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.
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:
- You never have to show up to class.
- You never have to debate other people
- 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).
- You have no 15 page paper
- 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:
- I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup: Scott’s theory about ingroup/outgroup preferences, with applications to politics.
- The Control Group is Out of Control: Several problems in the current statistical methods being used by researchers.
- The Toxoplasma of Rage: A discussion of media marketing and how the incentives scheme followed by most people leads to bad examples being favored over good examples.
- Meditations on Moloch: A complex, ultra-long essay about multi-party coordination traps and the “race to the bottom,” plus some poetry analysis.
- Fish — Now by Prescription: The beginning of a very complex conversation about health insurance and the FDA drug approval processes, using Fish Oil as the main example.
- Five Case Studies on Politicization: Several explanations for how non-political things tend to eventually become political things.
- The Slate Star Codex Political Spectrum Quiz: A political compass quiz like you’ve never seen before.
- Terrorists vs. Chairs: An Outlier Story: Scott looks into a potentially misleading statistic.
- The Ideology is Not the Movement: Scott’s best work, in my opinion. A continuation of his argument about ingroup/outgroup dynamics and politicization.
- Staying Classy: Looking into the idea of social class and which model best explains these divisions.
- [Bonus: Book Review: Albion’s Seed: Scott summarizes in layman’s terms a book about the colonization of the East Coast, and how the separate groups immigrating have lasted longer than you’d expect.]
- [Bonus: SSC Endorses Clinton, Johnson, or Stein: A political essay arguing against voting for Donald Trump. Pay close attention to his argument using Marx as its example and his argument about “the real reason Trump is so popular.”]
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.