The Peterson delusion

Yesterday, Jackson Wheat sent me a link to this ‘discussion’ between Jordan Peterson and Richard Dawkins. I don’t recommend listening to it. I only made it through the first 5 minutes before the gag reflex kicked in. Peterson does most of the talking; the opening is Peterson simpering about how Bill C16 was compelled speech, and Dawkins agreeing and praising his courage.

You’ll understand why I then glanced at the timer and saw it was an hour and a half long and closed it with a few disgusted curses.

Then an excerpt from somewhere later in the video was posted on Twitter. It’s mostly Peterson explaining why two intertwined snakes are representations of DNA, which he saw clearly while on psilocybin. It is totally bonkers. It’s stupid and insane and infantile.

A brief summary if you don’t want to listen to it (or if, like me, you don’t want to listen to it a second time).

It reminded me a bit of that old video, much loved by creationists, in which creationists got into his office on the pretext of a filming an interview, and he just stopped, arrested by his British reserve, and was too polite to give them the ass-kicking they deserved. Jordan Peterson is a stark raving batshit dipsy-doodle con man.

It’s too bad Dawkins couldn’t see that the rest of Peterson’s schtick is just as groundless and loony.


  1. says

    It reminds me of that old stoner canard about the solar system being a gigantic atom while atoms are little solar systems with little tiny people living in them.
    Deep stuff when you’re 16 and high as a weather satellite.
    Just don’t expect me to take you seriously when you start talking about real questions that affect real people’s lives.

  2. James Fehlinger says

    LSD extends our consciousness. Who is to say it doesn’t
    extend it down to the level of our own DNA?

    You know, I just finished a bout of re-reading Peter Watts’s
    sci-fi novels — the “Rifters” trilogy ( Starfish , Maelstrom ,
    and βehemoth parts I and II) and the two “Firefall” books
    Blindsight and Echopraxia (a third, Omniscience , is
    supposedly on the way). By the end of Echopraxia , Watts —
    credited with serving up some of the best hard SF since
    Greg Egan and Iain Banks, seems to be in danger of serving
    up some of the same sort of biological quasi-mysticism.

    You can get a concentrated taste of this (consciousness — or
    perhaps intelligence without consciousness — being
    a cellular, or sub-cellular, phenomenon) in his short story The Things ,
    available from multiple narrators on YouTube; e.g.:

    The Things
    Jan 15, 2014
    Peter Reynolds

    The Things by 2011 Hugo Award Nominee Peter Watts

    The Things – The story of John Carpenters classic Sci-Fi Horror movie
    as told from the perspective of the creature as it battles to survive.

    Narrated with the permission of Peter Watts

    Text at:

    When infesting human bodies, the alien creature does not (at
    first) realize that they have brains:

    I was being Palmer then, and Norris, and dog. I gathered around with the
    other biomass and watched as Copper cut me open and pulled out my insides.
    I watched as he dislodged something from behind my eyes: an organ of
    some kind.

    It was malformed and incomplete, but its essentials were clear enough.
    It looked like a great wrinkled tumor, like cellular competition gone
    wild– as though the very processes that defined life had somehow turned
    against it instead. It was obscenely vascularised; it must have consumed
    oxygen and nutrients far out of proportion to its mass. I could not see how
    anything like that could even exist, how it could have reached that size
    without being outcompeted by more efficient morphologies.

    Nor could I imagine what it did. But then I began to look with new eyes at
    these offshoots, these biped shapes my own cells had so scrupulously and
    unthinkingly copied when they reshaped me for this world. Unused to inventory —
    why catalog body parts that only turn into other things at the slightest
    provocation? — I really saw, for the first time, that swollen structure
    atop each body. So much larger than it should be: a bony hemisphere into
    which a million ganglionic interfaces could fit with room to spare.
    Every offshoot had one. Each piece of biomass carried one of these huge
    twisted clots of tissue. . .


  3. blf says

    LSD lets you see your own DNA

    So does a good microscope. I prefer the microscope.

  4. raven says

    Yesterday, Jackson Wheat sent me a link to this ‘discussion’ between Jordan Peterson and Richard Dawkins.

    We can stop right here.

    Jordan Peterson is a stark raving batshit dipsy-doodle con man.

    Also an idiot.
    Peterson is just another Rush Limpbrain, Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, Michael Savage, Steve Bannon, Alex Jones, Franklin Graham, etc.. Right wingnut conpeople reflecting people’s hate and lies back to them for money. It is just a job, easy work for a lot of money.

    Dawkins is showing very poor judgement in even bothering to deal with a clown like Jordan Peterson. Really, I would suspect some age related cognitive impairment syndrome.

  5. ORigel says

    @1 When I was a kid, I read an “Encyclopedia of Immaturity” that gave a list of bad-faith questions meant to derail a schoolteacher’s lecture so you didn’t have to learn stuff. It included items like:

    –Are there tiny people living on atoms?
    –Are Chinese people trespassing on your property? (Because your property line extends down to China, nevermind that China is not opposite the USA on the globe)
    –Are planes flying overhead also trespassing?

    I don’t remember the others. I think there were five questions?

  6. nomadiq says

    Full disclosure, I’ve partaken in a few rounds of psychedelics myself. So trust me when I say that thinking you can see DNA while tripping or any other similar ‘revelation’ is the most juvenile interpretation of the experience. A deep experience will teach you something about how your own mind/thinking works, allow you to feel things in new ways and then it’s up to you to integrate the experience into waking reality. What you ‘see’ is truly just a hallucination and interpreting it literally is the dumbest thing you can do. Makes sense Peterson only went there with it. He should ask himself ‘why do I think two snakes are like DNA? How did that make me feel?’.

    I also doubt he noted in his hallucination a major and minor groove in the snakes (or he would mention it?) – it’s the most intriguing and non-trivial thing about DNA structure. Dude just saw some freaky stuff and went no further with it. Which, honestly, is pretty standard. He really is unexceptional in everything he does.

  7. hemidactylus says

    Here’s the best anti-drug PSA ever—

    Jordan Peterson (in Kermit voice):
    Hallucinogens help me see my own DNA wrapped into itself like intertwining snakes.

    Mr. Mackey (guidance counsellor South Park Elementary): Drugs are bad, m’kay?

  8. KG says

    That Dawkins is prepared to associate with such a numpty as Peterson just shows how far his decline has gone.

  9. Susan Montgomery says

    @8. The cruelest thing we can do Dawkins is pity him for being on his “Norma Desmond-level has-been” career phase.

    Seriously, anything else just feeds into his delusion of relevance.

  10. PaulBC says

    Dawkins doesn’t have to die soon just to preserve whatever shreds are left of his reputation. He could try just shutting the fuck up, though I’m not sure which he’d consider a greater hardship.

  11. nomuse says

    Peterson; “It’s complicated.”
    Pretty much what everyone of his supporters say. It isn’t silly, it’s actually quite complicated. Watch all five hundred lectures and read the books and at the end of it….you’ll be too committed to admit that, actually, it was just that silly.

  12. Matt G says

    A closed mouth gathers no feet, Richard. Either salvage your reputation by saying sensible things, or STFU.

  13. says

    So Peterson saw his own DNA? Cool — that means he now has a pretty good idea of what’s in his own genome. So he can take all that insight to a reputable geneticist or biologist and answer a lot of really relevant questions about his own physiological health, and maybe other people’s health concerns as well; right? RIGHT?!

    And yes, nomuse, it really is complicated. It’s also really silly.

  14. moarscienceplz says

    OT, Over at Stderr, Marcus is in the hospital with an apparent TIA right now. He seems to be alone there and is pretty scared, so anyone with some kind words might be helpful to him.

  15. raven says

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  16. Akira MacKenzie says


    The cruelest thing we can do Dawkins is pity him for being on his “Norma Desmond-level has-been” career phase.

    Dawkins: “I’m ready for my dissertation, Mr. Darwin.”

  17. PaulBC says

    I always half wonder if someone as whacked out as Peterson will show up acting sane one day and reveal that it’s all performance art. That’s the optimist in me, but I know it almost never happens. There are very few people who stay “in character” and leave you guessing. The only one who comes to mind is the late Andy Kaufman. Peterson is really as delusional as he appears to be.

  18. consciousness razor says

    I always half wonder if someone as whacked out as Peterson will show up acting sane one day and reveal that it’s all performance art. That’s the optimist in me, but I know it almost never happens.

    I don’t understand…. I’m sure he does know (at least somewhat) that he’s a hack/bullshitter who’s in it for fame and profit. The question is about the extent to which his bullshitting at given moment is just the idle ramblings of a confused/intoxicated/delusional asshole who has no clue what the fuck he’s even saying.

    Also, I can’t see how it could make things any better if he were very soberly and deliberately peddling such nonsense to so many people. I mean, whenever it may be that he does have semi-lucid moments and he’s using that opportunity to peddle even more of his nonsense, that just seems even worse to me. Honestly, I don’t know what an optimist should’ve been hoping for here … maybe that he simply never becomes successful/popular, but I think that ship has sailed.

  19. James Fehlinger says

    Now what do I do to get as famous as Peterson (or even ICP)?

    You have to break out of the Pareto Distribution.

    Pareto Distribution and Price’s Law | Jordan Peterson Highlights | Best Moments
    Jan 29, 2021
    Jordan Peterson Highlights


  20. PaulBC says

    cr@19 Optimistic about human rationality maybe, not about honesty. I agree it wouldn’t really make anything better if it was entirely an act.

  21. drsteve says

    @6 — I have similar experience, and quite agree. The counterpoint example is Kary Mullis: he’s another cautionary tale for overdoing it with chemical mind expansion, but he did have a legtitimately brilliant idea apparently inspired by psychedelic experiences. The key difference was that it was an insight about his ongoing work as a professional chemist. To whatever extent acid flashbacks played a role, it was in terms of making connections among pieces of knowlege he was already aware of, not giving him special acess to any new information.

    @10 Can we take it as given that Peterson is the chimp in this analogy?

  22. says

    If Peterson’s fans were the great fee thinkers they claim to be they’d be reconsidering him simply because his C16 claims are bullshit. No one has gone to jail for using the wrong pronouns, and like a whole bunch of “They’ll cancel me!” types Peterson is free to keep spewing bullshit.

  23. Dago Red says

    The armchair psychologist in me can’t help but leap to the conclusion that people — who are as erratic and as strange and as annoying as Peterson is — must have some kind of pathological personality disorder driving them.

  24. PaulBC says

    @23 Peterson is a great “fee thinker” with a range from $75,000-$149,999 to book (look it up). His followers are just the fee payers.

  25. birgerjohansson says

    (Delusion themed)
    Some right winters are currently posting something about a Disney drag queen special- I assume they are grossly misrepresenting something real, or are making things up, or are mistaking a parody for reality.
    If anyone can explain this latest MAGA-sphere brain fart, I will be grateful.

  26. says

    Honestly I find that snippet of conversation cathartic. I love it when Dawkins is forced to confront who he actually climbed into bed with, and Peterson is forced to confront that most scientists think he’s… out there, to say the least.

  27. Susan Montgomery says

    @17 Nice one :)

    @22. Peterson is a middling-competent psychology professor who fell ass-backward into success as an alt-right media darling. His 15 minutes are over and his attempts to regain the spotlight should be acknowledged with contempt if at all.

  28. nomdeplume says

    What Peterson, and all of his tribe mean by “cancel culture” is “Mummy, the other boys said mean things to me and think I am stupid. Make them stop.”

  29. PaulBC says


    There could be no doubt; the design, predating Christianity, was Crick and Watson’s double helix model at which they had arrived after so many wrong guesses, so much trial-and-error work. Here it was, faithfully reproduced.
    ‘Well?’ I said.
    ‘The so-called intertwined snakes of the caduceus. Originally the caduceus, which is still the symbol of medicine was the staff of- not Hermes-but-‘ Fat paused, his eyes bright. ‘Of Asklepios. It has a very specific meaning, besides that of wisdom, which the snakes allude to; it shows that the bearer is a sacred person and not to be molested…which is why Hermes the messenger of the gods, carried it.’

    From VALIS by Philip K. Dick, published in 1981.

    I have more patience for this kind of thing when it’s in a science fiction novel by an author who openly acknowledged his mental illness.

  30. says

    Wow, it’s been a long time since I read VALIS…that was a solidly constructed delusion there. “The Empire never crumbled!”

  31. nomadiq says

    @22 – the Mulllis example is interesting. But not that different than Kekulé and the dream about the benzene ring. Dreaming of a snake chasing its tail leading to the model of the benzene ring is kinda weak if you ask me. There is a lot of gaps between snake chasing tail and the benzene ring, gaps filled in by imagination, not the dream state. And bring Kary Mullins back into it, a vision, like a broken clock, can be right for the wrong reason. Point is I agree, there is not special access to secret information in the psychedelic state

  32. John Morales says


    I have more patience for this kind of thing when it’s in a science fiction novel by an author who openly acknowledged his mental illness.

    So you think either the character in that work of fiction is an author avatar or that only a mentally-ill person could come up with those ideas.

    (No, not really, I know you well enough by now.
    But that’s the implication of your comment, like it or not)

  33. birgerjohansson says

    Paul BC @ 31
    I think Philip Dick died just a couple of years later. His latest two novels were weird.

  34. PaulBC says

    John Morales@34 “Horselover Fat” is an author avatar, literally wordplay on Philip K Dick, which is not to say that his every utterance is the opinion of the author. There’s also evidence that Dick was somewhat serious about the idea that a benevolent intelligence like VALIS was watching earth (and I can only add I often wish it were so). I mean, he wrote a lengthy exegesis in addition to his fiction to explore these themes in more detail.

    that only a mentally-ill person could come up with those ideas.

    Well, no, and I don’t see how that is an implication. An imaginative fiction writer can come up with all kinds of ideas. Jonathan Swift, for instance, could write a fanciful work like Gulliver’s Travels, presumably without being under any delusion that it corresponded to reality. David Bowie could sing about a “starman waiting in the sky”, who shared a similar concern for our well-being as VALIS, but I am pretty sure Bowie just thought it was a cool idea that worked as part of a concept album. Ursula K Le Guin is said to have written The Lathe of Heaven as a tribute to Philip K Dick. It’s a favorite of mine, and practically could be a Philip K Dick novel, but is the product of a very different and unquestionably sound mind.

    Need I go on? No, I do not. (That was a rhetorical question.)

    However, in the particular case of Philip K Dick, there is biographical evidence that he struggled with mental illness or at least believed he was struggling with mental illness (it is a matter of record that he struggled with drug abuse). This is one thing that interests me about his introspective writing, that he simultaneously takes his delusions seriously but also acknowledges that they may indeed just be delusions. His truism “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” is one that most people do not feel a pressing need to remind themselves of.

    I could make my point less clumsily but let me repeat my original words adding only a small correction:

    I have more patience for this kind of thing when it’s in a science fiction novel by an author who openly acknowledged his mental illness.

    I have no patience for Peterson presenting himself as an academic and spouting nonsense to gullible people about seeing his own DNA when on acid. I enjoyed VALIS and other writings in that vein by PKD such as Radio Free Albemuth. I had enough patience to read these books. So the first part of my statement stands.

    The ideas are in a science fiction novel. So that part stands as well and is part of the reason I have more patience for such a ridiculous idea. The author of the novel in fact acknowledged at least the possibility that he suffered from mental illness (so that part mostly stands). In fact, he was quite forthcoming about past drug abuse and his belief that this may have adversely affected his perception of reality. Again, that’s another reason I have more patience for Dick than for Peterson, who denies or deflects from his obvious failings.

    I agree that if I were quoting just any work of fiction, my statement would be inappropriate and your implication would have some validity, but I know enough about PKD aside from work I quoted, that I stand by my initial words.

  35. PaulBC says

    birgerjohansson@35 Dick started writing his exegesis (which by the way I have not read except in short excerpts) in 1974. So these thoughts were going on some time before his death in 1982. He has elsewhere described his obsession with Richard Nixon (not unusual in itself) and his belief that Nixon was a tyrant with a particular role to play in the “black iron prison”, his term for the oppression of the “empire” (which “never ended”) and that the “Sybil” watching and protecting the republic was an extraterrestrial entity like VALIS.

    He was having visions about these ideas long before he fictionalized them in VALIS. A Scanner Darkly (1977) also explored in very personal terms what it is like if you can’t trust your own thought processes, and his afterword makes it clear that much of the inspiration came from his own life and drug use. Ubik (1969) and even much older works as Eye in the Sky and Time out of Joint convey his lifelong interest in subjective experience (not to mention the ending of Man in the High Castle). However, there is a steady progression from Twilight Zone-style speculative fiction to a highly personalized view in which the author himself doubts reality.

    So these final works are not the result of a sudden breakdown but the capstone of his art.

  36. John Morales says

    PaulBC, good response.

    John Morales@34 “Horselover Fat” is an author avatar

    Huh. <checks> You’re right.

    Well, no, and I don’t see how that [only a mentally-ill person could come up with those ideas] is an implication.

    Fair enough.
    I phrased it badly myself — rush job before walking the dog. Just got back.

    So, “[1] I have more patience for this kind of thing when it’s in a science fiction novel by an author [2] who openly acknowledged his mental illness.” means you have two criteria: that [1] it’s SF and that [2] the author acknowledged mental illness.

    You were after all, discussing the ridiculousness of the idea — that kind of thing — in comparison to Jordan’s rather than whether the idea was held in good faith, and it would have sufficed to merely adduce [1]. But you didn’t leave it at that, prompting my response.

    Why the second criterion, if not to imply that it’s a necessary condition for your increased patience?
    The corollary is that you have more patience when an author is mentally ill than otherwise. Which might not be explicitly ableist, but is getting there, in my estimation.

    You were after all, discussing the ridulousness of the idea in comparison to Jordan’s, and it would have sufficed to merely adduce [1] if all you meant was that the idea called for patience, and adducing [2] suggests that you think that the idea was due to mental illness.

    Anyway. Mental illness is a slightly fraught subject here, not to be taken lightly.

  37. PaulBC says

    John Morales@38 I really had a much simpler point, which was that Peterson’s comparison of DNA to intertwined snakes is old hat. I doubt it originated with Philip K Dick for that matter, but 1981 is already a long time ago. Maybe I could have just stated it that way.

  38. KG says

    Ursula K Le Guin is said to have written The Lathe of Heaven as a tribute to Philip K Dick. It’s a favorite of mine, and practically could be a Philip K Dick novel, but is the product of a very different and unquestionably sound mind. – PaulBC@36

    A favourite of mine too, but could PKD do characterisation with anything like Le Guin’s skill? The three main characters in Lathe – George Orr, Heather Lelache and William Haber – are all vividly realized in the midst of a story of fantastically shifting realities. I haven’t read all that much PKD, but have read The Man in the High Castle twice, with great enjoyment – but none of the characters stick in my mind at all.

  39. PaulBC says


    could PKD do characterisation with anything like Le Guin’s skill?

    No, but…

    PKD’s characters are better realized in his later, more personal novels such as A Scanner Darkly in which some scenes are driven entirely by bullshit conversation between drug users based on PKD and his friends in the 70s. I am blanking on names, but these are fully realized personalities, admittedly not realized with Le Guin’s skill as a writer, but totally believable.

    Even The Man in the High Castle has characters such as Frank Frink that I (at least) find memorable, for instance in attempt to set up an jewelry business with a partner (who I don’t find memorable) in a society in which the Japanese occupants of the West Coast are more interested in predictable Americana than in new designs. There’s pathos in his disappointment and frustration. This is also Dick’s most polished work in the sense of fitting the expectations of science fiction fandom at the time, and it won a Hugo award.

    My favorite PKD novel is more obscure: Galactic Pot Healer and has only two major characters: Joe Fernwright, the unemployed “healer” of ceramic works and Glimmung, a minor god who enlists Fernwright to travel to Glimmung’s planet and help raise his temple from under the sea. I have noticed that my favorite novel by any author is often the first I have ever read by them, and that may explain my attachment to it. But it’s an engaging character-driven work.

    There was little incentive for strong characterization in “Golden Age” science fiction, and while I agree that Le Guin was a great writer, PKD wasn’t especially bad. In fact my favorite classic science fiction author is Arthur C. Clarke but I still have to admit that his characters are paper thin. Even his non-SF novel Glide Path, though it’s historically interesting, feels a little cringey to me when he tries to find humor in the camaraderie of the engineers working on radar during WWII.

  40. says

    I enjoyed how “disagreeable” Dawkins was, in terms of cutting to the point. Very amusing to see the differences in their personalities come out.

    I agree that it was a waste of time — a round 2 with more from Dawkins would be great. Really too bad they spent so much time on the damn snake thing because it was obviously one of Peterson’s most abstract/absurd claims.

  41. ss4096 says

    This is not meant to apologize for Jordan Peterson but rather to ask what the intended implications are, and inquire as to possible knock-on consequences for your argument: since you seem to be criticizing Jordan Peterson’s claim as being “standard” and “not exceptional” are you suggesting “exceptionality” is necessary for something to be “good” or worse, a person to be “good”? If so, how can we ever have a world truly composed in majority of genuinely good people, which presumably is what we should all want?