Seems Like Targeting
Recently Claudine Gay resigned as President of Harvard over plagiarism accusations and a fumbled Congressional testimony on anti-Semitism.
The plagiarism was discovered by conservative journalists Chris Rufo and Chris Brunet. It would be quite a coincidence for them to find it at exactly the moment Gay was already under attack for her anti-Semitism testimony. More likely, they either:
Found it a while ago, and kept it in reserve for a time when Gay was in the news
Or were angry about Gay’s testimony, looked for dirt on her, and found it.
I think this is obvious to everyone, but I hadn’t seen anyone make it explicit, and I think it should be.
I’m not criticizing Rufo and Brunet. Investigative journalism is important, they found a real scandal, and they have every right to bring it to light.
But it’s the sort of thing that you can imagine having chilling effects. Imagine if, every time someone let their students/employees/whatever criticize Israel, journalists searched really hard for unrelated dirt on them. Assuming that many important people have skeletons in their closets (or can be believably accused of such in ways hard for them to disprove), that creates chilling effects against letting anyone criticize Israel. If you know investigative journalism is a weapon pointed against people who do X, that scares people out of doing X.
The latest chapter in the Claudine Gay saga is that Business Insider published an expose accusing Neri Oxman of plagiarism.
Neri Oxman was a Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at MIT, but nobody in history has ever cared about Media Arts and Sciences. Certainly they don’t care about it enough that plagiarism in a fifteen-year-old paper by a Professor of Media Arts and Sciences should be front-page news (though see here for claims that there were many worse things wrong with Oxman’s paper). Everyone understands that they’re going after Oxman because she’s the wife of Bill Ackman, the bigshot investor who led the crusade against Gay. The message is clear: go after an important Ivy League leader, and we’ll go after your family.
Compare to the hypothetical situation about Israel above. Investigative journalists have credibly signaled that if you go after their allies in academia, they’ll go after you and your loved ones - elevating fifteen-year-stale peccadillos by nobodies into front page news. Business Insider did investigate itself, and found no wrongdoing. But is it really normal to mention the name of the plagiarist’s husband four times in a plagiarism article?
I have a personal interest in this because of my experiences with effective altruism.
I can’t complain about the media coverage we got before 2023. The movement had lots of friends in the media, it was inherently sympathetic (give lots of money to charity!), and it had good pro-establishment credentials. Everyone was very nice to us. Sometimes it was kind of sickening - the endless drumbeat of praise for Will MacAskill’s summer-2022 book seemed excessive even by my standards.
Then, in the first few weeks of 2023, two hard-hitting pieces of investigative journalism came out against EA. One accused a prominent EA professor of sending a racist email 30 years ago. The other claimed there was a culture of sexist behavior, but mostly talked about vague community norms that had been the same forever. The clearest case of sexual assault it found happened ten years earlier, committed by a person who has long since left (and now vociferously opposes) the movement.
It might seem like a weird coincidence that - after years of unrelenting positive coverage - investigative journalists would take two 10+ year old cases and try to turn them into big scandals within three weeks of each other. But I’ll stop teasing you now - the obvious proximal cause was that FTX had just imploded, and suddenly people hated effective altruism.
After a few months, people were no longer as interested in FTX, and journalists stopped dredging up our dirty laundry and went back to harassing Professors of Media Arts and Science or whoever it is they usually harass.
As in the cases of Claudine Gay and Neri Oxman, the accusations against us were (mostly) true. But journalists had no interest in digging up the true accusations when we were popular. And they presented decades-old news as front-page bombshells as soon as we weren’t.
Okay, I’ll be honest, I have an even bigger personal interest in journalists targeting people, because I was told it absolutely never happens and I’m a screwed-up paranoiac for believing in it.
A few years ago, the New York Times wrote an article about me; when I publicly protested against it doxxing my real name, the tone of the incipient article went from positive (according to the journalist and the interviewees) to negative. I complained about this, and journalist Elizabeth Spiers told me that this doesn’t happen and I was proving my bad nature and the bad nature of my entire community by even suggesting it:
There’s a specific kind of misunderstanding that’s pervasive in tech, and it falls in this taxonomy of fallacies somewhere between the commentary/reporting confusion, and Uncle Chico. It is like the former in that it fails to understand processes and classifications that are integral to how journalism is done, and necessary, and it’s like the latter in the sense that it attributes personal qualities to journalists that both comically overstate the level of personal investment journalists have in the people they cover, and assumes that journalists are motivated by (maybe even primarily by) assorted flavors of malice.
The malicious journalist thesis is the one that was the hardest on my ocular muscles yesterday. Scott Alexander—the figure at the center of the piece—believes this . . . Only in a bubble as insular and tiny as the SSC community would this theory be even remotely plausible . . . [Journalists] do not sit around thinking about how they’re going to “get” people they write about, and when subjects think they do, it’s more a reflection of the subject’s self-perception (or self-importance) and, sometimes, a sprinkling of unadulterated narcissism.
And so on and so forth for another thirty-odd paragraphs listing all of my various psychological flaws.
I wonder if Spiers would be willing to write the same kind of essay for Neri Oxman. I worry Oxman is also starting to develop the kind of psychological flaws that make her think journalists sometimes target people out of malice. She could really use a pep talk to remind her how ridiculous that is!
If I were writing that essay, I would try to retreat to a less damning explanation: maybe the journalists are just trying to get clicks by writing negative things about stuff who people already hate and would like to see brought down a few notches. That would amply explain all three cases. Unfortunately, Spiers has already closed off that defense, calling the claim that journalists write things for clicks “everyone’s favorite fallacious rationale”.
I suppose one could retreat even further: journalists are only human, and like to join on pile-ons against unpopular things. This is certainly a little true, and inherently sympathetic - we are all only human. Still, this one scares me most of all.
It means that if people like you, and you’re doing well, then you can commit lots of mild misdeeds and journalists will never bother you. But if you become unpopular, or seem weird, or take a stand against something widely believed, then investigative journalists will dig up all your decades-old mistakes and ruin your reputation.
If I ran the world, I would want newspapers to do the opposite of that - comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, that kind of thing. I would want it to find dirt on people who were puffed up way too high riding the top of the popularity wave, and find reasons to defend and stand up for people who were vulnerable and getting piled on. Still, it seems like in real life people do the opposite. Again, I don’t think I’m discovering anything surprising here, I just want to make this explicit for people who have otherwise just sort of been noticing it on the fringes of their consciousness.
(in her criticism of me, Spiers accused me and my philosophy of “ignor[ing] the role of power”. I would throw this accusation back at her - it’s always easy to notice and critique power, except when you’re it.)
But also, I think this is the other half of a phenomenon I mentioned in the recent article Against Learning From Dramatic Effects. The half spelled out there: Events are drawn from some distribution. You should probably base your estimate of the distribution on either priors or on studies with several data points. You shouldn’t base it on one very dramatic data point, because the generation of dramatic data points involves a lot of noise.
But the other half is - if everyone has a similar distribution, or distributions with subtle differences that are hard to notice directly, then whose distribution gets packaged into a dramatic data point depends on the whims of the packagers, ie journalists. I don’t believe that woke college presidents, or the wives of bigshot investors, are more likely to plagiarize than other groups. But they are more likely to inspire articles accusing them of plagiarism. I don’t think movements that have just become unpopular because of unrelated crypto scams are more likely to have bad sexual consent norms than those same movements right before the scams were discovered. But they’re more likely to inspire articles calling them out.
This is another reason to trust priors, surveys, and studies, instead of updating your estimate of a distribution really hard based on one dramatic event that you heard about.