Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Scott Adams: Mighty Prophet! Seer blest!

For being correct about the Republican presidential nomination, cartoonist Scott Adams greatly expanded his cult following. As I wrote yesterday, Adams presents himself as a soothsayer, a prophet, one who knows, to an absolute certainty what the future holds.

Since he has done at least a rudimentary reading of some books on persuasion he seems to have figured out that when you want to persuade someone of something, you should act as though you are absolutely and totally convinced that you are right. Adams must know that all demagogues employ this same technique: they are absolutely, utterly and totally convinced that they know the truth and can see the future more clearly than anyone else.

At times, circumstances cause him to change course or to look more intently at his crystal ball, but he must know that people are more than willing to spare him the embarrassment of an occasional error in order to sustain the mirage of his infallibility.

While I would certainly agree with Adams that Hillary’s fainting spell and pneumonia diagnosis diminish her electoral prospects, he is surely wrong to say that she has automatically become unelectable. Less likely to be elected; true. Unelectable; not so much.

Of course, if you that that Adams or any other prospective prophet is always right about the future, you might well reflect on the fact that the climate change crowd has been telling us, for quite some time, that they can predict the future of the climate and that it’s all settled science.

We know that they cannot predict the future to a complete certainty because no one can. There is, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, no such thing as a scientific fact about the future. There are hypotheses that will be proved or disproved by experiment or by experience. Scientific reasoning is based on a healthy skepticism, not a claim to know the future.

If you don’t believe me, ask your local astrologer.

Adams would have been correct if he had limited himself to the observation that a candidate who looks weak and wobbly does not look like a commander-in-chief. He takes it one step far in claiming that she is now “unelectable.” We might hope so, but hope is not reality:

The optics of a potential commander-in-chief collapsing at that holy place, and on an important anniversary, rendered her unelectable in my opinion. I base that prediction on how people will associate her health issues with the need to have a reliable commander-in-chief. Persuasion-wise, that’s a hole you don’t get out of.

If he had stopped at that, we would be charitable and let it pass. But, Adams thinks he’s some kind of great thinker, even a theorist. So he concocts a cockamamie principle to explain it all.

In this case, he compares the impact of Hillary’s calling half of Trump’s supporters a “basket of deplorables” with her medical problems. He posits that some  people will tell themselves that her remarks on the “deplorables” caused them to vote against her because they do not want to think that they are judging her to be weak and sickly. Adams calls this a “fake because.”

One wonders how Adams knows so clearly what everyone is thinking. Perhaps his soothsaying powers extend into mind reading. In truth, the media has given far more coverage to Hillary’s health issues than it has to her remarks about the “deplorables.”

Obviously, the Trump campaign has needed to maintain decorum when faced with an opposition candidate whose health is visibly deteriorating. But, the press—left, right and center—has been paying enormous attention to Hillary’s health. It has offered up analysis of her pneumonia, her blood clots, her brain chemistry, her coughing fits, her dizzy spells and her dehydration.

Time Magazine even had a peculiar article on why Hillary refuses to drink enough water. Clearly, someone who suffers from dehydration and refuses to drink water has a problem. And, the press has been fueling speculation that she will be replaced at the head of the Democratic ticket.

If the notion of the “fake because,” wants to explain that we are ignoring or downplaying Hillary’s health problems because we prefer to judge her ill because of what she said about the “basket of deplorables,” it makes no sense.

In truth, a more capacious intellect would have recognized that both are relevant issues for those who are trying to make up their minds about whom to vote for. Physical incapacity counts. Contempt for tens of millions of citizens is relevant.

Adams refuses to leave well enough along. He presents something resembling a philosophical theory, theory that seems to owe something to a rudimentary understanding of behavioral economics. In truth, it reads more like regurgitated Freud.

With his theory Adams wants to explain that what we consider rational thinking is just a mirage that covers up the fact that our decisions are made by the irrational part of our minds.

So much for the Enlightenment. One feels constrained to note that the behavioral economists who think this way believe that we do not have free will either. They conclude that since our decisions are irrational and emotion-driven, important decisions should be made or influenced by a select few, a guardian class. 

Note how Adams presents his pseudo-theory:

In our rational minds, we are good people who use data and reason to arrive at our decisions. We need to maintain that untrue self-image to stay happy. Clinton’s collapse at the 9-11 event creates an uncomfortable dissonance in us. On one hand, we don’t think anyone should be penalized for a minor illness. And we don’t wish harm on anyone. Our rational minds want to NOT care that Clinton collapsed on the 9-11 anniversary. That’s who we are. We’re rational people who can put stuff like this in context.

Using data and reason to arrive at decisions is, in another context, called the scientific method. One understands that an aspiring prophet would not have much use for science, but throwing it away in favor of superstition and soothsaying does not feel like a great leap forward.

Apparently, Adams believes that we are not good people, but that we are living lies in order to make ourselves happy. Thus, he has mired himself in a Hobbesian and Freudian swamp where we avoid the truth because it will make us depressed. Considering how much time psychologists, especially people like Martin Seligman, have spent trying to extricate their field from this pessimistic view of human nature, Adams is on the wrong side of mental health.

Were we to follow his reasoning we might conclude that he is lying to himself when he presents himself as a prophet?

Happily confusing self-image with the functioning of one’s rational faculties and confusing both with our wishes, Adams continues to say that not caring about Hillary’s health is the rational thing to do.

In effect, the statement is a hopeless muddle. If you are interviewing someone for a strenuous and demanding job, shouldn’t you care if the person seems to be seriously ill? It would be irrational to ignore such facts. It would make you a poor manager. You are not after all, hiring an idea. You are hiring a human being and the person’s health, to say nothing of her character must better count in your deliberations.

Having dug himself into a conceptual hole, Adams keeps digging:

But in our irrational minds – the part that actually makes decisions – we really, really don’t want a commander-in-chief who is so frail that she might sneeze-fart herself to death in the Situation Room. Realistically, and rationally, we know that isn’t a real problem.

But…it…feels…like one.

And that’s what matters. We want to act on that feeling, but it conflicts with our self-image as nice people. That causes cognitive dissonance. The way out of your dissonance is to find a “fake because.” You need to latch onto some sort of rational-sounding reason that passes the sniff test.

In the first place it is not at all self-evident that our decisions, all of our decisions are dictated by our irrational minds. When we do the right and responsible thing in caring for a child are we being irrational? When we sacrifice present gratification for future security are we being irrational? When we make one and not another move in a chess game are we being irrational?

Adams seems to believe that Hillary’s health is not a real problem. And that a rational person-- someone who is living a lie-- would not want to count it against her.

For the record, the people who do not want to count it against her are her acolytes and cult followers, people who want desperately to place her in the White House. At any cost.

Apparently, Adams is saying that our knowledge of Hillary’s potential incapacity is a feeling… which it is not. If it were just a feeling the media would not be filled with stories where physicians attempt to evaluate the extent of her health problems.

If we choose not to vote for her because believe that the job will kill her that does make us nice people. It shows that we have more consideration for her health than she does.

But, if we do not want to vote for her because we believe that she cannot do the job that makes us responsible citizens who are choosing a candidate on a rational basis.

I admire Scott Adams’ ability to market himself as a prophet with mystical powers to see into the future. He would have done better to stick to cartoons.

10 comments:

Ares Olympus said...

I note that Adam's "exploratory rant" is about 600 words, compared to 1600 words for this rebuttal, even if including some quotes.

And probably that's one secret of a confidence man, never use more words than are necessary, and the more words you try to use to prop up your argument, the less convincing it'll seem. That's why I aim for too many words, to hedge every bet I can, and avoid anyone believing I'm confident in my conclusions.

On the other hand, if you use too few words, your critics will try to break the spell you're trying to cast, and they'll feel credible since you've oversimplified reality by some generalized truths that both overstep reality and under appreciate reality's complexity.

Anyway, calling Hillary "unelectable" offers no consolation to Trump supporters. At best it throws the ball back into Trump's court to make himself slightly less unelectable, if he really wants the job. After all, what happens when two unelectable candidates control the outcome? What happens when two self-mutilated football teams make it to the superbowl, someone has to win, even if both teams could be beaten by a half dozen other teams who were eliminated by back timing.

So Stuart wishes Adams would stick with comics, but really, what does it matter. A presidential election is like a football team, (or a "horse race" first past the post as they say when there are more than two contestants), and ignoring all the consequences of what the winner will do, the uncertainty of outcomes is what makes it fun, and so everyone would like to predict the outcome, although you perhaps can distinguish the professional gamblers from the amateurs by how much money they'll wager.

Myself, I could be persuaded to put an affordable $50 on Hillary along the lines of Borowitz's snark.
http://www.newyorker.com/humor/borowitz-report/poll-unconscious-clinton-more-fit-to-be-president-than-conscious-trump

We can also consider Ronald Reagan was the oldest elected president, being a few days short of 70 when he was assumed office, and now we know he wasn't the most awake president we've had, and both Hillary and Donald are about in the same boat, Trump just turning 70 and frail Hillary will be 69 next month. And developing Alzheimers which probably had its early effects during his presidency.

So on the one had, we can accept the presidency is somewhat, or even ideally, a symbolic figure head position, and a job far too large for any single human, so most of what a president does is actually someone else doing the work.

And FDR had polio and this was hidden from the public and our rivals to the degree possible, and Americas would have perhaps voted for him after he died, if the constitution would have allowed it, and if they had better technology back then to reconstruct new speeches from old recordings. So this agrees more with Borowitz than Adams, except for the fact that Hillary is no FDR, even if she was an Eleanor, or tried to commune with Eleanor at least.

So I'm voting against Scott Adam's logic, and I don't think either side of biggest-loser campaign for president should be complacent or hopeful. And whomever wins will likely be a one term president, another bet?

And I'll confidently predict that neither candidate will get a majority of the popular vote, and the third parties will do well this election, at least in the 2-8% range. The good thing about voting third party is (1) It proves you care (2) It proves your disapproval (3) It makes someone else responsible for the consequences.

Trigger Warning said...

"The good thing about voting third party is (1)..."

Permit me to finish #1 in different words: "virtue signaling".

Trigger Warning said...

Bret Stephens has a WSJ column today entitled "NeverTrump for Dummies". It's a hoot. If you can pass thru the paywall, I highly recommend it. One might call it a Potemkin Debate. Or NeverTrump By Dummies.

Anyway, vis-a-vis the Dilbert Soothsaying described above, you may refer to Stephens' 2011 column, "We're (Almost) All Neocons Now". It's about Libya. That magnificent neocon success.

As Laura Ingraham suggested to Barbra Streisand, "shut up and sing", Scott.

Paul McLellan said...

I think that you have to give Scott Adams some credit for being out on a limb predicting that Trump would be the candidate back when all the candidates were still in the race, months before anyone else considered it remotely plausible.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I most certainly do give him credit. Just as I accept blame for having gotten it wrong. It's certainly possible to come to the right conclusion through a reasoning process that is skewed.

AesopFan said...

I've been reading Scott Adams everyday just for fun, and appreciate Stuart's Fisking of his recent post.
I do want to point out that Adams has several times asserted that we are collectively insane to be running two very elderly people for the most grueling job in the country, if not the entire world.
http://i1.wp.com/www.powerlineblog.com/ed-assets/2016/09/Prsidential-Aging-copy.jpg

At this point, as Ares suggests by putting down his $50 marker, we actually have a testable hypothesis about Adams' credibility as a prophet.
I will take Ares' bet: that is, I contend that Hillary will be replaced as the Democrat's nominee somehow -- perhaps because the DNC will regretfully but obliquely declare her "unable to serve if elected" -- or Trump will win outright.
Stuart can direct the loser to donate to the charity of his choice.

Ares Olympus said...

AesopFan said... At this point, as Ares suggests by putting down his $50 marker, we actually have a testable hypothesis about Adams' credibility as a prophet.
I will take Ares' bet: that is, I contend that Hillary will be replaced as the Democrat's nominee somehow -- perhaps because the DNC will regretfully but obliquely declare her "unable to serve if elected" -- or Trump will win outright.
Stuart can direct the loser to donate to the charity of his choice.

So your $50 bet for demonstrating her unelectability perhaps has a number of paths to victory (1) Hillary could voluntarily withdraw for health reasons, (2) Hillary could be forcefully replaced by the DNC by some process, (3) Hillary loses the election to Trump.

And I win the bet only if Hillary makes it to the general election and wins in the electoral college. So ignoring a 2000-style recount chaos, we should know a day or so after the election. Although in a year like this, there could be chaos that puts the election in doubt - after all, Trump said the election will be rigged.

But let's hope for the best and hope for a clear victory of some unelectable candidate either way. So sure, I'm willing to take this bet, and I'd be proud to send $50 to a charity of Stuart's choice.

Sam L. said...

Some just find him funny, or amusing, or worth a few minutes of their time.

AesopFan said...

Ares:
So your $50 bet for demonstrating her unelectability perhaps has a number of paths to victory (1) Hillary could voluntarily withdraw for health reasons, (2) Hillary could be forcefully replaced by the DNC by some process, (3) Hillary loses the election to Trump.

And I win the bet only if Hillary makes it to the general election and wins in the electoral college. So ignoring a 2000-style recount chaos, we should know a day or so after the election. Although in a year like this, there could be chaos that puts the election in doubt - after all, Trump said the election will be rigged.

But let's hope for the best and hope for a clear victory of some unelectable candidate either way. So sure, I'm willing to take this bet, and I'd be proud to send $50 to a charity of Stuart's choice.

September 14, 2016 at 9:33 AM

Done.

If the vote-counting comes into question, we'll have more to worry about than who wins this bet ...

Ares Olympus said...

Okay, AesopFan, so now we just have to find out Stuart's favorite charity.

At least I can trust a donation to Trump's victory gala won't be Stuart's top choice.

And if Hillary loses, both the left and the right can be content to know her political career will be over. How does anyone walk with their head held high after receiving Trump's famous line "You're fired!"