Former University of Toronto Professor of Clinical Psychology Jordan Peterson recently received a flurry of criticism on twitter for a tweet in which he criticizedSports Illustrated cover model Yumi Nu. His tweet (below) not only criticized her looks, but also suggested that her appearance was an authoritarian attempt by the left to force him to appreciate her beauty.
The backlash from Twitter and the media was swift and came from social media influencers (from online political commentators likeHasan Piker andVaush), independent news outlets (The Young Turks), and even mainstream news sources (NBC News,New York Post), international news outlets (The Independent, andToronto Sun). Incidents like the aforementioned tweet, in the current political climate of America, are becoming increasingly more common as the culture war issues find themselves at the forefront of the public mind. Popular intellectual figures, like Peterson, have built their careers off of stoking these hot bed issues and claiming injustice when people disagree with their ideas.
What most of the comments and reactions seem to have missed is Peterson’s follow up tweet (above) in which he justifies his position by linking to scientific articles to validate his opinion. Can science be used to measure whether or not someone is attractive? While some recent studies have tried to do just that, many more studies refute these claims.
The sociology of human sexuality and race has long held that concepts like beauty and race are social constructions -- determined by a range of cultural, biological, and other complex social factors. Classic television shows,like The Twilight Zone, also remind us that beauty is in the eye of the beholder rather than a universal characteristic. Yet, the IDW and practitioners of this kind of science try to apply their model of science to nearly everything—linking and reducing all kinds of aspects of human behavior as serving an evolutionary function. However, the work of those in this field who are respected are far more careful than the IDW in theirclaims. Against the overly deterministic model posed by the IDW, currentconsensus, among scholars in this field, is that human nature is a complex combination of biology and other social factors—often noting that they can’t tell us with any great deal of precision what their findings necessarily mean for society at large.
The kind of model advocated by the IDW more closely resembles that of the 18th and 19th Century biological determinism—the kind that served as the basis foreugenics programs in Nazi Germany and even here in the United States. Peterson’s claims run the full range of biological determinism, from justifying social hierarchies as natural to why patriarchy should be the preferred organizing principle in societies. He also appears to be, at points in his book, justifying men who engage in violent acts–like the Buffalo shooting–by blaming that young men have to endure an unfair burde.To say that the ideas espoused by Peterson and the IDW connect to white supremicist ideology is more than just conjecture, as their ideas can be traced from academia to far-right groups online.
One need only look to the end of May 2022 when the Buffalo shooter took the lives of 10 African Americans. Far-right groups rejoice in Peterson’s claims that hierarchies are natural and good for society, as they serve as a “legitimate” scientific basis for promoting racist ideologies. Laced throughout the manuscript left behind by the Buffalo shooter are references to a range of claims espoused by race scientists. These include tweets, memes, and links to prominent thinkers in this field like Steven Pinker and his colleagues who have published and espoused flawed literature directly cited by the shooter. The most infamous of these models is Steven Murray’s “The Bell Curve” in which intelligence and race were argued to be correlated–the implication being that people of color are “naturally” somehow less intelligent.
These models continue to be fundamentally invoked by prominent academics like Stanley Goldfarb, a former Dean of Medicine and current faculty at the University of Pennsylvania's medical school, who also opposes anti-racist efforts in medicine. Taken together, these events suggest that biological essentialism has permeated the ivory tower of academia more than many realize. While some of the examples mentioned here are explicit in their bigotry, there are far more cases of simple miscommunication (or no communication at all) leading to their ideas being co-opted by far right groups.
Some anti-racist academics in genetics have criticized their colleagues (above) and called for change from within. They emphasize that scientists can and should protect against the exploitation of their work in recognizing the importance of clearly communicating their findings. When scientists fail to consider the ways their ideas might be used, for good and for bad, the results can be disastrous. Such was the case when somelevied a social constructionist critique of the use of the psychiatric system, which was subsequently used by conservatives to justify dismantling thestate public health system. Scientists must use caution when trying to convey their ideas - lest they be used to justify heinous acts, including terrorism.
The radicalization of the Buffalo shooter should serve as a warning to other scholars, as he was one in a long line of domestic terrorists who relied heavily upon “race science” to justify their actions. The same kind of logics have also motivated people to commit heinous against against the LGBTQ+ community. While the shooter may have lacked scientific literacy necessary to understand the studies he cites, researchers must work to not be complicit in this process. Whether it be scientific racism to justify one’s beliefs, or a lack of fully considering the larger impact of one’s findings, scientists need to better understand how working in science is a social activity. Science itself is a powerful tool when used in pursuit of helping lead the way towards the betterment of society, and it is equally a tool for harm when used to naturalize hierarchies and inequality found throughout society. Horkheimer’s critique of instrumental reason reminds us that science is a tool used to pursue a goal–to what end these tools are used is a question of what we want to prioritize.
Christopher T. Conner is Teaching Assistant Professor of Sociology at The University of Missouri, Columbia. He has published work on the Philosophy of Social Science, LGBTQ+ culture, Technology, and Misinformation/Disinformation. His work has been featured in a variety of outlets including YOUNG: Journal of Nordic Youth Culture, The Sociological Quarterly, Deviant Behavior, Symbolic Interaction, and Sexualities. He has also co-edited numerous anthologies including The Gayborhood: From Sexual Liberation to Cosmopolitan Spectacle, Forgotten Founders and Other Neglected Social Theorists, and Studies in Symbolic Interaction: Subcultures.