The dark arts: Examples from the Harris-Adams conversation

Re­cently, James_Miller posted a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween Sam Har­ris and Scott Adams about Don­ald Trump. James_Miller ti­tled it “a model ra­tio­nal­ist dis­agree­ment”. While I agree that the tone in which the con­ver­sa­tion was con­ducted was helpful, I think Scott Adams is a top prac­ti­tioner of the Dark Arts. In­deed, he of­ten prides him­self on his per­sua­sion abil­ity. To me, he is very far from a model for a ra­tio­nal­ist, and he is the kind of figure we ra­tio­nal­ists should know how to fight against.

Here are some tech­niques that Adams uses:

  1. Chang­ing the sub­ject: (a) Har­ris says Trump is un­eth­i­cal and cites the ex­am­ple of Trump gate-crash­ing a char­ity event to falsely get credit for him­self. Adams re­sponds by say­ing that oth­ers are equally bad—that all poli­ti­ci­ans do morally du­bi­ous things. When Har­ris points out that Obama would never do such a thing, Adams says Trump is a very pub­lic figure and hence peo­ple have lots of dirt on him. (b) When Har­ris points out that al­most all cli­mate sci­en­tists agree that cli­mate change is hap­pen­ing and that it is wrong for Trump to have called cli­mate change a hoax, Adams changes the sub­ject to how it is un­clear what eco­nomic poli­cies one ought to pur­sue if cli­mate change is true.

  2. Motte-and-bailey: When Har­ris points out that the Trump Univer­sity scan­dal and Trump’s re­sponse to it means Trump is un­eth­i­cal, Adams says that Trump was not re­spon­si­ble for the uni­ver­sity be­cause it was only a li­cens­ing deal. Then Har­ris points out that Trump is un­eth­i­cal be­cause he short­changed his con­trac­tors. Adams says that that’s what hap­pens with big con­struc­tion pro­jects. Har­ris tries to ar­gue that it’s the en­tirety of Trump’s be­hav­ior that makes it clear that he is un­eth­i­cal—i.e., Trump Univer­sity, his non-pay­ment to con­trac­tors, his char­ity gate-crash­ing, and so on. At this points Adams says we ought to stop ex­pect­ing eth­i­cal be­hav­ior from our Pres­i­dents. This is a clas­sic motte-and-bailey defense. Try to defend an in­defen­si­ble po­si­tion (the bailey) for a while, but then once it be­comes un­ten­able to defend it, then go to the motte (some­thing much more defen­si­ble).

  3. Euphemi­sa­tion: (a) When Har­ris tells Adams that Trump lies con­stantly and has a dan­ger­ous dis­re­gard for the truth, Adams says, I agree that Trump doesn’t pass fact checks. In­deed, through­out the con­ver­sa­tion Adams never refers to Trump as ly­ing or as mak­ing false state­ments. In­stead, Adams always says, Trump “doesn’t pass the fact checks”. This move es­sen­tially makes it sound as if there’s some or­ga­ni­za­tion whose ar­bi­trary and bi­ased stan­dards are what Trump doesn’t pass and so down­plays the much more im­por­tant fact that Trump lies. (b) When Har­ris call Trump’s ac­tions morally wrong, Adams makes it seem as if he is agree­ing with Har­ris but then rephrases it as: “he does things that you or I may not do in the same situ­a­tion”. In­deed, that’s Adams’s con­stant eu­phemism for a morally wrong ac­tion. This is a very differ­ent state­ment com­pared to say­ing that what Trump did was wrong, and makes it seem as if Trump is just a nor­mal per­son do­ing what nor­mal peo­ple do.

  4. Di­ag­no­sis: Rather than de­bate the sub­stance of Har­ris’s claims, Adams will of­ten em­bark on a di­ag­no­sis of Har­ris’s be­liefs or of some­one else who has that be­lief. For ex­am­ple, when Har­ris says that Trump is not per­sua­sive and does not seem to have any co­her­ent views, Adams says that that’s Har­ris’s “tell” and that Har­ris is “trig­gered” by Trump’s speeches. Adams con­stantly di­ag­noses Trump crit­ics as see­ing a differ­ent movie, or as be­ing hyp­no­tized by the main­stream me­dia. By do­ing this, he moves away from the sub­stance of the crit­i­cisms.

  5. Ex­cus­ing: (a) When Har­ris says that it is wrong to not con­demn, and wrong to sup­port, the in­ter­ven­tion of Rus­sia in Amer­ica’s elec­tion, Adams says that the US would ex­tract re­venge via its in­tel­li­gence agen­cies and we would never know about it. He pro­vides no ev­i­dence for the claim that Trump is in­deed ex­tract­ing re­venge via the CIA. He also says Amer­ica in­terferes in other elec­tions too. (b) When Har­ris says that Trump de­graded demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions by promis­ing to lock up his poli­ti­cal op­po­nent af­ter the elec­tion, Adams says that was just a joke. (c) When Har­ris says Trump is us­ing the office of the Pres­i­dent for per­sonal gain, Adams tries to spin the nar­ra­tive as Trump try­ing to give as much as pos­si­ble late in his life for his coun­try.

  6. Cherry-pick­ing ev­i­dence: (a) When Har­ris points out that sev­en­teen differ­ent in­tel­li­gence agen­cies agreed that Rus­sia’s gov­ern­ment in­terfered in the US elec­tions, Adams says that the in­tel­li­gence agen­cies have been known to be wrong be­fore. (b) When Har­ris points out that al­most all cli­mate sci­en­tists agree on cli­mate change, Adams points to some point in the 1970s where (he claims) cli­mate sci­en­tists got some­thing wrong, and there­fore we should be skep­ti­cal about the claims of cli­mate sci­en­tists.

Over­all, I think what Adams is do­ing is wrong. He is an eth­i­cal and episte­molog­i­cal rel­a­tivist: he does not seem to be­lieve in truth or in moral­ity. At the very least, he does not care about what is true and false and what is right and wrong. He ex­ploits his rel­a­tivism to push his agenda, which is blind­ingly clear: sup­port Trump.

(Note: I wanted to work on this es­say more care­fully, and find out all the differ­ent ways in which Adams sub­verts the truth and sound rea­son­ing. I also wanted to cite more clearly the prob­le­matic pas­sages from the con­ver­sa­tions. But I don’t have the time. So I re­lied on mem­ory and high­lighted the Dark Arts moves that struck me im­me­di­ately. So please, con­tribute in the com­ments with your own ob­ser­va­tions about the Dark Arts in­volved here.)