I’ll be spending tonight trying to finish up a system for one of those companies that hired me as a programmer despite my glaring lack of credentials, so this will be relatively short. But my post(s) about experts and college degrees sparked a lot of comments, so I want to toss a few more of my own thoughts into the mix.
I went to college and I’m glad I did, but I haven’t used my degree for much of anything. I worked at a small magazine for four years, and the degree in journalism no doubt helped me land that job, but journalism classes didn’t turn me into a writer. Writing turned me into a writer. I switched my major to journalism after I’d already landed a job with the college paper as a features reporter — and I landed that job because I applied for it shortly after winning a campus fiction contest sponsored by the newspaper. My major at the time was psychology.
Since leaving college, I’ve had a strange assortment of jobs. Some freelance writing, playing bass in a couple of bands, acting in commercials and industrial films (long before I took an acting class), composing music for a few industrial films (all through MIDI tracks; I don’t read music and have no formal training), several years of standup comedy, software trainer, and finally computer programming — again, self-taught.
Given my work history, it’s no surprise I don’t believe the only way to develop a skill or acquire useful knowledge is to attend classes. And history agrees with me. I mentioned Thomas Edison in my post. Others have pointed out that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are college dropouts. Same goes for Alexander Graham Bell, whose early interests were art and music and who, according to his biographers, used to entertain his family and their guests with vocal impressions. I guess he was just a comedian for awhile.
Much as I admire Thomas Jefferson, I believe the greatest American who ever lived was Benjamin Franklin. I can’t think of anyone else who succeeded in so many fields: printer, author, humorist, diplomat, statesman, scientist, and of course inventor. In addition to inventing the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove, he was one of the top theorists and researchers of his day in the new field of electricity. And he managed all this despite completing just two years of school. (I’m currently reading his autobiography.)
All that being said, I’m not knocking formal education. If I wanted to work in particle physics, I’d sure as heck attend a university and work towards a PhD. Nor would I undergo an operation performed by a surgeon who hadn’t finished medical school, an internship, and residency. You get the idea.
My beef is with people who seem to believe experts with degrees should never be challenged by what my brother referred to as “the non-anointed.” That’s utter hogwash. Science belongs to everyone. Math belongs to everyone. Logic belongs to everyone.
In previous posts, I’ve mentioned my college physics professor who told us, “Learn math. Math is how you know when they’re lying to you.” He said that as a guest lecturer in a humanities class. This was a guy with PhDs in both physics and chemistry, but you’ll notice he didn’t tell us, “Learn math and then get a PhD, and then you’ll finally be worthy of questioning the experts.” Nope … he was telling us that if we can do the math and apply some logic, then we can question the conclusions.
And we should. If average citizens don’t question the experts, we’re all screwed. Just look where the expert advice to eat a lot of carbohydrates and avoid fat has gotten us. Look what happened when experts told us corn oil was good for our hearts.
If you tell me 5+5 =11, I don’t care if you have a PhD, I’m going to disagree. If you tell me people with gray hair have a disproportionate number of heart attacks and that gray hair must therefore cause heart disease, I’m going to point out that we’re probably looking at an association, not a cause. If you tell me a study proves that whole grains prevent diabetes and I discover while reading the study that whole grains replaced white flour in the subjects’ diets, I’m going to suggest that maybe it was removing white flour that made the difference.
It doesn’t take a genius IQ to find the flaws in a lot of nutrition “science.” It just requires mathematical literacy and perhaps some ability with Excel. The American Heart Association tells us our LDL should be below 130 to prevent heart disease. When I plugged their own data into Excel, I found that people with LDL below 130 account for more than their share of heart disease. When I plugged the World Health Organization’s worldwide population data about cholesterol levels and heart disease rates into Excel and ran the CORR function, I found nothing except a very slight negative association (meaning lower cholesterol was correlated with a slightly higher rate of heart disease). The math is what the math is. If you disagree with my conclusions, do it with math. Whether or not I have a medical degree is immaterial.
And that’s what some of the experts with degrees (and their awe-struck followers) can’t stand, especially in today’s digital age: we can call them out publicly. We can find and call attention to the errors in their data or logic. Knowledge and publishing have been democratized. When they react to criticism by hiding behind their degrees instead of defending their conclusions, you should be very, very suspicious.
That’s exactly what happened when Denise Minger ran the numbers on T. Colin Campbell’s data to show his conclusions don’t hold up. She didn’t even claim that plant-based diets aren’t superior — in fact, she said specifically that her numbers didn’t prove anything conclusive about diets and health. She merely pointed out that Campbell’s data doesn’t prove anything either. Toss in a variable here and there that Campbell left out, and some of his ballyhooed correlations disappear or start going in the other direction.
Campbell reacted by saying he sincerely doubted a young woman working in her spare time could have performed such a sophisticated analysis (then who did, Dr. Campbell, and what does that have to do with anything?), that she probably doesn’t fully comprehend the research, and that he’s too busy to answer her anyway. Boil it down, and you get this: I’m a researcher with a PhD and she’s 23-year-old, so don’t listen to her.
And of course Campbell’s True Believers have been jumping all over every blog that praised Minger’s analyses, acting like Taliban members who heard someone diss Allah, and all saying pretty much the same thing: Do Not Question The Master. Here’s an excerpt from one I received today:
So for those of you who choose to discredit the science and want to believe your bologny, it is for one reason and one reason only because you like to eat dead parts of animals, because you do not want to believe the truth, because you want to keep eating animal products. Go ahead and do what you want. I am so sick and tired of people like you trying to discredit the truth and having the large corporations obviously coining the billions of dollars from you, go ahead! You can all spend your lives taking medications being owned by the pharmaceutical industry. Keep making the cruel corporations rich, keep supporting the pharmaceutical industry. But, leave the truth alone!!!
So the only reason to question Campbell’s math would be a desire to eat dead parts of animals and support big pharma. Can’t argue with that logic. Here’s another:
It is not appropriate for a critic like Ms Minger to publish a technical critique of a scientific work without first subjecting it to evaluation by her peers through a peer-reviewed study because the public is not as equipped to analyze it as well as trained professionals. It is not appropriate to scribe equal credibility to her statements and those of the author either. If and when she does that I will be happy to read her critique and compare it to the original work and the peer review.
Ah yes, I’m sure Ms. Minger would have no problem convening a scientific committee to peer-review a blog post, so please don’t strain your brain reading her analysis until that happens. And why exactly is it “inappropriate” for her publish a critique? Once again, the math is what the math is. A blessing by The Council of Elders doesn’t morph it from blasphemy into truth.
Minger ran the same statistical calculations that Campbell ran, using his down data. She merely pointed out correlations within his data that he chose to ignore. Rather than thinking, the commenter is sticking his head in the sand … after hiding behind Campbell’s degree and some nonsense about how “the public” isn’t equipped to evaluate her work. (Hey, that’s weird … she’s a mere member of the public, and she did quite an analysis of The Master’s work.) In fact, despite all the comments posted on this blog by Campbell True Believers, I have yet to read one that disputes her math.
Perhaps it’s because math is how you know when they’re lying to you. And math belongs to all of us … brilliant 23-year-old bloggers and PhDs alike.