It’s hard not to be impressed with climate activist Greta Thunberg. Well, that is, unless you’re a climate change denier.
In that case, her clarion call to stronger action apparently gives you carte blanche to call her all sorts of names and demean her, a girl of 16 with Asperger’s syndrome. Because, evidently, that’s what adults do.
Take Rich Lowry of National Review, who insists we not listen to Thunberg because she is a “pawn” who, as a kid, has “nothing interesting to say to us.” Or Kentucky governor Matt Bevin, who panned Thunberg as “remarkably ill-informed,” despite being an abject blockhead who, among other things, tried to advance the notion his constituents were being “soft” for wanting to close schools despite dangerously low temperatures in his state. Or conservative commentator Michael J. Knowles, who dismissed Thunberg as “mentally ill” amid his ranting against the left’s “climate hysteria” during a recent FOX News segment. When your fellow, ahem, FOX News contributors are admonishing you for your conduct, you know you’re behaving badly.
Even President Donald Trump, never one to shy away from a war of words, mocked Thunberg’s warning of widespread suffering, death, ecological collapse, and mass extinction in the service of maintaining the bottom line of the world’s wealthy, tweeting, “She seems like a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future. So nice to see!”
Under usual circumstances, we might look at a sitting president taking a sarcastic jab like this at a young woman and consider it an instance of punching down. But this is 2019 and that president is Trump, a man-baby who wouldn’t know decorum if it were dressed like Frederick Douglass and bit him on the ass. On a maturity level, he’s punching at eye level—if not looking up at Thunberg.
What’s telling in all of these responses—aside from the fact these are all older men talking down to a younger female—is their utter lack of substance. Lowry pivots to talk of a declining global poverty rate and an increase in life expectancy, professing that today’s youth will have ample resources and technology to deal with tomorrow’s problems. These trends say nothing about the actual state of the climate crisis, though, and seriously undercut the urgency of Thunberg’s and others’ messaging. Gov. Bevin has already disqualified himself from discussion of climate change and weather patterns by virtue of his callous “kids are too soft” rhetoric. Trump speaks in the sarcastic, dismissing tone of a bully. Again, no mention of the scientific consensus surrounding the warming of the planet and humans’ role in contributing to it. Not that I totally grasp the science behind it, but you can bet Trump doesn’t get it.
And Knowles’s deflection on the subject of Thunberg’s supposed “mental illness” is uniquely loathsome. Asperger’s syndrome is a neurodevelopmental disability. This diagnosis does not imply, however, that Thunberg is mentally or intellectually incapable of understanding the threat the planet faces; in fact, while acknowledging it makes her “different,” she nonetheless has referred to it as “her superpower,” Going back to Lowry’s discussion of technological advances, Thunberg, like many students her age, has access to untold stores of information regarding climate change. She has done her homework. Knowles evidently wasn’t paying attention the day they addressed global warming in class—that or he was and he simply chose not to believe it.
This, presumably, is why self-professed climate “skeptics”—which is a funny way of saying “climate change deniers,” but we’re all prone to euphemisms from time to time—feel the need to attack one teenage girl with such acrimony. She represents an existential threat of a different kind: that of a rebuke to their insufficient explanations and ad hominem attacks. Thunberg and other concerned youths like her are smarter, better-informed, and, frankly, more well-liked than them. Lowry et al. cater to a conservative crowd characterized by a rapidly-shrinking demographic. Thunberg et al. have a growing worldwide audience fueled by worsening planetary conditions. The former group knows this is and is clearly scared of the latter group. They should be.
Such is why musings on Thunberg playing the part of the impetuous child pawn or the hysterical individual ring hollow. As Thunberg herself underscored in her latest impassioned speech to world leaders, she should’ve been in school, not telling the world’s so-called “elites” to do their job as responsible stewards for a planet on the brink of catastrophe. When the adults behave and think like children, however, the kids apparently have no choice but to fill the grown-ups’ void.
Greta Thunberg is not the only young activist to be sounding the alarm on the climate crisis facing Earth. This article on Mashable identifies five other climate activists who are making an impact beyond their communities and who haven’t even reached 20 years of age. Twice as old as them in some cases, I feel all the more unaccomplished and unproductive by proxy. Gee, thanks, kids! In all seriousness, I am glad these kids and young adults are sounding the alarm on an issue that demands immediate, substantive action and for which ego and strict geographical boundaries (i.e. “They are the biggest polluters, not us!”) should have no bearing.
For men like Donald Trump, Matt Bevin, Michael Knowles, and Rich Lowry, however, they clearly don’t share the same sense of gratitude, and I wonder exactly why. Are they beholden to the designs of the fossil fuel lobby and thereby compelled to help spread its disinformation? Do they go against the consensus as a means of making a name for themselves and despite what they truly believe? Do they loathe these teens as a function of generational distrust and reflexively refuse to value their ideas as the products of attention-seeking and entitlement?
On the last count, I feel as if, owing to preconceived notions about young people’s character, they should be celebrating these children for being so outspoken and politically active. These kids aren’t spending too much time on their phone or playing video games all day. They’re making an impact by raising awareness of a critical issue facing our planet. This is a good thing, right?
It is, unless you’re a conservative/Republican whose influence is predicated by and large on dissuading younger, smarter people (especially women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, and every intersection therein) from political involvement. These men must sense that a cultural shift is underway, one which challenges their absolute authority and which makes their proverbial place in the sun (getting hotter with the passing years) not the guarantee it once was. Simply put, we don’t need them. That must shake them and their regressive outlooks to their core.
So, armed with faulty science, they resort to the kind of name-calling you witnessed earlier. Greta Thunberg is a pawn. A brat. A mental case. If you’re especially an asshole who somehow got elected to the highest office in the United States, a very happy young girl. Such are the tactics of schoolyard bullies, not adults. They should shut up, get out of the way, and let the real adults get to work.
Vaccines don’t cause autism and you should definitely vaccinate your kids.
Many of us would agree readily to all of the above. Ample evidence exists that glaciers are melting, the seas are rising and warming with the rest of the planet, and more and more animal species are facing extinction. The link between vaccines and autism is a spurious one, having been debunked numerous times over. The Earth is round because, well, it’s 2019 and we have technology that lets us see that sort of thing.
And yet, there are those people who would contest one or more of these statements. Flat Earthers, as the name implies, contend that the Earth is flat, citing visual evidence. Anti-vaxxers, often inspired by some Republicans/libertarians, insist that the government is wrong to mandate they vaccinate their children, making the issue a matter of personal freedoms. Climate change deniers dispute that global warming exists, argue against humans’ role in promoting deleterious climate change, and/or say that all this carbon dioxide we’re creating is actually a good thing because plants need it. Right.
It’s one thing, for instance, for Flat Earthers to more narrowly believe that our globe is not a globe and have it end then and there. The rest of us say one thing, they say another—to each his or her own. Sure, some (or most) of us might laugh at their expense, but we agree to disagree.
The problem arises when subscription to an alternative viewpoint potentially puts the non-subscribers among us at risk. Anti-vaxxers are wingnuts to be dismissed—that is, until areas start encountering outbreaks of measles, a disease said to be eliminated from the United States in 2000. Climate change deniers are all well and good—except for the notion the world is on fire and we need all hands on deck to prevent a climate catastrophe. And when even Flat Earthers move from a relatively innocuous refusal to accept that the world is round to the theory that tragedies like the Holocaust and the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting never happened, it would appear their healthy skepticism is anything but.
Such is why all of the above extreme stances existing in opposition to verifiable scientific evidence must be regarded seriously, even if some members of these various movements aren’t wholeheartedly committed or straightforward. Susceptibility to mis- and disinformation campaigns is a pressing matter, especially in the digital age. A few errant clicks and you may find yourself down the proverbial rabbit hole, led astray by some YouTuber with a cursory grasp of video production and a passion for pushing conspiracy theories. Or—who knows!—that red-blooded American you’ve been talking to online might not have your best interests in mind—and he or she might actually be half a world away at that.
As a point of emphasis, the growth of these factions is disconcerting. Though measles is on the rise in the U.S. after a historic low, it’s not all the fault of anti-vaccination rhetoric. Inadequate access to vaccinations for poorer Americans/families of color and imported measles cases from overseas are contributing factors, too. Nonetheless, the anti-vaxxer movement is gaining traction and, along with it, so is the risk that measles or any other highly contagious disease may spread. Climate change skepticism, even if it were to be standing pat, is an impediment to the kind of progress we need to be making on this issue. Simply put, staying still at a moment in which we need to be moving forward is effectively sending us backwards.
Making matters worse is the idea these movements are at the cusp of becoming mainstream if not already there. A handful of celebrities—some of them comparatively minor but even so (cough, B.o.B., cough)—have counted themselves at one point among those who doubt the sincerity of NASA and other scientific organizations for putting forth a round-Earth framework. Republican leaders like Kentucky governor Matt Bevin promote anti-vaccination talking points from their seats as elected officials. On the climate change front, meanwhile, there is perhaps no more prominent skeptic than the Denier-in-Chief himself, Donald Trump, who once famously referred to the observed effects of climate change as a “hoax.”
These aren’t just fringe campaigns. They possess real potential to influence large swaths of individuals, people who are our neighbors, parents of children at our schools, even family and friends. Like the diseases vaccines are developed to guard against, left unchecked, they have the ability to spread and do real damage. What’s more, addressing them in the wrong way could make holders of their core beliefs that much more resistant to change.
This begs the question: how do those of us who have accepted phenomena like the efficacy of vaccines, human beings’ part in contributing to climate change, and the very roundness of Planet Earth as fact have a conversation with those who don’t? How do we operate in an environment in which truth almost seems to be treated as merely a construct, a relativistic abstract concept independent of what we can test and infer? Despite the obvious perils accepting alternative theories presents, the evident uptick of pseudoscience peddlers is, in it of itself, alarming. As the great thinker (if only in his own mind) Ben Shapiro has said, facts don’t care about your feelings. Fine. Great. But when it’s my facts vs. your “facts,” we are at quite an impasse indeed.
Earlier, I noted how it’s easy these days, as a result of a few errant clicks, to find oneself in the company of a YouTuber who peddles nonsensical arguments and unsubstantiated conjecture to serve a particular narrative. On that note, I’m about to supplement my stances with content proffered by…a YouTuber. Wait, the climate-change-eschewin’, flat-Earth-believin’, no-vaccine-havin’ among you may say, you think your YouTubers are better than our YouTubers because they subscribe to the prevailing views of the scientific community and we don’t? My answer to this is, um, in a nutshell, yes. Yes, I do.
In a video essay on the Flat Earth ideology from December of last year, Harry Brewis, known by the handle “Hbomberguy,” argues that, despite how ludicrous some of us might find this position, its holders may not necessarily, ahem, flat out reject scientific principles. He explains in the waning moments of his 40-plus-minute production:
These people are attempting a form of science, and I think that’s what really gets to me about them—not simply that they’re pretending they’re scientists who’ve secretly found the truth. … People like Mark [Sargent] are right to want to question authorities on issues. They’re right to want to question everything they know about reality and the society they live in, and that’s because at the center of Flat Earth—not the North Pole, the actual center of the ideology—its core is a tiny, shining fragment of a systemic critique. It’s the beginning of trying to understand what’s wrong with our society and what to do about it.
… People seek these solutions because they perceive, on some level, a problem—and they’re right. Something is wrong with the world right now. The world is figuratively on fire. World leaders are asleep at the wheel. There’s nothing in place to prevent another massive financial crash which will destroy thousands if not millions of livelihoods. And ecologically speaking, on top of being, you know, figuratively on fire, the Earth is literally on fire. Wildfires are getting worse, temperatures are all over the place, ice is melting at an astounding rate. Even on a globe Earth, the edge is coming fast.
So I can’t blame anyone for feeling alienated and lonely about living in late-capitalist society. At least under feudalism, we had job security. So of course people are going to try to find something that helps them cope or seems like a solution. That’s why you get cults. That’s why you get Scientology. That’s why you get Jordan Peterson supporters. Something is wrong and we can all tell, and some people have arrived at a solution that doesn’t really work or at the very least makes them feel a little bit better.
… Believing these things isn’t a solution, and it’s not really accurate about what the problems are. The problem isn’t NASA. The problem isn’t the Earth being flat. The problem is something else.
While mercilessly roasting the more outspoken promulgators of Flat Earth like Mark Sargent and calling out its most bigoted elements, Brewis does seem to possess a certain degree of sympathy for its followers. The same might apply to anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers. They feel something is wrong. They distrust the authorities and institutions that, to a large extent, have let them down.
When someone comes along and offers them an alternative, who tells them they are right to be scared and eagerly points out a scapegoat, that’s how we get parents who decry the long arm of the state in forcing them to vaccinate their children. That’s how we get millions of viewers who believe the likes of Steven Crowder regarding the notion the ice at the poles is growing, not shrinking. That’s how we get Brexit and President Donald Trump. These people are right to be skeptical. Unfortunately, they’ve picked the wrong matters to be skeptical about and the wrong people to guide them in their search for meaning and purpose.
This rejection of scientific consensus based on anecdotal evidence (“I’ve never seen the Earth curve—have you?”) or disqualification due to a presumed agenda (e.g. vaccines as a ploy of the for-profit health care industry) is not to be utterly exonerated. Certainly, those individuals who would exploit others’ susceptibility to manipulation in this way should be held accountable as well.
The question of how to interact with these types of people, however, still lingers. How do you penetrate a world in which facts don’t matter to people who claim to believe in science? A piece by Bill Radke and Sarah Leibovitz accompanying Radke’s interview of Boston University philosopher of science Lee McIntyre for KUOW’s The Record might provide some insight.
As McIntyre did or at least attempted to do going undercover at the Flat Earth International Conference, he approached attendees armed not with evidence or an attacking or condescending manner, but with a “philosopher’s question”: What would it take to convince you you’re wrong? According to the article, they didn’t have an answer.
McIntyre submits that this is a hallmark of anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, Flat Earthers and the like and thus where they diverge from true scientists: they cherry-pick data, ignoring information that disagrees with what they believe. To be fair, in a time in which Russian bots and other foreign agents try to influence public opinion and in which information reaches our senses faster than we can rightly process, it’s not just the InfoWars-Breitbart crowd who can fall prey to what is termed “confirmation bias.”
Prevailing trends of the population at large notwithstanding, McIntyre cautions against simply brushing these alternative-theory movements aside for fear of encouraging other campaigns built on faulty reasoning. He also reasons you shouldn’t write off their subscribers or cut them off, but rather “engage, listen, and work the facts in where you can.” Additionally, scientists need to do their part in standing up for the importance of uncertainty to the scientific method. It’s OK not to have the answers—that is, as long as this admission is made in the service of trying to find them in earnest.
The Earth is an oblate spheroid, not flat. Climate change on Earth is real. Vaccines don’t cause autism and you should definitely vaccinate your kids. It’s important we uphold these truths. At the same time, we can engage non-believers in an accessible, trust-oriented way and draw attention to the real causes of the problems Harry Brewis and others might enumerate. After all, we’re going to need a communal effort to solve them and it’s going to take all types of people working together to do it.
Without having seen one of his YouTube videos or hearing him speak, I have to rely on second-hand accounts about intellectual and psychologist Jordan Peterson and his ideologies. From what I have read and witnessed about him, Peterson is a charismatic orator, a gifted debater, and intellectually brilliant. He’s also apparently arrogant, confrontational, and dismissive of opinions that are not his own. To even acknowledge his burgeoning popularity is to give credence to his platform and potentially invite a backlash from his adoring followers (though, given my limited readership, this probably all but negates the risk).
So, what is the appeal of writing a blog entry about Jordan Peterson, other than that I needed someone or something about which to write and I didn’t feel like writing about the Trump administration for the umpteenth time?
I suppose my interest was piqued in Peterson only in the last few weeks or so when I began to encounter an onslaught of negative press about the man, his latest book, 12 Rules for Life, and his musings about “enforced monogamy,” the latter of which supposedly is a not a dystopian, government-controlled “insistence” on the virtues of monogamy, but rather a socially and culturally promoted set of ideals which likewise supposedly is reflected in anthropological, biological, and psychological research and theory.
“Enforced monogamy” also informs Peterson’s belief as to a solution to the likes of the attack allegedly perpetrated by Alek Minassian in Toronto last month, evidently a participant in so-called “incel” culture comprised of “involuntary celibate” men who show resentment toward a society that denies them the ability to have sex, actively or otherwise. As Peterson sees it, enforced monogamy is the cure for that anger, and specifically in Minassian’s case, he was angry at God. This despite any stated political or religious affiliations as indicated by authorities at the place and time of the incident. But, hey—maybe this is just another indication of Peterson’s brilliance that he was able to divine this information!
Some of you may read these musings of Jordan Peterson’s on monogamy and the Toronto van attack and think, “Well, this guy is full of shit—I’ve heard all that I need to hear.” Such is well within your right to believe. You may commence with skimming this article and head toward the conclusion. Still, for those of you like me who choose to dig deeper, beyond the headlines that may exist if only to bait you into clicking and to engender outrage (or are just plain masochistic), it’s worth it to study Peterson’s worldview with the help of those who have reviewed his public statements at length or those who know him personally.
One such reviewer is known by the nom de tweet Natalie Wynn, a transgender ex-academic with a background in philosophy who comments on the cultural and philosophical issues of the day from her YouTube channel ContraPoints. In her latest video, Wynn, while jokingly alluding to Peterson’s past invocations of hierarchies in lobsters in talking about human societal order and putting Peterson’s face on a dummy’s body and soaking with it in a bathtub—this is part of her offbeat charm—acknowledges that after listening to his podcasts, reading his books, and watching his videos on YouTube, she gets why people like him.
For Natalie, Peterson has real talent as a public speaker and life coach, with his major distinguishing quality being that Peterson infuses traditional self-help verbiage with biblical insights, Jungian psychoanalysis, philosophy, and psychology. In this respect, nothing that he presents is really new—especially if you’re familiar with the trappings of AA, Ms. Wynn quips—but as far as she is concerned, from a self-improvement standpoint, more power to the Canadian psychology professor.
The issue with Peterson’s life coaching, however, as Wynn views it, is that it is a “Trojan horse for a reactionary political agenda,” one that opposes progressive politics as something “totalitarian and evil.” Peterson refers to progressive politics by the term postmodern neo-Marxism, and Wynn, using her educational background, painstakingly dissects this use of the terminology. Going through a cursory-yet-lengthy history of modernism, she eventually gets to a point that Marxism is a fundamentally modernist worldview that theorizes the human condition in economic terms, while postmodernism is a kind of skepticism that denies humans’ capacity for knowing universal truths about the world around them.
Accordingly, these concepts would seem to be at odds, and Peterson’s use of the term would only seem to enhance the confusion. As Natalie Wynn outlines, Jordan Peterson’s animus is levied upon a rather nebulous group that includes administrators at colleges and universities, civil rights activists, corporate human resources departments, feminists, liberal politicians, Marxists, postmodernists, and so-called “social justice warriors (SJWs).” It’s a problematically loose association of leftists which ignores the tensions that tend to exist between so many of the subgroups under this umbrella and on which Peterson tries to pin the downfall of Western civilization amid his fearmongering.
Likewise problematic is Peterson’s concept of “the West.” As Wynn breaks it down, Peterson’s “West” is emblematic of concepts like capitalism, individualism, and “Judeo-Christian values,” while “postmodern neo-Marxism” is aligned with anti-Western sentiment, collectivism, relativism, and totalitarianism. Marxism and postmodernism, as Wynn elucidates, are Western philosophies, so this immediately calls Peterson’s framework into question, as does his insistence on SJW ideology as a non-Western function.
Moreover, Wynn argues, if Peterson were really concerned about celebrating individuality, he would be more open to, for instance, the use of gender-neutral pronouns to suit the needs of individual students (Peterson made headlines when he vowed he would refuse to comply with any provincial laws on the use of “alternative” pronouns). In addition, if he were more insistent on preserving “the West” as a geographical and philosophical construct, he would, you know, rail against Buddhism, or own that the Marquis de Sade, for one, was into some stuff that doesn’t really fit with “Judeo-Christian values,” and he was from the West. By these standards, Peterson’s categories seem woefully arbitrary and haphazard.
Thus, despite her mild admiration for Peterson’s attention to the tendency of some people on the left to shout down even slightly different opinions, as well as an appreciation for the need to provide folks with a positive, proactive ideology rather than a liberal focus on everything one shouldn’t be doing and a preoccupation with how society oppresses people without a path to corrective action, Natalie Wynn sees a real danger in Jordan Peterson’s anti-leftist rhetoric.
She’s not alone, either. Bernard Schiff, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Toronto and someone who knows Peterson well as one of his historically staunchest defenders against other faculty at the university, recently penned a special opinion piece for the Toronto Star regarding his change of heart, so to speak, on Peterson and his methods. In Schiff’s opening to his expansive essay, he sets the tone for the piece by explaining what he admires about his colleague, and why he has more recently pivoted on someone he has considered a friend:
I thought long and hard before writing about Jordan, and I do not do this lightly. He has one of the most agile and creative minds I’ve ever known. He is a powerful orator. He is smart, passionate, engaging and compelling and can be thoughtful and kind.
I was once his strongest supporter.
That all changed with his rise to celebrity. I am alarmed by his now-questionable relationship to truth, intellectual integrity and common decency, which I had not seen before. His output is voluminous and filled with oversimplifications which obscure or misrepresent complex matters in the service of a message which is difficult to pin down. He can be very persuasive, and toys with facts and with people’s emotions. I believe he is a man with a mission. It is less clear what that mission is.
So, why did Schiff have to defend Peterson as a fellow professor among the faculty at the University of Toronto? Shocker!—though his celebrity may be bringing out the very worst in him, Peterson was always kind of a son of a bitch. Schiff concedes that Peterson possessed a rather immaculate record prior to his arrival at the University of Toronto, and despite misgivings from others about his “eccentricity,” he advocated for Peterson because he thought he could bring a fresh energy and new ideas to the department.
As it turned out, though, according to Schiff, Peterson wasn’t just a little “eccentric.” He sparred with the university’s research ethics committee, suggesting they lacked the authority and expertise to weigh in on his work (despite, you know, it being their government-mandated job to serve this function). He also, alongside numerous enthusiastic reviews from people who had taken his courses and a rapt audience of those who attended, repeatedly acknowledged the dangers of presenting conjecture as fact, and promptly went ahead and did it anyway in his lectures.
For Schiff, this was fine, albeit vaguely concerning; no one was getting hurt, and Peterson’s sermons were largely confined to the classroom. The turn came, however, when Peterson not only misrepresented the relationship between biology and gender in his opposition to Bill C-16, the aforementioned gender-neutral pronoun policy, but misrepresented his own risk at not supporting the law:
Jordan’s first high-profile public battle, and for many people their introduction to the man, followed his declaration that he would not comply with Bill C-16, an amendment to the Canadian Human Rights Act extending its protections to include gender identity and expression. He would refuse to refer to students using gender neutral pronouns. He then upped the stakes by claiming that, for this transgression, he could be sent to jail.
I have a trans daughter, but that was hardly an issue compared to what I felt was a betrayal of my trust and confidence in him. It was an abuse of the trust that comes with his professorial position, which I had fought for, to have misrepresented gender science by dismissing the evidence that the relationship of gender to biology is not absolute and to have made the claim that he could be jailed when, at worst, he could be fined.
In his defence, Jordan told me if he refused to pay the fine he could go to jail. That is not the same as being jailed for what you say, but it did ennoble him as a would-be martyr in the defence of free speech. He was a true free speech “warrior” who was willing to sacrifice and run roughshod over his students to make a point. He could have spared his students and chosen to sidestep the issue and refer to them by their names. And if this was truly a matter of free speech he could have challenged the Human Rights Act, off-campus and much earlier, by openly using language offensive to any of the already-protected groups on that list.
Perhaps this was not just about free speech.
Subsequent actions by Peterson to oppose legislative attempts by the province of Ontario to defend additional trans rights grew all the more worrisome. Peterson railed against the proposed Bill 28 under the premise that it “subjugates the natural family to the transgender agenda.” First of all, and apropos of nothing, the man missed an obvious opportunity to coin a portmanteau in transgenda. Secondly, what the heck is the “transgender agenda,” anyway? And how does it relate to a bill that sought to change the language about families away from “fathers and mothers” to “parents”? Bernard Schiff, for one, is confused, and I find myself similarly perplexed. You might, too.
This sense of wonderment quickly gives way to genuine fear, meanwhile, when considering Jordan Peterson’s conflation of Marxism, the left, and murderous regimes like those of Joseph Stalin that pervert their professed ideology to serve the purposes of the individual at the helm. Here is where Bernard Schiff’s concerns begin to echo those of Natalie Wynn’s. Wynn explicitly states her belief that Peterson is not a fascist. Whether or not Schiff believes Peterson has fascist tendencies is less clear, though he does make allusions to other people’s characterizations of Peterson and fascists in general, so that might tell you all you need to know. Regardless of exact labels, Schiff sees parallels between Peterson’s anti-Marxist, pro-status-quo language and Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist, anti-immigrant fervor. Obviously, this is not a flattering association.
Ultimately, Schiff puts forth that while he may be overstating the potential threat posed by his colleague, to remain silent presents its own risk—one he is not willing to take. Schiff, in suggesting that Peterson does not play by some of his own 12 rules—notably the ones involving assuming the other party knows something you don’t, pursuing what is important and not just what is expedient, telling the truth, and using precise language—expresses regret. Part of that regret lies in his inability to see Peterson’s rise as a self-styled cultural “warrior” coming despite the apparent warning signs. The other half of his regret, if you will, is his role in bringing Peterson to the University of Toronto in the first place. As Schiff plainly writes, “I have been asked by some if I regret my role in bringing Jordan to the University of Toronto. I did not for many years, but I do now.”
Part of what makes Jordan Peterson so frustrating to talk about is his seemingly intentional inscrutability, a quality his devotees laud as a virtue in that the “liberal media” can’t neatly fit him into a box. Indeed, Bernard Schiff goes to great lengths trying to plot out Peterson’s inconsistences. He defiantly asserts his own right to free speech, but then actively tries to steer students away from professors whom he associates with “postmodern neo-Marxism.” He claims to be a champion of scientific research and inquiry but rejects attempts by university administration to scrutinize his methods and cherry-picks data to prove his point. He, like so many conservatives, decries those on the left he sees as willing victims, but plays the martyr when challenged all the same. He’s calm and collected one moment, and angrily confrontational and defensive in the face of criticism the next. It’s a pretty maddening study in contracts.
Equally frustrating is trying to engage Peterson in a conversation on his terms. Natalie Wynn provides examples of Peterson’s rhetorical style, which essentially puts earnest interviewers like Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News in a no-win situation. As Wynn frames it, Peterson verbalizes something generally accepted to be true, while at the same time implying something more controversial and possibly unrelated. For instance, he’ll say that “there are biological differences between men and women,” but in the context of the underrepresentation of women in government. Your apparent choice is either to fall into the trap of arguing against the factual information Peterson presents, or to try infer a meaning by which he can argue that you’re misrepresenting his point of view. Whatever that may be.
Wynn highlights how Peterson used this kind of argument with respect to his famous/infamous “lobster” comment, when he led with a discussion of the notion that human social hierarchies are a construct created by Western patriarchy, and followed that with a note about how lobsters exist in hierarchies and how this structure has existed before Western patriarchy. The problem with this line of discourse, instructs Wynn, is that no one is arguing hierarchies are a product of “Western patriarchy,” and that lobster hierarchies are a non sequitur to the discussion of human social hierarchies. That is, no one is trying to start a lobster revolution. Peterson’s argument, as intellectual as it sounds, is gobbledygook, more or less.
Another oft-cited moment in the Newman-Peterson interview was when Newman asked Peterson why his right to freedom of speech should trump a trans person’s right not to be offended, and Peterson countered by asserting that “in order to be able to think, you have to risk being offensive,” and answering her question with another question: “You’re certainly willing to risk offending me in the pursuit of truth. Why should you have the right to do that?” Peterson’s extended response left Newman all but speechless, to which he interjected, “Ha! Gotcha!” Newman, flabbergasted, conceded defeat on this point. This moment is Exhibit A in Peterson’s supporters’ evidence that their icon “won” the interview over Ms. Newman, or “destroyed” her, or “obliterated” her, or did something else to nullify her very existence. Because there has to be a winner or loser in these types of discussions. Right.
Looking back at Peterson’s statements, it’s easier to find the flaws in his reasoning. To equate his personal offense at being challenged to a trans individual’s right to self-identification is a false comparison. This is to say that Peterson’s taking umbrage to a reporter’s queries results in nothing more than his personal irritation, while attacks on personhood for the trans community, a minority group, can lead to continued abuse and physical assaults. It’s not the same thing, something Cathy Newman might’ve been able to express given the time to parse out Peterson’s logic. You or I might’ve found ourselves similarly flummoxed in the same situation against such a skilled orator.
On top of this, Cathy Newman’s reward for attempting to take Jordan Peterson to task for expressed viewpoints and for inadvertently helping to elevate his stature? Numerous vicious personal threats. Peterson did intercede amid the harassment to ask his followers to back off, but his is the kind of sermonizing about the need to defend “Western” culture with obvious appeal to straight white Christian males that lends itself to preemptive strikes against members of the LGBTQ community, people of color, women, and everyone in between. When cultural debates are characterized in the context of a “war,” those who take up the fight with earnest believe all is fair, but this is not automatically the case.
Natalie Wynn ends her segment by abnegating personal responsibility in the debate about Jordan Peterson’s merits, professing she only likes to make YouTube videos for their production value. Bernard Schiff ruefully acknowledges his personal failure in identifying Peterson’s dangerous patterns of behavior and likens his (Peterson’s) desire to preach from the pulpit to the designs of late evangelist Billy Graham. Perhaps there is no single conclusion to be reached about Peterson that would prove satisfactory.
A common thread between the analyses of Wynn and Schiff, though—and one to which I might subscribe in my own thinking—is the idea that maybe those outside his vanguard need to take his meteoric rise more seriously. The “experts” who downplayed the threats of a “Brexit” or a Donald Trump presidency were summarily proven wrong. The hubbub about Jordan Peterson could be much ado about nothing. As with Schiff’s decision not to stay mum, however, do you believe it’s worth the risk of ignoring him?
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If people look hard enough for signs of the apocalypse, they’re sure to find them. Donald Trump as President of the United States, if not a herald of the end of the world, certainly doesn’t bode well for its future—just ask the powers-that-be behind the Doomsday Clock. Other aspects of life today, while perhaps not damning in them of themselves, in sum total may likewise well presage our civilization’s decline. Selfies. All-you-can-eat buffets. The phenomenon that is “Cash Me Outside” Girl. The Human Centipede movies. Sandwiches and other meals in which fried chicken is the bread. OK, maybe these are just things for which I personally have low regard, but I have my reasons. (Especially for The Human Centipede movies.) In fact, the breakdown of society is a popular trope across entertainment media. A show about the zombie apocalypse is not only one of the biggest shows on television these days—it has a spin-off that is essentially just the same show in a different location! In short, imagery of global destruction is all around us, such that it’s hard not to adopt feelings of doom and gloom surrounding the current state of affairs, at least now and again. Sometimes, all we can do is to latch onto something which grounds us in the here and now and brings us some measure of comfort.
It is within this context that I invoke a recently-published study conducted by a group of scientists regarding fairly recent trends in animal populations from which they’ve concluded Earth is in the midst of a mass extinction. The study cites significant declines in numbers of close to 9,000 vertebrate species just since 1900, including the outright extinction of almost 200 species, and does not mince words, depicting the situation as a global “biological annihilation.” Furthermore, these scientists caution that the window for effective action is a small one. Like, a mere 20 or 30 years. With Pres. Trump set to run the country—if you can call what he’s doing “running” the country—for the next three-and-a-half years, if not more, this puts us behind the proverbial 8-ball. While one might be careful not to overstate the damage Trump can do with so much momentum already behind efforts to create sustainable operations in both the public and private sectors, his ability to stunt this growth by halting regulations is nonetheless worrisome given the narrow time frame for intervention on the Earth’s behalf.
As reports on this study such as this one from Kristine Phillips of the Washington Postindicate, there is far from a consensus on the point of where are we on the timetable of mass extinctions or if we are in the midst of one at all. The researchers use data to back up their assertions, finding about a third of their sample of 27,600 vertebrate species have seen significant declines in population and habitat size over the course of study. More specifically, more than 40% of mammals (that’s us) in the sample, of which 177 species were scrutinized for the sake of this study, saw their numbers plummet. For the sake of an example, African lions have declined in number by more than 40% in just the last 20 years.
These findings seem stark and substantial, but not everyone in the scientific community is convinced. One expert in the field cited in Phillips’ report says that a mass extinction may well be underway, but it is only just beginning, and regardless, “telling people that we’re all doomed and going to die isn’t terribly helpful.” Well, no, but let’s also not undersell the whole mass extinction angle because it might frighten some people or bum them out, OK, guy? Another critical expert quoted within believes comparing prevailing trends in animal populations to the previous five established extinction-level events amounts to little more than “junk science,” as this is somewhat of an apples-to-oranges comparison. Or, perhaps to be more animal-centered, a baboon-to-porpoise comparison?
Regardless of whether or not animal population declines mediated by disappearing habitats qualifies as a distinct era of extinction, however, what these scientists can all seem to agree on is that humans have played a role in a number of these species extinctions, and that more are likely to come. Besides, there are those cohorts within the scientific community who believe such direct language on the need for conservation is not only advisable, but necessary. Sound the alarm bells! We’re going downhill—fast! As Kristine Phillips also notes, this is not the first time the idea has been advanced that we are in the midst of a mass extinction; some of the same researchers behind the current study raised concerns along these lines with a study only two years ago. In addition—and for those of us who might be standing on a ledge about now—there may be hope for all of us animals yet. Efforts to conserve endangered species and their habitats can and do work, and moreover, with regard to imperiled species numbers, safeguarding these populations can allow them to rebound like Shaquille O’Neal in his prime. (Note: O’Neal may or may not have been as prolific a rebounder as I remember him. The majority of my familiarity with basketball from that era is limited to playing NBA Jam.) Right down to planting native plants in one’s yard, we, as concerned citizens, can help.
Now that you’re clambering down from the ledge and heading back through the skyscraper window, let’s bring in the Trump administration and a Republican-led Congress. Wait—don’t turn around and head back for that ledge! With respect to paths to action as outlined by Phillips and the scientists she cites, the caveat in recommending readers contact their elected representatives is that any number of them currently occupying seats don’t feel quite the same zeal for looking after the Earth and the fauna inhabiting it, particularly when espousing conservative or otherwise industry-centered views. As Noah Greenwald, endangered species director for the Center for Biological Diversity, sets forth, the current Congress is the “most anti-endangered species in history,” and his organization has identified 34 different active pieces of legislation which would weaken protections for the most vulnerable species.
And don’t even get me started about Donald Trump and his flunkies. Talk about setting a tone at the top—Trump not only once infamously espoused the belief that climate change was a myth created by the Chinese, but as President, he pulled the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, a non-binding international commitment to combat the adverse effects of climate change. Non-binding. With no penalties. You get it—why doesn’t he? His selections for prominent positions in his Cabinet likewise fail to inspire on an ecological front, and for that matter, appear designed as deliberate attempts to undermine the departments to which the confirmed candidates have been assigned. Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State, is a former CEO of ExxonMobil. Ryan Zinke, Secretary of the Interior, marked his confirmation by approving a measure that would roll back restrictions on the use of lead ammunition for hunters on federal lands. Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, sued the EPA umpteen times as Attorney General of the state of Oklahoma. Rick Perry, Secretary of Energy, would’ve advocated for the dissolution of this department when campaigning for President—but he was too blockheaded to recall its name during the debate when asked.
These are the jokers who have aided and abetted Trump in his crusade to undo every meaningful environmental regulation from Barack Obama’s tenure, and so many of these reversals of policy are evidently unnecessary. We need more lead ammunition so—what, exactly? More birds of prey can get sick and die from lead poisoning from feeding on animals shot with it? It was so vital to repeal the Clean Water Rule because—oil/gas and fertilizer/pesticide companies were so inconvenienced by having to not dump shit in our streams and other waterways? Trump and Co. are very clearly putting profits over people and animals here, and in doing so, are ascribing to the belief that conservationism is bad for our bottom line. This, however, like so many of this administration’s ideas, is dead wrong.
Like so much of President Trump’s agenda, the shift toward an even more lax regard for the natural environment seems predicated on a short-term reward—and not one that the country as a whole will reap. Oh, sure, the part of the constituency for whom this plays may be thrilled at the vague idea we as a nation will start to do more for Joe the Miner than we did under Barack Obama or would have done under Hillary Clinton. From the outside looking in, though, we know better than to think Donald Trump is playing fast and loose with the fate of the planet primarily for their benefit. Instead, it’s on behalf of other rich assholes like himself, especially leaders of industry, and of course, himself, in terms of their vote come 2020. What facilitates this tacit agreement between the governor and the governed—or at least the portion of the governed that comprises his would-be supporters—is a larger shift away from confidence in science and the scientific community that supplies all the inconvenient facts climate change deniers and their ilk don’t like so much. In recent years, we’ve seen a sea change in the public’s credence of scientific principles and verifiable evidence.
As this intersects with politics, Newt Gingrich somewhat unwittingly invoked the seemingly growing divide between facts—those tidbits which are verifiably true or are generally accepted to be true based on a broad scientific consensus—and feelings—those assumptions which are based on assumptions and prejudices which may be true, but are not supported by evidence and are thus prone to error. In an interview with Gingrich on CNN during the Republican National Convention, the at-one-time-vice-presidential-nominee to Trump was pressed on the matter of whether or not violent crime had gone down over the years. Trump’s tone in his keynote speech was one of dystopian hyperbole, fire, and brimstone, in which he depicted the United States of America as a few murders short of a scene out of the Purge movies. The facts, unsurprisingly, don’t support Donald Trump’s claims; all one needs to do is access recent publicly-available data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, read about the trends, and see the line graphs going down. Easy-peasy.
Newt Gingrich, meanwhile, argued that these verifiable facts and figures were of less importance because Americans don’t feel them to be true. That is, John and Jane Public, good friends of Joe the Miner, don’t feel we are any safer of late. The implications of this line of thinking are all-too-frighteningly clear. By prioritizing feelings over facts, we are encouraging the cherry-picking of data to be used in analysis that only serves the purpose of the persons skewing this information to promote their desired narrative. Furthermore, by sanctioning the use of data in this way, we are implicitly approving the creation of policy and voting in accordance with the figures extracted using faulty science. Essentially, Gingrich is arguing it’s OK to mislead an American electorate which already tends to fall prey to trusting what their gut tells them as opposed to what their mind, aided by provable data, does. In other words, it’s not politicians’ fault that the rank-and-file among us can be guided like sheep into an enclosure. To a certain extent, he’s not wrong that we bear some culpability, but the ends certainly do not justify the means.
Ethan Siegel, astrophysicist, author, and primary writer on the science site Starts with a Bang!, wrote a post in response to Newt Gingrich’s arguments regarding the merits of feelings over facts shortly after the actual event occurred. Surely, as a member of the scientific community and an expert in his field, Siegel is not neutral on this subject, nor should we expect him to be. Still, as someone who, like so many of us, is concerned about the future of our country and of our world, his perspective on how we see expertise and its bearing on our relationship with factual information is potentially quite valuable, and certainly not one to be automatically dismissed. Siegel offers these thoughts on humans’ tendency to cherry-pick data and otherwise resist disconfirming evidence:
Most of us are uncomfortable with relying on others — even experts — even when we ourselves don’t have expert knowledge, expert training or the expertise of the full suite of all relevant facts. Particle physicist Brian Cox recently discussed this, saying: “It’s entirely wrong, and it’s the road back to the cave. The way we got out of the caves and into modern civilisation is through the process of understanding and thinking. Those things were not done by gut instinct. Being an expert does not mean that you are someone with a vested interest in something; it means you spend your life studying something. You’re not necessarily right – but you’re more likely to be right than someone who’s not spent their life studying it.”
The facts do not change because of how we interpret (or misinterpret) them. Homeopathy is scientifically, robustly 100% ineffective against cancer. Fluoridated water results in a blanket 40% reduction in cavities, on average, on top of any other dental health programs in children. Violent crime has continued to decrease in America, continuing a trend that has persisted for more than 20 years. […] And human-caused changes to the environment are causing the Earth to warm, a long-term trend that is visible in the global temperature records for many decades now.
Both Ethan Siegel and Brian Cox (the man he quotes) come from a similar place when it comes to recognition of experts. This is to say that even they recognize experts aren’t always right about what they study—I’m sure some of you are recalling past errant weather forecasts made by meteorologists and nodding your heads in agreement—but they nonetheless understand that expertise is our best path toward some kind of truth. As Siegel tries repeatedly to reinforce, facts don’t become any more or less true depending on our personal beliefs. It is incumbent upon us as end users of documented scientific information to sift through the findings and draw our own conclusions, as it is with politics.
Coming back to the notion that started this whole meditation on the nature of scientific inquiry, you may choose to believe or disbelieve the idea that a sixth mass extinction is underway. Whatever you decide, though, the science on climate change is substantially less arguable, and at any rate, the value placed on factual information must be held sacrosanct. Whether it’s a literal cave in which one would isolate himself or herself from the outside world, or a figurative bubble into which to recede and ignore the inconvenient truths which cause us discomfort, becoming too entrenched has its certain perils.