Bullshit and Beyond: From Chopra to Peterson

Harry G Frankfurt‘s On Bullshit is a modern classic. He highlights the style-over-substance tenor of the most fragrant and flagrant bullshit, arguing that

It is impossible for someone to lie unless he thinks he knows the truth. Producing bullshit requires no such conviction. A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says
only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false. For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye
is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

In other words, the bullshitter doesn’t care about the validity or rigour of their arguments. They are much more concerned with being persuasive. One aspect of BS that doesn’t quite get the attention it deserves in Frankfurt’s essay, however, is that special blend of obscurantism and vacuity that is the hallmark of three world-leading bullshitters of our time:  Deepak Chopra, Karen Barad (see my colleague Brigitte Nerlich’s important discussion of Barad’s wilfully impenetrable language here), and Jordan Peterson. In a talk for the University of Nottingham Agnostic, Secularist, and Humanist Society last night (see here for the blurb/advert), I focussed on the intriguing parallels between their writing and oratory. Here’s the video of the talk.

Thanks to UNASH for the invitation. I’ve not included the lengthy Q&A that followed (because I stupidly didn’t ask for permission to film audience members’ questions). I’m hoping that some discussion and debate might ensue in the comments section below. If you do dive in, try not to bullshit too much…

 

 

Author: Philip Moriarty

Physicist. Rush fan. Father of three. (Not Rush fans. Yet.) Rants not restricted to the key of E minor...

5 thoughts on “Bullshit and Beyond: From Chopra to Peterson”

  1. Hi, just stumbled upon your talk found it interesting.

    The quotes you use to attack Peterson do sound like something that he would say, but your talk would be improved if you were to find clips of him saying those things, and play the clips, or at least provide references if you have taken them from his writing. Those quotes might be artificial, something along the lines of:

    “All statements made in flowery language with a certain timbre, cadence, or feeling, are bullshit.” – Philip Moriarty

    Giving you the benefit of the doubt that they are genuine quotes, your critique seems to be something like (correct me if i’m wrong): “Peterson sometimes makes statements that are flowery and poetic which are persuasive, although the statements do not hold any scientific truth. This is bad because either:

    1. Persuading people using anything other than scientific rational truth is bad.
    2. Peterson is positioned in a different place politically to me.

    The second sentence (This is bad because:…), is a bit of a conjecture from me, but clearly you think it is bad, although you might have different ideas about the because.

    I think I agree with you on the first sentence, some of the things he says are clearly not objective scientific facts. However, I don’t think its a requirement to speak in objective scientific truths all the time. It’s actually impossible. How do you practically answer questions like “How are you today?”. A lot of experience is subjective, so it’s okay to speak subjectively some of the time. Maybe where I would disagree with you is on the second sentence, and the reasons why.

    Although at this point i might clearly just be adding more limbs to a growing straw-man, so if you’d like to continue a discussion I’d love for you to restate your critique, or finish off the this is bad because.

    Ps. I liked the comparison between the ‘hard science’ and the ‘soft science’ journal hoaxes. I haven’t seen that type of fraud within the hard sciences before. Although do you think that there is a difference in the type of frauds you’re comparing? Does the poorly edited nano chopsticks raise questions about the validity of the field in the same way that a study about the rape culture shown among dogs in the parks of New York city does?

    Like

    1. Hi, Matt.

      Thank you for your comment. I read *directly* from Peterson’s book in the talk — just how much more of a direct citation do you need?!

      Your statement of my critique is, I’m afraid, not quite accurate. My point is that the majority of Peterson’s writings and presentations suffer from exactly the same problem as the worst of the postmodernists he so regularly criticises: a distinct lack of substance is hidden behind florid, verbose, and often vacuous language. “12 Rules of Life” is riven with that type of writing. The quote from “Private Eye” I include in the talk — which is parody, as I’m sure you realise — captures exactly the vacuity of Peterson’s nonsense.

      ““All statements made in flowery language with a certain timbre, cadence, or feeling, are bullshit.” – Philip Moriarty

      Not at all. (You should remove the quote marks, by the way, because that’s certainly not a direct quote!) Flowery, overblown language can often contain a great deal of substance. Moreover, great (and not-so-great) poetry and literature rely on timbre, cadence and passionate writing. (I was torn between doing a Physics or an English degree so am rather a fan of strong, emotive writing. This is not what Peterson writes.)

      I am not expecting Peterson to speak in absolute scientific “truths” all the time. For one, how do we define scientific truth? (See https://muircheartblog.wordpress.com/2018/07/08/the-truth-the-whole-truth-and-nothing-but/ ) But I am expecting some semblance of coherence from the man, especially as he is the first to criticise others for what he deigns to be poor argumentation.

      Peterson’s writing is classic “self help” garbage. I strongly recommend that you read Nathan Robinson’s “The Intellectual We Deserve” (https://www.currentaffairs.org/2018/03/the-intellectual-we-deserve) to which I also refer in the talk. Note the direct, lengthy quote from one of Peterson’s lectures in Robinson’s piece. Absolute gibberish.

      In common with my physicist colleagues, I often receive lengthy e-mails, written in multi-coloured fonts, from those who would secure a very high number of points on the John Baez crackpot scoreboard: http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/crackpot.html Some of those e-mails make more sense than Peterson’s gobbledegook! Are you seriously telling me that you take this seriously: https://images.currentaffairs.org/2018/03/peterson5.jpg ?!

      Really? If so, explain it to me — in plain, honest-to-goodness English (of the type that Peterson can’t muster).

      While I can laugh at those scribblings, it’s not at all funny that students at Harvard were presented with those witterings as part of their undergraduate studies.

      “Does the poorly edited nano chopsticks raise questions about the validity of the field in the same way that a study about the rape culture shown among dogs in the parks of New York city does?”

      You miss the point, Matt. If we are not going to damn the entire field of nanoscience (or, more broadly, chemistry) on the basis of examples of fraudulent and sloppy work, why should we damn the entirety of sociology — and, by the way, Peterson is a social scientist — on the basis of poor research papers? Peterson’s field of psychology has a massive reproducibility problem, for one thing. Should we damn the entire field (including Peterson’s work) because of, for example, the sloppy work of Brian Wansink?

      Thanks again for your comment.

      Like

  2. Dear Philip, don’t you probably, just probably think that the differences between you and Peterson are your fields of study? For a scientist like you, what matters are the exact numbers but for a psychologist is harder to get it because how do you quantify depression for example?. Maybe this is the origin of why your mental process is different than the one of Peterson. I guess both are scientists but calling it bullshits I think is too much, don’t you think so?. Don’t take me wrong, I am not defending Peterson but just trying to unfold where the differences came from.

    My advice would be: Fight the ideas and arguments, do not fight with the person, his way of communication or what his hidden intention is, just focus on the argument and fight the argument with something solid in your field to defeat it.

    This is an article in the Scientific American that I found of my theory of the origin of the differences between you and Peterson, have a look, please.

    https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/the-curious-wavefunction/is-psychology-a-e2809creale2809d-science-does-it-really-matter/

    Hope you don’t find my writing flowery, lool

    Cheers man!

    Like

    1. Hi, Adrian.

      First, my very sincere apologies for the long delay in approving your comment. It has been stuck in moderation for a week because my Outlook spam filter decided to “quarantine” the WordPress notification.

      My criticism and critique of Peterson are not due to his field of study. It is Peterson’s overwrought and largely vacuous writing that’s the issue. Yes, there are problems with the field of psychology (with regard to reproducibility and over-enthusiastic interpretation of data in many cases) but there are many psychology researchers who write in a clear, careful, engaging style and whose work is free of the bullshit that characterises Peterson’s writings. Dorothy Bishop (Oxford) is a particularly good example.

      I’ll ask you the same question I’ve asked others in this thread. Are you really of the opinion that the diagram below, taken from Peterson’s “Maps of Meaning” is anything other than the purest form of bullshit? Really?

      Best wishes,

      Philip

      Like

Comments are closed.