When I was in high school, my grandparents took me on a trip across the country. Back then, I was firmly in the evangelical Christian camp. They were not, so we had some lively discussions.
During one of them, my grandfather asked what credentials one of my sources had earned. “Where had he gone to college? How about graduate school?”
“What does that matter?” I thought. “What’s important is whether his arguments are sound.”
Today, I realize I was naive to think that arguments in subjects such as religion or politics can be evaluated as if they were mathematical proofs. Like it or not, we must rely, at least in part, on the qualifications of the arguer. This is Rule #3 in this series:
#3: What are the academic qualifications of the author?
To review the other two rules, they were
#1: When the website makes a mistake, what kind is it?
#2: When the website makes a mistake, how do they handle it?
In America’s egalitarian culture, we distrust “elites.” I think this was baked into our cultural DNA 240 years ago when we, a scrappy band of farmers, broke free from the King of England and his mighty empire. Our Declaration of Independence was basically one complaint after another about the elites, especially the king himself.
It is also an American trait to root for the underdog. I couldn’t care less about baseball, but when I happened to awaken in the middle of the night of the last game of the 2016 World Series, the first and only thing I did was check the news to see if the Chicago Cubs, who famously had not won a Series since 1908, had finally taken the trophy. (In case you’ve been living under a rock: YES THEY DID!!!!)
So it is natural that we Americans seem particularly prone to fall under the spell of an Everyman who claims to know what the elites don’t. How much Internet click-bait have you seen along the lines of “What your doctor doesn’t want you to know about psoriasis” or “Insurance companies hate this man”?
It seems not to matter that a real doctor has undergone years of specialized study and incredibly demanding clinical training, nor that the material he learns is the hard-won result of decades of rigorous work in the lab. We would rather believe an ordinary person who claims to know even more than our doctor. All he must do to convince us is present a couple of “facts” that our doctor has never mentioned, and we are convinced that the medical establishment has conspired against us common folk all these years so they’ll have money to play golf every Wednesday afternoon.
This week, I started to read Richard Dawkins’ The Extended Phenotype. What a difference between elite scientist Richard Dawkins and the creationists I used to read such as Duane Gish and Henry Morris! I wish I had learned decades ago to follow another American trait: we respect hard work.
To put it another way, we don’t like lazy people. Our frontier mentality respects those who have worked hard and honestly. So let’s apply that to the world of knowledge. Let’s respect those who have put in the years of study and earned real qualifications, rather than those who attempt to jump to the front of the line and claim to be scientists, historians, or journalists when they haven’t earned it.
Usually, people who have studied more, know more.
In the next and final post in this series, I will propose what I think is the most telling test for a website’s trustworthiness: how the author deals with his ideological opponents.