Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter is cartoonist Scott Adams’ look at not just the contentious 2016 Presidential election that saw billionaire Donald J. Trump triumph over rival Hillary Clinton, but why he did. While many of you are no doubt familiar with Adams’ most famous creation, Dilbert, his philosophy gained new currency during the election cycle after appearances on several prominent blogs and podcasts where he endorsed Trump the candidate, who he calls “the most persuasive human I have ever observed.”
Politics and ideologies aside, Adams rationalizes Trump was a weapons-grade master persuader who brought a “flamethrower to a stick fight” in a world where facts are overrated. Regarding the ‘surprising’ election results last November and near-hysteria that followed, he observes “it is obvious that roughly half of the people in the United States made a deeply irrational decision in that election.” But which half, you might be asking? “As a trained hypnotist,” he explains, “I can tell you with confidence that both halves were right.”
Apart from producing Dilbert, Adams’ has built a lucrative second-career churning out satirical pokes at upper-management self-help books, from 1997’s The Dilbert Principle to 2014’s How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. I suspect that even had Trump lost his election bid we’d have some version of this book arriving on shelves. But it’s not his experience crafting the world’s most popular comic strip he uses to justify this hypothesis, but his training as a hypnotist.
Consider their world just prior to the election; no reasonable ‘expert’ had Trump winning, and those on the sidelines who were predicting (or possibly hoping), it didn’t make sense, personally or financially, to join the fray. That someone with Adams’ notoriety would jeopardize both makes for interesting reading, at the very least. “I had already tainted my reputation quite a bit by endorsing Trump. I had trashed my income at the same time, as my speaking career went from thriving to zero. I thought I knew what I was getting into.”
The book largely mixes Adams’ thoughts via recycled blog posts coupled with running commentary explaining various terms and giving examples of each. At center lay Adam’s Persuasion Filter, which belongs in the same psychometric grouping as Steve Jobs’ infamous Reality Distortion Field. It’s not intended to give you an accurate view of reality, he claims, but simply better results than other filters. It’s based around the idea human rationality is pure nonsense, that much of our perspective is blinded by failures to recognize the impact of Cognitive Dissonance and Confirmation Bias on our precious egos.
To demonstrate, take a look at the case of statistician Nate Silver, celebrated for his near-perfect calling of the 2008 presidential election (and not his less precise calling of the 2012 election). Silver, unlike Adams, takes great pains to shield his methodology from onlookers, making it difficult to follow or reproduce those predictions with any accuracy. Using Adams’ criteria, you could argue Silver’s personal ideology biased his data, or that gross assumptions led to systemic failures to gather and quantify new data that contrasted with existing data pools. Post-election analysis has supported the idea that pollsters neglected to account for non-traditional voters (i.e. rural) or those without landlines (smartphone users are often excluded from polling). Predictive inference only works in a hermetically sealed vacuum; polls and predictions are not facts, but examined data points. Quite often these data change and must be accounted for.
On the contrary, Adams was openly public with his predictions, inviting fans to join him on live streams and on his wildly shared blog. He became a constant presence on podcasts and radio interviews, though seldom on mainstream outlets. A self-professed “ultraliberal,” his switch of endorsement from Trump to Clinton (following a brief dalliance with Libertarian Gary Johnson before eventually rejoining the Trump camp) was as brazenly honest as his original support for Trump: he feared for his life, and hated bullies. Nevermind that Trump the candidate was himself considered a bully, Clinton’s supporters were worse, and they were threatening him.
If nothing else, he concedes, “No matter what you thought of Trump or his policies, he certainly was different.”
The point isn’t to castigate Silver or lionize Adams, but it’s helpful to look at the methodologies being used to make these predictions and prognostications. The failure is at root level, as journalists appear to be largely science-illiterate, unable to parse statistical aggregates or identify a standard deviation. Elitism aside, read their bylines and you’ll discover most aren’t even journalists by trade, but merely playing the role, called forth by witless networks and papers to explain some facet of something complicated to the unwashed masses incapable of understanding complex ideas without them.
And these skills often don’t translate cleanly from their actual professions to punditry, where the core concept of ethical journalism is objective reporting. Adams’ might argue this continuous wash-cycle of mediocre interpretation was itself self-fulfilling confirmation bias; Trump would lose the election because experts who disliked Trump stated he would lose the election. When they’re correct, as in Nate Silver’s 2008 case, these predictions are celebrated and taken as fact. When they’re not…oh well, you can’t win them all. But Silver’s background was largely in the realm of sports analysis – so why not a cartoonist?
Actually, that’s a good question, and not nearly as far-fetched as you’d think. Before casually dismissing Adams as a “mere cartoonist” (as some have), consider the history. From earlier Yellow Kid newspaper wars to Walt Kelley’s Pogo to Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury to Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County, the funnies have always been at the forefront of political discourse and dissection, at least the good ones, anyway. While crafty editors would segregate the more serious ‘editorial’ cartoons to the opinion page, shrewder and more relevant cartoonists would use their panels to satirize the very real cartoonish buffoonery taking place on the Hill. Some might argue it wasn’t that big a leap.
As a comic strip, Dilbert has always favored raw logic over emotion, with Adams deconstructing those frail accouterments of polite society and going places lesser strips fear to tread. As such, it’s largely free of the sentimentalism and overt gestures to humanity’s better nature. Dilbert’s message has always been clear: we are doomed.
This synergy of apathy and stark reality leads to a series of amusing anecdotes and evaluative statements, some more relevant to the topic at hand than others. A favorite of mine was on analogies, which aren’t logic, says Adams, and not relevant facts: When debate opponents retreat to analogies, it is because they have no rational arguments. You won. “When I see a cauliflower, it reminds me of a human brain, but that doesn’t mean you should eat brains in your salad.”
There’s more, of course, but you’ll need to unpack these gems for yourselves to learn the differences between weapons-grade and commercial-grade persuaders, or the surprising symbolism behind John Bolton’s funky mustache. Oh, to be a fly on the wall for that conversation.
In the chapter “WAS I PREDICTING OR CAUSING?” Adams’ addresses perhaps the most contentious theory in the book, that his suggestions and observations may have influenced decisions and strategy by the Trump campaign. While some may find his forays into self-aggrandizement off putting (personally, I think most are stylistic and meant to be satirical) the answer seems to be: yes, probably so. For anyone else to make this connection would be the height of delusion, but not for the creator of Dilbert, which is read by hundreds of millions of people daily. Is it possible that a cartoonist with such a tremendous following would have more influence and trustworthiness than most journalists and media outlets?
Some will dismiss Scott Adams’ Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don’t Matter without a second thought, loathe to support the work of anyone appearing not to categorically disavow President Donald J. Trump. What a shame, because it’s this very group that would gain the most from Adams’ look at what happened during the election, and why. Not all of his arguments hit the mark, of course, but honest post-election analysis thus far has been cupboard bare. Currently, it’s a small list, with Allen and Parnes’ highly readable Shattered the best of the bunch, though if it’s self-delusion you’re craving, I suggest Clinton’s own What Happened to find out exactly what didn’t. Adams’ book has the distinction of being written by someone who was, largely, correct.