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…

UnUnited Kingdom

“Rule Brittania?
The bitch has scammed ya
No smiling Union Jacks
My friends, I want my money backBut what about the system?
I think no one would miss them
Brain-dead corpses in the House of Lords
We could all learn a thing or two from Guy Fawkes

‘Cause this is not the United Kingdom
No, this is not the United Kingdom
This is not the United Kingdom
This is not the UK

Rule Brittania?
What’s she ever done for me?
Stuck a nail in the coffin of my national pride
And made the tourists hate me

This Green and Emerald Isle?
It’s just 800 miles of bile
High rise, car parks, ash tray dirt?
Well, we could still learn a thing or two from Guy Fawkes

‘Cause this is not the United Kingdom
No, this is not the United Kingdom
This is not the United Kingdom
This is not the UK”

 

The Manosphere mangles Science 101. For the mth time.

I definitely need my traditional trigger warning for this one…

If you find that you are unable to respond to criticism of sexism and misogyny without randomly arranging terms such as SJW, white knight, cuck, kill yourself, bitch, whore, rape, professional victims, PC gone mad, First Amendment, feminazi, and/or fuck (or other assorted expletives) into grammatically dubious and arbitrarily capitalised boilerplate then you may find the following post both intellectually and emotionally challenging. A strong and potentially damaging kneejerk response or, indeed, extreme overreaction may result.

You have been warned.

Shortly after my previous post was uploaded, an e-mail popped into my inbox pointing me towards an especially timely and instructive example of exactly the effect I’d discussed there: the dismissal of scientific evidence and counter-arguments in favour of a cherished ideology and deeply-held worldview. No amount of data, peer-reviewed literature, reasoned debate, or academic engagement seems to be capable of convincing this particular type of individual to think more scientifically, i.e. to assess all of the available information, set aside their biases (as much as possible), and to reach a conclusion based on the entirety of the evidence in front of them.

I am, of course, talking about the Manospherian.

Writing for VDare.com, “Lance Welton” — pseudoynms are popular in the Manosphere [1] — penned/pixeled an overwrought and hysterical hatchet job, as is his [2] wont, on Dr. Jess Wade. Jess has featured before at this blog, and, indeed, visited the School of Physics and Astronomy at Nottingham last November to give us an extremely well-received, informative and entertaining lecture. She’s an inspiration for so many scientists, for reasons discussed in this Guardian article. (I have my suspicions that “Lance” is not a regular Guardian reader. Here’s a Nature article on Jess instead.)

“Lance”‘s piece is entitled Jess Wade—Another Minority Social Justice Warrior Pushing Science Into New Dark Age.  He clearly has a particularly buzzy bee in his bonnet about social justice warriors (SJWs), and needs to vent his spleen as regularly as possible. (“Lance” would just love my t-shirt.) What “Lance”, in line with all his other overwrought fellow Manospheroids, fails to grasp is that he’s just as much an SJW as those he critiques; it’s just that he espouses a different form of social justice. And anyone who writes like “Lance” is most definitely a keyboard warrior of the first degree. (Those shirts are available here, “Lance”, in case you’re interested…)

“Lance”, in keeping with the long-standing tradition of Manospherian martydom, cherry-picks his citations to present a thoroughly skewed, and, of course, entirely ideologically-driven, picture of the literature on gender differences.  Instead of bending over backwards to consider the depth and breadth of the evidence for and against his case, “Lance” instead plays to his audience’s, and his own, deeply rooted prejudices in an argument-free argumentum ad hominem. How very scientific.

At the outset of his rant about Dr. Wade, “Lance” links us to one of his previous diatribes on how science is entering a DARK AGE because the data frustratingly fail to live up to his prejudices. (If nothing else, “Lance” is consistent in his biases.) Imagine my complete lack of surprise to find Alessandro Strumia‘s name pop up in the middle of “Mr. Welton’s” pearl-clutching piece. (His yawnsome reference to Galileo also made me smile. It’s not enough to wear the mantle, “Lance”…) Alessandro’s thoroughly flawed “citations are a direct measure of IQ” is about as good an example of modern-day Cargo Cult science as one would hope to find: it looks really sciencey, with lots of graphs and numbers and statistics. And maths stuff. And fitting. And correlations. And yet the methodology is pseudoscientific to its core. That “Lance” would unblinkingly cite Strumia, without taking a nanosecond to consider and/or address any of the many counter arguments, is certainly in keeping with the anti-science norms of the Manosphere.

To be fair to Alessandro — with whom I’ve debated at length (see the comments under this and this post) — I don’t think he’d be entirely comfortable to know that he was the poster child for a website like VDare.com. For the reasons outlined in my previous post (and elsewhere), I dislike demonising individuals. Even “Lance” might possibly rise out of his hatred one day. But it’ll take a lot more than just the data and evidence to do that.


[1] Due to the ever-present FEMINAZI GYNOCRACY that seeks to return us all to the DARK AGES, those who bravely stand up to speak THE TRUTH cannot reveal their identity. Or something.

[2] My apologies for the assumption of “Lance”‘s gender. I hope that they won’t be too offended if I got it wrong. I’m aware that the Manospherians are an exceptionally fragile bunch.

 

The wit and wisdom of Associate Deans

There are very, very, very few things I miss about Twitter but the brilliantly incisive @ass_deans is certainly one…

 

Standards at Cambridge just ain’t what they used to be…

I’ve been swamped with the day job of late so my rate of blogging has accordingly dropped substantially. But I woke up this morning and blearily-eyed checked my Outlook inbox, to find, nestling between the usual spam conference invitations from predatory publishers [1], an e-mail about this Guardian article: Cambridge University rescinds Jordan Peterson invitation. (Thanks, Lori. Peterson to wake up to at 6:00 am. You’re too kind.) And I just can’t let this go without a quick post before I get back to the e-mail backlog.

Just what the hell was Cambridge thinking?

Peterson’s pathetically transparent, overwrought, and highly lucrative “anti-PC” crusades are of course entirely at odds with the ethos of Cambridge, and the university’s staff and students quickly and forcefully pointed this out. [2]

But what I can’t get my head around is how and why the invitation to Peterson was made in the first place. One would hope that Cambridge of all places would very carefully consider and vet the scholarship of any visiting fellow. Fellowships are generally exceptionally difficult to secure. Did no-one involved with inviting Peterson take the time to read and assess his writings and witterings?

This, for example…

(from his, um, “seminal” Maps Of Meaning.)

Cambridge took that seriously? Over the years, I’ve received green ink letters and e-mails that rank at the top of the Baez scale that make much more sense.

Or what about Peterson’s lobster nonsense, as, for example, forensically dissected by Bailey Steinworth, a third year PhD student researcher, in her masterful take-down last year? Here’s Steinworth’s closing argument. (I urge you to read the entire piece.)

“No biologist would argue with Peterson that dominance hierarchies have probably existed for a long time, but it’s also true that plenty of animals live together without the need to assert dominance over one another. It seems as if his discussion of lobsters illustrates far more about his own worldview than it does about human behavior, but he’s the psychologist, not me. “

Peterson’s lobster fixation is a fantastic example of what Feynman described as Cargo Cult science — all of the hallmarks of science but lacking the essential objectivity and self-critical reasoning.  But yet this level of “scholarship” is good enough to warrant a visiting fellowship at one of Britain’s most august seats of learning?

And the less said about Peterson’s wilfully uninformed playing to the gallery when it comes to climate change, the better.

It takes a minimal amount of background reading about Peterson to discern the “Emperor’s New Clothes” character of his appeal. It’s rather depressing that academics of the calibre of those who lecture in the hallowed halls of Cambridge couldn’t manage this modicum of research. As a starting point, I thoroughly recommend Nathan J. Robinson’s profile of Peterson: “The Intellectual We Deserve“. Or for a rather more pithy insight into Peterson’s style-over-substance shtick, Private Eye nailed it in this parody.

It’s very worrying indeed that the standard of scholarship required of visiting academics at what is arguably Britain’s most prestigious university [3] has slipped this low [4]. 


[1] These somehow always seem to make it through Nottingham’s otherwise rather gung-ho spam filter…

[2] Peterson will be rubbing his hands with glee at the news that his invitation has been rescinded. What better example of the “PC orthodoxy”/cultural Marxists/leftist snowflakes/ (…insert tiresome cliche of choice...)  clamping down on his free speech could there be? He’ll dine out on this for quite some time.

[3] Settle down, Oxford.

[4] However, Cambridge — or, at least, its associated publisher, Cambridge University Press — has form when it comes to pseudoscientific woo.

Beauty and the Biased

A big thank you to Matin Durrani for the invitation to provide my thoughts on the Strumia saga — see “The Worm That (re)Turned” and “The Natural Order of Things?” for previous posts on this topic — for this month’s issue of Physics World. PW kindly allows me to make the pdf of the Opinion piece available here at Symptoms. The original version (with hyperlinks intact) is also below.

(And while I’m at it, an even bigger thank you to Matin, Tushna, and all at PW for this immensely flattering (and entirely undeserved, given the company I’m in) accolade…


From Physics World, Dec. 2018.

A recent talk at CERN about gender in physics highlights that biases remain widespread, Philip Moriarty says we need to do more to tackle such issues head on

When Physics World asked several physicists to name their favourite books for the magazine’s 30th anniversary issue, I knew immediately what I would choose (see October pp 74-78). My “must-read” pick was Sabine Hossenfelder’s exceptionally important Lost In Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, which was released earlier this year.

Hossenfelder, a physicist based at the Frankfurt Institute of Technology, is an engaging and insightful writer who is funny, self-deprecating, and certainly not afraid to give umbrage. I enjoyed the book immensely, being taken on a journey through modern theoretical physics in which Hossenfelder attempts to make sense of her profession. If there is one chapter of the book that particularly resonated with me it’s the concluding Chapter 10, “Knowledge is Power”. This is a powerful closing statement that deserves to be widely read by all scientists, but especially by that especially irksome breed of physicist who believes — when all evidence points to the contrary — that they are somehow immune to the social and cognitive biases that affect every other human.

In “Knowledge is Power”, Hossenfelder adeptly outlines the primary biases that all good scientists have striven to avoid ever since the English philosopher Francis Bacon identified his “idols of the tribe” – i.e. the tendency of human nature to prefer certain types of incorrect conclusions. Her pithy single-line summary at the start of the chapter captures the key issue: “In which I conclude the world would be a better place if everyone listened to me”.

Lost in bias

Along with my colleague Omar Almaini from the University of Nottingham, I teach a final-year module entitled “The Politics, Perception, and Philosophy of Physics”. I say teach, but in fact, most of the module consists of seminars that introduce a topic for students to then debate, discuss and argue for the remaining time. We dissect Richard Feynman’s oft-quoted definition of science: “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts”.  Disagreeing with Feynman is never a comfortable position to adopt, but I think he does science quite a disservice here. The ignorance, and sometimes even the knowledge, of experts underpins the entire scientific effort. After all, collaboration, competition and peer review are the lifeblood of what we do. With each of these come complex social interactions and dynamics and — no matter how hard we try — bias. For this and many other reasons, Lost In Math is now firmly on the module reading list.

At a CERN workshop on high-energy theory and gender at the end of September, theoretical physicist Alessandro Strumia from the University of Pisa claimed that women with fewer citations were being hired over men with greater numbers of citations. Following the talk, Strumia faced an immediate backlash in which CERN suspended him pending an investigation, while some 4000 scientists signed a letter that called his talk “disgraceful”. Strumia’s talk was poorly researched, ideologically-driven, and an all-round embarrassingly biased tirade against women in physics. I suggest that Strumia needs to take a page — or many — out of Hossenfelder’s book. I was reminded of her final chapter time and time again when I read through Strumia’s cliché-ridden and credulous arguments, his reactionary pearl-clutching palpable from almost every slide of his presentation.

One criticism that has been levelled at Hossenfelder’s analysis is that it does not offer solutions to counter the type of biases that she argues are prevalent in the theoretical-physics community and beyond. Yet Hossenfelder does devote an appendix — admittedly rather short — to listing some pragmatic suggestions for tackling the issues discussed in the book. These include learning about, and thus tackling, social and cognitive biases.

This is all well and good, except that there are none so blind as those that will not see. The type of bias that Strumia’s presentation exemplified is deeply engrained. In my experience, his views are hardly fringe, either within or outside the physics community — one need only look to the social media furore over James Damore’s similarly pseudoscientific ‘analysis’ of gender differences in the context of his overwrought “Google Manifesto” last year. Just like Damore, Strumia is being held up by the usual suspects as the ever-so-courageous rational scientist speaking “The Truth”, when, of course, he’s entirely wedded to a glaringly obvious ideology and unscientifically cherry-picks his data accordingly. In a masterfully acerbic and exceptionally timely blog post published soon after the Strumia storm broke (“The Strumion. And On”), his fellow particle physicist Jon Butterworth (UCL) highlighted a number of the many fundamental flaws at the core of Strumia’s over-emotional polemic.   .

Returning to Hossenfelder’s closing chapter, she highlights there that the “mother of all biases” is the “bias blind spot”, or the insistence that we certainly are not biased:

“It’s the reason my colleagues only laugh when I tell them biases are a problem, and why they dismiss my ‘social arguments’, believing they are not relevant to scientific discourse,” she writes. “But the existence of those biases has been confirmed in countless studies. And there is no indication whatsoever that intelligence protects against them; research studies have found no links between cognitive ability and thinking biases.”

Strumia’s diatribe is the perfect example of this bias blind spot in action. His presentation is also a case study in confirmation bias. If only he had taken the time to read and absorb Hossenfelder’s writing, Strumia might well have saved himself the embarrassment of attempting to pass off pseudoscientific guff as credible analysis.

While the beauty of maths leads physics astray, it is ugly bias that will keep us in the dark.

 

Is Science Self-Correcting? Some Real World-Examples From Psychological Research.

…or The Prognosis Is Not Good, Psychology. It’s A Bad Case Of Physics Envy*

Each year there are two seminars for the Politics, Perception, and Philosophy of Physics module that are led by invited speakers. First up this year was the enlightening, engaging, and entertaining Nick Brown, who, and I quote from no less a source than The Guardian, has an “astonishing story…[he] began a part-time psychology course in his 50s and ended up taking on America’s academic establishment.”

I recommend you read that Guardian profile in full to really get the measure of Mr. (soon to be Dr.) Brown but, in brief, he has played a central role in exposing some of the most egregious examples of breathtakingly poor, or downright fraudulent, research in psychology, a field that needs to get its house in order very soon. (A certain high profile professor of psychology who is always very keen to point the finger at what he perceives to be major failings in other disciplines should bear this in mind and heed his own advice. (Rule #6, as I recall…))

Nick discussed three key examples of where psychology research has gone badly off the rails:

    • Brian Wansink, erstwhile director of Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab, whose research findings (cited over 20,000 times) have been found to be rather tough to digest given that they’re riddled with data manipulation and resulted from other far-from-robust research practices.
    • The “audacious academic fraud” of Diederik Stapel. (Nick is something of a polymath, being fluent in Dutch among other skills, and translated Stapel’s autobiography/confession, making it freely available online. I strongly recommend adding Stapel’s book to your “To Read” list; I found it a compelling story that provides a unique insight into the mindset and motivations of someone who fakes their research. Seeing the ostracisation and shaming through Stapel’s eyes was a profoundly affecting experience and I found myself sympathising with the man, especially with regard to the effects of his fraud on his family.)

It was a great pleasure to host Nick’s visit to Nottingham (and to finally meet him after being in e-mail contact on and off for about eighteen months). Here’s his presentation…

*But don’t worry, you’re not alone.

** Hmmm. More psychologists with a chaotic concept of chaos. I can see a pattern emerging here. Perhaps it’s fractal in nature…


 

Update 18/11/2018. 15:30. I am rapidly coming to the opinion that in the dismal science stakes, psychology trumps economics by quite some margin. I’ve just read Catherine Bennett’s article in The Observer today on a research paper that created a lot of furore last week: “Testing the Empathizing-Systemizing theory of sex differences and the Extreme Male Brain theory of autism in half a million people“, a study which, according to a headline in The Times (amongst much other similarly over-excited and credulous coverage) has shown that male and female brains are very different indeed.

One would get the impression from the headlines that the researchers must have carried out an incredibly systematic and careful fMRI study, which, given the sample size, in turn must have taken decades and involved highly sophisticated data analysis techniques.

Nope.

They did their research by…asking people to fill in questionnaires.

Bennett highlights Dean Burnett ‘s incisive demolition of the paper and surrounding media coverage. I thoroughly recommend Burnett’s post – he highlights a litany of issues with the study (and others like it). For one thing, the idea that self-reporting via questionnaire can provide a robust objective analysis of just about any human characteristic or trait is ludicrously simple-minded. Burnett doesn’t cover all of the issues because, as he says at the end of his post: “There are other concerns to raise of course, but I’ll keep them in reserve for when the next study that kicks this whole issue off again is published. Shouldn’t be more than a couple of months.

Indeed.