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The Peterson 'Paradox'

Jordan Peterson may be a psychologist, but he shows no regard for the scientific method when it comes to argument.

"Jordan Peterson speaks on postmodernism" (Illustration by Matthew Many, Middlesex County College, via StudyBreak)

If you, like me, follow gender politics, we both may need a moment and some cannabis. If anything exemplifies, for me, the current situation in gender, it's the idea of a Thanksgiving dinner in a large family where everyone has different views and different opinions on how the turkey should be done and what choices everyone should have made, but the bottom line is that love and connection undergird the experience. 

Love and connection do not undergird Jordan Peterson's views—to be clear, neither does logic, though: he is inexact in his language, sloppy in his analysis, and willing to use medical and social science jargon to (putting it nicely) pad some views of his that don't do well in mixed company. But, to be fair, that may be due to a confrontational approach he takes with interlocutors, and that itself could be the result of the bizarre episode that has been his life since the University of Toronto decided to try playing identity politics with one of its faculty. All of that being the case still doesn't excuse sloppiness of argument and thought from a university professor, especially not one with a platform like Peterson's, and on a topic like gender that is universally relevant to human experience.

Jordan Peterson's most recent blog post about "The Gender Scandal" is a two-parter. The first part suffices for our purposes here: Peterson's argument is, essentially, that policies driving egalitarianism in Europe have failed in their drive because the social differences between men and women are increasing: men are becoming more aggressive/less agreeable while women are becoming more neurotic (his word for negative emotion). As proof he cites dipping STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering and Math) job numbers for women, multiple studies exploring the differences between women and men, and the not-precisely-new idea that "men are comparatively more interested in things and women in people." I would be delighted if this were an interesting observation, but it isn't. 

Peterson, moreover, seems to view difference as a problem to be resolved or a challenge to overcome, something that may not be an effective approach to gender relations. While being abrasive about Scandinavia, Peterson takes the time to denounce (or very close to it) the purported failure of measures in those countries to make up various gaps in gender. He attributes this to innate differences between women and men that are exacerbated by egalitarian measures and policies in society, and expresses the view that those innate differences will ultimately frustrate the intentions of the governments that undertake those measures.

Peterson uses terms like "egalitarian" very loosely: he never defines it, never describes what it consists of, never subdivides it into components. "Egalitarianism" is Jordan Peterson's rhetorical club, a catch-all for every stupid idea that occurs in the context of there being a gender difference involved. He's similarly wooly about his opposition, framing opponents' arguments nonsensically rather than addressing them at face value

There are also those who insist upon believing that we just haven’t gone far enough in our egalitarian attempts—that even Scandinavia and The Netherlands, arguably the world’s most egalitarian societies, are still rampantly patriarchal — but that doesn’t explain why the sex differences have grown, rather than shrunk, as those cultures have become demonstrably more equal in social policy.

First, "there are those" isn't an argument, it's a cop-out. Peterson is very careful to lay out evidence for his own views, and very careful not to lay out evidence of his opponents' views, but rather to mischaracterize them. He couldn't take the time to find an advocacy group or a non-profit, or a political extremist who held the very views he claims Scandinavian politics and social science is full of?

Secondly, social policy does not equal social mobility, or equitability. The United States abolished slavery in 1865, and official anti-Black discrimination in 1965-70. As much as social policy has made the lives of Black folks in the USA less awful, to suggest that policy changes have eliminated discrimination is asinine, bearing no relation to reality. The US has had, in its history, 144 Black congressmen and 10 Black senators out of 12,249 office-holders at those levels—1.25 percent in a country that has ten times that percentage of Black folks. Equal, in other words, isn't fair when you aren't starting from the same place. Equal isn't always fair, and fair isn't always equal. Getting back to gender, legislating away inequality doesn't do anything about social attitudes, but it does help to prevent the kind of official bigotry that keeps people poor.

As women make their own money and are able to make their financial presence felt in communities, in markets, and in workplaces, that's going to result in a lot of changes, not merely because of some politically correct ideology, but to correct for decades of corporate and government cultures that have historically relied on men. That means changing, for example, how we look at overtime; that also means changing how we look at childbirth. In Europe this is an idea that's catching on, the state supporting working mothers to take breaks to parent because they're performing a social good.

Peterson's main claim here, that "[p]olicies that maximize equality of opportunity make equality of outcome increasingly impossible," relies on an overly narrow definition of equality and an overlaying implication that the whole aim itself is nonsense. He finishes this post:

Men and women are similar. But they are importantly different. The differences matter, particularly at the extremes, particularly with regard to occupational choice and its concomitants. There are going to be more male criminals, and more male engineers, and more females with diagnoses of depression and anxiety, and more female nurses. And there are going to be differences in economic outcome associated with this variance.

Game over, utopians.

Besides the childishly obvious fact that Jordan Peterson does not know that, cannot know that, and offers no basis for his prognostication, there's the less obvious but more insidious attempt to use statistics and psychometrics as predictive data, something which the method itself explicitly warns against. Stats are descriptive in nature, offering cross-section of data at a given point, or else a pattern in a given context.

Social science stats are especially vulnerable to Peterson's sort of fuzzy logic, because they measure qualitative elements and rely on honesty, and because often the tools being used to gather information are developed in the process of working with individuals whose experience can't be captured using existing tools. In other words, most social science surveys are developed to treat and address a problem, and not simply to collect information. That means to some extent the stats derived from social science have to undergo proper controlling before they can be used the way other statistics are, or else one ends up with an incredibly skewed result at the extremes.

The bottom line is that Peterson twists words and misuses social science; he blinds his readers with his psychoanalytic jargon, and connects scientific and psychological descriptions of gender and society to his own political proscriptions on those topics. The closest analogue would be social darwinism in the 1930s, though to be clear I'm not for a second comparing Peterson to anti-Semites or racists between the wars: it's his methodology that's the problem. His being personally unpleasant is an unimportant sideline to his being a dangerously eloquent speaker who uses his rhetorical gifts to misrepresent social science, a field (I should note) that is DEEPLY separated from clinical psychology. 

I don't suggest he crawl under a rock, as the Swedish Foreign Minister supposedly did, but he is dangerous. His willingness to twist definitions and facts, his penchant for cherry-picking opponents' arguments, and his tireless, ceaseless tendency to throw nonsense political jargon (eg. "neo-Marxist leftist postmodern suggestion") all speak to a carelessness for consequences, and an inherent lack of respect for a scientific method that requires more rigour than it seems he has put into his arguments. 

Weird, wasn't he some kind of scientist?

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