Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Why are social scientists and fellow social liberals allowing Jordan Peterson to win the policy discussion?

Youtube regularly recommends videos of someone attempting to debate Canadian clinical psychologist and UofT psychology professor Jordan Peterson. I've also read articles written by several critics. I cringe when I read/watch these discussions as I feel embarrassed by the arguments used by Mr. Peterson's critics.

While I don't agree with Jordan Peterson's conclusions, the logic behind his arguments in these discussions (debates, articles, etc) are sound while the arguments deployed against him are generally lacking. If all you had to go on were these critics of Jordan Peterson you would be forced to believe he was right, and his critics were wrong.

To clarify: The following isn't a critique of Jordan Peterson's arguments, but a critique used by those who feel they are rebutting his arguments.

Measurements and accuracy matter

I have a background in natural sciences (STEM), which was part of my personal interests as well as training at university for computer science. When we need to measure something we work to be accurate, especially when we then put it into a model and/or formula to then predict some outcome. We can often test our models in the real world and know that our predictions were incorrect.

In the social sciences I often see something quite different. When there are many factors that go into analyzing and/or measuring something, a researcher will try to simplify the number of factors and make claims based on that simplification. To anyone who believes that a different factor would have a larger impact they will dispute those claims. All too often there is no mechanism to make real-world measurements to determine whose predictions are more sound.


One of the areas I study is governance systems, including democratic reform around electoral systems. Many people in representative democracies instinctively can tell that the people who sit in representative bodies (such as the House of Commons in Canada) don't represent the population well. Some electoral systems researchers have taken one factor in a multi-factor analysis, declared it to be the only factor, and made policy proposals based on the myth that there was only one factor. This is the case with so-called Proportional Representation, which takes political party affiliation as the only demographic factor that matters for elected representatives. What they promote may optimize some factor-specific formula, but does not make the resulting democracy any more representative unless you blindly agree with the researchers that party affiliation is the only relevant demographic trait.

Hey, we have a number, so it must be accurate science.

Gender pay gap is something people try to critique Jordan Peterson about. The concept of equal pay for equal work may sound simple, but when you look at the concept of equal work you find yourself in a very complex multi-factor analysis.

What some political partisans do is pick one factor, sexism against women, and declare it the only factor. With this factor you can then compare the salaries of some definition of "women" and the salaries of some definition of "men" and declare the difference as "sexism" which can be fixed by quotas to counteract "sexism".

While nobody would argue that sexism doesn't exist, many will appropriately argue that optimizing hiring and promotion based on the assumption that sexism is the only factor will be counterproductive.

Narrow binary gender roles

I have male genitalia. As a person with this anatomy I have had many things that people have assumed and/or attempted to project/impose on me.

I have never had a remote interest in competitive sports, and the closest thing to sports entertainment I enjoy is classical and modern dance. It is unfortunate that people think that I'm being antisocial because I don't want to talk about sports scores at a bar or water cooler, but I'm quite frustrated when people think that makes me less of a man.

Even in today's "modern" society the role of males is to be hunter-gatherers, which now means gathering money. Physical strength and aggression was key to the hunting, and thus considered key to being masculine and key to many people's definition of success. Your masculinity is questioned if you question the methods used to hunt-gather money, whether money is all too often extracted rather than earned, and whether that hunting-gathering is a social good or harm. You are definitely questioned if you don't project physical strength and aggression.

While I work with computers (systems administration and software author), a field that is male dominated, I have primarily applied my technical skills in areas I consider to be a social good. This has meant that I am quite often part of a male minority where I work, and it also means I am not "gathering" as much money as I could if I accepted one of the job offers that is less socially valuable to me.

As a person granted arbitrary privileges based on my anatomy, I am more free to choose my own role in society than if I was born with different anatomy. That choice is still in opposition to many others who attempt to impose binary gender roles and expression on everyone. It is still an act of political and social defiance.

Even before we move entirely away from the antiquated (and on Turtle Island, colonial) concept of there being a gender binary, the problem of treating people based on anatomy should be obvious.

As much as our not-so-modern society wants to claim that a persons anatomy determines how they think, how they want to express themselves, and their role in society, I believe it is inappropriate to create laws which impose that outdated binary gender thinking.


Equality of opportunity vs outcome

Equality of outcome is simple: as an example, assume that nothing other than sexism exists, you can measure and then compare pairs of assumed binary demographic statistics. Except, that analysis gets gender grossly wrong and will lead to policies that will be as harmful to society as the harm from sexism and various other harmful isms we are trying to account for.

Equality of opportunity is hard: it requires detecting a large number of factors, and creating multiple policies to correct a wider ranges of problems which disable equality of opportunity.

If we want a fair and just society that isn't imposing arbitrary policies on people based on incorrect assumptions about demographic traits, we must be willing to do the hard work. I see no evidence that taking shortcuts will solve problems, but see considerable evidence it will make existing problems worse.


Reworking success

While I strongly agree with Jordan Peterson's opposition to those who want to create harm by adopting policies based on equality of outcome, it is also obvious to me that I disagree with him when it comes to what qualifies as equality of opportunity.

Mr. Peterson has indicated many times that when counseling women on how to achieve better pay that they should become more aggressive. To make a long analysis short, his advise to individuals (regardless of anatomy) is to adopt more traditional "hunter gather" traits. My immediate question is this: are traits that are appropriate for human warfare and/or killing animals for food or sport the best traits to promote in the workplace, in economic policy, and society in general?

Hiring and promoting more women doesn't change this problematic criteria for success if the only women that are being hired and promoted are those who have already adopted the same traits.

On my bookshelf, along with Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations" and Yochai Benkler's "The Wealth of Networks" is Robert Theobald's "reworking success".

Personally I think Adam Smith's ideas are more than a bit past their prime, and if we want to move forward with a modern society we need to put better thought into how we define wealth and success. I'm not suggesting we switch from the ideas of a Scottish economist (Adam Smith, 1723-1790) to the ideas of a German economist (Karl Marx, 1818-1883), as I don't think it is healthy to believe that all useful ideas are confined to a line between these two European males.

I'm convinced it isn't helpful to declare adherence to European ideas as a criteria for success, another thing I am not in agreement with Mr. Peterson on.

Systemic problems

I have spent much of my free (non-work) time in the last few months on my own antiracist training. Probably at the top of the list of thing I've learned is to move away from thinking about individuals (a racist, or a group of racists) to systems (racism).  An individual may prefer one race or the other, and may not even be aware of their biases.

This turns out to be ideal for me as a systems administrator. I've always been more comfortable thinking about systems, and less able (or sometimes interested) in narrowly focusing on individuals within the systems. I've always been a "think global, act local" person.

I grew up in Canada, with Canadian culture all around me. While I didn't consider myself a racist, I still have views I adopted from the culture around me that have racial bias.

The current Canadian system of government was imposed in 1867 by colonialists who had already been occupying this land for a considerable time. When Europeans first traveled to the northern part of North America they established healthy trade relationships, but that relatively quickly moved to eurocentric colonialism. Whether the official colonial government policy to non-europeans (whether indigenous or european approved immigrants) was segregationist or assimilationist, both were and continue to be racism as part of the system of governance. The same is true of other demographic traits, where government and culture continues to try to make impositions on people that don't fit European, male, binary gender, or other narrow (and now many would agree outdated) concepts.

While it would be nice to think I would be alive long enough to request immigration status from a new government in a post-colonial northern North America (some call turtle island), I don't at all believe I live in a post-racism country.

Solving these systemic problems can't be accomplished by looking at individuals and assigning blame to individuals. Demographic trait based blame games seem obvious to me to be a distraction from moving forward with policies to reduce systemic injustice.

Affirmative Action

In the 1990's I was an opponent to affirmative action.  I have come to recognize this was because I am an opponent to policies trying to create equality of outcome, which I don't see as having merit.

I now recognize a lack of equality of opportunity, partly due to failures at defining success and dealing with systemic injustices. I am a strong supporter of adjusting systems to not only correct existing systemic problems, but also for an appropriate level of time to grant an advantage to groups who were previously unfairly put at a disadvantage.

There may be some superficial similarities for some policies around equality of outcome and equality of opportunity, but how these policies are formed and what would be used as a metric of success would be quite different.

Unfortunately, I've rarely seen good arguments being brought forward for affirmative action and similar policies. As long as the discussion is around equality of outcomes, the justified opposition will always win the debate. Policies to address social problems will either not be brought forward or won't last.

Only once convincing arguments that focus on systemic solutions to enable equality of opportunity are brought forward will we see sustainable progress.

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