This blog is written at a disadvantage, because I don’t have a full, or even a partially full transcript of the extremely long discussion between Joe Rogan and Jordan Peterson. I’m relying on media articles which may be inaccurate or deficient. As soon as I can listen to enough or get a full transcript then I will update.
The main point of this blog is that Peterson is correct in some ways, but he is trivially correct and does not apply his criticisms to everyone, including himself. He also understands some aspects of complex systems, but does not understand enough… neither do I, but that is a different issue.
Complexity 1: Models are complex and probably inadequate for exact prediction
Peterson claims that climate is so complex, it can’t be accurately modelled.
This is partially true. The distinction I have emphasised repeatedly is that we can often model trends, but we cannot predict particular events accurately in the future. This seems to be correct. Saying we cannot model everything with 100% accuracy is not the same as saying we cannot model anything, including trends, for climate at all.
As Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler and senior adviser at Nasa, says:
Peterson has managed to absorb the first part of George Box’s famous dictum that ‘all models are wrong’ but appears to have not worked out the second part ‘but some are useful’Readfern ‘Word salad of nonsense’: scientists denounce Jordan Peterson’s comments on climate models. The Guardian, 27 January 2022
Peterson apparently continues:
Another problem that bedevils climate modelling, too, which is that as you stretch out the models across time, the errors increase radically. And so maybe you can predict out a week or three weeks or a month or a year, but the farther out you predict, the more your model is in error.
And that’s a huge problem when you’re trying to model over 100 years because the errors compound just like interest.Readfern ‘Word salad of nonsense’: scientists denounce Jordan Peterson’s comments on climate models. The Guardian, 27 January 2022
Another account says he said that errors “compound over time,” which means, apparently, the models are “all errors.” He argues that trying to predict what’s going to happen with the climate, is like trying to “predict how your life goes.”
Let’s be clear, that if you delete our ability to predict trends, then climate is unpredictable, just like your life. However, the fact that your life is unpredictable in specific, does not mean that you cannot predict useful things about your life, and plan to build a better life. Indeed Peterson writes books about this, so we can presume he believes this is possible.
If you spend your life shopping online rather than doing your work, you will not get better at work. If you keep moving from one article to another you probably won’t retain that much. If you eat too many foods full of sugar, all the time, you will probably put on weight. If you take cocaine frequently it will not help your health or your thinking. If you repeatedly step in front of speeding cars you will probably be injured. If you keep your room tidy you might eventually gain a tidier mind. These things may not happen with everyone, but we can see the trends and make predictions based on those trends. That is the basis of his psychological advice, and it is true with climate as well.
However, Peterson does not transfer his insights about human life into climate, or his insights into climate modelling into his own modelling.
Thus he does not say climate change is real, and we know what bad habits it is based upon and we can correct those habits. He does not say we don’t know exactly what speed climate change will come, or how bad it will be in 20 years, but it will probably be bad, and its worth trying to avoid.
He appears to assume that because climate modelling is not 100% accurate, the climate will stay stable, or not change too much. What is his modelling for that? Why should we assume that his modelling, which seems to be based on hope and the assumption that the future will match the past, is more accurate than the climate scientists models? I don’t know, and I suspect neither does he.
He is banking a lot on his ‘common sense,’ and his untested models, being accurate – which they won’t be as they face all the problems the scientists models face, and they are not being improved, or compared to the fullest data sets we have. His models are not even being compared to the results that say the hottest years and days ever recorded tend to accumulate in the last 20 or so years.
Errors can compound over time Peterson is correct. This is why scientists repeatedly reconfigure and improve their models, so that past data is better ‘predicted’ in retrospect and future data is more expected, and models checked when data isn’t as expected. If we were still using the climate models from the 1970s then they might be wrong, although some were pretty accurate. I quote the abstract of one article:
Models are compared to observations based on both the change in [global mean surface temperature] GMST over time and the change in GMST over the change in external forcing. The latter approach accounts for mismatches in model forcings, a potential source of error in model projections independent of the accuracy of model physics. We find that climate models published over the past five decades were skillful in predicting subsequent GMST changes, with most models examined showing warming consistent with observations, particularly when mismatches between model-projected and observationally estimated forcings were taken into account.Zeke Hausfather,Henri F. Drake,Tristan Abbott,Gavin A. Schmidt Evaluating the Performance of Past Climate Model Projections. Geophysical Research Letters 47(1) e2019GL085378
Scientific models are being tested and improved, and made more complex, all the time.
Likewise, he should know that bad habits, such as continually polluting and destroying ecologies in search of bigger profits will probably not build better ecologies in the long term, that this destruction will almost certainly weaken human society, and that these habits will likely weaken human virtue and morality, and possibly personal functionality.
So Peterson is not consistent. He varies his implicit arguments when it suits his desire to support the status quo.
Complexity 2: Categories overlap
Peterson apparently claims that climate and environment do not exist, because they mean ‘everything’.
Peterson gets confused because he likes sharp distinct categories, and the world is not always like that. Human categories are not always 100% accurate and, in reality, systems often overlap with each other.
PETERSON: Well, that’s because there’s no such thing as climate. Right? “Climate” and “everything” are the same word, and that’s what bothers me about the climate change types. It’s like, this is something that bothers me about it, technically. It’s like, climate is about everything. Okay. But your models aren’t based on everything. Your models are based on a set number of variables. So that means you’ve reduced the variables, which are everything, to that set. Well how did you decide which set of variables to include in the equation, if it’s about everything? That’s not just a criticism, that’s like, if it’s about everything, your models aren’t right. Because your models do not and cannot model everything.
ROGAN: What do you mean by everything?
PETERSON: That’s what people who talk about the climate apocalypse claim, in some sense. We have to change everything! It’s like, everything, eh? The same with the word environment. That word means so much that it doesn’t mean anything. … What’s the difference between the environment and everything? There’s no difference….Bachman Joe Rogan, Jordan Peterson give their definition of Black and say “there’s no such thing as climate.” Salon, 26 January 2022
Let us be clear, a statement that implies the ideas of ‘climate’ connect to everything and the ideas of ‘environment’ connect to everything, is correct. However, none of his conclusions from this recognition are accurate, because he does not like that recognition, or shies away from it.
In reality, almost everything connects to everything. Jordon Peterson would not be online without the internet which involves the research of heaps of engineers and scientists, and continues because of maintenance people, and businesses, and people who build computers and cables, and the farmers who provide food for them, and the builders who provide buildings for them and their equipment, and the people who build roads the trucks can drive down, and drill the oil or build the electric engines. That all depends on the geological history of the planet, climate conditions and the weather that results, and that depends on the earth’s spin, densities of greenhouse gases, and cloud formations which depend on the sun and other things. The oxygen he breathes and the food he eats, depends on complex bio-systems and ecologies. His fame depends on a particular political patterning, which interacts with modes of celebrity and sales promotion and so on and so on. He presumably has learnt from books, and from other people. He shares an existing language with others. No one, and nothing, is an island of themselves. Everything depends on everything. It should be no surprise that from one point of view climate and environment involves everything. They are large scale contexts, and their background also forms a context – they are in two way interaction. For example, climate affects economic life, and economic life affects climate. Jordon may affect political life, and political life may affect his thought and popularity.
Models for anything are, as he states, based on a finite number of variables. They have to be. This is true of any understanding.
Absolutely accurate and all encompassing statements which are not definitional or trivial, are difficult and rare.
The intellectual models and understandings he promotes, by the same reasoning, are also incomplete. Does this mean they are worthless? Apparently not. They are apparently worth more than climate science. His skepticism is directed at statements he does not like, and is not directed to the statements he does like.
This also leads him to exaggeration. Most people don’t think we have to change everything to avoid ‘climate apocalypse’. Most people would insist that we need to stop changing the environment and the global ecology for one. Let us be clear these people may be wrong, but there is no evidence that people wanting to change everything are in the majority on the green side of politics. He is just panicking, because he appears to want nothing to change – and many things will change because of climate and ecological damage.
Conclusion to the first part
So. Peterson makes some valid statements, and uses them to come to invalid conclusions, probably brought about by his biases in favour of the current systems and its power domains.
Just in passing, Rogan appears to make a big fuss about how he wants to hear both sides. Climate denialism is pretty much the mainstream, as shown by lack of accurate reporting, lack of Government action and continuing support for fossil fuel companies. Has he ever had a climate scientist on his Show? Or is he part of the mainstream censorship apparatus?
The next blog will treat of Peterson’s reported comments on poverty, hierarchy and climate.