Correspondence | Published:

You don't need a licence (or PhD) to use your brain

Nature volume 430, page 965 (26 August 2004) | Download Citation


Do scientists look down on the general public with whom they seek better relations?


Enough. I cannot take it any more. I became so incensed after reading Adam G. Hart's letter “If you can lose a driving licence, why not a PhD?” (Nature 430, 503; 200410.1038/430503a) that I could not continue until I had replied. You see, I am part of the “general public” to which reference is so often made. Because I do not hold a PhD, I do not have a “licence to perform science”. Therefore I should not be allowed to form hypotheses nor to gather data in support or refutation of them, although this seems like an everyday experience. Perhaps I should not be allowed a subscription to Nature.

Every issue I read of Nature (and of Science) contains at least one news article, book review, commentary or letter that makes a distinction between scientists and non-scientists: presumably those with a PhD and those without. The implication is that possession of a PhD somehow makes a person different from, and better than, those of us who have chosen a different career path. It is as if the lack of a degree prohibits people from being knowledgeable or from thinking critically.

Contrary to Hart's assertion, and as a member of the general public, I do not perceive “holders of the degree” as being experts in their field — no more so than I would automatically assume that a licensed plumber or lawyer is necessarily competent and honest. Holding a law degree does not, by itself, allow an individual to practise law.

There are constant calls for support from, better communications with, and understanding from, the general public. To an infrared astronomer, a molecular biologist is part of this general public, even though both have advanced degrees. The PhD versus non-PhD dichotomy is condescending and very poor “general public” relations.

Science is a philosophy, a problem-solving methodology, a way of looking at the world that has nothing to do with a specific institution's requirements for a degree.

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