Beware the Man Who Knows One Thing

OK, let me admit this first and get it out of the way: I used to be a big fan of Scott Adams.

In the early 2000s, I regularly read Adams’ Dilbert strip and subscribed to his newsletter, “Dogbert’s New Ruling Class“. I signed up for the jokes, but in retrospect, what I overlooked was the condescension. In between the office anecdotes and corporate-jargon humor, Adams insisted that his fans were naturally superior, that they’re the ones who see how the world really is. In Ayn Rand-esque language, he proclaimed that he and his readers were a select subset of humanity – the few rare and sparkling geniuses surrounded by great herds of “induhviduals” (it’s funny because everyone who doesn’t share Scott Adams’ viewpoint is a mindless drone, you see).

Even before my skeptical awakening, some of his obsessions struck me as weird. One was how he credited his success to “affirmations“, basically The Secret by another name. I remember that when his short-lived animated series was on the verge of cancellation, Adams sent out an emergency newsletter imploring his subscribers to use the power of affirmations to keep it on the air. (It didn’t work.)

I’d like to say it was the woo-wooism or the superiority complex that soured me on Adams, but the truth is that I eventually just grew bored with his repetitive brand of humor. I grew up, moved on, and didn’t think much more of it. But in the last few years, his name has repeatedly bubbled up on some of the skeptical and feminist blogs I read, and it’s gotten to the point that I have to write about it.

It’s obvious that Adams always had grander ambitions than cartooning. He styles himself a profound thinker, a philosopher-cum-satirist dispensing his hard-earned wisdom to a world thirsty for it. However, the more we hear from him, the more obvious it is that his ambition far exceeds his intellectual reach.

Scott Adams is a classic example of what I call the Man Who Knows One Thing: someone who’s an expert in one specific field, but wrongly believes that this narrow expertise qualifies him to speak with authority on any subject he chooses to turn his attention to. (See also: Richard Dawkins.) In this case, Adams’ success in skewering the foibles of corporate culture led him to conclude that he’s capable of spotting and debunking absurdity in every part of society.

One sure sign of a Man Who Knows One Thing is that he’s introduced to a problem previously unfamiliar to him and instantly believes he’s seen a solution that people who study the issue for a living, or live with it on a daily basis, have never thought of. I give you Scott Adams on sexist street harassment:

I assume the makers of the video intend me to watch it and conclude “Sexism is out of control! Women can’t even walk the streets unmolested! Something must be done!”

Here’s my actual reaction: “MOVE SOMEWHERE BETTER, YOU IDIOT!”

Dear Scott: When you find that mythical utopia with no sexism or harassment, let us know where it is! I’m sure plenty of people would be thrilled to move there.

But it’s not just sexism where Adams wades merrily in without making the slightest effort to educate himself. He’s no fan of atheists either, and to prove that atheism is indefensible, he offers a brilliant argument… Pascal’s Wager. Is it possible that atheists have heard this argument before and have presented rebuttals? No time for Scott Adams to check! There are so many topics crying out for his opinion.

Adams has also endorsed creationist arguments more than once. He claims that evolution trips his “usually-excellent bullshit filter” and predicts that it will be disproven or substantially revised in his lifetime, based on nothing but “a hunch”. In an unsurpassable example of Knows One Thing-ism, he analogizes the evidence for evolution to an anecdote from his corporate days where a single customer suggestion was exaggerated into “hundreds” of client requests.

Another tell-tale of a Man Who Knows One Thing is blithe confidence that his personal beliefs and experiences can be generalized to all of humanity. Here’s where Adams stops being simply ridiculous and starts getting seriously creepy:

The part that interests me is that society is organized in such a way that the natural instincts of men are shameful and criminal while the natural instincts of women are mostly legal and acceptable.

What, according to Scott Adams, are these “natural instincts” of men that are shamed and criminalized? Adultery? Rape? Violence? Harassment? Doesn’t he realize how demeaning and insulting to all men it is (#NotAllMen!) when he asserts that it’s “natural” for us to want to rape and pillage? I know I wouldn’t trust men if I believed that were true.

But this wasn’t just a poorly phrased word choice or clumsy misstatement. In another post from last month, Adams reiterates the point, insisting that he meant what he said about men being inherently violent and dangerous. But like many a misogynist before him, he puts the burden of solving this problem on women, arguing that they have to soothe us potential killers by regularly offering affection and sex, and that if they don’t do this, men will become suicide bombers in revenge:

Lonely boys tend to be suicidal when the odds of future female companionship are low.

So if you are wondering how men become cold-blooded killers, it isn’t religion that is doing it. If you put me in that situation, I can say with confidence I would sign up for suicide bomb duty.

…Men like hugging better than they like killing. But if you take away my access to hugging, I will probably start killing, just to feel something. I’m designed that way. I’m a normal boy. And I make no apology for it.

In that same post, Adams decries the fact that, even if he pays for a date, the woman still gets to decide whether to have sex with him. He uses this as evidence that men are an oppressed class, rather than, oh, I don’t know, that we live in a society where people of all genders enjoy a right of bodily autonomy.

Despite his stated belief that men are dumb, violent brutes who respond to a lack of sex by killing, Adams bafflingly maintains that they’re also more rational. He wrote that men should deal with disagreement from women the same way we deal with “children and the mentally handicapped” (“a man’s best strategy for dealing with each group is disturbingly similar“). He later deleted this post, explaining that only his regular readers were smart enough to understand it and that ordinary people feel “too much emotion” (which is not at all a dog-whistle) to grasp what he meant.

Last but not least, the Man Who Knows One Thing invariably has a high opinion of his own intellect, and when he discovers that others don’t share that view, he becomes baffled and upset and may take extreme measures to address the injustice. This probably explains an episode from 2011 when Adams created sockpuppet accounts on social media to anonymously sing the praises of himself. When this scheme was uncovered, he wasn’t even a little ashamed, calling it “fun” (notwithstanding that he knew the problem with sockpuppetry when he depicted it in his own comic strip).

Just one good thing has come from this parade of ignorance: a brilliant parody Tumblr, MRA Dilbert, which recaptions Dilbert cartoons with Scott Adams’ actual opinions. For leisure reading and amusement, I have to say, it greatly improves on the original.

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