Letter to Scott Adams Dilbert Blog

Last summer, a friend from Rhode Island asked if I'd read Scott (Dilbert artist) Adams blog predicting since 2015 that the most probable outcome of the 2016 election would be the election of Donald Trump.  Adams is intelligent, his reasoning is thought-provocative, and I've continued to read the blog, and many of its comments and tweets, for several months.

I've read reviews of the blog by commentators who "binge read" the blog.  Since I've been reading pretty steadily, and trading comments, I thought I'd break from e-waste policy to discuss the weaponization of psychology, persuasion, and hypnosis.  Because I don't think cramming his blog is the best way to absorb his thoughts on how to be, or not be, successful in persuasion.

Here is one example of Scott Adams blog, from January, titled "The Persuasion Filter and Immigration" which typically makes the case that none of us are "rational", that evolution has bred us to be "wet robots" responding to greed and fear through psychology.
"I’ve mentioned in this blog a few times that persuasion works even when the subject of the persuasion recognizes all the techniques as they happen. This is a perfect case. The left has been watching Trump make big offers and dial them back for the past year. And yet they still think this time it will be different. The Persuasion Filter says that 70-year old Trump will act the same way today as he has for the past several decades: Big first offer, then negotiate."
"But what about Trump’s critics on the far right who want more extreme immigration? Trump needs to negotiate with them too. And he is. He did that by showing them that his temporary offer was so extreme that people took to the streets. The system (America) is actively trying to eject Trump like some sort of cancer cell. And the worse it gets, with protests and whatnot, the more leverage Trump has to tell his far right supporters that he has gone as far as the country will let him go. He needed that. The protests are working in his favor. He couldn’t negotiate with the extreme right without them." 
As a business person, I found this very intelligent, and as a big supporter of immigration and globalization, I was frustrated as heck that the Left fell for Trump's January head-fake.   Trump had (in order to fulfill his 'campaign promise') appear to do something about "Muslim Ban" and artfully selected the exact same countries which President Obama had already issued an order to increase "vetting" of.  The left came out and protested, giving Trump the appearance of having done something dramatic.  Scott Adams was correct, this was artful on Trump's part.

Here's another one, which I think defends him well from accusations that his prediction was Pro-Trump persuasion or bias.  While he was certainly correct that Trump was being under-estimated, and using strong persuasion skills, he safely recused himself through this non-endorsement.
"My personal bias is that I don’t think any 70ish-year old person (Clinton or Trump) should be president. You wouldn’t hire a 70-year old into any other type of job that requires high energy, mental flexibility, and a possible eight-years of service. Why would we do it for the most important job in the land? And keep in mind that we haven’t seen detailed medical records from either oldster."Objectively speaking, we are likely to have incompetent leadership – because of age alone – no matter whether Clinton or Trump wins. That should scare you."-Scott Adams Blog, "Trump Prediction Update", August 10, 2016
And today, he said he was "Tracking His Persuasion".  It looks like he's using dollars to track it, because it's also pushing his books (as he has a software app, WhenHub, which I like in principle).

My challenge in the letter at the bottom of this blog is to convince Scott Adams that environmental science should be given the same respect - and no more - as the study of human health and western medicine.  There will be many, many false leads, correlations, conclusions, along the way.  But we are all more likely to live longer today (as noted by famous statistician Hans Rosling) because over time, the base of knowledge evolves, and the fittest policies survive.  We could be on the wrong track, Trump could be on the right one.  But Scott can't prove that "faith based medicine" would have created the vaccinations we live with today, and should beware of attracting the equivalent of anti-vax followers based on his ability to beat up straw men as political opponents.

Having correctly predicted Donald Trump's election in 2015 (at least making the case Trump was being under-estimated), Scott Adam's has had a bounce (see his interview with Bill Maher).  But his blog readers - based on the comments field - have taken at Brietbart pro-Trump bent.  And to some, Scott appears to be feeding it, attracting increasing animus from angry leftists.

Scott plays to his pro-Trump followers by taking the stupidest attacks against Trump - and against Scott himself - and ridiculing them.  For example, he typically describes critics of Trump as believing "Trump is Hitler".  He can then show that no, Trump is not Hitler.  It's a "straw man" fallacy, defending Trump from his least persuasive antagonists.

So I admire Scott, believe that (like Steven Pinker) he has some real insight into human psychology and persuasion.  But as a professional environmentalist, I kind of find myself wanting to send him "brush back pitches".  He seems to have gotten into a real pattern of describing himself as an expert in persuasion psychology (he's a trained hypnotist) by playing to cognitive bias.

He's well aware that prediction takes luck, and that if you predict something no one else predicts, you will be recognized as a prophet...  and that if you were wrong, no one remembers what you predicted a few months later, you are just one of many "incorrect" NCAA bracket predictors.  (I auto filled my NCAA March Madness bracket with this WSJ program, so that if I hit the lottery, and my teams win, I will look like an expert, even though I don't know much about this year's field).

So Anyway - I have become critical of Scott's using ignorance of climate change (which he admits to - in fact postulates his ignorance) to leverage anger at "politically correct" climate policy people.  Since Trump has publicly declared his presidency will strip EPA and NASA of all it's climate change policy, and even reportedly has put out an order to silence or terminate or reassign people at EPA and NASA who are working on it, it's understandable if it's a sensitive topic.  And it's one Scott comes back to over and over again, seemingly playing to a Trump peanut gallery.

I share Scott's impatience with many people I agree with... many people agree with me despite their incompetence, selfishness, or ignorance.  They may support my party or my vote for wrong reasons.  Here is a supporter (Richard Feynmann) writing about how Scott is correct to be skeptical of climate models - even if they appear to be correct, they could be randomly correct.

My letter to Scott, below, applies that same skepticism to Western medicine, citing a well know and extremely well respected Yale Ph.D who is skeptical of many medical reports and findings.  Steven Novella, however, draws an important line that Richard Feynmann does not draw.

To: Scott Adams
From: Robin Ingenthron I suggest you read Steven Novella (Yale MD) article on skepticism in "Caution vs. Alarmism" . As a professional environmentalist (former regulator, current environmental business owner), I find many, many errors in environmental policy and enforcement, modelling and studies. We have made huge policy mistakes in pursuit of environmental improvement. However, Novella makes a clear distinction between skepticism and alarmism by reviewing the long term evolution of medicine / human health. In response to a critic who states that 50% of pharmaceutical trial papers that are published demonstrate bias, false conclusions, poor peer review, etc (the type of critiques climate skeptics complain about), Novella speculates that it could well be 60% are thus flawed. However, he also attests that western medicine and human health practice steadily improves, because the 40% of studies whiich are rigorous are, well, fittest. And thus, over a long period of time, the well performed medical research is added to and survives, while the "sham" medical studies do not. Environmental health practices are much newer than human health practices, and have not had as much time to evolve, perhaps. I think environmentalism is going through the same "output" or "waste" obsession that lead mercury to be the most sold pharmaceutical - as a laxative - for over a century. But rivers are getting cleaner, air is getting cleaner, species protection is more nuanced. There is perhaps not enough criticism of western medicine, and criticism of environmental protection is healthy. But the tendency towards conspiracy is generally self serving. If I claim medical studies are all flawed, I can drink more, overeat, excercise less, do what feels good. That's my concern about attacks on environmentalists studying climate. It suits the selfish temptation of a single human generation or two to consume all the worlds resources, all the species, all the environment, and leave the planet worse for future generations. Please don't play to the crowd. You are obviously a very intelligent guy. Getting people not to believe in Western Medicine did not seem risky 150 years ago, when snake oil salesmen were arguably selling better product than mercury laxative. But the persistent belief in logic and peer review and scientific method by the University Hospitals (like Yale's) really did evolve over the decades into a better health care system. The EPA and environmental movement makes a lot of mistakes - this entire blog is devoted to fallacies in waste policy, because I believe in scientific method.

But ad hominem attacks and appeals to ignorance and obfuscation might have an effect that would be felt by future generations of Americans, generations from now. As you and I speculate farther and farther into that unknown future, we become less and less expert and more and more equals. But we want peer review, scientific method, reason and dialectic to continue... it is because of those traditions that Western Medicine is the best in the world, despite its numerous historical mistakes.

Attacking "environmentalist" by equating everyone in the EPA with "alarmists" is a cheap straw man fallacy. I realize that you do not believe that analogy is an effective form of persuasion, and that few deeply held opinions will survive attempts to pry themselves from our cognitive bias.

But I think you have a moral responsibity to speak not just about Capialdi's greed-and-fear motivators, which are directed at short term behavior (car sales, voting), but also to famous salesman Zig Ziglar's "number one" sales technique. "The most important persuasion tool you have in your entire arsenal is integrity".

I often explain in comments to Scott's blog that there are indeed "two movies", two ways of seeing current events, and I like and admire much of his skepticism.

However, not all humans are equally fearful, or equally informed of the threats that face us.

Some of us are more susceptible to persuasion than others, and all of us can be convinced more by integrity over a long terms.  Here's another message of mine to Scott (I'm kind of delusional that he reads this just because he reads my 140 character Tweets at him, but hey, maybe)

Let me postulate that there are many different "normal" or "bell curves". The two movie scenario does correctly model people who are at two ends of one bell curve, but at the same end of a different bell curve.
One curve measures extremeness of opinion on a topic, e.g. climate science. Put people who are extremely sure it's a hoax at one end of the curve, and people who are extremely sure it's alarming science at the opposite end of the curve. That's one 'movie'. Most people - the mean or median hump of the bell curve - don't follow the subject closely and don't have either extreme opinion.
Here's the other bell curve. At one end are people who are extremely intolerant and extremely fixed in their opinions, their minds cannot be changed on a topic. At the other end, people who are quite easily persuaded to change their minds, and are very susceptible to persuasion.
At his best, Scott describes the second bell curve movie, which is rich in nuance and allows all of us to examine ourselves. His worst blogs seem to me to bait people who are extremely rigid in their opinions, sometimes ignorantly so, and make those people appear to be representative of the best arguments or most persuasive people for an opposite party or political view.
At times this blog is inspiring. At other times, it comes across as an attractive nuisance for fallacy and insult. I would advise Scott to pay the most attention to opinions which are based on logic and reason. I've observed most of those people to be alarmed by Trump's ignorance of things he expresses strong opinions about. Scott's right that Trump may nevertheless be good at accomplishing important things, and that many of Trump's most angry opponents are no more logical or informed. But saying it's all about art of persuasion, or rhetoric, because there are things in the future we are all equally ignorant of, doesn't persuade me at all.

Scott Adams did - I flatter myself - finally take up my challenge to argue / persuade the opposite direction (not against Hillary supporters, leftist alarmists).  I asked him (via Twitter) to demonstrate his persuasiveness by arguing in favor of regulations for the sake of climate change.  Here was his response.

Unfortunately, most of it is "Stop doing this, stop doing that" effectively continuing the same attack on the environmental community.  But it makes me think, maybe he's listening.

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