Credentialism is pretty gross. Then again, so is anointing anyone and everyone an expert – or even just a well-informed person with a valid opinion – simply because they're saying what you want to hear.

In the past couple weeks House Republicans have brought to testify before Congress, among others, Diamond & Silk, Gateway Pundit, and most recently, Candace Owens of Charlie Kirk's wet diaper of a pressure group TP USA. Owens achieved her greatest mainstream fame (which is to say, outside of right-wing social media circles) when she spent a minute defending Hitler on stage during a TPUSA event.

The most amusing thing about Kirk and Owens is that both are college dropouts. Kirk barely even went to college before quitting, while Owens couldn't handle the intense academic rigors of University of Rhode Island. Yet not only are they the right's great spokespeople for what's happening On Campus these days (hint: exactly what old white Fox News addicts suspect! Cultural Marxism! Silencing important conservative voices!) but here we have Owens literally testifying to Congress about important historical events.

The lack of credentials does not preclude one from having an important and useful intellectual contribution to make, nor does the presence of a credential – I have a goddamn Ph.D., to cite one useful example – mean that one is correct or has useful intellectual contributions to make. I could do 100,000 words on books and articles that are not just good, interesting reads but advance our understanding of the world in important ways, all written by people with no particular credentials. Useful knowledge about history can be and often is provided by people who aren't Official Historians with a degree and a job title to prove it.

The fundamental problem with people like Owens, and the right's infatuation with them, is not that they lack college degrees or other credentials; it is that Owens has absolutely no goddamn idea what she's talking about. At all. She gets the most basic facts wrong. Her arguments do not make logical sense even if considered in a vacuum. Her basic strategy is to define a concept incorrectly and then apply the incorrect definition to historical facts that are misrepresented. Like everything the right wing "Expert" machine churns out, everything she says and writes is utterly without redeeming value. It's entertainment for old white people. It is to informative non-fiction writing what Fox News is to journalism; being correct isn't even the point.

You might say, with some justification, "Who the hell is Candace Owens and who gives a shit." It is dangerous to underrate, though, just how important the redefinition of expertise is to modern conservatism. A "historian" is whoever is repeating the interpretation of history that you would prefer to believe is true. And they use the egalitarian impulse – Hey, does someone need a fancy-pants Ph.D. in order to be correct? – to great advantage. That is a very useful red herring, because of course the answer is No. No degree is needed to state facts correctly or offer a valid interpretation of history. But that rhetorical trick overlooks the fact that the speaker, Owens in this instance, is completely wrong about everything. She is not wrong because she didn't finish college – she is wrong because everything she says and believes is wrong.

"Credentialism is Elitism" is a useful defense for the right because 99.9% of us have no special expertise or credential to speak on any given topic. That's not wrong. It's also entirely beside the point. History can be written by the Person Off the Street, and it has been. But that's a far cry from saying that it can be written by anyone and everyone. Go find a goddamn library and write something that isn't completely incorrect and based on fallacious, bad-faith arguments and no one will even feel the need to ask if the author went to college.

27 thoughts on “TRUST US, WE'RE WARM BODIES”

  • Just finished re-reading the last chapter in Democracy For Realists for, judging by my highlighted passages, at least the 12th time. I apparently enjoy hitting myself on the head with horrifying observations about us dumbass voters.

    But your essay today was so much more fun.

    [and now, back to feeling like a fruit fly with wings glued to the jell-o salad]

  • I've worked for people with letters after their names.

    I prefer the unlettered, genrally–or at least those who don't think that BOTH of us need to be proud of their level of achievement.

  • People have shitty logic in general. "PhDs are likely to be wrong sometimes" is very different than "Anyone without a PhD is likely to be right." Asking yourself "Has this person studied the topic about which they are speaking for years in some intense and rigorous way?" is not a fool-proof way to ensure good information, but it beats the fuck out of "do I want to believe what this person is saying?" as a methodology.

  • "Her basic strategy is to define a concept incorrectly and then apply the incorrect definition to historical facts that are misrepresented." That's about as close to actually hearing Ms Owens as I want to get.
    The fact that this woman was invited to appear before our august legislative body for her "analysis" is as dismaying as the occupant of the White House, and maybe equally sound evidence of our irreversible decline as a nation.

  • paintedjaguar says:

    If the last several decades have proved anything, it's how little meaning credentials can have, whether it's letters after your name, a job title, or simply support from the arbiters of our society. Meritocracy is largely BS and real competence seems rare, not least among those with high self-regard. And I'm not just talking about right wingers, either. How many so-called "progressives", even "leftists" supported the illegal invasion of Iraq and the society destroying "wars" on Terror and Drugs, supported Obama's bait & switch regime, supported Hillary's futile and undeserved candidacy, supported the spurious and failed distraction of the Russiagate propaganda campaign (aka the New McCarthyism)? Many many people pushed all of this harmful garbage, yet they are still there, unapologetic, self-righteous, still in positions of influence, still being rewarded.

    What "conservatives" conserve is hierarchy and what the "Resistance" resists is truthful self-examination. I know I'm far from alone in this judgement, however the number of credentialed or validated voices who speak for us is vanishingly small. But growing I think. Or at least hope.

  • Credentialism is certainly dangerous and can lead us to false belief in "experts". See the Best and Brightest who brought us the Vietnam War. But…it is also at least a useful shortcut. Especially for topics that require specialized, challenging knowledge and access to/benefit from an institutionalized knowledge base. Of course, if the institutions are corrupted or fail, this is more…challenging. :)

  • I didn't realize that Candace Owens went to URI, but it makes sense. I love that every URI attendee devalues my degree a little bit more. Although, to be fair "didn't finish, but what do you think you're better than me?" is the school motto. "Poorly educated but really loud about it" is on the school crest. Sigh.

  • Also "Who the hell is Matt Walsh and …"

    He shows up in my FB feed periodically so I know of at least one person who gives a shit. As near as I can tell he has no education, no training, no life experience. Apparently he says things at least one person wants to hear. I guess it's a living.

  • c u n d gulag says:

    (Not at all) Dear "Modern" Conservatives,
    Saying someone has "shit for brains" is neither a credential, nor a compliment.
    Just thought you might want to know.

  • I suspect the goal is to escape their FoxNews/Newsmax/Rush/Q-anon 'bubble' and drown our reality beneath the surging vomitous waves of their hate-filled nonsense. I assume Democracy and civilization require some degree of good faith and common frames of reference to sustain a reasonable consensus on what is real, what problems we face as a nation, and what matters. That requires us to have some faith that the information we are considering is true and presented by people who believe it is true.

    I think the people who sponsor Candace Owens and her ilk see democracy as the problem, it needs to be destroyed and the way to do that is to drown it in insane filth, to leverage control of mass media to misinform and sew violent paranoid delusions until you have enough minds so completely filled with shit that they will nod along with Right Wing gabblers and sneer at anyone who criticizes them. The truth is not important it seems, the point of communicating is to spread fear and ignorance, the precious time you have on camera (or testifying before Congress) is best used to set as many things on fire as you can. Spreading nihilism is a perfectly legitimate activity for these frauds because it weakens faith in society, institutions, and that ultimately undermines the government's ability to do a damned thing about anything – just like the Oligarchs like it.

    Lots of us are outraged by this creeping jungle of lies as it engulfs us but it seems to be getting worse, not better. We can note their representative's lack of credentials as a legitimate concern but who will put a stop to it, who will turn their microphones off?

    How can these people be stopped?

  • The dedicated amateur. The elite among whatever hobby is their obsession… I find that if they can avoid becoming pedantic, and they do tend to do this on occasion, are the most interesting people I know.

    Oh, and what BLOZAR wrote.

  • Credentials are part of a heuristic. Of course they don't guarantee sense, and their absence does not guarantee nonsense. But all else being equal, the likelihood of somebody with relevant credentials knowing what they are talking about is higher. I'd certainly pay more attention to a randomly selected expert in whatever area than to a randomly selected non-expert.

  • I have a right-of-center friend who owns a courier business, and the other day he was reflecting that as a history major drop-out, he built his business with common-sence. He conviently left out his 10-plus years of training and experience with logistics in the Air Force. Believing in boot-strapping as gospel requires you to have these odd blind spots of self-awareness.

    It would be like Major Kong saying that he didn’t need no fancy book learning to be a successful pilot, and just humming really loud when you ask about flight school.

    Lastly, my apologies to the PhDs in the group, but PhDs of any stripe, including Engineering, have been hands down some of the dumbest and most dangerous people I’ve ever worked with. Extreme expertise in a narrow area does not nessesarily translate to other areas, but believing otherwise seems to be part of the human condition.

  • Glen Tomkins says:

    I haven't worn a white coat since I was a medical student. When you're just a student, the patients deserve fair warning of that fact up front. But since I got my degree, I figure if they don't know that I'm a doctor based on what I do and say, no white coat is going to convince them I know what I'm doing.

  • I'm glad I ran out of comments to read before I went looking for something to overdose on!


    I'm oldish, I'm not going to be around for a lot longer. This insanity stew that's bubbling up through the U.S. is something that people who lived through the 50's remember. I have no expectation that cooler minds will prevail or that actual thinking will be employed unless and until the GOP and their sponsors stop running EVERYTHING that matters.

    @ Glen Tomkins:

    I'm a 46ish XD* can I borrow your coat?

    * Xtra Dumpy

  • Safety Man! sez: “… PhDs of any stripe, including Engineering, have been hands down some of the dumbest and most dangerous people I’ve ever worked with.” There is some truth in that statement but not a lot. Overspecialization tends to create massive blind spots, but in certain fields, the rewards are nonetheless immense, so people overspecialize happily. But on balance, those who achieve excellence in one endeavor often have a canny ability to develop expertise in others. This is the basic argument for a liberal arts education – something that has fallen out of favor as more people seek degrees and training in narrow fields, especially those with technological applications. Computer coding is a highly remunerative endeavor if one hits upon an idea that scales and is adopted by the masses (e.g., social and piecework networks), but coding doesn’t provide any sort of reliable way of better understanding the world or the people in it. All this to say that results are highly individual whether well-educated or not. Generalize at your peril.

  • @ Brutus:

    Yes, EVERYBODY* genaralizes way too much!

    I have been accused, too many times to keep track of, that I'm arrogant because when I say something, I say it with an apparent degree of inerrancy that is off the charts.

    That might be true, to them,. but they're always welcome to refute my statements–the ones who can't seem to be the ones who can't be bothered to look shit up.

    I have met a lot of monofocused assholes in this life and they cut across every demographic.

    * Except me.

  • Candace Owens is subject to criticism and skepticism, of course, on race and otherwise, but it should be rather measured coming from leftists for whom the most prominent civil rights leader currently is the debased, halfwitted huckster and college dropout, the Right Reverend Al Sharpton.

  • As an amateur astronomer, I look at it this way – if someone is proposing something truly "ether-shaking", so to speak, in the area of astronomy, I look at where they're starting, not their conclusions. If you start at incorrect hypotheses or theories to begin with, then any conclusions you reach are also tainted.

    If they're claiming Ouamuamua is an alien probe, for example, they'd better be damn able to back up their claims without resorting to a) government conspiracy, b) references to Area 51, or c) as-yet-unproven physical laws. And if they start by stating they believe in flat-Earth theories, then I slowly back away (as doing so quickly might be taken as a threat and cause them to attack) and leave the room or close the book or PDF file. Astronomers in general regard flat-Earthers as not so much evil, but as having some sort of delusional behavior, such as Peter Sellers and his pathology toward anything purple.

    If you don't do any of those things, I'll give you a listen, even if I think you might still be wrong. Astronomy is enough of an inexact science, because it's largely observational, that we can agree to disagree on even such things as sizes, trajectories and masses.

    Now, even an expert can still screw up and still be an expert. In fact, any well regarded expert will fess up when they are operating outside the norms of their field. That's why I like our Ed here – he's free with his admissions when he's getting outside of his comfort zone. But that's a common problem with "conservative" (read: reactionary radical) pundits and "experts" – they won't admit they're starting from the wrong place, or have misapplied expertise. They're basically saying Ouamuamua is an alien probe, but they're saying the government is covering it up, and they're not saying that their only claim to expertise is that they shared a Holiday Inn with Carl Sagan's nephew. You know, the one who found Yahweh speaking to him from his soup.

  • @ Ekim:

    I have been looking at virtually every public utterance of the people whom they choose to be their representatives as one coming from radical reactionism–not conservatism.

    12 Step programs are pretty bit on telling us that before we can solve a problem, we have to admit to having one.

    It's time for U.S. polity to stop being on an ideological bender.

  • Repblicans have for a long time held up a series of lies that they use to dupe the American Middle. The Middle West Middle Class middling education middle voter. It's getting to the point where the rank and file Republicans are beginning to believe the lies that were peddled only for the rubes.

  • "You might say, with some justification, "Who the hell is Candace Owens and who gives a shit.""
    Damn, you're prescient That's exactly what I was thinking.

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