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Scott Adams and ‘The Dilbert Future’

If you toil in a cubicle for a large (especially technology oriented) company, or even if you merely work in close proximity to other people or have a boss, you probably have a ‘Dilbert’ cartoon taped up somewhere in your personal ‘space’. Taped to the top of my monitor is a cartoon about the ‘Dogbert Mutual Fund’ from October of 1997, and I work in a home office with no co-workers and no pointy-haired boss.

What you probably don’t know is that Dilbert creator Scott Adams, in addition to tightly controlling a media empire, has a view of the world that would make Uri Geller and Shirley MacLaine blush – complete with embarrassingly inaccurate readings of Quantum Mechanics and Chaos Theory, leading to a belief in the illusory nature of time, a disrespect for cause and effect, and a firm conviction that the world around us can be controlled through mental effort.

It’s all sketched out in the remarkable 14th chapter of his 1997 book, ‘The Dilbert Future,’ which (for the first 13 chapters) is an entertaining look at where today’s trends might be leading us, especially if we live in the somewhat twisted world of Dilbert, Dogbert, and the Pointy-Haired Boss. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s the Dilbert we’re used to, and we get a liberal sprinkling of classic Dilbert cartoons, and lots of Dilbert style humor.

It’s when we turned to page 225, the beginning of chapter 14, that we get a shock so nasty that we might think it’s just another joke (it took me a long time to convince myself) – there, in a black outlined box, is prediction 63: The Theory of Evolution will be scientifically debunked in your lifetime.

It takes Adams a little while to get to what he means, though he does assure us that none of our possible religious precepts will even be discussed, but as it turns out it is our scientific precepts that will suffer the most grievous insults.

What the man behind Dilbert is trying to tell us is that we need to find new ways of looking at things, and to shake us out of our torpor he lists four assumptions about reality:

1. Time Moves Forward
2. Objects Move
3. Gravity Exists
4. A “cause” can only have an “effect” on something it physically contacts, directly or indirectly.

It all began, says Adams, with a childhood friend who never seemed to lose at games and whose family bragged about their ‘Irish luck’, winning supposedly unbeatable carnival games and eventually bagging $120,000 in an Irish sweepstakes. Though he claims to understand how statistics allows for the clustering of seemingly unlikely events, he was struck by the fact that they always seemed to expect to win, and he came to believe that the expectation was somehow self-fulfilling. It was this unnaturally lucky Irish family that made him wonder if the universe really worked the way he’d been taught, though he seems to notice neither the possibility that their luck was exaggerated by selective validation (our tendency to remember the hits and forget the misses), nor the rather quaint ethnic bias that echoes the age-old justifications for racial hatred over the ages. These Irish (Jews, Blacks, Methodists, insert your favorite ethnic group) are too lucky for chance explanations – they must be cheating by manipulating the very fabric of the universe (or through witchcraft, pacts with the devil, once again feel free to insert your favorite phrase).

Next we hear about Adams’ encounters with Quantum Mechanics, and like all those who want to keep well informed on the sciences, he learned about it from Newsweek. He tells about the famous double-slit experiment (see my review of the book Paradox Lost, NEJS Vol.3, Issue 1 and ‘Quantum Confusion’ in the CT Skeptic, Vol. 2, Issues 3 & 4), and gets the conclusion startlingly wrong, especially for someone supposedly trained in engineering. A goggle-eyed Adams says ‘The scientists conclusion? Information in the present can change the past.’ From this rather dubious misstatement of a classic experiment in physics, Adams tells us that it’s obvious that the brain perceives time out of order and that sometimes we act without thinking, only later justifying our actions by inventing a thought process that never occurred. He seems intent on providing an example for us in his own book. Anyway, this is meant to show us that our sense of time moving forward is merely an illusion.

Now Adams proposes a different model for perception of the Universe than we’re used to. What if, instead of the familiar time-flowing universe we seem to perceive around us, nothing moves except our perception, which jumps from one parallel universe to another, each slightly different from the last, giving us the illusion of motion, much like the separate frames of a film. This is certainly a breathtaking metaphysical view which, like all metaphysical systems, can neither be proved nor disproved scientifically. The problem here is a dualism in which mind and universe are separate. We are merely consciousnesses traveling between universes in which no time passes in this model, but it leaves us asking how we experience these universes, how we feel the passage of time at all. What would time be in such a model, and where would our thoughts take place? Surely not in our physical bodies, as these would be undergoing no processes at all, least of all thought, and it’s in the processes that we experience the passage of time. In the real world, by which I mean the ‘normal’ interpretation, we can measure the law-like physical processes of mind, body, and universe, and we can explain the passage of time through these physical events, without reference to supernatural forces ‘outside’ the universe. In Adams’ interpretation, questions about why we seem to experience time, thought, and physics are left unanswered.

Throughout all this, Adams assures us that though he might be getting the science wrong, what’s important is that we learn to think about the universe in alternative ways, and this is convenient for him, because the science in his analysis of gravity is so wildly bad that I’m not even going to tell you why – I’m going to leave it as an exercise for the reader. Adams first tells us that scientists can’t find gravity, no matter how hard they look, and that Einstein’s explanation of gravity as spacetime curvature is somehow ‘useless.’ Therefore, it’s ‘safe to say’ that our perception of gravity is an optical illusion. Not, I guess, for airline pilots and elevator operators, but I digress – and provide a hint for the quiz coming later.

What if, says Adams, instead of gravity being an attracting force, it is merely the doubling in size of all objects every second – we wouldn’t perceive it as increase in size, because we’d be increasing along with all the other objects. Okay, this wouldn’t give us the usual acceleration of gravity at about 9.8 meters per second per second, but let’s let him slide on the math and assume he meant an increase in size at a rate that would give us the proper acceleration. How, he asks, would we be able to tell the difference between this and gravity the way we perceive it now? He gives us one answer, in the motion of planets around the sun, which should be bumping into each other all the time (and bumping into the sun, too). Luckily, he tells us, the universe is expanding, which allows all these objects to grow into it. How convenient that the rate of expansion in the universe is just enough to counterbalance the ‘gravitational’ increase in size of all objects.

Now for the quiz: Why won’t Scott’s model of gravity work, even without the problem of orbiting objects? I can think of at least three examples off the top of my head, only one of which needs any help from general relativity (oops, there goes another hint). Adams claims not to be able to think of any reason why it won’t work, and that he floated the idea in a Dilbert Newsletter and received no satisfactory objections, which just goes to show the quality of thinking of readers of that newsletter.

On to the fourth point, about cause and effect, and more horrendous science howlers. Adams tells us that according to Bell’s theorem, if we break a molecule in half and separate the two halves by any distance we care to choose, the pieces still exert an instantaneous effect on each other. Change one piece, and the other changes immediately no matter how far away it is. Adams even reprints a cartoon in which Dilbert invents a faster-than-light communication device using this result. Problem is, the whole thing is dead wrong. Bell’s theorem does help to explain the so-called Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen (EPR) paradox, in which entangled particles do seem linked even if separated by large distances, but no information can be exchanged because any attempt to change either half immediately disentangles them. Adams just has this one wrong, but it gets worse.

Though he disbelieves media reports about ESP, he had an experience himself with a psychic who seemed to know things about him that she couldn’t possibly have known, and that he didn’t even know himself, blah, blah, blah. Sound familiar? Perhaps Adams needs to get himself a good book on cold reading before he changes the very nature of the universe for us.

Like a bad country music song that would be incomplete without verses about trucks, cheatin’ hearts, and motherhood, this scientific hatchet job wouldn’t be the same if it didn’t complete the pseudoscience trio of Quantum Mechanics, alternate universes, and that old standby, chaos theory. If a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon can cause a tornado in Kansas, why can’t our thoughts change the universe around us? After all, our lives are complex systems, and if the above-mentioned insect can make weather predictions useless, can’t our thoughts, which are tiny electrical (okay, electrochemical) changes have an influence on our lives? Well, they can, but Adams gets the analogy wrong. A small change in initial conditions (the butterfly’s wings) can make our predictions about the weather inaccurate because they are initial conditions about the weather. Our thoughts, chaotic as they are, can certainly make our future thoughts difficult to predict, and maybe even make the future state of the universe difficult to predict, but here's the problem – how do we use that? Butterflies don’t go around saying ‘I think I’ll blow up a trailer park in the bible belt today.’ There’s no way to predict what will happen – that’s why it’s called chaos theory. This certainly doesn’t allow us to choose the future through our thoughts, and no one in their right mind would try to use chaos theory to suggest that thoughts about ice cream lead to ice cream, if you know what I mean. Anyway, I thought there were no such things as physical processes, just alternate universes that we jump between. Ah yes, and therein lies the core of this sorry tale.

What if all the above is true – can we then choose which reality we prefer just by thinking about it? A fascinating thought, and one which leads to the typical New Age conclusion: success or failure, sickness or health, richer or poorer, are all about thinking the right thoughts. We are usually told this by successful, rich, healthy people, like Adams and Oprah Winfrey, who seem obsessed with eliminating any element of chance from their success, even at the expense of discounting their own talent and hard work. They are where they are because they deserve it, because they’re the right kind of people, people with a deeper understanding of how the universe works, people who think the right kind of thoughts.

I had to read this chapter several times to convince myself it wasn’t a joke, and I have to admit I’m still not sure. Adams actually seems to believe that you can get whatever you want, even if you’re skeptical, by writing down what you desire 15 times a day. That’s right, just write down your heart’s desire 15 times, like Bart at the beginning of every Simpson’s episode, and before long Liz Hurley will be knocking on your door with a pepperoni pizza and a sack full of money (Hey, I’ll write down my affirmations, and you write down yours. Note to my wife: Just kidding, sweetie. Really). According to Mr. A, this brought him success in the stock market, a 94 on the GMAT, a negative result on a biopsy done on a lump on his neck, keeps dents off his car, and of course, catapulted him to fame and fortune with Dilbert. Never mind all that studying for the GMAT, never mind the hard work on Dilbert – it was the affirmations, and it’ll work for you, too. He even includes a little appendix on how to use the technique, so we can all start plugging away right now, writing out little sentences like ‘Scott Adams will send me a check for a million dollars,’ or ‘Uri Geller will spontaneously combust’, or some such. The temptation to find his car and ding the door is suddenly overwhelming… hmmm, no need to do it myself, I just need a pencil and some paper.

Oh, about that evolution thing. Adams finally gets back to it, telling us that in this view of the world, what with stop-motion, thought controlled multiple universes, evolution just doesn’t make any sense. In his case, I can believe it.


[Addendum from the editor : You can already read more about Expansion Theory, the crackpot physics idea that natural laws are caused by the constant expansion of all particles, on this Wikipedia entry).



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This article is © Copyright Robert Novella, 2000
Please do not reproduce without permission.