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.


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Fortunately warming alarmists are so free of this that they absolutely never say "I won't answer McIntyre's point because it hasn't been peer reviewed" or "97% if scientists (well of the list of very carefully selected alleged scientists) support us" and the BBC were never ever caught lying in court that they had only decided to censor scepticism when "a symposium of 28 of the world's leading scientists" said so, because that would have been lying. (2 scientists, 24 activists and salesmen, one CofE minister and one CIA psywar expert from the US embassy)

Yup. Alarmists are certainly more trustworthy than creationists and wouldn't do any of that.

By Neil Craig (not verified) on 21 Jun 2014 #permalink

PZ, looks like you've got a troll there (Neil Craig @ 3).

Ideas should stand or fall on their own merits, independent of personalities. Since the output of science is public, anyone who can read and understand the material can evaluate it for themselves, and can use it to reason out their own conclusions and opinions.

When someone with an established track record voices an opinion in their area of expertise, we can reasonably trust it unless there's reason not to. But that does not exclude the possibility that a complete layperson with no formal background, might come up with some useful insight or practical application of ideas, or a well-reasoned arguement for policy.

For example a few years ago, some layperson came up with the "what if you're wrong?" test for climate change. He argued, in a YouTube video (of all places!) that if scientist were wrong about climate change, but we followed their recommendations, we'd still get new energy infrastructure and the economic boost from building it, which is still a net positive benefit. If denialists were wrong and we followed their recommendations, we'd end up with a catastrophe on our hands. This was a well-reasoned arguement for policy, and one that could easily be communicated to undecideds.

As for Bill Nye being an engineer, he can always reply "I've designed and built things that work, and that are useful to others; what have you done?" Or a bit more confrontationally, "the things I built have worked in the real world, can you say the same for yourself?"

I hope you realize that Neil Craig isn't just an ex-UKIP "Environment" Critic, but he also owns a science fiction bookshop in Glasgow. He certainly doesn't deserve the kind of credentialist bushwah served up on elitist blogs like this one!

Go on, ask him about radiation hormesis, I DARE YOU!!1!

What this country needs is a good doctoral program in Creationism. It will go nicely with my BS and MS (Masters of Snark) degrees.

There's also a fine line between properly credentialed and heavily armed people. Might doesn't makes right, but it sure can be a sufficient argument for the moment.

All kidding slightly aside, to chide the idiots about their lack of scientific skills and understanding BY USING scientific skills and understanding is sort of like teaching a fat person how to chew. He knows you know he doesn't know, but he goes on doing it nonetheless.

And, if you totes understood that argument, then you sir must be a creationist.


By Joaquin Closet (not verified) on 25 Jun 2014 #permalink