Monday, April 18, 2011

Why Credentialist Arguments are Specious

When someone makes an argument based on their credentials, watch out, they are probably lying to you.

I noted in my last posting about the aptly named Motley Fool that they use credentialism to bolster their financial advice.  Their e-mails are peppered with blurbs from various magazines lauding Motley Fool, as though these quotes somehow mean that the underlying arguments they are selling are correct.

And this sort of credentialist argument is used all the time (and we all do it, mea culpa, even myself) to somehow bootstrap weak-arguments.

But credentialism in and of itself is not an argument.  And in fact, it usually is a clear indication that the person making the argument is on shaky ground, or is in fact, lying.

What is credentialism?  It is when someone makes the argument based on who is saying it and what their background is.  So someone says "Well, world-renown PhD, Dr. Joe Blow says that global warming is a myth - and he's a PhD, so he must know!"

It is not an argument, per se but rather an attempt to bolster an argument - and cut off further debate - by saying the person making the argument is an "expert" and thus cannot be refuted.  And if you get drawn into that type of argument, then the only alternative is to trump their expert with another expert with more credentials - perhaps two PhDs, or perhaps two experts of your own.

But that is no way to "win" an argument.  A proposition has to fly on its own merits, not on the basis of who is making it.  And credentialism has no place in Science, Engineering, the Law, or other fact-based endeavors.  Credentialism is favored by, and advanced by, weak thinkers, who truly believe that the "smartest guy" is always right.

So why is credentialism flawed?  There are a number of reasons:
1.  Really Smart People can be Really, Really, Wrong:  Just because you went to school or had some experience in life doesn't make you right.  It makes you experienced, perhaps expert.  But experts and people with experience have been wrong - on numerous occasions.  So your credentials alone do not carry the day.  Experts and experienced people designed the Titanic.  That doesn't mean they were right - and in fact, the reliance on their own expertise was probably the hubris that sank that boat.

2.  Anyone can get a credential:  Becoming a Doctor, Lawyer, PhD, or whatever isn't as hard as people make it out to be, particularly these days.  We have seen our share of incompetents - if not outright crazy people - in all of these fields.  I have related before about a Lawyer friend of mine who got sucked into a "tax protesting" scam, when he should have known better.  Chelsea Clinton's Father-In-Law, an investment banker, fell for a Nigerian Scam.  Don't confuse credentials with smarts.

3.  Credentials can be phoney, overstated, or irrelevant:  People pad resumes or even make up credentials.  And sometimes people are credentialed in fields that are not their own.  Penn & Teller fell for this, debunking quack Doctors with a guy with a PhD in Physics.  Physics?  Yes, a credential, but not one relevant to medicine.  Maybe they confused "Physician" with "Physics"?

4.  Credentials can be fabricated from whole cloth:  As I noted before, Sooze Orman calls herself a "Internationally Acclaimed Personal Financial Expert!" which is a self-anointed credential.  Similar meaningless accolades include "Famous" or "Internationally Famous," or "World Renown," or other, utterly meaningless phrases.
The logic of the underlying argument is what carries the day, not the alleged "smarts" of the person saying it.  If a toothless hillbilly says that the sun rises in the East, but a world-renown Physicist says it rises in the West, does that mean the sun rises in the West, based on credentials?  Of course not.  The logic or truth of the underlying argument is not dependent on who says it.

And that is the interesting thing about credentialist arguments - the idea that the person making the argument can "own" it, which is also specious.  Truth is truth, and it belongs to everyone and no one, at the same time.  So it makes no difference who is saying an argument - the truth of it is independent of who utters it.

And if you look throughout history, some of the greatest arguments ever made were made by people with little or no credentials - and the people that history has proven wrong, tried to shout them down with their credentialist arguments.

When Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount, he was not an ordained Minister or Priest, but rather a wanted criminal with no credentials, other than carpenter.  The people who had him crucified were all credentialed, and could make arguments that they, as political and religious leaders were "right" in bringing him down.

So what does this have to do with finances?  As the Motley Fool SPAM e-mail illustrates, people will use credentials to razzle-dazzle you and get you to stop thinking.  They fill a sidebar with quotes from questionable credential sources such as Wired Magazine (that great source for financial advice!) or Time (ditto), so you won't stop to think about whether it is worth paying for their advice.

Financial seminar people and self-appointed financial gurus, will proclaim themselves to be "Dr." or "Internationally Acclaimed" or some such nonsense.  Again, they want you to think their advice is beyond reproach, even if it flies against common sense - as they are "experts" and you don't know shit - right?  They want to shout down your gut instincts with a lot of noisy credentials that mean nothing.

When someone throws credentialism in your face - watch out! - because they are throwing up a smokescreen, not making any sort of valid argument.  Whether it is politics or personal finance, don't fall for the credentialist argument.  Ask to see the logic of the underlying arguments, not the diplomas of who is making them.