Satoshi: Why Newsweek isn’t convincing

By Felix Salmon
March 10, 2014

I had a 2-hour phone conversation with Leah McGrath Goodman yesterday. Goodman wrote the now-notorious Newsweek cover story about Dorian Nakamoto, which purported to out him as the inventor of bitcoin. At this point, it’s pretty obvious that the world is not convinced: in that sense, the story did not do its job.

As Anil Dash says, the geek world is the most skeptical. Almost all of the critiques and notations attempting to show that Dorian is not Satoshi are coming from geeks, which makes sense. If the world is what you perceive the world to be, then there is almost no overlap between the world of geeks in general, and bitcoin geeks in particular, on the one hand, and the world of a magazine editor like Jim Impoco, on the other hand. As a result, there’s a lot of mutual incomprehension going on here, which has resulted in an unnecessarily adversarial level of aggression.

As befits a debate which is centered on bitcoin, a lot of the incomprehension comes down to trust and faith. Bitcoin is a protocol which requires faith in no individual, institution, or state — all you need to believe in is cryptography. Dorian Nakamoto could have told Goodman explicitly that yes, he invented bitcoin — and still a lot of the bitcoin faithful would not be fully convinced unless and until Dorian proved that assertion cryptographically.

Goodman, on the other hand, is a proud journalist, who gets personally offended whenever anybody raises questions about her journalism, her techniques, or her reporting. In a reporter’s career, she says, “you check facts, you are building trust and building a reputation”. Goodman feels that her own personal reputation, combined with the institutional reputation of Newsweek, should count for something — that if Newsweek and Goodman stand behind a story, then the rest of us should assume that they have good reason to do so. There’s no doubt that a huge amount of work went into reporting this story, very little of which is actually visible in the magazine article itself.

In aggregate, says Goodman, an enormous amount of evidence, including evidence which is not public, persuaded her that Dorian Nakamoto was her man. Goodman has not decided whether or how she might publish that evidence. When she appeared on Bloomberg TV, she said that she would love for people to look at the “forensic research” and the public evidence in the case — but, talking to me, she made it clear that she didn’t consider it her job to help out other journalists by pointing them to that evidence. What’s more, she also made it clear that she was in possession of evidence which other journalists could not obtain.

In other words, Goodman spent two months following leads and gathering evidence, both public and private. Eventually — after confronting Dorian Nakamoto in person, and getting what she considered to be a confirmation from him, both she and her editors felt that she was able to say, on the front cover of Newsweek, that he was the guy. The article itself was the culmination of that process, but it did not — could not — contain every last piece of evidence, both positive and negative, public and private, about both Dorian Nakamoto and every other candidate she looked at. The result is not the process, and Goodman feels that she should be given the respect due a serious and reputable investigative journalist, working for a serious and reputable publication.

Newsweek, it’s fair to say, has not been getting that respect, although it has been getting a lot more attention than most purely-digital publications would have received had they published the same story. Jim Impoco, cornered at a SXSW party, said that he finds criticism of his story to be “phenomenally offensive”, and then went on to make the highly ill-advised remark that “we eliminated every other possible person”. But that’s really a messaging failure: he was on the back foot (SXSW is, after all, geek HQ this week, and the geeks are gunning for Impoco right now). Clearly, this was not the time or the place for a considered discussion of evidentiary standards.

That said, both Impoco and Goodman should have been smarter about how they talked about the story, post-publication. Both have been largely absent from Twitter and Reddit and RapGenius and other online places where the debate is playing out; instead, they have been giving interviews to mainstream media organizations, which are often unhelpful. TV interviews devolve into stupid fights; interviews with print or online journalists result in just a couple of quotes.

Goodman spent a lot of time, with me, walking me through her journalistic technique: she started, for instance, by trying to track down the person who initially registered the bitcoin.org domain name, and then followed various threads from there. And yes, she did consider and reject the individuals who are considered more likely candidates by the geek squad. Nick Szabo, for instance, might well look like a good candidate if you’re looking only at the original bitcoin paper, and asking who is most likely to have written such a thing. But when she looked at Szabo’s personal life, nothing lined up with what she knew about Satoshi Nakamoto and his communications. Instead, she found the Dorian Nakamoto lead — and didn’t think much of it, at first. But the more she kept trying to dismiss it, and failing to do so, the more she wondered whether Dorian’s very invisibility — “contextual silence”, she called it — might not be sending her a message.

Towards the end of Goodman’s investigation, when she was preparing to try to meet with Dorian Nakamoto in person, Goodman told Impoco that if it didn’t turn out to be Dorian, then “we’ve got nobody”. That’s what Impoco was most likely talking about, when he talked about eliminating people. Goodman — and Impoco, more recently — was just saying that this was her last open thread, and that if Dorian didn’t pan out as the guy, then they didn’t have a story.

From my perspective, then, there’s a big disconnect between what I now know about Goodman’s methodology, on the one hand, and how that methodology is generally perceived by the people talking about her story on the internet, on the other. With hindsight, I think that Goodman’s story would have elicited much less derision if she had framed it as a first-person narrative, telling the story of how she and her team found Dorian and were persuaded that he was their man. The story would surely have been more persuasive if she had gone into much more detail about the many dead ends she encountered along the way. The fateful quote would then have come at the end of the story, acting as a final datapoint confirming everything that the team had laboriously put together, rather than coming at the beginning, out of the blue.

That storytelling technique would not persuade everybody, of course: nothing would, or could. And, more importantly, it isn’t really what Impoco was looking for. Even the piece as it currently stands was cut back a few times: the final version was pared to its absolute essentials, and, like all longform magazine journalists, Goodman wishes that she might have had more space to tell a fuller story.

But here’s where one of the main areas of mutual incomprehension comes into play. Impoco and Goodman are mainstream-media journalists producing mainstream content for a mass audience; Goodman’s article was probably already pushing the limits of what Impoco felt comfortable with, given that he couldn’t reasonably assume that most of his readers had even heard of bitcoin. Impoco was interested in creating a splashy magazine article, for the print reincarnation of a storied mass-market newsweekly. Of course, seeing as how this is 2014, the article would appear online, and would reach the people who care a lot about bitcoin, who were sure to make a lot of noise about it. But they weren’t the main audience that Impoco was aiming for. Indeed, in early 2012, when Impoco was editing a much smaller-circulation magazine for Reuters, I sent him a draft of what ultimately became this article for Medium. He passed: it was too long, too geeky. Even if it would end up reaching a large audience online (it has had over 200,000 page views on Medium), it didn’t have broad enough appeal to make it into a magazine.

Similarly, while Goodman has done a lot of press around her article, most of it looks like a tactical attempt to reach the greatest number of people, and build the most buzz for her article. So she’s been talking to a lot of journalists, especially on TV, while engaging relatively little on a direct basis with her online critics. There’s no shortage of substantive criticism of Goodman’s article online, and of course there is no shortage of venues — including, but not limited to, Newsweek.com — where Goodman could respond to that criticism directly, were she so inclined. But instead she has decided in large part not to join the online debate, and instead is pondering whether or not to write a self-contained follow-up article which might address some of the criticism.

There’s a good chance that follow-up article will never come, and that Goodman will simply cede this story to others. And you can’t necessarily blame her, given how vicious and personal much of the criticism has been, and given how many of her critics seem to have made their minds up already, and will never be persuadable. Goodman has said her piece, and there are surely greatly diminishing returns to saying a great deal more.

Still, it’s just as easy to sympathize with the frustration being felt by the geeks. Appeals to authority don’t work well on this crowd — and neither should they. If the US government can lie about the evidence showing that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, it’s hard to have much faith in an institution which, 18 months ago, slapped “HEAVEN IS REAL” all over its cover. (That story, interestingly enough, was demolished by another mass-market magazine, Esquire.)

Indeed, both sides here have good reason to feel superior to the other. From Newsweek’s point of view, a small amount of smart criticism online has been dwarfed by a wave of name-calling, inchoate anger, and terrifying threats of physical violence. And from what you might call the internet’s point of view, Newsweek is demonstrating a breathtaking arrogance in simply dropping this theory on the world and presenting it, tied up in a bow, as some kind of fait accompli.

The bitcoin community is just that — a community — and while there have been many theories as to the identity of Satoshi Nakamoto, those theories have always been tested in the first instance within the community. Bitcoin, as a population, includes a lot of highly-intelligent folks with extremely impressive resources, who can be extremely helpful in terms of testing out theories and either bolstering them or knocking them down. If Newsweek wanted the greatest chance of arriving at the truth, it would have conducted its investigation openly, with the help of many others. That would be the bloggy way of doing it, and I’m pretty sure that Goodman would have generated a lot of goodwill and credit for being transparent about her process and for being receptive to the help of others.

What’s more, a bloggy, iterative investigation would have automatically solved the biggest weakness with Goodman’s article. Goodman likes to talk about “forensic journalism”, which is not a well-defined phrase. Burrow far enough into its meaning, however, and you basically end up with an investigation which follows lots of leads in order to eventually arrive at the truth. Somehow, the final result should be able to withstand aggressive cross-examination.

At heart, then, forensic analysis is systematic, scientific: imagine an expert witness, armed with her detailed report, giving evidence in a court of law. Goodman’s Newsweek article is essentially the conclusion of such a report: it’s not the report itself, and it’s not replicable, in the way that anything scientific should be. If Goodman thinks of herself as doing the work of a forensic scientist, then she should be happy to share her research — or at least as much of it as isn’t confidential — with the rest of the world, and allowing the rest of the world to draw its own conclusions from the evidence which she has managed to put together.

A digital, conversational, real-time investigation into the identity of Satoshi Nakamoto, with dozens of people finding any number of primary sources and sharing them with everybody else — that would have been a truly pathbreaking story for Newsweek, and could still have ended up with an awesome cover story. But of course it would lack the element of surprise; Goodman would have to have worked with other journalists, employed by rival publications, and that alone would presumably suffice to scupper any such idea. (Impoco was not the only magazine editor to turn down my big bitcoin story: Vanity Fair also did so, when the New Yorker story came out, on some weird intra-Condé logic I never really bothered to understand. Competitiveness is in most magazine editors’ blood; they all want to be first to any story, even if their readers don’t care in the slightest.)

Instead, then, Newsweek published an article which even Goodman admits is not completely compelling on its own terms. “If I read my own story, it would not convince me,” she says. “I would have a lot of questions.” In other words, Goodman is convinced, but Goodman’s article is not going to convince all that many people — not within the congenitally skeptical journalistic and bitcoin communities, anyway.

Goodman is well aware of the epistemic territory here. She says things like “you have to be careful of confirmation bias”, and happily drops references to Russell’s teapot and Fooled by Randomness. As such, she has sympathy with people like me who read her story and aren’t convinced by it. But if there’s one lesson above all others that I’ve learned from Danny Kahneman, it’s that simply being aware of our biases doesn’t really help us overcome them. Unless and until Goodman can demonstrate in a systematic and analytically-convincing manner that her forensic techniques point to a high probability that Dorian is Satoshi, I’m going to remain skeptical.

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