Jordan Peterson and the media: How one-sided reporting can limit critical thinking
Photo by By Adam Jacobs via Wikimedia Commons

Jordan Peterson and the media: How one-sided reporting can limit critical thinking

November 14, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

U of T Faculty Association requests meeting on professor’s proposed website to identify ‘postmodern’ courses

On Friday, The University of Toronto’s Faculty Association requested a meeting to discuss psychology professor Jordan Peterson’s idea to create a website to identify courses containing “postmodern” content. The Faculty Association’s president, Cynthia Messenger, said the association had “concern[s]” about the website’s “threat to our members and to the academic mission of the university.” In an interview with the Toronto Star on Friday, Peterson said the website would provide people with information they could use to decide whether they wanted to take certain courses.

The meeting requested by the association would be attended by its executive members and the university’s provost Cheryl Regehr.

Peterson announced his idea for the website in July during a talk hosted by the University of Toronto’s Students in Support of Free Speech (SSFS). He discussed it again in an interview on CTV’s Your Morning, also in July, while describing his plans to start an online university. When asked why he thought this format would be more effective, he said, “because the traditional universities have abandoned the humanities,” adding they have been “dominated by a postmodern, neo-marxist” ideology.

The website would be the start of this project, Peterson said, and would use artificial intelligence to “identify postmodern content in courses so that [students and their parents] can avoid them.” Peterson has outlined his definition and criticisms of postmodernism on his YouTube channel.

On Sunday, Peterson said on Twitter that the project is currently on hold because he “talked it over with others and decided it might add excessively to current polarization.”

Peterson is a tenured professor and currently on sabbatical.

Distortion Highlights

  • Considering only one viewpoint limits our understanding of just about any topic.
  • Yet the media’s coverage of Jordan Peterson’s proposed website did just that – it presented, for the most part, a single point of view.
  • Find out how this bias can be detrimental to critical thinking and reinforce the status quo.

Show Me Everything

The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion.)

Top Spin Words

  • Controversial

    The proposed website is spearheaded by controversial U of T psychology professor Jordan Peterson, who made headlines a year ago for publicly refusing to use gender-neutral pronouns. (The Toronto Star)

    (Sub Head) University of Toronto faculty members have expressed concern about a website proposed by controversial psychology professor Jordan Peterson, saying it would constitute “harassment.” (The Toronto Star)

  • Infected

    Social sciences, law and humanities have all been infected by postmodernism, he says, as well as women’s studies and ethnic and racial studies. (The Globe and Mail)

  • Raise Tensions

    The site would exacerbate fears on campus after the WGSI and its staff received online threats targeting feminists, and raise tensions related to anti-black racism incidents, the letter adds. (The Globe and Mail)

  • Ire

    University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson has drawn the ire of his colleagues for a proposed website aimed to cull enrolment of certain classes. (CBC)

  • Unsafe

    (Sub Head) Members of the Women and Gender Studies Institute and U of T Faculty Association say website would create unsafe work environment. (The Varsity)

  • Backlash

    In response to the media coverage of backlash against his proposed website, Peterson tweeted, “The postmodern radicals don’t want students to know what philosophy drives their agenda. (The Varsity)

  • Scour

    Peterson, who rose to fame in right-wing circles after his outspoken refusal to use gender-neutral pronouns, says he wants to use artificial intelligence to scour university curriculums for what he “calls post-modern neo-Marxist course content.” (CBC)

  • Dominance

    Dr. Peterson has gained a high profile over the past 18 months for his criticism of what he believes is the dominance of Marxism, socialism and postmodernist ideas among university professors and students. (The Globe and Mail)

Considering only one viewpoint limits our understanding of just about any topic, let alone complex, controversial, and sometimes emotionally and politically charged subjects such as gender, race, political correctness and freedom of speech. Yet the media’s coverage of Jordan Peterson’s proposed website did just that – it presented, for the most part, a single point of view.

The website’s purpose, according to Peterson, would be to use artificial intelligence to identify university courses with “postmodern” content, including classes in gender and ethnic studies. The coverage we analyzed mostly supported the views of Peterson’s critics—that his proposed site would promote “fear and intimidation.” While this could indeed happen, only presenting this viewpoint is biased and can be detrimental to public discourse around these controversial topics.

Here are two examples of how bias and faulty reasoning support the media’s slant:

The anchoring effect: This term refers to people’s tendency to “rely too heavily” on the first piece of information they’re offered when making judgements or decisions, SUNY Geneseo psychology professor Margaret W. Matlin writes in the textbook Cognition. That initial information is called the “anchor.”

In the four articles we analyzed on Peterson, the “anchor” is the main point of view expressed in the headlines and opening paragraphs—his critics’ opinion that the proposed website would promote “fear and intimidation.” People who are reading about Peterson and his proposed website for the first time, or even those who have some knowledge, may “rely too heavily” on this initial viewpoint and may not take in new information impartially. This wouldn’t be the case for all readers — some may already have an opinion about Peterson, for example — but it could for many.  

The straw man fallacy: This is a logical fallacy that “occurs when an opponent’s point of view is distorted,” or misrepresented, “in order to make it easier to refute,” according to Stanford’s Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

For example, CBC cites University of Toronto physics professor A.W. Peet saying:

“One thing I think is dangerous about Peterson is he claims to know the one true way towards the future.”

This is presumably in reference to the following statement from Peterson:

“You can consider this a prophecy from me if you want … I’m afraid that this continual pushing by radical left wingers is going to wake up” the “right wing,” and by doing so “violence emerges.”

Peterson may be making a prediction, but this is not the same as claiming to know “the one true way towards the future” and no evidence is provided of him making such a claim. Representing his arguments this way makes them easier to refute, though, because it’s obvious that no human can know “the one true way towards the future.”

Peet’s quote supports the slant of the article in two ways: 1) It discredits Peterson, although it’s based on faulty reasoning, and 2) The article contains quotes from Peterson’s critics – such as Peet’s – and none from his supporters.

Note that just because the articles we analyzed were biased in favor of Peterson’s critics, this bias doesn’t mean the criticisms of his proposed website aren’t valid. It just means that as a reader, you’re not getting the whole story when reading this coverage.

Why does this slant matter?

Whether you support Peterson’s views or oppose them, the media’s slanted coverage brings up a problem that The Heterodox Academy calls “the loss or lack of ‘viewpoint diversity.’” Specifically, the group conducts research on the diversity of viewpoints, or lack thereof, in American universities. News outlets contribute to the “viewpoint diversity” problem when they primarily support one perspective, as our Slant ratings demonstrate in the coverage of Peterson’s proposed website. According to The Knife’s balance ratings (which factor into our total Slant score along with sourcing), CBC’s article was 97 percent slanted, while The Globe and Mail’s was 83 percent slanted (the higher the percentage, the more it supports one viewpoint).

To think about this another way, imagine a widely accepted norm or belief, perhaps one concerning gender or ethnicity, that might be deemed politically incorrect to question. How comfortable do you feel publicly questioning this norm, even if you have a well-reasoned and well-intentioned argument? If you don’t, how likely is this to promote a diversity of viewpoints?

Not likely. Yet “bringing diverse viewpoints to bear on social, intellectual, philosophical, legal, and moral problems” is important, the Heterodox Academy says, because it is “likely to enhance the quality of the scholarship that bears on those issues.” This is not to deny that some viewpoints may promote harm, marginalization or discrimination. Also, some points-of-view have more scientific or practical merit than others. But there can be negative consequences when people don’t question accepted norms, even ones that are maintained out of political correctness or social justice.

As English philosopher John Stuart Mill said in On Liberty, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.” The Knife encourages people to seek out alternative viewpoints to improve their critical thinking and gain a deeper understanding of their own beliefs. They may even modify some along the way.

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 59% Spun

  • 61% Spun

  • 62% Spun

  • 73% Spun

The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

View Technical Sheet >