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Jun 21 2014

Creationists, climate change denialists, and racists and the credentialism strategy

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.

14 comments

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  1. 1
    peterh

    Having a sheepskin to wave about only proves somewhere there’s a dead sheep.

  2. 2
    Andrew G.

    Wade has a bachelor’s degree from 1964 in some general discipline called “Natural Sciences”.

    At Cambridge all science degrees are in “Natural Sciences” regardless of what field the student chooses to specialize in.

  3. 3
    raven

    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.

    Which shows how ignorant he is and how much he lies.

    1. Evolutionary biology is both historical and observational. Large numbers of evolutionary biology experiments are being run right now. Some are formal laboratory experiments while others are natural experiments.

    Every time we use a new antibiotic or antiviral, we are running a natural experiment. Which is, how long until resistance evolves and what is the mechanism. It’s very predictable.

    When is the next flu strain due, and what is it going to be like? The first is predictable, the second less so.

    2. We use experimental science to discover historical science. If it couldn’t do that, it couldn’t do anything.

    3. Were you there? No, but the evidence was and it has survived to this day.

  4. 4
    Bronze Dog

    As always, the authority is in the evidence and the rigorous methodology used to collect it, not the person presenting that evidence, nor the person who collected it. The value in a challenge to a hypothesis or theory is in how accurately the challenger points out fallacies, false premises, or counter-evidence. It doesn’t matter who it is.

    The concept of authoritative individuals and credentials is a quick and dirty convenience for people who don’t have the time to hash the truth out. It’s not an excuse for proponents to duck out of defending their ideas once someone disputes their accuracy. Scientists aren’t infallible priests or idols, and non-scientists aren’t unclean. We would very much like to make “common sense” into science wearing casual clothes, rather than elevate lab coats into priestly vestments or ritual fetishes.

  5. 5
    markmckee

    There is a name for what Wade is doing. When you avoid arguing the merits of an argument or contention but instead attack the credentials or motivations or personality or character of your opponent, it is called an ad hominem argument. The person who uses such a debate technique is generally considered to have admitted that their argument itself has no merit.

    Such a debate approach is common on Face The Nation, Faux News and talk radio but even if pervasive it should be called out for what it is. Now the technique is also used by the reality based, such as saying Dick Cheney should not be listened to because he is a war criminal, torture proponent and liar. But even there the technique is wrong because even war criminals liars and torture proponents might someday make a persuasive argument.

  6. 6
    twas brillig (stevem)

    re @4:
    Bronzey is absolutely correct, but leaves out one little detail about credentials. True, they are no guarantee of valid conclusions being presented, but ARE good evidence that the credentialed knows what he is doing and How to present his evidence rationally. And it is Our Job to verify that the credential itself is meaningful, by noting where it came from, and who presented that piece of parchment with all the fancy words on it. But, like all have said, it is, also, absolutely the job of the presenter to verify that he’s still worthy of those credentials by being rational in the conclusions being presented, and not simply dismissive of any objections presented.
    ..
    [sarcasm alert]
    re Bachelor’s degree vs PhD:
    We all know B.S. is short for Bull Sh~t, and PhD is Piled higher and Deeper.
    LOL, but even so; more is better, …right? …right? …never mind…
    [/sarcasm]

  7. 7
    Bronze Dog

    Re: twas brillig @6:

    I might not have expressed it well, but that was kind of my point about it being a “convenience.” Yes, a person with credentials is very likely to know what he’s doing, and letters after the name serve as a convenient marker of that characteristic. It’s reasonable to place some level of trust in such a person when you’re willing to take on a bit of additional risk of being wrong by trusting that he or she did the necessary research as the credentials imply.

    The deeper you’re willing to get into the issue and the more confidence you proclaim in your position, the fewer shortcuts you should be willing to take. In our section of the blogosphere, that typically means we’re willing to take much more scenic routes to the truth than most people. At the point we start citing evidence directly, arguments from authority become fallacious because they become unnecessary. Naturally, if someone puts excessive effort into dissuading people from taking the scenic routes, it implies there’s no beautiful evidence to be seen in their hypothesis’ neighborhood, or clashing counter-evidence and ugly fallacies they don’t want us to see.

  8. 8
    Anton Mates

    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.

    Aaaand this right here tells you all you need to know about the depth and rigor of Nicholas Wade’s literature surveys. I took a glance at Fuentes’ CV–you know, that thing academics display prominently on the internet to make it as easy as possible for you to assess their areas of expertise. Sure, there are a ton of publications on human-macaque interaction. There are also some papers on chimp, gibbon and langur behavior. There are also around a dozen peer-reviewed papers, a couple of textbooks and a couple of pop-sci books on both human evolution and general biological anthropology. I reproduce a few of the titles:

    “Race, Monogamy and other lies they told you: busting myths about human nature”

    “Evolution of Human Behavior”

    “Variation in the Social Systems of Extant Hominoids: Comparative Insight into the Social Behaviour of Early Hominins”

    “Niche Construction through Cooperation: A Nonlinear Dynamics Contribution to Modeling Facets of the Evolutionary History in the Genus Homo”

    “Ethnography, cultural context, and assessments of reproductive success matter when discussing human mating strategies ”

    “Chimpanzees are not proto-hominins and early human mothers may not have foraged alone ”

    “It’s Not All Sex and Violence: Integrated Anthropology and the Role of
    Cooperation and Social Complexity in Human Evolution”

    “Primate Social Cognition, Human Evolution, and Niche Construction: A Core Context for Neuroanthropology”

    So yeah, what could Fuentes possibly know about race and statistical genetics and human evolution? Clearly he’s just some dude who likes monkeys!

  9. 9
    whheydt

    Some things never change… The same criticism was leveled at critics of Velikovsky. Isaac Asimov wrote an essay in which he noted that there was *some* justification in complaining about critiques outside the field of expertise of a critic and then went on to point out that–because he was a biochemist–he could tell that Velikovsky didn’t know the difference between a hydrocarbon and a carbohydrate.

  10. 10
    anthrosciguy

    but ARE good evidence that the credentialed knows what he is doing and How to present his evidence rationally.

    Maybe you meant to put the sarcasm alert a bit earlier in your post to cover the above, because it just isn’t true. It does — or should — mean that the person had the opportunity to learn those things, but it tells you nothing about whether or not the person did so.

    Some here will remember the appearance of Algis Kuliukas in the aquatic ape threads’ comments and how well he demonstrated his knowing “what he is doing and How to present his evidence rationally”. His oft-touted masters (from a good school, mind you) didn’t help in that regard at all. I think if you could somehow disentangle the knowing things and presenting rationally from the getting the credential you’d find they generally (but not always) correlate, but that the credential isn’t the causation part. Rather than people knowing and presenting rationally because they went through the credentialing process, you’d likely find that it’s as much (possibly more) that those who know how to find out things and present them rationally are the sort of folks who tend to go through the credentialing process.

    The learning you go through to get the credential can, and should, help, but it’s not that hard to go through it and come out the other side without the skills (can anyone say Jonathan Wells?).

  11. 11
    rabbitscribe

    ” 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. “

    Well, maybe you do that. I can’t, because I’m scientifically illiterate. Absent a clear and overwhelming consensus (evolution, AGW, etc.) I have no choice but to trust the PhD.

  12. 12
    Wayne Robinson

    I read Wade’s book, and hated it for the science, not political, reasons. Wade basically is arguing that human nature is genetic (due to many genes of small effect), under strong selection pressure and capable of evolving rapidly, within 25 generations or 600 years, accounting for the success of the West over Africans, East Asians and Native Americans.

    The evidence he provides? He notes that the selective breeding experiment of silver foxes in Novosibirsk produced tame foxes in 20-25 generations. Actually accomplished with severe selection pressure – only the tamest 3% of male foxes were allowed to breed.

  13. 13
    David Marjanović

    At Cambridge all science degrees are in “Natural Sciences” regardless of what field the student chooses to specialize in.

    Similarly, my doctorate is in natural sciences. (…And BTW, both the official and the fancy documents are on paper, not parchment.)

  14. 14
    Area Man

    Arguments from authority are only fallacious if presented as deductive proofs. As heuristics, they’re perfectly fine. Indeed, none of us could function without them. The vast majority of everything we know (or think we know) is due to what experts have told us. Very few people have ever conducted experiments to demonstrate the existence of atoms, but everyone with the possible exception of a few weirdos reasonably believes they exist.

    Wade’s problem appears to be that he’s doing it wrong. He’s dismissing people whose credentials are perfectly valid, and he’s missing the forest for the trees. If people with expertise on the subject keep disagreeing with him, that doesn’t mean he’s wrong, but it does mean that he can’t honestly claim to have the weight of scientific expertise in his corner. For someone like me who has not and likely will not take the time to dig into the evidence in detail, this matters.

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