Rationalists are too easily duped
The black pill of persuasion
I maintain than in our modern era rationalists are not nearly as skeptical as they should be. Even people who call themselves skeptics lack skepticism. For a discussion about what I call meta-skepticism (or level-2 skepticism) see: Dismantling pseudo-skepticism.
This lack of skepticism is a big problem when evaluating neutral claims like the COVID-19 lab leak theory, but it’s especially problematic when people are intentionally trying to deceive.
Nassim Taleb coined a very useful term called the Intellectual Yet Idiot to distinguish a very distinct kind of intellectual who self-describes as member of the “intelligentsia”, but who despite their intellect and rationality fall prey to obvious mistakes due to the lack of skepticism, in particular regarding their own ability to detect bullshit. In other words: they are too full of themselves.
A good example is the difference between Dr. John (a man of science and logical thinking) and Fat Tony (a man who lives by his wits) when presented with a probability problem:
Taleb: “I am going to flip this fair coin 100 times, and after the 99th toss, I want each of you to tell me the probability of the 100th being heads. You should know that each toss is independent and the that the coin is fair.”
Taleb flips the coin 99 times and each of the 99 tosses results in a heads.
Taleb: “Now before, I toss the coin for the 100th time, I want each of you to tell me the probability of heads on this next toss.”
Dr. John replies in a calm, studied, and restrained tone, “The probability of the next toss being heads is 1/2 (0.5). This is because you originally told me that the coin is fair and each toss is independent of the rest. So, despite the previous 99 heads, the probability of the next toss being heads is unchanged from the beginning (i.e. 0.5).”
Fat Tony replies in a visible excited and somewhat agitated demeanor, “This is one big set up! The next toss HAS to be heads! I don’t trust you. You lied when you told us the initial rules.”
What is more likely? That a fair coin lands heads 99 times in a row, or that Taleb lied? Fat Tony doesn’t need to be very intelligent to know the answer: his experiences in life have given him the wisdom to distrust claims like this. Dr. John may have more knowledge about probability, but not about deception.
Fat Tony can smell bullshit and never lets his guard down.
Ligma & Johson
Right after Elon Musk acquired Twitter, a story popped up in mainstream media regarding the immediate firing of the entire data engineering team, the source was two ex-employees: Rahul Ligma and Daniel Johnson, who graciously allowed photos and gave video interviews outside of Twitter HQ carrying boxes.
As expected people speculated if this was the right move and many criticized Musk.
Hours later Musk tweeted “Ligma Johnson had it coming 🍆 💦”.
Do you smell something? The eggplant emoji isn’t suspicious? How about saying “Ligma Johnson” aloud?
Turns out the name “Ligma” is famous in meme culture to make prank names like “Ligma Balls” (“lick my balls”). It’s understandable for Bart Simpson to be able to prank Moe with “Seymour Butz”, but not Bloomberg: Elon Musk Starts Cutting Jobs at Twitter. Fat Tony wouldn’t have been an easy a target as a Bloomberg journalist.
Rationalists would say this is a dumb joke and the fact that Bloomberg fell for it is inconsequential. Musk is simply as unsophisticated as a teenager.
Is he though?
Bloomberg is supposed to be a respectable publication with journalistic standards. People trust them to verify stories properly. They are not supposed to take the claims of two random people on the street at their word, even if they are carrying boxes. If they do a poor journalistic job in this story, how many stories are they getting wrong?
If the pranksters had used any normal names the story wouldn’t have been as big, and many people wouldn’t have noticed that Bloomberg fell for a hoax. Proof of that is that when serious researcher Peter Boghossian (and others) hoaxed academic journals in what is known as the grievance studies affair, very few people paid attention.
Simply hoaxing a serious publication is not enough to make big news.
By raising the profile of the Ligma & Johnson story, Musk is increasing skepticism in stories published by mainstream media. Mainstream media which is controlled by woke progressive ideologues who have a vested interest in keeping the current censorship practices at Twitter in place.
If mainstream media publications look like fools, the next stories criticizing Musk’s moves are going to look more suspect, at least for people who did recognize the hoax.
One could even say it’s a genius move.
Not content with that, Musk welcomed back Ligma & Johson a couple of weeks later with the statement: “important to admit when I’m wrong & firing them was truly one of my biggest mistakes”. In the picture Musk seems oddly happy, and Ligma not very much so.
Surely this wasn’t done with the express purpose of trolling the media again, they can’t be that mischievous… But somehow it worked. Briahna Joy Gray at The Hill fell for it, criticized Musk for firing “essential employees” and noted that Ligma did not look very happy to come back.
These people just do not get how easy they are to manipulate, precisely because they are much too sophisticated for lowbrow humor. Reverse psychology works best on people who think these “cheap tricks” couldn’t possibly work on them, but if they don’t know these manipulation techniques even exist, how could they be on the lookout for them?
Paul Krugman vs. uneducated voters
Paul Krugman, a Nobel Prize winner in economics, made the following tweet:
A quick thought about Dilbert turning on Donald Trump: for people who follow politics seriously, debates can seem nonsensical. We know who these guys are, and you shouldn't choose a president based on the ability to deliver sound bites. But there are still some people who have managed to remain oblivious: people who rely on news sources that sanitize Trump's rantings, long-time Republicans in denial about what their party has become. For some of them, Tuesday was revelatory. Debates, in other words, remove some of the filters, external and internal, that keep people from seeing the obvious. And that's bad for Trump.
He is talking about Scott Adams (creator of the Dilbert comic strip) making the statement that Donald Trump had lost his vote after the previous debate with Joe Biden. Here’s the clip.
According to Krugman, Adams was an “oblivious Republican” who had not paid attention to what Trump actually said, and instead had relied on media filters who painted a picture of Trump for him. For this kind of “uneducated voter” debates do make sense, just so they can lift the curtain and see Trump for who he really is. For sophisticated well-informed intellectuals like him of course debates are nonsensical, because they already know who Trump really is.
But why did Adams change his opinion about Trump? If you watch the video you’ll hear he felt “personally screwed”—abused even—because there was a clear opportunity to dispel the very fine people hoax and Trump didn’t take advantage of it. It was easy money and Trump left it at the table, that’s why he lost his vote.
But wait a second… what is the very fine people hoax? Well, there is a belief that in response to what happened in Charlottesville, Trump called neo-Nazis and white nationalists “very fine people”, mainstream media repeated it, Joe Biden made it part of his campaign. But it turns out that’s a lie, those videos are edited, and if you watch the full video Trump very clearly says “I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and white nationalists”. So it’s a hoax perpetrated by mainstream media and Joe Biden.
Adams has talked extensively about it on his show and on Twitter, and even notes it’s very strange the phrase doesn’t show any relevant results on Google, but it does on DuckDuckGo. Weird huh?
So Adams felt disappointed that Trump let go such a huge opportunity to dispel that hoax. And that’s why Trump lost his vote.
Or did he?
A quick google of “Scott Adams” shows he is not just a cartoonist, but a political commentator and a philosopher. The title of his book “Win Bigly: Persuasion in a World Where Facts Don't Matter” should give you a hint of his stance on truth: he is a satirist, sarcasm is his bread-and-butter. His followers understand that most of what he says is the opposite of what he truly believes.
Adams doesn’t even vote, nor did he ever support Trump, so of course Trump didn’t lose a vote he never had. So why did he say that?
Did Krugman even consider the possibility that he was being manipulated? Of course not! A comic strip writer couldn’t possibly toy with the intellect of a Nobel laureate.
A couple of hours later Adams reconsiders his position and decides to “vote” for Trump again.
Let’s consider an alternative theory: Scott Adams is actually pretty smart and duped tons of people, including Paul Krugman. But it’s not because he is more intelligent, it’s because he knows persuasion techniques, and Krugman doesn’t. It’s precisely because Krugman wasn’t expecting a trap that he fell right into it.
What is even more ironic is that Krugman is the one doing what he accused Adams of doing: looking at reality through a media filter. Krugman has not seen the unedited video of Trump talking about the “very fine people”, all he has seen is what mainstream media wants him to see. He is the one that is oblivious as to what’s actually happening.
Even more: Krugman unknowingly raised awareness about the very fine people hoax by spreading Adams’ own Trump disavowment hoax. He did Adams’ bidding without realizing it.
Two people can see the very same information and draw drastically different conclusions by the mere nature of one being black-pilled.
Through the looking-glass
There’s an entire universe full of memes and deception hidden in plain sight that most people simply do not see because they are not cynical enough. They cannot contemplate the possibility that the most intelligent and rationalist people on the planet could be such chumps and fall so easily for obvious hoaxes.
The Matrix is a good analogy of a reality within reality that most people just don’t see. Ironically the analogy of a “prison that you cannot taste or see or touch” is lost on most people. Maybe The Matrix is not actually a story about robots?
Paul Krugman will never realize that he was duped, in part because Scott Adams like any good troll prefers not to spell out the con and just keeps it going (either you get the joke or you don’t), but in part because Krugman never looks back to question his own beliefs.
These intellectual rationalists are precisely the kind of people who thought Enron really had the smartest guys in the room, Elizabeth Holmes really was the next female Steve Jobs, and Samuel Bankman-Fried was really the future of altruism. Because they believe the whole rationalist intelligentsia cannot possibly be wrong at the same time (they can), and because they believe any one of them should be smart enough to smell this bullshit miles away (they really can’t): they become easy prey.
It’s only after the hoax is unveiled that they realize how easy it was to see it, but of course they didn’t make any mistake because “no one” saw it either (except the unsophisticated people that did, of course). And that’s if the hoax is unveiled, otherwise they’ll keep believing in the Wizard of Oz.
If you swallow the black pill and start to question everything, you might start to see what’s behind the veil: a world full of deception and manipulation, where intelligence doesn’t provide good enough immunity. If you do that you might realize that in fact you have been duped many times, by people less sophisticated than you, and you didn’t even realize it.
Nah… surely you are way too smart to ever fall for such cheap tricks. Trump cannot possibly be nearly smart enough to ever manipulate you.