Jordan Peterson has already become a joke in most circles. But enough remain mesmerized by his shtick to warrant a survey of why he’s just another pseudoscientific guru running a con. He is, essentially, the Deepak Chopra of the Nones; and his books, akin to The Secret for incels, angry men, and disaffected conservatives. A comparison I’ve since found others have made. Repeated inquiries converge on a common truth.
Peterson’s woo is his own peculiar variety—but no less ridiculous; and no less baloney. To be fair, like many a crackpot making money off his madness, he might believe his own con. And not everything every critic says about him is correct. And like every religious demagogue and guru, not everything he says is malarkey. But there is enough to find among his critics that is, nevertheless, spot on. I shall zero in here on the stuff that sticks—and illustrate why.
Avatar of Moral Panic
Some things said about Peterson by his defenders are false. I’ve seen people claim he was fired for his views; but in fact he still holds his professorship at the University of Toronto. I’ve seen people claim he was arrested, or threatened to be arrested, for his views; but neither has ever happened, and nothing he has said or done is against any actual law in Canada. In truth, Peterson, being a crap philosopher, doesn’t know how to read a statute, and doesn’t believe in consulting actual experts in anything he pontificates on but has zero qualifications in. Everything he said about Canadian human rights law is false.
But some things said by his critics miss the mark a bit too. I’ve seen people claim he’s come out against gay rights and gay marriage; he hasn’t—though he’s come close, and one can infer it should follow from what he has argued: his rhetoric plays right into a secular homophobic narrative about the uselessness of those who “won’t reproduce.” It thus might be telling that Peterson’s wife emailed pleas to sign a petition against gay parental rights in Canada, using language that sounded a lot like Peterson.
I’ve also seen people claim Peterson “refuses” to use the preferred pronouns of his trans students and coworkers; but I’m not aware of any documented case, and he’s said himself he does use their preferred pronouns, as long as he thinks they deserve it. “If the standard transsexual person wants to be regarded as he or she,” Peterson said, “my sense is I’ll address you according to the part that you appear to be playing.” So, if you don’t look girly or manly enough, he gets to insult you. Or at least…so he says. There’s no evidence he’s ever exercised this “right” he claims to have. Which may be why he still keeps his job.
And yet for all that, it’s true: the bizarre event that skyrocketed Peterson from obscurity into fame was his insistence upon the right to insult his students and colleagues and not be fired for it. Which is not a rational or moral position to hold. “But, free speech,” does not authorize you to violate your profession’s code of ethics and insult your bosses and coworkers and their customers and expect to keep your job. Deliberately misgendering someone is no different than deliberately refusing to call them by their actual name. It’s disrespect. The University of Toronto has been incredibly lenient with the man. So his martyrdom legend is definitely fiction—although quite possibly because he doesn’t really do the insulting thing he’s threatened to.
But Peterson went beyond his unprofessional defense of incivility and raised such a moral panic over trans people being treated like people that he even falsely claimed he would be in danger of being jailed for misgendering them if they were given the same status as gay people in Canadian human rights law. Unanimously lawyers and legal experts explained to him he wouldn’t be (and lo: he hasn’t been). But facts are not his thing. Exhibit one.
However, because Peterson started a moral panic over non-existent laws against intentionally being a dick to trans people, he became rich and famous almost overnight. Thanks to all the people in a moral panic over non-existent laws against intentionally being a dick to trans people—who are evidently easily conned out of their money. And he has deliberately milked that cash cow ever since. Here is how…
Con Man of the People
Even hard-core anti-feminist philosopher James A. Lindsay has seen through Peterson’s con and called out the shallow philosophy he’s shilling, boiling it down to what it really is, which is, first, a salve for men’s egos who can’t adjust to social progress, and, second, an elaborate guide to “securing a woman.” Or as Lindsay puts it:
[His] view of manliness appeals to the downtrodden young man by helping him ‘straighten his back’, as Peterson puts it, so that he can make something more of himself. At least to a few layers down, this sounds great, but there’s more to it than that for our lost boys. As Peterson admonishes Cathy Newman, ‘Women deeply want men who are competent and powerful’. This is telling, isn’t it? Peterson’s message reaches these young men not only for the higher purposes at the end of his sentence, but also for the usual ones at the start of it—so they can become what women really want, which is to say so that they can get laid.
This ties in to everything Peterson argues, from his whole philosophy of Darwinian survivalism that defines even his epistemology, his abhorrence of female dominance and sexual liberation, his desperate need to correctly “sex” people, his rules-for-making-a-man-of-you. Peterson is selling a reformed PUA culture under the veneer of a sophistical, room-cleaning, tweed-wearing intellectualism. It’s basically the philosophy of Fight Club without the fight club. You’ll see some examples shortly.
Although to be clear, what Peterson really wants is everyone to undertake traditional gender roles and commit to traditional lifelong marriages committed to having as many kids as a woman can survive bearing. Seriously. He’s even floated the idea of “forced monogamy” and said women who don’t like being housewives should “just get a hobby already.” For him it’s about survival of the fittest, and going back to archetypal ways of life. Whenever queried on it, he has very harsh words for “playing the field.” Almost as harsh as he’s expressed for celibacy. What he’s selling, in other words, is the 1950s. Or rather, what everyone thinks (or wishes) the 1950s were. Right down even to the clothes he wears.
Indeed, Peterson’s first tell is that after he became famous, he now puts on an act, complete with a fake costume. As keen observers have noted (such as Nellie Bowles, writing for the New York Times), he dresses the part now, a polished 1950s professorial style, conspicuously not how he used to. Nor acts as he once did. He adds in emotional play acting (complete with, often, histrionics and tears), and populist self-help rhetoric. All to spew Deepak-Chopra-style nonsense and rigmarole, in defense of a popular hunger to feel good about a biased, shallow, reactionary take on recent social changes that are leaving certain people—with a certain mindset—behind.
Pretty much exactly like Christian churches do. In fact, there is hardly a difference between Peterson and any half-assed, over-confident preacher in a church. Other than that for sales he is purposefully vague about whether God needs to be real or Jesus really rose from the dead. Because for a living he sells his garbled ideological snake oil to the 21st century market of nones—both religious and non. His evasiveness on such points is another deep tell. This is the behavior of a marketer, not a philosopher.
Of course you can find an extensive, thoroughly-cited, snarky critique of Peterson on RationalWiki. There are also the alarming observations of his once colleague and personal friend Bernard Schiff that pretty much reveal Peterson to be, indeed, half grifter, half crazy cult leader. There’s also a decently composed critical book by competing masculinist Jamie Wrate. And even Alexander Blum, an ex-fan who even still buys a lot of Peterson’s woo, has made some disturbingly on-point observations about his flawed philosophy.
But in no way do I rely on those for anything to follow. Though a really good critique I will cite, that lists several markers for grifting that Peterson nails point-for-point, is Nathan Robinson’s article for Current Affairs, “The Intellectual We Deserve.” Second most useful you’ll find is Zach Beauchamp’s article for Vox, “Jordan Peterson, the Obscure Canadian Psychologist Turned Right-Wing Celebrity, Explained.” I also highly recommend this Field Guide by Aaron Huertas. I’ll link to others as we go.
Bad at Science
When it comes to his ideas, the first reason we know Jordan Peterson is a crank is because he spews pseudoscience, and made up nonsense he claims is science, and too often gets relevant science wrong. And never corrects any of it.
Let’s start with Peterson’s now-iconic woo about lobsters.
First, Peterson infamously claims in his most famous book, Twelve Rules for Life, that lobster brains dissolve when socially dominated, and then they regrow new “subordinate” brains. But…lobsters don’t have brains—they have no central nervous system, only a nerve cluster called a central ganglion; and they don’t dissolve and regrow; and the paper Peterson cites as saying otherwise, doesn’t. Peterson couldn’t even comprehend a basic paper on neural plasticity, which is shocking for a supposed psychology Ph.D. It demonstrates a rather profound level of incompetence that should lead us to doubt his reliability altogether. (See Brains in Dissolution.)
Second, there is no scientifically credible connection between lobsters’ social hierarchism or its neural substrates and human social psychology. Yet Peterson famously tries to argue we’re just like lobsters. To be fair, he means, only in respect to this one feature. But he never presents any scientific research on humans to back his argument. That the same chemicals mediate the same behaviors is a trivial observation that indicates nothing about the neural systems that employ those chemicals, which differ radically between lobsters and people. Humans (and their behaviors) are vastly more complex, and have undergone enormous evolutionary change. So why can’t he find any research showing what he wants to show about humans?
You can’t study humans by studying lobsters. That’s as dumb as thinking we can study mountains by studying my pet rock. As any credible intellectual would agree. You might instead want to read what an actual scientist who studies lobsters has to say about that:
In the case of humans and lobsters, our most recent common ancestor [or]…the living animal that probably most closely resembles this ancestor is the acoel, a mostly harmless marine worm no bigger than a grain of rice. Acoels’ social interactions are limited to mating—they’re typically hermaphroditic, so each individual acts as both “male” and “female”—or sometimes to cannibalism, if a hungry acoel encounters another small enough to fit in its mouth.
I suppose cannibalism is a sort of dominance hierarchy, but acoels don’t engage in the complex displays of aggression seen in lobsters or form social hierarchies like primates. If the common ancestor of humans and lobsters lacked dominance hierarchies (which seems likely, based on what we know about living animals), then our two species’ social behavior evolved independently, and the one can’t inform us about the other.Bailey Steinworth, “Jordan Peterson Needs to Reconsider the Lobster,” The Washington Post
In case you missed the point: humans did not evolve from lobsters. We each evolved from worms that possessed none of the features Peterson is talking about.
[F]or a lot of animals, social interaction can be divided into ‘mating’ or ‘existing near each other without a problem’. As Peterson points out, lobsters’ aggressive displays arise from their need to fight for access to quality shelters and territory where they can scavenge for food.Ibid.
Whereas humans are a cooperative species who do exactly the opposite: they need to congregate and work together to secure shelter and food. Humans as a species are dependent on social cooperation; they do very poorly as loners, and individual self-sufficiency is exhausting to impossible. So there isn’t even a behavioral analogy to work with here. Yes, humans, as primates, do have latent features related to dominance hierarchies, but those features evolved very differently, are more complex, and in many respects maladaptive in modern civilization. Not something to be nourished or to organize society around.
More importantly, there is a lot of science out there on human social structure (in psychology, neuroscience, anthropology, and sociology) and its primate analogs (which are diverse, not singular, e.g. Bonobo society is very different from Chimpanzee society which is very different from Great Ape society, and we evolved from a common ancestor of all three and therefore cannot assume we are “just like” any one of them). A competent psychologist would survey and distill this research into a coherent, science-based understanding of the relevant human behavior he wants to talk about. Peterson instead skips all that and just finds a random article on lobsters he doesn’t understand and makes up a bunch of shit about it. This is F-grade freshman work here.
Ironically, for such a rabid anti-Marxist as Peterson, what Peterson fabricates out of this is essentially the same as a Marxist-inspired, now-falsified idea called Social Dominance Theory. The actual science of human social dominance behaviors is more complex. And its neurochemistry is actually incidental. Knowing the chemicals involved in information processing tells you nothing about how that information is being processed. A thousand different social systems are processed across millions of species using the same chemistry, just as all species’ brains are assembled out of neurons, yet their arrangement produces radically different behaviors. Bonobos and sea hares behave nothing like lobsters; yet their behavior is mediated by exactly the same chemicals. A psychologist is supposed to know this.
As Steinworth puts it, “Peterson tells his readers to draw inspiration from an animal that can’t stand interacting with its own species outside of sex,” which “illustrates far more about his own worldview than it does about human behavior.” Indeed.
A more thorough debunking of Peterson’s incompetent use of his lobster analogy was also written up by a neuroscientist, Leonor Gonçalves. But I’ve given you examples enough on the point.
It’s not just the pseudoscience he spins out of lobsters. Peterson has embraced even what is full-on pseudoscience in his own field of psychology: the totally woo nonsense of Jungian psychoanalysis. This is wholly akin to a modern Ph.D. in astronomy promoting astrology. As Phil Christman observes:
Canadian academic Jordan Peterson…bangs the table for logic and reason while basing much of his thought on the ideas of a discredited occultist. Peterson’s reliance on the work of Carl Jung is revealing: If you want to defend traditional masculinity as a kind of slaying-dragons-for-its-own-sake, but you can’t offer a rational analysis of why this behavior is necessary, or why it is good, or why you need a penis to do it, the archetype theory offers you a pretentious and grandiose way of saying “It is what it is.” It dignifies tautology.
As Benjamin Goggin wrote for Digg:
Peterson’s ideas are grounded in the notion that men and women contain essential, separate and immutable personality characteristics. [But r]ecent studies have found that the idea of a consistent male personality and female personality is not grounded in reality. A 2005 analysis of 46 meta-analyses, backed by the American Psychological Association, found that men and women were alike in “personality, cognitive ability and leadership,” and that “gender differences had either no or a very small effect on most of the psychological variables examined. Only a few main differences appeared: Compared with women, men could throw farther, were more physically aggressive, masturbated more, and held more positive attitudes about sex in uncommitted relationships.”
Similarly, as Googin notes, Peterson’s claims about things like the gender pay gap are simplistic, governed more by sexist mythology than careful reflection, and show no sign of his actually studying the issue. Like most right-wing pundits, Peterson simply pounces from the armchair on the most naive and uninformed leftist ideas, as if there were no sophisticated and informed leftist ideas about the same things he should be looking at instead. As I wrote before:
[W]hen you check the science and find that even in comparable one-to-one situations, on average women get paid about 6 cents less on the dollar than men, and then dismiss that as a trivial amount we shouldn’t care about. Switch out men for women in that sentence and see how quickly your blood boils—when because now you are suddenly concerned, you actually do the math and realize that’s equivalent to an annual tax of several thousand dollars…on being a woman. If there were a tax on men of several thousand dollars, you’d be raging about it too.
So don’t get all in a huff when women, the ones actually suffering this hidden gender tax, are all in a huff about it. Even if you exclude the sexist treatment of mothers between the ages of 27-33, in which small slice of the demographic the wage gap is at its lowest, after controlling for all other factors, it’s still 98 cents on the dollar (single women to single men). An average “tax” of nearly a thousand dollars a year. I suspect the libertarians who rail against wage gap claims would flip their lid at a gendered tax of a thousand dollars a year. And that’s in the most privileged demographic. I don’t think complaining about a thousand dollars is silly. And I don’t think using possibiliter fallacies to deny this is rational.
This is even before we get to how industry rewards fathers and punishes mothers, how schools and parents pipeline their kids toward certain professions merely perceived to be “suitable to their gender,” all the science demonstrating that bias affects promotions, and so on. This puts Peterson squarely in the right-wing of cultural commentary: ignoring reality in order to deny injustice exists, by tearing down overly simplistic straw men instead, and replacing it with a conservative fiction of how you merely think the world works. That’s pretty much all things Peterson. For example, just compare Peterson’s nonsense about gender pronouns with this well-reasoned, fact-based critique.
Then there’s Peterson’s “ancient aliens” woo. I put that in scare quotes because Peterson of course never explicitly mentions aliens. When pressed, he always evades the point; “it’s a mystery,” or something. What I’m talking about here is his totally whackadoo theory that ancient humans across the earth had advanced knowledge of the double-helix structure of DNA. Which requires either electron microscopes or extraordinarily advanced biochemical theories to discover. So just, um, “how” does he think ancient humans acquired this knowledge? He’ll hem and haw, even walk back his assertions a tad, but never say.
Of course this is bullshit. And it’s bullshit born of the same error of arrogance as the rest of Peterson’s mistakes: he never actually checks with experts or researches facts; he just makes shit up, and is so certain he cannot be wrong, he just insists he is. Sometimes, when cornered, he’ll rephrase his certainty as, at least, that no one else knows it’s not what he says (another tell for running a con: changing your story every time it’s convenient). Either way, he “feels” he must be right; experts and research be damned. After all, who needs evidence, when you have in your heart the properly basic knowledge of the Great Pumpkin?
For this one, you just have to watch Genetically Modified Skeptic go to town on it, in Jordan Peterson’s Most Pseudoscientific Claim Ever. Spoiler alert: all coiled snake imagery more likely just replicates snakes mating, which all humans would have seen and readily used as a symbol of fertility and harmony. He hems and haws when challenged, but it’s clear Peterson thinks (or wants his fans to think he thinks) what his crank source said, that psychedelic drugs gave ancient humans psychic knowledge of the fundamental structure of the universe. Like I said. Woo.
Peterson often does this: he makes a ridiculous claim, but adds a citation so it looks like he has an authority, one that he expects no one will read. Because when they do, this happens. Or this. Or the examples we just saw above. That’s a super big tell for running a con. It’s a filter: anyone who doesn’t read his citations but are merely impressed by them, are exactly the people he wants to gull. Everyone else he can ignore, because he can dismiss them as angry critics trying to suppress his free speech and keep you from hearing his brilliant ideas, and thus he can play on the anger of his marks, who then clamor to fund him, resulting in cash.
Bad at Facts
Peterson’s tendency to just make shit up and claim it’s a fact is not as rampant and pathological as Donald Trump’s, but it’s definitely a species of the same genus. Nathan Robinson lists as just two random examples:
He is an unreliable guide to the facts (e.g. “there are far more female physicians than there are male physicians,” which is false for the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., or his promotion of a bizarre conspiracy theory that Google is manipulating the search results for “bikini” to include plus-sized models for politically-correct reasons, which they aren’t.)
Peterson’s dishonesty extends even to books he claims to have read, indeed even claims were fundamentally influential to him. Nathan Robinson catches him at this when Peterson claims he “learned” from George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier that socialism is a bad philosophy because socialists were bad people. Robinson actually quotes the relevant passage (which actually is a defense of socialism), demonstrating it said exactly the opposite. As Robinson concludes:
Orwell flat-out says that anybody who evaluates the merits of socialist policies by the personal qualities of socialists themselves is an idiot. Peterson concludes that Orwell thought socialist policies [were] flawed because socialists themselves were bad people. I don’t think there is a way of reading Peterson other than as extremely stupid or extremely dishonest, but one can be charitable and assume he simply didn’t read the book that supposedly gave him his grand revelation about socialism.
Once again, Peterson’s fans won’t have read Orwell. They’ll just believe Peterson. The rest of us read Orwell. Or listen to those who actually did.
This tendency to fake his life story in order to craft the image Peterson wants to sell is the biggest red flag of all. Peterson even exposed himself as a dishonest bully when seriously confronted on his fake claims about himself. When a critic questioned Peterson’s repeated boast that he’d been inducted into a Native American tribe, Peterson thundered him with rage and vitriol and threats of violence. Then it was revealed the critic was right: Peterson had been lying. Peterson was named a friend of a tribe, not a member; and that tribe wasn’t pleased by his misrepresenting that. Of course all such claims have now been scrupulously scrubbed from all his books and bios. Swept under the rug. “Nothing to see here.”
Peterson also tends to misrepresent his credentials.
For instance, Peterson once said, “Consciousness plays a central role in being itself. Modern people think the world is simply made out of objects…let me tell you, as a neuroscientist, that is wrong…there’s no debate about it; it’s just wrong” (in this video at 22:14). Peterson has no publications or degrees in neuroscience. Or chemistry for that matter—his only advanced degree is in clinical psychology. He is not an M.D. and thus can’t even prescribe pharmaceuticals. And here he is presumably referring to the qualia problem, but far from there being “no debate about it,” real neuroscientists are actually not so sure qualia don’t reduce to physical systems. Meanwhile everything else he says when claiming to “be” a neuroscientist is woo malarkey not accepted by hardly any neuroscientists the world over.
On another occasion Peterson said “I’m an evolutionary biologist by the way, not a political philosopher” and therefore he thinks only in timescales of “thousands of years,” not hundreds (in this interview at 11:42). And he says that immediately after boasting of his being a “scientist” with “many publications,” thus implying he means in evolutionary biology. Again, Peterson has no publications or degrees in biology at all, much less evolutionary biology. Yet he does have a B.A. in political science! And most of what he talks about is recent socio-political change. So it’s extremely disingenuous of him to trot out this bogus claim that he only thinks in scales of thousands and not hundreds of years—much less to imply the smaller scale doesn’t matter to the evolution of ideas. Which gets us to his next area of failure…
Bad at History
Peterson’s books depend fundamentally on false claims not just about science, but also about history. Which he rarely treats competently. For him, it appears, “history” is whatever Peterson thinks happened in the past. Not what we can actually say happened in the past. (And when we get to his failure at philosophy next, we’ll see why he keeps making this mistake: his shitty epistemology.)
This extends even to what Peterson is most beloved for: his crank, neo-Jungian archetypal theory of mythology, which depends on making numerous claims about ancient texts and cultures and the beliefs of ancient peoples. But as real philosopher Alexander Douglas points out:
There is no evidence even of Peterson having learnt the relevant languages, let alone made any comparative study of the uses of various words and patterns of symbols in general use.
Instead of actually doing history (much less anthropology), “Peterson scans the great literature of history until he finds his own thoughts. Anyone can do that.” Peterson doesn’t demonstrate the stories he talks about had the meanings or purposes he assumes. Instead, he just imports his own anachronistic assumptions, in relative ignorance of what things meant in ancient times and places. That’s shit history.
By contrast with Peterson, Douglas behaves like a competent philosopher: when he wants to know what the likely mythic meaning of the Enuma Elish was to its authors and transmitters, he consults an actual Assyriologist. Not his own mind. Real history. Not shit he made up.
Another example is how Peterson doesn’t really know anything about Marxism, yet pontificates on it repeatedly as if an authority, even though he admits he has only read a single Marxist text, the Manifesto, which was just a revolutionary pamphlet, not Marx’s actual articulation of his economic vision, which was laid out in Das Kapital. Moreover, Marxism has evolved since Marx. One cannot understand contemporary capitalism by merely reading John Stuart Mill. So why would any honest intellectual think they can understand contemporary Marxism by merely reading Karl Marx? Well, an honest intellectual wouldn’t. (For an excellent survey of this failure, see the amusing commentary of Ryan Mallett-Outtrim. Incidentally, Peterson also doesn’t understand postmodern philosophy, yet constantly conflates it with Marxism, which is a modernist, realist philosophical system.)
Another example is how Peterson doesn’t bother to really understand Nazism and the holocaust, despite those being two of his favorite working examples he builds a lot of conclusions from. His ignorance and errors here are expertly illustrated by Dan Arrows. Of course Arrows points out that Peterson does not follow sound historical methodology—like, trying to understand historical actors in their actual context, or recognizing outcomes do not always match those actors’ expectations (therefore we can’t, as Peterson often insists, reliably infer an actor’s intensions from the consequences). But more importantly, Arrows notes how Peterson’s use of his bogus understanding of the holocaust to criticize liberals comes dangerously close to exactly how Nazis justified their atrocities. Arrows illustrates how Peterson’s alarmist, absolutist, and ahistorical reasoning is literally dangerous, and is exactly the sort of thing we need a sound understanding of history to warn us against.
Peterson also repeats over and over again (for example in his debate with psychologist Susan Blackmore) all that “revisionist history” nonsense about Christianity and the Bible bringing to the world all the West’s greatest values, such as rights, democracy, science, and individualism. Total bullshit. All those things came from Greco-Roman pagan philosophy and counter-Christian iconoclasm and were very specifically opposed by Biblical Christianity, which we’ve continually had to fight against to even bring them back into sway. The Old Testament is horrid. The New Testament is misogynistic and Stalinist. Jesus is an asshole. Anyone who doesn’t notice this isn’t actually reading this stuff. Much less hip to the history of the last two thousand years.
Yet another example, perhaps the most telling, is how Peterson doesn’t even know rudimentary facts about the history of American protest movements, yet bases his political philosophy on what he mistakenly thinks that history was. As Robinson deftly points out, after quoting Peterson’s disdain for student activism that Peterson complains all started in the 60s (just privileged kids “shaking sticks” at people):
Activism, then, is arrogant brats holding “paper on sticks,” a peculiar and appalling phenomenon he believes started in the 60s. Nevermind that what he is talking about is more commonly known as the Civil Rights Movement, and the “paper on sticks” said “We shall overcome” and “End segregated schools” on them. And nevermind that it worked, and was one of the most morally important events of the 20th century.
Peterson, who is apparently an alien to whom political action is an unfathomable mystery, thinks it’s been nothing but fifty years of childish virtue-signaling. The activists against the Vietnam War spent years trying to stop a horrific atrocity that killed a million people, and had a very significant effect in drawing attention to that atrocity and finally bringing it to a close. But the students are the ones who “don’t know anything about history.”
Clearly, it’s Peterson who doesn’t know anything about history. And then “Dunning-Krugers” his way into being sure he does. And builds a whole worldview on it. Crank.
Bad at Philosophy
Giving him every honest chance, I’ve still reached the conclusion that Jordan Peterson is a crap philosopher. Even apart from the lack of sophistication or originality or plausibility of anything he offers in the subject (and trust me, I’ve listened to many of his defenders who insist otherwise, and researched the hell of this and tried to find any defensible example), I can confirm this even by just watching Peterson’s interactions with Sam Harris. I know Sam isn’t everyone’s favorite guy—even I think he’s a lousy philosopher, but he’s a damn sight smarter, sharper, and more informed on the subject than Peterson is. So if even Harris can run rings around this guy, that’s a red flag.
In their first podcast together Harris does an excellent job exposing Peterson’s language games and poor epistemology. What we discover is that Peterson is actually, in fact, a postmodernist. Which is deeply ironic given Peterson’s known polemics against “postmodernism.” But alas, Peterson literally thinks that truth doesn’t exist except as what’s convenient to believe. That which serves the aims of power (survival, triumph, reproduction) is “true.” Objective reality? Not relevant. Probably not even existent. That’s literally what postmodernists have been most maligned for claiming these last hundred years. They were as wrong then as Peterson is now. But he needs to hold up a postmodern theory of truth to defend his baloney worldview.
If you don’t believe me, check out the Harris interviews (particularly his first one). And also review the critical videos on Peterson completed by Rationality Rules (especially Jordan Peterson’s Truth – Debunked). Again, I think Rationality Rules is wrong about lots of stuff. He, like Peterson, confuses sex with gender; and, like Peterson, is too seduced by antiquated Jungian pseudoscience (rejected by all actual scientists today—you won’t find any of this in legitimate peer reviewed journals anymore), mistaking convergent cultural evolution as evidence of genetic inheritance, and confusing phenotype with genotype—also the common defects of Evolutionary Psychology. But sharing these errors with Peterson makes his critique of Peterson all the more persuasive. And he uses actual footage of Peterson, correctly contexted, to demonstrate his every point.
Peterson’s epistemology is uninformed, incoherent garbage. It does not interact with and shows no knowledge of any actual philosophical work in epistemology in the last eighty years. He uses words strangely, relies on equivocation fallacies repeatedly, and evades any rational critique of his bizarre idea of “truth” as that which merely conduces to differential reproductive success—and not, you know, anything that is actually the case. The rest of his philosophy is built on top of this nonsense, combined with crank ideas about science and history such as we just surveyed, to produce as ridiculous a metaphysics as anything you’ll find from the actual Deepak Chopra. Up to and including quantum panpsychism.
That’s right. Peterson is a quantum panspychist who believes in a bizarre form of Platonic idealism. Remember the cave men discovering DNA with magic mushrooms thing? Peterson even thinks his mind might live forever, because ‘physicists don’t know everything’. I’m not kidding. That’s basically his argument:
I don’t know that I even believe in death! I’m not sure we understand anything about the role of consciousness in space and time. I don’t think the world is the way we think it is. I’m not a materialist. Whatever is going on down there at the subatomic level of matter is so weird that the people who understand it don’t understand it.
Therefore we can conclude materialism is false and consciousness is eternal. This is what passes for genius.
And an Awful Writer
Peterson’s prose is also dismally bad. He writes very much like a self-important emo tween. Many have noted his writing sounds like some cute kid’s heartfelt essay in Junior High; verbose, unoriginal, pretentious, often void of anything actually significant being said but sounding like it has been. I concur. As we already saw, he conflates his own wild imaginings and scientific facts over and over again, without distinction, and asserts everything with pompous confidence. But he doesn’t even do it well.
The best example of this, illustrating every point with examples, is provided by Rachel Oates, who doesn’t pretend to being anything other than an average person expressing her colloquial thoughts and reactions to a sample of his writing. Yet I have to concur with her every observation. You can pick almost any page at random from his books and get the same florid, pretentious, barely informative sap. As Nathan Robinson put it, the most “important reason why Peterson is ‘misinterpreted’ is that he is so consistently vague and vacillating that it’s impossible to tell what he is ‘actually saying’.” A textbook description of a bad writer.
Peterson’s literary analysis at least reaches college level, but not much beyond. And despite the subject of his Ph.D. and professorship at Toronto, even his psychological science is basic, immature, shallow, and often inaccurate. Just compare it to, say, the writings or lectures of Damasio or Tarico, or any other expert writer on the psychology of emotions, happiness, or social hierarchies (see, for instance, Tarico’s chapters on that subject in The Christian Delusion and The End of Christianity); he does not sound at all like anyone who actually had a graduate degree in the subject. But because his fans don’t read other experts, they don’t notice this enormous disparity.
I have to concur with Rachel Oates, who concluded that what he writes sounds like a porridge of “half-baked, half-thought-out, not-fully-formed ideas,” light on real science, and heavy on bad metaphors and crap analogies. Just like every other woo celebrity in history. My own impression is that he has no real understanding of philosophy and doesn’t even grasp philosophical concepts very deeply. He just makes up words and apes naive folk wisdom, without any coherent or informed epistemic or metaphysical foundation. His incompetence at science and history I’ve already illustrated. Those failings just add more chunks to the whole bowl of swill he sells with such passion that many buy it.
But in the domain of philosophy, Peterson plays semantic games about what words and stories mean—even, as we saw, with what the word “truth” means—that are divorced from all actual context and evidence, and pretty much the entire actual history of philosophy and all the progress it’s made on these very issues. He reminds me a lot of Ayn Rand in that respect: a mesmerizing speaker, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, out of touch with the actual advances around them in the very fields they pontificate on. His epistemology is postmodern garbage. His metaphysics unintelligible. His metaethics undefined. His politics deliberately obscure. His aesthetics an uninformed Jungian nonsense wholly disconnected from neuroscience or any competent cross-cultural study.
Not everything from Peterson is awful. For a rational, informed positive review of his Twelve Rules, for instance, see what Scott Alexander at SlateStarCodex has to say. But the reason he’s able to isolate what’s worthwhile is that Alexander is, like Peterson, a clinical psychologist. They are both therapists. And that’s where they see eye-to-eye. Peterson by all accounts is an okay therapist—albeit crackpot, pushing all sorts of woo on his clients, and as Schiff reported, even once pretending to be a shaman. Even with regard to the therapeutic philosophy he sells, another psychotherapist who read Peterson’s book was much less impressed. Indeed, much of what Alexander notes is worthwhile is, as even he concedes, extremely simplistic stuff—maybe its precisely this simplistic stuff that many patients who end up in therapy need, at least as a stepladder out of their woes, and toward building a more sophisticated worldview. But this is also what all gurus and grifters build on: obvious, basic stuff.
If that’s all it were, I wouldn’t have much to criticize in Peterson’s work. I don’t think Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is the height of science or philosophy, either. But it’s all pretty much decent advice, well written and of use to many. It doesn’t frame its advice inside a ridiculous, toxically traditional, pseudoscientific worldview loaded with false understandings of reality, history, or epistemology. It doesn’t claim more than it honestly can. It isn’t arrogant. It isn’t flawless, either. But it’s still better than anything Peterson has written. Prose, content, everything. And its author—Stephen Covey, who came under a lot of the same criticism as Peterson—wasn’t running a con. He didn’t even evangelize in Seven Habits for his Mormon faith, or any of its awkward beliefs. His approach was universal and secular. He wasn’t trying to recreate a nonexistent 1950s white man’s paradise and selling that toxic dream for money. He wasn’t claiming to have expert knowledge in things he didn’t. He wasn’t a crank.
So why does anyone idealize Jordan Peterson? Why is he rolling in cash? He is far below par as a philosopher, scientist, and writer; evasive and obscurantist; with whackadoo theories and a simplistic worldview. He has no original theories he can support with evidence. He has no new advice for anyone; no respect for objective truth. Any reasonable skeptic would have seen through his shit and laughed him off the stage by now.
Peterson’s claims are manufactured. His citations barely relevant. His apologetics disingenuous. Even his origin story has an air of the false about it. Peterson capitalized even from the beginning on anti-left fear-mongering, positioning himself as challenging the Baalrog of Leftist Extremists on gender pronouns. Yet, as Robinson puts it, no such monster existed. We lefties actually “share the belief that government legislation requiring people to use particular pronouns would be an infringement on civil liberties,” and “since that’s a position shared by Noam Chomsky and the ACLU, it’s not a particularly devastating criticism of the left.” That controversy was fake from day one.
Even when someone later raised alarm at the Peterson controversy being taught at the University of Toronto, its completely liberal administration stood by him. Yet instead of acknowledging the political left had his back, and explaining to the world it’s not “left vs. center” but extremists vs. everyone—including almost every actual person on the left—Peterson constructs an elaborate conspiracy theory about liberal progressivism destroying the world, conflating every liberal together without distinction, playing both the apocalyptic prophet and martyr. And just rakes in the dough.
Of course, Peterson fans, like Trump fans, will fabricate any narrative to tell themselves that all these critiques are a conspiracy against the common people. Even just my conclusion, here well demonstrated by facts, that Peterson is a crank, is used as an argument that he can’t be a crank, lest we wouldn’t claim he was merely to “punish” people for hearing him out (yes, they actually claim this). They’ll say we’ve “misrepresented” him (we haven’t); that we need to read every word he’s written and watch every lecture he’s given to “really” understand him (we don’t). Why are they this irrational? Why are they so devoted to an obvious conman? What’s going on here?
I can only speculate, of course, but many others have come to the same conclusion. Robinson, for example:
Peterson is popular partly because he criticizes social justice activists in a way many people find satisfying, and some of those criticisms have merit. He is popular partly because he offers adrift young men a sense of heroic purpose, and offers angry young men rationalizations for their hatreds. And he is popular partly because academia and the left have failed spectacularly at helping make the world intelligible to ordinary people, and giving them a clear and compelling political vision.
Akin to Robinson, who correctly criticizes the left as partly to blame for this, the first hypothesis I’d try testing is that Peterson is a symptom of the same phenomenon that gave us Donald Trump as President, another incompetent loony (and vastly more dishonest and childish than Peterson could ever honestly be accused of being) whom millions worship as the nearest thing to a secular god one can conceive: these guys are the avatars of a beleaguered “identity,” predominately but not exclusively white male or pro-white-male; traditionalists and reactionaries, whether forcefully or mildly.
Such demagogues boldly and charismatically say what bigoted and misguided people are thinking; so those seduced by this feel like these avatars of their panic are “speaking truth to power.” And they feel this because they and their biased and simplistic worldviews are losing power, and the people in this beleaguered state have never done the hard work of contemplating the complexities of reality, they never seriously challenge their own beliefs and assumptions, and are easily taken in by their own certainty that their biased and simplistic point of view must be flawless and correct—a biased point of view the likes of Peterson and Trump embody in their entire message and persona.
I can’t prove it. But I do suspect—metaphorically speaking—that these guys are the id of an overly-ignorant public too overconfident even to see their own ignorance, much less recognize it as a problem they need to solve. These guys’ fans and worshipers are essentially the secular replacement for their predecessors, the Creationists and Fundamentalists. The mindset, the epistemology, the moral and existential panic, the rationalizing, the persecution complex, the outrage at being questioned or criticized, is all exactly the same. These are literally the same people…or would have been.
Lately, ancient superstitions about devils and blood magic and angelic armies raining down from the sky have become an increasingly harder sell, so Creationism and Fundamentalism are declining. Those who would have been seduced by their cool-aide twenty years ago, are instead seduced by this new, more modern brew. This is where they went. And because it’s “secular,” atheists are being roped in by it, every bit as much as disaffected Christians are.
Special Rule: I do not have an open comments policy. But I actually want Peterson defenders to post comments here, and I intend to revise the text above if any errors are shown me. But if you want your comment to be published here you have to meet two rules: (1) you need to cite specific evidence of any point you make (hyperlinked article or video, or book or article title; with either timestamp or an exact quote sufficient to be found by digital search of the named text) and (2) you need to be responding to a point I actually made. Mere gainsaying will be ignored. Assertions without evidence will be ignored. Arguing against things I didn’t claim will be ignored.