Jordan Peterson is peddling IQ myths and fallacies


Jordan Peterson is notorious for his desire to annihilate a liberal arts education, wanting to throw out the humanities and social sciences (except psychology, apparently) as tainted by post-modernism. We’re supposed to fire all those bad professors who teach bad ideas, false facts, and unacceptable interpretations of the evidence.

I guess that means we can fire Peterson, then.

This article correctly identifies him as The Professor of Piffle. In addition to his intolerance and failure to understand modern literary criticism, it turns out that he, a professor of psychology, doesn’t understand how the brain works.

To fully grasp the depth of Peterson’s belief in power hierarchies, take his commitment to IQ testing: “If you don’t buy IQ research,” he has told his students, “then you might as well throw away all of psychology.” Peterson rejects the theory of multiple intelligences (emotional intelligence, musical intelligence, and so on) and insists that all of human intelligence is biologically determined, essentially unalterable, and expressed in a single number that can be ranked. Your IQ, he says, will govern where you end up in life: with an IQ of 130, you can be an attorney or an editor; at 115, you can be a nurse or a sales manager; at 100, you can be a receptionist or a police officer; at 90, you can be a janitor.

Peterson’s defence of IQ rests on shaky foundations. While he tells students that IQ was empirically established through Charles Spearman’s factor analysis, he does not share the well-known critique of that method: factor analysis supports both of the contradictory causal explanations of intelligence (intelligence as innate versus intelligence as the product of environmental advantage). Peterson then stacks the deck in favour of biology, citing brain size and neural conduction velocity (essentially, the speed at which an electrical pulse moves through tissue) as the determinants of IQ. Again, he does not tell students that both explanations were discredited by later research.

In the tradition of nineteenth-and early twentieth-century pseudo-scientists, phrenologists, quacks, and scientific racists, Peterson’s commitment to IQ is simply the reflection of his commitment to an unalterable hierarchy of human beings. And this is why his dismissal of “unnatural” and “made up” gender pronouns, alongside his casual sexism—his belief that women would be better served by having babies than careers and that male feminists are “creepy”—turns out to be central to his intellectual project, which seeks to resurrect the conventional patriarchal pecking order. For Peterson, transgender people and powerful women upset the “male dominance hierarchy” that forms the centerpiece of his thought. His world view is predicated on the promise of restoring authority to those who feel disempowered by the globalism, feminism, and social-justice movements he derides.

I have to object to the phrase “stacks the deck in favour of biology”, because no sensible biologist would accept that load of crap as in any way valid. It is not good that “the most famous professor in Canada”, as the article calls him, is promoting bad science.

Comments

  1. fmitchell says

    IQ tests fundamentally measure your ability to do well on IQ tests.

    Probably a slight digression, but:

    Second only to arguments based on IQ tests, assigning fixed characteristics to sexes and/or races based on brain structure — the other go-to arguments for Peterson’s ilk — are the junkiest anthropological science imaginable. Actual biologists can provide the technical reasons, but one layman’s argument has convinced me: The Brain Is Alive. It’s not a solid-state device installed in our skulls, fully formed, unchanging until it breaks down. Like other biological systems — muscles, heart, liver — it develops continuously based on environment. So, for example if “studies show” that women have a thicker corpus callosum (if they still show that), it’s not because women are “built” for certain tasks, it’s because in their daily lives they need closer integration between parts of their brain. (Whereas men can coast along as idiot savants specialized in only a few things.)

    Mostly I’ve seen this argument in Internet discussions, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if academics who should know better advance it next.

  2. says

    I occasionally like to try to beat up psychology as a discredited field full of pseudoscience founded on assertion, but he’s so much better at it than I am I don’t know why I bother.

  3. Snarki, child of Loki says

    “the most famous professor in Canada”

    …which would be Art McDonald, with a “hard-science” Nobel Prize in hand. Not some goofy psych wannabe.

  4. erichoug says

    Adam did a good one on this

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W3oUqKUx2o0

    My dad did his doctorate in Psychology and Family counseling. He thought IQ tests were more of a tool in evaluating student capability but one of many. Of course that was back in the 60’s and 70’s by the time I was in high school his opinion had changed. Tellingly, he never administered the IQ test to any of his children.

    I don’t have the background or training to really argue about it., But, The one thing I do know for a fact: smart people don’t tell you what their IQ is.

  5. Ogvorbis: Swimming without a parachute. says

    Snarky @4:

    “the most famous professor in Canada”
    …which would be Art McDonald, with a “hard-science” Nobel Prize in hand. Not some goofy psych wannabe.

    Sorry. American here. The ONLY Canadian professor I’m aware of is Hans-Dieter Sues, the Palaeontologist.

    ==============

    As far as IQ tests go? Sheesh. It measures someone’s ability to take a test that measures their knowledge — academic and cultural — against the culture and knowledge of those who made the test. It measures how close one is to the the cis-male white college-educated man ‘ideal’.

    I drove people nuts when I took an IQ test back in elementary school. First time I took it, I scored high. But there was a fire drill during the test. So they rescheduled. And I improved by 10 points. Then, about three months later, I was given the test again — different tester. And upped my score again. So they gave me the test again, and I upped my score again. The tests were different — there’s lots of versions out there. The testers were different. Yet I improved my score some 30 points. I didn’t get smarter, I got better at figuring out what the test, what ‘they’, wanted.

    Which meant, back in fourth grade, that I decided back then it was useless.

    Though it did follow me all the way through high school — Oggie is an underachiever and needs to apply himself more to live up to his IQ score.

  6. Ogvorbis: Swimming without a parachute. says

    And Sues is at the Smithsonian in Washington, D. C. I could have sworn he was a professor up in Toronto. Or one of those little towns up north.

    Sorry.

    I do have some books by Currie, though. And he is Canadian.

    Sorry.

  7. says

    Sorry, but it’s also obvious that he doesn’t know enough about some of the things he discusses. There are very, very few lawyers out there whose IQ reaches 130… presuming that IQ actually means anything, “average” is probably around 110 and personality traits dominate over raw intelligence. If we can celebrate the judge who proclaimed “three generations of imbeciles are enough” as among the brightest of all American legal minds, then personality traits and preconceived notions are at least as important as IQ!

  8. birgerjohansson says

    In regard to inherited skills. Last month, Science had an article about the genes we have inherited from neanderthals. The neanderthal gene alleles associated with language have been removed by natural selection, hinting that neanderthals had version 1.0 while we have the better version 2.0.
    Other changes include some genes related to disease resistance, but there was no mention of any genes which are known to have an influence on IQ.
    My five cents worth is that neandethals might already have been pretty smart, just a bit handicapped in the language department. In that case, all the human species had/has a high baseline ability for whatever IQ tests measure. Indirectly, this would also add to the evidence that regionsal varieties of humans are just as (potentially) smart.

  9. says

    ” … all of human intelligence is biologically determined, essentially unalterable, and expressed in a single number that can be ranked … ” reminds me of how amused Feynman was on learning that his tested I.Q. was 125.

  10. says

    There are very, very few lawyers out there whose IQ reaches 130… presuming that IQ actually means anything, “average” is probably around 110 and personality traits dominate over raw intelligence.

    Some shit I learned in uni
    1. An IQ of 130 cannot actually be measured, because the test would have to be calibrated and you don’t have that many subjects with a 130 IQ that you could actually do this. It’s two standard deviations off the median/mean (same here)
    2. The average IQ is 100. That’s not an absolute anything, it’s a fixed average. Only that year after year you need to score better to get awarded 100, because funny enough, we keep getting better at doing IQ tests, as demonstrated by the Flynn effect.
    I doubt anybody would care to argue we got actually smarter.
    And also, yes on the personality stuff.

  11. microraptor says

    I wonder how many people would accept it if we took a bunch of random feats of athleticism and gave people an arbitrary number based on their ability to perform all of them? Since that’s basically what an IQ test is only with mental rather than physical tasks.

  12. zoniedude says

    Re: I doubt anybody would care to argue we got actually smarter.

    Actually the deleterious effects of lead poisoning on I.Q. are well documented. Thus the phase out of leaded gasoline undoubtedly resulted in a rise in I.Q., although the brain damage occurs in youth so there is a 20 year lag before adults start showing a rise in I.Q.

  13. numerobis says

    Geoff Hinton is pretty well known, what with the whole “Deep Learning” craze.

    Peterson doesn’t come up much in conversation. He’s basically regarded as a shock jock.

  14. says

    IQ and Personality tests, no matter what they once were, are things designed by ‘Business’ studies to find an employees weakness and train managers (and the employee themselves if they can be suckered into it) how to exploit those weaknesses and pit one employee against the other for productivity improvements.

  15. says

    Your IQ, he says, will govern where you end up in life: with an IQ of 130, you can be an attorney or an editor; at 115, you can be a nurse or a sales manager; at 100, you can be a receptionist or a police officer; at 90, you can be a janitor.

    Going by that, I should be ruling the world, along with a fair number of other people. Unfortunately, I’m not, but if were the great ruler, firing this idiot would be my first act.

  16. logicalcat says

    So IQ tests are not important in psychology? Because I was leed to believe it was. Not as Petterson puts it of course.

  17. emergence says

    I also have an objection to the phrase “biologically determined”. Acclimation, where an organism’s phenotype is influenced by its environment, is also biological.

    What Peterson believes in is genetic determinism. He thinks that your neuroanatomy is an exact expression of your genes and isn’t influenced in any significant way by environmental factors.

    Even an undergraduate genetics course like I’m taking covered how environment influences phenotype and how high heritability isn’t the same thing as immutability. I guess Peterson would just call my biology class “post-modern neo Marxist” for covering basic principles of biology that he doesn’t understand.

    Assholes like Peterson are actually denying a good chunk of biology when they insist that your environment can’t affect your intelligence. We shouldn’t accept them framing themselves as representing a biological viewpoint.

  18. John Morales says

    emergence:

    What Peterson believes in is genetic determinism. He thinks that your neuroanatomy is an exact expression of your genes and isn’t influenced in any significant way by environmental factors.

    Bad habit, to fail to explicitly distinguish opinion from fact. I still do it sometimes. :|

    You may well be right, but consider whether he might think that, say, ‘your neuroanatomy limits the maximal expression of your genes’. Would that be so implausible that your expressed certitude is warranted?

  19. gijoel says

    In the tradition of nineteenth-and early twentieth-century pseudo-scientists, phrenologists, quacks, and scientific racists, Peterson’s commitment to IQ is simply the reflection of his commitment to an unalterable hierarchy of human beings.

    *Reaches for my Retro-phrenology mallet.

  20. emergence says

    John Morales @22

    I’m not sure I understand your question. I don’t think I made that much more of an assumption about what Peterson believes than what the article did.

    I don’t think I fully understand what you mean about ‘your neuroanatomy limits the maximal expression of your genes’. I also don’t know if you meant whether that being true is implausible or Peterson believing it is implausible.

    If you’re asking what I think you are, haven’t people like this guy said that they think your intelligence is negligibly affected by your environment and has a narrow range?

    Overall though, is your point about not making assumptions, or about needing to address some other position Peterson might hold?

  21. emergence says

    More to the point, Peterson seems to at least believe that different individuals or groups of people have certain genetic traits that massively influence their potential range of intelligence.

    Even that’s questionable and would need better evidence than the supposed genetic determination of IQ scores. It’s even more questionable when someone tries to apply it across racial or gender categories.

    All of the above is still being as generous as possible about his potential beliefs though. I have no problem seeing Peterson saying that you have a fixed IQ score determined by your genes that you’re born with and die with.

  22. John Morales says

    emergence, um, no.

    My primary point is that you employed the present tense in the indicative mood (cf. ‘E-Prime’), my secondary that you did not apply the ‘principle of charity’, both of which open you up to needless disputation even from friendly parties.

    I asked about its plausibility to you because the example I chose is similarly erroneous (it imagines particular subsets of genotypes are objectively superior) and equally terminologically vague (I riffed off your own reference to neuroanatomy), but I formulated it so that even though it’s in the same category, it avoids the problems raised by needlessly adducing environmental factors yet equally accounts for what he wrote. IMO.

  23. KG says

    So IQ tests are not important in psychology? – logicalcat@20

    IQ testing (and the controversies surrounding it) form an important topic in psychometrics, but that is a relatively small part of psychology, which is a collection of loosely related disciplines (including cognitive psychology, social psychology, educational psychology, clinical psychology, environmental psychology, forensic psychology, physiological psychology, developmental psychology, comparative psychology – the comparisons being cross-species…). This is one reason (there are others) why Marcus Ranum’s (see #3) dismissal of the whole area is so ignorantly full of shit.

  24. KG says

    The Flynn effect already mentioned is in itself a sufficient refutation of Peterson’s garbage. IQ tests were originally developed to identify areas in which children were having difficulties, so they could be helped. Their use to assign a single score to individuals is highly dubious, their use to rank populations just racist pseudoscience.

  25. emergence says

    John Morales @26

    So, should I have said “this is what I think he believes”? The original article didn’t do that, neither has anyone else who talks about Peterson. What did I do differently that made you focus on me?

    Also, is ‘your neuroanatomy limits the maximal expression of your genes’ supposed to mean that individual people have wide ranges of potential IQ scores that vary significantly in their maximum values?

    How am I supposed to be more charitable about this “biologically determined, unchanging IQ” crap Peterson pushes without saying he doesn’t really believe it? I gave a more charitable interpretation that includes environmental influences, but it requires dropping the premise that a person’s IQ is fixed and unchanging.

    My point about the distinction between biological and environmental influences being erroneous was that environmental influences on intelligence are also biological. Your environment influences your brain structure, which presumably influences your intelligence. Last I checked, your brain structure is part of your biology. I was saying that Peterson should frame his argument as intelligence being specifically genetic rather than just biological if he wants to argue that intelligence is inherited and fixed in an individual.

  26. jrkrideau says

    I think we can claim that Peterson is replacing Arthur Jensen as our most infamous professor. The difference is that Jensen seems to have believed his crap. I get the impression Peterson is just an ass looking for fame.

  27. David Marjanović says

    H.-D. Sues was indeed based in Canada for several years before he went to the Smithsonian. Originally he’s from Germany.

  28. logicalcat says

    @KG

    Thanks for the info. I seem to remember another thread on this site which spoke in length about the uses of IQ testing.

    I use this blog as a good source of biology science news. Would any of you have good recommendations for one about psychology?

  29. John Morales says

    emergence,

    So, should I have said “this is what I think he believes”? The original article didn’t do that, neither has anyone else who talks about Peterson. What did I do differently that made you focus on me?

    It happened to be you because your comment was there and I like your contributions. My intent was not to criticise, but to help you and other readers by providing unsolicited advice.*
    Whether others did or do that is not relevant to whether you so doing might be more efficacious in this (a comment thread) context. I personally find it helpful.
    Finally, there is no ‘should’ from me, it’s entirely up to you.
    But, had you done so, I could not have made that comment ;)

    * Which is a bit rude. I probably should not have done it. Sorry about that.

  30. jrkrideau says

    @ 32 logicalcat
    I’m not KG but for a slightly dry but good psychology blog the one sponsored by the British Psychology Society Research Digest https://digest.bps.org.uk/ is worth a look.

    After that it’s a bit of a crap shoot. KG was not exaggerating when he described psychology as is a collection of loosely related disciplines. Some are only tenuously connected.

    If you are interested in behavioural economics (one area of cognitive psych) you might like Dan Ariely http://danariely.com/ . A blog that tends more to the neuro side is Neuroskeptic http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/#.Wh7oYvZOlpg. For some issues on false memories and other, sometimes incidental, topics I recommend having a look at Julia Shaw’s media website http://www.drjuliashaw.com/in-the-media.html. Though not blog per se, she provides links to a good number of Scientific American columns that she has written. One is the slightly provocatively titled I’m a Scientist and I Don”t Believe in Facts.

    I personally like Bishopblog http://deevybee.blogspot.ca/ which is a rather eclectic mix of psychology and other topics.

    I did a quick google for psych blogs and this looks like a good source list for some blogs. Happy sampling.

  31. emergence says

    John Morales @33

    Okay, that’s fine. I’m sorry if I was too defensive.

    I was just annoyed how some people think that learning and environmental influences don’t count as biological, even though they affect brain structure.

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