When I was a kid I loved cartoon strips. Garfield, BC, Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes. They were one of my favourite things and eventually I managed to write a handful of my own (to varying degrees of success). In there somewhere was Dilbert. While not my favourite, I voraciously read it and eventually got my hands on the Dilbert Principle. The principle itself was that incompetent people get promoted to where they can do the least damage.
It was a lovely silly idea with a gentle whiff of plausibility within. Scott Adams’ books continued the thread. The Dilbert Future, and then God’s Debris. I connected with them both and signed up to his newsletter. It was filled with commonly held processes being unpicked in unnatural ways.
Can you make a meal that is exactly what the body needs and nothing else? (The Dilburrito)
Can you select which branch you travel in through the multiverse using affirmations?
How deep does the holy land go and could you take an inch thick layer off the top and spread it out someone else to make twice as much holy land?
It compartmentalised problems to make them seem more manageable and taught me how to think perpendicular to the problem. Crucially, you would need to distance yourself from the emotional energy of an idea. It becomes a clever riddle rather than an overwhelmingly emotional problem. I love thinking about ideas like this and it certainly helped me develop my sense of humour. Even now when I’m discussing a piece of science on Smart Enough to Know Better I can feel those humour muscles pulsing.
The problem with training yourself to distance yourself from emotions and empathy when thinking like this is that a phrase that seems like another part of the puzzle is still going to have emotional weight that you don’t intend. When Scott was pondering cultural behaviour he wrote "women are treated differently by society for exactly the same reason that children and the mentally handicapped are treated differently." This is incredibly offensive to read and yet, deep in the puzzle side of things, I didn’t even register it at the time. It’s correct to think that we allow children concessions that we don’t allow to adults. In our culture men will almost always end up carrying the heavy stuff or cleaning up the really gross stuff. In the midst of the puzzle this seemed clear, but taken out of context or coming to it with fresh eyes it’s impossible now to see it as anything but offensive. ( And indeed I believe that he later removed that post )
Almost all of Scott Adams spare energy at the moment seems to be pointed towards the Trump Administration. Unpicking emotional charged ideas and playing with the puzzle aspect of them has left many calling him alt-right despite him actively stating he leans left and is only interested in the tools being used.
Living a life thinking like this is socially dangerous. We are, each of us, primates at heart. Storytelling monkeys. Our default state is emotion. It’s how we communicate. If we hear someone trying to find the good in someone or something our tribe has learned to hate we react emotionally. If we’re attacked we develop emotional defences to see the attackers as the other tribe. And then to connect with the people who agree with us. I don’t think Scott Adams is immune to this.
I still like to follow Scott Adams. He gave me the tools to analyse my own biases and, in doing so, to analyse his. I’ve hopefully now got the skill-set to take just the right amount of salt with everything he says. I love to address complex social issues with the same dispassion, but I’ve learned to make decisions based firstly on kindness, then, a distant second, on being right. This has helped me rebalance the puzzles and ideas side of me with the social animal, and being a kind social animal is like a monkey super-power.