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Gertrude Elion, an example of the opposite of credentialism, and how you can go far scientifically without credentials.
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I don't expect anybody with no musical background to get it. I took classical piano for fifteen fucking years, theory, composition, the whole thing, and I'm getting so fucking tired of people saying, 'Oh, it's a rock 'n' roll guy fucking around with electronic music.' That's bullshit. One of these days I'm gonna pull my degrees out and say, 'Does that make me legitimate?' But I don't wanna do that because that's horseshit too.
—Lou Reed on his album Metal Machine MusicWikipedia[1]

Credentialism is excessive reliance on credentials, especially academic degrees.[2] The term originally was applied to over-reliance on credentials in hiring, but its use has broadened.

Credentials (from the Latin credere, "to believe"[note 1]) are third-party acknowledgments that the holder possesses the requisite knowledge and clearance 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 someone has the appropriate credentials, we can assume they're close enough to an expert. Less ideally, they are a union card (it's hard to get even a crappy academic job without a Ph.D.), though this can be an example of a well-intended system occasionally going wrong. Even less ideally, credentialism can be used to bully others or to dodge examination of one's ideas: "I'm a Ph.D. and you're not."

Expecting a pass on credentials[edit]

I really am NOT a PhD. What happened was that the day I went to pay off my college student loan at the U of U [University of Utah], the girl working there put my receipt into the wrong stack, and two weeks later, a PhD diploma came in the mail. I didn't even graduate, I only had about 3 years of college credit. In fact, I never did even learn what the letters "PhD" even stood for. For all of the Electronic Engineers I have worked with, I'm sorry, but you have to admit my designs always worked very well, and were well engineered, and I always made you laugh at work.
—Val Patterson[3]

A credential often functions unofficially as a form of bragging rights — in such cases, a pecking order often exists where those with higher credentials are superior to those with lower (or no) credentials. 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 our 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 Ph.D.) as if having said credential is sufficient to establish the validity of one's arguments; 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.

Academic excellence without credentials[edit]

Despite what credentialists might have you think, it is indeed possible to achieve academic excellence without a Ph.D., but it is much more difficult[4] and it was easier before the 20th century when the Ph.D. started to become much more common. Some examples are:

  • Guglielmo MarconiWikipedia never received an academic degree. Though he studied under physicist Augusto Righi, he was reportedly not a good student. He shared the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on radio communication.
  • Richard PetoWikipedia is one of the world's top epidemiologists and an expert in cancer prevention. He only obtained a Bachelor's Degree in mathematics, and he was initially hired as a computer programmer by his colleague, Sir Richard Doll,Wikipedia in order to dodge administrative credentialism at the University of Oxford.[5]
  • Gertrude B. Elion shared the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. She had dropped out of a Ph.D. program in order to earn a living at Burroughs Wellcome.[4]

Credential abuse[edit]

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. 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.

Credentials as a form of coercion[edit]

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.[note 2] "Credentials" of this type are becoming so easy to come by that some individuals have taken to collecting them.

Is there a doctor in the house?[edit]

Doctor Victoria Zdrok. She's a Doctor of Jurisprudence and has a Ph.D. in psychology. This is what someone with academically legitimate qualifications looks like. Become a grad student today!

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 Ph.D., hers is in physiology and has nothing to do with the counseling work she became famous for.
    • Contrast Dr. Laura to Dr. Victoria Zdrok, a Penthouse Pet, porn star and sex therapist. Dr. Zdrok has both a law degree (although is not licensed) and a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, as well as post-doc certification in sex therapy. Having a Ph.D. in psychology as well the post-doctoral are qualifications for a sex therapist.
    • Hell, even Dr. Phil McGraw (Ph.D. in clinical psychology[note 3]) 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 like they should carry some weight.
  • Robin Falkov, live-in companion of the pseudoscientist Richard Hoagland, called herself "doctor" at every opportunity and on one web site listed herself as a primary care physician.[7] In reality she practices homeopathy and crusades against vaccines. Her degrees were Doctor of Oriental Medicine (from the Acupuncture and Massage College, in Miami, Florida) and Diplomate, National Board of Homeopathic Examiners.
  • Donald Gary YoungWikipedia, the late CEO of snake oil manufacturer essential oil company Young Living took this in another direction, using the fact that his first name starts with D to refer to himself as D. Gary Young so that people who don't know better might think the D stands for doctor and that he might have some kind of qualifications, despite his history of being unable to differentiate cat and human blood and an arrest for practising medicine without a license. He in fact held no degrees at all, having failed to complete a course in therapeutic massage in the 1980s.[8][9]
  • "Dr John Gray, PhD", author of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, who promoted himself using an unaccredited correspondence doctorate from the defunct Columbia Pacific University.[10] In recent years he has removed some of the letters from the covers of his books, but he still uses them in some contexts.[11]

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.BCh. (Medicinae Baccalaureus, Baccalaureus Chirurgiae - Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery in Latin), 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.

In countries where higher education is rare, such as Timor-Leste, a bachelor's degree is sufficient for the title "Doctor". It's best not to use this title outside the countries in question.


You see, this shrieking TV woman began by saying that she is not a doctor or medical professional of any kind, which already had me skeptical about whatever she was going to shout next. But then she delivered her position on why parents shouldn't vaccinate their children in a much louder voice than my doctor, and it put some serious doubts in my mind. Would someone less sure of herself be able to be quite so loud? It seems unlikely.
The Onion[12]

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 rhetorical maneuver implies (or states outright) 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 Ph.D. without a broad command of several subjects is worthless as an expert.
  • Joe Newman has issued many debate challenges to "Ph.D. 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 pwned in the 1980s by one John Glenn, Democratic senator from Ohio, who was not a Ph.D. 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 Ph.D. 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 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.[note 4]
  • 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.

Such poisoning the well arguments tend to amount to no more than territorialism on the part of the believers.

Diploma mills[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Diploma mill

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.[note 5]

Making it up[edit]

In saying I have 'no training' he has lied. I have a Cambridge degree in classical architecture.
Viscount Christopher Monckton, climatologist [?][13]

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 "Church of the New Truth"[14][15] — is just fine. At least for aesthetic purposes.)

Credentials on wikis[edit]

Credentials on Wikipedia[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Wikipedia
The Wikipedia heckler

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).[note 6] 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.[16][17] 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[edit]

See the main article on this topic: 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[edit]

See the main article on this topic: RationalWiki

Vaguely coherent? Not likely to projectile-vomit all over the wiki? Here's your mop. Spill on Aisle 3!

Credentials on Conservapedia[edit]

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.

The one exception is Andrew Schlafly, the site's owner, who is an expert on virtually every topic under the sun.

See also[edit]


  1. Present participle: credens
  2. 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.
  3. For his doctoral dissertation, McGraw explored a peculiar hypothesis and got the perhaps disappointing result that biofeedback did not control skin temperature for rheumatoid arthritis patients.[6]
  4. For those who don't know much about software development, this is like claiming you're a chef by virtue of being able to heat up a TV dinner or cook a hot dog.
  5. Hovind's ludicrously juvenile "dissertation" is something of a running joke in some parts of the skeptical movement.
  6. 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.


  1. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic: Rock'N'Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock 'N'Roll by Lester Bangs (1988) Anchor. ISBN 0679720456. p. 190
  2. Definition of credentialism from Merriam-Webster
  3. Val Patterson (1953-2012)
  4. 4.0 4.1 How To Succeed In Science Without A Ph.D.: It's Difficult by Elizabeth Culotta (June 8, 1992) The Scientist.
  5. Richard Peto: Statistician with a Mission by C. Mann, (1990). Science 249 (4968): 479–426. doi:10.1126/science.249.4968.479. PMID 17735279.
  6. Rheumatoid Arthritis: A Psychological Intervention by Phillip C. McGraw (1979) North Texas State University.
  10. See the Wikipedia article on John Gray (U.S. author).
  11. 169: Dr. John Gray – Men’s happiness comes in pleasing a woman, Speaking of Partnership, 2018
  12. "My Doctor Told Me I Should Vaccinate My Children, But Then Someone Much Louder Than My Doctor Told Me I Shouldn't".
  13. Ben Heather, "Sceptic's ire amuses, but views retain sting".
  14. Arthur J. Kaul, Hunter S. Thompson., undated article.
  15. Ian Johnson, An Unpublished Interview With Hunter S. Thompson. The Quietus, 17 February 2011.
  16. Wikipedia: Why does Essjay need to "protect himself"? Mitch Ratcliffe, Rational Rants, ZDNet March 5, 2007.
  17. Fake professor in Wikipedia storm, BBC News.