For someone who has obtained an advanced degree, the paper on the wall generally indicates a great deal of time and effort spent studying a certain discipline. As such, the individual holding the degree is generally considered an expert or authority in their chosen field. Law, medicine, and science are just some of the disciplines that offer advanced degrees. There is a tendency for society to be very impressed with advanced degrees and high-level credentials. In one way, an advanced degree gives some assurance that the person knows what they are talking about, but it cuts both ways; a degree is no guarantee and at worst an advanced degree can can be used as a tool to put others down. I recently had an email interaction that illustrates this situation. Note, I’ve censored the personal points below because my goal here is to not single individuals out, but to discuss behavior that I feel is detrimental to society as a whole.
I recently signed up for some customized remote programming. The customization was based on several tests that had to be performed in the beginning of the program. I was surprised that one of the tests was expecting a very high level of strength in order to be given their more advanced programming. The standard was set so high, in my opinion, that it made me question what the goal of the program was. I asked the individuals running the program to clarify and they maintained their upper body strength requirement (which I did not meet), is something that should be readily obtainable for a male. I asked them where they got their criteria from and they said that it’s readily evident from the many individuals they have trained or crossed paths with. Now, I know a thing or two about strength training and I have crossed paths with a lot of individuals as well, and my observations didn’t suggest such a tough strength criteria at all. They further elaborated that there were scientific studies that lead them to settle on their upper body strength requirement. I asked them to send me a list of the studies and the individual I was talking to didn’t have this list. He said he would have to ask his colleague.
A week or so later I still had not received any data, so I touched base again. The response I got was as follows:
“Hayden I forgot to send you the info on the data. It’s a meta analysis of research that we apply…”
So, at this point I was expecting them to send me a single meta analysis study. These types of studies systematically compile data from many other studies and run a statistical analysis on the pooled data to arrive and a conclusion. But the individual continued as follows:
“…Google scholar search for ‘strength and conditioning journal strength balance’ will give you most of the articles used. from there follow those articles for applicable cited sources…”
So, I asked for a list of references that had the relevant data and was told to perform a Google search. That search returned about 243,000 items. I then imagined myself at a scientific conference (I have presented at many) where a member of the audience asked me what I based my theory on, and I told them to perform a Google search. I would have gotten thrown out of the conference. That’s not how science works. I will also add that the very first reference in the list from the Google search has nothing to do with upper body strength – it is clearly not relevant to the question I was raising. This is a huge red flag against credibility. The response continued as follows:
“Regarding explaining the methodology of all of it to you, with a lot of respect the best answer I can give is that there is a reason we only hire staff with a doctorate or athletic training degree. The lengths to which we have extrapolated data goes above what is easily explained…I think the best option for you (since you live locally) would be to come out and go through a live exam if that’s in the realm of possibility for you.”
As if the initial part wasn’t disappointing enough, the individual has now proceeded to tell me that I wouldn’t understand the reasoning because a doctorate is needed. The individual writing possessed a Doctor of Chiropractic (DC) and apparently didn’t realize that I too had a doctorate…and a masters…and a bachelors (all in hard medical sciences). But it really shouldn’t have mattered. Doctors should be able to explain their reasoning. Offering a live exam was even more strange. Apparently if I pay more money everything will become clear? I told them I did have a doctorate and would in fact understand their reasoning. The response was:
“I provided you with a means to find your answer. All I’d be able to say beyond that is ‘this is what we read, this is how we interpreted, this is how we apply’. It’s obvious that you’re intelligent and inquisitive, I like people like that in our circle. I also think is only makes you more qualified to understand that a simple answer to your complex question just isn’t realistic.”
Again, Imagine if I gave that response at a scientific conference. I would be shunned. From the above exchange there is no way to know if there is any substance to the programming I bought into. The creators based the program’s integrity on science and refused to provide references to those studies. Their advanced degrees were used as an excuse to remain aloof. Yes, science can be very complicated, but in these medical and health related disciplines the purpose of science is to help humanity – all of it, not just those with advanced degrees. One of the benefits of obtaining a PhD in my chosen field is that you are taught to communicate your ideals simply and succinctly. Every grant submitted to the NIH (National Institutes of Health) for funding must have a paragraph explaining the project in simple language. Regardless of the topic it can be done and it’s important that it be done. The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science says it beautifully in their mission statement:
“We believe that scientists have a responsibility to share the meaning and implications of their work, and that an engaged public encourages sound public decision-making.”
So, the next time you cross paths with someone holding an advanced degree, remember, if their theories are based on personal observation, they should say so. If their theories are based on studies, they should point to them. Scientists and doctors should be responsible, and information should be shared. If they don’t know how to make their ideas clear, they should learn how, and if they refuse to do so, they should expect you to call them on their refusal. The betterment of humankind depends on it.