I have mixed feelings about announcements of credentials. We’ve all seen credentials waved about obnoxiously or induce obsequiesness in otherwise rational persons. (I think here of the breathless tones in which some used to pronounce the name Hugh Nibley, for instance–tones I tend to suspect Nibley himself would not endorse.) In general, though, I really like to know what someone has studied or is studying. Education–what we love, what we know, what we hope to know–is an important part of who we are and of the perspectives we bring to various issues. And in any case, the Bloggernacle is so awash in credentials they lose some of their unhealthy power in a healthy way, I think, simply by virtue of the fact that a third of the people blogging at any given moment are avoiding their dissertations.
I really don’t object to credentials if the person sprouting them is simply bringing her knowledge to bear on the topic at hand. That seems knowledge’s most appropriate use. But I’ve now seen the same strange pattern occur in several different Bloggernacle debates. In the midst of a heated discussion, Person A, evidently unable to produce further arguments or evidence in support of her position, whips out her credentials as a way of one-upping Person B. (This is especially ironic when Person A claims, “I understand arguments and hermeneutics, and you don’t.” Whatever Person A’s other accomplishments, she evidently does not understand the limitations of the argument from authority.) It’s always disconcerting to see someone claim, sometimes in so many words, “I know this, and you don’t. I’ve studied this, and you haven’t.” Often that’s true, but of course the simple fact of superior knowledge of the subject isn’t enough if the discussion ranges beyond the mere establishment of facts–and on the Bloggernacle, doesn’t it always? We all owe each other more than, “Take my word for it: this is how it is.” The most twisted irony occurs, however, when it happens that evidently unbeknownst to Person A, Person B actually has more or more relevant credentials than Person A does.
I’ve seen this happen enough to become, I dearly hope, a little warier of dismissing anyone. Our inability ever to know the totality of another human being’s experience is the terror and the delight of ordinary human interaction, and in the semi-anonymity of the Bloggernacle, both the delight and the terror multiply. Just as the person I’m duking it out with online might sit three pews down from me in sacrament meeting, so too he might happen not to have mentioned that he’s a world-renowned authority on the topic under discussion. Which doesn’t mean, I don’t think, that I’m obliged to agree with him about the topic–only that I can never assume that my expertise trumps someone else’s any more than I can assume that my experience does.