New Rule: Only People With PhDs May Give Opinions.

This appears to be the premise of an unduly dismissive commenter responding to a recent post on homeopathy. For your enjoyment, here is what he/she had to say:

Hi Ron,

I hope you will forgive me for sounding a tad harsh here, but a trade school certificate from a tenth rate university does not qualify you to speak about scientific research, pro or con. An OT MA is science only in pretension, not in fact. Ditto for an undergrad BA in psych, albeit at a much better university. Get a good Ph.D. in a hard science, then get a few decades under your belt as a real researcher, publish in major peer reviewed journals, and perhaps you will have earned sufficient knowledge (and humility) to be able to comment intelligently. Otherwise I regret to say, it just may be possible that some of your blogging may be more about the hubris inherent in being young (29 years old) than about carefully weighed, thoughtful analysis.

So we’re all clear on the new rule, yes? Until you have earned a PhD in a hard science (i.e., bio, chem, physics) from an Ivy League school, have gotten a couple of decades of research under your belt, authored publications in major peer reviewed journals, and are much older than 29, if you have an opinion on something scientific, for heaven’s sake,

SHUT THE FUCK UP YOU ARROGANT LITTLE BASTARD!

Because of course, if you don’t meet all of those qualifications, you couldn’t possibly have done extensive research. You couldn’t possibly have thoughtfully looked at both sides. And, if you are like me, all of the following is not even close to qualifying you for any type of scientific thinking:

* Hon. B.Sc in Psychology Research and Cognitive Science with High Distinction from the University of Toronto;

* A 3.9 GPA in my MS/PhD program in Cognitive Psychology at Rutgers University – before I dropped out, having finally realized how terrible the job market is for psych profs and how tedious I found most of what I was doing to be;

* Completion of an MSc(Occupational Therapy) at the University of Western Ontario, which far from being a “10th rate university”, is among the top 15% or so of Canadian universities; furthermore, the average incoming GPA to the OT program was ~3.6/4.

* 4-5 years of experience working in labs in Neuroscience, Cognitive Psychology, and Social/Personality Psychology.

* 12 full course equivalents (FCE) at the undergraduate and graduate levels in statistics, research methodology and design, and lab research. Since a typical school year contains 5 FCEs, this experience is equivalent to taking nothing but scientific methodology, statistics and lab research courses for about 2.5 school years.

* Being an intellectually curious person who regularly reads up on areas of interest.

What this commenter has demonstrated is a form of elitism. What is more, the comment exudes incredible ignorance with regard to everything it addresses. In addition to radically under-estimating pretty well everyone that has not become a tenured university professor, it radically over-estimates the value of the education and experience required to meet the commenter’s criteria.

The 50 year old PhD that our commenter has given exclusive speaking privileges to need not be dramatically more scientifically literate in a broad sense than a Masters graduate, a very keen B.Sc graduate, or an exceptionally keen person without university education but with a determined willingness to engage in years of independent study of critical thinking, scientific methodology and particular areas of research, and intellectual fellowship with other rigorously interested parties.

It really does not take nearly as long as our commenter seems to believe to become scientifically literate and informed. The 50 year old PhD’s understanding of how science works, scientific thinking, and the like, was probably for the most part about as developed as it was going to get by the time he or she was part-way through their Masters, if not earlier. In terms of developing expertise in their field, they could easily have been quite up to snuff before the completion of their PhD. Speaking from personal experience, I was able to hold my own quite well with leading scientists in my area of research – first language acquisition and related areas of cognitive development – prior to even starting my Masters at Rutgers. Most of the many years invested by mid and late career PhD scientists are spent doing the laborious, time-consuming and often tedious work that goes into doing and getting funding for good science, not in developing scientific literacy or subject matter expertise.

However, as a service to the commenter, I’ll recommend that he visits the blog of University of Toronto biochemist, Larry Moran, if he wants more credentialed views on homeopathy. Maybe while our commenter is there, he’ll notice that like many other esteemed scientists, Larry positively encourages the masses to engage with science.

18 thoughts on “New Rule: Only People With PhDs May Give Opinions.

  1. Being one of those people with a PhD and 20 yrs experience and the pubs, I can say with complete confidence that these are not qualifications to guarantee authority in anything but the narrowest of fields. In other words, except in the very narrow fields of their expertise, senior academics are just as moronic as the general public.
    It is as naive to think academics are general know-it-alls as it is to think politicians give a damn about the voters.

  2. Fil: Absolutely.

    However, I will disagree with what I imagine was a bit of hyperbole on your part. By and large, I expect that senior academics will be more intelligent about talking about this or that scientific subject outside of their discipline than will the average person, given that they’ll often still have more relevant knowledge than the general public.

    Might I ask what field you are in? I see from your link that you’re in Toronto.

  3. Ah, so only those who have been initiated in the mysteries may speak, let alone criticize? Where have I heard this description before?

    Science is only worthwhile because anyone can — in theory — talk about it. Every experiment and every result should be in some way repeatable, and there must be logic supporting the conclusions. If science is not self-evident in this regard, if the average person cannot follow the reasoning and examine the evidence, then it ceases to be science and becomes a religion.

    Anyone who says “don’t worry your little head; this is far to complex for you to understand” is not a scholar but a con artist, trying one of the world’s oldest scams.

  4. It seems like his attitude is not all that uncommon.

    Recently on one of the cable news networks the host had a US representative on to talk about some economic issues, and when she disagreed with him she asked him “Well, do you have a degree in economics?” and he actually did have a degree in econ.

    But I do have to say that I tend to notice this attitude with people with advanced educations, and the problem is that many academics tend to be liberal, so it reflects poorly on liberals as if all of them are arrogant.

  5. All you need to express a scientific opinion is an understanding of the scientific method.

    They try to teach it in high school, but it ends up being lesson about exact measurement, tedious math and report formatting.

  6. lol what nonsense. Of course when I get my phd in a year or so I may revert to agreeing whole heartedly;)

    In all seriousness though, almost anybody who goes far in academics loses any sense of arrogance or superiority.

  7. Bazie: Well, according to the commenter’s reasoning, you’ll probably still have a good 15 or so years to go before you’re ready to have an informed, thoughtful and well-grounded opinion… Stay strong, though, you’ve only got about 60% of the journey remaining til you get the talking stick!

    I don’t know that I agree with your point about losing any sense of arrogance or superiority. But it would depend on context (e.g., a prof may be intellectually humble but, if they’ve got used to being put on a pedastal for a while, they might get a bit too used to it…). They might also be perceived to be arrogant, but that would make good sense because they often genuinely will have intellectual superiority in the form of top-notch expertise in their domain, strong knowledge in related domains, intellectual-rationalistic rigor and skill with interpretation of evidence that genuinely does exceed that of most others.

  8. My interaction with profs, post docs and phd students is that most are just obsessed about their very narrow topic of expertise and are really humble as soon as they leave that topic. Lots of “I am not an expert here, you should ask so and so”. And even in their own subject, yes they may speak with confidence but rarely do I detect arrogance.

    Granted this is in mathematics, so it might be different in, say, political science

  9. The humility out side of one’s domain is not surprising at all. Learning how much there is to know in one domain can make one more sensitive to how much there is to know about other domains.

    Poli sci is probably qualitatively different than math in this sense, in that we all have moral foundations and beliefs and views about how the world should be, and these beliefs and our rights and willingness to express them are both central to democracy, often personal identity as well as one’s sense of meaning and recognition of self as being a good person. Math doesn’t have all of this associated with it, at least among non-mathematicians :)

  10. Suggested reading (for the poster who made the new rule and “inexplicably” sees lack of humiliation in everyone else). Search C.S. Lewis The Inner Ring.

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