Many people think he is a guru, full of wisdom on how to live one’s life. Others think he is a villain, actively causing harm in the world with his false and pernicious opinions. They are both wrong, as is Peterson himself occasionally. Thinking through the Peterson phenomenon is useful for illustrating 13 key lessons for intellectual wisdom. Oddly enough, we won’t need to address even one particular thing he has said or written.
His supporters often talk about how much benefit he has done to the world. They point out the fact that he has inspired many thousands of young people, primarily male, to get their acts together and start living lives that are vastly improved. Roughly and unfairly put, Jack starts out living in his parents’ basement, playing video games, masturbating several times a day, and going to his part-time, dead-end job. After listening to Peterson, he’s moved into a nice apartment, got a career instead of a shit job, is monogamously dating a girlfriend that he treats exceedingly well, has acquired a raft of new friends that he also treats well, and even went out and adopted a nice, masculine dog.
Peterson’s critics cry foul, bringing up three criticisms:
1. Millions of people, especially women and progressives, are highly offended by Peterson’s remarks.
2. He isn’t doing men as much good as everyone thinks. In particular, he is infecting these men with misguided and harmful attitudes about gender, power, sex, and other important issues.
3. His opinions on economics, politics, religion, climate change, and other topics are false.
What’s the truth here? More importantly for our purposes, what mistakes are being made--ones we should be on the lookout for in our own lives?
First, his advocates are surely right to point out that he has benefited a great many people, mainly young men. The caricature given above captures thousands of true stories. Peterson gets sincerely choked up when he talks about his encounters with men who thank him for changing their lives around. He is right to do so.
But when this point is brought to the attention to his critics, we often get a telling response: shifting the topic of conversation. They often don’t reply to the enormous evidence that Peterson has genuinely benefited these men. Instead, they pivot to different issues: the alleged harm he has caused, or the amateurish status of many of his theoretical opinions. But the issues--benefit, harm, and theory--are separate: even if the critics are right in those two criticisms about harm and foolish/amateurish opinions (more on them below), that doesn’t suggest for a moment that he hasn’t done people good as well.
This should be obvious. One and the same thing can be both significantly beneficial as well as significantly harmful. Alcohol is clearly bad for your body, but just as clearly it can and does have wonderful benefits as well, usually social. The fact that this point is obvious suggests that the critics who reply in this manner are being led, in this discussion of evidence, by emotions, and not an accurate assessment of the strength of evidence.
Lesson 1: when in debate, with others or yourself, never ignore evidence that goes against your position, even when it hurts to face it.
Lesson 2: when assessing strength of evidence, don’t let your emotional attachments to your conclusions sway your judgments about the strength of that evidence.
Lesson 2 is a generalization; lesson 1 is more specific.
The critics allege that Peterson has caused a great deal of harm; that was the first criticism above, (1). But what is the harm supposed to be?
In most cases, they talk about the millions of people who are deeply offended by some of what Peterson says. There are problems here too.
First, the Peterson defenders will often reply by talking, once again, about all the benefit Peterson has motivated. But this is just another instance of refusing to face counterevidence; lesson 1 again. This time it’s his defenders making the mistake, instead of his critics: the new topic is harm, so we should face that instead of talking about the benefit.
Second, when the Peterson defenders do address the harm issue, they will often insist that the offense felt by so many people is illegitimate in some way. It’s unjustified, they say. The people taking offensive are being overly sensitive, or foolish in their reactions.
There are two questions to raise about this assertion of justification/legitimacy:
(a) is the offense Peterson triggers really illegitimate?
(b) how much does it even matter whether it’s illegitimate?
I’m going to focus on (b) alone.
My first point is a criticism of Peterson’s defenders.
Even if all the offense Peterson helped generate was unjustified, we should not pretend it doesn’t exist, or doesn’t feel pretty bad to the people who are offended. To see this, suppose that someone you love is deeply offended by something, but you think he or she is being unreasonable in being offended. In such a case you still can’t help seeing the pain he or she is experiencing. Pain is painful; it’s not fun. Saying that it’s their fault for being offended, and not entirely Peterson’s fault, may be important. But it’s less important than Peterson’s defenders imagine. If you know that you are going to cause millions of people to be deeply offended, legitimately or not, you really should think carefully about whether it’s worth offending them.
My second and third points are criticisms of Peterson’s critics.
How much harm is really caused by the offense that Peterson undoubtedly triggers? There is no doubt that it exists, but how bad is it when compared with the benefit he helps cause?
Critics often exaggerate how bad the harm is, in two ways: they overestimate its overall strength, and they fail to see how it is not large in comparison to the benefit he helps cause.
Compare (i) the benefit he helps cause (that we talked about above) with (ii) the offense-harm he helps cause. Item (i), the benefit, is often enormous and concrete: people genuinely change their lives for the better in huge ways. But what about item (ii), the offense? How often is it anything remotely comparable to the typical benefit? Most often, in cases of harm a person sees a video of Peterson and then has a negative emotional reaction verbally expressed with something along the lines of “What an asshole” or “He’s an idiot” or “Fuck him”. They will have this thought several times. But then in most cases the harm is over; nothing else comes of it.
So, first: the harm is not that big. And second, the harm pales in significance to the benefit that young people get from Peterson, item (i).
Lesson 3: don’t confuse importantly distinct concepts, such as someone justifiably taking offense and someone unjustifiably taking offense.
Lesson 4: when evaluating a phenomenon or action or decision, such as the harm Peterson helps cause, you should evaluate all its pros and cons, aggregated. Don’t leave anything out just because it might go against your preconceived judgments.
Sure, there might be some exceptions to what I just said: actual cases in which upon viewing some Peterson videos a person’s life is harmed in concrete terms over a significant period of time (perhaps weeks). Okay, but how often does that happen? Pretty rarely. It’s unwise to focus on rare events when assessing the consequences of something. As a professor, I could easily focus on the students who think I’m a terrible teacher, or I could focus on those who think I’m the best teacher ever. If I want a reliable assessment of my teaching, I’m not going to focus on those comparatively rare reactions, either positive or negative.
Lesson 5: it’s often unwise, when looking at a large collection of phenomena, to focus on the rare cases. Doing so makes it easy to misjudge the overall impact of the collection.
On occasion, Peterson’s critics argue that he really isn’t benefitting those young men as much as everyone thinks. In reality, they say, Peterson is infecting them with attitudes that will harm the lives of the people he influences. The attitudes in question are said to be sexist or otherwise immoral. This is the second criticism we noted earlier, (2).
On the one hand, this is a good response to the “Peterson has really benefitted a great many people” argument. It’s a response that doesn’t try to evade the alleged evidence in favor of Peterson. It tackles it directly. So, that’s good; we have avoided the mistake mentioned in lesson 1.
But once again, we need real evidence here, and the evidence has to actually link Peterson to the alleged problem. So, for instance, if a lot of his male followers are sexist, in a great many cases that’s not Peterson’s fault, as young men are usually sexist before hearing of Peterson. And pointing out anecdotal evidence--“I know of one guy who took Peterson’s advice and this really bad shit happened to him or the people he interacts with …”--is plainly inadequate. Anyone who influences a great many people is going to have some influence go the wrong way. The large numbers involved coupled with the diversity of human experience pretty much guarantees it. But now we have the point raised above: how often does Peterson infect men with pernicious attitudes that actually lead them to harm themselves or others? We need real evidence, not mere possibilities or a few anecdotal cases.
Lesson 6: We often endorse a wide-ranging generalization (e.g., “Peterson is infecting young men with attitudes that harm people”) based on nothing more than just a few particularly vivid instances about people or issues we care about deeply. In such cases, our evidence for the wide-ranging generalization is weak.
What about Peterson himself? Does he make any large errors in how he goes about his work?
Yes, he does. And we can discover this without even addressing his particular views. This is criticism (3).
He is an expert in psychology. He is also an expert on how to live one’s life well, or so I’m willing to grant. Of course, this doesn’t mean he is even close to infallible. Everyone, no matter how smart or well meaning or diligent in research, is going to make a lot of mistakes. His defenders need to keep this in mind. A friend of mine admires Nelson Mandela a great deal, to the point that she implicitly thinks he has no foolish opinions or bad decisions. When I was growing up, I was told comparable stories about Martin Luther King. But no: everyone, no matter how expert or admirable, makes really bad decisions and has some foolish opinions.
Lesson 7: experts make many mistakes, even the experts you admire the most.
On Peterson’s behalf, though, and against some of his critics, he is (a) highly educated, (b), possessed of high raw intelligence, (c) truth directed, and (d) typically well researched. Let me explain (c) and (d), since (a) and (b) are obviously correct.
When Peterson asserts some nonobvious and potentially important claim, he is doing it because he thinks it’s true and valuable. He isn’t doing it to gain money or notoriety or fame. Sure, he is making boatloads of money and gaining fame. But he isn’t just trying to get followers or be provocative. No, he is saying things because he genuinely thinks they are really true and valuable. That’s what I mean by saying he is truth directed. That’s (c). Many influencers completely fail at (c).
As for (d), Peterson doesn’t give advice or make important claims off the cuff. He actually investigates them beforehand. No matter what he is talking about, you can almost always assume, correctly, that he has investigated the matter pretty well. And by that I do not mean that he has watched a few dozen TikTok videos. No, he has found actual research articles, written by experts, and actually read them through. The vast majority of people who say “Well, I did my research on this issue. You can trust me on this” have not done any quality research at all. The difference between watching a few dozen videos and reading some research papers--and not merely their abstracts--is enormous.
Lesson 8: when choosing experts to listen to for advice, try to find ones who satisfy (a)-(d). It doesn’t guarantee that what they say will be true or valuable. But the odds it is true or valuable are a lot higher if they satisfy (a)-(d) than if they do not.
Lesson 9: in almost all cases, watching dozens of videos on an issue simply does not make you a reliable judge on it. This is a hard lesson to swallow, I know.
So, it’s very much to his credit that he satisfies (a)-(d). Even so . . . .
Peterson doesn’t restrict his opinions or advice to psychology. He talks about music, climate change, nutrition, politics, economics, religion, and other topics that he has no expertise in. Again, this is criticism (3).
There are two observations that show how we should not trust his opinions on these other topics--even though he satisfies (a)-(d).
First, just imagine how Peterson would react to a marine biologist or historian of Ancient Egypt who voiced controversial opinions about cognitive development in children, say. Peterson would be skeptical of the person’s reliability, and rightly so. The biologist or historian might be very smart, very well educated, and truth directed. In addition, he or she might have read a few research papers on the cognitive development of children.
I don’t think Peterson would think “Oh, this person is reliable when they talk about controversial stuff about cognitive development”. That’s because Peterson knows that the biologist/historian is still very much an amateur. Yes, he has made a good effort, and should be commended for it. The biologist/historian isn’t some fool talking out of his ass. But that doesn’t mean his controversial opinions on areas outside his expertise should be accepted at all. The cold, hard truth is that it is very hard to become a reliable judge about difficult issues that consistently generate controversy.
If Peterson is going to be consistent, as he should, he should say the same about his own opinions on controversial matters outside his expertise.
Lesson 10: just because you are smart and an expert in one field hardly means you are an expert or have reliable judgment in anything else you have opinions on--even if you have done some beginning research reading.
Second, just consider the fact that there are oodles of experts who genuinely disagree with Peterson’s opinions about climate change, nutrition, music, economics, religion, and politics. Even if we grant that Peterson is the peer of those experts--which we definitely shouldn’t, since his education, investigation, and background is impoverished compared to theirs on these topics--why on earth believe Peterson over them?
Peterson can’t claim that he’s a super expert, more reliable than all his detractors on those non-psychological topics. Are we going to listen to him over other experts just because we have heard of him before, or because he has genuine expertise in a completely different field, or because he’s got great hair, a great beard, and lots of vids? Please. His excellent advice in certain areas doesn’t suggest, at all, that he’s reliable in completely different areas compared to experts in that area, regardless of the genuinely admirable fact that he satisfies (a)-(d).
Lesson 11: don’t favor one expert over others just because you like the first one for some reason.
Lesson 12: in particular, when there are many experts on an issue, and your favorite expert voices opinions that are definitely rejected by most of the others, then in most cases it’s foolish to just believe your favored expert.
Finally, many academics love, love, love to criticize Peterson’s theoretical work, ignoring the benefit he has in many lives. When they write their articles, they inevitably give little attention to the strong points Peterson makes. Instead, they focus their readers’ attention on Peterson’s weakest points and worse instances of writing. This is manifestly unfair, and might be cases of “punching from below”, since the critics have only a tiny fraction of the fame and influence Peterson has. Punching from below happens when a person of lower status attempts to raise their profile by attacking someone of higher status. If you don’t see any jealousy in their critical writings of Peterson, well, you probably are emotionally pretty clueless.
Lesson 13: when evaluating someone’s work, don’t merely talk about or focus on the weak points, or just the strong points. Treat the work fairly, pointing out strengths and weaknesses, and then weigh them against one another from a neutral, relatively unbiased standpoint.
Overall, I admire Peterson, but like many legitimate experts, he wildly overestimates his reliability of judgment.
So i have not actually watched any jordan perterson videos, only been told what to believe about him by left wing sources. Your post gave me a distinctly different impression than I got from them! I decided to suppress my gut reaction and actually see what he had to say.To get a less biased impression of him, I picked a random video on his channel and scrolled to the middle of the timeline. The very first line was "Children are the sacrificial victims of the trans ideology."
What are the odds of that?
Downvoted. There are interesting elements that could be discussed, but not here. If you want to discuss expertise in the abstract, use more distant examples. If you want to discuss specifics of Peterson, do so somewhere else.
I agree. However, this is a wrong forum for this type of content. We are trying to avoid political topics, because they trigger partisanship insticts, and usually make a debate less rational. See this.
It might be valuable to make a general lesson (with multiple examples) how experts in one thing are likely to overestimate their expertise at other things. Or perhaps link this.
Thanks for your reply. I agree that we should avoid political topics here. That's why I didn't discuss any of his political, moral, or religious views. It was all about how we treat expertise, as you mentioned.
The framing of "is Jordan Peterson a guru or villain" is a highly political frame. It's about his social effect and not about the underlying substance.
Unfortunately, political topics are like radiation, and pollute nearby ground as well. Peterson is radioactive in this regard, and using him as an example means your article is radioactive as well.
Analysis of a less radioactive expert may have been a better idea - perhaps someone like Peter Attia (I think he's less radioactive?)