3 Reasons Your Academic Credentials Should Impress No One

When a man wears a wig to hide his baldness, he looks worse. There is something about a man trying to hide his weaknesses behind a poorly constructed shield that dishonors him in a way that no actual weakness could. And the example of this that I would like to note now is the man who hides his mental mediocrity in the language of academic respectability.

I want to scream anytime I hear someone referred to as a ‘thought leader.’ If you have to call yourself a thought leader, you are not. Anytime I hear someone say, "recent studies have shown..." as a way of winning an argument, my eyes roll. 

We have a society that has placed academia and education above all else. Being 'anti-science' is the ultimate put down these days. 

1) Specialization Makes Us Dumb

A savant is someone that is average or below average in one area but extremely talented in one particular area. The modern track to become a PhD seems designed to create savants. 

There was a time when the greatest of scientists were generalists. Isaac Newton, perhaps the single most important and influential scientist of all time was at one time the world's foremost expert in: mathematics (developed calculus), optics (created the Newtonian telescope), physics, and chemistry. He was also obsessed with theology (wrote more on theology than all other subjects) and late in life became the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the UK and by all accounts did a fantastic job. In short, the most influential and important scientist in history was a generalist not a specialist. And he was not unique. Robert Boyle, considered the first modern chemist, was at one time, in addition to being a chemist, a philosopher, physicist, and inventor. In fact, it is hard to find an early scientist that could be classified in any way as a specialist in his field.

One of the great examples of a generalist is Benjamin Franklin. Franklin is known by most people as a founding father in the United States. What many do not realize is Franklin's scientific work was both influential and important.  Franklin studied electricity and was the first to label electrical movements as positive and negative. He was also the first to discover the principle of conservation of charge. Franklin constructed a multiple plate capacitor, that he called an "electrical battery." Franklin was awarded the Royal Society's Copley Medal in 1753. Franklin became one of the few 18th-century Americans elected as a Fellow of the Society. These are just a few of his many achievements in science.  But we hardly know him for his science because he was such a generalist. Franklin is known as a political scientist. He is known as an ambassador to France in the lead up to the Revolutionary War. He is known as one of the leading members of the constitutional convention.  He was also an inventor and a newspaper man.

Franklin was a generalist. And.... he had almost zero formal education.

But, you might say, that was then and this is now. Now, specialization is needed to plumb the depths of science and knowledge. There is a joke in the medical community that when someone says they are a ear doctor, the response is, 'which ear?' The idea in medicine and almost every other field of academic study is that we need someone that knows the ear extremely well. Someone else can study the throat and someone else the feet.  In other fields, this logic is also held. In literature, we need an expert in 14th century French poetry. Someone else can cover the other fields. 

The idea is that if you get someone working on each area, then as a society, we have deeper levels of knowledge in every area then we could possibly have if we were simply to have a bunch of generalists. Newton, for all his brilliance, could not devote his life to studying the left ear or 14th century french poetry. 

But there is a major problem with this logic. It makes every individual academic an idiot in the real world. While Franklin could be asked about almost any subject and he could bring together his knowledge of many different areas of life to provide interesting and helpful thoughts, the man who spends his life studying the left ear will be, if anything, MORE ignorant to broader questions than your average person.  His focus functions as blinders keeping him looking one direction when everyone else is looking more broadly.

In his excellent, "Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World," David Epstein makes the compelling case that generalists tend to be more creative, better able to solve complicated issues, and often even better than specialists in specific fields. His book argues that unless you are in a field where the rules are known and repeatable, specialization actually hurts rather than helps someone excel. 

In short, modern academia has created people that have non-transferable skills that likely make them worse off than someone with more generalized knowledge.

2) Modern Academia is Supposed to Help You Make Good Arguments Not To Be the Argument
Image you show up to a piano recital that looks promising. The pianist has just completed his PhD in Music Performance from NYU. You sit down and prepare to be blown away. He comes out on the stage bows, and then proceeds to play 'Mary Had a Little Lamb,' 'Chopsticks,' and 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.' He does these with one finger and makes a few mistakes while doing it. Having completed his performance he stands up beaming and takes a bow. The crowd, unimpressed, does not clap. He looks up from his bow and frowns. He is obviously angry. "You idiots," he yells, "What do you know about music? I have a PhD from NYU!" You walk out of the hall disappointed and confused, as you head back to your apartment you hear a piano playing in a Jazz Bar. You step in and hear the most beautiful sounds. "Who is this?" You ask the man at the door. The man informs you it is Thelonious Monk. "Wow, where did he go to school for piano?" The man informs you that he is self taught. 

This is an extreme example. Obviously a performance PhD from NYU will likely be amazing. But the point is that it is not the PhD that will be his proof. It will be his playing. And, likewise, those who are untrained and untaught are often terrible pianists but the terribleness of their piano is only to be known in their playing (or lack of it). Get the PhD in front of pianos and we can judge based on listening not based on degrees. 

This concept is true in intellectual discussions, scientific arguments, and debates over solutions as well. Having a PhD at best gives you a strong education that prepares you to make good arguments. It should prepare you with a wide and broad overview of the subject matter. It should prepare you with in depth interaction with the issues at hand. It should prepare you with critical thinking skills so that you can see good or bad counter arguments. It should prepare you with an understanding of a complicated subject in a way that permits you to teach it clearly. 

Whether or not the PhD does this is another question but, at its best, this is what education does. What education does not do is make your unsupported opinion better than anyone else's unsupported opinion. Further, it is possible for the man without a PhD to make good arguments, develop wide and broad knowledge of subjects, have critical thinking skills, and to be able to clearly teach the complicated subject.  Like we saw with the example of the pianists, the proof is not in the credentials but in the argument. And like we saw with the pianist who played 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star' poorly on stage, appealing to your credentials when people question your abilities, is ridiculous. The proof of an intellectual is in the argument not in the credentials.

  3) Academia Doesn't Mean Anything Anymore

Being a member of the academy used to mean something. It used to indicate a grasp of Latin, Greek and French. It used to indicate that one was widely read. Achieving the marks required to get into graduate programs used to indicate brilliance, studiousness, and mental clarity. And once a scholar, studies were rigorous and repeatable. Almost all of that is changed. It is now possible to get a PhD and to know no other language than English. It is possible to read narrowly (only in your chosen field). And with grade inflation, it is possible to get a PhD without being a particularly adept student. Further, over time, we have developed academc departments on ridiculous subjects that are mostly opinion based. Literature, ethics, gender studies, even history rarely have memorization or breadth of knowledge as the standards for success.

And academic studies have been shown of late to be deeply flawed. Many are done using big data mining large amounts of data and looking for correlations. This displays ignorance as to how statistics work. The repeatability of scientific studies has been a problem for years. Peer review has failed. NN Taleb tells a story in his excellent, Black Swan, in which he submitted an academic paper that required no mathematics as proof (it was a logical argument) and was rejected. He resubmitted with some superfluous math and it was accepted. Trolls are now submitting meaningless papers like, "Dog Rape Culture," and getting accepted.

In short, knowing the latest in published academic journals in no way guarantees that you know truth.

Our societal faith in academic credentials is misplaced. The 'expert' brought in to discuss the situation in Korea has no better chance of predicting or understanding it based on his degree. We need to get rid of the idol that is the academy. The sooner the better.


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