Opinion Politics

Triggered: Sam Harris vs Scott Adams on the Post-Truth World

Donald Trump
Donald Trump

Sam Harris debated Scott Adams on his Waking Up podcast. They mostly discussed Trump, but they also went through a lot of the ideas that Adams writes about in his books, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big” and “Win Bigly”. Scott Adams is the author of the famous “Dilbert” comic. Before that he worked in banking. Adams thinks about Trump the same way he thinks about himself; not exceptionally good at one skill but has a unique and highly effective skill-set.

The Filter

A contentious point, and one that I’m sure had Sam Harris perplexed and frustrated, was the idea of the “filter.” Adams says that any retrospective interpretation of facts can be explained with a filter or worldview. If your world-view is that Trump is insane and incompetent, then all his actions can be logically explained under that framework. But if you think Trump is a great salesman and a master manipulator, you can reasonably explain away his actions through that lens without fault.

Adams is suspicious of logic, he doesn’t think that’s how the world works, let alone how politics works. People don’t understand reason, they aren’t motivated by it. But people do respond to emotion, and Scott thinks that Trump was successful — because he managed to get people on his side emotionally. He earned their trust, and you don’t get people’s trust by telling them truthful things, you get it by showing them that you are both emotionally invested in the same causes.

And you can see how there are real-world applications of this. A salesman’s strategy is never to hit you with a dose of cold hard truth to get you on his side, he tries to get you to like him. He will use compliments to force your guard down, he will try to get a read on you and act like he’s interested in the same things. The salesman succeeds if you like him, not if you think he’s being truthful. Likewise, a waiter at a restaurant succeeds at their job if they get their customers to appreciate their polite manners and attentiveness, not if they act authentically. In fact, acting authentically is one of the things that can get them in trouble.

Pace then Lead

What Trump did was echo the sentiments of the people, the most extreme ones. And with time, he earned their emotional trust. It’s not that Trump believed what he was saying, he didn’t have to. He knew that he was using hyperbole, but he also knew it was to his advantage. When he went into office, he abandoned many of those promises, because it was time to lead. Trust had been established, now it was time to deal with reality more delicately and cautiously. This strategy works because people fundamentally are drawn to confirmation bias. They will listen to people who speak in a language they can understand.

It’s not that what’s true doesn’t matter. It’s that it doesn’t always matter the most. Telling the truth is generally a very good thing — both for the individual and for society. Truth builds trust between people, it allows relationships to flourish, and relaxes people’s anxieties about one another. Truth sets a standard that we can all be subservient to. Without it, you can’t hold people who are more powerful than you accountable, as is the case in dictatorships around the world.

Do the ends justify the means? Sam Harris doesn’t think so, but Scott Adams clearly does. And herein lies the essential difference between the two. Harris doesn’t tolerate blatant lies, he believes they will destroy society. But again, Harris’ argument appeals to the ends, not the means. In other words, the reason why he thinks that the ends don’t justify the means, is because the ends are undesirable. This internal contradiction makes Scott Adam’s work much easier. Adams knows, as well as most people, that the ends almost always do justify the means, and to pretend that they don’t is silly. That’s where Harris lost the argument. He should have acknowledged that the ends do justify the means, but that the ends that would result from lying are dangerous.

The naturalistic fallacy is that just because something is natural (lying), doesn’t mean it’s good. We fight a lot of our innate, basic urges to be able to peacefully co-exist. Lying should be persecuted, not given a free pass. If there was no collective effort to combat lying, we would witness an erosion of trust in society. Corruption is a symptom of accepting the proposition that “lying is okay.” The dysfunctional countries today are so, in large part, because their political leaders are not persecuted by a competent judiciary that holds them accountable. The only way to hold people accountable is by measuring their actions against a higher standard. Truth is that standard. Societies that embrace this idea have staved off (at least temporarily) the pernicious force of decadence that has plagued human societies since the beginning of civilization.

The argument for truth is and always was a pragmatic one. No one should seriously believe that truth is good for its own sake, it’s not. There are clearly times when being honest is stupid. When you have a conversation with someone who clearly doesn’t want to entertain the truth, but is interested only in winning the argument, should you still resort to truth? And further, what truths are most important?

Adams talks about one type of truth that Harris doesn’t consider: economic truth. There are some decisions that make sense in the long run, but not in the short run. Climate change is an example. Harris thinks that the right course of action is to switch to clean energy in the most rapid way imaginable, since the evidence is clear the climate change is a reality. Adams doesn’t think that’s necessarily true. Even if the evidence is clear, that doesn’t mean our actions should be wholly dictated by scientific evidence.

There are other considerations. There is a value judgement that needs to be made. If policy changes were to be implemented instantly, a lot of people would lose their jobs, while not many people can afford to switch to clean energy as consumers. Of course, with time, clean energy costs will become cheaper, and then the idea of switching to clean energy will become more feasible. Until then, the pragmatic thing to do would be to grow the economy so that enough funds can be generated for better research.

The 3 Types of Lies

Scott Adams even talks about the three types of lies that exist. One lie is the mistaken fact, the other is hyperbole, and the third is the inconsequential lie — the one that doesn’t make a difference to the results. Why are people like Harris reluctant to accept this? Because there seems to be something morally pernicious about doing so. It is, in a way, admitting to a wicked underlying reality. But this doesn’t negate the obvious existence of this reality. It would be nice if the world were not so, but it is. Lies serve a function, a very important one, otherwise they wouldn’t be so prevalent, and so consistent. They’re useful.

There’s a movie that Ricky Gervais starred in called, “The invention of lying”. In it, Ricky is born into a world where everyone tells the truth all the time — except for him. He is the only liar, and he manages to get away with anything he likes, because everyone willingly falls for his ruses. In that sense, lying is a game-theoretic necessity. You cannot afford not to lie in a world that constantly does. That’s the truth.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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