The Devil is in the Comments

On January 27, 2017, Trump signed Executive Order 13769, a.k.a. the “Muslim ban” as commonly referred to by the US media. When I awoke to the news on the 28th, it was absolute pandemonium. People were protesting at major airports such as LaGuardia, Newark, JFK, and Heathrow. Twitter was in a frenzy. Civil rights lawyers were drafting their lawsuits. Many likened it to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, which is an absurd comparison. Despite all the commotion, I think less than 100 people were actually inconvenienced by the ban (perhaps it would have been higher, but the courts soon reversed it).

On the 25th [1], Scott Aaronson penned what would become a massively viral post, First they came for the Iranians, repudiating Trump’s executive order, because it would hurt his [Aaronson's] Iranian doctoral student. The original post is 750 words; including the many postscripts, the total is around 1,750 words. However, what I found more fascinating is that the post generated 588 comments, totaling over 100,000 words–or about the length of 300-page book. And in July 2017, Scott Alexander wrote his 3-part meritocracy series, TARGETING MERITOCRACY, HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE COMMENT THREAD ON MERITOCRACY, and DON’T BLAME GRIGGS, garnering a combined 1,177 comments. The comments for the first post, TARGETING MERITOCRACY, totaled over 79,000 words, again the size of a full-length novel, versus just 1,700 words for the original post. Posts on Unz Review, particularly HBD and foreign policy posts, routinely get over 100 comments. So obviously, that is a lot of comments.

So what should one make of this? Many sources say not to read the comments on blogs, that they don’t contribute to the article in question in any meaningful way, because the comments sections are dominated by trolls and such.

However, websites such as Slate Star Codex, Unz Review, and Scott Aaronson cater to a high-IQ readership, and the comments are moderated. Consequently, the quality of comments is going to be of a higher caliber and more edifying than, say, the comments on YouTube, TMZ, or ESPN. My belief is, for high-IQ sites such as the aforementioned examples, one must read all the comments to have a better understanding of the issue–yes, all 100+ comments. That means each post, in order to come away with the highest understanding possible, may be like reading a book. And unlike pulp fiction, it’s not breezy reading, but sometimes quite technical such as for HBD posts, for example.

No matter how smart the author is or how well-versed he is on the subject he is expounding about, given enough traffic (which for popular sites like Unz Review is in the tens of thousands of visitors a day), it is a virtual certainly people in the comments will either find holes in the author’s thesis or improve on it. This is one of those things were a high IQ is of no help, because by sheer statistical certainty there will always be a commenter who either knows more about either a specific point or can find the holes in the author’s logic. For HBD posts, in the comments there are very compelling, well-thought out anti-HBD arguments, but also comments that improve on the author’s thesis. The same goes for Scott’s articles, in which the commenters are as astute, if not more so, than Scott himself. And unless you read all the comments, you will leave with an incomplete understanding of the issue. The comments can be likened to outsourcing the peer review process, except instead of maybe four referees, there are hundreds or even thousands.

[1] The leaked draft released on the 25th only applied to new visas; the final version was signed on the 27th and was more restrictive.