Scott Adams Responds to "Cartoon Metaphysics"

(David Bloomberg’s review of The Dilbert Future, October 1997 issue)

In the October issue of the REALL Newsletter, David Bloomberg reviewed my book, The Dilbert Future. He came down hard on my final chapter where I departed from my normal humor mode and discussed some new ways of thinking about reality.

As a public figure, I’m quite accustomed to criticism. I don’t mind when someone doesn’t like what I write. Everyone has different preferences. But I was blown away by the irony of David Bloomberg’s criticisms because it was so shockingly irrational. I could understand the comments if they came from the Organization of Silly Thinkers, but this was truly strange coming from the Rational Examination Association of Lincoln Land.

I asked if I could respond. David agreed.

Let me start by telling you that I don’t believe in UFOs, ghosts, reincarnation, spoon bending, professional wrestling, angel visits, near-death God experiences, channeling, full service brokers, or just about anything else. I’m a trained hypnotist and an amateur magician. I’m very familiar with the techniques of mentalists, healers, and other sorts of frauds. It’s a hobby of mine to follow that sort of stuff.

On the scale of one to ten, with ten being a complete skeptic, I’m a twelve. I’m skeptical about all the things that skeptics are skeptical about, plus I go farther. I’m also skeptical about the limits of the scientific method. While I believe the scientific method is a wonderfully useful tool, proven many times, it is not logically applicable to 100% of all questions about reality (examples to follow). Moreover, as a practical matter, people don’t often have the option of applying the scientific method to their daily decisions.

Take David Bloomberg’s book review, for example. Would you let it influence your decision to read The Dilbert Future? There’s nothing less reliable than one person’s opinion, especially if it is grounded on faulty perceptions, or it is out of context. Even if you agreed with David’s last three book reviews, you’re still dealing with anecdotal evidence.

In the real world, we almost never get to test our strategies with scientific rigor. But we all agree that some amount of anecdotal evidence should, cumulatively, influence our decisions as long as we apply some common sense. It’s an imperfect approach to life, but it’s the best we have.

For example, let’s say your house has two doors. Every time you walk out the North door, you get hit on the head with a golf ball. Scientists can’t figure out where it comes from, because it never happens when they’re watching. All you know is that it happens every time you walk out the door when no one else is watching. And it hurts.

Which door do you use in the future?

If you’re a rational person, you use the other door, even though there’s no reliable scientific evidence that it will be safer. You haven’t solved the mystery of the golf ball, but you can still make a rational choice. You can still recognize a pattern. There’s a rational cause, you just don’t know what it is.

This is the context in which the offending chapter of The Dilbert Future was written, particularly the part about writing your goals down every day. The people who write their goals say they get great results. I tried it myself and it appears to work with phenomenal -- actually bizarre -- success. In fact, it works so well that it appears to be shaping reality. Emphasis on "appears."

I say in the book, and I say now, that there’s no reliable scientific evidence that affirmations shape reality. The reflex response is to test it and find out. But logically, is such a thing testable? How can you test whether consciousness influences reality? As long as the test itself is part of reality, the test is tainted. There can be no control experiment.

The controversial part of my book deals with some thought exercises ranging from quantum physics, to gravity, to luck, to an experience I had with a self-described psychic. They all sound silly out of context, particularly if you think I was trying to "prove" psychic ability, as David’s review suggests. My objective was to paint a picture of an alternate reality that is competitively imaginable with the "normal" view of reality. Most readers say I accomplished that. Once an alternate reality can be imagined, it becomes rational to try strategies that might work better if the alternate reality exists. Then see for yourself what happens, as long as there’s no risk involved.

If the normal view of reality were somehow provable, I would recommend only using strategies consistent with that view. But I’m skeptical, for the reasons I outline in the book. And where there is uncertainty of assumptions, it is rational to experiment with different strategies and see what gives the most consistent result.

Applying a skeptics approach to the thought exercises in my book is like criticizing me for not rhyming. It’s missing the point. It’s about imagining reality being different, not about proving it. Imagination has utility if it causes you to try some risk-free strategies that you wouldn’t have considered before -- specifically affirmations -- the act of writing your goals daily.

Hundreds of people have told me affirmations worked for them in incredible ways that seem beyond their own doing. Do affirmations actually shape reality? Or do they just change your perception of your own abilities? To me, the answer is obvious: It doesn’t matter. Those are both good things. It’s fun either way.

Just a few final points of facts. The offending chapter of the book is by far the most popular thing I’ve ever written, according to my mail. Departing from my normal humor was a calculated risk that paid off. Some readers were put off by it. Most were exhilarated. My mail is running about 100 to 1 in favor. (Yes, I know it’s not a scientific sample.)

I’ve been flamed to a crisp for my discussions of gravity and physics by many people who know a little about science. They write to tell me I got many things grossly wrong. By contrast, the people who seem to know a great deal about science (PhD’s, university professors, practicing scientists) write to tell me that I got it about right, enough to support my argument. If you feel compelled to write to correct my science, at least know which group is on your side.

Thanks for the chance to reply.

Scott Adams

David Bloomberg responds:

Mr. Adams’s response misses the main point of my review. Indeed, I focussed on his experiences with a supposed psychic rather than on his claims about affirmations and other strange science. In response, however, Mr. Adams practically ignored the numerous problems I pointed out and focussed on things I had not discussed. It almost appears that he was replying not to my review, but to other critical comments he has received from skeptics (I know of several who have had e-mail conversations with him -- see below).

I will address some of his points and allow one of the e-mail participants to respond to others.

I have to take issue with his claim that he is a "twelve" on a one-to-ten scale of skepticism (I’ve always thought that using a number off the possible scale was a bit strange to begin with). If he were as skeptical as he claimed, he should realize that experiencing something firsthand is not necessarily a way to prove its existence (even to oneself) -- especially when it comes to things like "psychic" powers, where trickery is often at work. He did not respond to the several points I made about how it did not appear that he did "totally control" his test.

In the book, he talked about how we have all read about experiments supposedly showing that "some people seem to consistently beat the laws of averages in controlled ESP tests." Are there such tests? Yes, and I erred when I wrote that good scientists don’t know about them. What I should have said is was that scientists do know about the tests, but have pointed out numerous experimental flaws in the way they were done. I meant to say that scientists are unaware of any good studies, not that good scientists are unaware of the studies in question (thanks to Jim Lippard for pointing out this mistake). But I digress.

In addition to apparently believing he could not be fooled, he appears to have also taken the claim that "psychics" are more accurate under hypnosis at face value. There is no good evidence that "psychics" are accurate at all, so I mentioned in my review that I’d love to know where that concept came from; Mr. Adams neglected to respond to that question.

Perhaps this is because, as he stated within the chapter in question, he is "not sufficiently interested in accuracy to spend a lot of time researching" all of the "scientific stuff." Perhaps that includes the studies on "psychics." But I do not think somebody should be able to justify an incorrect claim by simply saying they don’t have the interest to look into it more.

While I didn’t talk about his claims regarding affirmations, Mr. Adams says in his reply that "there’s no scientific evidence that affirmations shape reality." Indeed, I agree. However, within the book, Adams says things like: "Everything that I thought I knew about how the Universe was wired was wrong," because he used affirmations and got a higher score on his GMAT exam; and "When I think back to my GMAT results, I believe the contents of the envelope were variable until the moment I perceived what was inside;" and "Every day it gets harder for me to believe my thoughts are separate from reality." So, no, there is no scientific evidence, but that doesn’t stop Mr. Adams from repeatedly telling the reader that he believes affirmations do, indeed, shape reality. (Were the results of his GMAT exam variable until he saw them?

No; they were entered into a computer before the envelope ever went out, and his results had to be tabulated with everybody else’s results in order to determine what percentile he and everybody else fell into -- the results of such tests are comparative.)

How would we test affirmations? Mr. Adams gives us a hint. He says in the book, "The odds of becoming a successful syndicated cartoonist are about 10,000 to 1. I knew the odds, but I figured they didn’t apply to me." Well, what if we got a large number of people to work seriously on affirmations to become syndicated cartoonists? If a large number of people followed the same exact steps as Mr. Adams, would they all have syndicated cartoons?

Perhaps the most disturbing part of Mr. Adams’ reply is his statement that he doesn’t care why affirmations work, whether it’s actually shaping reality or simply changing a person’s perceptions of his own abilities. But skeptics seek out such answers. If affirmations really do work, we want to know why. If psychic powers really do exist, we want to know how. If there are new, undiscovered forces at work in the universe, we want to discover them!

Take acupuncture for example (many proponents of acupuncture say things similar to what Mr. Adams has said here -- they say they don’t care how it works, as long as it works. If acupuncture were found to work, would we care whether it was because of the ancient concept of "Qi," a mysterious energy field; or if it was because the needles stimulated the body to produce chemicals that acted to help the body; or if it were simply the placebo effect? Yes! If it is the first, doctors and other scientists certainly need to know about this new form of energy. If it’s the second, doctors and other scientists could use that information to work on new pain relievers and medicines. If it’s the third, doctors and scientists are already familiar with the placebo effect and wouldn’t need to waste excess time and money investigating it further.

Near the beginning of the chapter I reviewed, Mr. Adams said, "If you feel inspired to do so, I encourage you to research the scientific tidbits, think about the logic of it all, and tell me how uninformed and stupid I am. If that process makes you think about anything differently, this chapter did its job, regardless of where you come out." Well, I hope that Mr. Adams takes a good hard look at my original review, this response, and the other e-mail he’s gotten from skeptics and tries to think about the logic of it all; I’d certainly encourage him to do the scientific research, especially if he plans to put such musings in future books. I hope that will make him think differently about these things and his claims to skepticism.

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