Blog Image

The London Libertarian

About the blog

Commentary and debate on politics, economics and culture from a libertarian perspective. To Libertarian Alliance Website >

Anyone can make individual contributions on any subject covered in this blog by emailing

Is It a Fact that Facts Don’t Matter? (2018)

Uncategorised Posted on Thu, May 14, 2020 07:04:53

Is It a Fact that Facts Don’t Matter?
David Ramsay Steele

Facts don’t matter, or so Scott Adams keeps telling us.
This looks like an outrageous claim. He sometimes qualifies it by saying that “Facts matter for outcomes but not for persuasion” and sometimes seems to back away from it by saying that “Facts are over-rated” (implying they do matter at least a little bit).
And despite his flat assertion that facts don’t matter, Scott spends much of his time on his blog and on Periscope disputing matters of fact. He tells us that he was one of the few to predict Trump’s victory—he assures us that this is a fact, and that it matters a lot. More generally, he tells us that Persuasion is “a good filter because it predicts well”—he tells us that this is a fact, and that it matters a lot. And of course he repeatedly informs us that “facts don’t matter,” which if true must be a fact that matters a lot (and that would be a performative contradiction, but hey, Scott’s impatient with technicalities so we’ll steer clear of them).
In fact, Scott can’t talk for five minutes or write for two pages without making his argument depend on matters of fact which really do matter for his argument. So how can it possibly be that facts don’t matter?
Well, maybe he thinks that facts don’t matter for most people, though they quite obviously do matter to him? Or maybe we can make some sense of his strange claim that “facts matter for outcomes but not for persuasion”? Or perhaps he means only that politicians sometimes win elections despite making a lot of factually inaccurate claims? Or perhaps he’s practicing what he sees as Donald Trump’s “anchor” strategy—making a seemingly outlandish claim to attract attention and situate the negotiation, a claim which he will later dial back to a more moderate statement?

The Two Meanings of “Facts”

What are facts? Dictionaries give several alternative (and sometimes incompatible) definitions of the word “fact.” However, these alternative definitions can be grouped into two basic ideas:

1. “Facts” are the way things really are (or were), independent of what anyone thinks.

2. “Facts” are statements which have been certified as true, either by common consent or by some authority, such as a consensus of experts.

It can be confusing that there are these two common uses of the word “fact,” as they are often contrary in meaning. In sense #1, it’s possible for everyone to be wrong about a fact, or just to be totally unaware of it, whereas in sense #2, nothing can be a fact until someone has become aware of it and considered it to be a fact.
A little thought shows, in fact, that the vast majority of facts in sense #1 can never be known by anyone—for example, think about such facts as the precise configuration of molecules inside a distant star, or how many beans were in that can I opened a year ago. The universe contains an infinity of facts in sense #1, and very nearly all of them are forever unknowable.
Furthermore a fact in sense #2 may not be a fact in sense #1, because common consent or the judgments of experts may be mistaken. Facts in sense #2 sometimes change. It used to be a “fact” in sense #2 that continents do not move, that homosexuality is a mental illness, and that it’s hazardous to your health to go swimming immediately after a meal. None of these are “facts” in sense #2 any longer.
Assuming that we’ve now got these facts right, then the sense #2 facts we now possess always were sense #1 facts, and the older sense #2 facts were never sense #1 facts, though people thought they were. Sense #1 facts never change, as long as we stipulate the date—a sense #1 fact may stop being a fact at a point in time, but then it’s still a fact that this fact was a fact before that point in time.
Although the two senses are sometimes opposed to each other, there is an intimate connection between them. We’re concerned about sense #2 facts because we think that they’re generally likely to give us sense #1 facts, at least a lot of the time. If we thought that a sense #2 fact had only a fifty-fifty chance of being a sense #1 fact, we would lose interest in sense #2 facts.
Confusion may arise if we don’t keep the distinction clear between sense #1 and sense #2. When Kellyanne Conway said that she would look for some “alternative facts,” this became viral and was taken by many to imply that she thought we could pick and choose our reality, like O’Brien in Nineteen Eighty-Four. But close attention to that actual exchange between Kellyanne and Chuck Todd, and the other comments by President Trump and Sean Spicer, reveals that Kellyanne, Sean, and the president were very definitely talking about sense #2 facts. They weren’t disputing for a moment that sense #1 facts are objective and independent of what anyone believes, though in this particular disputed case, whether Trump’s Inaugural crowd was bigger than Obama’s, it looks to me that the Trump people were probably sincerely mistaken.
The attribution to Trump and his supporters of the view that facts in sense #1 can be chosen at will is not only wrong (not a fact); it’s extremely weird, because there are indeed a lot of people who deny the objectivity or absoluteness of truth (post-modernists, social constructivists, anti-realists, and truth-relativists) and these people are all on the left. This is a characteristic belief of leftist intellectuals, and is never found on today’s right.

Cognitive Dissonance

Scott talks a lot about “Cognitive Dissonance,” a concept which plays a big role in his theory of how people form their ideas. In Win Bigly (p. 48), he introduces Cognitive Dissonance by citing the Wikipedia definition. The basic idea is that Cognitive Dissonance is the discomfort or mental stress people have when they find a conflict between one thing they believe and something else they have come to believe.
The first thing to notice here is that this phenomenon of Cognitive Dissonance does not arise in most everyday cases where we find we have been mistaken. I was sure I had left my keys on the coffee table, but when I look, they’re not there. I start to search in the other likely places, and soon find them in my coat pocket. I had made a mistake; my memory was slightly faulty; no big deal. I’m not distressed. People revise their beliefs and acknowledge their mistakes all the time. Scott is demonstrably wrong when he says that Cognitive Dissonance “often” happens in “daily experience.” It almost never happens in daily experience.
But there certainly are cases (a small minority of cases) where a major assumption is challenged by events, leading to emotional distress and sometimes to the production of what Scott calls “hallucinations,” highly fanciful stories which reconcile the person’s prior assumption with what has unexpectedly happened. Scott, in fact, soon forgets the Wikipedia definition and then begins to use his own definition of Cognitive Dissonance, in which “your brain automatically generates an illusion to solve the discomfort” (pp. 48–49).
So, for Scott, the crux of Cognitive Dissonance is an illusion. This presupposes a distinction between illusion and reality, and therefore presupposes that facts matter a whole darn freaking lot. Exhibit A for Scott’s argument is, of course, the election of Donald Trump on November 8th 2016. Many people had thought the election of Trump, though an appalling hypothetical, was practically impossible, but it happened, and so these people experienced mental discomfort, and some of them began to believe very fanciful stories.
As Scott reminds us, these “hallucinations” (a term he extends to include any belief in tall tales) are more common among the party out of power. In the time of Obama, some Republican voters believed that Obama was a Muslim, while in the time of Trump some Democratic voters believed that Trump had “colluded with the Russians.”
When we look at these exceptional cases of what Scott calls “Cognitive Dissonance,” what do we see?
The first thing we notice is that this Cognitive Dissonance is brought about by the realization that something is seriously wrong: we find ourselves inclined to believe in two things which can’t both be true, and we know that this can’t be right. Sometimes, as with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, the contradiction arises because we have to accept that something has happened which our prior beliefs implied could not happen.
A standard example would be a religious sect which preaches that the world is going to end on a particular day. That day comes and goes without any obvious disruption, and the sect has to decide what to make of this—they may begin to preach that the world did end on that date, despite superficial appearances, or they may conclude they got their calculations wrong, and fix on a new, future date when the world will end.
The awareness that something is seriously wrong arises because of our acceptance of facts. What it shows is that facts are tremendously important. Facts matter more than almost anything else could possibly matter! There is (as a matter of fact) just one thing—only one!—that matters more than facts, and I’ll tell you what it is in a moment.
Without our acceptance of facts, this Cognitive Dissonance could not arise. It’s only because we accept that Trump did in fact become president-elect that we perceive a clash between this acceptance and our prior theory which told us it could not happen. This Cognitive Dissonance also requires that we recognize the law of logic which states that we can’t simultaneously accept a statement and its negation. So, we can’t accept that “Trump was elected president” and “Trump was not elected president.” The understanding that elementary logic is supreme is innate in all competent humans, in all cultures and social classes, at all historical times.
When we come up with what Scott calls an “illusion” to reconcile the new facts with our prevailing assumptions, what we’re doing is to accept the newly discovered facts while trying to preserve as much of our prevailing assumptions as we can, without self-contradiction, especially those assumptions we see as most fundamental. This is a rational response.

Coming to Terms with the Reality of Trump

After Trump had been elected but before the Inauguration, Scott predicted that Trump’s opponents in the first year of the Trump presidency would go through the following stages:

1. They would at first say that “Trump is Hitler.”

2. About halfway through the year, they would concede that Trump is not Hitler, but would say he was incompetent, perhaps even crazy.

3. By the end of the year, they would concede he was highly competent and therefore effective, but would assert that they didn’t like his policies.

Scott is justly very proud of this series of predictions, which have broadly come true (though he didn’t foresee the eruption of the “Russian collusion” story, nor did he foresee the brief revival of the “Trump is crazy” theory following the release of Michael Wolff’s book Fire and Fury in January 2018). Scott’s latest prediction is that people will soon start talking about America’s new “Golden Age.”
However, as Scott’s account makes clear (but Scott himself apparently doesn’t notice), the fulfillment of these predictions depended on the over-arching importance of brute facts. According to Scott’s account:

1. The disappearance of the claim that Trump is Hitler results from unavoidable awareness of the fact that Trump has not done any Hitler-like things.

2. The disappearance of the claim that Trump is incompetent results from unavoidable awareness of the fact that he accomplished more than most presidents in his first year.

By Scott’s own account, then, in these two cases, the facts are absolutely decisive. He just takes for granted, without any hesitation, that people had no alternative but to acknowledge these facts.
When Trump was elected, we can imagine the anti-Trump believers “hallucinating” that Hillary had been declared winner, that Trump had conceded, that Hillary gave the Inaugural Address on 20th January 2017, and that Hillary was now in the Oval Office, carrying out the duties of president, no doubt superbly. But not one of the millions of Hillary supporters reacted in this way. Quite the opposite, they wept and wailed, bemoaning the undeniable fact that Hillary had lost the election. Clearly, facts are sometimes decisive, according to Scott’s own account.
Another way the Hillary supporters could have failed to accept the demonstrated fact of Trump’s election victory would have been to “hallucinate” that on November 8th 2016 the world was occupied by space aliens who abolished the United States of America along with its constitution and election procedures. These space aliens now directly governed what had been the US and we all became subject to their edicts. Not one of the millions of Hillary supporters opted for that theory!
Why did all the millions of Hillary supporters, without exception, fail to adopt one of these theories, or any of numerous other fanciful yarns we could dream up? According to Scott’s own account, there was just one explanation for this: all these millions of people had to accept the facts. The facts were irresistible.
Having accepted the unwelcome fact that Trump was now president, the Hillary supporters responded to this unwelcome fact by claiming that Trump was Hitler. Although inaccurate, this was not entirely arbitrary. It was essentially a continuation of what many of them had been saying before the election. They had been saying that if you elected Trump you would be electing Hitler. No doubt to some of them this was hyperbole, but they didn’t mind taking the risk that many others would interpret it literally, and now they found themselves hoist by their own hyperbole.
As the months went by, Trump failed to do anything remotely like Hitler. He did not set up concentration camps, outlaw all political parties except his own, murder his critics or rivals, or act in any way outside the previously existing law. He criticized Obama for having usurped the legislative role of Congress, complied with the decisions of courts, and did not propose that judicial review should be abolished. Nor did he grow a mustache.
The involuntary acceptance of facts caused changes in ideas. We can easily imagine that the Hillary supporters might have “hallucinated” that concentration camps were under construction, that all political parties except the Republicans had been outlawed, that Hillary, Bill, Barack, Michelle, Elizabeth Warren, John McCain, and Michael Moore had been assassinated in a “June Purge.” But not one of the Hillary supporters reacted like this. Instead, they all accepted that Trump was not Hitler after all, and moved on to the theory that he was “incompetent” or even “crazy” and that the White House was “in chaos.”
This was also factually inaccurate, but again, it was not entirely arbitrary. It returned to charges made against Trump during the election campaign. Trump’s decisive management style, his plebeian bluntness of speech, and his readiness to let people go who hadn’t worked out could easily be represented as someone just flailing around. His tweets could be described as impulsive, ill-considered responses to immediate provocations. It took a while before perceptive people, with the help of Scott Adams, came to understand that the Trump tweets were essentially strategic and adroitly crafted: Trump was counterbalancing the hostile propaganda pouring out from CNN and MSNBC; he was reaching a hundred million followers several times a day, and he was doing so (as he occasionally pointed out) for free.
The “incompetent or crazy” theory was killed by the demonstrable fact that Trump was effective; more than most presidents he was getting things done. Of course, we may not like some of the things he was getting done (and when it comes to the Wall, protective tariffs, and the wars in Syria and Afghanistan, I don’t), but, as Scott rightly insists, that’s a separate matter. More than half the country does like them.
Notice that, once again, acceptance of the fact that Trump was fully competent was involuntary. It was thrust upon the reluctant Hillary supporters by factual evidence that could hardly be contested, culminating in the successful passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Bill in December 2017, which all experienced observers attributed in large part to Trump’s management skills and capacity for hard work. By the time Trump achieved a rare perfect score on a standard test of cognitive ability, most people had already abandoned the theory that he was incompetent.

What Kind of a Genius?

Scott tells us that Trump is a Master Persuader. He goes so far as to claim that Trump could have taken a different policy agenda and won with it, because of his persuasive skills (Win Bigly, pp. 92–93). He even says Trump could have won by persuasion if his and Hillary’s policies were simply switched.
While Trump’s persuasive skills are certainly extraordinary, and Scott has helped me and thousands of others to appreciate that, I believe we can explain Trump’s political success differently, and I very much doubt that Trump could have won with a substantially different agenda. I believe his choice of agenda was part of a shrewdly calculated political strategy. A linchpin of this strategy is the traditional working class in the Rust Belt states. These people had seen their real wages reduced, they had seen mining and manufacturing decimated as companies moved offshore, and they had seen that the Democratic Party would do nothing for them, not even to the extent of paying lip-service to their interests or having candidates visit their neighborhoods.

Trump, Hillary, and the Issues

In the 2016 election campaign, Trump constantly hammered away at the issues, while Hillary ran away from the issues. This was obvious to all those who followed the speeches and the TV ads on both sides, but if anyone had any doubts, there was a scholarly study of precisely this point, conducted in March 2017 by the Wesleyan Media Project. This study corroborated what was evident to anyone who followed both sides of the campaign.
All of Trump’s many rally speeches were densely focused on the policies he advocated. Only briefly would he make a nasty remark about Hillary’s personality or past misdeeds, then he would swiftly return to his advocacy of very specific policies. The same was even more true of the TV ads for Trump. On Hillary’s side, both speeches and TV ads gave very little attention to policy issues—far less than any other presidential candidate in living memory—and put all the emphasis on Trump’s horrible and frightening personality. As the Wesleyan study cautiously put it, “Clinton’s message was devoid of policy discussions in a way not seen in the previous four presidential contests.”
Trump’s rally speeches never wandered far from the specific issues, so that anyone following the campaign even casually became acutely conscious of Trump’s policy proposals, whereas most voters had little idea of Clinton’s policies. Trump made many commitments, broad and narrow, about tightening up immigration, whereas Clinton rarely spelled out her own policy on immigration, and most voters had no idea what it was. Voters might assume that Clinton favored doing nothing to change immigration controls or even that she favored moving to “open borders.” Dedicated policy wonks might be able to ascertain that actually Clinton also favored tightening up immigration controls, though perhaps slightly less severely than Trump, but voters who merely watched the news would never have guessed this.
It’s clear that Clinton just could not talk too much about immigration policy, for this would be to concede, in effect, that she shared a lot of common ground with Obama and with Trump. She could hardly boast about the steep increase in deportations of aliens under Obama, while denouncing Trump for his proposed deportations, much less could she promise voters that deportations would be accelerated once she was in the Oval Office. That would tend to go against the claim that Trump was uniquely evil for wanting to deport aliens. For similar reasons, she could hardly brag about Obama’s facilitation of oil and gas pipelines and promise to continue or escalate this policy.
There has probably never been a previous election in American history where one candidate’s numerous policy proposals have been so familiar to the general electorate, while the other candidate’s proposals were almost unknown. Clinton based everything on the proposition that she was personally superior to Trump—more specifically that Trump was a monster and at least fifty percent of his supporters (she meant a quarter of the population, the working class) were “deplorable” monsters.
Everyone who followed the campaign, even superficially, would know that Trump was advocating:

1. A tightening up of controls on immigration, especially more effective enforcement of existing laws restricting immigration.

2. Repeal or renegotiation of trade agreements such as NAFTA and TPP.

3. Revival of manufacturing in the Rust Belt, partly because of #2 but also because of targeted protectionist measures such as penalties for companies which opened up plant abroad, tariffs on imports, and a general government policy of “Buy American, Hire American.”

4. Defense of the Second Amendment—Americans’ constitutional right to own and carry guns.

5. Appointment of conservative Judges who would follow the Original Intent of the Constitution.

6. A “pro-life” stance which in effect meant giving abortion policy back to the democratic process in the states, rather than a court-imposed “pro-choice” policy.

7. Repeal and replacement of Obamacare.

8. Abstention from wars (like Iraq and Libya) which don’t yield any net benefit to the US.

9. Major reforms in the treatment of veterans.

10. Increased military spending.

11. A major drive to repair and modernize infrastructure.

Everybody knows that these were Trump’s policies. Now, quick, what was Hillary’s policy on each of these issues? You see? You don’t have the foggiest notion. You might guess that she would keep Obamacare, though she said she would overhaul it, and in politics the line between overhaul and replacement is fuzzy.
Trump vacillated between extreme and moderate versions of these policies, but he never reversed them during the campaign. What was, in effect, Clinton’s reply to these proposals? First, Trump is an evil person and we are not Trump. Second, we are entitled to be president because we are a woman. However, according to Clinton’s leftist supporters, anyone who decides to be a woman becomes a woman, and therefore Trump could at any time become the first woman president simply by announcing “I’m a woman!”
Most of the time, Clinton avoided responding to Trump’s policy proposals with her own. She did her best to avoid any comparison of the opposing policies, and to keep the focus on Trump’s personality, a risky strategy as many people found her own personality unendearing and her own past conduct questionable. But don’t forget that if she had won, this strategy would have been hailed as awesomely clever.
The thing that most caused me to rapidly revise my very dismissive view of Trump shortly after the election was not just that he won, but that he won in precisely the way he said he would win. He knew what he was doing; he had better intelligence about the voters. TV interviews with personnel of his polling firm, Cambridge Analytica, corroborated this interpretation.
My guess is that Trump, years before the election, had already seen that a dramatic comeback for American manufacturing and mining was inevitable—indeed, was already in its early stages—alongside the ignorant conventional view that manufacturing and mining were in permanent decline. He could therefore not only make political capital from the plight of the Rust Belt but also, once elected, ride the wave of manufacturing and mining revival. In business circles, people were already talking about “reshoring”—the phenomenon of companies bringing their plant back into the United States. This talk originated at the beginning of the century but had mostly still not trickled down into the popular media, and now it is doing so it will be difficult to separate from the achievements of Trump, especially as Trump has admittedly done a number of things to give it a boost.
The inevitable comeback for American manufacturing was a commonplace among business analysts years before the election (see for instance the 2012 study, The US Manufacturing Renaissance: How Shifting Global Economics Are Creating an American Comeback). Reshoring has several causes, including the spectacular and continuing rise of Chinese wages and the development of fracking, which guarantees amazingly cheap American energy for many generations to come. During the campaign, anti-Trump commentators often showed their ignorance by proclaiming that the decline of manufacturing and mining were irreversible, even as both were already rebounding robustly.
Obama did occasionally try to explain what was going on, but the one line that resonated was “Some of these jobs are just not going to come back.” Oops. There go several thousand Michigan votes. And Hillary: “Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right?” Oh, dear. There go several thousand Pennsylvania and West Virginia votes. The fact that these lines were taken out of context and hurt the Democratic campaign shows that there is cunning in Trump’s apparent crudeness in making bold assertions and almost never qualifying them.
The Obama administration officially began measures to promote reshoring in 2011, but Hillary didn’t make much of this during the campaign. This was in keeping with her avoidance of policy talk and her haughty disdain for the working class, those dumb rednecks, who, just like Blacks and Hispanics, could be relied upon to vote Democratic without being offered any serious incentive to do so. And while Hillary knew enough to understand that fracking is a tremendous boon to humanity and a guarantee of economic growth, she was no doubt afraid to drive voters to Bernie Sanders and then to Jill Stein by enthusiastically embracing cheap energy, underwritten by fracking. Obama had celebrated fracking but Hillary didn’t dare to do so.
A general theme of Clintonism is that it relied on harnessing the energies of leftists while favoring ruling-class privilege. Hillary was embarrassed by any shining of the light on specific policies, because she wanted both the votes and the activist work of “progressives” and the financial donations of “neo-liberals” and “globalists,” and she feared that frank talk about specifics could only scare away one or the other.
Scott occasionally mentions Hillary’s discussions of “policy details” (p. 164), implying that this was a boring and fact-oriented preoccupation by contrast with Trump’s nebulous and exciting “Persuasion.” Nothing could be further from the truth. The Hillary campaign was simply astounding and unprecedented in its avoidance of any talk about policies, as the Wesleyan study proves. As far as most voters could tell, Hillary had just one policy: hatred for Trump’s personality. This avoidance of policy issues is connected with another feature of the Hillary campaign, familiar from the book Shattered. Hillary never came up with a story as to why she was running. Trump was running to “Make America Great Again,” and he would sometimes unpack it: “Make America Rich Again, Make America Strong Again, Make America Safe Again”—tightly linked to all the eleven policy proposals mentioned above.
The Democrats made things worse for themselves by talking about Trump’s appeal to the “white working class.” Plenty of Blacks and Hispanics had lost manufacturing jobs in the Rust Belt. Trump picked up unexpected Black, Hispanic, and Muslim votes, and among white workers he did especially well with former Obama and Sanders voters, beginning his long-term plan of permanently detaching the working class of all races from the Democratic Party.
Trump plays a long game. A tightening of immigration controls is popular with voters, including those Hispanics and Muslims who are already here legally. Purely from the standpoint of political opportunism, what’s even better than being elected to tighten up immigration controls and then doing so? What’s better is being publicly opposed at every step in struggling to tighten up immigration controls. This continually reminds voters that there are forces at work plotting to frustrate the president and the popular will, and therefore constantly broadcasts the urgency of continuing to support the president. The Sanctuary City–Sanctuary State movement might have been engineered to guarantee Trump’s re-election by a landslide in 2020.
Trump finds issues where the majority is on his side, and where he’s therefore likely to win in the long term, yet where he has to visibly battle against opposition. Even before he won in 2016—and he knew he was going to win—he was thinking of how he would manage his first term to ensure his re-election in 2020. As I have learned from my own earlier blunders in this area, the biggest mistake you can make about Trump is to suppose that he ever acts on impulse. Trump is a supremely self-controlled person who always acts methodically according to a long-range plan. Ignore this fact, and you may already have lost against Trump.

“People Are Not Rational”

As Scott repeatedly tells us, his contention that facts don’t matter arises from his fundamental conviction that people are not rational. According to Scott, “humans are not rational. We bounce from one illusion to another, all the while thinking we are seeing something we call reality” (Win Bigly, p. 37).
The theory that people are fundamentally irrational is the fashionable one. We are constantly bombarded by books and articles from a wide range of sources telling us that people don’t make decisions rationally but emotionally, and then invent false reasons for why they decided the way they did.
However, as we’ve seen, when Scott is not intoning the fashionable dogma that people are irrational, he keeps forgetting it, and keeps reminding us, unintentionally, that people do change their beliefs in accordance with facts and logic.
So what about the rare exceptional cases which Scott calls “Cognitive Dissonance”? What about the theory held by Hillary supporters in January through June 2017 that Trump was Hitler? Or the theory held after June 2017 that Trump was incompetent or crazy?
Though both these beliefs were seriously mistaken, I wouldn’t call them irrational. The view that humans are rational doesn’t require that they never make mistakes—quite the contrary: only a rational being can make a mistake.
So, can I defend the “hallucinations” of Cognitive Dissonance as rational? I believe I can. The first thing to note is that such illusions are generally short-lived. Scott’s ideas about Persuasion focus on the short-range and the short-term. Theories about Trump as Hitler or Trump as mentally defective, as well as theories about “Russian collusion,” have now largely evaporated.
What happens when something occurs that people’s previous ideas had been telling them could not possibly occur? They adjust their previous ideas, and their first stab at adjusting their ideas may not be the long-range adjustment.
Karl Popper has explained how people develop their ideas through conjecture and refutation, in other words by making unjustified guesses and then disproving those guesses, and moving on to new and better (but still unjustified) guesses. That’s how human rationality works. That’s the only way it could work. That’s what happens in the examples offered by Scott.

Can We Handle the Truth?

A recurring theme in Scott’s writing and speaking is that we’re not equipped to get at the truth. Remarks like this are scattered throughout his written and oral output: “The human brain is not capable of comprehending truth at a deep level” (p. 28).
Scott often talks about the fact that people of different opinions can be watching “two movies on the same screen.” Another metaphor he uses is that of “filters.” He says that he prefers to use the “Persuasion” filter, while other people may use other filters.
But can’t we say that one movie or filter is to be preferred to another because it is more accurate? Here Scott equivocates. At times he implies that any such preference is a matter of taste. But, naturally, he doesn’t want to let go of the notion that his Persuasion movie or filter has something to recommend it! If he did that, there would be no reason to pay any attention to his arguments.
What Scott repeatedly says is that we can never really know the truth, but we can prefer one “movie” or “filter” to another because

1. It makes us happy and

2. It is predictive.

So, Scott argues, we adopt a point of view not because we think it’s true, but because it makes us happy to think about it and it gives us good predictions (pp. 38–47).
But if a theory (what Scott calls a “filter”) makes us happy and makes good predictions, is that so different from being true? These are not exactly the same, but they do seem to overlap quite a bit—especially because a theory most often makes us “happy” by making sense to us, by striking us as a reasonable explanation. So, if someone had said in 2015 that a powerful coven of witches in Kazakhstan had cast a spell to ensure that Trump would win the Republican Party nomination and go on to win the US presidency, this would have been predictive, but would not have made us “happy,” only because we don’t believe that witches can influence the outcome of elections by casting spells.
What makes us happy is largely a matter of our existing theories about the world. A new theory tends to make us happy when it fits with the totality of our existing theories—and this, I claim, is perfectly rational (though, of course, not infallible).
As well as Cognitive Dissonance, Scott talks a lot about Confirmation Bias. He sees this as an example of irrationality. But confirmation bias is rational! As Karl Popper pointed out, our theories would be useless if we gave them up too easily. If the power goes out in my apartment, I don’t immediately abandon my belief in Coulomb’s Law or Ohm’s Law. I automatically save my most fundamental beliefs and give up more minor beliefs: in this case, my belief that the fuses were not overloaded.
While facts do matter, theories matter more. Our preconceived assumptions—our theories—tend to dominate our thinking, and that’s rational, but sometimes these theories can be tested against facts, and sometimes the facts are decisive in causing us to change our theories. That’s rational too.
If facts matter and theories matter, what about Scott’s exalted idea of persuasion? Everyone knows that persuasion can have some independent effect. Philosophers have always known that persuasion has a role, complementary to theories and facts. Two and half thousand years ago, Aristotle wrote a textbook of logic, his Prior Analytics. He also wrote a textbook of persuasion, his Rhetoric.
As Ray Scott Percival has argued (in The Myth of the Closed Mind), persuasion, advertising, and propaganda can all be explained within the theory that humans are rational. Here I will just throw out one hint. When he claims that “facts don’t matter” and that “people are irrational,” Scott always focuses his attention on the very short run. He looks at people’s immediate responses to “Cognitive Dissonance.” When he considers events lasting more than a few months, he always, in practice though not explicitly, acknowledges that facts can be decisive and usually are.
Election campaigns are comparatively brief events which take place within a framework of prevailing ideas that can’t be challenged without political loss, and these ideas are often the outcome of influences working slowly over decades or centuries. For example, who was the first newly elected US president to be openly in favor of gay marriage? The answer (surprising to some) is: Donald J. Trump. When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, he presented himself as a most emphatic and deeply committed opponent of gay marriage. If he had come out in favor of gay marriage in that year, it would have been too risky.
Between 2008 and 2016, public opinion changed so that it became more of an electoral liability than an advantage to oppose gay marriage. And this change was itself the culmination of slow changes in opinion over many decades.

(This first appeared in Scott Adams and Philosophy: A Hole in the Fabric of Reality, edited by Daniel Yim, Galen Foresman, and Robert Arp. Open Court, 2018.)

New Trump Initiative

Uncategorised Posted on Sun, April 19, 2020 06:27:52

Today President Trump announced his latest measure to fight the Covid19 infection, the amputation of the hands of every person residing in the United States and territories. “I have taken this bold and decisive action because any cost is worth it to save lives by fighting the virus,” he stated.

The president’s proposal calls for the setting up of hand amputation centers in every community, staffed by medical professionals. Dr. Anthony Fauci, of the National Institutes of Health, applauded the measure as salutary and appropriate. “There is a clear scientific consensus that the virus is spread by people using their hands to touch things.” Dr. Fauci added that the plan would be phased in by occupational groups, with medical professionals, White House staff, and members of Congress, given a temporary deferral.

Senator Charles Schumer slammed the president’s plan as “too little, too late.” “Why have we had to wait two months for hand amputation?” queried Senator Schumer, who went on to explain that the president’s measure didn’t go far enough. “People can also spread the infection by touching things with their feet, yet the president’s disgraceful, half-hearted, and ill-thought-out policy provides not a penny for foot amputation.”

Presidential contender Bernie Sanders said that while hand amputation of the entire population of the world is long overdue, Trump’s proposal is a scheme to reward his billionaire friends with juicy government contracts. A new department of the federal government should immediately be established to carry out all amputations, the money to be raised by taxing billionaires.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi declared that the first candidates for hand amputation should be the blue-collar working class, because these disgusting racists do nothing useful and their work can easily be replaced by robots. And without hands, they might find it more difficult to vote.

Presidential contender Joe Biden commented that hand amputation is “way, way overdue” but added, “This president has once again shown his criminal incompetence and disregard for the Constitution. George Washington didn’t die on Iwo Jima so that President Trump could be three-fifths of a person.” Biden recalled the time when he personally had to amputate the hand of an infected soldier during the Spanish flu epidemic, thereby saving millions of lives and ending World War II.

Congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez denounced the Trump plan as racist and misogynist because it didn’t single out the loathsome gringos in the woodpile who had invented the virus and were now profiting from it.

Representative Ilhan Omar pointed out that because of Sharia law, Muslim practitioners have a traditional expertise in hand amputation, and called for the recruitment of thousands of experts in this occupational field who are ready to move from the Middle East to the United States. “Hand amputation is a delicate matter which should not be carried out by the inexperienced,” she stated. Asked who would amputate the hands of people in the Middle East, she responded that this was not a priority, because the racist and imperialist United States was entirely responsible for the epidemic.

Some critics raised the fake issue of whether hand amputations might hurt America’s international competitiveness, but these ill-informed science deniers were soon put in their place. Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman explained that a handless population would in fact be super-productive, which could be proved by second-order differential equations. Hand amputation would be a much-needed stimulus, as long as it was accompanied by other appropriate measures such as a hundred-percent marginal tax rate.

Political commentator Tucker Carlson pointed out that the Chinese might try to take advantage of a handless America by slyly using their temporary advantage in handedness to flood the American market with manufactured goods, forcibly compelling us to buy all kinds of stuff that we don’t want. To level the playing field, the US should bomb all Chinese industrial installations. “The one great principle to which I have devoted my life is the complete destruction of the Chinese people, whose rapid economic growth is an existential threat to America,” said Carlson. “The Chinese hate us: I have no idea why.”