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Bill Thayer

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Credentials

I've been getting more and more mail, almost always from young people with assignments, asking me where I got my information, how credible my site is, or sometimes — when you are honest — what my credentials are.

By profession I'm a simultaneous interpreter (French/English) specializing in mechanical engineering and the financial markets. In Roman history, art history, archaeology, architecture, etc. I have no credentials at all, but then those of you who are professionals in the various disciplines covered in this site will have seen that right away!

The rest of this page is therefore addressed to the young student: if you are bright and/or have a bright teacher, you now realize that "no credentials", while completely true, is not really a satisfactory answer. You have to figure out for yourself, based on internal evidence, to what extent my site should be believed; indeed, to what extent anything online should be believed, regardless of credentials. It is a skill you will need if you are not to be fooled by politicians, potential spouses, advertising agencies, stockbrokers, people with crackpot theories, and the like.

So. . . if your assignment includes checking out the credentials of people who write websites (including this one):

  1. By all means start by looking at those credentials: degrees and doctorates should tell you that the writer had the stick-to‑itiveness to work hard and succeed in a specialized field usually requiring mental discipline, and sometimes encyclopedic knowledge and original thinking.
     

  2. But, independently, look at what the writer actually says.

    Does it hang together? Is it understandable? Does it make logical sense? Does it match what you yourself know or what others know?

    On the negative side, does the writer claim to know everything? Does he make peculiar statements or have odd explanations with no proof behind them? And although a writer without opinions is dull, does he present those opinions as fact?
     

  3. Then balance the two against each other. Every once in a while, you'll find a person with good credentials writing a very bad text; sometimes you'll find someone with no credentials writing something of value. If you fail to see the proper value of something because you are looking only at someone's credentials or lack of credentials — either one — you are falling into a form of stereotyping, of bad judgment, called "credentialism".

Obviously, I like to think of myself as a guy with no credentials but writing fairly decent stuff. While that's up to you to judge, I can tell you one thing categorically: I try very hard to get my facts right and to present opinion as opinion. The rest is ignorance; each one of us swims in a sea of unknown.


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Page updated: 26 Jun 02