April 18, 2011
Did you see the reports of my scandalous behavior on the Internet? The headlines say “Scott Adams Caught Defending Himself Anonymously on Metafilter!” The stories go on to explain that I was posting under the name PlannedChaos and pretending to be the only person in the world who doesn’t hate me. According to the wise and fair denizens of the Internet, this behavior is proof that I am a thin-skinned, troll, asshole, dick, fame-whore, ego maniac, douche nozzle, misogynist. That list might sound bad to you, but keep in mind that I was starting from a pretty low base, so I think my reputation is trending up.
You might have questions about this story. So I asked my Internet alter-ego, PlannedChaos, to interview me and get to the bottom of it.
PlannedChaos: Mr. Adams, do you mind if I call you Douche Nozzle?
Scott: This interview is over! You really are a dick!
Let’s try this the old-fashioned way. I’ll give you all of the facts about this scandal, and some proper context, and you can assume every word of it is bullshit. And that leads me to my first point about context: As a general rule, you can’t trust anyone who has a conflict of interest. Conflict of interest is like a prison that locks in both the truth and the lies. One workaround for that problem is to change the messenger. That’s where an alias comes in handy. When you remove the appearance of conflict of interest, it allows others to listen to the evidence without judging.
Obviously an alias can be used for evil just as easily as it can be used to clear up simple factual matters. A hammer can be used to build a porch or it can be used to crush your neighbor’s skull. Don’t hate the tool.
The next thing to consider is that in my line of work, some types of rumors can cause economic damage to hundreds of people in the so-called value chain. The stakes are high. I know from experience that when a rumor flares up that says, for example, I’m affiliated with one particular interest group or another, the people who hate that group will stop reading Dilbert comics. And they will aggressively warn everyone who will listen to do the same. This was a small problem in the pre-Internet age. Today, a rumor will send an army of advocates to vote down your products on Amazon.com and defame you on every blog and web site that allows comments. It happens in hours, not days.
This week for example, I’m the target of Men’s Rights advocates, Feminists, and one bearded taint who is leading an anti-creationist movement. What do those folks have in common? In each case they are using the same strategy. They take out of context something I’ve written, present it to the lazy Internet media who doesn’t check context, and use it to demonize me to gain publicity for their respective causes. That’s how advocates get free publicity. They find a celebrity to target.
The same thing is happening today with a Republican official who emailed some friends a humorous photo of President Obama’s face on a chimp and a punch line about his birth certificate. If your only context is what the Internet says about this story, you assume it’s a typical racist act by a Republican who is already guilty by association. But if I add the context that Googling “George Bush monkey” gives you over 3 million hits, and most of them are jokes where President Bush’s face is transposed on a monkey, you see what’s really going on. Democrats and advocates of civil rights are using the media to further an agenda at the expense of a woman who was probably so non-racist that the photo in question didn’t set off her alarms as being a career-ending risk.
In my book The Dilbert Future, published in 1997, I predicted that in the future the media would start killing celebrities to generate demand for their so-called news. That seemed like a stretch when the worst part of the media was the tabloids. Now the Internet has given media power to the likes of Gawker, Metafilter, and any other cesspool with an IP address. When the low end of the media conspired with unscrupulous advocates to label the aforementioned Republican woman a racist, they probably killed her career, and they might end up killing her too.
There’s no sheriff on the Internet. It’s like the Wild West. So for the past ten years or so I’ve handled things in the masked vigilante-style whenever the economic stakes are high and there’s a rumor that needs managing. Usually I do it for reasons of safety or economics, but sometimes it’s just because I don’t like sadists and bullies.
Some time ago, I learned the hard way that posting messages with my own identity turns any discussion into an orgy of name-calling. When I’m personally involved, people speculate that I’m being defensive, or back pedaling, or being a douche nozzle, or trying to weasel my way out of something. Speaking with my true identity also draws too much attention to the very rumors I’m trying to extinguish. In contrast, when my spunky alter ego weighs in, people generally focus on the facts presented, including checking the source material to see my writing in context. The masked vigilante strategy worked well until recently. And I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t fun.
Most of the inaccurate information about me on the Internet is harmless. And negative opinions about the quality of my work are always legitimate. The trouble starts when advocates for one cause or another use me as a whipping boy to promote their agendas. As I mentioned, the way that works is that they take out of context something I’ve written, paraphrase it incorrectly, and market me as a perfect example of the thought-criminal that they’ve been warning everyone about. I don’t think any of this is an organized conspiracy. I think it’s a combination of zealotry, bad reading comprehension, opportunism, and some herd behavior.
[If you’re new to this, the paragraph above is the part that will be taken out of context and paraphrased to show that I’m paranoid and delusional, claiming that organized groups are out to get me.]
The best example of the rumor problem involves the topic of evolution. I’ve often stated publicly that evolution meets the scientific standard of “fact.” But when I write an article or a comic on any unrelated topic that sparks discussion on other sites, a commenter suspiciously appears each time to say, “Adams has no credibility because he doesn’t believe in evolution.” Dilbert readers don’t expect all of their opinions to line up with mine, but evolution is probably the hottest of hot buttons for the technology crowd. If you’re rumored to be anti-science, you’re dead to them, and so is your product. That’s a rumor with economic consequences.
If you wonder how the evolution rumor started, it’s partly because I made the following argument: The evidence for evolution, by its nature, seems fishy to the average non-scientist independent of the underlying truth. That’s a statement about human perceptions, not the objective reality of the theory. The suggestion here is that if scientists could do a better job of packaging the evidence for evolution it might help convert the doubters. Malevolent posters often quote me out of context as saying, “The evidence for evolution smells like bullshit.” Out of context it means nearly the opposite of what it means within context.
I’ve also famously predicted that the theory of evolution will be debunked in my lifetime. That sounds like crazy Creationist talk, and a direct contradiction to my statement that evolution is a scientific fact. The context for that prediction is the notion that a future Einstein might someday demonstrate that our common sense understanding of the passage of time is flawed. If that happens, every part of our observed reality will be debunked, sort of. Instead of focusing on evolution, I could have predicted that the history of your daily commute to work will be debunked. It’s the same point but less catchy.
By now you are probably thinking that my prediction has nearly zero chance of being right. I’ll let you in on an industry secret: You’re correct. You know all of those books on the market that predict various economic bubbles, social upheavals, and disasters of all kinds? Most of those authors don’t believe their predictions are likely to pan out. They’re making calculated bets that in the unlikely event they guessed right, they will become famous. That’s worth a fortune in future speaking gigs and book deals.
My contrarian prediction about evolution being debunked in my lifetime was the same sort of bet. It’s unlikely that I’ll be right. But if I get lucky, I’ll be the one person who predicted it. And because of the “in my lifetime” condition, I can’t be wrong until I’m too dead to care. This is the sort of thing I do that really, really, really pisses off some people, especially the anti-creationist bearded taint guy.
Keep in mind that Einstein debunked humanity’s common sense understanding of gravity, and no one saw that coming. Your great grandfather probably thought the planet was exerting an invisible sucking force called gravity to keep him from floating away. But Einstein figured out that mass curves spacetime. That sounds different than an invisible sucking force. I’m just saying anything can happen.
Let’s take a moment to call back the discussion of how the messenger changes the message. A large number of you are reading my explanation of the evolution rumor and dismissing it as my pathetic attempt at revisionist history. I’m back pedaling! I got caught being a moron and now I’m trying to save face!
See how this works? The messenger with a strong self-interest is automatically non-credible, and should be. There are some types of information that can only be communicated by an unbiased messenger. And the most unbiased messenger in the world is one that is imaginary, such as my invisible friend, PlannedChaos. Speaking of him, let’s get back to my interview to mop up some lingering questions.
PlannedChaos: Isn’t it fundamentally dishonest, and therefore immoral, to debate under an assumed name?
Scott: Yes. On the scale of immoral behavior, where genocide is at the top, and wearing Spanx is near the bottom, posting comments under an alias to clear up harmful misconceptions is about one level worse than Spanx.
PlannedChaos: Are you saying the ends justify the means?
Scott: Yes, sometimes. The types of people who act solely on principle are the ones who burn Korans and wonder why something went wrong.
PlannedChaos: How do we know this whole scheme isn’t a Dogbertian prank. You have a dark history of doing exactly this sort of thing.
Scott: There’s no way for you to know if it’s a prank. The only person who knows the answer to that question is me, and I’m not credible. But for the record, my non-credible answer is that the entertainment value of this endeavor was only a side benefit. With that said, I have to confess that giving verbal wedgies to people who desperately deserve them, in a public forum, is a lot more fun than you imagine.
PlannedChaos: Didn’t you once wear a professional disguise, including a wig and mustache, and pass yourself off as a famous consultant named Ray Mebert?
Scott: Yes, several years ago at Logitech’s meeting of top management. I led them through a Mission Statement workshop that I manipulated to create the world’s worst Mission Statement. The president of Logitech was in on the prank, and the San Jose Mercury sponsored the whole thing.
PlannedChaos: So you’ve been a douche for quite some time?
PlannedChaos: Are you a fame whore?
Scott: Yes, but I have ambitions to become a high-priced fame prostitute. In my job, fame is just one of the tools. The main reason you’ve heard of Dilbert is that I’m a tireless self-promoter and I’ve been able to work with some of the best PR professionals in the industry. (I’m off the leash at the moment. You might have noticed.)
PlannedChaos: Are you just a troll?
Scott: If I understand the term, trolling involves off-topic comments with no purpose other than to get people worked up. My main purpose is generally to add context to the stuff that trolls and issue advocates have posted online about me. My primary motivation is economic as opposed to evil. But I do have a twitchy trigger finger when I run into sadists and bullies online. So while I generally enter an online conversation with the intent of suppressing damaging misunderstandings, I’ve been known to empty my clip once I’m there. I’m not proud of that. I’m also not proud that my personal hero is the bigger kid in this video. I’ll own that.
PlannedChaos: I called you a genius on Metafilter. Is that proof that you are an ego-maniac?
Scott: No, that is not proof. But as circumstantial evidence goes, it’s pretty good. The proof that I’m an ego-maniac is that I’m interviewing myself in my own blog. I don’t think I can be any clearer on that point.
I will add some context though. Keep in mind that creating the hapless Dilbert character largely in my own image launched a twenty year career of daily self-deprecation. Likewise, about half of what I write outside of the comic is unambiguously self-deprecating. I’m a short, near-sighted, bald, over-the-hill guy with a bad sense of direction and an astonishing lack of competence at 99% of life’s challenges. It is also objectively true that I sometimes have good days. That last part is a thing called arrogance.
Another bit of context is that most of what I write outside of the comic is meant to be entertainment for a certain type of reader who likes to be exposed to a wide variety of viewpoints no matter how ridiculous. With the blog in particular, the explicit model is that I write down whatever dumbass theory pops into my head and try to sell it as God’s final word. Then my readers shred it in the comment section, or sometimes say it’s an old idea that’s already been done. Taken out of context, many of my blog posts and even my Wall Street Journal articles would look like the crazy rantings of a guy who thinks he has all the answers to fix the entire world. At best, that’s only half true.
And the last piece of context is that I created you, PlannedChaos, specifically to say things that are relevant to the debate but would be grossly inappropriate for me to say about myself. By analogy, if critics of President Obama start calling him stupid, it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to whip out his SAT scores. But if one of his spokespeople reminds the public that the President has a law degree from Harvard, which by any objective measure puts him in the genius category, that’s a legitimate response. Context is everything.
PlannedChaos: Are you going to go full-Sheen or is this mental breakdown more of a temporary thing that you can fix with rehab?
Scott: No promises, but I think I’ll be okay if I lay off the crack pipe for a few days.
PlannedChaos: Why wouldn’t it be better to just defend yourself online using your real name?
Scott: You’re not a good listener. Watch what happens now that I have. Every part of this post will be taken out of context and twisted to its opposite meaning.
PlannedChaos: Are you going to smugly claim that you orchestrated everything that happened, including getting caught, and it is all part of your oh-so-clever plan? You do that sometimes.
PlannedChaos: What’s the point of trying to correct inaccurate rumors online when you often say no one is persuaded by new information?
Scott: That’s a brilliant question. Are you a genius?
PlannedChaos: Just having a good day.
Scott: Rarely is anyone persuaded by new information once a strong opinion has been formed. But I like to think that some people haven’t yet formed opinions on the question of whether I am a Holocaust Denier, to pick just one example. That’s an actual rumor floating around the Internet. I hope to influence the undecided.
The second benefit of joining a debate that I might prefer had never happened is that once inside I can shift the conversation from something awful to something less so. We humans are wired to think that the most important fact is the one that gets repeated and discussed the most. This scandal started when I went to Metafilter to kill the rumor that I’m anti-science. But after I stirred up things, what are people discussing most often now?
PlannedChaos: They’re mostly appalled that you invented a fake identity to call yourself a genius.
Scott: Wait for it…
PlannedChaos: Damn it! You’re doing it again! You arrogant bastard!