My Interview With Cade Metz on His Reporting About Slate Star Codex

On 16 March 2024, I sat down to chat with New York Times technology reporter Cade Metz! In part of our conversation, transcribed below, we discussed his February 2021 article “Silicon Valley’s Safe Space”, covering Scott Alexander’s Slate Star Codex blog and the surrounding community.

The transcript has been significantly edited for clarity. (It turns out that real-time conversation transcribed completely verbatim is full of filler words, false starts, crosstalk, “uh huh”s, “yeah”s, pauses while one party picks up their coffee order, &c. that do not seem particularly substantive.)

ZMD: I actually have some questions for you.

CM: Great, let’s start with that.

ZMD: They’re critical questions, but one of the secret-lore-of-rationality things is that a lot of people think criticism is bad, because if someone criticizes you, it hurts your reputation. But I think criticism is good, because if I write a bad blog post, and someone tells me it was bad, I can learn from that, and do better next time.

So, when we met at the Pause AI protest on February 12th, I mentioned that people in my social circles would say, “Don’t talk to journalists.” Actually, I want to amend that, because when I later mentioned meeting you, some people were more specific: “No, talking to journalists makes sense; don’t talk to Cade Metz specifically, who is unusually hostile and untrustworthy.”

CM: What’s their rationale?

ZMD: Looking at “Silicon Valley’s Safe Space”, I don’t think it was a good article. Specifically, you wrote,

In one post, [Alexander] aligned himself with Charles Murray, who proposed a link between race and I.Q. in “The Bell Curve.” In another, he pointed out that Mr. Murray believes Black people “are genetically less intelligent than white people.”

End quote. So, the problem with this is that the specific post in which Alexander aligned himself with Murray was not talking about race. It was specifically talking about whether specific programs to alleviate poverty will actually work or not.

This seems like a pretty sleazy guilt-by-association attempt. I’m wondering—as a writer, are you not familiar with the idea that it’s possible to quote a writer about one thing without agreeing with all their other views? Did they not teach that at Duke?

CM: That’s definitely true. It’s also true that what I wrote was true. There are different ways of interpreting it. You’re welcome to interpret it however you want, but those areas are often discussed in the community. And often discussed by him. And that whole story is backed by a whole lot of reporting. It doesn’t necessarily make it into the story. And you find this often that within the community, and with him, whether it’s in print or not in print, there is this dancing around those areas. And you can interpret that many ways. You can say, we’re just exploring these ideas and we should be able to.

ZMD: And that’s actually my position.

CM: That’s great. That’s a valid position. There are other valid positions where people say, we need to not go so close to that, because it’s dangerous and there’s a slippery slope. The irony of this whole situation is that some people who feel that I should not have gone there, who think I should not explore the length and breadth of that situation, are the people who think you should always go there.

ZMD: I do see the irony there. That’s also why I’m frustrated with the people who are saying, “Don’t talk to Cade Metz,” because I have faith. I am so serious about the free speech thing that I’m willing to take the risk that if you have an honest conversation with someone, they might quote your words out of context on their blog.

CM: But also, it’s worth discussing.

ZMD: It’s worth trying.

CM: Because I hear your point of view. I hear your side of things. And whatever people think, my job at the Times is to give everyone their due, and to give everyone’s point of view a forum and help them get that point of view into any given story. Now, what also happens then is I’m going to talk to people who don’t agree with me, and who don’t agree with Scott Alexander. And their point of view is going to be in there, too. I think that’s the only way you get to a story that is well-rounded and gives people a full idea of what’s going on.

ZMD: But part of why I don’t think the February 2021 piece was very good is that I don’t think you did a good job of giving everyone their due. Speaking of Kelsey Piper, you also wrote:

I assured her my goal was to report on the blog, and the Rationalists, with rigor and fairness. But she felt that discussing both critics and supporters could be unfair. What I needed to do, she said, was somehow prove statistically which side was right.

End quote. I don’t think this is a fair paraphrase of what Kelsey actually meant. You might think, well, you weren’t there, how could you know? But just from knowing how people in this subculture think, even without being there, I can tell that this is not a fair paraphrase.

CM: Well, I think that it definitely was. From my end, I talked to her on the phone. I checked everything with her before the story went up. It was fact-checked. She had an issue with it after the story went up, not before. There’s a lot of rigor that goes into this.

ZMD: But specifically, the specific sentence, “She felt that discussing both critics and supporters could be unfair.” I think if we asked Kelsey, I do not think she would endorse that sentence in those words. If I can try to explain what I imagine the point of view to be—

CM: Sure.

ZMD: It’s not that you shouldn’t discuss critics at all. I think the idea is that you can exercise judgment as to which criticisms are legitimate, which is not the same thing as, “Don’t discuss critics at all.” I feel like it would be possible to write some sentence that explains the difference between those ideas: that you can simultaneously both not just blindly repeat all criticisms no matter how silly, while also giving due to critics. Maybe you think I’m nitpicking the exact wording.

[Editor’s note: when reached for comment, Piper said that she told Metz that she “wasn’t a huge fan of ‘both sides’ journalism, where you just find someone with one opinion and someone with the other opinion, and that I felt our duty as journalists was to figure out the truth. The context was a conversation about whether Slate Star Codex was a ‘gateway’ into right-wing extremism, and I suggested he look at the annual SSC survey data to figure out if that was true or not, or at surveys of other populations, or traffic to right-wing sites, etc. I don’t remember all the suggestions I made. I was trying to give him suggestions about how, as a journalist, he could check if this claim held up.”]

CM: No, this is great. But I think that when the story did come out, that was the complaint. Everybody said, you shouldn’t give this point of view its due, with the Charles Murray stuff. But that is part of what’s going on, has gone on, on his blog and in the community. And it’s very difficult to calibrate what’s going on there and give an accurate view of it. But let me tell you, I tried really hard to do that and I feel like I succeeded.

ZMD: I don’t agree, really. You might object that, well, this is just that everyone hates being reported on, and you didn’t do anything different than any other mainstream journalist would have done. But The New Yorker also ran a couple pieces about our little subculture. There was one in July 2020, Slate Star Codex and Silicon Valley’s War Against the Media” by Gideon Lewis-Kraus, and just [recently], “Among the AI Doomsayers” by Andrew Marantz. And for both of those, both me and other people I talk to, reading those pieces, we thought they were much more fair than yours.

CM: I haven’t read the [second] one, but I didn’t think The New Yorker was fair to my point of view.

ZMD: Okay. Well, there you go.

CM: Right? Let’s leave it at that. But I understand your complaints. All I can say is, it is valuable to have conversations like this. And I come away from this trying really hard to ensure that your point of view is properly represented. You can disagree, but it’s not just now. If I were to write a story based on this, it happens in the lead-up to the story, it’s happening as the story’s being fact-checked. And I come back to you and I say, this is what I’m going to say. Is this correct? Do you have an objection? And what I was trying to do from the beginning was have a conversation like this. And it quickly spiraled out of control.

ZMD: Because Scott values his privacy.

CM: I understand that. But there are other ways of dealing with that. And in the end, I understand that kind of privacy is very important to the community as well, and him in particular. I get that. I had to go through that whole experience to completely get it. But I get it. But the other thing is that our view, my view, The New York Times view of that situation was very, very different. Right? And you had a clash of views. I felt like there were better ways to deal with that.

ZMD: But also, what exactly was the public interest in revealing his last name?

CM: Think about it like this. If he’s not worth writing about, that’s one thing. He’s just some random guy in the street, and he’s not worth writing about. All this is a non-issue. What became very clear as I reported the story, and then certainly it became super clear after he deleted his blog: this is an influential guy. And this continues to come up. I don’t know if you saw the OpenAI response to Elon Musk’s lawsuit. But Slate Star Codex is mentioned in it.

ZMD: Yeah, I saw that.

CM: Everybody saw it. This is an influential person. That means he’s worth writing about. And so once that’s the case, then you withhold facts if there is a really good reason to withhold facts. If someone is in a war zone, if someone is really in danger, we take this seriously. We had countless discussions about this. And we decided that—

ZMD: Being a psychiatrist isn’t the equivalent of being in a war zone.

CM: What his argument to me was is that it violated the ethics of his profession. But that’s his issue, not mine, right? He chose to be a super-popular blogger and to have this influence as a psychiatrist. His name—when I sat down to figure out his name, it took me less than five minutes. It’s just obvious what his name is. The New York Times ceases to serve its purpose if we’re leaving out stuff that’s obvious. That’s just how we have to operate. Our aim—and again, the irony is that your aim is similar—is to tell people the truth, and have them understand it. If we start holding stuff back, then that quickly falls apart.