Credentials (from the Latin credere, "to believe") are third-party acknowledgments that the holder possesses the requisite knowledge and clearance to do a job relating to a specific field of knowledge. Most are educational in nature, usually a diploma indicating the completion of a specific course of study (high school, bachelor of science or arts, graduate degree, Minesweeper Consultant and Solitaire Engineer, etc.). Professional credentials such as press passes or convention badges indicate a right to a certain level of access, as do governmental/military credentials.
Ideally, credentials are an attempt to solve the problem of finding expertise: if they have the credentials, they're close enough to expert. Less ideally, they are a union card (it's hard to get even a crappy academic job without a Ph.D) or a way to dodge examination of one's ideas.
 Expecting a pass on credentials
A credential often functions unofficially as a form of bragging rights — in such cases, a pecking order often exists where those with more qualified credentials are superior to those without them. While not inherently a bad thing - experts can't be reasonably expected to put up with idiocy indefinitely (the source of the "expert problem" on Wikipedia) - the pecking order can be abused to subdue those who don't fit in with the higher levels. For RationalWiki's purposes, we specifically will explore cases where credentials are abused to shut people out of debates.
Two sure signs of an intellectual bully are:
- Harping on the bully's credentials (usually a PhD) as if having said credential is sufficient to make one an expert on a subject; and
- Harping on the target's lack of credentials as an indicator that they are not qualified to comment.
While credentials do serve as a valuable rule of thumb for figuring out what a person should know, such rank-pulling tends to ignore that what's important is not the diploma but the knowledge that it represents, and that credential abuse can backfire horribly if the person in question does not have the standards of knowledge or professionalism that those credentials represent.
 Credential abuse
Sometimes, ego just gets the better of people. Many people may falsely claim credentials or stretch the truth of what they mean. Slapping "Ph.D" after your name is a sure fire way to seem credible but anyone in-the-know will try to see the thesis that earned someone that qualification, and a 42 page document entitled "Homeopathy, it rocks!" from an unaccredited (as in, the institution doesn't have the credentials to give credentials...) university that is unavailable for public reading just plain and simply doesn't cut the mustard.
 Diploma mills
The entire field of "distance learning" (as well as large swaths of Christian higher education) is badly tainted by the phenomenon of these "schools", which are often little more than mail drops with the ability to generate authentic-looking diplomas in return for a check and a perfunctory dissertation. To get around the problem of accreditation, such "schools" often gain accreditation from "accreditation mills", which are willing to produce fake legitimacy for schools with no discernible curriculum beyond check signing. Creationism activists such as Kent Hovind and Carl Baugh are particularly well known for this.
 Is there a doctor in the house?
People with no substance will do anything to tack "Doctor" on their name, as this appears to impress people. This can count as deception even if the doctorate is legitimate in another field.
- Dr. Laura Schlessinger is one of the most insidious examples of this; though a legitimate PhD, hers is in physiology and has nothing to do with the counseling work she became famous for.
- Dr. Victoria Zdrok, a Penthouse Pet, porn star and sex therapist, is more legitimate than Dr. Laura; though her PhD in clinical psychology is law-related, she has a post-doc in sex therapy.
- Hell, even Dr. Phil McGraw (Ph.D. in clinical psychology) is more legit than Dr. Laura, he left this field to work for a company called Courtroom Sciences Inc. where he met Oprah Winfrey when she was being sued by Texas cattlemen. He's a PR guy, not a working psychologist (though admittedly PR and therapy come at psychology from rather different perspectives).
- "Dr." Gillian McKeith, or "the awful poo lady", was forced to drop the "Doctor" title after it was revealed her actual Ph.D was from a diploma mill. This is usually the case with most quack nutritionists who claim expertise in their field of work, unfortunately.
- Dr. Orly Taitz is a dentist, which is of course absolutely an important thing to stress when bringing frivolous birther lawsuits.
- Reverend Dr. Charles McVety (a Canadian evangelist, theocrat, and bigoted blowhard) is very often referred to as "Doctor" McVety by his supporters, despite his doctorate being honorary. While this is technically allowed, it is often used in McVety's case to make his bogus arguments against gays and liberals sound even remotely correct.
As a sidenote, in Commonwealth countries, certain non-doctorate medical degrees do actually entitle the holder to the formal title of "Doctor". These degrees are MB.BS. (Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery), MB.BChem. (Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Chemistry), BDSc (Bachelor of Dental Science) and BVSc (Bachelor of Veterinary Science). The academic requirements to earn these degrees are equivalent to those required in the USA, hence the qualifications are generally regarded as equal.
Lack of credentials are often used as an inverted argument from authority by some anti-rationalist debaters. Essentially a sort of populist conspiracy theory, this particular rhetorical maneuver tends to assume that those who do hold credentials are part of a conspiracy to keep those who aren't Their Sort of People out of the field; a less-paranoid variant assumes that specialists in a field are invariably infected with hammer-and-nail syndrome and are unable to see solutions outside their own paradigm. (These are the types of people who really, really like the word "paradigm". Talk about hammer-and-nail syndrome.)
- Duane Gish is notorious for using his Gish Gallop debating technique to snow scientist opponents, thereby indirectly implying that a PhD without a broad command of several subjects is worthless as an expert.
- Joe Newman has issued many debate challenges to "PhD physicists" over the almost-but-not-quite-perpetual motion claims that Newman makes for his Energy Machine. Let the record show that he was thoroughly pwnt in the 1980s by one John Glenn, Democratic senator from Ohio, who was not a PhD physicist but had picked up enough from his training as one of the US's first astronauts to nail Newman to the wall anyway.
- James Randi and Martin Gardner have both had their credentials questioned by PhD scientists (usually paranormal believers) regarding their opposition to paranormal research; the fact that both are trained magicians who know how to spot "psychic" deception seems to have no import. This particular maneuver, also widely used by defenders of postmodern gibberish and by theologians convinced that atheists don't really understand the material, is also known as the courtier's reply.
- Michael Hyatt, a conservative/survivalist writer, wrote in his Y2K propaganda piece The Millennium Bug that being a trained software engineer actually was an impediment to solving the Y2K bug, since software engineers had created the problem in the first place. Hyatt's own credentials in software design: Pascal and three dialects of BASIC.
- The above-mentioned Joe Newman, along with many other pseudoscience hucksters such as Dennis Lee, often invoke the well-founded doubts of scientists about their claims as evidence that scientists find those claims to be a threat to their beliefs.
- Erich von Däniken described himself as a "Sunday archaeologist" in some of his books, as if this amateurism gave him an insight into history that professional archaeologists lacked.
 Making it up
If all else fails, make up your own qualification, such as Doctor of Cubism. (Though Hunter S. Thompson's "Doctor of Journalism" - a Doctorate of Divinity he bought by mail order from the Universal Life Church - is just fine. At least for aesthetic purposes.)
 Credentials on wikis
 Credentials on Wikipedia
One of Wikipedia's more controversial points is that for its purposes, experts and expertise count for nothing. The site's egalitarian, "anyone can edit" ethos means that someone who has published dozens of journal articles on a topic gets no more consideration than a certifiable moron. All material must be cited to established secondary sources with no original research (i.e., the editor's own work). The intent was to avoid credential bullying.
One of the problems with this is that experts get sick of dealing with perpetual blithering idiocy and being expected to just put up with it - then being penalised when they finally blow their top. That said, you can hardly move on Wikipedia without bumping into a Ph.D. Wikipedia is not for everyone, and genuine experts quickly learn that what matters is not their knowledge but their ability to remain unfailingly polite in the face of provocation.
During 2007, a Wikipedia critic, Daniel Brandt, outed user Essjay as lying about his credentials (he claimed to be a graduate-level college instructor of theology). Since Essjay (apparent real name Ryan Jordan) had been hired for a paying job by Wikia and had been a member of the Arbitration Committee and had furthermore used his alleged credentials as a cudgel, the revelation led to an investigation and Essjay's subsequent resignation from Wikia. Despite the fact that Essjay's expertise and credentials were nonexistent, this somehow boomeranged into a validation of skepticism toward real experts.
 Credentials on Citizendium
Citizendium tried to solve the expert problem using credentialism. This led to an infestation of cranks and pseudoscientists, who may not have actual expertise, but know all about getting pieces of sheepskin and wielding the status they confer.
 Credentials on RationalWiki
Vaguely coherent? Not likely to projectile-vomit all over the wiki? Here's your mop. Spill on Aisle 3!
 Credentials on Conservapedia
- See the main article on this topic: Conservapedia:Credentials
- See the main article on this topic: Conservapedia:Best of the Public
The right-wing and ultra-conservative website Conservapedia is known for invoking many of the arguments mentioned above. In general, having qualifications is frowned upon, and anyone claiming expertise in a field (particularly fields that may prove the senior sysops wrong) is treated with suspicion. This is somewhat bizarre, as the website claims that one of its major differences to Wikipedia is that it does not drive away experts.
 Credentials as a form of coercion
There is a growing trend of organisations conferring credentials (these ones being even less valuable than those from diploma mills - and that's saying something) in order to coerce the recipient, or those in the recipient's sphere of influence, that they are a reputable organisation. This can be a source of some amusement as, in particular, Doctor of Divinity "Credentials" of this type are becoming so easy to come by that some individuals have taken to collecting them.
- ↑ Present participle: credens
- ↑ Hovind's ludicrously juvenile "dissertation" is something of a running joke in some parts of the skeptical movement.
- ↑ For those who don't know much about software development, this is like claiming you're a home builder because you once built a shanty out of cinder blocks and plywood, or a chef by virtue of being able to heat up a TV dinner or cook a hot dog.
- ↑ The "no original research" rule was established to get the physics cranks to STFU. As it turns out, it's a good summary of what an encyclopedia is: a secondary or tertiary source.
- ↑ Wikipedia: Why does Essjay need to "protect himself"? Mitch Ratcliffe, Rational Rants, ZDNet March 5, 2007.
- ↑ Fake professor in Wikipedia storm, BBC News.
- ↑ Whether this is the "usual" form of honorary doctorate, or meant to connote some kind of religious expertise, is as up for debate as the credentials themselves.