Sunday, May 26, 2013

Don't Show Me Your Credentials, Please!

Your academic credentials, that is. Just speak your piece. What you say won't become more impressive than it was by your informing me that you are a Full and Distinguished Professor with several long titles, appointments, fellowships, etc, etc. In fact it might actually become less impressive to me. It seems to me that people tend to trot out their creds at points in debates where they are losing. When they have run out of actual substantive things to say. "I'm a bigshot, dammit! Listen to me!" Your creds might work at that point with someone who has had no idea what you've been talking about. Or who has had very little contact with higher education and therefore has an inflated estimation of everyone connected with it. (Or who him- or herself has a long list of imposing-sounding academic credentials and very little of interest to say.)

It's a tricky thing with such credentials. Lord (Settle down. It's just an expression.) knows I'm no anti-intellectual. It appalls me to learn how many Amurrkins would not vote for someone for President of the United States because he or she had a PhD. In fact, I'm very similar to an academic. Most of the people I feel most comfortable talking with have PhD's. My reading habits are very similar to those of an academic, an historian or a philosopher. It's mostly due to my autism, I think, that I don't have a PhD myself. I once had thought that there was a substantial group of autodidacts who resembled academics as much as I do, except for the lack of advanced degrees and jobs in academia. Apparently not. There are some disputes currently raging with mostly academics on one side and mostly autodidacts on the other (*cough* New Atheism *cough* *cough*) and although the academics haven't convinced me that Jesus existed, they have convinced me that the autodidacts are mostly more uneducated than self-educated.

Still, let me be convinced, or not, by what you have to say, and not by your credentials. Of course, this is all the more the case if we know each other only as pseudonyms on the Internet, and I don't even know for sure if you really are the PhD, or employed chemist, or professor who you claim to be. Hopefully I won't shock anyone when I say that I'm pretty sure some people make up some things about themselves when they're anonymous Internet pseudonyms.

There's been one striking case recently in which one anonymous Internet handle has been claiming over and over again that he is a scientist, while not sounding very familiar at all with even very basic tenets of science, logic or math, while debating with several other people who sound very much like professional scientists and/or mathematicians. It also strikes me as suspicious that he keeps saying, "I'm a scientist." That's just odd. Actual academics I've know, when asked about their occupations or backgrounds, usually say something like "I'm a biologist" or "I'm a physicist" or "I'm a mathematician." If, that is, they're not even more specific than that and say, "I'm a molecular biologist," or "I'm a theoretical physicist," or something like that. And they generally don't repeatedly state their real or imagined qualifications, they just talk to you, like regular folks, but more science-y. "I'm a scientist," just flatly stated without anyone having asked what he is, sounds very unusual indeed. Special, as it were. And as he sounds so very far from scientifically literate, I've been asking myself just what sort of scientist he could be, what his field is.

And then I remembered that some theologians actually still refer to theology as science. 800 years ago, not only was theology still referred to as a science: in Western universities, which were all run by theologians, theology was referred to as the primary science, and all the other fields of study -- grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy, philosophy -- were called the "handmaids" of theology, the "queen of the sciences." I would have to guess that this guy is either a pathological liar, making up a biography for himself out of whole cloth, or one of those theologians who regards theology as a science, and whose worldview generally is about 800 years old. (Like science, theology has something which they call peer review, but, of course, it bears scant resemblance to scientific peer review. Google "peer review in theology," in quotes.)

Nota bene: I said that 800 years ago, in Western Europe, people "referred to" theology as the primary science, to which all other fields of study were subordinate. I did not say that people "believed that" theology was the highest science, or even a real science at all. No doubt some people believed this, including some professors and rectors of universities with doctorates and long and imposing-sounding lists of other titles. But in times when conformity of expression and speculation was so rigidly enforced with the aid of torture -- the "good old days," to apologists -- who knows what the mass of people actually believed, or said in private, away from the damning evidence of the writing which has come down to us?

1 comment:

  1. It seems that those who emphasize their credentials are the most insecure. When I was in graduate school, I wondered if some of the other students stayed up all night looking up big words to fit into their conversations. It was a bit intimidating for me. But then I graduated and I never hear those words any more. Of course, I teach at a teaching college. I don't do heavy-duty research and have to convince other scientists that my theory is the right one.

    It's my experience that most academics are happy to be called by their first names. It's the medical doctors who insist on being called "Doctor." In my neighborhood there are 7 doctors, but only the dentist is called Dr. ______ instead of Bob. We've lived here 10 years, and he's still Dr.

    I hope that Elizabeth Warren can overcome the Ph.D. stigma. She made it to senator and I think she'd make a wonderful president.