Monday, February 13, 2017

The Foul Wisdom of Scott Adams


I started reading the blog of Dilbert-creator Scott Adams over a year ago. Specifically, when he predicted Donald Trump’s soon-to-be inevitable victory over the field of republican presidential candidates, and his victory in the general election, beginning as early as August of 2015.

This was at a time when Trump’s odds of winning the general election were lower than Scott Walker’s or Joe Biden’s. Just a quick warning, I won’t be linking to as many sources in this essay, as Adams tends to write short posts and develop ideas over time. This makes tracking the development of his ideas a little difficult, as he tends to follow up with a stronger, more formulated idea several days or weeks after his initial musings.

There’s another reason I won’t be citing sources: Scott Adams is a loathsome, amoral person, whose writings at best do not benefit, and at worse actively harm humanity.

This is perhaps an overly harsh criticism, and certainly one that Adams would probably disagree with (He would likely say that he is a provocateur trying to entertain and make people think about cognition).

But regardless of my personal views, this is not to say that Adams' writing is of poor quality, or lacking in wisdom. My opinions of current events (specifically regarding the election) were immeasurably informed through his perspective. Indeed, I was persuaded early-on (by early September 2015) that Trump would win the nomination and likely the presidency. As a direct consequence, I have been insufferable ever since, and have said “I told you so” on over a dozen separate occasions.

I especially want to clarify why I have such a distaste for Adams, because it is inexorably linked to the most important thing that can be learned from his writings: a practical disavowal of epistemic, objective truth, in favor of an emphasis on exploiting cognitive biases and the science of persuasion (with a side of outlandish, high profile claims for attention and notoriety).

His latest stunt, featuring climate change is a typical example of the form. He is given to staking out a provocative, indefensible position and shielding it through the active sowing of skepticism and doubt on the epistemic process. In this case, by demanding evidence of climate change, and then claiming that any evidence provided is unreliable. It is strikingly reminiscent of the methods used by people seeking to forward the cause of creation science, or the anti-vaccine movement, or people trying to prove the moon landing was fake, or any of a dozen other examples.

The goal is to bait the establishment into responding, whereupon you win exposure and adherents, as well as the majority’s scorn.

But it’s worse than that. The crux of his argument, and the core of his philosophy, is the same that he used to defend Trump: the facts don’t matter, because people can’t know enough to make informed decisions. Even if the information and facts are available, your innate biases will color your judgment, making the decision fundamentally an emotional one — you believe climate science because you want to believe that you’re right about the things you already believe.

Adams argued that because Trump had good marketing (“Make America Great Again” and other sticky slogans), as well as the ability to reach people on a deep level (by tapping into their fears and insecurities), he had a huge advantage over the rest of the political field, who were focusing on arguments based on fact and policy.

The events of the last few years appear to support Adams’ position, as he gleefully notes that each blowup and negative headline is actually working in Trump’s favor, as part of his larger strategy (I’ve written about this before). 

I usually think of myself as a cynic, and work actively to shed any false and/or na├»ve beliefs I have. As such, I’m always surprised and unsettled to find someone more cynical than me out in the wild. I’m not one to flinch from the truth, but the truth exposed by Scott’s beliefs, accurate as they may be, are a bitter and poisonous pill. Who could wish to live in a world where objective reality doesn’t matter, where might makes right, and where power comes solely through the manipulation of the crowd? A “truth” such as this leaves no room for the important lies (as mentioned in my first post), and no path to bettering ourselves or our society.

Scott sees the world in terms of persuaders/hypnotists and the rubes who are unable to resist. On numerous occasions, he has delightedly proclaimed that hypnotists (such as himself) can work the explanation into their process, and it will still work — there is no defense. Clearly the persuasion works, it’s certainly persuaded me well enough, and his predictions, while not as accurate as he often claims, were closer than any of the mainstream pundits.

But what I don’t understand, and what’s most frustrating to me is, given these assumptions are true, is joining the bandwagon really the best he can do? The greatest good? The man wrote dozens of posts about Trump, ending many of them with a half-hearted disavowal of support for Trump dripping with praise for Donald’s powers of persuasion. It is, to be blunt, bullshit.

He later “endorsed” Clinton, but only because he was afraid for his ‘personal safety’. Then he endorsed Trump, then Gary Johnson (??), then Trump again. Clearly, attention-seeking behavior, but undeniably effective; he was able to go on TV news to talk about Trump, as well as hawk his latest book. Color me unimpressed

No, if there’s one overriding reaction I have, it’s disappointment. For all his talents, for all his millions, he would rather be a liar and a panderer, telling truths wrapped in lies. Is this the extent of his ambition? It’s a tragic waste, if so. As much as it pains me to admit it, there are more important things than being right. The world is dark enough without him adding to it, and we all need to be better than Scott Adams.

1 comment:

  1. "Scott Adams is a loathsome, amoral person, whose writings at best do not benefit, and at worse actively harm humanity."

    Well I think this reflects most people's opinion on Dilbert, but wouldn't this opprobrium be better levied at, say, Bill Keane, or whoever the nihilistic maniac is who's responsible for Marvin?

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