February 13, 2021 · 5 min read
Scott Alexander is my favorite blogger. I’d like to recommend him to more people, but it’s hard to know where to start, since he’s written over 1,500 posts. A little while ago a friend asked me to make a list of my favorite pieces of his. So, here is a beginner’s guide to the writings of Scott Alexander.
(I’ll refer to his “blog”, but there are really two: Slate Star Codex, which ran for over a decade and ended in 2020, and Astral Codex Ten, his new blog that launched this year. There’s lots of great stuff on the old one, but if you want to subscribe, be sure to subscribe to the new one.)
Like many great blogs, not any one thing: it’s the eclectic interests of a unique individual with a broad intellectual appetite.
Scott is a psychiatrist by profession, and some posts are about psychiatry, consciousness, and the brain. But he also writes about philosophy, politics, and science. He writes in-depth book reviews, some of which are arguably better than the book. And, as part of the “rationalist” community, he writes about epistemology: how to think and reason. (See also What is Astral Codex Ten?)
Scott writes with a rare combination of insight, humor, incisive clarity, relentless questioning, and (often) exhaustive data analysis. He asks big questions across a wide variety of domains and doesn’t rest until he has clear answers. No, he doesn’t rest until he can explain those answers to you lucidly. No, wait, he doesn’t rest until he can do that and also make you laugh out loud.
At his best, he hits some strange triple point, previously undiscovered by bloggers, where data, theory, and emotion can coexist in equilibrium. Most writing on topics as abstract and technical as his struggles just not to be dry; it takes effort to focus, and I need energy to read them. Scott’s writing flows so well that it somehow generates its own energy, like some sort of perpetual motion machine.
I like to think that I’m pretty good at writing. I’m good enough that I convinced myself to quit my day job and to write instead of coding or managing (which I’m actually qualified for and which can definitely make you more money). But I’m not nearly as good a writer as Scott.
This guide is organized by topic. In each category I’ve highlighted a few posts that stood out in my memory.
There isn’t any one place to start with Scott Alexander. Just pick a subject you’re interested in and start reading.
How to think, reason, and come closer to truth:
Beware The Man Of One Study. It’s easy to go wrong looking at a single scientific study.
Socratic Grilling. “One of the most important rationalist skills is ‘noticing your confusion’. But that depends on an even more important proto-skill of wanting things to make sense.”
How to have better discourse (and how to spot people who are arguing in bad faith):
Beware Isolated Demands For Rigor. On applying epistemological rigor in a biased way, demanding higher standards to justify ideas you don’t like.
All In All, Another Brick In The Motte. The “motte and bailey doctrine”, in which someone vacillates between a weak and strong version of their point in order to deflect attack.
Varieties Of Argumentative Experience. A way to categorize disagreements, from unproductive (“gotchas” and social shaming) to productive (“operationalizing” and good-faith surveys of evidence).
Against Bravery Debates. On “discussions over who is bravely holding a nonconformist position in the face of persecution, and who is a coward defending the popular status quo and trying to silence dissenters.”
More like meta-science, actually: the philosophy and practice of science.
The Control Group Is Out Of Control. The replication crisis in science; why science is hard; parapsychology as “the control group for science.”
5-HTTLPR: A Pointed Review. How an entire body of work in neuroscience went completely wrong. The co-authors of the paper that sparked this called it “better than the original paper…. simply nails every aspect of the issue.”
Book Review: The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions. Diving into the classic by Thomas Kuhn.
Book Review: The Seven Principles For Making Marriage Work. A critique of John Gottman and his claims about his marriage therapy techniques.
Book Review: All Therapy Books. General lampooning of therapy books.
Guyenet On Motivation. The structure of the brain’s decision-making apparatus.
It’s Bayes All The Way Up. How the brain uses something like a Bayesian structure to integrate new evidence with prior beliefs.
Book Review: Surfing Uncertainty. The concept of “predictive processing” and what it explains about the brain.
Is Science Slowing Down? A response to an economics paper claiming that “ideas are getting harder to find,” arguing that “constant progress in science in response to exponential increases in inputs ought to be our null hypothesis.”
Does Reality Drive Straight Lines On Graphs, Or Do Straight Lines On Graphs Drive Reality? The fact that a particular intervention didn’t change a trend, doesn’t mean the intervention wasn’t important in driving the trend.
1960: The Year The Singularity Was Cancelled. Reviewing a theory of why progress may have slowed down.
Were There Dark Ages? Defending the concept of the “Dark Ages” from a variety of attacks.
Book Review: Albion’s Seed. “I read it… on the advice of people who kept telling me it explains everything about America. And it sort of does.”
Book Review: Secular Cycles. “There is a tide in the affairs of men. It cycles with a period of about three hundred years…. At least this is the thesis of Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov, authors of Secular Cycles.”
California, Water You Doing? The first Scott Alexander post I ever read. A good example of how to analyze a politically charged issue and actually understand a current topic.
Guns And States. A level-headed, data-driven analysis of gun control.
Employer Provided Health Insurance Delenda Est “Any other system would fix these problems.… But here we are, stuck with a system that somehow manages to fail everybody for different reasons.”
Reverse Voxsplaining: Drugs vs. Chairs. A rebuttal to a Vox story claiming that free markets are responsible for the high preice of EpiPens.
Financial Incentives Are Weaker Than Social Incentives But Very Important Anyway. “When you remove financial incentives, you don’t get everyone acting ethically for the good of all. You just get status incentives with no counterbalance.”
A Failure, But Not Of Prediction. What exactly the media got wrong about covid.
Can Things Be Both Popular And Silenced? Untangling a paradox.
Sort By Controversial. A short story about an algorithm that outputs controversy-generating statements.
Is Everything A Religion? It’s easy to point at any philosophy or community and call it a “religion”; how seriously should we take this?
Black People Less Likely. If a group has low representation of blacks, can we infer that it is racist?
I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup. On political ingroups, outgroups, and “toleration”.
Kolmogorov Complicity And The Parable Of Lightning. Can controversial figures simply lay low when an oppressive power is against them?
Book Review: Against The Grain. “If, as Samuel Johnson claimed, ‘The Devil was the first Whig’, Against the Grain argues that wheat was the first High Modernist.”
Book Review: Reframing Superintelligence. On the long-term possibilities for and risks of AI.
Book Review: The Precipice. Analyzing risks that could cause the extinction of humanity.
Book Review: The Secret Of Our Success. On the concept of “cultural evolution”: can cultures evolve through natural selection, like species?
Some uncategorizable favorites:
The Parable Of The Talents. “Rabbi Zusya once said that when he died, he wasn’t worried that God would ask him ‘Why weren’t you Moses?’ or ‘Why weren’t you Solomon?’ But he did worry that God might ask ‘Why weren’t you Rabbi Zusya?’”
Lizardman’s Constant Is 4%. Don’t trust poll results showing that a small percent of people have crazy beliefs. This one is insightful and hilarious; I read a lot of it out loud to my brother over dinner one night and had a hard time keeping a straight face.
The Goddess of Everything Else. Fiction, bordering on poetry, about how animals and especially humanity can rise above the evolutionary war of all against all—and, even while seeking our own benefit, learn to cooperate and to thrive together.
These days I do most of my writing at The Roots of Progress. If you liked this essay, check out my other work there.
Copyright © Jason Crawford. Some rights reserved: CC BY-ND 4.0