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Understanding the difference between credentialists and non-credentialists

Updated: 6 days ago

Imagine a friend tells you that they watched a debate between someone with a nutrition PhD and a completely self-taught person about the eating habits most conducive to long-term health. 

Your friend tells you that the PhD made bad arguments and pointed to weak evidence, while the self-taught person made very strong arguments, pointed to strong evidence, and had a very solid command of the relevant facts.

How skeptical would you be that your friend is describing the situation accurately?

You might think that people without credentials have no business talking about things they didn't receive formal training in. If so, you would probably be fairly skeptical of what your friend has told you. In this case, you may be what's known as a "credentialist"

Alternatively, you might think that people who are self-taught can know (through hard work and a lot of research) more about a subject than someone with an advanced degree in it. If so, then maybe you would believe what your friend said. That might indicate you're a "non-credentialist".

Where do you think you would fit in the "Non-Credentialist to Credentialist spectrum"?

What does it mean to be a Credentialist?

An extreme credentialist might get annoyed when someone without the right qualifications is giving their opinion on a topic (especially when contradicting an expert). 

They might also believe that it is unlikely that someone could get really good at a complex topic without formal training and find it annoying when, for example, startup founders talk about disrupting industries they have not already worked in.

Extreme credentialists place great importance on formal degrees (e.g., PhDs and MDs) and trust people a lot more when they have formal credentials (perhaps especially if they went to an excellent college), often describing people in terms of their schooling and job history (rather than, for example, their personality). If they want to become skilled in a certain field, they tend to seek out formal training.

Here are some real written statements from people who are at the Credentialist end of the Non-Credentialist to Credentialist spectrum from our research:

  • "I don't respect people who don't have formal credentials and one of my biggest pet peeves is people - even really intelligent people - speaking about things they aren't experts on. Just because someone is known, or even renowned in another field, doesn't place their opinion on another topic anywhere above another non-educated person."

  • "People with formal credentials have generally gone through a rigorous peer review process that demands a considerable depth of understanding and knowledge."

  • "People who don't have credentials have no business talking about things they know nothing about. That's how misinformation gets spread, and misinformation is harmful to society as a whole."

What does it mean to be a Non-credentialist?

An extreme non-credentialist might think that it's a good thing to express your opinion, even when you're not especially educated in an area, and that it is fine (or even good) for non-experts to criticize those with formal credentials. They have no problem with, for example, startup founders attempting to disrupt industries from the outside.

Extreme non-credentialists are not particularly impressed by formal degrees; they don't view degrees or certifications as a strong indicator of trustworthiness, and are more prone to teach themselves material rather than going to school for it. They don't view the quality of the college a person went to as a major factor in whether to trust their opinions and tend not to describe people in terms of their schooling and job history.

Here are some real written statements from people who are at the Non-Credentialist end of the Non-Credentialist to Credentialist spectrum:

  • "I think that people can have a valid voice no matter their level of formal schooling. The opposite also holds true: a degree is not necessarily representative of ability."

  • "I feel that colleges have become scams. They are money sponges that make you pay for your own brainwashing. I value intelligence and how well-read someone is on a subject... People with credentials have more money than sense and have been taught what NOT to think more than they have been taught HOW to think."

  • "While I respect those who have worked to earn professional credentials, people who are self-taught oftentimes know much more about a subject than someone with an expensive degree."

Why understanding where you stand in this spectrum is important

How much of a credentialist you are can impact important choices you make in life. This includes who you trust for advice, the choices you make based on this trust, and what kinds of opinions you think it is appropriate for you and others to express. 

There are dangers at both ends of the credentialist spectrum.

For example, imagine a person who rejects a totally valid and insightful point just because it was made by someone who doesn't have a PhD. In contrast, imagine a person who bases their beliefs on the opinions of someone who writes about complex topics in which they have no experience at all. Both of these approaches for deciding who to trust can lead to false beliefs.

It's important to know how much evidence formal credentials provide about the reliability of a person's views so that you have an accurate sense of how much to trust the information people give you.

So, how should we navigate credentials?

Whether we are credentialist or non-credentialist, the amount of evidence that a credential gives us about someone's ability depends on the field in question and on the quality of that credential. In some fields, such as microchip design, we can expect that credentialed experts from reputable institutions will know more than almost all non-experts do, whereas in other fields that are on shakier foundations, credentials may mean a lot less.

Additionally, as we learn more about a person (e.g., we hear the quality of their arguments), we will have direct evidence that helps us go beyond just their credentials (or lack thereof). 


Take the Credentialist Test

If you'd like to figure out how much of a credentialist or non-credentials you are, you can take our free and interactive Credentialist Test.

Taking this quick test will help you:

  • Learn how much of a credentialist you are

  • Discover how you compare to the general population on the non-credentialist to credentialist spectrum

  • Identify the best way of evaluating whether formal credentials matter in different situations


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