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The Persuasion Filter Looks at Torture. Does it Work? - Dilbert Blog

The Persuasion Filter Looks at Torture. Does it Work?

If I ever get captured and threatened with torture it will take about five seconds for me to give up every secret I have. That’s because I know I would break eventually, so why put up with unnecessary torture?

I assume the same is true for the lightly-trained ISIS fighters. Some are just teenagers. Once the bravery-inducing drugs in their system wear off, I have to assume that at least some of them – if not most – would become quite flexible under the threat of torture, not to mention the torture itself.

But won’t they lie?

Well, in many cases the secrets they reveal under torture can be easily checked. If they tell you ISIS has a munitions storage area somewhere, you can go check it out. If they tell you there are ISIS troops massing somewhere, you can fly a drone over and take a look. 

And if you learn that the prisoner lied? More torture, I assume, and probably worse than the first time. So lying about things that can be verified is a bad strategy for a captive.

Some things can’t be verified. But sometimes you have two prisoners. See if their stories match up. That would help.

My point is that common sense, combined with everything you know about human beings, tells you that torture works, at least in some cases. It would work on me. It would work on you. It would certainly work on under-trained ISIS prisoners. 

So why do the experts say torture doesn’t work? 

The answer can be found in the Persuasion Filter. Torture is persuasion, but so is the way you talk about it. If you promote me to the rank of General, put me on television, and ask me if torture works, do you know what I’ll say?

I’ll say it doesn’t work. 

I’ll say I can get more cooperation by being nice. I will look you in the eye and lie my ass off. Because that’s my job.

As a military General, my job is to keep my troops safe. So I will lie about the effectiveness of torture for several reasons: 

1) An enemy might someday capture my troops. I don’t want the enemy to think torture is a practical option.

2) I don’t want the enemy to know their captured soldiers will be giving up their secrets to my side in under five seconds.

3) I don’t want to tarnish the brand of the United States or the military by associating it with torture.

4) I don’t want to go to jail. Torture is illegal.

So the ideal approach for an “expert” on torture is to say in public that it never works while finding ways to skirt the law and use it anyway when needed. Waterboarding, for example, was an attempt to stay legal while still “torturing.” 

Keep in mind that for every “expert” on television that says torture never works, there are lots of “experts” around the world using the method every day. I doubt they would use if it it NEVER worked. After all, they are the experts.

This brings us to President Trump. He says with surprising candor that he believes torture works but will follow the recommendation of his generals who say it doesn’t.

Interpretation: Torture works. The generals know it. We’ll find a way to do it if necessary to keep the country safe. You don’t want to know the details.

We like to believe that experts are more credible than non-experts. And President Trump is no expert on torture. But keep in mind that President Trump is a Master Persuader who can detect bullshit faster than normal people. 

You might even call him an expert at detecting bullshit. 

When President Trump presents something as fact, the odds are high that it is hyperbole or just persuasion. You don’t want to assume his facts are literally true, although they are usually emotionally or directionally true.

But if President Trump – The Master Persuader – tells you someone else’s facts are bullshit, you can usually take that to the bank. The man knows bullshit when he sees it. And with his skillset he can also smell it coming from miles away.

On an unrelated topic, when you see President Trump disagreeing with the experts on climate change, you assume he has no credibility. He’s not an expert in the field. But he does know bullshit when he sees it. And I think he believes the prediction models are unlikely to be accurate. (As do I.) The prediction models are not science, per se. They are persuasion disguised as science via the process of conflation and association. And Trump knows persuasion.

Trump could be completely wrong about climate change. So could I. But when the Master Persuader calls bullshit on something, be cautious about betting against him. 

Scott Adams

Co-founder of WhenHub

Author of How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big