Why Do I Suck?
Speculations on a surprisingly popular question
I recently ran a subscriber-only AMA, and one of the most frequent questions was some version of “why do you suck?”
My commenters were very nice about it. They didn’t use those exact words. It was more like “I loved your articles from about 2013 - 2016 so much! Why don’t you write articles like that any more?” Or “Do you feel like you’ve shifted to less ambitious forms of writing with the new Substack? It feels like there was something in your old articles that isn’t there now.” There was a lot of similar discussion on this one year retrospective subreddit thread.
The evidence that I’ve gotten worse at blogging is mixed. I asked about it on a reader survey six months ago, and got this:
Most people think my quality is about the same, although the minority who do see a difference mostly lean towards “worse”.
Still, a lot of people think I suck. If only to fend off the inevitable future AMA questions, I should probably speculate about why that is.
1: You have your whole life to write your first book, and one year to write your second
This is a publishing industry proverb; your first book gets to use all the ideas you developed over the course of a lifetime, and then they expect you to write an equally good book the next year.
I started SSC at age 28. By that time I already had well-developed thoughts on lots of stuff. Over the course of five hundred essays, I explained most of them to you. Now I’m still learning things and refining my thinking. But not always at the rate of two essays per week.
2: The rationalist community was really great
It still is! But in the same sense that I was clearing a personal backlog of unwritten-up ideas, the rationalist community was clearing a backlog of scientific and philosophical ideas sitting in journals or obscure old books that it turned out were really interesting to a lot of people. The early Internet provided a critical mass where people interested in cognition and math and the future could suddenly all share the parts of the puzzle they knew about with each other and make rapid progress. Eliezer Yudkowsky, Robin Hanson, Nick Bostrom, and other intellectuals all had their own backlog of stuff which had probably been published in journals or something but which the wider world had yet to appreciate. I was the biggest-name blogger who was sitting around listening to them talk about it, so I got access to a stream of amazing content that most people didn’t know about.
There was a time when “bets are a tax on bullshit” or “words are cluster-structures in thingspace” were new and exciting ideas. There was a time when nobody had heard of the replication crisis unless they happened to be reading the medical journals where John Ioannidis was publishing. The rationalist community scooped all this stuff up, broke it down into easily digestible bits, and put it in one place. I happened to be sitting in that place, which meant I had the privilege of transmitting it to many of you.
3: Some things have genuinely gotten better
Everything’s relative. In 2015 I was - no offense - surrounded by morons, which made me look like a leading light. I think the media has genuinely improved! When I read the articles on that poverty and EEGs study, my first thought was “this is the kind of piece I would have expected to see in 2015, not today”. Sure enough, I wrote the kind of jaded debunking I would have written in 2015, and the sort of people who liked my 2015 essays liked it.
Nowadays I think there are many good science bloggers, and the media has gotten embarrassed enough times that it will sometimes run a take by someone who knows what they’re talking about before publishing it.
In the same way, I see fewer people outright denying the existence of genetics, totally failing to understand AI risk, or utterly bungling basic concepts in risk and probability.
(Is this just a function of my media consumption? Maybe I learned how to find better sources and now I never read anyone stupid enough to need correcting. Genuinely not sure!)
You could argue this represents a failure on my part: the zeitgeist has caught up to what I knew in 2015, but I haven’t learned new things to keep me ahead of the zeitgeist. Seems plausible. Half of what I know, I know from the Less Wrong Sequences; the other half, from a basic medical school education. But nobody else explains things quite like Eliezer, and I’m sure as heck not going back to med school.
4: I no longer feel the same burning need to criticize wokeness
It would be presumptuous to say I was the first liberal to criticize wokeness, so I’ll retreat to the less arrogant claim that my anti-wokeness was autochthonous. If other people were saying the same things, I didn’t hear about them. I invented it independently.
My experience was basically that the commanding heights of society had suddenly gone insane and were saying crazy stuff, and literally nobody was pushing back against this. I hated having to get involved, but somebody had to and no one else would, so I accepted the cost to my mental health and kicked the hornet’s nest.
I was an early adopter here for two reasons:
First: in basically every other way, I am an extremely unfashionable person. But in this case, somehow I ended up near the top of the barberpole model of fashion. I felt like all my friends were social justice warriors, back when other people described barely knowing one or two. So I got annoyed with them early and rebelled against them early.
Second: I hate conforming. Hate hate hate it. As Mencken said, “it’s not worth an intelligent person’s time to be in the majority, by definition there are already enough people to do that.” Expressing a majority viewpoint feels like punching down, or like kicking an underdog. I’ll do it if I have to, because you should still defend the truth even when it’s popular, but I don’t enjoy it. So back when it seemed like everyone was an SJW (which apparently was earlier for me than for anyone else!!) my natural inclination was to push back.
But it seems like I must still be near the top of the barberpole - because while everyone else is freaking out about wokeness, I’m starting to feel like all my friends are anti-woke. Who’s woke anymore? Are there really still woke people? Other than all corporations, every government agency, and all media properties, I mean. Those don’t count. Any real people? I guess I know one or two SJWs. But I also know one or two Catholics. Doesn’t mean they’re not the intellectual equivalent of out-of-place artifacts.
And that means my natural I-hate-saying-whatever-the-majority-says kicks in whenever I’m tempted to criticize wokeness. I could write about something something critical race theory in school. But first of all, Jesse Singal, Freddie de Boer, and Bari Weiss have probably already written things on it and they probably all did a better job than I would. Second of all, probably the electorate has already figured out it’s bad and is planning to vote out everyone involved. Third of all, do I really want to spend my life reminding other unwoke people that dumbing down math classes and using the extra time to force kids into classes where they chant prayers to the Aztec gods instead is actually bad? Don’t get me wrong, it is bad. But Cicero had Catiline, and Lincoln had Stephen Douglas. I’m hardly the equal of either, but I would like to think I’m cool enough to deserve a worthier foil than the Aztec-prayers-in-school crowd, who everyone else also hates.
Also: in 2010, I didn’t believe in God, but I think I mostly avoided being one of those loud smug atheists who everyone hated. I looked at an extremely false and oppressive philosophy that large institutions were forced to pay lip service to, and I thought “well, this sucks, but maybe I don’t have to spend literally all my time rehashing the same critiques of it that every other thinking person has, to an audience of people who are already convinced and have heard them all a thousand times”. I feel like whatever personality quirk of mine made that decision saved me a lot of retroactive embarrassment, and I want to nurture and encourage it. So here we are.
I continue to post some vaguely anti-woke stuff (1, 2, 3), but I’m trying to have it be more meta-level or at least the things that fall through the cracks of the many, many other people amply covering this field. Don’t worry - if I think there’s something important and under-explored, I will still write about it.
5: Sometimes the bastards do grind you down
Lately I’ve been finding it helpful to think of the brain in terms of tropisms - unconscious structures that organically grow towards a reward signal without any conscious awareness.
This is my explanation for why so many smart intellectuals, upon being thrust into punditry superstardom, lose all their good qualities and turn into partisan hacks (many such cases!) The positive reinforcement provided by tens of thousands of people saying nice things about them whenever they repeat party line becomes impossible to resist, and reshapes their brain into whatever form keeps the retweets coming.
My anxiety helps me resist this failure mode, but at the cost of another: if I write something that gets a thousand fans and two haters, my natural inclination is to think “Aaagh! Two haters! I must never write again!”
It’s never been bad enough to actually stop me writing, but it does gradually erode off some of the more idiosyncratic features of my writing in favor of blander styles nobody objects to. This is the opposite of what I want. If every fan pays me $100 and every hater has no ability to take money away from me, then 1,000 fans and ten million haters makes me $100,000, and 950 fans and zero haters gives me less than that. I’m not exactly in this for the money, but I’m in it for a lot of things that follow the same dynamics, so I’d love to stick to more polarizing and unique styles. Every time a choice is above the waterline of conscious awareness, I try to stick to the unique polarizing things. But ask Freud how high the waterline of conscious awareness is sometime. Even for the best writers, “style” is a giant black box, and below the waterline it’s the tropisms driving the bus.
Related: blogs are in an awkward middle ground between “personal diary” and “newspaper of record”. The bigger they get, the more they get treated (should get treated?) as newspapers of record, which makes it harder to do personal diary things.
A simple example: suppose I look over vaccine effectiveness data and find something that doesn’t make sense. In a personal diary or a small blog, I can easily write “today I was looking over the vaccine data, it didn’t make sense to me, yours, Scott”. In a large blog or newspaper of record, that speculation takes on aspects of a speech act: “Well-known blogger questions vaccine data!” if not “Local doctor says vaccine data is garbage!”. That makes it tougher to explore random thoughts without having a good sense where they’ll end up.
If you have a small blog, and you have a cool thought or insight, you can post your cool thought or insight. People will say “interesting, I never thought of that before” and have vaguely positive feelings about you. If you have a big blog, people will get angry. They’ll feel it’s insulting for you to have opinions about a field when there are hundreds of experts who have written thousands of books about the field which you haven’t read. Unless you cite a dozen sources, it will be “armchair speculation” and you’ll be “speaking over real academics”. If anyone has ever had the same thought before, you’re plagiarizing them, or “reinventing the wheel”, or acting like a “guru”, or claiming that all knowledge springs Athena-like from your head with no prior influences.
I try really hard to block or ignore these people when I spot them, but they do a little bit of psychic damage each time.
6: Simulated annealing
Maybe I’m using this term wrong. I mean the thing where if you’re doing an optimization problem, you start by making big jumps to explore the macro-landscape of the solution space, then as time goes make smaller and smaller jumps to explore the micro-landscape of whichever high-reward region you’ve settled upon, until you finally end up at some local optimum.
I’ve always assumed humans do something like this. As a teenager, your identity changes a mile a minute. Today you’re goth! Tomorrow you’re prep! The next day you decide to get a tattoo and major in journalism! You’re a communist! An anarcho-socialist! A Bakuninist! A Bokononist! Then as time goes on you gradually “figure yourself out” and make smaller and smaller jumps until you become old and stodgy and fixed in your ways.
It would be arrogant to say the reason I make fewer large updates now than I did at age 28 is because I’ve solved all the big problems. But I think I’ve found solutions for big problems that satisfy me. My jumps are smaller now, less “oh, I changed my mind about whether there’s a God” and more “let’s explore this sub-sub-cranny of utilitarianism”. This blog is an intellectual travelogue, and as my journeys and expeditions become less exotic, it probably becomes less interesting for some of my readers.
Someone less into machine-learning metaphors and more into leftism than I am (20-year-old me could easily have gone down that road!) might say I’ve grown too comfortable and sold out and joined the Man. Same result: smaller jumps.
7: Emerging bloggers and big-name bloggers have different comparative advantages
Emerging bloggers’ big advantage is speaking truth to power, because they have low downside and high upside. Low downside because they’re unlikely to become a Twitter main character - most big accounts and publications won’t get too many clicks from ruining your life at that level, and only the most vicious will try it. High upside because if you do a good job, you’ll get famous. Famous people are already famous whether they take giant risks or not.
I’m not saying I’m a coward who deliberately avoids controversial topics now that I have enough haters to try to punish me for them. I’m saying that the tropisms do their part underneath the waterline, and the juicy controversial blog post ideas I used to have just never show up in my mental inbox.
But big-name bloggers have comparative advantages too. I’ve found an increasing amount of my time taken up by what I think of as community projects: the grants program, the book review contest, the meetups. Emerging bloggers don’t have the option to do those things, and realistically I’m going to do more good by funding important charities, highlighting new voices, and helping build strong communities than by posting yet another hot take. I realize this is kind of eat-your-seed-corn-ish - the community only sticks around because they’re expecting interesting blog posts - but I hope I provide some of those too. I’m just saying the optimal object-level-posts/community-building balance has shifted a little bit towards community as I grow.
Also, apparently sometimes I can now affect the real world. My blog had a very slight but nonzero influence on at least one country’s coronavirus policies. Once you know you can do that, you start optimizing pretty heavily for that, even if that means saying a lot of things which bore the majority of your readers. It could be worse. I once talked to a very prestigious journalist who said he sometimes knows exactly which Biden administration official he’s writing a particular article to catch the attention of. If anyone else likes it, that’s just an added bonus. Talk about a comparative advantage!
8: Intellectual progress
I’m probably not going to blog about abortion. I know it’s an important issue, I know there are lots of subtle points on both sides, but I feel like I covered every conceivable argument and counter-argument and counter-counterargument long ago. It’s just no longer interesting. The same is true of religion vs. atheism, capitalism vs. communism, and a bunch of other things. I am bored of those debates. If I forced myself into them, I would do a bad job.
A natural intellectual progression is to start with big questions, then once you’ve picked a side, move on to higher-resolution ones. I feel like I’ve gone as far as I’m going to on the “is capitalism or communism better, please solve in 2000 words or less?” question, but that’s opened up opportunities to explore smaller sub-areas like developing country industrial planning.
I think it’s natural for younger people to continue to want to debate the really basic questions. And I think as I get bored of those questions and do other things, it’s natural for those people not to find me as interesting.
There’s a more arrogant-sounding version of this argument: I think I’m smarter and more thoughtful than I was in my 20s. Some of the good ideas I came up with in my 20s now feel extremely basic, to the point where I’m surprised other people found them helpful. If the discourse wants ideas at that level of basic-ness, I’m no longer producing them - it would feel like talking down to people. I realize it’s self-serving to write a post on why you suck and transition to “maybe I’m just too good for everyone”. But I think I’m more sophisticated than I was ten years ago, and people ten years ago seemed to find me the right level of sophistication, so maybe lack of sophistication sells.
9: Answers to other common related questions
A. Do you suck because you sold out by moving to Substack?
This doesn’t match my internal experience. Also, people who think I suck mostly think this started (and/or bottomed out) a few years before I moved to Substack. Some of them even very kindly say I’ve gotten better recently (1, 2).
B. Do you suck because you moved to California, with its climate of conformist liberalism?
This doesn’t match my internal experience, although the timing lines up (2017). I would protest that I don’t interact with other people enough for my location to have much effect on me.
C. Do you suck because the New York Times brouhaha scared you into submission?
This doesn’t match my internal experience; you’ll have to decide how much weight that carries for you.
D. Do you suck because the censorious establishment has become too powerful and that scared you into submission?
This doesn’t match my internal experience; you’ll have to decide how much weight that carries for you.