Lately, on my YouTube channel, I’ve been plagued with Peterson fanatics suddenly popping up on old videos and leaving weird, unfocused comments like “Strawman!” and “Fallacies!”, without bothering to tell me what I’ve strawmanned or what my fallacy was. But then, if you’re a Peterson cultist, you’ve probably already got serious logical deficits. So anyway, for this week’s Bad Science Sunday (it’s early, but calendars are merely a social construct anyway), I decided to infuriate them even more. It was fun.
As usual, I end with a plea to subscribe to my channel, or to sign up for my Patreon, but also with a request that everyone pray to Skaði, Goddess of Winter, because it’s almost the end of November and we have no snow on the ground, and it’s freaking me out.
Mustn’t forget the script!
Hey, friends —
There’s a tremor in the void right now. The Peterson cult is coming back. I made a few videos about Jordan Peterson countless eons ago — well, last spring, but in Pandemic Time that’s like the Triassic — and I’ve seen a sudden uptick in views and comments on those old videos. I think the cultists are creeping back, doing more searches for the object of their obsession, and in a small way are sometimes stumbling across me. As a very small fry in the Peterson universe, that I’m detecting these ripples of interest is revealing. It makes me wonder what the more prominent critics are experiencing.
It’s obvious what triggered this interest. Peterson was in a drug-induced coma, literally, for a while, and his fans were starving for his words of wisdom, and he recently announced that he was publishing a sequel to his self-help book, 12 Rules for Life. The cult is jubilant. I’m baffled.
He’s a self-help guru who flopped spectacularly, falling into drug addiction so severe he needed to fly to Russia to get radical life-endangering treatment, and who, through his daughter, has been touting a dangerous and stupid all-meat diet regime. I think he’s disqualified himself from ever being regarded as a serious life coach. Yet here publishers go, offering to publish another book of shallow advice from a demonstrably shallow man.
But then, I guess that just puts him in the mainstream of self-help authors, just another Dr Phil.
What appalls me, though, is that he pretends to be a Man of Science, and his cultists all claim to be following the science, and he’s nothing of the kind. He’s a quack. He’s not even a very good scholar, and his understanding of science is as shallow as his understanding of human nature.
So today I’m going to dissect just one of his pseudoscientific arguments. Just one. One stupid sentence, and I’ll leave enough of the surrounding context so you can see I’m not quote-mining him. In this case, he’s lecturing a class about some ancient Chinese artwork, and he leaps to a very surprising interpretation.
This is an amazing thing to say about an ancient artwork showing intertwined snakes.
I think that’s — I really do believe this, although it’s very complicated to explain why — I really believe that’s a representation of DNA.
That can’t be true, and I’ll explain how I know it can’t be true, and how anyone with the slightest knowledge of the history of science would know it’s false. This diagram, published by Watson & Crick in 1953, is the culmination of over a century of major conceptual breakthroughs, driven by empirical research, and while we can take it for granted now (and Watson and Crick could casually assume that readers of Nature would immediately see its significance), it would be totally meaningless to an ancient philosopher or artist, or worse, would generate faulty associations, as it clearly did in the brain of Jordan Peterson.
Here’s what you need to know to understand the importance of DNA. These are prerequisites to putting the discovery in context, and ancient scholars did not have them. And if you don’t have these pieces of the puzzle, the notion of DNA makes no sense.
Cell Theory & Microscopy
Did you know the whole concept of cells did not exist until microscopes were invented, allowing us to see such small objects? Robert Hooke first described these things he called “cells” in the 17th century, Leeuwenhoek expanded on it into the early 18th century, and it wasn’t until the 19th century that Virchow formulated the definitive hypothesis that all life was made of these minute subunits called cells. Peterson’s ancient Chinese artists didn’t even have the vaguest idea that a liver, for instance, was made of trillions of tiny, dissociable, semi-autonomous units, and without that concept, there can be no understanding of where DNA fits into the organism.
Further detail was needed. Again, it wasn’t until the 19th century that microscopy had become sophisticated enough to resolve organelles, like nuclei, and structures within nuclei, like chromosomes. Even then, there were wide open questions about what chromosomes did, and what they were made of, and what role they played in the cell.
Once more: if you had no idea that long threads of a chemical substance existed inside cells, let alone what cells are, you’d have no context for grasping the idea of DNA.
How can you understand the significance of the structure of DNA if you don’t even know what organic chemistry and biochemistry are? The ancient world didn’t even have a coherent model of general chemistry. We in the modern West didn’t have an idea of organic chemistry until Wohler showed that you can synthesize molecules we once thought were vital products of living creatures — and even that idea was outside the scope of those artists’ thinking. How would they have interpreted an explanation that involved carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, and phosphorus compounds in an intricate framework?
We had glimmerings in 1895.
…it seems to show that the chromosomal substance, the chromatin, is to be regarded as the physical basis of inheritance. Now, chromatin is known to be closely similar to, if not identical with, a substance known as nuclein (C29H49N9P3O22, according to Miescher), which analysis shows to be a tolerably specific chemical composed of nucleic acid (a complex organic acid rich in phosphorus) and albumin. And thus we reach the remarkable conclusion that inheritance may, perhaps, be effected by the physical transmission of a particular chemical compound from parent to offspring.
EB Wilson, 1895
Seriously, if you don’t know what a chromosome is, if you don’t know what a chemical element is, if you don’t know chemical notation, if you don’t understand the concept of molecular structures, that whole paragraph is gibberish, lacking any referent to ideas in chemistry or biology. But that’s what Watson & Crick’s discovery is built on — starting with the class of compounds involved, then working out the details of their assembly.
This is a big one: you need a specific model of how heredity works to understand DNA. Not even Darwin had this: he was so lacking in a notion that heredity could be encoded in information localised in a structure present in every single cell that he argued for a role of use and disuse of organs in defining the properties of inheritance.
That’s what you need to understand DNA: this idea that every cell (cell theory!) contains a locus of information (nuclei and chromosomes!) made up of molecules (organic chemistry) that carry in their sequence information about properties of the organism (genetics!). Without all that, this is just a pretty picture of a double helix, lacking in meaning.
And that’s all Peterson has, and why I think he’s a shallow poseur pretending to be an authority on science. The helix isn’t even the important detail here! It’s that there is a sequence of paired nucleotides that constitute a chemical code that can specify the biochemical properties of proteins, and that is capable of complex patterns of regulation. It’s like seeing the Mona Lisa and gushing over the exquisite artistry of the frame, and then getting excited because other cultures also made picture frames.
So sorry, Peterson cultists, that is why it is entirely appropriate to label Peterson as a proponent of bad science. It’s also why I’m going to just roll my eyes at him, and you, when I get a bunch of comments claiming that I’m taking him out of context, that I need to watch umpty-eleventy hours of videos by this fraud. It’s because he is so obviously lacking any kind of nuanced comprehension of the context of his own wacky ideas and lacks any appreciation of the history of science.
Bring it on, cultists!
That was fun, although it’s always sad to see people deluded by old frauds, and also disappointing to see how easily the media can be duped into promoting old frauds.
Here, cheer up! I took some video of our local experimental garden. I hope you like brown, because that’s all we’ve got right now. It’s late November, we’re supposed to have snow on the ground, and instead this is all we have right now. Skaði, the Norse goddess of winter, better get off her lazy butt and conjure up some real winter weather. As long as I’m trapped at home in a pandemic, I might as well be snowbound, too.
So here’s some pictures of Skaði I found. Snow is real; winter is real; we have pictures of Skaði, so she must be real, too. Maybe we should all ask Skadi to bring me some winter, to make me feel better.
If you don’t like calling on pagan goddesses, though, maybe you can make me feel better by joining my Patreon, like all these fine people scrolling by. Or you could just like and subscribe to this video. Every click on “like” is the same as saying “praise Skaði!” And every click on “subscribe” is offering a sacrifice for a good winter.