In Defense of the Journalistic Method

It’s easy to disparage journalists until you try to do it yourself and realize the difficulty of composing and conveying a generally cogent, thoughtful yet enticing argument in 1000-1500 words to an audience that has high expectations, that isn’t total crap or mean-spirited and abrasive.

When you read a professionally-done article, you may leave disagreeing with the author’s conclusion, but concede that the premises were still well-argued and logically sound. The author is cognizant that the opposing argument is predicated on the same foundational logic that is as very much ‘self evident’ to the other side as it is to his own, and thus should treat is as seriously as his own, rather than dismissed. Yes, it’s not news to communists that millions of people died under Stalin and Mao. That doesn’t invalidate the anti-communist argument, but such arguments are unoriginal and lazy; instead, address the response by communists to such deaths.

When you read a typical article by an amateur, it’s not so much that the conclusion is wrong, but that it’s premised on logical quicksand. It is, to quote Wolfgang Pauli, ‘not even wrong,’ which is one level worse than being wrong. Although not all amateur content is illogical, for some reason it doesn’t transport across ideological lines well. What I mean is is, Slate Star Codex and Vox articles, despite their left-wing biases, do surprisingly well on right-wing and libertarian communities. It probably helps that such articles are have a nuanced tone and are well-argued. As discussed in the intellectualism passport post, although Bryan Caplan and Tyler Cowen tend to lean somewhat left-wing, because they are smart and their articles are well-researched, they are well-received in high-IQ right-wing communities (although due to IQ differences, they are invisible to mainstream right-wing and left-wing communities). The same also applies to Steve Sailer and Rod Dreher, whom despite being on the ‘right’ are respected by many on the rational-left because both are high-IQ and not low-information.

From Professional vs. Amateur Writing:

It seems like one of the fastest ways to get status online is to position yourself as the ‘rational middle’ between two warring factions, and then get members and accolades from both sides as a ‘trusted arbiter’. Instead of definitively taking a side, you explore the strengths and weaknesses of both sides. Marginal revolution does this, as does Scott Adams, Scott Alexander, and Noah Smith (Noahpinion).

I would add, first explore the strengths and weaknesses of both sides to build trust with the reader, and then ‘nudge’ the reader to the side you think is correct. It sounds counterintuitive, but when you concede points to your opponent, they are more likely to be receptive to your own argument.

The ‘shared narrative’ concept also helps: rather than writing about how one side is always ‘right’ the other is always ‘wrong’, try to find common ground or explain why these sides hate each other. Consider the Medium article This Is How Your Fear and Outrage Are Being Sold for Profit. This article went hugely viral probably because everyone, regardless of their ideological orientation, can agree and relate to the subject matter of how social media exploits fear and hype for profit. But, crucially, the invaluable high-IQ ‘influencers’ liked it. This is an article that ‘normies’ would not have cared much about (nornies are not on Medium, they would have not gotten the jokes, they would have not read it until the end, and they would have not shared it (and even if they did, medium-IQ people have too little influence for it to matter anyway)), but high-IQ people, who are especially repulsed by media hype and sensationalism, ate it up, and that’s how it went so viral. Now imagine if that same article were otherwise kept intact but parts of it rewritten in such a way as to incorporate subtle alt-right or HBD themes. It would probably not be as viral, but would still be effective in terms of planting seeds of doubt against prevailing leftist narratives.

But a retort is, ins’t there a market for the freewheeling, unpolished style of blog content? Yes, although a market exists, it’s mainly for established blogs that built their readership in the pre-2013 era, when blogs and low-information punditry thrived, but nowadays the keys to viral success are held by high-IQ gatekeepers, who have much higher editorial standards than the less intelligent gatekeepers of a decade ago. Many of the independent political blogs of the late 90’s and 2000’s have either been shuttered or acquired by hubs such as Hot Air and InstaPundit. It’s kinda like the Keynesian beauty contest concept: it’s not so much about what you think is good, but what you anticipate that the judges will like.

Charles Murray did this in co-writing The Bell Curve and related articles. Had he not employed an academic style in his writings, intellectuals would not have given The Bell Curve any consideration, but because Murray emulated the stylistics of academics (and being an academic himself), The Bell Curve was immensely influential and is still debated to this day. When academics latch onto your ideas, they become many magnitudes more powerful than when laypeople do, because academics have vastly more influence and have closer ties with the media. When covering important issues, journalists defer to academics (such as economists, physicists, or biologists), not laypeople. As I explain in the Jordan Peterson article, Jordan Peterson is effective–not necessarily because his ideas are profound–but because smart people who have a lot of influence disseminate them. [1]

I call it the ‘Moldbug paradox’. Why is Moldbug so respected and taken seriously, even by left, even though many of these same people find his views abhorrent? Because Moldbug is very smart, and intellect is how one builds credibility in the sphere of public debate. Had he ‘dumbed it down’ no one would have cared what he had to say. Some people complain, “he’s too long and hard to understand,” but it is precisely that reason why you even know he exists.

But also, reader tastes have changed, and people have grown tired of shrill partisan rants. Sites and platforms such as Vice Motherboard, Vox, and Medium, that have articles with a wonkish intellectual bend, are seeing huge growth, whereas overtly partisan content has stalled.

[1] The huge coverage of James Damore’s 10-page memo further proves this point. Had he written a poorly-researched 500-word screed, it probably wouldn’t have gotten as much discussion and debate, because it would have been outright dismissed rather than taken seriously as a substantive piece of academic research.