Since I joined Open Salon about two years ago, I've written a few controversial posts on topics like health care reform, global warming and the tea party movement. I've read a lot of controversial posts as well, enough by now to have noticed a definite--if not disturbing--trend among the people who write or comment on hot button issues. Many of these writers rely on supposed experts to support their arguments, to the extent of clinging to these 'experts' as if these men and women were their only saviors and the only voices of reason. Proof of the validity of the experts' opinions comes in a long list of their advanced degrees.
Now, my mother-in-law once told me that Ph.D. stands for 'Piled higher and Deeper', which is a succinct way of saying that it's not the degree that makes the expert but what you do with it. I have to agree with her, since I have a Ph.D. myself. In my line of work, your expert credentials aren't established when you get that nifty color-coordinated hood flopped over your head; they're established when you publish work that's evaluated by your peers who are other experts in the same field. But real academic street cred comes when other experts use the product of your research for their own work, even if it's only to show how wrong you are. Hey, at least you're worth the attention.
But if you don't have any work to publish, or if you do publish your work and nobody uses it…well, in the academic world that makes you a 'nobody'. The system's not perfect, but it's still the litmus test for whether or not anyone should listen to what you have to say. Nepotism exists in every walks of life and academia is not immune to it, although it's observed less frequently than in politics.
It's important to point out here that I'm not saying people who don't hold advanced degrees have nothing relevant to write or that they're full of it. What I'm saying is that a sad number of these supposed experts, upon whom so many far-right conservatives (and some left-wing too) heap their accolades and faith, really aren't experts at all.
Take these guys:
Dr. Gary A. Mauser
As many people already know, gun control is a very hot, very emotional topic in the U.S. In some of the most heated, the name Dr. Gary A. Mauser often shows up.
Dr. Mauser is very popular with the NRA because he's a big proponent of all things anti-gun control. Dr. Mauser, a professor of marketing at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C. (which gives my very Canadian wife no end of consternation), contends that legislating restricted access to guns has had no influence on the rate of violent crimes in countries where such laws have been enacted.
I'll leave aside the fact that I can show otherwise, because that's not my goal here. My goal is to show Dr. Mauser's credibility, so to get a better appreciation of his work I checked him out on Scopus and ISI Web of Knowledge. These are two key databases that track the academic records of researchers (that is, their peer-reviewed papers and textbooks), as well as how often other people use their work (as in, how often the work is cited). The latter one is usually better at tracking articles published in social sciences and liberal arts (I'm not sure why).
Given how frequently his name is used in the mainstream media, I was expecting a world-renowned researcher. Instead, I found this:
Figure 1. Scopus Output for Dr. Gary A. Mauser (with close-up) (Note: Web of Knowledge found 5 or 6 more papers)
According to Scopus and Web of Knowledge, since he became a professor in 1974, he's had one book published (in 1983, and not related to gun control) and a total of… about 15 papers! Of those, only 12 or so were related to gun control (over the last 20 years). Those on gun control are the ones important for this piece anyway. I said 'about' since even looking at his CV, it's unclear whether some of the papers are peer-reviewed articles or opinion pieces, a trick unproductive faculty members often use to hide their true track record (mix all publications under one category and label them as 'academic papers').
Looking at Scopus, his papers on gun control have been cited 7 times (which also includes self-citation, which doesn't count). For comparison purposes, I so far published 65 published papers, most of which were produced after 2001; they have been been cited 483 times (self-citations removed); this track record is actually very high in my field of work. Furthermore, many of the journals where Dr. Mauser published his work have what are called low impact factors, meaning that the journals are not well-regarded by the research community.
To be blunt, this poor academic track record would not even give him a tenured position in my department. At the opposite end of the spectrum, we find Dr. Arthur L. Kellermann, who has also conducted a lot of research on the consequences of gun violence. As of May 30th 2011, Dr. Kellermann had 146 peer-reviewed papers, which were cited 3,129 times (self-citations removed) (note: in medicine, papers are cited a lot). Quite a contrast to Gary Mauser.
It's easy to argue that based on his accomplishments, Dr. Mauser actually has no credibility in the area of gun violence. His publication record is abysmal and researchers of gun violence ignore his work, even if it is to refute it. Not good.
He's our first 'nobody.'
Dr. David Evans
Global warming is another hotly debated subject, with many people at opposite ends of the debate of (and at each other's throats about) whether it's human related or not. I've written a couple of times on this topic myself (not that I claim expertise; but I did do a lot of research).
Interestingly, two recent studies have shown that many so-called experts on the skeptic side of global warming often have a less than stellar publication record or haven't worked directly in climate or meteorological sciences, which means that may not actually have the knowledge needed to scientifically discuss global warming issues. You can find the studies here and here. (A big Thank you to Kent Pitman for the links!)
Why am I paging Dr. Evans? Well, he recently wrote a piece in the Financial Post about climate change and discussed how all the existing research conducted on this topic is a bogus effort to support a worldwide dictatorship and get the researchers more funding. Dr. Evans consulted for the Australian Greenhouse Office (now known as the Department of Climate Change) for many years, and is a mathematician and engineer who holds six university degrees, including a Ph.D. from Stanford University.
On paper, this looks very impressive. However, let's look at what Scopus has to say about his credentials and background.
Figure 2. Scopus Output for Dr. David Evans.
As you can see, Dr. Evans has published two papers in his entire career(!), and both of them were written around the time he received his doctorate, over twenty years ago. I'm sure the careful reader will also notice that neither of these papers is related to climate change.
So what does that tell us? That Dr. David Evans who has absolutely no credentials in the area of climate change (and not all that many in his original field of study either). That means his opinion is only as good as anyone else's. I'm not the only one who arrived at this conclusion, either. The first person who commented on his piece in the Financial Post raised the very same issue.
In short, he's our second 'nobody.'
Dr. Thomas E. Woods
One of the recent pieces written by fellow OSer Paul J. O'Rourke has created a lot of commotion within the libertarian community. In his post, Mr. O'Rourke wrote that Ron Paul didn't understand the U.S. Constitution. The libertarians got wind of that and all hell broke loose. Paul J.'s blog was flame-bombed, and a 'well-known' libertarian historian, Dr. Tom Woods, picked the blog up and wrote a piece on his own--on the very same day, no less--defaming Paul J. O'Rourke as "just some guy" (in other words, a nobody), who dared question Ron Paul's knowledge. Dr. Woods' fans cheered about how Dr. Woods kicked Paul J.'s ass, so to speak. One even going so far as to suggest Paul J. apologize to Ron Paul and Dr. Woods!
I'd never heard of Dr. Tom Woods, though he's apparently a 'Senior Fellow' at the Austrian Libertarian think-tank Ludwig von Mises Institute. I nonetheless read his piece, which I found laughable mainly because he entirely missed the point of Paul J.'s original piece (see his response to Woods' post here); this kind of miss-the-mark response is not uncommon for people who work as a 'fellow' at a third-rated institute rather than as a professor at a Tier I university. Looking at his credentials on his website, you'd think he's an authority on this subject, especially with all the blinking quotes rolling along the top of the page, trumpeting reviews of his books by Fox news and obscure Christian journals. So as with the other two people I discussed above, I decided to find out from Scopus and Web of Knowledge if that flashy website holds up to his reputation. Here's what Scopus said:
Figure 3. Scopus Output for Dr. Thomas Woods.
Just like his conservative peers, our good historian published a total of 3 papers in peer-reviewed journals (some also with low impact factors). One paper was in fact published in an Austrian economics journal that is actually put out by the Ludwig von Mises Institute (which, as you'll recall, has Dr. Woods as a senior fellow. Makes me wonder how rigorous the peer-review process was). And of these three papers, none actually dealt with American history. The final nail is that his papers were cited only once, by himself. I verified his track record on Web of Knowledge, which confirmed the papers extracted by Scopus.
"But what about all his books, Kanuk?" you may ask. It's true--If you visit his personal website and the website one for the Institute, he prominently displays his many books on American history, the Catholic religion, free market economics, etc. Again, the list surely looks remarkable. But if you look more closely, you'll see that most of his books are published by Regnery Publishing. Regency Publishing is a Washington-based company that exclusively publishes right-wing themed (some might say propaganda) books, many of which are aimed at attacking liberals. Here's a quote from some promotional material for one of their books: "The Official Handbook of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy has all the ammunition you need to help you win every argument against loony liberals." Not exactly Oxford University Press, is it?
At this point, it's pretty easy to guess that his books didn't go through a thorough and independent review process to ensure the facts are true and given in proper context. In fact, it's been reported that Dr. Woods often cherry picks historical information in order to support his libertarian views. You can see an example here. So much for academic honesty.
The bottom line is that Dr. Woods is also a 'nobody', despite how flashy his website and bio may look. He's far from being an authority on American history, especially when you compare his credentials to world-renowned and more intellectually honest researchers, such as Dr. Richard Beenman, John Welsh Centennial Professor of History at PennState, who has published more than 36 peer-reviewed articles and 7 books, most of which were published in academic presses. I'm certain Dr. Beenman, given his other academic duties, doesn't have the same free time Dr. Woods has for writing books (and papers).
The upshot is, fancy credentials can be misleading, and holding a doctoral degree doesn't automatically mean you know what you're talking about. In order to be a real expert, you need to show that your work has been valued by your peers. Just like you can't be the prom queen if no one knows your name, you can't be the authority on an issue if no one respects your work enough to read it. (And of course it helps to have actually written something on your claimed expertise.)
Anyone can have an opinion, but opinions aren't facts, and if you're going to say your opinion is the only one that counts than you really need to have the credentials to back it up. Unfortunately, there are far too many people out there who don't understand that, and are therefore easily manipulated by bogus experts like these.
You've been warned.
Thank you to Taste is Sweet for her input and suggestions.