe” (so the reds must attack preemptively), etc.

    As a practical matter, let me end with this. I started reading slatestarcodex following the “untitled” post, which at the time I thought was amazing. After I discovered the culture war threads, I’ve changed my priorities so drastically that I find reading sneerclub mostly cathartic. So if you like slatestarcodex and hate sneerclub, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, DON’T LINK PEOPLE TO THE CULTURE WAR THREADS.

  6. anone Says:

    You’re all still giving sneerclub way more credit than it deserves. If you take a large, heterogenous group and cherry pick the worst quotes you can find from them, while ignoring everything else, of course you’ll succeed in making them look bad. (They also delete comments from people who try to argue back).

    In the same spirit, here’s an exercise: click on the user pages of the moderators of /r/sneerclub, and sort by controversial. Then ask yourself if these people are so impressive that you care what they think .

  7. Scott Says:

    anone #6: Yes, it was precisely looking at the sneerclub mods’ post histories, including outside of sneerclub, and experiencing more pity than fear, that finally set me along the path to recovery. (Well, that together with a reflecting-upon-one’s-life aid that was perfectly legal where I was, though not yet in all 50 US states… 🙂 )

  8. anone Says:

    Oops, my bad, I skimmed past the Atiyah part.

    While we’re doing this: the other head mod’s STS shtick (science and technology studies) is pretty much just a front to reject the parts of science he doesn’t like. Some clear examples are here

    and here

    Of course there are interesting and important things to say about how bias influences science, but I get the sense that is not his real interest…

  9. Scott Says:

    Sad anon #5: No one denies that there existed reprehensible racist trolls in the Culture War thread—just like there exist racist trolls in (say) Reddit as a whole, or the comments on YouTube videos. While many people are understandably concerned about this, I haven’t yet heard anyone argue that the executives at Reddit and YouTube must secretly agree with racist comments if they fail to delete them. The question of whether the CW thread was “dominated” by trolls seems to come down to a complicated technical dispute about sampling methods (and of course, to the exact definition of “troll”).

    Have we as a society entirely lost the concept of providing a platform for just about anyone who upholds basic conversation norms to air their views, including shocking or offensive ones, and for those views to be critically examined? Has that concept been relegated to the Internet’s Jurassic era, when Usenet and Geocities and Lycos roamed the earth?

    I confess that I found the CW thread an unreadable mess—who could possibly have time to tackle 5000 comments per week, regardless of how they’re organized, and even if some “quality contributions” are called out? So I could never muster too much emotion about the existence of toxic comments there—in the same way that I might not be overly concerned about the presence of some radioactive waste in a giant, tottering scrap heap that I never felt much inclination to go near anyway.

    Motivated by sneerclub, though, I did spend some hours wading through the CW threads, to see for myself what the fuss was about. And I found something interesting, and this brings me to my most important point.

    Yes, there were noxious racist and misogynist and homophobic and other appalling comments. But if you scrolled down, as often as not you found those comments calmly argued against, sometimes gently mocked, rather than being shouted down and banned. So I thought to myself: how many places on the Internet still exist where you regularly see that? Might there not be some value in trying to preserve whichever ones are left?

    In the 30s, most decent and educated people reacted to the rise of Hitler by sneering at him, refusing to engage with anything he said, and no-platforming him. And that was a perfectly understandable strategy … but it didn’t work. Its failure led to one of the worst cataclysms in human history.

    In a less horrible but structurally similar case, many of my friends and colleagues reacted to the rise of Trump by ridiculing him, sharing memes about his “tiny hands” and orange countenance, no-platforming anybody who expressed support for him, and just generally treating Trump like the thuggish conman that he is, refusing to take him any more seriously than he takes himself. And once again the strategy failed.

    Given this godawful track record, maybe it’s worth giving the “sunlight is the best disinfectant” approach a shot instead?

  10. marxbro Says:

    “In the 30s, most decent and educated people reacted to the rise of Hitler by sneering at him, refusing to engage with anything he said, and no-platforming him. And that was a perfectly understandable strategy … but it didn’t work. Its failure led to one of the worst cataclysms in human history.”

    Given that the only strategy that worked against the Nazis was the Soviet’s all out assault on Germany, perhaps their strategy should be used more often?

    By the way, I notice you never provided any evidence of SneerClubs so-called “bad faith”. Perhaps you should engage with their opinions instead of throwing around ad hominems about how much you “pity” them.

  11. Mark Says:

    I read the culture war threads, think it’s a mixed bag in terms of quality, but I also appreciate the attempt to maintain a true open forum for discussion that I still see as leaning left. I’d rather have a world where right leaning and left leaning groups can talk to each other than resign ourselves to making everything an existential conflict.

    David Brooks recently wrote: “The problem with today’s left-wing and right-wing ideas is that they are both based on the fantasy that the other half of America can be conquered, and when it disappears we can get everything we want.” I hope the end to the culture wars comes not by violence or conquering the other side but slowly changing minds.

  12. Sad anon Says:

    Scott #9:

    You say you saw racist comments getting calmly argued against, sometimes gently mocked. I know; I was one of the ones doing so! For over 2 years I did exactly this: calm arguments, sometimes mockery, sometimes pointing out hypocrisy, sometimes writing heartfelt screeds.

    And you know what? We – me and a few others, the side of reason – *lost*. We lost that debate, because the racists outnumbered us and they have infinite time, infinite calm debate points about skull shapes, AND infinite gentle (and not so gentle) mocking, all at the same time. After a couple of years of this, I *gave up*. Not for lack of trying; not because I don’t believe in calm debate; not because I think giving them a platform is immoral; I lost fair and square. If you try to debate white nationalists who outnumber you, you will lose. I did not believe this before trying, but I believe it now. It was a major perspective shift for me.

    “Losing” in this way looked like (1) a bunch of other liberal users leaving because they have better things to do with their lives (you are one of those people with better things to do – I don’t blame you!), (2) being even more outnumbered, (3) having insults thrown at me (sometimes veiled, sometimes not-so-veiled), and (4) just giving up. I don’t know if I convinced anyone; I don’t know if anyone changed their minds. I know *I* changed my mind about the utility of calm debate with white nationalists.

    Do I blame Scott Alexander for providing them a platform? Not really. I blame him instead for *outright denying the culture war threads are biased*. To say they are not biased is to say that the mainstream opinion there was arrived at via solid rationalist reasoning. And the mainstream opinion there is race realism mixed with Trump apologia mixed with casual misogyny.

    Look, perhaps sneering at the alt right does not work. Perhaps making fun of Trump is counterproductive. I could be convinced of those positions. But there’s one thing that seems to me more obviously counterproductive: linking to a hive of alt-rightists while declaring them to be a utopia of rationalist reasoning.

    Imagine if a prominent blogger linked to an anti-climate-science blog which hosts ‘debates’ with scientists, and together with the link he said “look at the ideological diversity! Isn’t it wonderful we can still have debates between the two sides? What a utopian vision, people calmly and rationally debating the science,” while neglecting to mention the bias which leads these debates to always sway in one direction. Would that be appropriate?

  13. Mark Says:

    Sad anon, if you disagree with Scott Alexander’s characterization of the culture war threads, feel free to run your own experiments or measurements in looking at random comments or surveys of the forum. To my memory, surveys have shown a majority of the forum leans left and is anti-Trump. These are the political compass results for the forum:

    Your experience may be different than mine, I may avoid the subthreads that I think will have nothing of value

  14. Mark Says:

    Whoops, these are the full political compass results for anyone who cares.,-1%7C-5.44%7C,-3.38%7C-3.28%7C,-3%7C-2.67%7C,0.63%7C1.13%7C,-3.63%7C-4.77%7C,-5.25%7C-1.03%7C,5.63%7C-2.36%7C,-1.63%7C0.62%7C,-5.88%7C-1.74%7C,-7.75%7C-7.79%7C,5.5%7C-3.59%7C,-0.63%7C2.36%7C,4.3%7C3.5%7C,-2%7C-0.41%7C,-2.75%7C-6.62%7C,-4.13%7C-6.92%7C,-3.63%7C-3.23%7C,-0.25%7C-5.28%7C,-6.75%7C-6.21%7C

  15. Mark Says:

    My last comment was wrong, pasted the wrong link again. (delete?) For anyone who still cares, these are the political compass results from a survey of the forum:

    And the reddit discussion:

  16. Shmi Says:

    Congrats, Scott! That must have took a lot of soul searching and even more determination to make this step! Looking forward to you spending some more time writing blog posts. As good as the other Scott A. is, his perspective is different from yours, and your best posts are as good as his best posts, though maybe not as long. They don’t give pins for abstaining from emotional self-harm, but maybe you can mark being on the wagon some other way. Good luck!

  17. Scott Says:

    Shmi #15: Thanks so much; it means a lot! Yes, checking SneerClub was my analogue of shooting up with heroin or slitting one’s wrists. It feels good to be clean.

  18. Sad anon Says:

    Mark, there are several issues. One is that the uniform distribution over users is different than the distribution over users weighted by comment frequency. Another is that political compass is well-known for giving virtually everyone the same result (bottom left) – that’s a long time criticism of that quiz.

    Also, if I pick a random comment in the subreddit it doesn’t look so bad, because most comments talk about nothing. You need to somehow pick a random comment conditioned on that comment opining on race, or on Trump, or whatever else you want to test. As I mentioned, one of my issues was that the users *at first glance* seem like nuanced reasonable people, and it’s only when you dig a little deeper that the very same seemingly-nuanced people say “well maybe this white nationalism idea is good after all, at least that way the SJWs won’t kill us.”

    If links are allowed, here are some cherry-picked ones; I’ll ask you to please pay attention to the upvote counts of the comments and any counter-arguing replies.

    1. calm defense of literal 14-words white nationalism receives glowing praise and barely a counterargument:

    2. advocating the initiation of violence against the left because “your political outgroup actually wants to personally kill (or in some cases torture and enslave) you” (there are some counterarguments but they are outnumbered):

    3. If you’re looking strictly for methodological surveys, the best I have is a survey of the SSC comment threads on the main site (NOT the same thing as the subreddit; the subreddit is widely considered to the right of the SSC open threads). The analysis is here (right-wingers outnumber left-wingers once you filter by comment frequency):

  19. Pipsterate Says:

    Scott, I am a reader of your blog and admirer of your work, and I’m sorry to say this, but I’ve actually joined /r/sneerclub because I think they’re fundamentally right in their criticisms of SSC and its Culture War threads, and I think it’s dangerously naive to ignore those criticisms.

    In response to this paragraph from your comment #6:

    “No one denies that there existed reprehensible racist trolls in the Culture War thread—just like there exist racist trolls in (say) Reddit as a whole, or the comments on YouTube videos. While many people are understandably concerned about this, I haven’t yet heard anyone argue that the executives at Reddit and YouTube must secretly agree with racist comments if they fail to delete them.”

    This is something I have wondered about myself, and the answer I reached is: I would personally say that there is a difference between being a platform, and being a community, and I believe a community should be held to a higher standard. This is why I feel it is more important to criticize certain subreddits for the content they host, rather than reddit as a whole.

    I doubt I will change your mind about this. I won’t hold it against you if you find me unpersuasive or would prefer not to read my comments anymore.

  20. pylon Says:

    i carry no water for the sneer club but the idea that the culture war thread isn’t biased is spooky.

    why hasnt anyone been able to show how flagrantly one-sided the commentariat is?

  21. Tamás V Says:

    While I was reading this blog post, my only question was: How comes it took so long? But yeah, psychology is powerful. Some ground truths that may help others busy with fighting windmills:

    1. Human nature does not change. (More or less the same is true for individuals I think.)
    2. „Never argue with an idiot. They will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.“ (Not sure who said this.)
    3. „I don’t think one can truly prove anything in philosophy; I think one can merely try to convince, and probably one will wind up convincing only those people who started out fairly close to the position one is advocating.“ (D.R. Hofstadter)
    4. It’s not Trump, it’s the people.
    5. When people can freely elect their leaders, they end up with leaders they deserve. (No offense.)

  22. Testudines Says:

    My experience of the Culture War threads was largely the same as sad anons. It was an experience of being ground down by people who brought the same arguments to the table every week, citing the same studies, having all the same conversations about methodology and data, all while knowing that their viewpoint was one which advocated an ethnostate. Calling them out was forbidden, and could result in a ban. It was a form of the same epistemic masochism that you’re talking about, and while I never did change my mind about whether or not blacks were inferior, I did grow to hate going there and having to either get embroiled in another debate on the topic, or let those comments go by without saying anything. The distributions of upvotes and downvotes, which are hard not to read as a proxy for community support, did little to help any of that. So I left.

    And where did I end up? SneerClub. I hated the sneering and uncharitability, but here was finally a place that would call out a white nationalist as a white nationalist instead of tutting about how everyone is welcome and how it’s poor form to bring in prior comments on how race mixing should be illegal.

    (I personally think that Scott Alexander should have read more of the testimonials of leftists that left the thread, many of whom cited the same experience, and I definitely think that his methodology should have taken into account comment frequency, because that’s the determining factor in how many comments you see from each side. But because it’s reddit, you would also want to look at upvotes and downvotes, because those determine whether comments actually get seen.)

  23. Scott Says:

    Pipsterate #18, pylon #19, Testudines #21: Well look, I was one of the people who urged Scott to support removing the Culture War thread from r/SSC. And we succeeded.

    I don’t know the answer to the question of how biased the Culture War thread was—I didn’t spend nearly enough time on it to know how to reconcile Scott’s survey data with many people’s firsthand reports. I too would have zero interest in confronting the same people week after week, who were making the same tired and repetitive arguments for ethnostates. But is it possible that decent readers of the thread were subject to a version of the same mental tic that afflicted me—that is, they sought out the material that would outrage and depress them, scrolling past the much larger amount of innocuous material?

    In any case, I reasoned that the answer didn’t matter. Whatever positive value the Culture War thread had, it could retain that value once separated from Scott’s brand and cast adrift in the wide Internet—a place where arbitrarily shocking views have long been just a search query away. And if it were really true that the thread was mostly a viper pit of ethnic separatists—well then, of course Scott shouldn’t want that associated with his name.

  24. Pipsterate Says:

    About how the survey data doesn’t match the reports, I think there are two main explanations:

    1) A user’s self description of their political views doesn’t necessarily match their actual commenting and voting behavior. Even if only a minority openly identify as alt right, many more might quietly harbor alt right beliefs, or be unusually tolerant of alt righters

    2) There is a correlation between being further right and having a higher frequency of comments, as you can see described in more detail in the link below, which shows how the raw blog reader statistics don’t accurately represent the commenting community

    Another thing I’d like to mention is that the reason why I’ve lost a lot of respect for the other Scott is that he’s failed to thoroughly and honestly address these points, or do anything substantial to stop what I see as a dangerous and growing trend of far right, racist, sexist, and anti-LGBTQ beliefs. True, he moved the Culture War thread off of his own subreddit and onto another, but then not long after he said this:

    ” As a final middle-finger at the people who killed the Culture War thread, I’d like to advertise r/TheMotte, its new home, in the hopes that this whole debacle Streisand-Effects it to the stratosphere.”

    Which means he is trying to make this community larger, while at the same time, giving up on reining in its worst aspects at all, which seems like quite an unwise course of action, and I think it’s unlikely to have positive effects on anything other than his personal reputation.

  25. RedBeards#2 Says:

    I think this part of your post:

    “the sneerers have been deprived of a golden weapon with which to slime Scott”

    ignores a sizable contingent of recent Sneerers: former SSCers. This contingent mostly looks up to SSC’s Scott and very much wanted the CWT separated from the subreddit. They do not want to slime Scott. On the contrary, they would very much like Scott on their side, admitting that the CWT was as bad as they see it as being.

  26. Scott Says:

    RedBeards #24: Joining Sneerclub because you look up to Scott Alexander but want him to take a harder line against the Culture War thread, is a bit like joining the Taliban because you love America but want to see it do better on the issues of police brutality and healthcare. 🙂 Why not just write to Scott and tell him your arguments? He’s obviously responsive, as we’ve seen.

  27. fred Says:

    We should only spend a limited energy trying to convince strangers of anything – we can just put our thoughts out there, then move on. And maybe spend some energy answering questions of the audience which is genuinely interested/engaged by our opinions, and ignore all the rest.

    But the main way to improve the world is by working on ourselves, striving to become better humans, more compassionate, accepting of others shortcoming (no-one chose who they are!) and wiser, and through this improve the relations with those we are directly around us (family, coworkers, and strangers we meet in person). Changing the world by direct example, without expecting anything back.

  28. anone Says:

    There is a big difference between the commentariat and the moderators/old-guard of /r/sneerclub. The former are largely SSC refugees who left because they were fed up with the CW thread (as I did). They’re harshly critical of the Scott A’s but they don’t hate them. The latter are, in essence, trolls. They’re consistently arrogant, condescending and dishonest, and their winning trick is to gaslight people by feigning concern for them after they succeed in getting under your skin. And it bears repeating that they’ve been like this long before the CW thread existed.

    With that said, there are certain things I’d advise to stop doing as it just makes their hobby easier. Historical comparisons involving taliban/nazis are one of them. It sounds silly.

  29. Tamás V Says:

    fred #26: I wish there was an upvote button on this blog.

  30. matthew Says:

    If I really don’t want to visit a site again, I add an entry to my /etc/hosts file redirecting it to – it’s been more effective than I had ever hoped at breaking the habit of typing the urls that burst out of my fingers as if by sheer muscle memory alone, since I have to sudo to temporarily reverse my decision.

  31. Mr. Eldritch Says:

    I’m really glad to hear this! I have a similar habit myself of seeking out Stuff That Satisfies My Brain Goblins That Everything Is, Indeed, Terrible compulsively as a form of self-harm, and I’m happy that you’ve recognized the problem and have been able to move past it.

    Also, I think “Okay, so I *could* go read this internet argument that is going to be simultaneously a huge waste of time *and* is deliberately targeted towards making me angry, or I could perhaps *Not.*” is just a really valuable skill to have, and it’s one of the most important things I’m really glad I picked up from my time on 4chan.[1]

    Also, in the interests of Not Being A Dick To Scott, I would like to come clean about one thing. About … two years ago, now, I think, I left a comment on a post with a talk of yours that came out way more rude than I intended[2], and it seemed to make you really upset. I felt awful about it, and was going to write an email or comment to apologize, but then I realized “Wait, we’re both at UT, I can just look up his office hours and personally apologize, that would be way better and more proportionate.”

    …and then I kept putting it off, the same way I keep putting off every other kind of personal appointment, because they require complex social interactions like Actually Talking To People, and eventually it had taken long enough that I felt like it would be really weird and awkward to walk in and apologize for something you’d probably already forgotten about, and “Hey, you still haven’t apologized to Scott Aaronson” was probably just going to be one of those things that I’d remember every so often and eat at me.

    So I just want to say that I’m *still* really sorry for that. I’d just been thinking of the advice my Dad gave me for that, and had failed to recognize that what might have been OK in the context of “Trusted parent providing advice to kid where both know each other well and are comfortable with each other” would be *really not OK* in the “Pseudonymous Internet stranger criticizing someone who already gets a lot of shit” context.

    (I really, really hope this doesn’t backfire and cause you to feel shitty for having gotten angry. Please do not do that.)

    [1] It was also the *last* thing I picked up from my time on 4chan, because upon reaching enlightenment, I chose to follow my own advice and realize there was virtually nothing worth reading on 4chan.


    (We now return to your previously scheduled argument about Scott and the Culture War thread, already in progress.)

  32. JimV Says:

    One of the first blogs I got addicted to for a while was PZ Myers’ “Pharyngula”. I stopped reading it years ago because there was no moderation, and people were allowed to write “f___ you sideways with a rusty knife” to someone who disagreed with you (as to whether a comic video about Richard Dawkins was made by creationists–and it turned out the person being cursed for his opinion was correct).

    More recently, I stopped reading “Crooked Timber” because of the “always attack” strategy of some commenters. They started moderating comments there and perhaps things have gotten better.

    Currently I’m down to this blog and a few others. I have concluded that just as the unexamined life may not be worth living, the unmoderated comment section is not worth reading. Insults are not arguments, and no discussion is very fruitful without some respect on both sides.

    One of my grandmothers used to say, “if you can’t think of something nice to say, don’t say it.” I would modify that rule to “if you can’t think of a nice or at least non-insulting way to say something, don’t say it.” I am sure I don’t always live up to that rule myself, but I would like to.

    (Maybe some people lack mirror neurons though?)

  33. Jair Says:

    Out of all the sins a person could commit, insufficiently strict Reddit moderation seems pretty venial.

    Scott, you might consider using a site-blocker browser extension to block SneerClub. Ideally one that is difficult to disable, if there is such a thing.

  34. Scott Says:

    Jair #32:

      Out of all the sins a person could commit, insufficiently strict Reddit moderation seems pretty venial.

    My favorite comment of the thread so far!

    While I knew the term “venial sin,” I didn’t know the formal Catholic definition and found it fascinating. Yes, the constant imposition of “mortal” punishments for “venial” sins—indeed, harsher punishments than the law typically mandates for actual crimes like assault or theft—is one of the worst aspects of modern outrage culture.

  35. Don McKenzie Says:

    Yikes, that SneerClub seems spectacularly toxic. The I Ching — an oracle perhaps as abstract as those in your field — counsels us to avoid exposure to such influences. Like bird flu, they provide little illumination and lots of risk to ourselves and our sanity. And to carry the simile to absurdity, whatever evolutionary advantage they confer might be felt in our microflora, but certainly not in our hearts and minds. Thanks for the great blog.

  36. Fahik Ak Says:

    Scott, rhanks for alerting me to the existence of sneerclub. As a cis (?) fellow nerd I don’t normally learn about such things. Good stuff. They don’t seem that upset about your desneering and seem to be wishing you well. They also seem not that happy with the attention:
    “My recollection of what happened is that we were a few posts into a back and forth—we’d sneered at him, so he posted a thing about us, we linked to that thing, and so on. At some point he made the complaint that we spend so much time on him, and a few people made the point that we were only spending so much time on him because he kept talking about us. If he stopped stepping in to talk about us, ‘social justice’ topics, and so on, then we’d stop linking to his blog. Which he did stop, and then we stopped. (I did keep reading his blog tho, cuz he makes good compsci posts and the lack of nerd angst was refreshing.)

    And now, months later, he’s back. Who’s obsessed with whom, Dr. Aaronson?”

  37. marxbro Says:

    @Scott #33

    It’s seems particularly strange to compare SneerClub, a group who is just using their freedom of speech, to the Taliban, and then make the claim that they display the “worst aspects of outrage culture”. You seem to be the only one outraged here.

  38. Chrisjen Avasarala Says:

    Scott #0,

    >the people who care most about the environment having denounced and marginalized the most reliable source of carbon-free energy, the one that probably had the best chance to avert our planet’s terrifying future.

    I doubt that. Long story short: energy payback time is much better using solar energy.

    PS: congrats on the de-sneering part

  39. someone Says:

    @Matthew #29:

    Sounds like a great idea. Can you give more details on how to do that?

  40. Scott Says:

    Fahik #35: A Google search will show that the charge is factually false—sneerclub had a bunch of posts attacking me before I ever said anything about them here. (I’d go and find them now, but I don’t want to risk violating my policy, and also I need to run to give a talk.)

    More importantly, I’ve been completely open here about my unfortunate psychological tic of being obsessed with the people who hate me, and why they hate me, and what I could do to make them hate me less. And I’ve been working to overcome that obsession.

    I wish the sneerers could be equally open about their obsession with hating me (and Paul Graham and Scott Alexander and Steven Pinker and Eliezer Yudkowsky and Julia Galef etc.), out of all the problems in the world to which their energies might be devoted.

  41. darkar Says:

    This entire affair has me worried about the future of the rationalist movement, but comments like those of sad anon have made my fears particularly acute. I have been a casual reader of the CW threads and have been glad to see civil and rational discussion of a variety of ideas. I found many of these ideas objectionable, but it was heartening to see discussion norms where they could be argued on their merits without devolving into toxicity.

    What I think I failed to grasp, which may seem blindingly obvious but for whatever reason I didn’t realize until now, is that the arguments with white nationalists are not object-level disagreements about the science of genetics and intelligence but a fundamental value difference. If the project of epistemic rationality is to discover the truth of the world as it is and the response to that truth by some is what I and many others would call evil, what is our response? If ethnostates are in fact more stable and enjoy higher social trust, what should people who value stability over human dignity and egalitarianism do? What do you do when your values conflict with the values of others? It doesn’t seem like free speech and civil discussion norms are enough to solve this issue.

    I cannot stand SneerClub. I visited the subreddit once, left it in disgust, and only really thought about it with confusion and sadness that some people would choose to spend so much of their time and energy hating other people. Now I think I can at least understand the mindset, how someone who values diversity and dignity could become frustrated by the norms of many rationalist communities and their tolerance of values that simply _do not fit_ with liberalism.

    Is the only resolution to this issue ever-increasing tribalism? Must rationalist communities choose between moderating out the white nationalists or scaring away the liberals? Where does this end up?

  42. Scott Says:

    Chrisjen #37: While I’m far from an expert, my impression was that solar and wind are both absolutely part of the answer—but because they’re location-dependent and unreliable, and because storing the energy or sending it over very long distances is hard, you also need either fossil fuels or nuclear as a baseload. In the US, we use close to the least efficient imaginable reactor designs, because of a combination of proliferation concerns and bad early choices that got frozen in. Switching to a better design (like France’s, where they recycle the spent fuel), and incorporating recent technological advances, could dramatically lower the costs, while also reducing waste and improving safety as side benefits. But the public opposition scares politicians, while the mountains of bureaucracy (and high startup costs) scare investors.

  43. Chrisjen Avasarala Says:

    Scott #41: short story long, I would certainly agree if we were talking about what industrialized countries should do to reduce their own CO2 footprint: hydraulic everywhere we can, nuclear if hydraulic is not enough for baseload production, solar and wind for about 20-…% of the mix (the number depends on the available storage capacity), biomass and smart grids for the points (unless hydraulic is enough and cheaper). So, as you can see I used to share your prescriptions almost entirely.

    However, for the big picture of keeping control of AGW, the hardest part is not the industrialized countries. The hardest part is to compensate for the necessarly rising emissions of the poorest countries (about 80% of the effort we should do, unless I misread the IPCC last report). So, I doubt nuclear is the key because electricity is of little help for producing concrete, reducing iron ore, or for anything at all when the distribution network is shitty or non existent.

    Then, I tend to think that we need something new entirely, such as negative emissions from an industrial process that self-reproduce with minimal human intervention. In that case, what matters is not the initial cost, not the EROEI, not the rentability. It’s the EPBT, and that’s where solar energy beats them all.

    PS: #0 will attract some sneer-related trolls. Double congrats if you manage to ignore them all.

  44. SimonK Says:

    My first reaction to this blog post: What’s “sneerclub”? I had never heard of them before.

    Then I visit them. It just seems lacking in substance. They are commenting on some post by Scott Alexander – Scott’s post is well-written, coherent and thoughtful. Their responses–it is difficult to work out what they are even trying to say. Why am I wasting my time here? Close that browser tab, go do something more useful with my life.

  45. BBA Says:

    SneerClub is full of the worst kind of bullies: the kind that are sometimes right. Hurtful lies can be shrugged off; hurtful truths hit me hard. And the kind where you can’t tell whether they really believe it or are just saying it to hurt you, well… I can see why you found it so addictive. I do too.

    (I’ve posted there. I found it cathartic to join in when they went after someone who really deserved it. But I felt bad about it afterwards. Also the CW thread was a complete shitshow that had to go.)

    Ultimately I guess I’m the sort of person who, when I learned in Hebrew school about Hillel and Shammai, thought Shammai had the better argument (whatever is harder to do is more moral) and deep down still suspected it no matter how many times I was reassured that Hillel was right.

  46. Scott Says:

    BBA #44: Of course SneerClub is sometimes right. They’re right that Trump is a racist authoritarian, and that his supporters are OK with that. They’re right about 50 or 100 other left-wing values and beliefs.

    They’re wrong that a good way to act on those values and beliefs is verbally to abuse Scott Alexander and Eliezer Yudkowsky and Steven Pinker and Paul Graham and others, who could variously be described as centrists or center-leftists or classical liberals or moderate Democrats or libertarians or other positions that are hard to classify, but who share a desire to use reason to make the world better and to judge people by their ideas rather than by accidents of their birth.

    In fact, they’re so grievously, aggressively wrong about this that the suspicion arises that the desire to bully came first, and the “radical” politics only later. With the same personalities but a different political milieu, they could’ve been right-wing bullies instead.

  47. person Says:

    I was a fan of your policy of not naming the club. Why do so now?

  48. Michael Says:

    I agree with everyone else that the Culture Wars thread was toxic.
    Also, I agree that stopping reading the Sneer Club was the right move for you. Have you asked yourself how much of your looking at the Sneer Club posts was motivated by a need to reassure yourself that you’re not a terrible person? This website has a memorable description of a certain type of OCD rituals:
    “The rituals they perform amount to an avoidance of — or an attempt to escape from — the thought that they might be loathsome, unlovable human beings”.

  49. Scott Says:

    person #46: I’m naming them now, to explain why I can go back to not naming them. 😀

  50. Scott Says:

    Michael #47: Yes, I do have a compulsive need to reassure myself that I’m not a terrible person, combined with (I think) a science-derived intellectual honesty that causes me to search constantly for the strongest arguments to the contrary. That combo has caused problems for most of my life.

  51. Tamás V Says:

    Scott #49: Would it help to think of personality not as good or terrible, but as a superposition of many good and bad properties? Like a quantum system which is open enough such that the environment has a major impact on the evolution of its amplitudes. This way a likely conclusion is that you’re neither better nor worse than anybody else, so you can relax. E.g. I used to think I was a patient person… until my children were born. Now I know I am both patient and impatient. (As to what the exact amplitudes in this analogy would be without the effects of the environment, it’s just hopeless for me to figure out, however, we know that small babies all look innocent 🙂 )

  52. Scott Says:

    Tamás #50: It’s not possible to be “neither better nor worse than anybody else,” because Alan Turing was better than Hitler.

  53. Tamás V Says:

    Scott #51: Huh, the ultimate argument these days. What can I say? I surrender, you’re absolutely right.

  54. Jelmer Renema Says:

    @Scott 9: What historical evidence is there that people responded to Hitler by ‘sneering at him, refusing to engage with anything he said, and no-platforming him’?

    Yes, in certain upper class circles there was some sneering at his lower-middle-class background and Bavarian/Austrian heritage (we forget about this last point these days, but this last point was hugely important in a time when the last war between Catholic Bavaria and Protestant Prussia has just barely left living memory).

    But the crucial point is that these elites went along with him, since they (correctly) calculated that their goals were broadly aligned with his, and since he was smart enough not to assert direct control over the army (at least not until much later), which formed the nucleus of their self-image. That this was an alliance of convenience can be seen in 44-45, when things started going badly for Germany: the officer corps tried to replace him, not because they were against the war, but because they believed they could fight a better war. The ‘sin’ (if it is meaningful to talk of such things in this way) of the German Junkers was not that they called Hitler a Bavarian yokel behind his back, their sin was that they openly allied with him.

    As for no-platforming, the earliest reference to that concept I’ve been able to find is from 1973. Given that that source (quoted in Socialist Worker Review 86, April 1986, pp. 11–12) makes explicit reference to the experiences of pre-war Germany to justify the concept, it seems likely to me that this is a concept that was developed post-war.

  55. Scott Says:

    Tamás #52: On reflection, I should’ve interpreted your suggestion more charitably, e.g. “no better or worse than the great mass of humanity” (leaving aside the Turings far out on the right tail and the Hitlers far out on the left). I apologize for that. On the other hand, there’s also the view that that’s such a low moral bar that one really needs to aspire to the moral 1%. 🙂

  56. Tamás V Says:

    Scott #54: I guess it’s different in the U.S, but in my environment if Hitler’s name is thrown into the conversation the wisest one can do is to leave, unless one has speaking abilities comparable to that of politicians or lawyers. So now you know how to make me shut up if I ever ask you anything annoying about oracle separations 🙂 And no need to aspire, I safely bet you’re already fine.

  57. A.G.McDowell Says:

    Viewed from an experience of a N.Ireland grammar school in a rural area, reports of the US public education system appear very odd. Publicly funded school does not have to be that way. In rural N.Ireland in my time the saying that it was a lot easier to earn your living by lifting a pen than by lifting a spade had not completely died out. Both children and parents recognised that education was a ticket to success (and a ticket out of N.Ireland during the troubles). I don’t know if this is causal, but school sports does not receive anything like the same attention that it appears to receive in the US, and very sporty children typically also play sports in clubs outside school.

  58. Scott Says:

    Tamás #56: Well, we do live in such a dark time for the world that Mike Godwin himself said people should go ahead and use Hitler comparisons as far as he’s concerned…

  59. Tamás V Says:

    Scott #58: Wow, indeed, Godwin’s law was really true here. From Wikipedia: “[…] if an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Adolf Hitler or his deeds, the point at which effectively the discussion or thread often ends”.

  60. Candide III Says:

    Yes, I do have a compulsive need to reassure myself that I’m not a terrible person, combined with (I think) a science-derived intellectual honesty that causes me to search constantly for the strongest arguments to the contrary. That combo has caused problems for most of my life.

    This is not a new problem. I recommend you most earnestly this book: J.M. Cuddihy, Ordeal of Civility [Basic Books] (1974) Get it on LibGen if you want to try before you buy. I haven’t finished it yet, it needs more mental resources than I can muster for the purpose at the moment, but it is very good.

  61. fred Says:

    I’ve always been quite confused by the “That guy is a new Hitler!” analogy.

    First, “Hitler” just didn’t happen on his own, it took 70 million Germans (you can even say it took 416 million Europeans), it took the way the world worked circa 1930s – following WW1, the rise of communism and the fear it created (mainly in Germany and Japan), the great depressions, the way people accessed information and the level of education at the time, etc.
    Just think of what would happen if you dropped a person from 1930 in today’s world…
    And, at any given time, there are probably millions of people that can potentially be as “evil” as Hitler given the right circumstances (defining “evil” as hateful, confused, lacking compassion, etc).

    Ignoring all this is like giving Hitler some magical power, as if he’s some sort of crazy outlier, making the analogy even more meaningless.
    And if you really believe that history always repeats itself, you can avoid Godwin’s law by bringing up Genghis Khan – the Mongol invasions supposedly wiped out 5% of the world population, WW2 wiped out 3% of the world population, and that number is shared by many nations.

    Btw, there are also many ethnic genocides going on as we speak, but no-one on our side of the world seems to give a shit.

  62. Jon Says:

    I am more likely to participate in the SSC reddit discussions now that the culture war thread is gone and I appreciate the move.

    Years ago I too used to try to be the person calmly arguing against the worst things in there, but it was exhausting and the same arguments came up over and over. And then other liberals abandoned the thread and it just felt like arguing against a waterfall.

    Not to say there weren’t good-faith and productive discussions that one could find in there.

  63. Jon K. Says:

    #27, #51 Love the thoughts from Fred, and Tamas. #woke 🙂

    #58, 61
    On the topic of Godwin’s law, I agree with Scott that it is appropriate in many situations these days to make the analogy. Even if the reference is used hyperbolically, it could be seen as a cautionary cry, not just an incendiary attack.

    I also agree with Fred that WW2 arose from a systemic problem, not just a problem made by one (or a few) “evil” individuals… Maybe a thing to learn from history is how some kind of reprehensible culture of hate can creep up on a society in insidious ways. Sure there are problems all over the world (and throughout history) beyond Hitler that could be brought up, but ignorance may play a role in why they are not. But we as Americans (not to discriminate against non-U.S. bloggers) also have a pressing responsibility right now to at least act locally and prevent one of the leading democracies from devolving. If we can’t root out fascism and hatred in the U.S., and there is no stronger democracy in the world to fill that void, I think we could have another systemic problem on our hands.

  64. Sandro Says:

    Kudos Scott. I also recently resolved to curtail my participation in online debates which tend to suck up more time and emotional energy than is healthy.

    It’s hard resisting the urge to correct factual inaccuracies just because they often suck me into a long and drawn out exchange which rarely. The other compulsion is that I’ve derived so much good insight from some comments that I hope to contribute some meaningful insight back, but this rarely turns out well anymore.

  65. sohakes Says:

    It’s kinda funny. I’ve seen you, Elizer and the other Scott talking about the SneerClub affecting them. But you guys have a lot of people who like you, created some concepts that are used even outside of the rationalist bubble, and you still feel attracted to these kind of comments. Maybe you guys are good targets because you try to really listen to “other sides”, but it’s not useful in this situation.

    It’s impossible not to have some people hate you. Sometimes they can make one or another good point since everyone errs, but some people blow that up so it looks like it’s a fundamental flaw and that makes you a disgusting person. It’s good to listen to criticism (and it seems you guys love to do so), but only those who focus on the error, and not how it makes you a terrible person. The people from SneerClub focus on how you guys are terrible people, and pick your every action apart. It’s not useful to look at them.

    Contrapoints, another great rationalist I follow (ok, maybe not really, although I don’t think she is far from it) talk about some of this in her video about Incels I think we derive some sort of pleasure in seeing some hatred towards ourselves, too, specially if we believe in some of that deep down. She talks about her experience and how she stopped doing that. It’s a good video.

  66. Repentant Inadvertent Sneerer Says:

    Scott, I think I’ve accidentally caused you harm, and I want to apologize. On my old Reddit account, I was one of the 2000-or-so sneerers. This, however, never meant I hated you – on the contrary.

    I discovered your blog through the SSC article on feminist overreach. Ever since, you’ve been an inspiration to me as a fellow computer scientist and a fellow person (literally the only person I’m aware of who had been as terrified of sex and intimacy as I am, the uniqueness probably stemming from others’ lack of courage to write about it – it meant a lot), and I’ve found your behavior then and blog overall deeply empathetic. I only go into such detail as to emphasize how removed my opinion of you is from contempt.

    Why the sneer club, then? Being subscribed to r/ssc, I often read and occasionally commented on the culture war threads. I do not have an opinion on the statistical distribution of the posters’ ideologies. What I have an opinion on, and a strong one at that, it that being involved in the thread is a far different experience than watching it from afar. Seeing a comment of yours you find perfectly well-argued downvoted and a non-sequitur reply to it upvoted disturbs people – and independently of r/ssc, I was an anxious man then. (Of course, the sum of the absolute values of all the points in the discussion being less than 25 wasn’t as limiting a factor as it should’ve been.) Somehow eventually linked to r/sneerclub in the thread or elsewhere, and I subscribed – believing it to be a compendium of the worst things you could find in the thread, akin to SRS for Reddit as a whole. I wasn’t actively browsing it & I don’t remember if I commented on it – if I did, it was probably to correct someone.

    I had a bad experience on an unrelated national subreddit. Due to my political opinions and quite a lot of mutual enmity, I was commonly called out by certain subreddit denizens (even sent death threats via PM in two occasions). My method of struggle against that was similar as yours: obsessive re-checking of it which only deteriorated my mental health further. I stopped with all that, which was a good decision, and I hope you will think the same of yours. But it pains me to see I hurt you in a similar fashion. I’m not sure how many of the 2000 people on SneerClub were there mostly accidentally, like me. What I know is that I was, that that never meant I hated you even though that was a reasonable inference given the place I now see that is, and that I’m really sorry for inflating the number that caused you harm.

  67. Scott Says:

    RIS #66: Thanks so much—that means an enormous amount to me!

  68. arch1 Says:

    Scott, it made my day to read that such a good person as you is now free of so much needless suffering. I really hope that you keep it up (ok, this is partly selfish; I don’t want a future day ruined:-)