Ubi dubium… | How Not To Defend Your Mentor

So, on June 6, a copy of eSkeptic popped into my inbox, with a defense of Jordan Peterson from a former student of his, Dr. Jonathan N. Stea. That’s to be expected. Peterson’s a smart guy, familiar with ways of influencing people, from his psychology training and study of authoritarian leaders, as his legion of followers well shows.

This entry is not an attack on Peterson. As controversial a figure as he is, that controversy is far from black and white, and would require more nuance to properly and fairly address than I’ve space for in a post of this length.

The defense opens with the following paragraphs:

“It is well known that clinical psychologist, Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, has been portrayed in the media as a polarizing figure: bigoted alt-right charlatan on the one hand, superordinate fatherly free-speech protector on the other hand. The former portrayal reflects downright ignorance and the latter is optimistic. Commentary on his clinical psychological acumen is conspicuously absent. His detractors are keen to point out his politics, eccentricities, and volatility, as if political pigeon-holing and ad hominem attacks weaken the veracity of his claims. This is inaccurate.”

“I know because I am a former psychology student of Jordan Peterson at the University of Toronto; he was my undergraduate thesis supervisor. I have a master’s of science degree and a doctorate degree in clinical psychology from the University of Calgary. I am a registered and practicing clinical psychologist in Calgary, AB, Canada. I provide evidence-based treatment to individuals with concurrent mental health and addictive disorders in a specialty outpatient hospital clinic. I have published many peer-reviewed scientific research papers on topics related to addiction and mental health.”

Wait. What? So Stea opens by noting that few are criticizing Peterson’s clinical practice, only his public persona, and then listing his own credentials. Do you know why Peterson’s clinical practice is unmentioned in most criticisms? It’s not relevant to the discussion, evidence-based or not. This opening of the defense starts off poorly with a heavy-handed dismissal of Peterson’s critics, and ends up worse. It fails the initial “So what?” test and fails on first face.

In the main body, Stea then goes on to assert numerous ways where that clinical practice is reflected in Peterson’s books, video lectures, and speaking engagements. The trouble with these assertions is none of them seem evidently true. The phrase “evidence-based” is used at least six times in the main body alone, almost as if Stea is trying really hard to tell us something — dost thou protest a bit much? Also, of what possible value is an evidence-based methodology to a man widely known for dismissing empirical evidence as any basis for what is true? Unless I’m wildly mistaken from hearing his first interview with Sam Harris, Peterson’s publicly stated view of truth is instrumental; what is useful to attain one’s ends, not what comports to observable reality. How could Stea not know that about his old teacher? What far away galaxy has he been living in since 2016?

Look. I get it, Stea.

I get that you really like your old teacher, and that he influences you still — otherwise you wouldn’t write this piece, but lay off on the Rhetoric 101 tactics; you’re trying too hard, and it shows. This is classic apologetics: conflate what’s being criticized with what obviously isn’t, defend what’s not as though it were what is, and prematurely declare victory having only pretended to address the real issue. There is a screamingly obvious misdirection here. Busted. If a mere learner could pick this out, how much more would a better skeptic yet? I could be wrong of course, but it would take better arguments and more solid evidence than the flimsy assertions found here to convince me.

Really, eSkeptic? You can do better than this. The arguments are biased and uncritical, even apologetic in tone, and read like an advert for Peterson’s book, not a fair and objective rebuttal to the critics, indeed, a rather clumsy one however unfair Peterson’s critics have often been.

Dr. Jonathan N. Stea, you do your profession a disservice with this piece and should be embarrassed. No one with a critical neuronal cluster in their brain cares about lengthy listings of personal credentials when they merely preface such shoddy argument: arguments from authority, bare assertions, red herrings, and blanket dismissals carry no weight with me, so color me unimpressed.

Tf. Tk. Tts.

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