Master of Everything

I was on a trip for the weekend so I haven't had time to do much, but I wanted to share some random things that came up during it. A few days ago the creator of the Dilbert comic strip tweeted this:

This was an immensely stupid claim, and naturally it received backlash. I got involved because I saw him respond to a user:

The difference between understanding a topic and mastering a topic is enormous, so I pointed out:

It took me less than an hour to learn to understand the rules of chess, but I could never hope to master chess. The difference is obvious. I won't bore you with what followed, but I do want to highlight something I came across during the subsequent exchanges:

The article begins:

Recently, Scott Adams created controversy when he said that Hillary Clinton’s DNC speech likely lowered testosterone for the men who watched it. When criticized on twitter, he replied it was a testable scientific hypothesis. This got me thinking – has anyone done a study on how media & movies impact testosterone levels?

And concludes:

If there’s a lesson in this, it’s to be very careful who you identify with and consider part of your team (especially if you have no control over the outcome – like say, a Presidential election), because that could have a direct impact on your biology. Once you identify with a character, their fate is yours.

If you want to increase your testosterone, find ways to experience victory – even if just vicariously. It doesn’t matter if it’s your victory or not. Pick a team, character, or movie where you know the guy you’re rooting for wins. The bigger the adversity they overcome, the bigger the win, and the greater the surge of victory. Good storytelling will actually raise your testosterone.

This “vicarious victory” is a big reason why people watch movies and tell stories. Achieving victory in the real world takes work. Saving the world in a movie only takes two hours.

This is the sort of thing people should instinctively realize is bogus. According to this article, fans of sports teams with poor records should worry about their testosterone because they are not being "very careful who [they] identify with." To avoid this problem and "to increase your testosterone," you should instead root for winning teams.

Only, that's all nonsense. It is certainly true the excitement which comes with victory can cause the body to temporarily increase one's testosterone levels. That's not remarkable. One's mood can affect hormone levels. That doesn't mean rooting for a losing team is something you need to worry about though. Sure, you might miss out on a couple hours of higher testosterone levels from not getting to celebrate a victory, but... so what? Is it somehow worse that you're sad your team lost if you find out your testosterone levels dropped while you were sad?

Of course not. The trick is this sort of article creates the impression testosterone levels are affected in the long-term. As in, be careful who you root for because you'll become less a man. If the author had pointed out this effect will last only a couple hours, nobody would care.

And yes, I do know the author didn't explicitly say anything about long-term effects. He just conveniently worded his entire article to give the impression there are long-term effects. That's actually part of why I bring this up. This is another example of what we discussed in the last post, where Michelle Obama said the White House was built by slaves, creating the impression slaves were the only workers. Or how global warming advocates say things like:

Among abstracts expressing a position on AGW, 97.1% endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming

Carefully phrasing it to say "humans are causing global warming" to create the impression humans are the sole cause even though the research they use doesn't actually say that. If you watch for this sort of thing, you'll see it all the time in discussions of all sorts of topics. It is why I believe precision in language is important.

Anyway, these are topics and discussions that helped keep me occupied on my trip this weekend. I figured I'd post a bit about them. I'm hoping to have a more substantial post in the next few days, but this blog is my personal journal, so we'll see what catches my eye.


  1. Adams later clarified that he meant to make a decision on a subject.
    So your chess example would fail because you could have grandmasters advising you for an hour before you make your move.
    Indeed, Kasparov all but accused IBM of doing this in the match he lost to Deep Blue, especially after one match the computer appears to have gone from a winning to draw position.

  2. MikeN:

    Adams later clarified that he meant to make a decision on a subject.
    So your chess example would fail because you could have grandmasters advising you for an hour before you make your move.

    I do wish when people would refer to someone saying something they would give enough information for people to find it, if not a link. This post shows a tweet where he claimed have said he could understand any topic in an hour. That claim was false, but insofar as it speaks to his intended meaning, it doesn't mesh with what you say. Neither do the many tweets he posted in which he responded to people who suggested topics they felt he couldn't master in an hour. In response to suggestions like "entitlement reform" and "cybersecurity strategy" and "Dodd-Frank," he responded to say it would only take an hour.

    None of those are single decisions. Those are all topics. So while he may have claimed at some later point that he meant he was talking about individual decisions, that's simply not true. His tweet, the backlash to it and his responses to that backlash all clearly referred to the mastering/understanding of a topic, not simply making a single decision.

  3. MikeN, consider what those pieces say. The first says:

    Taking these objections in order, I agree that no one can master an entire technical field in an hour. My point is about individual political decisions. (I should have been more clear on that.)

    Accordinng to this, he is talking about making decisions, not understanding topics. He even says:

    Most educated people could make informed decisions about most political questions if they had the benefit of world-class advisors. That’s my claim.

    But how about international trade agreements, tax policy, and healthcare? Those are complicated, right? Yes. Indeed, no president understands those topics in sufficient detail to be trusted with a solo decision.

    Which distinguishes between understanding topics and making decisions. Only, he then goes on to say:

    So while I agree with the critics that I can’t master a technical field in less than an hour, I do think any smart, educated, and experienced business person can understand a political issue in under an hour with the right advisors.

    And in the next post he says:

    In yesterday’s blog I made the provocative claim that a smart civilian can learn any political topic in an hour under the tutelage of world experts.

    Again claiming to be talking about understanding topics. There is no coherent interpretation of all the various things he said. Being able to understand the specific factors at play for a given decision is not the same as understanding a topic or issue as a whole.

    Beside the difference in breadth of knowledge these require, most presidential decisions require understanding multiple topics. Even if you understood the Dodd-Frank law perfectly, that wouldn't mean you could make good decisions about specific decisions involving it as those decisions would require knowledge about other issues as well.

    Reading these posts and his tweets, the only thing I see is that he is incredibly inconsistent in what he says, and he uses that inconsistency to attack people (just look at the tweet I responded to).

    Also, the "wrong" post you linked to is insane. As in, either he's trolling people, or he's nuts. And stupid.

  4. I think he is being consistent but using different words that convey a different meaning while he is intending the same thing.

    "he is talking about making decisions, not understanding topics. "
    When he says political issue and political topic, he means the same thing. Don't know if this is deliberate trickery on his part, or he is just being careless.

  5. MikeN, I don't see how the two could be consistent. When he says it'd take him an hour, tops, to understand something like "cybersecurity strategy," there is no single decision he could be referring to. And you certainly can't "master" a single decision. I get he may try to talk about single decisions, but he wrote many things which clearly refer to general topics.

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