Sunday, February 28, 2021

Using number-of-PhD's as a measure of smartness is stupid.

In Thor:Ragnorak Bruce Banner mentions that he has 7 PhDs. Gee, I wonder how he managed to slip that into a conversation casually.  Later in the movie:

Bruce: I don't know how to fly one of those (it an Alien Spacecraft)

Thor: You're a scientist. Use one of your PhD's 

Bruce: None of them are for flying alien spaceships.

On the episode Double Date of Archer (Season 11, Episode 6) Gabrielle notes that she has 2 PhD's whereas Lana only has 1 PhD. 

I am sure there are other examples of a work of fiction using number of PhDs as a way to say that someone is smart. In reality the number of PhD's one has is... not really a thing. 

In reality if a scientist wants to do work in another field they... do work in that field.

Godel did research in Physics in the 1950's, but it would have been silly to go back and get a PhD in it.

Fortnow did research in Economics, but it would have been silly to go back and get a PhD in it. 

Amy Farrah Fowler worked in neurobiology and then in Physics. Her Nobel prize in physics (with Sheldon Cooper) is impressive, getting a PhD in Physics would be ... odd. Imagine someone looking at here resume: She has a Nobel Prize in Physics, but does she have a PhD? Did she pass her qualifying exams?  This is the flip side of what I mentioned in a prior post about PhD's: Not only does Dr. Doom want to take over the world, but his PhD is from The University of Latveria, which is not accredited. 

There are other examples.

There ARE some people who get two PhDs for reasons of job market or other such things. That's absolutely fine of course. However, I wonder if in the real world they brag about it. I doubt it. 

Is there anyone who has 3 PhDs? I would assume yes, but again, I wonder if they brag about it. Or should. 

WHY do TV and movies use number-of-PhDs as a sign of genius? I do not know- especially since there are BETTER ways say someone is a genius in a way the audience can understand:  number-of-Nobel-prizes, number-of-times-mentioned-in-complexityblog,  number of Dundie's (see here), etc. 


  1. Most people don't know what the purpose of a PhD is. They think it is like a professional degree (MD or law degree), or just an advanced form of a master's degree. Or, maybe they think it is like a patent or a prize. While someone with a PhD will usually know more (harder) things, we know that the main point of a PhD is to learn how to do research. You learn this by doing some research. Of course, you have to do the research in a particular field, but the way to do research is broadly applicable to many fields. I believe some PhD programs won't admit you if you already have a PhD.

  2. Our fellow friend and colleague Andy C.C. Yao has had two PhDs; which impressive in itself, shows that he is pretty smart. Though he probably did this for different reasons at that time.

    1. Andy Yao had the first modern application of Ramsey Theory to CS
      Andy Yao had the first proof tht PARITY is not in AC_0
      Andy Yao founded the field of distributed computing.
      Andy Yao has a Turing award and a Knuth prize
      I could list out more things

      If there was a movie about him and they tried to tell us how smart he was by saying HE HAS TWO PHDs! that would be rather silly since, while true, he has done so much more.

      And the flip side: If someone had two PhDs but did not do much past that, perhaps not so impressive.

    2. If someone has two PhDs I assume that they switched to a field far enough away that they didn't feel comfortable diving right into their new field.

      If someone has more than two PhDs I assume they like wasting time and/or really don't have any clue what they actually want to do.

    3. Indeed!
      It would not make sense for me to get a PhD in Math.
      It would make sense for me to get a PhD in History.

      The history of America as seen through political novelty songs!

      I would likely find that this is NOT as much fun as it sounds like.

    4. Bill, I agree with you on this. :) No need to rub onions into the argument's eyes. Just wanted to illustrate bias in sampling; particularly, when the sample only consists of 1 data point.
      To Anon1:
      In any event, Physics and CS aren't that far apart when I guess if one wants to focus on TCS, it doesn't hurt to get a PhD. That said, I haven't hurt anyone else getting 2 PhDs or more in our field; unless we talk about mail-order PhDs.

    5. (By the way, I'm not @EG1:53 PM, March 01, 2021. That's a different person.
      I'm @EG3:57 AM, March 01, 2021. And the one that just posted.)

  3. "Good morning and welcome to Science and Society. I’m Dr. Sheldon Cooper, BS, MS, MA, PhD, and ScD. OMG, right?"

  4. Why do some people with a Ph.D. (or Ed.D. for that matter) demand to be called "Dr." in a context unrelated to their degree?

    1. Why not? Do you only call medical doctors "Dr." when they are at the hospital?

  5. It is all about macros for impressing others with easy-to-consume words and numbers.

    Impress an early academic: "My H-index is 16."

    Impress a mathematician: "My Erdős number is 3."

    Impress a theater major: "My Bacon number is 3."

    Impress an Asgardian warrior: "I have a Ph.D. in theoretical computer science."

    Impress Professor Hulk: "I'm not fictional."

    1. Are there people who would be impressed with an Erdos-Bacon number?

      Looking over the list of people with an Erdos-Bacon number, the actors on the list are more impressive than the scientists, since the scientists all had bit parts or played themselves (so perhaps does not count), whereas the actors had real science papers.

  6. It would make sense to do a PhD in a technical subject and another in the humanities, e.g., the first in complexity theory and the second in philosophy and there not on Frege's logic in analytical philosophy but on Hegel's. This would be quite disjoint and research in the humanities proper does not mimick research in a technical subject and vice versa.

    1. I disagree with this; not on the PhD level, definitely at the undergraduate level. And that's why the US educational system is so great, because it enables u to do just this, choose a hard science vs a soft science/humanities.

      I'll give u an example, and I believe Lance and Bill might agree with my example.

      Doing a PhD in a hard science like mathematics, followed by a PhD in a soft humanities like ...(u name it)... might not bring out what you are aiming to attain; it might cause more dissonance than clarity in your way of thinking -- unless u r a polymath.

      The analogy here with sports is that on the professional level, you trained for X years to become a heavy weights Olympiad (ur body muscles have been trained to just lift very heavy weights. Your muscle memory resonates basically to just that.) ... then ... this training is followed by a soft science approach, for Y years, where the analogy is that you are now consumed in Y years of pure Yoga training and flexibility. Note that the degree of flexibility required for professional yoga practitioner is orthogonal to the body structure that you attained as a heavy weights lifter. So, you will need to retrain your muscle memory which can't take both -- notion of mutually incompatibility kicks in.
      [Ok, you might say, this is the most retarded analogy you ever came across; but u get the glimpse :)]