Peterson, Scepticism, and the Art of Persuasion

I’m writing this from the not-so-sunny climes of Maidstone West station, waiting for the 09:03 to take me to London St Pancras (via the wonderfully-named Strood), from which I’ll get the train to Nottingham. I’m travelling back from Maidstone after a Skeptics In The Pub talk last night in the Market House pub there. It’s been over three years since my last visit to Maidstone SITP, which was again at the invitation of Rob Millar, the local Skeptics… coordinator. Thank you, Rob, for the invitation, the hospitality, sorting out accommodation, locating a guitar amplifier at the eleventh hour [1], and your careful chairing of what became a rather “robust” Q&A session at the end of the night.

I promised Rob and the other SITP regulars that I’d upload the slides I used, so here they are:

 

The majority of the talk was focused on “Uncertainty To 11…” themes, and I was delighted that Maidstone Skeptics asked very many perceptive, smart, and challenging questions about the nature of the quantum world (and much more). I just hope that my lengthy discourse on spatial frequencies through the medium of Stryper‘s sartorially-challenged stage attire was not the cause of too much indigestion last night. (Extra brownie points to the SITP regular who correctly identified both Stryper and Bad News [2] from the photos in my presentation. Clearly a man who, like myself, knows a little too much about eighties metal…)

Given that this was a Skeptics crowd, I felt obliged to include a couple of diversions from the quantum-meets-metal theme on the nature of skepticism, the devaluation of expertise, and the hysteria and hypocrisy of certain reactionary factions/fanatics in relation to university education. Those gender studies and lefty sociology courses mean that the nation is doomed, don’t you know…?

Hat tip to Tony Padilla for making me aware of Lance’s over-excited tweet above. Mr. Forman doubles, triples, and quadruples down on his pearl-clutching in a series of increasingly hyperbolic responses, including this:

Lance’s call to root out opinions he doesn’t agree with in order to, ahem, protect free speech — as one uber-reactionary pundit would put it, you can’t make this up — isn’t, of course, an entirely original demand. Jordan Peterson, along with other members of the self-styled Intellectual Dark Web — stop sniggering at the back there — has been howling for academics’ heads on a plate for quite a number of years because they simply will not toe the line, do as they’re told, and goddamn teach his preferred doctrines.

Mention of Peterson’s self-help psychobabble last night (see Slide #17 above) led to quite a heated discussion in the Q&A session following the talk. Three years ago I spent quite a bit of time lampooning Deepak Chopra’s “quantum woo”to a receptive Skeptics audience in Maidstone. What I find so difficult to get my head around is that very many of those who would identify as “rational skeptics” (or similar), and who rightly dismiss Chopra’s fairy tales out of hand, also represent a significant proportion of Peterson’s core fanbase. And yet, as I discussed at length in a talk for Nottingham’s Agnostic, Secularist, and Humanist society last year, Peterson’s “12 Rules For Life” and “Maps of Meaning” push the bullshit meter just as far above 11 as anything Chopra has written. Peterson’s style-over-substance, read-into-it-whatever-you-like, self-help gobbledegook also, hilariously, has very much in common with the wilfully impenetrable junk that is produced by the worst of the postmodernists he so despises.

Although there have been very many forensic dissections and demolitions of Peterson’s purple prose — with both this and this worthy of special mention — it was Private Eye that really got the measure of the man in a pitch-perfect parody of the vacuity of his writing:

Peterson_small

One important difference between Peterson and Chopra, however, is that the latter, while sharing Peterson’s charisma, oratory flair, and style-over-substance shtick, is not a poster boy for the worst type of reactionary right wing fervour, misogynistic movements (incels, in particular), and transphobic hate groups. Nor does Chopra, to the best of my knowledge, share, support, and help disseminate and normalise the views of Viktor Orbán [3], the infamously authoritarian Prime Minster of Hungary who is waging war on liberal values and shutting down university courses that don’t align with his personal ideological preferences. A recent article in the New York  magazine nailed it (and puts all of Peterson et al.‘s hand-wringing about no-platforming, “cancel culture”, and the like in context):

… if you are going to popularize the idea that leftist academics and human-rights organizations are poisoning the minds of children, and fomenting a subversive ideology antithetical to the health of your nation, then you simply cannot meet with an authoritarian prime minister who has used nearly identical arguments to justify state crackdowns on independent universities and NGOs — then issue no public explanation of why you took this meeting or objection to reports characterizing your conversation as convivial — and call yourself a principled defender of liberal values.

And to hammer it home:

Meanwhile, it isn’t hard to see how Peterson and Orbán might see eye to eye. The latter has effectively banned “gender studies” from his nation’s universities, while the former has called on his nation to do the same. What’s more, in a diatribe that Orbán’s speechwriters may wish to crib from, Peterson went so far as to suggest that left-wing instructors at a Canadian teachers college should be prosecuted for crimes against the state.

Lance Forman’s tweet above looks positively moderate in this context.

The central problem, however, is that the cult of personality surrounding Peterson (and, indeed, Chopra) is such that counter-arguments, data, and evidence are not going to sway those who feel that the great man has personally “spoken” to them via “12 Rules For Life” (or, in Chopra’s case, “The Seven Spiritual Laws for Success“) and changed them for the better. I asked the following question last night of the SITP regular who was a fan of Peterson:

“You say that Jordan Peterson’s “12 Rules For Life” spoke to you and made a difference in your life. How? Can you give me a specific example of something he wrote that had such an impact on you?”

“……..”

This is now the third time this has happened during a Q&A session. I don’t like putting people on the spot but I find it fascinating that when asked to highlight just one instance of Peterson’s writings that made a difference, each time I get a blank response to that question. This is entirely in line with Peterson’s writing style. He resonates with so many because, as Nathan Robinson explains so well in his classic take-down, Peterson’s writing is so nebulous and unclear that the reader takes their own meaning from the text. To be fair to Peterson, that type of writing takes a particular kind of skill. I only wish I’d realised this long before now [4] but it’s eerily reminiscent of the boilerplate that drives the horoscope market, as described in a classic Physics World article by Iggy McGovern [5]: Aspects of Low Resolution Horoscopy.

This leaves us with a conundrum. If even a hardened sceptic — an atheist/agnostic who rejects the likes of Deepak Chopra’s woo, for example — is taken in by Peterson’s guff, how can they be persuaded to be just a little more, um, sceptical (or, indeed, skeptical)? I am not at all suggesting that my approach last night — a rather full-on lampooning of Peterson — is any way to reach across the aisle, cathartic and fun though it was. Moreover, as an academic whose political leanings are left of centre, I will often be seen as one of the enemy. It is therefore going to be difficult, if you’ll excuse the understatement, to convince the Peterson faithful– whose numbers, I am willing to bet, include Lance up there — that I am not seeking to indoctrinate their children/ cause the collapse of Western civilisation/ establish a Cultural Marxist collective where it will be an ABSOLUTE PRIORITY to outlaw right wing views (delete/expand to taste).

So how do we connect? If we want to get beyond preaching to the converted, we obviously have to first find common ground with those who don’t share our political/ideological mindset. That’s tricky. But for the less evangelical of Peterson’s flock, science might be a way in. Or music. Or, indeed, both. There’s this book I could recommend…


[1] Thanks also to Ben for providing said amplifier.

[2] If you’re a Spinal Tap fan and you haven’t seen either of The Comic Strip Bad News specials, beg, borrow, or download the episodes asap. I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed. Sample quote, from Bad News’ lead guitarist and singer, Vim Fuego (aka Alan Metcalfe): “ I could play “Stairway To Heaven” when I was 12. Jimmy Page didn’t actually write it until he was 22. I think that says quite a lot.”

And here’s the Bad News boys in action…

[3] Thanks to Rob for bringing my attention to Peterson’s meeting with Orbán.

[4] Thanks, Lori, for drawing this parallel with horoscopy.

[5] Iggy was the external examiner for my PhD. He’s a poet as well as a physicist so knows a thing or two about writing style. This video with Iggy was a lot of fun to make back in (gulp) 2011…

Author: Philip Moriarty

Physicist. Metal fan. Father of three. Step-dad to be. Substantially worse half to my fiancée Lori, whose patience with my Spinal Tap obsession goes to far beyond 11...

2 thoughts on “Peterson, Scepticism, and the Art of Persuasion”

  1. What you describe here somehow reminds me both of some postmodernist writing and Bexit, where some people attach meaning to nothingness, for reasons that I just don’t understand. Why do they do that?
    Brexit, we all know, is just a string of unicorns. As for postmodernism, some of it is fine in a thought-provoking way, but some of it is just total word salad….and still people find it meaningful…
    That makes me wonder whether it’s all part of the human condition.
    Humans have, I suppose, always ‘read’ meaning into the most meaningless things in order to find a way of living. Astrology, horoscopes, genomes, words and texts by gods and gurus (and if you can set yourself up as one of those providers of texts you are in clover). For some this provides the basis for a stable world-view and way of life, but it can have totally destabilising effects for others: see religion, ideology etc.
    I am not sure there can be a bridge between those who find their ‘meaning’ in nothingness and those who still insist that meaning should be grounded in somethingness….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am not sure there can be a bridge between those who find their ‘meaning’ in nothingness and those who still insist that meaning should be grounded in somethingness….

      That’s a great quote, Brigitte — I suspect I’ll be using this a lot in the future!

      The “word salad” aspects are often (unconvincingly) explained away as arising from jargon that’s necessary for any academic discipline. But that really is a massive cop-out. Jargon-laden and conceptually challenging writing can still be clear and compelling. Your blog post from five years ago is even more relevant today:

      http://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/makingsciencepublic/2014/06/14/making-sense-in-science-and-in-public/

      Liked by 1 person

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