Over on his blog, Scott Adams (who reminds us that he is a master persuader, as evidenced primarily by the fact that he managed to convince himself that he is a master persuader) has laid out his case to “un-hypnotize” (as he puts it) anti-Trump voters.
His reasoning goes like this: when there’s a difference in what people see in a situation, the people who are seeing an unlikely addition to reality are the ones who are hallucinating. If everybody can see a pink elephant, the pink elephant exists. If even one person doesn’t see the pink elephant, though, it can be chalked up to a mass hallucination.
It’s basically an application of Occam’s Razor, and as principles for reasoning goes, it’s not a bad one. So let’s follow Master Persuader Scott Adams a little farther along this garden path.
Some people, he notes, look at Donald Trump and see the next Hitler. That is, some people see a fascist strongman rising to power on a wave of hatred and populism. And some people, like he himself, don’t. A Hitler figure is an unlikely addition to reality, so if some people see the danger and some people don’t, then the danger must not be real. He doesn’t see Trump as Hitler, so it can’t be real.
Well, color me reassured. Because if I accept this logic, not only am I thoroughly reassured that Trump cannot be Hitler, I must also accept a rose-tinted rearview mirror of history in which Hitler could not have been Hitler.
Follow Scott’s logic: some people looked at Hitler and saw a dangerous maniac who would fan the flames of hatred and risk plunging Europe and beyond into a war that would dwarf the “Great War” from which it had so recently emerged. And some people didn’t. Some people saw a dangerous demagogue who would scapegoat whole populations and persecute them to the brink of extinction and beyond if he could. And some people didn’t.
I think we can all agree that “patriotic man who wants only the best for his homeland” is more likely in politics than “genocidal demagogue and would-be world conqueror”. So if anyone could look at Hitler back then and not see the unlikely addition to reality presented by Hitler-qua-Hitler, that more extreme conception of Hitler must not exist. At least, not according to the persuasive logic of Scott Adams, Trained Hypnotist.
Of course, he might rebut this by saying that a historical case is different, because we have evidence that the popular conception of Hitler existed and now there is no longer any doubt. That’s very nice, but there are two problems with it.
One, it still leaves us with the fact that at the time of Hitler’s rise to power, the thing that would have struck a Herr Adams, Meister der Überzeugung, as the “pink elephant” of the situation was in fact actual reality, which means that we cannot in the present situation count on anyone being able to determine what is actual reality and what is an unlikely addition just based on an eyeball declaration.
Two, there are still people today who dispute the evidence that Adolf Hitler was anything more than a German patriot who wanted the best for his people. There are people today who still make the same “pink elephant” style arguments against Hitler’s worst excesses and biggest crimes.
Scott Adams tells us that if everybody is looking at something big and bafflingly unlikely like a pink elephant, and some people can see it and some people can’t, it’s proof that the pink elephant does not exist. He tells us that it’s always the addition that is suspect, always the people who do not see any evidence of the addition’s existence that are correct.
So what do we make of Hitler’s apologists? What do we make of Holocaust deniers?
It turns out there a lot of elephants in the world, Scott. That is, there are a lot of things that are big and (to some people, at least) unexpected and showing up in places people would rather not face their existence.
Scott Adams’s rubric for navigating a world like this is that if even one person says a thing doesn’t exist, then it doesn’t. It can’t.
By that logic… what would we be left with? And who decides what the “unlikely addition” is, anyway? In a battle between flat earthers and everyone else, the flat earthers see a mostly round earth as being the pink elephant. They see no evidence of it, so they can dismiss it, quite correctly, using Scott’s rule of thumb. “But they’re wrong,” Scott might say, “and you could prove them wrong by providing them evidence of _____.” And then that’s the pink elephant. It won’t do, Scott. I’m afraid it’s pink elephants all the way down.
The is the worst, sloppiest, and most self-serving example of “consensus reality” I’ve ever seen. As a lens for viewing the world, it dispenses with all the utility of Occam’s Razor by insisting on always shaving at the same angle.
And the thing is, I think Scott Adams knows this. I believe his blog post is structured not to “un-hypnotize” anyone, not to “de-persuade” them, but rather the opposite. He’s trying to use rhetorical techniques to lead his readers to a pre-determined conclusion.
It’s a very straightforward, by the numbers approach, though it’s ruined by his ham-handed application.
Sidenote: I believe that Scott Adams has studied persuasion, but he made the mistake of doing it without studying people, and without any real appreciation for his limits. Nuance and statistical tendencies are liberal myths, after all, just like implicit bias and systemic prejudice. Things either work or they don’t, in Scott-land.
Imagine a frumpy middle-aged sitcom couch lump trying to court a lady using a book labeled “The Art of Seduction”. He shows up on her doorstep, and when she answers the doorbell, he says in a flat monotone with the book open in front of him, “Step one compliment the lady on her appearance being sure to highlight those aspects that are within control such as her clothes or hairstyle hello that is a lovely dress you are wearing step one complete.”
That’s Scott Adams, Master Persuader.
But clumsy and clueless as his approach is, he’s at least trying to follow some good advice.
He starts by proposing a thought experiment. This makes you more likely to accept his premise, because it’s all hypothetical. Few people are going to have a visceral “HECK NO!” reaction to that. He then leads the reader through a series of hypotheticals which are pretty much guaranteed to elicit agreement. By the time he gets to third and final scenario, the average reader’s going to be like, “Yeah, obviously.” It’s not a guarantee that a person who has agreed with you three times will agree with whatever follows, but it doesn’t hurt anything.
This is the point where he breaks in to state his (snerk) “credentials”, so that you will see him as an authority. It’s a jarring misstep, as it breaks the nominal spell his opening created. It’s one thing to lay out your credentials on an area of informational expertise in order to give your words more weight, but telling someone you’re a master of persuasion is like daring them to disagree with you, and it usually produces the same result.
The next two paragraphs are appeals to what I’ll call the fantasist’s ego and then to intellect. The fantasist’s ego is that special section of the ego that wants everything to be a life and death struggle, that wants the ego’s possessor to be the protagonist of reality. There are real-life supervillains targeting you for mind control, Scott Adams says. You’re in the Matrix, Scott Adams tells you.
But don’t worry: he’s not calling you stupid. Even the most intelligent person is susceptible to the mind-bending powers of… GODZILLA. Okay. I should explain to everyone scratching their heads. Scott Adams, Master Persuader, thinks that labeling the shadowy Svengali he imagines is coaching Team Clinton on psyops “Godzilla” is going to make the implication resonate more strongly and deeply with you. Because… Godzilla… is… big? Or scary? Or radioactive?
Or the actual hero of the vast majority of the movies in which he appears.
Nobody knows where he’s trying to go with this, but the actual effect is to make his claims risible and easier to dismiss.
I mean, his set-up is all morpheus.gif “WHAT IF I TOLD YOU THAT HILLARY CLINTON IS” and the punchline is “BEING TRAINED IN PERSUASION BY GODZILLA”.
You’d be laughed out of the sub-reddit, Scott.
That’s what would happen if you told us that.
He could have gone with Svengali or Rasputin, which have the advantage of sounding sinister and foreign to people who don’t know who they are. He could have tapped into the zeitgeist by dubbing the mysterious master of manipulation “Killgrave”, which, again, sounds threatening. But no. He went with Godzilla. Which, okay, Godzilla would be incomprehensibly terrifying in real life, but: nobody’s afraid of Godzilla, not the way they’re afraid of other movie monsters or killers or villains. Godzilla is awesome in the classic sense of the word. Godzilla is too big and too powerful for the human mind to really take in as a threat.
From there, it’s all downhill. He’s still following well-worn advice, but following it increasingly badly. He asserts his supposed neutrality on the topic (not fooling anyone, Scott), he mentions his “credentials” again, he tries to bring up an example of a mass hallucination that he thinks most people will agree with (“everybody else’s religion but yours”, basically), but because he does not understand people, he doesn’t realize that this is not going to resonate with the religious.
Scott, the evangelical Christian in your audience knows that a Hindu reading it is getting the same message. And even people who don’t believe other religions have validity also don’t believe that their followers are hallucinating. This is a cynical atheist’s attempt to relate to the religious mindset on a “how do you do, fellow kids?” level
His closing is terrible. He tries again for the “several things you will agree with, and then a conclusion you will thus also agree with”: he doesn’t believe in the tooth fairy or Santa Claus or luck or God, and he doesn’t believe Trump is dangerous.
Here we come to the thing that’s really holding Scott Adams back, which is that years ago he wrote a line that struck him as clever and it’s shaped everything about how he interacts with people since then: “When did ignorance become a point of view?” In the battle between the comically clueless Pointy-Haired Boss and Dilbert, it’s a great zinger, but using it as a rule of logic for life requires you to assume that you have an innate ability to tell ignorance apart from real knowledge at a glance.
And okay, everybody’s got some of that ability. It’s called critical thinking. But like the saying goes: garbage in, garbage out. If you have any faulty assumptions rattling around in your head, the most logical processes of critical thinking you apply will produce some errors. The less critical you are about your own assumptions, the more often this will happen without you noticing, and the more errors pile up, and you get a feedback loop until you wind up where Scott Adams is, at the point where he’s saying a man who leveraged himself badly in order to open up a series of three casinos in direct competition with each other for no other reason than he really wanted his name to be on the biggest and most impressive one ever built “knows risk management”.
At the point where Scott Adams decided that the world divided neatly into True Knowledge (what he knows) and Ignorance (what other people who disagree with him thinks), critical thinking became a fool’s errand for him. And since persuasion, for the short on charisma, consists largely of critically thinking out loud in a way that others can follow, his career as a master persuader was doomed to failure in that moment.