Jordan Peterson (JP) is a popular YouTuber and psychology professor. He’s smart and has some valuable ideas, but with the right thinking tools he could improve dramatically.
This article uses JP as an example, but all points in this article apply to many other people.
Like most intellectuals, JP lacks Paths Forward – ways for any member of the public to correct him when he’s mistaken. He limits his openness to discussion in order to conserve his time and energy.
JP does engage with people (his fans, friendly prestigious people, hostile media) a reasonable amount. He spends time talking to people, sharing his ideas, debating, and answering questions. Examples: Reddit AMA, Quora, Twitter, monthly Patreon Q&A videos, and talking with intellectuals.
JP’s doing fine on quantity of discussion. He’s also doing fine on quality – when he talks with people, he generally takes it seriously and makes thoughtful remarks.
But I still think he’s doing something wrong, even though he’s doing well on both quantity and quality of engagement with the world’s ideas. What could it be? Process.
JP is busy. He gets thousands of emails and other messages, and he can’t even come close to answering them all. OK, that’s fine. But here’s a key question:
How does JP select which messages to answer?
What process (method, strategy, policy) does JP use to decide which issues to discuss, which to think about privately, and which to ignore? There’s a major flaw in how he spends his discussion time:
JP has no documented process for making discussion decisions. He (presumably) makes these decisions with methods like feel, intuition, preference, whim or sometimes conscious analysis (involving e.g. a pro/con list or a discussion with another person). Sometimes he makes good choices and sometimes he makes mistakes. He may be quite good at it compared to most people, but there’s a better way. When you do things without a clear process, bias will creep in. The counter to bias is to have documented processes you follow. Documented processes can be evaluated for biases and they provide predictability for discussion partners. By contrast, unwritten rules allow for biased decisions without accountability.
For the best accountability, intellectual processes should be documented publicly, rather than kept private. And intellectuals should share enough about their work for people to be able to see for themselves that the processes really are being followed. Without this, it’d be common for someone to think they have a really rational process but, due to bias, they are blind to the ways they aren’t really following it. It’s like how scientists document and share their experimental process for critical review, they don’t just share their conclusions. Sharing information like this also enables other people to give suggestions to improve your processes or better follow them, and lets others learn from what you’re doing and use the same processes themselves.
Many people think of bias as a problem that other people have, but they trust themselves. You shouldn’t trust yourself. You’re biased too. You will make biased decisions, without realizing it, if given the opportunity. You need to write down processes for how you’ll do things, follow them, and have periodic checks that you’re actually following them, or bias will happen. For the best chance of success, the checking should be done by yourself, your friends and peers, and also by the public. Bias is sneaky, so it’s worth making a major effort to defend against.
Consider the scientific method. That’s a process for reducing bias in science (in Richard Feynman’s words, it helps us avoid fooling ourselves). The scientific method is highly developed, including e.g. double-blind placebo controlled studies. Scientists study it, think about it, write it down, and try to follow it. And bias is still a major problem in science! Without the scientific method, scientists wouldn’t be effective enough for modern science to exist. Other kinds of intellectuals need methods too, or else bias will ruin their work.
What are the proper rules for prioritizing which discussion issues to address? There’s leeway here for preference. People vary and have different interests. JP should spend part of his time doing whatever he wants. I think it’s good to have preferences, and pursue them, despite the possibility of bias. But JP is trying to be a serious intellectual who seeks the truth, so he should also spend part of his time trying to be really objective and unbiased.
I’ve developed proposed policies for JP to use. These are generic, weak, conservative criteria, so I can be pretty confident they’d work for JP (despite my ignorance of the details of his life), but they’re still powerful enough to make a big difference. JP could customize and personalize them if he were interested.
JP should regularly spend some time publicly replying to messages that meet all of the following criteria:
Permission to answer publicly. This includes being able to link, cite or publish the message JP is replying to.
Important, intellectual topic. It’s optional to reply to “Thanks, you’re so inspiring!”, or to inquiries about JP’s family life or his favorite movie. Only some messages attempt to discuss something where figuring out the truth is important.
Relevant. JP isn’t a chemist or architect. He should address issues relevant to the work he does. Other issues are optional.
Valuable. JP should engage with messages making claims that would be important if they were true. This means selecting messages that try to correct a mistake JP is making or teach him something new. This requires looking at an idea from its own perspective and considering what the impact of the idea would be if it were correct, even if it appears to be wrong or stupid. Due to bias or ignorance, good ideas commonly appear unpromising before understanding or discussing them – especially the most valuable ideas, which correct people about errors that they were especially confident they were right about.
Unanswered. In JP’s opinion, the issue has not been adequately answered by anyone. To count, an answer needs to be publicly available in a long-term way, e.g. a book, blog post, podcast, YouTube video, Quora answer, etc. If the issue has been answered already, JP (or his assistant or fan volunteer) would ideally provide a link or citation to the answer. Sharing JP’s view, preexisting or not, allows other people to learn from it or continue the discussion by saying why that answer is mistaken. If JP (or his proxy) doesn’t give an answer (even a reference), that’s a dead end for discussion and JP wouldn’t be responsible and accountable for his hidden belief.
I think it’s achievable to answer every inquiry meeting these criteria, including by having proxies give references to preexisting answers.1 This article will argue for a milder claim: JP should publicly answer some inquiries meeting the above criteria on a regular basis. He should take some of the time he already spends on discussion and allocate it for addressing ideas which, if correct, raise an important, public, relevant, valuable, unanswered intellectual issue. He should put these answers (or links to them) on a website or otherwise make them publicly available in one place. And he should publicly document his process. This will help combat bias.
JP’s answers should attempt to resolve the issues. The goal is to figure out the truth, not to see which side can score more rhetorical points. If JP doesn’t know how to resolve an issue immediately, he can say what he thinks the intellectual situation is. It’s important to be objective about the state of knowledge of an issue, rather than focusing on arguments to promote “your” side. Try to impartially seek the truth, whatever it may be, rather than being biased against arguments for the “other” sides. Don’t be like a scientist who records evidence that his new drug works, but ignores all the times it doesn’t work.
As another defense against bias, some inquiries to answer should be chosen by people other than JP (like colleagues or intellectual opponents), and some should be chosen randomly. I’m not asking for a lot of this, but more than zero.
A further defense against bias is to avoid selective publication. Once JP chooses an inquiry and decides to consider it, he should always publish his answer (even if it’s “I gave up”, “I got bored and stopped”, “I don’t know”, or “This turned out to be harder to answer than I expected, and I don’t have time for this”). This would avoid the bias of cherry picking one’s best answers and presenting them as representative of one’s ability to answer issues. It’s like how scientists need to publish negative results, not just positive results, otherwise the overall set of published data becomes biased.
Note the kinds of criteria I did not include in the list. I avoided typical sources of bias like only answering messages you consider high quality, high effort, plausible, likely to be true, or which look like a promising lead. I also avoided any criteria about the credentials, prestige, fame, expertise, or track record of the person raising the issue. An idea from a person with low social status can be correct. An idea which looks wrong to you can be correct. It’s common to think an idea sounds dumb and isn’t worth your time because you disagree with it, but that isn’t an objective way to evaluate it. If you only answer what you consider to be particularly good questions or criticisms, you will be biased against great ideas you don’t yet understand. An idea that disagrees with you in a major way could either be wrong or important, and there’s no way for you to reliably prejudge which is which.
JP doesn’t do what I’m proposing or anything like it. I know this because he doesn’t regularly share material along the lines of: Here’s a criticism (or question or new idea) I received which I thought was important to answer, and here’s my answer.
Here’s an example of a critical open letter I wrote to JP which challenges his beliefs about antidepressants. I think he’s mistaken. It’s a relevant issue in his field, and JP has made public claims about this topic (as I document in the letter). JP would agree with me that truth about this issue is important to the world. If JP is mistaken, he’s currently giving out harmful advice to his large audience. It’s a big deal. He did not answer. There’s no way to resolve the disagreement. He hasn’t endorsed any material, by anyone, which answers my arguments. (I’ve also surveyed the literature myself and found there are no good answers to my arguments, as far as I can tell.)
Another intellectual challenge JP didn’t answer is my four videos commenting on and criticizing his book 12 Rules for Life.
If JP regularly answered some critical challenges like these, I’d be pretty impressed and lenient. I’d say to myself, “He’s too busy to answer everyone, but I saw him give great answers to several other people. It’s unfortunate I didn’t get an answer myself, but I shouldn’t take it personally, and it doesn’t detract from his intellectual status.”
But one can examine JP’s public material and see he doesn’t regularly, seriously answer this sort of serious critical challenge from anyone. He does spend time regularly sharing his ideas, discussing with the public, answering casual questions, and so on – but not generally in an attempt to resolve issues (instead his goal seems to be to get his message out). He either gets few high-quality challenges (a manageable number he could answer, but doesn’t), or else he gets lots and publicly ignores them. The ways JP engages in public discussion are typical of other intellectuals (actually, considerably better than most), but allow for bias to block important insights and corrections.
This is a serious problem which could be dramatically improved. It wouldn’t take much effort to improve (just restructuring some pre-existing public interaction time), to the extent JP already has answers. It would involve extra effort in cases where JP faces challenges that he doesn’t know answers to – learning new things is hard, but worthwhile and rewarding! And it’d be beneficial merely to write down a list of questions and criticisms JP doesn’t have answers to – to track known, open issues – even if JP only has time to address a few of them. JP could use the list to avoid making strong claims about open issues he hasn’t had time to address, and to help evaluate what he does and doesn’t know.
Should JP use the specific process I outlined? I couldn’t say that. It’s an example of a reasonable process which, from the outside, appears like it would work for his life. (I’ve had success using my own Paths Forward process.) And it illustrates some of the desirable characteristics a process can have.
Whatever JP does, he should publicly document a process to follow which is designed to combat bias and to enable his mistakes to be corrected. Don’t rely on unwritten rules and vague ideas about how to be rational. Documentation would make JP accountable to being criticized if he doesn’t follow his process, which is a good thing. If you’re trying to be honest, but you know you’re fallible, then you should want tools and other people to help keep you honest. Orderly processes reduce chaos and uncertainty, including by letting other intellectuals know what to expect if they’re considering sharing an idea with you.
JP is a smart guy with some great ideas. He must be doing something right in his thinking. But whatever he’s usually doing right, there’s no good way to identify when he deviates from it. Since his processes aren’t thought out and documented, his actions can’t be compared to his intended processes to check for differences (which may be mistakes or biases). To the extent JP has effective thinking processes, they’re vague and contain unwritten rules.
Reason takes organized effort. Processes (methods, strategies, policies) are how to organize your effort. Don’t handle intellectual issues according to your intuition. Don’t go by what feels right or sounds good to you (that allows bias). Self-confidence and winging it aren’t good enough. Trying your best to be rational isn’t good enough. Processes are better. That’s why businesses use internal processes to keep operations orderly and reduce mistakes, and why scientists follow the scientific method to combat bias.
We’re all fallible. We make mistakes. We do often have to use our judgement. But that’s no excuse for having vague or non-existent processes. Structuring your intellectual work helps reduce bias and error. Figure out what you think you should do to combat bias, write it down, and hold yourself to it.
The biggest benefit of this approach is to avoid staying wrong about things you’re mistaken and biased about, which others are willing to tell you the truth of.
If you’re interested in combatting intellectual bias yourself, you should go through all the material about Paths Forward (the name of the philosophy idea this article deals with). The other articles offer more detail and different ways to look at these issues, and will help flesh out your understanding.
I’ve written about methods for how to address every inquiry using a public discussion forum and placing some reasonable demands on people who want your attention. (See the “Next Steps” section at the end for links.) Here’s how I do it. The key is I don’t answer every initial message. If people think they have something important to say that I’m not paying attention to, I’ve got a process with four steps for them to use. So far I have a 100% response rate by the last step. (Processes are good for the people making inquiries too, not just for the person answering them! And my process is available for public comment and so that I can be held accountable I don’t follow it.) This makes smart people more interested in sharing ideas with me, and more willing to invest effort, because they know I have a good process and they’re confident they won’t be arbitrarily ignored. ↩