Wednesday, March 30, 2016

This is not the mind behind ‘Dilbert’; this is the mind behind the 'Dilberito.'

If you are thinking about going into the corporate world, you will need to be prepared to sit through endless bullshit seminars. You will be exposed to countless PowerPoint slides from overcompensated consultants whose boss managed to sweet talk and/or liquor up your CEO. Most of these start with some fairly commonsense notion like the importance of maintaining a good reputation with customers or the advantages of a positive attitude then so embellish it with buzzwords and extravagant claims as to make it almost unrecognizable.

After one of these seminars, in the break room or a nearby bar, you will generally find strong reactions breaking down at the ends of the gullible/cynical spectrum. Some of the participants will come away absolutely convinced that they have learned the secrets to delighting customers or achieving business excellence or unlocking their personal potential. Those at the other end of the spectrum will point out flaws, list counterexamples, and mock the general silliness of the proceedings (though the more savvy of that group will be careful not to do any of these things around a supervisor).

I have seen people move from one end of the spectrum to the other, but I have never seen anyone occupy both extremes at the same time.

Scott Adams of Dilbert fame, however, does provide proof of concept. Adams has an extraordinary way of combining strengths and weaknesses you would assume to be mutually exclusive. No one is better at spotting and laying out the flaws in business ideas and the absurdities of corporate culture, but his talents are wholly limited to the destructive. When he tries to come up with a new idea or just to offer constructive criticism of the ideas of someone else, it is as if the part of his brain that recognizes the stupid and the silly simply switches off.

He somehow manages to be an idiot savant of satire. I'd suspect it was a piece of performance art if the commitment wasn't so complete. When Adams has tried businesses not directly related to satire, his track record is terrible -- ideas, execution and outcomes. His attempts to create a themed restaurant and launch the previously mentioned Dilberito were pretty much case studies in amateurish entrepreneurship.

Even when he's simply throwing out suggestions and observations, if he strays from destructive criticism, the results are disastrous. Despite having an MBA from UC Berkeley, Adams relies almost exclusively on the kind of business advice you'd expect in a get-rich-quick seminar, not just in terms of the concepts themselves, but also the language, framing and depth (or lack thereof). The first indications of these tendencies came in The Dilbert Future (affirmations play a significant role), but it wasn't until recently that we got the full picture.

It was perhaps inevitable that this inclination would lead to a Trump fixation. Even before he launched the scam university, the mogul had a long history with get-rich-quick promoters. So it isn't that surprising that Adams has taken to predicting that Donald Trump will win the presidency in a landslide and has even gone so far as to suggest that the occasional primary loss was due to fraud.

You can get a pretty good brief summary of Adam's arguments in this Washington Post piece (and trust me, these arguments are best read in the most concise form available). They mostly come down to people being irrational and Trump being a “master persuader” (Adams claims extra insights here because he is, as he often mentions, a “certified hypnotist”). Both points are made through standard seminar-speak. Trump “warps reality” by “anchoring numbers,” “talking past the sale,” and using “linguistic kill shots” that relate to the “physicality of the subject.”

Reading passages like:

“Identity is always the strongest level of persuasion. The only way to beat it is with dirty tricks or a stronger identity play. … [And] Trump is well on his way to owning the identities of American, Alpha Males, and Women Who Like Alpha Males. Clinton is well on her way to owning the identities of angry women, beta males, immigrants, and disenfranchised minorities.”

It's easy to imagine Dilbert and Dogbert tag-teaming Adams, citing supporter demographics and pointing out that, by definition, alphas (let alone alpha males) have to be a relatively small minority (you're pretty much limited to one per group).

None of this is news to the readers of Gawker which has a long running thread on Adams' blogging exploits:

Here's Adams on arguing with women:
The reality is that women are treated differently by society for exactly the same reason that children and the mentally handicapped are treated differently. It's just easier this way for everyone. You don't argue with a four-year old about why he shouldn't eat candy for dinner. You don't punch a mentally handicapped guy even if he punches you first. And you don't argue when a women tells you she's only making 80 cents to your dollar. It's the path of least resistance. You save your energy for more important battles.

(The "angry women" comment from the Post interview is starting to come into focus.)

The analogy was later removed with the following explanation:
    That's the reason the original blog was pulled down. All writing is designed for specific readers. This piece was designed for regular readers of The Scott Adams blog. That group has an unusually high reading comprehension level.

    In this case, the content of the piece inspires so much emotion in some readers that they literally can't understand it. The same would be true if the topic were about gun ownership or a dozen other topics. As emotion increases, reading comprehension decreases. This would be true of anyone, but regular readers of the Dilbert blog are pretty far along the bell curve toward rational thought, and relatively immune to emotional distortion.

Then there was the sock puppet incident that started when people noticed a certain recurring theme in the comments of "PlannedChaos"
    If an idiot and a genius disagree, the idiot generally thinks the genius is wrong. He also has lots of idiot reasons to back his idiot belief. That's how the idiot mind is wired.

    It's fair to say you disagree with Adams. But you can't rule out the hypothesis that you're too dumb to understand what he's saying.

    And he's a certified genius. Just sayin'.

Followed by this memorable explanation of the deception:

As a general rule, you can't trust anyone who has a conflict of interest. Conflict of interest is like a prison that locks in both the truth and the lies. One workaround for that problem is to change the messenger. That's where an alias comes in handy. When you remove the appearance of conflict of interest, it allows others to listen to the evidence without judging.

And we won't even get into his theories about rape and  about suicide bombers. That's where things get weird.


  1. Mark:

    1. You need to connect this somehow to your other series of posts about journalists who repeatedly underestimated Trump.

    2. You missed my favorite quote, which was when Adams wrote, through his sock puppet, “You’re talking about Scott Adams. He’s not talking about you.” I found that deliciously paradoxical.

    1. Andrew,

      2. That's a wonderful quote. You could almost imagine Smullyan building a series of puzzles around matching the sock puppet to the speaker based on some condition (“Exactly two of these three tweets are false”).

      1. I hadn't really thought about it in that context – Adams' comments were so far out there even in the strange world of Trump coverage – but if I had to categorize his position, I'd put in the Lonesome Rhodes school: democracy is always one charismatic demagogue away from collapse. We've just gotten lucky for the past two hundred years. The main difference here is that Adams is eager to welcome our new reptilian overlords.

    2. Mark:

      I'll take Adams at his word that he doesn't support Trump politically. But his admiration of Trump is interesting, in the context of his earlier admiration of Charlie Sheen. Say what you want about Trump, he has confounded the experts for months. Sheen, though, that was just weird . . . from the outside he just seems like one more celebrity whose life is out of control, I could never understand why Adams was so impressed with the guy. Except that Adams has met Sheen personally, and I guess we all tend to overvalue personal impressions.