Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The Art of Misdirection: Supporting your ideology the easy way.

The last few days have been fairly interesting in regards to some of the feedback I've received to my Jordan Peterson article 'The Politicization of Science: Jordan Peterson's lesson from lobsters' (1). Mainly because a particular strategy of argumentation has arisen in response to the points I made in the post which I think it's valuable to highlight. Not every exchange I had with regards to the post ran this way, and many of the people who had negative things to say stuck to the science and we were able to have a positive dialogue even if we didn't come to an agreement at the end of it. Then there were other people who were much less interested in the science I presented. In fact, they seemed adamant to avoid discussing the science at all. 

Firstly before critiquing anybody else, let me offer some self-criticism. The Peterson post was the third addition in the loose series of posts I call the politicization of science. It's the second one which has dealt with a right-wing example of the skewing of science to support an ideological point. The first being 'The Politicization Of Science: How the study "Male Microchimerism in the Human Female Brain" became the news story "Women Absorb And Retain DNA From Every Man They Have Sex With"'(2). I also offered a criticism of a left-wing organisation skewing or misrepresenting science in 'The Politicization Of Science: A Response To "US trade deal after Brexit could see milk and baby formula with cancer-causing toxins flood UK market"'.  In addition to those posts,  I began a third edition previous to the Jordan Peterson article that would have focused on the Young Turks horrendously mangling a science story. It was never completed simply because I just did have the time to really do it justice. That would have also been critical of a left-wing source.

The difference between those previous posts and the Peterson one is that in the latter I let my impartiality slip somewhat at the start of the post. I commented on one of Peterson's other arguments that isn't really relevant to the issue I wanted to deal with and in doing so, I let my partisanship show, albeit briefly. That isn't the point of the politicization of science posts, the point of which is to show that it doesn't matter what side of the political aisle we approach science from, properly applied science and skeptism is not partisan. I hold my hands up, it's a lesson for the future. I do believe that after briefly assessing some of Peterson's other arguments when I move onto his specific claims I focus on these alone, and without a political bias.That brings me to the criticism I've received which has tended to fall into some very narrow topics.

The Nit Pick squared.

Some commenters, including a fairly well known 'science' podcaster, have pointed out that I have no grounds to criticise Peterson's use of the word 'divulge' instead of 'diverge'. Mostly because at one point in the article I spell 'serotonin' as 'seratonin'. 

There are a few points to make about this. Firstly I don't think that a grammatical error is the same as getting a piece of terminology wrong. I don't think it's a fundamental mistake. Science relies heavily on precise terminology. If you're presenting a scientific idea it creates a terrible impression if your terminology is wrong. Secondly, I hardly "rail" on Jordan for this. I mention it once then move on to his claims. Let's look at how "hard" I mocked Jordan:
"Jordan says humans "divulged from lobsters". We should assume that Jordan means "diverge" rather than "divulge" an embarrassing slip and one that gives the distinct impression Petersen doesn't have a clue what he is talking about. Putting this lack of knowledge of terminology aside, the claim Peterson is making is simply not true"


In a 1065 word article, I devote a WHOPPING 53 words discussing his slip. That's just 5% of the article. I'd hardly say the crux of my argument against Jordan's claims rests on this element as Dan seems to imply. I'll return to Dan in second.

Anyway, Jordan explains here why I should pick him up on his words.

Thanks Jordan!

You really need to read /watch /listen to his books /website /podcasts before commenting

Another claim was that I shouldn't take Jordan's claims on the show at face value, perhaps he gets the things he gets wrong here, right in his other materials. 

Maybe Jordan does get this stuff right in his books, but I find it unlikely. Why? Because he gets things so fundamentally wrong. Two of the elements he discusses, the role of serotonin and the effect of antidepressants, are completely opposite to what he claims. In a similar vein, he's hardly going to correct on these errors given time to continue and elaborate. As an analogy, trains that derail don't tend to hop back onto the tracks if they're allowed to run for a while.

As for running to his books to correct these errors, do skeptics and science lovers do this when Ray Comfort makes a glaring error? When Comfort called the banana "the atheist's nightmare" how many of us immediately logged onto our Kindles just to give him the benefit of the doubt?

None of us. We were too busy making 'banana man' memes. 

Why should we give Peterson any more charity than Comfort?

 Because he's a Professor?

An argument from authority. 

A commenter on a thread created by Youtuber Noel Plum, commented on the likelihood of a professor making a mistake regarding terminology or evolution. 

I don't know if he misspoke or he is fundamentally wrong about evolution, but I can't rule out the possibility of the latter as Jordan may well be a professor, but he is NOT a professor of biology. Peterson is a psychology professor which in no way makes him an expert in evolutionary biology or anatomy or neurology. I've no reason to suspect he's anymore knowledgeable about biology than anyone else. This is simply an argument from authority. But wait, I'm not a biology professor either, or a neurologist. How can we be sure I'm correct?

That's why I cite my sources so you can check I'm right and correct me if I'm not.

'Cause Feminism!

And here's the crux of the matter, and the theme that ran through almost all the criticism my post received. People see Jordan as a warrior against 'third wave feminism' and they really don't care about the fact that he is completely wrong in the science he is using to support his ideology. To many of the people who defended Jordan, it didn't matter he got almost everything he said wrong. All that mattered was the intent. Now, this is not something exclusive to this discussion by any means, but the reason this is so troubling here is these discussions are occurring in science groups. These arguments are made by people who describe themselves as "science enthusiasts" and skeptics. And they want to talk about anything but science.

Need convincing of this?

Let's not get to the point.

Clearly, if you've read my post you know the main drive of it is the science presented by Peterson. It's ironic then, that most of the people I interacted with on this subject wanted absolutely nothing to do with the science described by Jordan. I attempted several times to steer the conversation to science. These are the kind of responses I received. Remember Dan? Here's his response when I requested a discussion on the science in question on the science page he moderates.

That hurts my feels! Why do some of these folks not want to talk about the science involved here with me? This lovely chap (below), Miles, thinks it's because I'm not a very nice person. Put mildly. Oh and I've given him an extremely complex 17-word answer to one of his questions!

Now, anybody would think that Miles and Dan are desperate here not to actually address the points I've raised both are focusing on trivial matters. It doesn't really matter if Peterson was reading off notes, and it's not that important his slip of words.

But that's all his supporters seem to want to talk about. Here's a list of the things I requested that Peterson supporters completely ignored.
  • Any evidence that humans diverged from lobsters 350 mya.
  • Any evidence that serotonin has a similar affect in arthropods as in humans.
  • That hierarchy existed in proto-roundworms, the lobster/human earliest common ancestor.
  • That similarity in animal hierarchy in such diverse classifications as mammal and arthropod are anything more than convergent evolution.
  • That antidepressants effect lobsters in similar ways to humans.
  • That lobster hierarchy, which is totally based upon fighting, is in anyway comparable to human society.

This is pure misdirection. These "fans of science" don't want to be forced to admit there's no science behind this anti-feminist ideology. That they support it not because it's well-founded, but because they like it. Yet they want these ideas to be founded in science because they've seen science devastate religious and supernatural arguments for years. Science was an ally to them and they want to keep it that way. This means they have to point to irrelevant things such as whether Peterson has notes, or whether he intentionally said "divulge" instead of "diverge" when these things don't really matter. What matters is whether Peterson is wrong in the science he presents or not. The only way to avoid admitting that he is, is to avoid talking about it.

They want science to work for them again. And when it won't they stuff their fingers in their ears and cover their eyes.

Peterson is frequently accused of being "the stupid man's smart person" and I sadly suspect this is all too true.


(1) https://skepticsboot.blogspot.co.uk/2018/01/the-politicization-of-science-jordan.html

(2) http://skepticsboot.blogspot.co.uk/2017/06/the-politicization-of-science-how-study.html