Monday, September 09, 2013
On the other hand, in an abstract, ideal world, credentials would be a great idea that would help us organize and improve our world. Need a new building? Find a credentialed architect. Need to improve healthcare? Find a credentialed expert on healthcare. Need to find a third example to round out your rhetorical device? Find a credentialed...person who does that. Even in our actual, imperfect world credentialing serves some purpose; after all, if I need surgery, I really do insist on someone who has passed medical school and is licensed to practice medicine. If I need my car fixed, I take it to the person who is a certified mechanic (well, actually I mostly still take it to my dad, but he retains his credentials from being raised on a farm, making him a certified expert in most small machines and large animals).
So in general: credentials are stupid, they don't necessarily signify any particular knowledge or access to knowledge, they're often used simply to exclude, and I hate them and wish they would go away. On the other hand, sometimes they're necessary so you don't have a mechanic operating on your heart and a cardiologist operating on your car.
Now that's all well and good at the grand level, but where I really struggle with credentials is at a smaller level. Specifically, the level of me.
One of the big things I try to teach all of my students is that very little about our criminal justice system is a settled fact. Instead, there are a lot of different theories about people, how we should use resources, what crimes are most important, etc. But I also try to emphasize the difference between a scientifically-informed opinion and everyone's own personal opinion. As the old saying goes, everyone has a right to their opinion, but that does not make all opinions equal.
As a Ph.D. criminologist, I technically have a scientifically -informed opinion about, say, policing (this is what I study in particular, so I feel most comfortable claiming some expertise there). Now, of course, mine is just one opinion among many and is by no means the most valid opinion on the subject. But it is a hell of a lot more valid than the opinion of people who have never studied policing at all.
And this matters a great deal. Not just for my own feelings (though, hey, those are important), but because most of our policing policy is set by people who have no scientific understanding of policing, while people who do are routinely ignored. This leads to...well, pay any slight amount of attention to the police and you'll see the problems this leads to.
Yet I think most people would see the obvious problem with not weighing people's opinions based on their credentials on major public policy issues, so this shit becomes a real struggle for me at the personal level. Because I often get into arguments about policing and criminal justice at bars, parties, family gatherings, etc. (I get into a lot of arguments). And while I'm not trying to posit myself as smarter than anyone involved, I am almost always the only criminologist in the discussion. And as much as I hate credentialism, that stands for something. I spent the better part of a decade earning a degree that specifically grants me expertise in this field. You read a facebook post. These are not equal sources of knowledge. The point isn't that I individually know more about this issue than you do (though make no mistake about it, I empirically do know more than you about this subject), but that if an opinion based off a years of rigorous scientific study is given no more weight than an opinion shaped by random facts and personal prejudice, then what point is there to the study of anything?
I guess the cynical/probably true answer to that is there is no point to studying anything, because we live in a political and economic climate that has long since demonstrated a complete disregard for things like "truth" and "reality." But the naive optimist in my would like to think it counts for something. At least enough so that the guy who spent years studying this one particular thing would be granted slightly more respect in that area than the cousin who read a facebook post that doesn't even make sense by its own logic.
Posted by Woz at 3:07 PM