Credentialism always makes for convenient excuses. We love to construct simple shortcuts in our cognitive models: someone has a Ph.D., they must be smart (I can tell you that one is wrong). Someone is a scientist, they must have all the right facts. And of course, the converse: we can use the absence of a Ph.D. or professional standing, to dismiss someone.
Creationists are very concerned about this, and you see it over and over again: the desperate need to acquire a degree or title, even if it is from some unaccredited diploma mill or a correspondence school, in order to justify their wacky beliefs. Or they invent reasons to discredit the other side’s credentials: Ken Ham loves to trot out that nonsense about historical and observational science, a badly drawn distinction, to imply that the scientists who study evolution aren’t real scientists. Whereas he, of course, is the honest arbiter of good science.
Climate change denialists love to do it, too: Bill Nye isn’t a real scientist, you know. You can ignore everything he says because he’s an engineer and children’s TV host, so you should listen to what the TV weatherman says instead.
None of that matters. Ideally, you judge the validity of a scientific thesis by the quality of the data and the experiments behind it, not the academic pedigree of the author. If a children’s TV host accurately explains the evidence behind a conclusion, that’s what matters. You don’t get to ignore the evidence because the presenter is a mere educator (or even, a mere weatherman).
But you know who else indulges in this fallacy, other than creationists and climate change denialists? Nicholas Wade. He has taken to rebutting critics of his racist book by declaring them non-scientists. For instance, in response to a review by Pete Shanks, Wade declares that all of the people who dislike his book are not competent to do so.
Shanks failed to notice, or failed to share with readers, the fact that scientists critical of my book have attacked it largely on political grounds.
Although a science writer, Shanks is at sea in assessing scientific expertise. He places excessive weight on the views of Agustín Fuentes, the author of two of the five critical reviews that have appeared on The Huffington Post. To ascertain a scientist’s field of expertise, all one need do is consult their list of publications. Fuentes’ primary research interest, as shown by publications on his website, is the interaction between people and monkeys at tourist sites. I don’t know what the scientific merit of this project may be, but it establishes Fuentes’ field of expertise as people-monkey interaction. If you seek an authoritative opinion on human statistical genetics, the principal scientific subject of my book, he would not be your go-to expert.
Stunning, ain’t it?
Like all scientists, you have to focus: that Fuentes has published on a specific research problem does not in any way imply that he lacks a broader knowledge of a field. And if you’re going to play the credentialism game, Fuentes has degrees earned in the last 25 years in zoology and anthropology, with advanced degrees in anthropology, and a professorship at Notre Dame. Wade has a bachelor’s degree from 1964 in some general discipline called “Natural Sciences”. No disrespect, but I teach undergrads, and there is a world of difference between an undergraduate degree and a graduate degree — so for Wade to dismiss Fuentes for an inappropriate educational background is grossly hypocritical.
Furthermore, apparently some of his other critics are so non-sciencey he doesn’t even have to mention them. Jennifer Raff is a post-doc studying the genomes of modern and ancient peoples in order to uncover details of human prehistory — that couldn’t possibly be relevant. Must be political. Jeremy Yoder is a postdoc studying evolutionary genetics at the University of Minnesota. Couldn’t possibly have greater expertise than Wade. Must be political. Greg Laden has a Ph.D. in Archaeology and Biological Anthropology from Harvard. Must not have learned a thing. Must be political. Eric Michael Johnson has a mere Master’s degree (well, he still outranks Wade) in evolutionary anthropology, and is only now working on a Ph.D., so he can be ignored. Must be political.
Now don’t go the other way and assume a fancy degree makes them right — you have to look at the arguments and evidence to determine that. But one thing you can know for sure: when someone stoops to rejecting a criticism by inappropriately and falsely nitpicking over the legitimacy of their training, you know they’re desperate. You also know they’re damned lousy scientists.
That also goes for the HBD racists who think calling evolutionary biologists “creationists” is an effective strategy.