The Fallacy of Oz

The Scarecrow, Doctor of Thinkology

In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy, the scarecrow, the lion and the tin man all seek something of particular value and importance from the wizard. Dorothy wishes to go home, the tin man wishes for a heart, the lion wants to be courageous and the scarecrow would like to have a brain. In the end, [and for those who haven't seen this iconic film, spoiler alert] the wizard “grants” these requests. However, in a rather dissatisfying fashion, he bestows upon everyone but Dorothy mere symbols of the virtues they desire.

As the wizard notes in distributing these tokens to the seekers, they have all demonstrated the virtues they sought ten fold. A lion who believes he is without courage, all the while behaving with “meritorious conduct, extraordinary valor, [and] conspicuous bravery against wicked witches”. The tin man, who pined poetically for a heart to beat in his chest all while sacrificing himself for Dorothy and his new friends; a true “good-deed-doer”. And the scarecrow, who sang clumsily about all of the wondrous things he would think if he only had a brain, all the while plotting complicated strategies to obtain the wicked witch’s broom.

What makes this scene all the more disappointing is the joy each experience as they are presented with such tokens.

Wizard: “Why, anybody can have a brain.  That’s a very mediocre commodity.  Every pusillanimous creature that crawls on the earth — or slinks through slimy seas has a brain! [...] Back where I come from we have universities, seats of great learning where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts — and with no more brains than you have…. But!  They have one thing you haven’t got!  A diploma! Therefore, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Universitatus Committeeatum e plurbis unum, I hereby confer upon you the honorary degree of Th.D.”

Scarecrow: “Th.D.?”

Wizard: “Yeah — that…that’s Dr. of Thinkology!”

Scarecrow: “The sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side.  Oh joy, rapture!  I’ve got a brain!”

This is something I have been referring to for some time as the Oz fallacy; this is the reasoning that the possession of a symbol representative of a virtue equates possession of the virtue. Conversely, the notion that the lack of such symbols would allow one to necessarily deduce the lack of the virtue.

Having worked as instructor for a few years in higher education, and having been a student for ages, this fallacy seems readily apparent to me. Of the few hundred or so students I have had these past few years, quite a few (I’d argue a majority) appear to believe as if the goal is to obtain the document, the “paper”, the diploma. The diploma equals more and better opportunities. The diploma means that one is an upstanding individual. The diploma is simply magic, as if somehow obtaining it, will immediately result in knowing the Pythagorean theorem.

For awhile now I’ve had a wall next to my desk where I did prominently display my undergraduate and graduate degrees. A student once remarked, “I want to get me one of those”. When I asked why and he said, “Because when people see that, there is no question, they know you’re smart”. I laughed to myself, because I recalled some of the people I had gone to school with, some of my former classmates and peers, even faculty, and there were many of whom that I might not necessarily conclude were “smart”.

In the years that followed, not only did I encounter many more who held this view, but I also began teaching in the classroom and I encountered a new interpretation of this fallacy; “what’s the least amount of work I can do to pass this course?” College courses work like the frequentist method of statistics; credits, like significance, are awarded all or none. A student who completes all of the reading, studies the material diligently, writes elegant term papers and demonstrates a strong understanding of the course concepts on exams will earn the same number of credits for the course as a student who eked out a passing grade. In some time, they will both have earned the same diploma. And according to the logic proposed by by the student previously mentioned, the diploma will mean they are both smart.

All too often I have encountered students who sought the diploma, and not the education. Likewise, I have known great thinkers who sought education and knowledge, and possessed no diploma. Higher education, in this way, isn’t comprised of “seats of great learning where men go to become great thinkers” – it is a validation offering facility. And what seems sometimes validated, is at times far from what should be.

In The Wizard of Oz, all three of Dorothy’s companions demonstrated, and with great might, that they already possessed the attributes they sought. In the end, what they gained from meeting the wizard, were the trinkets of such accomplishments. I worry, however, that the trinkets themselves are now the objective, as I watch student after student march down that yellow brick road to be awarded their own symbols, even despite that they might signify nothing.

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13 comments to The Fallacy of Oz

  • I read this article from Forbes.com “Five Reasons to Skip College”. My favorite reason was “you don’t need to be in a classroom in-order to learn something”. Those who are truly motivated learners can teach themselves just about anything with the library and the internet at hand.

    Unfortunately, it seems that the degree is what’s needed to gain meaningful employment. Employers seem to really care about the piece of paper(degree) you possess than the knowledge or skill you have.

    Here is the article from Forbes.com:
    http://www.forbes.com/2006/04/15/dont-go-college_cx_lh_06slate_0418skipcollege.html

  • Jim

    Lisa, you are completely right. So much so, that I find myself following these guidelines while I seek a higher education. In my college, there was no difference between A-, A, & A+. Thus, I only worked hard enough to get an A-. Why would I take extra time and effort that will be wasted? I have also found myself signing up for classes I thought I would already be good at, or had an interest in. NOT ones that I needed to improve in. I will not risk my GPA to expand my mind. That GPA and that piece of paper are really all that matters.

    Yes that is a very tragic, and stupid statement. But is it valid?

    The Amount of knowledge you have is completely irrelevant in today’s accreditation based society. A dumb College graduate will always be considered smarter then a Genius who couldnt afford college.

    Autodidacts are “non-credible sources”. In order for your voice to carry weight, it must be validated by a “accredited institution”. These are viewpoints I developed not during my education, but by getting involved in skepticism. You all have taught me that. You have taught me that until I have some sort of external verified validation, I am a non valid source.

  • Steve S

    Touché!

    Now, how to resolve the problem?

  • As a person with only a BFA to his name who still considers himself to be intelligent, I’m totally with you on a degree not being a proof of intelligence. That said, I take slight umbrage with you calling it “The Oz Fallacy,” since I think they’re saying the exact same thing you are.

    I think we should remember that when the scarecrow is spouting off his bit about triangles, he may look smart to his fellows, but he’s also wrong. He confuses isosceles triangles with right triangles. What “Oz” is saying is that a degree may make you look smarter to others, but you’re still the same scarecrow you always were.

  • As someone about to begin doctoral studies in a few weeks, I do know the value of possessing credentials. But, the credentials are supposed to represent the education and skill development and not be an end unto themselves.

    Thanks all for great comments!

  • JP

    As someone who just finished their doctoral work, I can say that a Ph.D. requires intelligence and persistence. The problem is that you can tradeoff between them. I know some people who weren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer get a Ph.D. by doing copious amounts of not particularly good work. This was at a top engineering school, so imagine how it is in the lower tiers…

    • I would agree that at the doctoral level it’s substantially harder to just coast by (although still possible). I should have been more clear that I was commenting mostly on the industry of u/grad education.

      • JP

        My point was not that one can’t coast by, but rather that even a Ph.D. does not necessarily mean that the holder is all that smart. It’s just that much worse when discussing bachelor’s and master’s degrees being cranked out en masse.

  • w_nightshade

    What everyone seems to miss, is that the scarecrow gets Pythagoras’ theorem WRONG. It has nothing to do with isosceles triangles, and everything to do with right triangles. Dumb scarecrow.

  • adab

    I would raise a couple of points that run contrary to your assessment:

    As Quixotic Man and w_nightshade said, it cannot be lost on the reader that despite the Scarecrow’s sudden “magic” knowledge, HE QUOTES THE PYTHAGOREAN THEOREM INCORRECTLY!! His statement is complete nonsense! Not isosceles, not square root. So it just goes to show you that carrying the piece of paper does NOT necessarily mean you are smart.

    This point should not be lost on your students either. Even though the lazy student will end up with the same piece of paper as the studious one (although not quite, see below), it often becomes apparent very quickly in the workplace who are the “smart” ones and who are not.

    The other point I want to make is that it is not quite true that “all degrees are alike”. A student who “scrapes through” with a passing grade will get a degree, it’s true. But those that work hard get their corresponding (paper) rewards as well, such as induction to honor societies, and graduating with various honors. These addenda are not lost on employers, and if you ask a random person which is better, a person with a B.S., or a person with a B.S., Suma cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa, etc, etc, I think you will see a different kind of respect. And that shows up in employment opportunities, etc.

  • Did anyone read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead? I’d like to recommend it. Her analysis of the problem went much deeper. Not surprising as she wrote a whole book.

  • I do know the value of possessing credentials. But, the credentials are supposed to represent the education and skill development and not be an end unto themselves.

    But that’s the problem: the disconnect between the value of the credentials and the education and skill that they might represent. Is the issue that people are seeking the credentials in preference to what they represent? Or is the issue that those who demand the credentials have lost the perspective, and are demanding form over substance… and we’re just capitulating?

    I, for example, have 33 years of experience in computer science, am considered an expert in some subfields of it, have published academic papers, have been issued patents, etc. But I can’t teach at a university, am not allowed to impart my knowledge to up-and-coming neophytes… because I don’t have a PhD.

    Does that make sense? Does it make sense to demand that I obtain the symbols? I think not, but the universities disagree.

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