No PhD, no comment

A friend who needs to remain anonymous had a ridiculous blow to his ego the other day. He recently published a well-reviewed book on a fascinating historical episode. It’s the definitive work on the event. Wonderfully, National Geographic TV decided to do a documentary on the incident. My friend’s book is understandably the main source for the film. They interviewed him extensively.

But not on camera. You see, they explained, we won’t show people without a doctorate.

Some of my best friends have PhDs, but to see the holders of a degree as the sole possessors of authority is nonsensical. I think the gifted writer or researcher outside the academy should be cherished and celebrated. And the twin powers of widespread access to knowledge through the Internet and the distribution channels of blogs, podcasts and vlogs mean that contributions from outside conventional centers will grow in importance and recognition.

16 thoughts on “No PhD, no comment

  1. Pingback: Scripting News Annex » Scripting News for 7/21/2006

  2. Pingback: Midspot » Blog Archive » No PhD, no comment

  3. john

    Pretty much why I don’t listen to any of them…

    BS – Bull Shit
    MS – More Shit
    Phd – Piled Higher, Deeper

  4. Don Larson

    My wife used to be a professional clown. She would tell people she had three degrees:

    BA – Balloon Animals
    MBA – More Balloon Animals
    PhD – Pretty Helium Designs


  5. Chris

    I could not agree more. I suspect the correlation between the ‘height’ of the degree and the common sense of it’s recipient is not linear, at least in the sense one might hope. The worry is that National Geographic has either lost the ability to recognize and nurture real talent, or has sacrificed objectivity for an easier life.

  6. Marcel

    You guys are crazy, how can you equate that incident to Hitler. None of that indicates that NG is run by a bunch of Phds who want to establish a club. I agree that the position they take doesn’t make much sense, but at the same time maybe they’re acting on legal advice or something. Reminds me of Taylor Branch being interviewed on PBS about his Pulitzer Prize winning work. Almost all the callers to the programme assumed he was Dr. Taylor Branch. He told them to just call him Taylor.

  7. Mira Art

    Why not simply respect the achievement – PhDs mean that somebody was doing some work…to get it…but then just move on. PhDs are no guarantee for real intelligence or integrity…..As a matter of fact today all these ‘established’ titles have to be put in question: We need thinkers and doers ‘outside the box’! And universities are no breeding ground for this kind of IDEA ERA personalities we need – at least in Europe.
    PS. I have a doctorate…..

  8. Felix

    I asked a friend of mine who’s produced a lot of documentaries for National Geographic about this. Here’s what he said:

    I’d be really surprised if Nat Geo kept someone out of
    a doc bc they didn’t have their doc, you dig. If you watch Nat Geo
    they don’t limit themselves to PHDs by any stretch. Very strange, it’s
    possible they were lying to him bc he’s either remarkably
    unattractive, has trouble speaking clearly or both. On the other hand,
    if they were avoiding him bc he’s not a PHD, they’re a bunch of

    In any case, it seems there isn’t a blanket ban on non-PhDs at NG.

  9. Lance Knobel

    Felix, you may be right. I suspect “no PhD” is shorthand for no easily expressed qualification, whether that’s director, institute x, or assistant professor, University of Northern South Dakota.

    In this case, my friend is a freelance journalist and writer. I don’t know much about these things, but I suspect he’d be good on screen.

  10. Felix

    I’m not sure I buy that, Lance, if only because “author, [his book]” would surely have been perfectly good as an identifier? On the other hand, it’s certainly true that in my day job, I love talking to non-“names” on an off-the-record basis and then just aggregating what they tell me in Journalist Omniscient. It’s a lot easier than trying to source every fact and assertion, and it makes for vastly more readable copy. And it’s the same voice as is normally used in television documentaries, which don’t have the same sourcing fetish as US newspapers. When you do quote people, you want to do it sparingly, for stylistic reasons, and/or you want to do it because they’re important people and the interesting thing is not what they say so much as the fact that this person is saying it. If a random scientist says “global warming is a major problem”, that’s not worth reporting; if a Bush administration official says it, then that is worth reporting. In a documentary about a historical episode, you want to show-not-tell as much as possible, and then probably leave the presenter to do whatever exegesis is necessary, since that can be perfectly timed and scripted. You’d wheel out an expert if there was some controversy, perhaps.

    None of which explains the PhD comment, of course. I mean, “Dr Fred Blogs, author of XXX” is no more impressive than “Fred Blogs, author of XXX”, however you look at it.

  11. Michael Smolens

    How stupid

    After an undergrad with two degrees in math & psych (???) at Carnegie Mellon, and 2 years working at my only real job, I was accepted to start an MBA at Columbia simultaneous with starting my first business in Haiti.

    I was having so much fun as an entrepreneur that I postponed the MBA program 4 times until I decided I was learning much more doing business than reading about doing it.

    I have never regretted than decision, and fully agree that ‘real life’ experience is the best form of learning.


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