Cartoon Metaphysics

The Dilbert Future, by Scott Adams,
HarperBusiness, 1997, 258 pages, $25, hardcover, ISBN 0-88730-886-X.

Reviewed by David Bloomberg

You're probably wondering what the review of a Dilbert book is doing in The REALL News. That's okay, I was wondering what nonsense portrayed as serious commentary on science was doing in a Dilbert book!

Don’t get me wrong, The Dilbert Future is a funny, enjoyable book -- until the final chapter. It is at that point that author Scott Adams drops the humor and replaces it with his serious musings on the world. These musings, however, look like they could have come from any random New Age "induhvidual" (his term for the billions of idiots who get in the way of the smart people who read Dilbert books).

Most of Adams' musings here begin with the logical fallacy that if he can't understand something, then it is not understandable by anybody and therefore probably isn't true. Or worse, he finds a subject he doesn't understand and then proceeds to make huge leaps of illogic to create new forces in the universe!

He tries to leave himself a loophole by stating at the beginning of this foray into nonsense that "some -- if not all -- of what I tell you next is scientifically inaccurate and maybe even illogical." But he goes on to say that it doesn't matter since he is just trying to get people to "imagine how your reality could be completely different from what you perceive and still look exactly the way it looks." In other words, he disclaims all errors from the outset and then wanders off into an oblivion of speculation.

I won't go into every detail here; indeed, he makes all sorts of claims about cause and effect, quantum physics (or, as his speculations are more appropriately called, "quantum quackery"), affirmations (the ability to change reality with one's mind merely by repeatedly thinking about some goal), etc., but I will only hit the lowest point in his illogic: his use of an anecdotal account that "proved" psychic powers to him. He calls himself a "natural skeptic," but then claims there are "experiments where some people seem to consistently beat the laws of averages in ESP tests." How is it that a cartoonist knows about these supposed tests, but I haven't met a good scientist who does?

To convince of us his "skepticism," he says that the media cannot convince him of this -- he would have to experience it firsthand. This is a classic mistake, and I could tell upon reading it that he was just setting himself up. I'm sorry, Mr. Adams, but you are not qualified to determine if somebody is using ESP "firsthand." But that's exactly what he did. He says he met a woman who claimed to have psychic powers. He'd heard reports that psychics are more accurate under hypnosis and was taking a class to learn it, so he asked if he could hypnotize and test the woman. (I'd love to know where this concept of psychics being "more accurate" under hypnosis came from -- considering we have yet to see good evidence that they can be accurate at all, but I digress.)

Follow along with this and see if you can spot the problems. First, she brought her own deck of tarot cards. Second, he was alone with her (in his house); he claims he "could totally control" the setting. He sat across the room from her and hypnotized her easily (he goes on to say there is "anecdotal evidence that psychics are easily hypnotized"). He shuffled the cards and picked one. She described the wrong card. He picked another and she described it wrong as well, but she described perfectly the first card he had picked. He picked a total of five cards and she described all five, but she was always one behind. When he asked her why she had gotten them out of order, she gave him some story about not being able to distinguish between the near past and the near future. Huh?

Okay, did you figure out the problems here? First, she brought the cards. That means they could have been marked and he would never have known. Second, they were all alone. While he thought he was controlling the setting, in fact that gave her the perfect opportunity to use any possible trickery without worrying that somebody else might notice. Third, just because she appeared to be easily hypnotized doesn't mean a thing. Fourth, the effect she created is a classic mentalist "one-ahead" trick. He was probably very careful to hide the card he was looking at (and indeed says he held it up against his chest), but once she had guessed for that card, it was unlikely he was so careful about it; this is especially true if her cards were marked on the back. Fifth, we are relying totally on his memory of these events; people in these situations have notoriously bad recollection of specifics. (James Randi has talked about a journalist who claims a famous key-bender never touched the key; when he showed her videotape proving that he had, indeed, held the key, she still insisted that's not the way she remembered it.) These are just the obvious problems that struck me immediately; magicians could probably point to several more.

But to further "prove" her abilities, the psychic found a "break" in his aura -- right under his armpit, where he had a "bad rash" that he was having trouble treating. Even though he calls it a "bad rash," he then goes on to say, "it wasn't bad enough to cause itching or anything that would have tipped her off." Again, I have to wonder about Adams' recollection of the event. Just because he doesn’t think he did anything to tip her off doesn't mean he actually didn't. I've seen a number of dead-on accurate cold readings done by people who are in no way, shape, or form psychics (for example, REALL's old friend, Investigator Bruce Walstad), and in every case the people who were being read were certain that they have not given anything away.

Finally, she hit the big one. She asked him if he was afraid of water. He says that water is his only irrational fear and was amazed at her powers. Then he remembered being afraid of water while on a bridge as a child. The psychic said, "I see a bridge." It is too bad that you didn't do more research on this, Mr. Adams, but you were just given a cold reading. I have to wonder how many other questions she asked; are we just dealing with a simple case of only remembering the positives? Water and bridges are fairly standard; I'm sorry, but I'm just not impressed.

Adams ends this tale by saying that since he is part of the media, he doesn't expect anybody to believe his story, "although it's true." To the contrary, I believe that this is exactly how he remembers it. However, I also have seen enough cases like this to suspect that Mr. Adams was simply fooled. Strangely, Adams began this chapter by talking about how perceptions can lead you astray (for example, the perception of earlier civilizations that the sun revolved around the earth). He notes, "Our eyesight was inadequate for the task. It took some experimentation and a lot more looking to find the truth." Fine. Good.

But then why does he ignore that very sentence while discussing his wonderful psychic? Mr. Adams needs to take his own advice. He also needs to stick to what he does best: Making people laugh. Cartoons don't require much research; science does. Stick to what you know, Mr. Adams.

David Bloomberg is the Chairman of REALL. He really enjoys Dilbert comic strips and wishes he'd never read the final chapter of this book. He firmly believes that we should never find out the personal opinions or beliefs of famous people whose work we admire.

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