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A Sociological Primer, BTYB Scott Alexander


Over the past year I’ve followed Scott Alexander’s blog Slate Star Codex.

It is obvious from his writings that Scott has a strong background in sociology and philosophy. Over time I’ve started to pick up on his writing style and insights (and his sense of humor?).

He has mastered the synthesis essay. This helps, after all, when your stated hobby is to ‘say complicated things about philosophy and science.’ It’s really quite breathtaking to read a good SSC essay and realize “this is what he’s been cluing me in on for months, and now, though it took mental effort, I understand.” I need to coin a term for this.

I also appreciate that he doesn’t try to systematize everything. SSC has no grand overarching philosophy to Describe Everything. He has some common themes, but Scott just tries to “package an obvious truth in a way that people would notice it.” This builds a “useful model and explanatory tool,” and soon enough you have yourself some amateur sociology (link).

So then, most of his ideas are very helpful, regardless of your political views. In these essays he has seemingly transcended the political and entered into a discussion of the mind itself. This can be described as critical thinking, epistemic virtue, intellectual honesty, or what have you.

Thought experiment:

If I were teaching a class on critical thinking, my syllabus would look something like this:

  • 15 classes on logical fallacies
  • 10 classes discussing readings
  • 12 classes debating on pre-assigned topics
  • 6 standalone classes
  • Begin each class with current events from the media
  • An essay on any current events topic, 15 page minimum, due at midterm
  • An essay disagreeing with someone else’s midterm essay, 25 page minimum, due a week before the final

For the sake of consistency, every class discussion reading would be from the same author. And for the sake of quality, that author would be Scott.

So then, I offer you an opportunity: over the next several months, in just your free time, you can take Ross Neir’s introductory critical thinking class, with some benefits:

  1. You never have to show up to class.
  2. You never have to debate other people
  3. You never have to listen to me discuss current events (unless you know me in person, in which case, you have no choice, as I dictate this aspect of your knowing me).
  4. You have no 15 page paper
  5. You have no 25 page paper

This reduces the class down to just the SSC readings. 10 of them, each an exercise of Scott’s critical thinking, from which we all can learn. This is like taking my college class, but much easier, with unlimited flexible hours, no grading, and no 8:00 am cross-campus trek.

Here are the 10 assigned readings from SSC for my critical thinking course:

End thought experiment.

In all seriousness, these essays have reshaped my perspective on political engagement. Society is complex, and it’s hard to take it all in at once, but Scott’s bit-by-bit breakdown will help you begin to make sense of it all.

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