The Professor of Piffle — 1791
Today’s model for cowardice looks something like an undergraduate humanities instructor named — Ira Wells. Wells is an academic who teaches “cultural criticism.” His most recent work of “cultural criticism,” condescendingly titled “The Professor of Piffle,” was aimed at Canadian Professor Jordan Peterson. His article was in reaction to the recent scandal at Wilfred Laurier University in which a graduate student was disciplined by her superiors for having played a clip of the professor in her classroom. When prominent Canadian journalist, Jonathan Kay shared Wells’ article, it caught Peterson’s attention — sparking a controversy on Twitter. According to Kay, Ira Wells has the “credentials” and “analytical ability” to pose the challenge to Peterson’s ideas that nobody has yet.
In his article, Ira Wells prides himself in not being like the other social justice advocates that Peterson levels on a routine basis. Instead of arguing in favor of censorship like them, Wells wants to argue that Peterson pedals pseudo-science akin to phrenology — a long debunked racist unscientific practice.
Like most, Wells also finds the Laurier situation unfortunate, but unlike Peterson, he doesn’t think it represents a larger problem within university humanities departments. Wells even goes so far as to cast Lindsay Shepherd in a positive light, writing that she modelled “a far more effective strategy” of combating Peterson’s ideas. According to Wells, Peterson might be the charlatan and bigot his critics accuse him of being, but this should be exposed by direct criticism — not censorship. He believes Peterson in effect “couped” the university. You see, Wells envisions Dr. Peterson as an anti-university, Trumpian populist preying on the fears of right-wing reactionaries.
“Every form of populism needs its scapegoat and Peterson’s is the academic humanities, which he caricatures as ‘indoctrination cults’ for ‘postmodern neo-Marxism.’ Where far-right figures such as Richard Spencer, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Steve Bannon attack sexual and racial minorities directly, Peterson instead attacks gender studies and race studies departments.”
According to the picture Ira Wells paints, Peterson’s criticisms of gender studies and race studies departments are really just a proxy for his attacks on the minorities they represent. But his implication here is wildly off base for a couple reasons: not only is it demeaning to reduce minorities to mere arms of advocacy departments, but it’s simply absurd to conflate criticizing a bureaucracy with criticizing a race.
This line of reasoning leads this high priest of cultural criticism to venture into areas that are sadly out of his depth. He barrels on and accuses Peterson of misleading his students on IQ because Peterson rejects the theory of multiple intelligences. Ira Wells theorizes that this is done all in a play to “stack the deck in favor of biology.” Wells unscientifically objects to the well-established understanding that when environmental considerations in determining IQ have been mostly flattened, genetic variance is maximized. According to Wells, if Peterson so much as mentions this biological reality, it’s simply a feature of his steadfast belief in unalterable dominance hierarchies — something Peterson obviously doesn’t believe in.
While it’s uncomfortable for Wells to think that some jobs are more cognitively demanding than others, this doesn’t make the predictive validity of IQ in lifetime success some bigoted fabrication. It’s rigorously documented, and very few people are happy about that, but in spite of this, Ira Wells casts the professor as loving these disparities even while Peterson always characterizes these facts as depressing — and to state them isn’t to endorse them. In the same way, to tell someone that they have cancer isn’t endorsing the existence of cancer, nor did you give them cancer. Peterson recognizing that differences in IQ exist and that has consequences doesn’t mean he likes it. You see, Ira, sometimes evolution isn’t fair to everyone and that isn’t Peterson’s fault, but it is the job of adults and academics to find ways to solve these inequities.
But Wells’ visceral rejection of IQ literature is standard orthodoxy among those who believe human nature is entirely socially constructed — and this is because the literature is so bleak. His criticisms are presented as though these findings were a wet dream thought up by Peterson. However, they do in fact stem from well-corroborated and thorough research of the topic conducted by people across time and across natural science departments around the world.
Wells’ screed stems from a fundamental ignorance of IQ literature. Peterson’s rejection of the idea of multiple intelligences, for example, is presented in some way as evidence of misrepresentation. What Wells ignores in criticizing Peterson is the G-factor or what we call General Intelligence. In simple terms, someone with a higher IQ will be better at the sum of all tasks, even if he’s not equally skilled in all. For example, someone with a high IQ who is good at math may not be equally skilled verbally, but he will perform higher than someone with a lower G-score on average. Wells goes on to argue that the physiological markers of IQ, such as neural conduction velocity, were discredited by “later research” without any citation. He does this while attacking the strawman that these are determinants of IQ rather than merely correlates, something Peterson has never claimed.
Intelligence has a meaning. It doesn’t just mean “good”, it refers to a particular set of mental abilities — reasoning, spatial ability, memory, processing speed, and vocabulary. What differentiates these mental abilities from talents like dancing is that they’re highly correlated, while talents like dancing are not. Proponents of the idea of “multiple intelligences” like Ira Wells want to expand the definition to be inclusive — encompassing talents even if they’re not remotely correlated.
To boot, throughout his article Ira Wells attempts to attack Peterson as being strictly ideological, but in a twist of irony, Ira Wells’ repudiation of biological truths exposes his own ideological blinders. In the effort of demonstrating Peterson’s ideological blindness, Wells writes:
“His message, as the intellectual guru of the alt-right, is that humanity’s natural hierarchies are under attack, that the future of Western civilization hangs in the balance of this ‘war of ideas.’”
It isn’t Dr. Peterson who invented the concept of hierarchies of competence, either. It’s hard to think of something more self-evidently true than that in any functioning system, the most competent and valuable people rise to the top. This is as basically true for humans as it is chimpanzees. On top of this ignorance, Wells not only proudly mislabels Peterson as the “intellectual guru of the alt-right”, but chooses to withhold from his readers that Peterson has been a repeated and vocal critic of the alt-right.
A dangerous consequence of this reflexive impulse to label anyone you don’t like “alt-right” is that it expands the Alt-Right to encompass reasonable thinkers. The Alt-Right is comprised of ethnic and racial nationalists, something that is antithetical to individualists like Peterson. This lends itself to the misperception that the alt-right is more than the radical fringe it is, playing right into their hand — as idealistic young people who aren’t familiar with these ideas will look at Peterson and then Wells and think to themselves, “If Jordan Peterson is alt-right and I like Pepe, I guess I am.” Obviously, the alt-right won’t dispute that misidentification as it artificially inflates their ranks. This makes Wells and his allies the inadvertent recruiters for the Alt-Right.
Wells’ willful ignorance of scientific fact in defense of his embattled humanities is only the tip of the iceberg. While claiming that Peterson “libels” postmodern thinkers for money, he himself libels Peterson as endorsing domestic abuse during an interview with Camille Paglia. Wells falsely claims that Peterson believes men should be able to assert physical dominance over “crazy” women. Either Wells didn’t watch the interview or lied. In reality, Peterson was plainly observing the dilemma by which men are forced to resolve disputes between themselves knowing that there is the risk of physical retaliation, whereas they have no such recourse with women. This might be because women are weaker on average and this behaviour is socially sanctioned in the West due to that understanding. If a woman goes “crazy” and starts punching a man, the man is expected not to punch her back for the aforementioned reasons. This wasn’t a “lamentation” by Peterson as Wells put it, but instead a basic acknowledgement of moral reality.
If Wells is sincere in his convictions, would it not be incumbent on him to lead the charge against the ideas Peterson is popularizing? Most seemed to agree. He was then urged by Peterson himself to defend his hit piece, point-by-point. Initially, Wells agreed. He was then offered by Dave Rubin of the Rubin Report and Jonathan Kay to have this debate hosted and fairly moderated. Peterson even offered to cover all the expenses. After a day of silence, he cowered away back into his academic temple. To Ira Wells, genuine debate is only worthwhile, not to flesh out ideas, but if it’s in “good fun.”
It seems more and more likely that to Wells, Peterson is a sort of Rorschach test onto which he can project his anger toward scientific facts he either can’t or won’t understand, all the while framing his detractors as anti-intellectuals. After all, he certainly wouldn’t be the first from the humanities to express their frustration with natural science.
If Wells is genuinely convinced that Peterson is a dangerous anti-intellectual who is lending academic legitimacy to the alt-right, why would he not take to the podium to defend the current state of the humanities? After all, public confidence in his institution is in freefall. Peterson doesn’t argue that the concept of the humanities is flawed; in fact, Peterson believes the opposite, that the humanities are necessary to produce a critically thinking, analytical, self-responsible class of young adults. The problem is that it is stacked with anti-intellectuals like Wells who conspiratorially cling to the notion that Peterson and those like him are trying to preserve a white-male-centric power structure.
To add insult to injury, Ira Wells smugly states that Jordan Peterson,
“is not, however, the author of any lasting work of scholarship, the originator of any important idea, or a public intellectual of any scientific credibility or moral seriousness.”
Of course, Ira knows a thing or two about not producing any “lasting work of scholarship” or originating any important ideas, considering that his only accolades that can be found are those of culturally critical opinion essays. Contrast that with Peterson’s hefty record of scholarly citations and research and you cast a very ugly reflection on Ira, and by extension the humanities he claims to speak for with authority. The only reason that someone would make such a verifiably false claim is either that they were motivated purely by defaming their subject, or didn’t think they’d be held accountable.
More important than the many technical falsehoods Wells stumbles into is the strain of thought that he represents. Wells is the model of the tone-deaf academic who holds all of the “right” opinions, which means he has never had to face the consequences many others have for challenging the received wisdom of social justice like Lindsay Shepherd. He says we need to challenge the assumptions made by Peterson, yet the one time his idea are faced with any challenge whatsoever he retreats onto the shoulders of his academic safe-haven and calls his intellectually bankrupt ideas tall. Ira Wells concludes that Peterson is calling for a war on the humanities, and states heroically that he should be happily obliged — just as long as it isn’t by him.