It is now just over 12 months since Cathy Newman’s ‘car crash’ interview with Jordan Peterson. Channel 4 in the UK, to its great credit, posted the whole interview on YouTube where it went viral and it has now reached over 14 million views worldwide. The interview has also featured in a few end of year lists of notable events. You can find the entire interview here. Although I am not Jordan Petersons greatest fan I thought the interview was one of the funniest things I saw in 2018 and I have gone back to view it numerous times. In part, at least, it was a clash between C.P Snow’s two cultures, the scientific (JP) and the artistic (CN). Cathy was educated at Charterhouse, a top private school and, like so many media feminists, she read English Literature at Oxford University.
Agree or disagree with JP, he can’t be dismissed as a mere provocateur (as CN tried to do). He is professor of psychology at Toronto University and he has authored over 100 publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals. That doesn’t mean he is right or wrong but he does deserve to be taken seriously. That is where, in my opinion, Cathy went wrong. She went into the interview armed only with a sense of her own moral superiority and aimed to ‘crush’ Jordan rather than engage in a mutual exploration of ideas. In the end, that proved catastrophic for Cathy Newman’s reputation and boosted Jordan Peterson’s profile. The event must have given a massive boost to sales of his book and Cathy Newman and her supporters in the media did more than anyone to create the ‘monster’ that Jordan Peterson subsequently became.
The interview went viral because of CN’s repeated ‘straw man’ arguments. That is, interrupting JP with ‘so what you are saying is..’ then misrepresenting his views. Jordan remained calm and didn’t allow himself to be trapped into Cathy’s line of argument by defending her crude caricature of his position rather than his actual position. By the end of the interview that left her looking ridiculous.
That is not to say JP did not launch into some logical fallacies of his own. For example, justifying one claim with ‘because I am a clinical psychologist’ – argument by authority.
At about 5mins 59 secs in response to CN raising the earnings gap between men and women, JP points out that you can not analyse the data according to one variable in isolation; gender. You have to to look at other variables that impact on earnings ie a multivariate analysis. JP acknowledges that women are paid less in aggregate than men. However, if you break it down by age, experience, risk aversion, agreeability a different picture emerges. If you compare men and women of the same level of experience, occupation, risk aversion and agreeability the pay gap almost, but not entirely disappears. Cathy is unable to, or chooses not to, respond to this line of argument preferring instead to chime on in an angry hectoring fashion that it is ‘not fair’. Unfortunately, you have to engage with this data to argue effectively. Cathy and her supporters at the Guardian were simply not equipped to do that.
At 13:34 the debate moved onto different territory. JP argued that inequality of outcome is not necessarily a consequence of discrimination and he referred to studies from what are arguably the most open societies of all in Scandinavia. The data appears to show that countries with more gender equality have fewer female science technology engineering (STEM) graduates (he may have been referring to a paper published in Psychological Science that you can publish here). Since these qualifications lead to higher salaries the argument (that may or may not be true) is that it is the choices men and women make, not discrimination, that leads to inequality of income. CN simply ducks this argument preferring the emotional rewards of righteous indignation.
Perhaps the key moment of the interview comes at 22:20 when CN brings up the right not to be offended and in particular the right of gay and trans individuals not to be offended. JP points out that Cathy has had no problem making him feel uncomfortable and causing offence – that is her job. That is prerequisite to meaningful debate and if one side is able to close down debate by claiming offence then we no longer have the substrate for frank debate (my synopsis). Cathy is left speechless and JP sits back relishes his sip of water and says ‘gotcha’. And he had- well and truly. Cathy’s reputation has never quite recovered.
Equally interesting to me was the way the narrative was spun after the interview. Neither Cathy nor her supporters at the Guardian engaged with the substance of the debate. First, the pay gap between men and women may not be due to gender itself and that men and women of the same psychological profile and the same level of experience are paid about the same. Second, men and women choose different disciplines rather than it being forced upon them by a tyrannical patriarchy (which doesn’t exist). Third, that free speech and freedom to debate difficult issues will sometimes cause offence.
Following the interview, a victim narrative was successfully spun. It was claimed that CN received abuse which is true and totally unacceptable, but so did JP. For example, freelance journalist Kate Bevan tweeted…
CN even managed to spin a victim narrative from her ultra privileged educational background at Charterhouse and Oxford claiming years after the event that she was harassed there.
What neither Cathy nor her supporters at the Guardian have done is to address the ‘meat and drink’ of the interview. That is to critique or rebut if they can, the multivariate analysis of salaries and the studies looking at the gender equality paradox that women are less likely to choose STEM disciplines in more equal societies.
Journalists at the Guardian with similar backgrounds to Cathy; private education and Oxbridge Eng Lit degrees, rushed to her defence by launching ad-hominem attacks on JP. That JP looked angry (Hadley Freeman), that in common with lobsters JP looked as though he could piss through his face (Marina Hyde). And that was about as good as it got. Frankly pathetic for a ‘quality broadsheet’ and the kind of thing that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Daily Mail under Paul Dacre.