Thursday, December 01, 2011

No, Scott Adams isn’t a misogynist (or a creationist)

Note: This post doesn’t condone the views in either of the blog posts by Scott Adams that are referenced within – instead, I’m pointing out that neither does Scott Adams. Curious? Read more below.

I’d also recommend, if you haven’t come across this debacle before, reading this post in full before clicking on the links, as it contains quite a bit of context that the links lack.

Scott Adams seems to be in the news semi-regularly for possessing controversial views. I was somewhat aware of him being accused of being a creationist (or anti-evolutionist, whichever description floats your boat), but accusations of sexism/misogynism recently came across my radar (via Tumblr), based on a (taken down) blog post by Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert (which he reposted at the bottom of this blog post.) Naturally, being both a feminist and exceedingly curious, I decided to dig deeper, to see if there was a larger story.

As it turns out, there was. And, as it turns out, while Adams isn’t a misogynist, he sure could have learnt a thing or two about communication.

Lesson One: On The Internet, Everything Must Be Marked

First, it turns out that Adams often posts controversial stuff, not just the two times mentioned. And he does this not because he believes it, but he thinks it’d be interesting for the readers of his blog to debate about it in the comments.

Here’s the relevant comment on the above website:

Scott Adams:

The entire piece is an anti-male-rights piece.

The regular readers of my blog understand that I routinely build arguments for whatever side of an issue is hardest to defend. Then they wrestle with it in the comments. When the piece is moved from the context of the blog, the message is changed by the new context. On the Men’s Rights blogs, it’s seen as an attack on men. On this blog it’s seen as an attack on women. The readers of my own blog email me to say, “What’s the big deal?”

Add selective quoting, which further changes the message, and layer on some poor reading comprehension and you get this zoo, which, as a student of human nature, I have been enjoying. The whole thing is fascinating.

The problem is often people come across blog posts without being regular readers of the blog. If you view merely the single post, the context is stripped away. Even just scanning the recent blog posts might not give you this impression.

If you use your blog for both serious and non-serious posts, the non-serious posts must be marked as such because the very nature of the Internet means that most posts can, and will be viewed outside of the context of your blog, and thus will be mistaken for actual opinion.

Luckily, this is one lesson Adams seems to have learnt. From a more recent post:

Warning: This blog is written for a rational audience that likes to have fun wrestling with unique or controversial points of view. It is written in a style that can easily be confused as advocacy or opinion. It is not intended to change anyone's beliefs or actions. If you quote from this post or link to it, which you are welcome to do, please take responsibility for whatever happens if you mismatch the audience and the content.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to apply retroactively. I know it’s a lot of work, but I’d go back through and mark all previous posts that are similar with the same message.

Lesson Two: Be Clear The First Time (And Every Time)

So, as I mentioned above, Scott Adams himself began posting in the comments section of the site I linked. The problem is, the comment I posted was about the ninth that he wrote.

At first, he starts talking about the author of the post (and various others) lacking reading comprehension – but it’s hard to know what he’s talking about without the context he’s describing. In a later comment, he hints at what he’s on about:


Scott Adams also doesn’t believe in evolution.

Good to know that his lack of critical thinking skills go right across the board.

Scott Adams:

That’s another example of poor reading comprehension. I’ve often stated that evolution qualifies as a scientific fact. The confusion comes from my writings on how we perceive reality.

I’m also rumored on the Internet to be a creationist, an Obama lover, and nearly dead from a debilitating disease. (All false, by the way.) And according to my Wikipedia page, I’ve won some awards that I’ve never heard of.

Believing what you read is always risky.

Now, I think he didn’t initially post his explanation because he thought it was obvious, but only posted it when it became clear that it was not to the commenters of that blog. When something is obvious to you, it’s often frustrating when other people don’t see it, but the best thing to do is to communicate as clearly as possible what you mean the first time, even if you think it’s obvious.

If Adams had posted the post first, he would have short-circuited a lot of the complaining about ‘reading comprehension’ (but more on that below), especially that by people who just found his first post and leapt to the Reply box.

Here’s a quote from his blog post responding to the matter (in context, clearly addressing his audience):

Regular readers of my blog know that the goal of my writing is to be interesting and nothing else. I'm not trying to change anyone's opinion, largely because I don't believe humans can be influenced by exposure to better arguments, even if I had some. But I do think people benefit by exposure to ideas that are different from whatever they are hearing, even when the ideas are worse. That's my niche: something different. That approach springs from my observation that brains are like investment portfolios, where diversification is generally a good strategy. I'm not trying to move you to my point of view; I'm trying to add diversity to your portfolio of thoughts. In the short term, I hope it's stimulating enough to be entertaining. Long term, the best ideas probably come from people who have the broadest exposure to different views.

Contrast my style of blogging to the most common styles, which include advocacy for some interest group or another, punditry, advice, and information. Now imagine moving my writing from the context of this blog to the context of an advocacy blog. You can see the problem. Men thought I was attacking men, and women thought I was attacking women. The message changed when the context changed. I saw that developing, so I took down the post.

He doesn’t explicitly state that the things he blogs about aren’t necessarily what he agrees with, or that he “build[s] arguments for whatever side of an issue is hardest to defend”, and because of that, except to his regular readers, this explanation falls flat. As a result, many blogs, which only looked at the initial post by the feminist websites and not the comments (or only enough of the comments to convince themselves he was backpedalling), took this post as making excuses, as opposed to an explanation. If he had stated these two important things, then the context is there for everyone (and not just his regular audience) be seen.

Of course, many people would still attempt to rationalise their acquired belief that Scott Adams is a misogynist. It’s a natural response to attacks on notions they believe – most people subconsciously interpret attacks on their beliefs as attacks on them, on their trustworthyness. But doing the above will at least convince more people, especially the ones that read a post or the initial comments of one and think they have all the context to understand it, or those who might have been on the fence until they felt as if they’d been insulted.

A Note About Reading Comprehension

A lot of people misunderstand the meaning of “reading comprehension” – they think it’s the ability to comprehend the text. And while that may be the literal interpretation of the two words, that’s not the meaning of the term.

Rather, reading comprehension is the ability to understand the text in context. When Adams is saying the commenters lack ‘reading comprehension’, he means that they are failing to place the text within the context of his blog (which makes controversial posts so that the commenters can argue about them).

Unfortunately, people who either don’t know the meaning of term or think they have all the context take this as a fancy way of saying ‘UR DUM’, which merely makes them more entrenched in their belief that they understand quite perfectly, thank you very much.


As I hope to have shown, Adams clearly doesn’t believe the stuff he’s accused of believing – but he poorly communicated his explanations, and could have been a lot clearer about the whole thing. Let this be a lesson to anyone finding themselves in the middle of a debacle like this one.