As Jordan Peterson’s become more and more influential, there’s been an uptick in the number of people writing about him. The most astute analysis I’ve seen yet comes in podcast form via CANADALAND, but a recent blog post by PZ Myers directed me to Peter Coffin’s excellent contribution as well as Shiv’s ongoing coverage.
I see a common thread to it all, though. Coffin in particular points out just how poor Peterson is at coming to the point. That twigged a memory; forgive this copy-paste from The Skeptic’s Dictionary, but the entire text is important.
Shotgunning: Shotgunning is a cold reading trick used by pseudo-psychics and false mediums. To convince one’s mark that one is truly in touch with the other world, one provides a large quantity of information, some of which is bound to seem appropriate. Shotgunning relies on subjective validation and selective thinking.
Peterson is using a fairly old trick: blast out as many points as you can, and hope that a few of them stick. It doesn’t matter if some or even most of them fail, because people will cling to the handful that resonate with them. As an added bonus, shotgunning adds cognitive load to anyone hoping to critique you. If you want to make your critique solid, you need to grasp the entire argument and hold it in memory, which is nearly impossible when it’s a small fraction of a wandering, wide-ranging rant. Coffin needed to piece together small segments of three separate interviews to illuminate one of Peterson’s beliefs, for instance, making it easy to toss out the “out-of-context” card. Some reviews of Peterson’s latest book back up Coffin’s observation, though.
… the reader discovers that each of Peterson’s 12 rules is explained in an essay delivered in a baroque style that combines pull-your-socks-up scolding with footnoted references to academic papers and Blavatskyesque metaphysical flights. He likes to capitalise the word “Being” and also to talk about “fundamental, biological and non-arbitrary emergent truth”. Within a page, we are told that “expedience is cowardly, and shallow, and wrong” and “meaning is what emerges beautifully and profoundly like a newly formed rosebud opening itself out of nothingness into the light of sun and God”. The effect is bizarre, like being shouted at by a rugby coach in a sarong. […]
What makes this book so irritating is Peterson’s failure to follow many of the rules he sets out with such sententiousness. He does not “assume that the person he is listening to might know something he doesn’t”. He is far from “precise in his speech”, allowing his own foundational concepts (like “being” and “chaos”) to slide around until they lose any clear meaning. He is happy to dish out a stern injunction against straw-manning, but his “Postmodernists” and Marxists are the flimsiest of scarecrows, so his chest-thumping intellectual victories seem hollow.
Peterson has a knack for penning sentences that sound like deep wisdom at first glance but vanish into puffs of pseudo-profundity if you give them more than a second’s thought. Consider these: “Our eyes are always pointing at things we are interested in approaching, or investigating, or looking at, or having”; “In Paradise, everyone speaks the truth. That is what makes it Paradise.” It is no defence to say there are truths here clumsily expressed: rule 10 is “Be precise in your speech”.
- The content does not justify the length of the book. When you strip away the pseudo-profundity and verbosity, you’re left with rather simple ideas you could find in any self-help book or discover on your own. Rule # 1, for instance, essentially states that females prefer males with confidence and that success breeds confidence and further success. This is rather obvious without having to understand the evolutionary history of lobsters.
- The introduction of the book presents the author as an objective investigator of the truth, disillusioned by dogmatic ideology and prepared to demonstrate its dangers. He then proceeds to incessantly quote from the bible, perhaps the most dogmatic text ever written. I didn’t purchase the book to be preached at, and found it unexpected and highly obnoxious.I understand that the author is interested in story and “archetypes,” but the bible is quoted out of proportion. There are many ancient stories to choose from, each with endless interpretive possibilities, but the bible is, for some reason, the primary text. Now I’m sure this is fine with many people, but I was unpleasantly surprised that I had purchased a book on biblical criticism or theology.
The latter review brings up another good point: Peterson’s morality is fundamentalist Christian and heavily influenced by the Christian Bible. He’s recently denied believing in their god, during an interview about his book which obsessively quotes from their Holy Writ. Less than a year ago, he was arguing in apocalyptic tones that everyone is secretly Christian.
… and that brings me to the last line which is that “so that we can all stumble forward to the Kingdom of God” Why would I put it that way? The reason I put it that way is because, well first of all, everybody does really know what that means, even though they may not believe in it, but that doesn’t really matter, being I think that to believe is to act and not to spout a set of statements and it is certainly possible to act as if what you are attempting to do is to bring about the Kingdom of God, and I would say that doing so is something that will radically justify your miserable existence and that’s really what you need, is radical justification for your miserable existence, and because human beings are so powerful, really powerful beyond the limits of our imagination, we have no idea where our ultimate destiny might be, that it’s not clear what our limits are and then if we decided to improve the place, let’s say, and I would say, starting with ourselves, because that is the safest and humblest way to begin, that there’s no telling where we might end up.
And since we’re all fragile and vulnerable creatures, and we’re going to lose everything anyway, we might as well risk everything to obtain the highest possible good, and then that would make the misery that constitutes our life bearable as a consequence of our intrinsic nobility. And there’s nothing in that except the good. And so then why not do it? And so that’s what I would enjoy and encourage, encourage everyone to do because there’s nothing better to do than that and we might as well all do that which there is nothing better than!
You’d think the mix of fundamentalist Christianity and self-help psychobabble would set off alarm bells in atheist and skeptic minds. As PZ points out, though, it isn’t. Even some big names in the movement are falling for Peterson, like Michael Shermer. Sam Harris is more resistant, yet has talked with him twice already and has a third event upcoming (tickets start at $79!). Some of YouTube Atheism is all agog over Peterson, too. This seems paradoxical at first glance.
But there’s a simple calculus at work here: Peterson’s stance against social justice is highly valued by these people, so much so that it doesn’t trigger skepticism or easily swamps those concerns. We see the same thing in evangelical Christians’ support for Donald Trump: he may be highly immoral according to their worldview, but stacking the courts in their favor is so important that they’ll wallpaper over his moral failings. This segment of skeptics and atheists values social justice over skepticism and atheism, albeit as a target of scorn.
If we combine that segment of anti-social-justice skeptics/atheists with the pro- side, however, isn’t that more than half of all atheists and skeptics? And if more than half of us value social justice that highly, isn’t it fair to argue social justice is a core part of the atheist/skeptic movement? Even if my numbers are off, it’s amusing to compare the PZ Myers of 2009 to that of 2017. The Culture Wars have made us all more mindful of social justice, no matter what subculture we belong to, and in the case of atheism/skepticism gradually turned it into a defining issue. You can’t understand our subculture without knowing about the social justice Deep Rift, and that makes social justice critical to understanding us.