Jordan Peterson is a woo-merchant


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.

[Peterson clip]

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.

Cytology
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.

Organic Chemistry
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.

Genetics
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.

Comments

  1. nomdeplume says

    “It’s very complicated to explain why”. Oh, come on Jordan, give it a try. That phrase gives it all away. Characteristic of a cult – only the leader can understand the deep mystery, much too hard to explain to the followers who are lesser beings, just take my word, I know.

    As well as the Chinese nonsense, the Aboriginal nonsense is even worse. It’s a snake. So a “helix”. Sometimes 2 snakes (really, I don’t remember seeing that anywhere) so a “double helix”. Leave that imaginary leap aside. What is there, anywhere in Aboriginal culture or mythology or economy, ANYTHING that suggests they knew anything about genetics. Let alone microscopic structures which they couldn’t possibly have seen. I mean, if a snake is DNA, then that must be evident in what is said about snakes, right? But in Aboriginal mythology snakes are basically linked to creating rivers – rivers have bends and twists and turns and look like a snake moving, so a giant snake must have made the rivers. That’s it. If Peterson had done even a tiny bit of research he would know that. And similarly the Chinese mythology must have its own context.

  2. John Morales says

    I like it, PZ.

    (I particularly like how you made Peterson the McGuffin so you could sneak in a quick lecture)

  3. ANB says

    Good video. Short and to the point, and pointing out the big fraud.

    I would still like to see you NOT waste your time with the multiplicity of other minor charlatans. They will always exist, and your words (and videos) will have NO EFFECT on them and their followers.

    (I say this as a fellow educator of the same age).

    Stay healthy.

  4. PaulBC says

    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.

    Finally we have proof of the ancient astronauts! Who else but advanced extraterrestrials could have known how to make these sculptures of DNA cleverly disguised as snakes?

  5. leerudolph says

    PaulBC@4: “Who else but advanced extraterrestrials could have known how to make these sculptures of DNA cleverly disguised as snakes?”

    I’ll see your Advanced Extraterrestrials and raise you a YHVH. Who else would have been so silly as to send a sculpture of DNA disguised as a snake to try to teach molecular genetics to Eve, when it would have been so much more effective to send PZ disguised as himself? Sculptures in general have terrible teaching evaluations.

  6. PaulBC says

    If only they’d eaten the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Molecular Genetics instead of Good and Evil, we could have been saved a great deal of trouble.

  7. chrislawson says

    I’ve seen the same behaviour in creationists and climate change deniers. They use fallacies like they’re roleplaying a mage.

    DM: The archmage casts Improved Invisibility.
    Player: I cast Dispel Magic!

    (Transcription:
    Scientist: This well-established evidence shows your belief is wrong.
    Denier: I cast Strawman Fallacy!)

    It’s almost as if they see logic and science as a gladiatorial battle of spell combos rather than intellectual disciplines with underlying principles.

  8. Akira MacKenzie says

    Look, given the events of the last couple years of his life Peterson is likely not likely long for this world. He’s going to be found dead and naked, in a bathtub full of live lobsters.

  9. PaulBC says

    Anyway, Phil K Dick was all over the caduceus/DNA thing in the 1970s. His treatment is at least entertaining.

    I think from a Jungian standpoint, it might not matter much that the memory of the DNA precedes our ability to discover it. It would not have mattered for PKD either. A memory of the future instead of the past. No biggie.

    It’s also true that the original medical symbol was the staff of Asclepius, which has just one snake. Who knows, maybe an alpha helix. If we look harder, I’m sure the beta sheets will turn up somewhere. Disulphide bonds too.

    On the other hand, coincidence is a pretty powerful explanation. People have been making helices for a long time, not to mention observing them in nature, such as in vines.

  10. PaulBC says

    Off-topic, but I still love this anecdote about Jung.

    A young woman of high education and serious demeanor entered Jung’s office … As she described a golden scarab—a costly piece of jewelry—she had received in a dream the night before, he heard a tapping on the window. He looked and saw a gold-green glint. Jung opened the window to coincidence. He plucked a scarabaeid beetle out of the air. The beetle, closely resembling the golden scarab, was just what he needed—or just what she needed. “Here is your scarab,” he said to the woman, as he handed her a link between her dreams and the real world.

    This reminds me as much as the fake fortune teller in the Wizard of Oz as a serious approach to psychotherapy. On the other hand, I bet that under just the right circumstances it would work.

    I believe that coincidences are powerful, but no less coincidental for all that. Spurious connections can set the mind going in interesting directions.

  11. says

    @10
    Exactly. I’m pretty sure the first cave man to twist together two vines to make a thicker vine wasn’t experiencing some ancestral memory of DNA.

    Peterson is really getting into metaphysics these days. How much longer before he starts selling Orgon amplifiers and crystals?

  12. says

    I have to reluctantly. Comment on Peterson’s hijacking of the Australian Aboriginal rainbow serpent legend. Reluctantly because I am not of Aboriginal descent so it is not my story to tell.
    Firstly the Chinese painting depicts to serpent gods intertwined in a mating pose to propulate the earth with life. That is not the Aboriginal legend. The rainbow serpent was a pregnant female, possibly a giant copperhead or more likely a python. It was pregnant with all the animals and rose up from under the earth when it was time to give birth. Creating the rivers and mountains in the process. The Aboriginal belief is that rainbows are the serpent moving from waterhole to waterhole, replenishing them with water as they go. They also believe that the serpent leaves behind spirit children at the waterholes to impregnate any women that swim in them. That is why you see elders paying their respects to the spirits when they approach a waterhole. The oldest depiction of the serpent in Aboriginal art apparently dates back 6000 to 8000 years although Aboriginal art is much older than that.
    In all the Aboriginal depictions of snakes I have never seen two intertwined snakes as in the Chinese painting. I also did a long google image search to check this further. Lots of single snakes and the only pair i saw were definitely not intertwined. So no mythical double helix. As I said I am not Aboriginal and made these comments reluctantly but out of respect for millennia of still living indigenous culture I had to protest Peterson’s egregious and phony misappropriation of their culture and beliefs.

  13. Akira MacKenzie says

    Jeebus! Listen to the last episode of the Knowledge Fight podcast. In one of his recent broadcasts, Alex Jones evoked the whole DNA/Caduceus/Alien things well. Only in Jones’ cosmology, the “aliens” are Satan and his demons tricking the “Globalist Elites” into thinking they’re gaining immortality when they are damning humanity.

  14. PaulBC says

    Akira MacKenzie@14 I have this sudden urge to market juice boxes with straws that have a little caduceus on them. I bet some kids would think they were cool, and it would totally freak out Alex Jones (well, if he believes any of his crap).

  15. mcfrank0 says

    So a male snake and a female snake engaged in sexual intercourse is a representation of DNA?

    I guess the fact that helices, double or not (knot?), are both naturally occurring and artificial phenomenons is beyond the ken of Peterson’s reductionist vision of the world.

  16. KG says

    PaulBC@11,

    I’ll just note that we only have Jung’s word for it that this event happened at all! The anecdote is from his book Synchronicity, and the young woman’s name is not given (client confidentiality would not permit that, but it means we have, and never had, any other possible witness).

  17. Orion Song says

    @1
    oh no, the explanation is so complicated that Jordan can’t even mention that rivers are a representation of DNA, or that two strings twisted together are a representation of DNA; it’s all connected maaaaan (but he’ll never say that either because it’s too complicated to say in a college lecture apparently).

    “Interesting” way to learn a philosophy, terrible way to learn history.

  18. kurt1 says

    The uptick in clicks can also be explained by people looking for videos that debunk peterson. I saw one of your videos linked in a twitter thread about his obvious grift.

  19. louis14 says

    It’s clear to me (in a way that is difficult to explain) that the snakes know all about DNA, and are intertwining when they mate, to symbolise the molecular structure.

  20. PaulBC says

    KG@18 Well, it could have happened, and whether it did or not matters very little, except as an indication of Jung’s integrity (which I’ll assume was higher than Peterson’s). For me, it’s in the category of a having a pun I came up with and am just waiting for the chance to use it “spontaneously.”

    In my childhood, my chances of having a “scarab” nearby were very high, since we were in the middle of a Japanese beetle infestation in Pennsylvania and those things would cover and destroy many plants (there was eventually a biological control introduced, a fungus I think). Those are fairly small, but the more impressive green June beetle showed up occasionally too. I don’t see either of them in the SF Bay Area.

    I still have it on my bucket list to say “Here is your scarab.” when the opportunity comes up and then hope the other person knows the Jung story. This will require a lot of synchronicity.

  21. unclefrogy says

    well it seems to me that what he sees is the fact that the natural world is not rectilinear and has an affinity to more “organic shapes” and humans have used those shapes in design for millennia. He thinks he is the first one to notice while still living in “the world” of straight lines.
    uncle frogy

  22. PaulBC says

    unclefrogy@24 I agree, though I have to admit that macroscopic double helices aren’t all that common in nature. A single helix is (vine tendrils especially). I guess doubled rope with twist would qualify, and surely that has been known for thousands of years, though it doesn’t have the spiral staircase look to it. In fact, I was looking at actual spiral staircases and they’re not much like the standard picture of DNA, which is more of a twisted ladder than staircase.

    (People are also pretty good at just coming up with things in their imagination, such as the braids used in Celtic art.)

  23. PaulBC says

    What I mean about spiral staircases is that the axis of the staircase spiral is off to one side of each step, whereas a twisted ladder would have the axis going through the middle of steps, the way DNA is usually depicted (in real life, it is not straight and rigid). I had been thinking that DNA is just like a spiral staircase, and I was surprised to see that it’s not, at least not like the ones I’m familiar with. I think with the axis in the middle, there would be little advantage over a regular ladder.

  24. PaulBC says

    Actually, the helix thing strikes me as a red herring anyway. A latter conveys the topology of DNA well enough. A rope ladder can even be made to twist. That strikes me right now as the most commonly available thing in the ancient world that could analogize to DNA, not twisted snakes.

  25. says

    Woos often believe their woo. I think Peterson is dishonest – so dishonest I’d say he’s a sociopath – and he doesn’t believe anything he says – he just makes the mouth-noises that bring money.

  26. lotharloo says

    I really liked the end where you emphasized that the “helix” is not the important part. You very quickly go over that the fact that the pairing is much more important but I wished you had spent a minute longer there because it would have driven home the “gushing over the frame” part better.

  27. garnetstar says

    I have to admit, the first thing that popped into my mind when Peterson said “You see this everywhere” was, “Yeah, everywhere there are snakes.”

    I used to see entwined garter snakes all the time when I was little and running around the woods in Ohio. Never had any deep archetypal illumunination from it. Still didn’t know, or even deeply intuit, the structure of DNA until I took biology in school.

    Peterson’s problem, I think, is that his brain is fried. A steady diet of meat, salt, and benzodiazepines would do that to anyone.

  28. says

    “It’s very complicated to explain why”.

    Oh please — there’s one douible-helix, and he’s saying it looks like another double-helix he’s seen before. That’s not complicated at all — it’s something children do all the time. And even they don’t think it’s all that complicated.

  29. PaulBC says

    “It’s very complicated to explain why.” I defer to Anne Elk’s theory

    All brontosauruses are thin at one end, much much thicker in the middle, and then thin again at the far end.

    This theory can be adapted to snakes, only noting that they stay thin in the middle. An important caveat for exists certain snakes after an unusually large meal. These should not be confused with brontosauruses despite the superficial similarity. The absence of legs is a useful tipoff.

    Therefore most snakes, being skinny and twisty can form a helix, e.g. around a post, as depicted on the staff of Asclepius. Two snakes can form a double helix as depicted on the caduceus, sometimes confused with the former.

    (You’d think Peterson could have explained this. It’s not that complicated.)

  30. PaulBC says

    Raging Bee@34 Or maybe John W. Campbell. But probably not Glen Campbell unless he has more musical talent than I thought. (Sorry, I often need to remind myself “Joseph Campbell is not John W. Campbell, and neither of them wrote The Golden Bough.” One day I’ll get it right.)

    I think JP is too busy recovering from drug addiction, poor nutrition, and psychological problems to be anything other than himself, but I assumed he wanted to be Jung.

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