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.

No, That’s Not An Argument…Really, It’s Not.

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of my acquaintances on social media had sent me to a link to an obviously (to me at any rate) ideologically partisan blog, that linking to an also obviously partisan interview on another blog, one with a climate change contrarian, in hopes, perhaps, of magically getting me to ‘see the Truth™’ and instantly transforming me into a climate change contrarian with a flash of mystic pixie dust, or the powder of Ibn Ghazi sprinkled ‘pon while making the Voorish sign…

Not that there’s anything bad about pixies, mind you…at least they’re a bit less antisocial than gremlins in those IT communities of make-believe.


Well, neither the blog nor interview was anything but pure politics and so hardly scientifically compelling, I posted a response to her via private message, with only minor edits [in brackets] for context in this blog entry:

“One thing I’ve learned about science over the last seven years is that no matter what you may personally believe, its results don’t depend on religion, politics, or ideology; they don’t depend on what you had for breakfast, what party you campaign for, or what you disapprove of; and they don’t depend on the agenda of an imaginary Evil Leftist (or Centrist, or Rightist) Conspiracy™.

Trying to debunk science with politics, or anything else [but science itself], shows a mistaken view of how science works, what it is, and what it’s for; Whatever you may think, science is an evidence-based enterprise, not “What do we want to vote on today?” or an electoral primary.

I have standards as to which arguments support the claims they are alleged to. None of these implies any need for perfect absolute proof, just minimum cogency:

1. They must be cast in the most neutral, objective language possible, avoiding ideological buzzwords and partisan slogans. This is simply known as writing professionally.

2. They must commit the fewest possible errors in reasoning, avoiding as many logical and rhetorical fallacies as can be managed. The argument’s conclusion must follow from the premises reasonably.

3. They must commit the fewest possible factual errors and inaccuracies. Any facts the premises are based on must really exist as claimed…out-of-context factoids and half-truths are not acceptable legal tender. Those damnable standards again.

Any argument failing even one of these tests has no leg to stand on, and cannot serve as reliable support for the claims it makes.

If offers a claim without the evidence it purports to, and so may be dismissed without evidence against it, as there is none for it [as per Christopher Hitchens’ Dictum].”

Whether the blog and interview it linked to that she sent me (I read both) was simply a quick attempt at ideological conversion, or an actual argument, is irrelevant.

The attempt in its own way was admirable: We all want others to accept the truth as we see it. The trouble is, however, that often what we consider to be true is frequently not. That’s the consequence of living in a universe with phenomena, like climate change, whose policy implications often run counter to what our political, religious, and economic or other ideologies tell us.

Course Review: Argumentation – the Study of Effective Reasoning

This course from the Teaching Company, taught by Northwestern University professor David Zarefsky, has long been one of my favorites where home study is concerned and life situation, tuition, textbook, and travel expenses make de facto college study cost-prohibitive.

This set of twenty-four thirty-minute lectures, in a set of four DVDs, is a good introduction to both the fundamentals and finer points of argumentation, the use of reason to gain the willing adherence of an audience to whatever case you wish to argue.

Of course, the point made in the very first lecture is that far from being mere bickering and quarreling, far better than a verbal fight, argumentation is not about these things, but the noble art of negotiation and deliberation by the process of offering reasons, acceptable and sound ones, for the claims we make.

This course, as Zarefsky tells you from the start, is not about winning more arguments with your spouse, convincing an atheist that God exists, nor about convincing a theist that there is no god.

There’s a selection of suggested textbooks for the course, though I’ve found the lectures will do perfectly fine on their own with the study guide booklet that is included. For my own purposes, I’ve gotten some of the textbooks because of the usefulness of delving deeper into the subject matter, and I have taken written drafts of study notes from each lecture on the most important points of the lessons.

Some criticisms, otherwise I’m a poor critic, but I’ll keep it constructive:

Zarefsky uses many examples and illustrations of the main points of each lecture, and most of these are helpful, though some are a bit overused and a couple of times I had to improvise once I got his point by coming up with my own.

In one lecture, (#13, Reasoning from Parts to Whole) he uses hypothetical emails from Teaching Company customers to clarify a discussion of arguing from general to specific and from specific to general and how either can be inductive or deductive. Once was sure I got it, I translated it into a discussion of generalizing and classifying about sand-worn stones found on a beach, used in an old post of mine (Here).

All in all though, Professor Zarefsky’s a top-notch instructor, and I would be very pleased to study under him as a classroom environment teacher now that I’m used to his style.

The course as a whole is extremely information-dense, and that’s a good thing, though it’s spaced out nicely in the format of the twenty-four lessons it’s recorded in. I recommend having a pen and note book or the digital equivalent handy while watching or listening to these — there’s a lot to take in, even as spaced out as they are, and you may want to get the more subtle but vital points of each lesson as well as the well-illustrated ones.

I recommend this course for anyone interested in developing their skill in rational deliberation and decision-making in a world where we are all too often divided and polarized in our positions, a world in which the climate of debate is poisoned by the forces of unreason and dogmatic bullheadedness.

Reasoned Disagreement: Antidote for Unreasoning Bullheadedness

map of democracies

Image via Wikipedia

Disagreement can be annoying. It can try anyone’s patience, and there are times and situations where people express disagreement with our claims, our views, our opinions, on matters that we ourselves see as de facto self-evident but others not so.

We tend to prefer others to agree with us, since this agreement comforts our egos when others acknowledge our correctness (real or imagined) in our claims, opinions, and our often highly personal beliefs, the last of which we are often most, and I think needlessly, protective.

On the other hand, we may experience discomfort when we are feeling particularly thin-skinned, when others see not as we, and in some cases evoking (self)righteous indignation at being questioned, sometimes at length, about the validity of our claims, suggesting the possibility that we may be wrong, or worse, lying or delusional.

The problem with getting upset about this disagreement is that it is pointless. It is inevitable that we come to disagree, and so we must live with it, not rail against it.

I remember my years as a believer, the youthful dismay I felt at not having my statements uncritically accepted by those skeptical of them — if I’d only known then what I do now! — at time when I had yet to appreciate the importance of rigor and clear thinking in any discussion in a real world where standards of argument and evidence were much higher than I’d naively supposed, and the need for that in a vibrant, free, pluralistic society.

In time, I learned that disagreement resting on a foundation of agreement is essential and healthy for any functioning democracy.

Now, before anyone starts lecturing me in the comments about the ‘States being a federated republic, or whatever, and not a democracy, and how 300 million people can’t have a meaningful discussion, or decides to expound upon their own political opinions regarding democracy and alleged connections between it and the American Democratic party, I’ll lay out for the sake of this post what I mean by democracy:

Any system of government in which leaders are chosen through a process of elections in which the collective votes of a citizen electorate are cast and tallied. This is more or less modeled after the early democracies of ancient Greece, but I’m not specifically referring to either Athenian or representative democracies in this post.

Genuine controversies, not those  merely manufactured by the journalistic media or ideologues with an agenda, are absolutely needed for a healthy democracy, one with a reasonably equitable electoral process and an adequately educated, critically reasoning and vigilant electorate with a keen skepticism of those in authority.

I realize this is more an ideal than the real, considering the political climate in the ‘States, but it’s something to strive for.

Neither agreement nor disagreement is wholly good or bad, but neither can be completely avoided, so we must live with them and use the one as the grounding for the other in resolving disputes, which will happen no matter how much alike we seem to be on the surface.

A society in which we seek only the company of the like-minded, feel that any disagreement is unbridgeable and unresolvable, in which we watch only those media outlets that support our views, where credulity is rampant and reason is shunned is a very dangerous one, and this is what I see this country becoming.

I think that 300 million people can have a meaningful discussion, maybe not yet, but it’s possible through dissemination of information and an open willingness to look at and consider it.

Argumentation done well, done productively and effectively is not rancorous, destructive to others’ self-worth, nor quarrelsome at all — those are mere shadows and misconceptions of argument.

Ignorance, irrationality, and a breakdown in social discourse are the disease, and I for one strongly suspect that knowledge, understanding, and the practice of reasoned argumentation are the cure.

My own view is that no matter how annoying it may be, if we cannot bother to rationally defend our statements, beliefs, views and opinions, then perhaps they are not worth holding at all.