The Confusion of Jordan Peterson

Posted on: 2023-03-18

I ended up watching a video of an interview with Jordan Peterson on YouTube. Maybe I'll talk sometime about how I ended up there. There's a lot to cover here, and I'm certainly not going to dig into it all. If I were to try and summarize his position it is a kind of contradiction...

I could entertain Jordan believes what he is saying. He might mean well, but as the saying goes, the road to tyranny is paved with good intentions.

I don't think his arguments stack up to much.

Whether he wants to or not he's providing (weak) intellectual ammunition for the far right. If he really cared about actual fascism, he might want to ponder on that.


Jordan thinks hierarchies are natural. He has somewhat amusingly decided to use lobsters to make his case. The idea here is that lobsters have a common ancestor to humans. Just like humans they use serotonin as part of their nervous system. Lobsters have hierarchical societies. Therefore humans like lobsters have hierarchies and this is "natural" and appropriate.

Writing it out makes it seem more stupid than in the interview. For fun and profit let's poke some holes

What are other behaviors in society we look to the animal kingdom such that we can invoke naturalism? Eating excrement seems popular in the animal kingdom, and so presumably something humans should be embracing more off. Apparently dolphins have a lot of "interesting" behaviors, such as killing other newborn dolphins and rape. So we should be embracing those too by this logic?

I'm guessing not. It's really a reverse argument. Jordan thinks hierarchies are good and therefore he's using a naturalist argument to backstop discussions that might criticize that idea. That's pretty weak.

I'd also point out that talking about hierarchies in the abstract misses a lot. You can have deep or shallow hierarchies. You can have hierarchies that form around specific tasks, and reform around other tasks. You can have forced hierarchies (popular with authoritarians and fascists), or you can have self organizing hierarchies. You can also have arbitrary hierarchies (popular with monarchies). You can have a hierarchy at the level of the nation state, or at the level of a team captain. I'm sure there are many more distinctions. Hierarchies in and of themselves are not inherently bad - they can be terrible and they can be good.

It's "Natural"

In most things if somebody invokes "it's natural" there is a high chance they are on weak ground, and are heading toward very dark waters.

First nature spans a huge amount of creatures and behavior. Some of that behavior is disgusting or abhorrent to humans. It's not like all natures behavior is consistent. If two creatures have contradictory behavior - I can't do both simultaneously. Similarly you can't do all activities of nature. So hows this helping in deciding what I or people should do? It's not.

Second as often invoked it is usually wrong. Take homosexuality. An argument used when I was growing up was that it was not natural. Except that argument doesn't work even if taken at face value because there is homosexuality in the animal kingdom. To go back to a previous point, even if there weren't the case, so what? If we are going to embrace the philosophy of we should only do "natural things", presumably we can't pick and choose and have to fully embrace the rapey excrement laced future that implies.

The "it's nature" argument has historically used in terrible ways to dehumanize. It's a very short step from "survival of the fittest" to "some people aren't fit" so therefore... eugenics, genocide and sterilization. Which has some sick irony, because such actions as well as being abhorrent aren't "natural" anyway.

Finally what is natural? My father used to like to say humans are part of nature. Therefore everything humans do is natural. Therefore everything is natural. If you squint hard enough, then there is something there. To an alien everything on Earth is "natural". Humans are animals and in some framings part of nature. All that said in normal usage natural means things that broadly happen without humans. In essence it is human centric. Having it not so makes the word largely meaningless.

It's Like "Chess"

Here Jordan is using yet another form of naturalism. The claim appears to be there are "the rule of the chess game", these being something like human nature, and all we can do is work within those rules. We can change how we play but only in those rules.

Except what is "human nature"? Where is the evidence we are destined and/or physically incapable of moving outside? Who knows. He makes the claim without defining his terms and just waves the abstract natural wand.

Multivariate Analysis

Here the interviewer points out that there is a wage gap between women and men in the Uk of around 9%, and then asks doesn't that show women are being underpaid?

Jordan says emphatically no. He claims "multivariate analysis" shows that the pay gap is appropriate(!). Without specifying what analysis, or why it's appropriate.

A quick search brings up a Forbes article. Forbes isn't known as a woman boosting, left leaning, anti-captialist publication as far as I'm aware. This article even covers the "Women don't ask for raises"/"Personal choices" arguments he brings up in the interview. There is similar debunking from the Economic Policy Institute.

Apparently in the US the pay gap is around 19%(!).

I wonder at what level Jordan would consider a uni-variate analysis indicates some kind of problem? I'm assuming never because the underlying Jordan theme is "everything is fine and natural". Well except the unarticulated and seemingly non existent "radical feminist"/"left" agenda of tyranny.

Equality of Outcomes is "Tyranny"

Another common right wing cry is "equality of opportunity is not the same as equality of outcome". Yes it's not the same.

That said if there is a significant difference in outcome that's a pretty good sign (albeit not in and of itself proof) there is an inequality of opportunity.

Jordan goes on to claim there is no way to measure if people are doing an equivalent work. Oh? It doesn't really seem that hard for many jobs. If I take this at face value it seems to weaken Jordans position. He's claiming there is no pay gap - that women and men do get paid appropriately for their work - whilst simultaneously claiming you can't measure peoples work. Ok, sounds dumb, but let's just assume it's correct. If you can't measure peoples work, how do you know people are being paid appropriately?

Women Should be More Like Men

The interviewer asks Jordan what women should do if they want reduce the pay gap. Jordan says that women are on average "more agreeable" and that's why they earn less. He also argues that men, who greatly outnumber women running large companies, are there because they work hard (70 hours, oh the humanity!) are slightly more conscientious, and are very smart. Or something.

Later the interviewer, rightly in my mind, pushes back saying you are saying women should be more like men then? Why shouldn't men be more agreeable say? Jordan then invokes a somewhat bizarre it's the market argument. Saying women are 80% of the market. Err what? What has that got to do with men in positions of power in large companies? That women with their spending might are making it happen? Well that seems like a stupid argument.

Later he also implied that women don't want to do what it takes. He is therefore saying again that the way it is is correct/natural. Nothing needs to change. Women are doing it wrong. They don't want it enough. They are too agreeable. They aren't enough like men.

In summary it's all women's own fault. Conveniently men, companies or society don't have to do anything at all. Men being the naturally deserving chosen ones.

Just no.

The Market Decides!

This is another the rallying cry of the right wing.

It wasn't so long ago where we taught the efficient market hypothesis. The idea there being the price in a "correctly working" market reflects perfectly the value of things. The correctly working part makes this sort of useless, because if anything happens which shows the price isn't correct you can claim "it's not working correctly". Oh ok. So the whole thing is in effect meaningless.

Most of the time it's not obvious what an appropriate price is, so it's hard to refute, and there seems to be little recourse to test. You just have to believe.

Hopefully it's clear that this is the economic equivalent of naturalism. It operates naturally, nobody can interfere - despite it having countless artificial and changing rules governing it. Not withstanding that corruption is a thing. Huge bubbles happen. Yet you can't question the market. It's right and you are wrong. When it all blows up, like seems to do like clockwork every 10 years or so, well that's for "reasons".

Natural Biases

One thing Jordan doesn't appear to talk about in his naturalist argument is cognitive bias. They are biases that lead to wrong conclusions in lots of situations. They appear "natural" and are quite explainable in terms of natural selection.

Yet presumably we are are not advocating for the wrong answers cognitive biases produce because they are natural? We humans require techniques and lots of effort to work beyond such biases. One key human creation is the scientific method, a mechanism that does allow us to get closer to the truth.

If you really want to go full in on the natural front, you are probably not reading this. Leaving aside you don't have a gauche technology like a computer arguably reading isn't natural either. You are living out your natural dreams in the wilderness. I mean good for you, at least you've followed through.

The Rhetoric

Jordan does have a somewhat different arguing style to many on the right. I'd describe it as a kind of intellectual stone walling. He'll make some huge generalization. The interviewer then asks him some specifics about that position, or perhaps gives examples of what that position seems to imply. Jordan will then push back with "I did not say" that. Yeah we know, we are trying to figure out what you are saying, because surely you have more going on than sweeping generalizations.

This goes round and round in circles. Jordan makes a sweeping generalization, interviewer tries to get into what it really means but he rarely seems to get anywhere. Other than claim they don't understand, and he didn't say that.

It feels in many ways as if he doesn't really have anything meaningful or insightful to say. Generalizations he has plenty. Claims about lobsters - he's got lots to say about that. Try and dig into where it comes from, what it all means, or what should we do (other than hold our shoulders back and be confident and stop leftists/radical feminists) who knows?

I suppose that also plays into another common populist rhetorical technique - claim simple answers. For example, if you are not confident, the answer is simple. Be confident! If you hold your chest out that'll help. Apparently. It's so simple, why didn't unconfident people not think of that? Are you poor? It's simple pull yourself up by the boot straps and you'll be rich! Are you homeless? Get a job!

Another strategy is to claim things "don't exist" for example...

This is the simplest answer of all! If it doesn't exist there is nothing to do. Unfortunately they do exist, so not only is that a stupid answer it's self evidently wrong.

If this is the intellectual heart of modern conservatism, it's not beating.

Jordan the Man

Jordan is leaning into traditional conservatism (as in to conserve), with an element of the fascist others. Here the others being "left" and "radical feminists". He provides an intellectual appearing veneer for fascist thinking, whilst simultaneously claiming to be against fascism. He appears unaware that fascism is (almost totally) a right wing phenomena. This is unsurprising because fascism is a form of authoritarianism, which naturally (chortle) aligns with right wing ideology.

His arguments aren't intellectually strong, as I hope I have in some ways shown. Unfortunately it's not hard to see why his style of arguing having a populist following. Don't believe me? Check out the comments on the interview. I know YouTubes comments are typically a cesspool, but yikes.

Finally it's worth touching on more recent events...

Jordan Peterson's family says he has sought "emergency" drug detox treatment in Russia, after several failed attempts to overcome his dependence on a potent anti-anxiety medication.

The controversial University of Toronto psychology professor and internationally famous self-help guru is said to have been in a Moscow hospital for the past month, recovering from both the "incredibly gruelling" treatment and a severe case of pneumonia.


Dependency goes against the core tenets of Peterson’s philosophical brand: stoicism, self-reliance, the power of the will over circumstance and environment. “No one gets away with anything, ever, so take responsibility for your own life,” he admonished in his bestselling self-help book 12 Rules for Life.


So the guy who's telling most everybody (except male CEOs perhaps) they are doing it all wrong, got addicted to drugs. Lot's of people get addicted to drugs for lots of reasons, so that isn't the point. The point is Jordan is a man who claims he's got it all figured out. Just follow his book. But apparently he can't do it himself. Or maybe whats is in his book doesn't work.

There is also something bizarre and perhaps ironic in his ending up in a Russian hospital of all places for weeks of detox.