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Credentialism is the undue reliance or emphasis upon credentials such as titles, awards, and college degrees as an indicator of a person or group's intellectual, financial or social worth; in particular, the worth of their opinions.
Although credentials can be abused, they are not valueless. Someone with professional or academic credentials from a credible source has at least spent some time studying or practicing in a particular area, even if their judgments aren't always correct. It is often appropriate to be suspicious of supposedly expert assertions for which credentialed proponents cannot be found. Conversely, though, one should not assume that an assertion is correct simply because someone with credentials claims that it is.
Remember that lots of important information has no dependence on credentials. Exclusive reliance on credentials can imply that statements of fact, and personal statements, neither of which require credentials, are unimportant.
Sometimes credentials can be used in a misleading manner. Sometimes a supposedly "expert" statement is made by someone identified as having credentials, without making it clear that the credentials are in a field unrelated to the statement. For example, while Laura Schlessinger has a counseling and social advocacy radio show titled "Dr. Laura", her only doctoral degree as of 2003 was a PhD in physiology. (Furthermore, she refers to her "post-doctoral studies" which were in an unrelated Masters level family counseling program, further leading listeners to assume she had a psychology doctorate.)
Other times credentials can come from suspicious or non-disinterested sources, or involve less oversight than a casual reader might believe. Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard at various times in his life claimed various PhDs, in one case awarded by a diploma mill in California, and in other cases awarded by himself. Similarly, some Scientology front groups have advertised endorsements by other Scientology front groups, without the common Scientology connection being revealed.
Credentials can sometimes hint at possible bias on the speaker's part. If someone with a credential in either environmental issues or economics expresses opinions on an issue relevant to both, their remarks may reflect a bias favoring their own field. And those that have received awards or other favors from particular organizations may sometimes be biased concerning the agenda of those organizations. Like most other statements about credentials, though, this is far from a hard and fast rule.
The opposite of credentialism might be called justfolksism. (Perhaps someone will provide a term already in circulation.) A quote in a news story from a "citizen," "neighbor," or "employee" could be masking expertise and bias. For example, consider a citizen who comes to a demonstration and is quoted without disclosing the information that he or she is a an award-winning expert with a stake in one side of the issue or a paid operative of a political party or lobby.
- Trust Us, We're Experts!: How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles With Your Health