When I was working as a linguist – anthropologist for an Indian tribe, my silly boss told me that a professor told her that you can’t be a linguist or an anthropologist without a PhD. At the time, I was working on salary as a linguist – anthropologist. That was my job description, and I received a check for doing that. Working as a cultural anthropologist meant working with Indian informants, surveying literature, etc. It’s true, I didn’t have a degree in anthropology, but I had done lots of reading in the field and taken a course. I bought a book on how to do field anthropology and all the rest was what you call on the job learning. As far as being a linguist, I was doing that too. I had an MA in Linguistics, but had never taken a course in field methods. No problem. I just got a hold of a bunch of books, called up a bunch of professors and field linguists, and figured it out on my own. I was annoyed at the guy’s remark (he was some kind of a PhD somewhere), but it was no big deal. The world is full of idiots, and some of them even have PhD’s. My uncle had a PhD and he was one of the most arrogant people you have ever met. One time, he got into it with the department secretary and the department chair called him and read him the riot act. “Look!” the chair said. “Around here, PhD’s are a dime a dozen, but a really good secretary is damned hard to find! Now knock it off!” My uncle was furious that he was considered less than a lowly secretary and was constantly repeating this story to everyone who would hear, expecting them to share his outrage. Mostly I think the listeners just agreed with the department chair. Anyway, it wasn’t until recently that I caught on to what the professor with PhD fetish was all about. There are autodidacts all over the world, and I’ve been quite impressed by some of them. The ones who do best are the ones who follow academic consensus. Let me elaborate. In any field, consensus is more or less arrived at by the experts in the field, and most of them have degrees or even advanced degrees. An academic consensus about a variety of issues and theories related to the field develops over a period of time. In other areas, disagreement persists. And if the consensus is theoretically weak, eventually it starts getting challenged by a few renegades. One thing you notice about a lot of autodidacts is that they have a real scattershot education. They more or less gave themselves a degree or advanced degree, and they didn’t necessarily take the required courses. Upshot is that they are great at some stuff and terrible at other stuff. Worse, they often lack the essential basic background that those with a degree have. The field has been set for a crank. A scattershot education means the autodidact is often going off half-cocked and saying some really stupid things that no one with a real education would ever say. Really, if you want a seat at the table of debate, you need to prove to us that you deserve one. If you’re an autodidact, no problem, but shows that you’ve got the necessary background, either through formal or informal education, to get a seat at the table. If you can’t show us that, give us a reason why we should listen to you at all. That may sound cruel, but autodidacts do tons of damage to good theory, mostly by contaminating it in the public square. In the field of history, broad consensus has been reached about the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide and many other things. Yet the world is full of amateur historians who set out to prove that proven history never even happened. Sure, they are shut out of the academy. For damned good reason. So they contaminate the public sphere with very well-crafted nonsense designed to fool the gullible. I It’s no secret why nearly all Holocaust Deniers couldn’t get a history professorship even with millions of dollars. In academia, we don’t tolerate nuts, loons and cranks. You either back up your stuff with some sort of facts, or we don’t even let you in in the first place. Sure there are Creationists running around. Some even have Biology degrees. Do you think they can get a Biology Professorship somewhere? Not on your life. Their views are going to land them on their ass before they even have a foot in the door. There is consensus in meteorology about global warming. Outside the academy, the world is full of meteorological autodidacts whose great calculations show us that global warming cannot possibly be occurring. There is consensus in biology about which animals are species, subspecies and whatnot. There’s even an organization to stick names on critters. Outside the academy, there are all sorts of amateur field biologists, many receiving large paychecks, who know more than the standards bodies. Consensus in academia is criticized, but it’s not the bugaboo it seems. If it’s theoretically weak, some maverick will show up and start knocking over the furniture. He might make some folks mad, but they will generally keep it civil. A requirement in academia is to keep your differences with other scholars respectful and civil. If you notice the autodidacts, they don’t seem to be capable of doing that. They’re often screaming and yelling in various public forums, leaving nasty snail trails all over that are going to follow them wherever they go. Professors are not supposed to do that. If you do, you might get investigated, if not fired. Bottom line is that when some egghead makes an arrogant comment like the one you see in the headline above, unfortunately, there is some basis for saying that.
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