26 January 2013

Nigeria: Does a Ph.D Make You Smart? Delving Into President Jonathan's Interview With Christiane Amanpour


It's said that politicians answer the questions they want to be asked. That is, they disregard the questions put to them and answer their own. Most of the time, they get away with it. However, the politician falls into trouble if he doesn't know the questions he wishes to be asked.

So far, our president's answers to questions from the press have left many of his compatriots disappointed, ashamed and sometimes, disturbed.

This is because, besides his education, it's almost an impossible notion to consider an incumbent president or any head of state to be unintelligent; i.e. if enormous influence, resources and the command of the security forces were indices by which intelligence is measured. Thus, President Obasanjo was right when he said years ago after appointing some advisers that they shouldn't expect all their advice to be accepted, "because," he said, "we see higher horizon". Expectedly, he was criticized for that statement. However, presidents stand (almost literally) on the shoulders of all the citizens to see what followers can't see. That's why they're justifiably surprised when they discover something important happening in their domain without their knowledge.

In 2011 when Australians heard that Malaysian prime minister, Najib Abdul Razaq, was coming to their country, they waited to clobber him. Earlier, Malaysia had refused a refugee deal proposed by Australia - and Aussies weren't happy. However, when Najib got there, he confidently appeared on live TV, took questions and explained Malaysia's position. He also wrote an article in one of the newspapers in Australia to explain the same issues. It's not important if he actually wrote the guest column himself, however, it's important that he intelligently faced the media pressure and onslaughts; and eventually the Australians were generally satisfied with his explanation and thereafter stopped bugging Malaysia on that issue. That position gives you such chutzpah!

So when our president engages with the press like the uninformed, uncultured and shadowy internet trolls reacting tactlessly and with crude ignorance to articles on the online pages of our newspapers, many questions beg for answers. One of which is: does earning a Ph.D. make you smart? Dr. Farooq Kperogi in one of his usually enthralling columns said it doesn't. "[A] Ph.D. doesn't necessarily make people smart;" he said, "it's just that many smart people tend to go for a Ph.D". I disagree. However, Dr. Kperogi was right. If by "smart" people mean to have more knowledge than others, to be charming, to be cultured or to (as many Nigerians expect), speak without any grammatical blemish, then a Ph.D. doesn't make you smart. When I was studying for a master's degree, I told my bicycle repairman that he was more refined in speech than some of my professors - who apparently had Ph.D.s.

But a Ph.D. does make you smart. If you looked at the content and process of earning a Ph.D., you would agree. First you need to find a school and adviser/supervisor that are right for you. Then you identify the problem you wish to solve. Then you convince your committee, supervisor, department or all of them that the problem is indeed worth solving. If necessary, you would then convince your peers that you've contributed to the body of knowledge by publishing. In between you need to find the right method to solve the problem. This is not easy. "I know where to go but I don't know how to get there," a Ph.D. student once cried to me in frustration. You may need to consult both cantankerous professors and cooperative ones - some experts would simply ignore you, and you need to find a way to get them to respond. You could revive old techniques, extend the state-of-the-art or invent new ones. Finally, you have to present your work and convince people all over again that you've succeeded in pushing back the frontiers of knowledge. You do this either in writing only, as is done in Australia, or you present a written thesis and defend it orally. Finally solving the problem of your research is only one problem, by the time you're done, you would have solved 101 problems. Thus, reasoning, problem-solving. Reasoning, problem-solving. Ad infinitum.

Therefore, the Ph.D. training teaches you to think and solve problems. And intelligence is mostly about thinking and problem-solving: thinking to avoid mistakes, thinking to fashion products and thinking to resolve difficulties when they occur. Accordingly, Ph.D. makes you smart.

This reasoning is supported by Cattell and Horn who identified fluid and crystallized intelligences as factors of general intelligence. At least Ph.D. should increase one's crystallized intelligence since it's a product of experience and learning: "Crystallized intelligence is indicated by a person's depth and breadth of general knowledge, vocabulary, and the ability to REASON using words and numbers. It is the product of educational and cultural experience in interaction with fluid intelligence."

So, if the enormous resources that the president commands do not make him more informed or even seemingly smart, then the Ph.D. he earned should. In the case of our president, it obviously didn't.

Amanpour asked three simple questions: Boko Haram, power and oil theft. After nearly three years as president, it's expected that he should have at least stock answers to these questions. But our president rambled on and on repeating himself severally. "That is not correct! That is not correct! And I have said it severally; those are insinuation by some interest group. Definitely they are insinuation by some interest group."

"Why is he repeating himself?" I asked my wife. "He's trying to think," she said.

If Ph.D. makes one smart, it didn't make our president smart.

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