Credentials for Activism

 Posted by on 7 November 2008 at 12:22 am  Activism
Nov 072008

Paul and I recently received the following inquiry from Miranda Barzey. I thought it of general interest, so I’m posting it and our replies here, with her permission. Miranda wrote:

What’s the importance of credentials when writing or arguing for a cause? Is it important to have an MD or PHD when trying to persuade other people of an idea’s creedence, namely Objectivism? Can an average, everyday, YOUNG person make an argument and be taken seriously without the pieces of paper backing them up? What about when trying to reach a large group of people? It just seems to me that a good argument is a good argument despite the background of the person giving it. What do you think?

Paul wrote the following in reply:

That’s an excellent question, Miranda! Here’s my quick 2 cents’ worth:

For technical subjects (law, medicine, engineering), the credential helps somewhat. If I needed to resolve a biochemistry argument, I’d definitely give more weight to someone with a PhD in biochemistry than someone with a masters’ degree in English Literature.

For public policy, it’s helps a little bit. But mostly it’s a proxy marker to show that the person has done some level of advanced education and thus presumably is not just some random person with an opinion.

Of course we all know that this sort of proxy may have very little to do with the merits of the argument. For example, there are Nobel Prize winners in economics (like Paul Krugman) who support all sorts of bad ideas like “universal health care”, when they should know better.

Yes, ultimately it’s the quality of the argument that should matter. And it usually does. But for better or worse, the credential might help you get an initial hearing. But in sustained debates and discussions with a fair-minded audience, the quality of arguments (including reasoning and evidence used) and often the tone/demeanor (especially on the internet) make more difference in the end.

And I wrote:

This is a great question to pose to the OActivists list. You’re welcome to join it, if you meet the list qualifications.

Let me just say the following, in addition to what Paul said:

It’s hard to have credibility as a young person: I’ve noticed that people take me more seriously in my 30s than they did in my 20s, even when my views haven’t changed one iota.

What every speaker needs is credibility — at least to get his/her foot in the door. An audience needs some reason to think that this person will have something interesting and informed to say, rather than just a bunch of ill-conceived opinions. A degree can provide that, as can personal experience or proven expertise (e.g. working in a field for some years, authoring an issue paper, etc).

That kind of credibility is hard for a young person to gain, precisely because they’re young. However, you need not be discouraged. A great deal of really important activism is totally (or mostly) blind to credentials. If you write a letter to the editor or web comment, no one will know how old you are. The same goes if you write an op-ed. (For an op-ed, I would definitely draw on people who do have experience in a given field — i.e. act like a journalist in part — to give your writing more credibility and power.)

Finally, I should mention that pursuing an advanced degree — particularly one that will give you a title — requires years of grueling work. So I don’t recommend doing that unless you have a real interest in the topic and eagerness to learn it. The work is just too hard to do for a mere piece of paper.

Further thoughts?

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