Me and Jordan Peterson on the Couch

Original photo by Daria Shevtsova on

Well, this looks like being a lot more fun than I expected. I said a while back that I had been debunking people who were almost unknown, and perhaps ought to take on some high profile disseminators of misinformation. I said:

I have the likes of Jordan Peterson in my sights, whose insidious mix of valid psychology, mythic psycho-babble with a Christian emphasis, and insensitive meritocratic exceptionalism is deeply worrying. His whiny, arrogant outpourings on youtube have been encouraging the reactionary disgruntlement of his largely white, male following whose traditional place at the top of the social pyramid is threatened by feminism, gender fluidity, post-modern relativism and (they say) social Marxism. Back in the good old days when men were real men, women were real women and Jesus was King…you know the kind of idiot.

Problem was, I didn’t have the stomach for it. I don’t want to write about things without doing a reasonable amount of research, but I wasn’t going to buy his books to critique, that was for sure, and the other obvious source would be his copious lectures, interviews and public appearances on YouTube, but I felt that watching and listening to him sufficiently was going to be too obnoxious.

When I first encountered Dr Peterson, he struck me immediately as a puzzling figure. I struggled for a while to work out what he was saying, which sounded so dense and profound. He might have been a genius. There was that possibility. There were a lot of words, some of them long, and a great deal of apparent confidence. And yet…maybe not. Crazy? Charlatan? I wasn’t sure. I struggled for ages. In fact, I still don’t quite know what Peterson is all about, but he’s definitely closer to crazy charlatan than genius (or maybe one can be both). Despite my increasing revulsion, I listened to many more hours of him whining, and I read those parts of his blockbuster that Amazon lets you dip into. No, I haven’t provided a link. You know the one: Twelve Ways I Can Persuade You I’ve Got Something Important to Say About Everything Including Lobsters. Gradually, it became obvious: he was not a wise man and probably isn’t a well man. I tried to encapsulate my general impression in the above paragraph.

I continued wondering if I should write a post about him, but there was that awful whine, that disgusting sense of messianic importance, the way he sometimes even shed tears – real or feigned – over subjects he didn’t make at all clear, whilst apparently telling boys to toughen up. There was the disgusting sexism, misogyny and religious bigotry of so many of his followers: whether intended or not, Peterson was becoming the figurehead of the SJW-bashing, reactionary dipshitariat, the kind of dude that’s dedicated to making America great again, but wants something more “intellectual” to refer to than just the slogan on his hat.

Now – yay! – it’s not a daunting task at all. Just the other day, I read Nathan J Robinson’s opinion piece about Jordan Peterson, and my problem was solved. I don’t need to write any more than I want to, or research any more than I want to: it’s all pretty well been said, and all I have to do is link to it. Voila: The Intellectual We Deserve. Not only did this assessment of Peterson accord almost entirely with my own, it also lamented that the level of praise from relevant professionals showed a serious fall in academic standards. Even clever folks were saying he was clever.

Read it now or later – it’s well worth it if you’re similarly puzzled (or just enjoy seeing bullshitters called out) – and I will add a few more things now that I think are worth mentioning relating to my own experience of Peterson…and my experience of me.

Pity the Fool

No two people’s opinions are exactly the same, and they change over time. After reading Robinson’s article, I felt even more pity for Peterson, which had always been there as part of the mix. My increasing confidence in free-will skepticism had something to do with it, but I’ve always tried to be compassionate, to understand the reasons why people do foolish or damaging things, rather than just blaming them, which is why I went into the counselling profession.

One of my biggest puzzles about Peterson as I encountered him was that he was a trained, experienced and knowledgeable psychologist, yet he was clearly befuddled about so many things. What struck me in particular, though, was that he wasn’t just deluded, he was fairly obviously “acting out”, driven by emotional responses rather than dealing with facts objectively. This was even more disturbing because he claimed his views were scientifically valid, and his followers were very impressed by his credentials in this regard.

Physician, Heal Thyself

I gradually got a handle on his thinking, and I gradually formed tentative views about his psychological condition. I mean this in a very approximate sense, and I’m not formally trained in psychological diagnosis. I mean it only in the way you might say someone you know is “neurotic” or a “control freak”. I didn’t even put a name to it until today, when by chance I came across the term “apophenia“. As the Wikipedia entry notes, this is connected closely with pareidolia, and I have written before about the phenomenon under that name. Briefly, these terms refer to the natural human tendency to construct patterns out of “noisy” data (i.e. with randomness included in it), as we make images from clouds or hear words in the squeak of a door. It leads to the invention of meaning from something meaningless, or the interpretation of incorrect meanings, the formation of an illusion, through cognitive bias.

Peterson knows about cognitive bias. He talks to his students about it, and this again gave me pause: if Peterson knows so much about how we fool ourselves, why does he not exercise more caution and be more rigorous and objective to counter his own biases? How can he insist that life – literally – the universe and everything, reduces to vague anthropocentric concepts that we can analyse from our ancient mythology?

Of course, one can easily construct an equally vague rationale for this idea that we have a natural insight into reality, something to do with the preservation of fundamental principles up through the evolutionary process, making these accessible to relevantly sensitive human brains, but there is plenty of evidence that this is lacking, and the very proposition denies cognitive bias entirely. Were such a principle to be established, it would certainly require a rigorous analysis, using the mathematical tools of science applied to actual evidence, not the waffly hand-waving towards similarities between ancient human stories that Peterson relies on. The failure of the hypothesis would predict the same conformity of mythic themes. Humans pass on and modify stories that are sociologically relevant to them, irrespective of their metaphysical truth.

This simple fact is the most parsimonious explanation for any apparent convergence of concepts and hierarchies of concepts, even assuming that Peterson’s chosen ones (“order” and “chaos”, relating to yang and yin, masculine and feminine, yada-yada, respectively) are possible to extract definitively from the data. In appealing to the real value of Jung’s archetypes, does it not occur to Peterson that he might merely be repeating, modifying, elaborating, deepening the hole humans have been digging for themselves for millennia, rather than enlightening anyone, standing back and climbing out?

Klaus Conrad coined “apophenia” in relation to early signs of schizophrenia, and I always felt that Jordan Peterson was obsessed with fitting everything into the overarching interpretation he’d settled on, which he clearly sees as monumentally important. He’s like someone who insists they’ve discovered the Theory of Everything. He’s so passionate about it, there can be little room for self-doubt.

It struck me as pretty scary when I first learned he was a clinical psychologist, responsible for other people’s recovery from mental health issues, though I have no idea what he is actually like in practice. But anyway, he’s giving therapy to millions now, and it’s bad therapy.

It Takes One to Know One

Pity involves a degree of empathy. I’m reminded of myself as a counsellor, because at that time I had a vision of reality that I had no evidence of. I was sometimes guilty of encouraging my clients to see the world through this lens, and it was, like Peterson’s, religious, cognitively biased, mythic.

My suggestions were mild and tentative and respectfully delivered. I might have said I believed “there was something beyond the physical”, or that we can “tune into life in a different way than simply analysing it all methodically.” For all I know, this may have helped some people, but it may not. I now consider validity the foundation of the value of statements, and there is always the risk that falsehoods that are “helpful” might only be so in the short term, while the believer is protected from the truth.

One young woman shocked me a little by making a very profound change in her life. I don’t think she had any particular interest in New-Age ideas when I met her, but a while after we worked together (she suffered panic attacks), I discovered that she was promoting various alternative medicine therapies for a living, in an alarmingly up-beat and rather content-free way. She seemed to be living on the excitement of extreme optimism from having discovered the secrets of spiritual life, and I suspect and deeply regret I may have put her on that path. Her symptoms did seem better, to be honest, but this was apparently at serious cost: she was now a magical thinker. I hope she came out the other side without too much scarring.

As I say, I’ve no idea what Dr Peterson’s interventions are like in his clinical practice, which may be quite pragmatic and sound, but if it echoes the unfounded certainty he expresses in his lectures, and encourages the views he promulgates in them, I can see it only being of benefit to people in the way all such sticking-plasters are: they might protect a person as long as they don’t get knocked off, exposing the rawness underneath.

My saving graces were perhaps twofold: 1) my training in counselling was founded squarely in the theories of Carl Rogers, who emphasized allowing people to find their own way forward rather than trying to solve their problems for them (which put a brake on my evangelism for the most part); and, 2) I was unsure of my own perspective, less confident of my grand unifying theory.

STFU Until You Grow TFU

It wasn’t always that way. In my twenties, a decade or so before I started counselling, I was pretty apophenic. I was driven to try to solve the great socio-political problems of humanity, and I was arrogant enough (and, often, stoned enough) to believe I was doing so, alone in the dead of night in my Oxford bedsits, dreaming my dreams amongst the dreaming spires.

In the main article I linked to, Nathan J Robinson reproduces some of Peterson’s stupid diagrams, which remind me of some of my own attempts to squeeze the complex machinery of life into some meta-significant, objectively almost irrelevant, pattern. I remember trying to fit my immature theory of political change into a torus shape for some reason, which was naive and almost entirely worthless, but obsessed me for months. I also remember riffing on the idea that everything came down (somehow) to a binary choice we make at every moment, advance or retreat (but those words don’t do the idea justice at all, of course), which I elaborated in my notes with reference to the primitive motion of an imaginary animal I called the “lump-worm”. Simplifying is the way we explain everything, but over-simplifying is the way insecure, precocious philosophers try to explain everything (away).

My delusions were probably encouraged even more during my counselling training. I chose a particularly “out-there” course and swallowed a lot of New-Age crap (despite half choking on it). As I’ve mentioned before, when I began this blog, it was to expound all my “spiritual wisdom”, but I woke up. Had I not been quite so lucky, I might have entrenched myself deeper in pseudo-science and wishful thinking and my own inflated ego.

A lot of what saved me from being a complete plonker is just timing. As I’ve observed before in relation to Rupert Sheldrake, once a person (with sufficient visionary pretensions) pins their theoretical flag to the academic mast, they often can’t manage to furl it again, and there it flaps, just getting more and more tattered, and usually ignored. If you know a young person with similarly bizarre theories about how the world works, I’ve little advice beyond just discouraging them from mentioning a word of it for about the next thirty years, in the hope they grow out of it naturally.

Perhaps don’t tell them about the Internet. This is a large part of the problem of modern media, that everyone’s half-baked theory has at least some chance of competing for believers in the free-for-all of hyperspace, and the readership is largely made up of young people with few skills of discernment, who are impatient to find the correct viewpoint, put it into practice, and pass it on. I suppose, since there are precious few genuinely different ways of looking at the world, and a lot of us, mostly it’s just the same-old-same-old that gets recycled, variations on the theme: never mind science, here’s more powerful magic you can use to be successful and loved!

Once you’ve woken up from your extended adolescence, you can publish that work with the degree of irony it deserves. It’s sometimes really pretty.

There are different ways of knowing
What is written, what is growing,
Whence the wind and whither path,
The strewn, the mown, the aftermath.

There are different ways of seeing,
Through the eyes and through the being,
How the contours of the globe
Seem folded in occipital lobe.

Yes, but presumably only one way of seeing is the correct one: two different explanations can’t both be right. This is similar to the “other way” Peterson expounds. Science, he says, can’t tell us anything about how to live our lives (which is quite untrue).

A proportion of the crazy messages get picked up by the masses and become the next big thing, their instigator hailed as a genius, saviour or demigod. Anyway, I’m about done for today. I might well rant about Peterson again. The sting has been taken out of that whine (not that I’m criticising his voice, you understand: his politics is actually a whine, ironically about people whining too much). I’ve not touched on the more specific reasons his views are so worthless, or actually damaging to society. For now, at least, just read Robinson.

P. S. I’m pleased to announce the imminent release of my new book: The World is a Torus (writing this has made me realise I was on to something). Pre-orders and Patreon subscribers will get access to the first chapter early, The Lump Worm, about life’s deepest secret!

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6 Responses to Me and Jordan Peterson on the Couch

  1. Yakaru says:

    Really interesting piece, John. I enjoyed reading about your own experiences and reflections too.

    I was unfair, I think, to Peterson on my blog for accusing him of getting famous for claiming he’d be sent to jail for using the wrong gender pronoun — it is a bit more complicated than that and I was lazy with the simple formulation of it. But I didn’t want to check it out more carefully because I didn’t want to wade through his prose or hear that whiny voice again. But I also couldn’t stop myself from opening my gob about it.

    Anyway, that’s a very sympathetic and well reasoned approach to this difficult problem.

    Jung noticed that people go through a sudden ballooning of the ego when they think they’ve discovered the key to everything, but also never applied to himself.

    Peterson’s diagrams (reproduced on that Taylor article) remind me of stuff I do to figure out how to get out of my own mental traps. I still use that kind of thing too, but I don’t assume that everyone else can (or should) immediately identify the cognates in their own subjective experience for each term. I can understand now why it all seems so real for him. I don’t get it though, why he doesn’t realise that people aren’t necessarily stupid if they don’t know what the hell he’s talking about or, worse, refuse to assume the implicit truth of his assertions.

    Taylor summed this up very well–
    “Obscurantism is more than a desperate attempt to feign novelty, though. It’s also a tactic for badgering readers into deference to the writer’s authority.”

    I’d noticed that too about Peterson, and described him as an authoritarian, in the comments section of a fairly popular blog. I’ve been commenting there for about 10 years, and that single comment got more replies than any other I’ve ever posted there — like about 150, all screaming indignantly at me.

    I guess I don’t mind people building up their own crazy mythological worldview, as long as they don’t have an authoritarian personality. It can build intellectual muscle, and open new ways of experiencing reality. But we really need to figure out ways of getting out of it too, or switching it off, even temporarily. (With me too, it was luck as much as anything that I could to some degree free myself from it. It struck me while reading your account that I chanced upon Popper’s Logic of Scientific Discovery, where he introduced the term falsifiability to philosophy of science. The only reason I picked up the book at all was because I thought Popper was such a great name!)

    And thanks for the word epiphenia. In German it sounds like epiphany, which is a great piece of synchronicity!

  2. lettersquash says:

    Hi Yakaru, I thought you’d be pleased I got round to this subject. Thanks for the encouragement to do so.

    I was unfair, I think, to Peterson on my blog for accusing him of getting famous for claiming he’d be sent to jail for using the wrong gender pronoun — it is a bit more complicated than that and I was lazy with the simple formulation of it.

    Well everything’s a bit more complicated than pretty much whatever we say about it. I think it’s absolutely true that he got famous over that point and the surrounding issues on gender. Had he not suddenly decided it was Marxist oppression to demand he say certain words, he’d have remained in relative obscurity.

    Anyway, that’s a very sympathetic and well reasoned approach to this difficult problem.

    Thanks. I think It was a bit ranty in places, more reasoned in others. Since then, I found another, “scorching”, review of 12 Rules, and the comments were a reminder that indulging in caustic wit, insulting and pontificating (as its author does) can backfire. JP’s fans rounded on the author, saying he was jealous or pompous and hadn’t analysed JP’s arguments at all. So, with JP in particular, it’s going to be important when I write more on him – which I think I will – to deal carefully with his work itself. Then I had the realisation that part of the reason he attracts so much praise from ordinary followers is that he’s a master of the deepity, where some trivial truth implies a profound point that’s not established at all.

    For example, he cites the lobster’s serotonin level correlating with its dominance to insinuate that dominance hierarchies in human societies are to be valued and encouraged, rather than considered as potential or actual problems (and he claims society is run by the clever people who are naturally respected and given power – like we were born yesterday – also a great way for him to court patronage of the wealthy!). The true but trivial assertion is that dominance hierarchies aren’t cultural artefacts, but millions of years old. The profound but false, or at least questionable, implication is that a small number of rich people at the top of human societies, and the whole mad scramble up the greasy pole, is the best way for us to run the world. And that’s just on a first analysis – there’s a whole lot more wrong with it. But this led to his Rule 1 – stand up straight with your shoulders back. This, he says, increases your serotonin, and from there you’re off up the hierarchy to becoming top lobster. And they lap this shit up. Authoritarian? – it’s got very sinister echoes indeed. I’m not sure if in the book he says anything about the fact lobsters actually increase their status and serotonin through violent conflict.

    Jung noticed that people go through a sudden ballooning of the ego when they think they’ve discovered the key to everything, but also never applied to himself.


    I’m not sure where you got the name Taylor from – that article was by Nathan J Robinson, editor of Current Affairs magazine.

    And thanks for the word epiphenia. In German it sounds like epiphany, which is a great piece of synchronicity!

    Apophenia. – Yeah, I’d like to understand the etymology. The wiki does contrast those:

    In contrast to an epiphany, an apophany (i.e., an instance of apophenia) does not provide insight into the nature of reality nor its interconnectedness, but is a “process of repetitively and monotonously experiencing abnormal meanings in the entire surrounding experiential field”. Such meanings are entirely self-referential, solipsistic, and paranoid—”being observed, spoken about, the object of eavesdropping, followed by strangers”.[11] Thus the English term “apophenia” has a somewhat different meaning than that which Conrad defined when he coined the term “Apophänie”.

  3. Yakaru says:

    I got the name Taylor because I once read an article that was also in a magazine and it was by a guy called Taylor, so I assumed they all are. And I got epiphenia from the fact that I had just written the epiphany. And epiphenomenon is a word as well, so statistically speaking….

  4. lettersquash says:

    …and “epigenetics” – that’s a word. Wow, this is something massive we’ve stumbled onto, because the guy who ran my New Agey counselling course was also called Taylor, and probably wrote something for a magazine now and then.

    I don’t wish to burst your bubble, but it’s “apophenia” not “epiphenia”. So it’s back to the drawing board, I’m afraid. Oh, “apologetics”…

  5. Yakaru says:

    According to Taylor, epiphenia refers to borderline cases of apophenia. And there is also epilogetics, which is people who make one of those half-hearted apologies expressing regret “if anyone felt offended”.

  6. lettersquash says:

    LOL. Then I owe you and Taylor my insincere epilogies.

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