The Persuasion Filter Looks at Torture. Does it Work?

    If I ever get captured and threatened with torture it will take about five seconds for me to give up every secret I have. That’s because I know I would break eventually, so why put up with unnecessary torture?

    I assume the same is true for the lightly-trained ISIS fighters. Some are just teenagers. Once the bravery-inducing drugs in their system wear off, I have to assume that at least some of them – if not most – would become quite flexible under the threat of torture, not to mention the torture itself.

    But won’t they lie?

    Well, in many cases the secrets they reveal under torture can be easily checked. If they tell you ISIS has a munitions storage area somewhere, you can go check it out. If they tell you there are ISIS troops massing somewhere, you can fly a drone over and take a look. 

    And if you learn that the prisoner lied? More torture, I assume, and probably worse than the first time. So lying about things that can be verified is a bad strategy for a captive.

    Some things can’t be verified. But sometimes you have two prisoners. See if their stories match up. That would help.

    My point is that common sense, combined with everything you know about human beings, tells you that torture works, at least in some cases. It would work on me. It would work on you. It would certainly work on under-trained ISIS prisoners. 

    So why do the experts say torture doesn’t work? 

    The answer can be found in the Persuasion Filter. Torture is persuasion, but so is the way you talk about it. If you promote me to the rank of General, put me on television, and ask me if torture works, do you know what I’ll say?

    I’ll say it doesn’t work. 

    I’ll say I can get more cooperation by being nice. I will look you in the eye and lie my ass off. Because that’s my job.

    As a military General, my job is to keep my troops safe. So I will lie about the effectiveness of torture for several reasons: 

    1) An enemy might someday capture my troops. I don’t want the enemy to think torture is a practical option.

    2) I don’t want the enemy to know their captured soldiers will be giving up their secrets to my side in under five seconds.

    3) I don’t want to tarnish the brand of the United States or the military by associating it with torture.

    4) I don’t want to go to jail. Torture is illegal.

    So the ideal approach for an “expert” on torture is to say in public that it never works while finding ways to skirt the law and use it anyway when needed. Waterboarding, for example, was an attempt to stay legal while still “torturing.” 

    Keep in mind that for every “expert” on television that says torture never works, there are lots of “experts” around the world using the method every day. I doubt they would use if it it NEVER worked. After all, they are the experts.

    This brings us to President Trump. He says with surprising candor that he believes torture works but will follow the recommendation of his generals who say it doesn’t.

    Interpretation: Torture works. The generals know it. We’ll find a way to do it if necessary to keep the country safe. You don’t want to know the details.

    We like to believe that experts are more credible than non-experts. And President Trump is no expert on torture. But keep in mind that President Trump is a Master Persuader who can detect bullshit faster than normal people. 

    You might even call him an expert at detecting bullshit. 

    When President Trump presents something as fact, the odds are high that it is hyperbole or just persuasion. You don’t want to assume his facts are literally true, although they are usually emotionally or directionally true.

    But if President Trump – The Master Persuader – tells you someone else’s facts are bullshit, you can usually take that to the bank. The man knows bullshit when he sees it. And with his skillset he can also smell it coming from miles away.

    On an unrelated topic, when you see President Trump disagreeing with the experts on climate change, you assume he has no credibility. He’s not an expert in the field. But he does know bullshit when he sees it. And I think he believes the prediction models are unlikely to be accurate. (As do I.) The prediction models are not science, per se. They are persuasion disguised as science via the process of conflation and association. And Trump knows persuasion.

    Trump could be completely wrong about climate change. So could I. But when the Master Persuader calls bullshit on something, be cautious about betting against him. 

    Scott Adams

    Co-founder of WhenHub

    Author of How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big

Best Arguments For and Against Climate Model Credibility

    Below are competing links on the credibility of climate change models. One makes the case that the models do a good job. The other makes a case that the models are not credible. See which one you find more persuasive.

    As I have been saying all along, I can’t tell which argument is right. I’m not smart enough to evaluate this sort of topic. But if we are looking at the persuasion dimension alone, one of these is far stronger persuasion than the other.

    Argument in favor of climate models being credible (video)

    Argument against climate models being credible (article)

    By the way, I’m being attacked on Twitter for being an alleged “climate denier.” For the record, I side with the consensus of climate scientists for the sake of my career and reputation. My blogging is about the persuasiveness of the claims, not the underlying facts.

    Persuasion-wise, and based on what I have seen, the folks who say the climate models are not credible are far more persuasive than the people who believe the models are reliable. But persuasion is not always connected to truth. The truth of climate change isn’t fully available to me, given my lack of knowledge and training in the relevant fields. For now I’m siding with the consensus view of scientists, which puts me on the weak side of the persuasion game in this debate. My side really needs help.

    One way to help the climate is to drive less. The WhenHub app (my startup) might help with that. It’s like the Uber app without the Uber car. Watch your friends or business associates approach on a common map so no one gets lost on the way to meeting. People are loving it.

    WhenHub app for Apple: http://apple.co/2eLL3Oh

    WhenHub app for Android: http://bit.ly/2fIb6L7

Climate Change and Trump

    I realize a number of my blog readers don’t think climate change is a problem. Hold that objection until the end.

    Let’s say you think climate change is the biggest threat to humanity, and you also think Trump believes climate change to be a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, because he actually said that in the past. That’s a big problem, right?

    Let’s put it in context and see if doing so changes your mind.

    For starters, Trump has over fifty years of business experience, and according to all reports, he is a rational person in his private dealings. In public, however, he says all sorts of crazy, provocative, and untrue things. That is worrisome.

    But at the same time, he tells us in public that he acts this way for effect, and we observe that his approach works. Trump secured the Republican nomination doing exactly what everyone in the world – except for a handful of trained persuaders – said he should NOT do. 

    You might understand why Trump’s approach worked in the Republican Primary, where things can get crazy, but you’re probably thinking the same approach will fail in the general election. And you’d be right. That’s why you already see Trump evolving. He’s moderated from super-provocative to simply provocative. And we have observed him acting presidential during victory speeches, and other times when it suits him to do so. Evidently he has control over turning on and off the provocative stuff.

    We know Trump deals in hyperbole, and he bends the truth when that is the approach that is most persuasive. But he does it right in front of us, while explaining that he does it because it works. In an odd way, he is the most transparent candidate we have ever seen. He tells us that hyperbole (bullshit) and provocation get good results, and we observe that to be true. At least so far.

    Given that Trump is light on policy details, and prefers provocation over facts, we can expect Trump’s real opinion on climate change is more along the lines of haven’t really looked into it yet. At least not in any detail.

    Should you worry that the probable next President of the United States is not well-informed about one of the most important issues of our time?


    If you hired a CEO for a major corporation, and she wasn’t scheduled to start the job for six months, would you expect her to have a detailed plan for the company today?

    No, you would not expect that. 

    You would expect that the CEO would learn about each issue in detail, using the latest information and the best advisors, once on the job. For climate change, it might take advisors about three hours to bring a leader up to speed on the latest science. It isn’t a big deal. Trump is treating the presidency like any other job that you learn once you get there. That’s what Obama did. That’s what all presidents do.

    Now for the fun part.

    Imagine a Democratic President trying to persuade Republicans that they need to do something expensive to deal with climate change. That’s nearly impossible.

    Now imagine a President Trump trying to deal with climate change. The Democrats are pre-sold. He doesn’t need to convince them of anything. But to change the minds of Republicans, you need to so something hypnotists call pacing and leading.

    Trump is already pacing. That means acting like the people you plan to later persuade. In one-on-one situations, pacing might include matching the subject’s breathing, posture, and choice of words. In the public context it means saying what people are already thinking. Many Republicans believe climate change is not real. Trump said it. He paced them. Now they trust him, because he thinks the same way they do.

    And that means Donald Trump is – literally – the only human being on Earth who can persuade Republicans that climate change is real. Some of you might recognize this technique as “Nixon goes to China.” Richard Nixon paced Republicans by being a commie-hater, just like them. When Nixon decided to get friendly with China, his supporters trusted him because they knew he thought the same way they did. When Nixon changed his mind on China, his supporters figured they could be flexible too. That’s pacing and leading.

    Trump doesn’t need to change the minds of any Democrats to believe in climate change. They already believe it. But if Trump someday needs to change Republican minds, he’s in a position to do it. And easily.

    Here’s how.

    I’m going to put this in the form of a citizen request. I’d like to see Trump offer to bring the climate change debate to the public. Make it part of the show, like Celebrity Apprentice, with advocates of both sides presenting to Trump on camera. Maybe bring in some experts on communication to help each side do the best job of making their cases. (Scientists are terrible at communicating.)

    Trump isn’t claiming to know as much as a climate change scientist. He is staking out his brand as some sort of “common sense conservative.” Common sense says we should let the smart people on climate change present their arguments and see who has the best case. And it needs to be public.

    If you think climate change is real, you probably love that idea of proving it in public. You want the world to know what you know. And if you think climate change is a hoax, you want a chance to show the world that you are right. And news organizations would eat it up. It would be a spectacle, and in the end, the public would be better-informed.

    Does Trump really believe climate change is a hoax? Let me tell you the answer to that question in the clearest possible terms, based on everything I know about the field of persuasion.

    Answer: No

    But he might have doubts about the predictive ability of models. That’s a separate question.

Cows: Our Greatest Enemies

    I hate cows.

    My uncle owned a dairy farm. My siblings and I often worked on that farm. My chores included shoveling cow manure, cleaning the milk storage tanks, and herding the cows. One time I befriended a calf and gave it a cute name. A few weeks later my grandmother served it to me for dinner. It wasn’t the best way to hear the news. 

    I will always remember the day my brother and I were invited to watch the hog slaughter. My uncle slit each hog’s necks in front of us and we watched the hogs scream and bleed out.

    I’m a vegetarian now (mostly) but not because of that childhood farming horror. I don’t digest meat well. I tell you this background so you understand my bias.

    I recently watched a documentary called Cowspiracy. Leonardo DiCaprio executive produced it. The filmmakers are vegans, so take their point of view with the usual skepticism. The film’s claim is that science supports their notion that perhaps half of the problem with climate change is caused by livestock flatulence and the decimation of the rain forest for livestock farming.

    The more interesting claim is that the cow-fart portion of climate change is the type that can be quickly reversed. Once the cows are gone, the gases dissipate relatively quickly. The film claims that even if we stopped using all carbon fuels for transportation, the chemistry of the atmosphere is such that we would not get a meaningful improvement in a short time frame. But getting rid of livestock has a quick benefit, they say.

    According to the documentary, it’s either the cows (and other livestock) or us. If we keep eating animals, and the animals keep turbo-charging climate change, we’re all deeply screwed.

    The movie suggests that Big Meat might kill people for mentioning this topic. So if I die under suspicious circumstances, please reduce your meat consumption. Karma demands it.

    One assumes the Cowspiracy film has some bias. And I expect that critics are questioning the science and assumptions in the film. I’ll let you rip the documentary apart in the comments. But I think the basic premise that livestock is a big contributor to climate change is true. Fact-check me on that. 

    This week we heard that cured meats cause cancer. Sheesh.

    Now add the economics of using a zillion acres of land to feed cows instead of humans. That can’t be a good use of resources in a crowded world. 

    I would like to avoid a debate on the benefits of a vegetarian diet, as I find that unproductive in this sort of forum. But I am interested to know if any of you are meat-eaters and also climate change worriers. I don’t see how you can be both, assuming the Cowspiracy folks are right, or somewhat right.

    Is there anyone reading this blog who is both worried about climate change and also a meat-eater? If so, how do you rationalize it?

    P.S. It was nice knowing you.