A varying degree

February 10th, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, PhDs, doctors, and qualifications | 12 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Thursday February 10, 2005

Men are from Mars, and Women are from Venus. Not only did this thesis shift 30m books for Dr John Gray, PhD, it has also provided the branding for his new, exciting diet plan based on Mars and Venus Supershakes. Gray’s PhD, meanwhile, is from California. Columbia Pacific University, to be precise: an unaccredited correspondence school, with a proud history, which was tragically closed in 1997 by a despotic state education board.

This was your kind of university. There were no classes to wake up for, and the PhDs and Masters degrees were doled out on a points system: one Masters student was given credit for “a learning contract describing how he would continue taking dance lessons, and watch dance demonstrations, in order to improve his skills as a country and western dancer”. One received three credits for having “letters from two work colleagues attesting to his use of statistics in his job performance as a high-school coach”. The credit was for a course called ED 568 Statistics in Education, for which there was no course outline, and no course description. Result.

In fact, students were routinely receiving credits for courses which didn’t seem to exist. But that’s OK, because university is all about time to reflect. Two students each received three credits for a project to “become more aware of and change their eating habits, resulting in chewing food more slowly and thoroughly”. “While perhaps worthwhile endeavours,” reflected the inspectors’ report, which in retrospect seems wilfully crafted for cruel sarcasm, “this is hardly worth three credits at either the Bachelors or Masters degree.”

Of course, Dr John Gray, PhD was as distressed by all this nonsense as you are. He threatens to sue internet bloggers for libel if they call his PhD phony and confuse “approval” with “accreditation” (pay attention, kids, this is complicated postgraduate stuff), and his website states: “At the time John Gray graduated and received his degree, CPU was a highly respected school in its field.” Columbia Pacific, sadly, has never been accredited, and you will not be able to find Gray’s PhD in the (definitive) “Dissertation Abstracts”. Which all seems terribly unfair. As Dr John Gray, PhD says in Columbia Pacific’s promotional materials: “it is my pleasure to endorse the University … you deserve to receive recognition and credit for your accomplishments.”

If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

12 Responses

  1. Paul Hartal said,

    April 6, 2006 at 3:22 pm

    Judged by the piece on John Gray’s Columbia Pacific University, badscience is about misinformation.

    Please, do your homework on CPU and consult www.cpuniv.us, netnotes.altcpualumni.org, or www.altcpualumni.org, and put the record straight .

    CPU was never a diploma mill but a pioneer of distance education. Its closure resulted from the dirty politics of higher education in California, not from genuine pedagogical considerations. CPU was supervised and accredited (“approved”) by the State of California. Degrees earned at CPU between 1978 and 1997 are legal and valid.

    At present CPU is a federally recognized non-profit university registered in Delaware. The CPU Press just published a book by Dr. A. W. Jang and W. Weston, The La Brea Tar Pits.

    Paul Hartal

  2. pv said,

    April 6, 2006 at 5:24 pm

    So, Paul Harta this
    would be incorrect then?
    Of course, if you wanted an unbiased view as to the substance of the Emperor’s new clothes you would ask the Emperor himself, or one of his courtiers, wouldn’t you? You wouldn’t dream of asking someone with 20/20 vision, no vested interest and an aversion to sycophancy, would you?

  3. Don said,

    April 6, 2006 at 5:37 pm

    To be fair www.altcpualumni.org/ has a link to the wiki entry, which is comprehensively scathing.

  4. Melissa said,

    April 6, 2006 at 5:48 pm

    Perhaps Paul Hartal himself has a vested interest in CPU. Disclosure would be nice.

  5. Danivon said,

    April 8, 2006 at 2:02 am

    Oh, and Paul Hartal is also an elected member of the Alumnus Board of Governers of CPU, which seems to be the body now running what is left of the CPU, and is on two committees – including the Marketing PR and Website Committee. I think Melissa was right to wonder

    see www.cpuniv.us/board_governors.htm

  6. Janet W said,

    April 8, 2006 at 6:10 pm

    “At present CPU is a federally recognized non-profit university registered in Delaware. The CPU Press just published a book by Dr. A. W. Jang and W. Weston, The La Brea Tar Pits.”

    Would these be the creation scientists A.W. Jang and W.Weston?

  7. Danivon said,

    April 30, 2006 at 11:35 am

    Paul… A long post, and a strange one. First of all, I don’t see where the insults are. Questions, yes. Implications, maybe? But insults? Perhaps we Brits are too desensitised or something. But I make the number of insults you were sent 0. If you received more, please check your receptors…

    Fact 1: Approved != Accredited. My local college is ‘Approved’ and can teach subjects and hold exams. It is not ‘Accredited’ because it can’t actually metriculate the qualifications. I suspect that the State of California didn’t worry too much about the difference until quite late, and as retrospective legislation cannot apply, it couldn’t do anything about qualifications before the decision was applied.

    Fact 2: If the case against CPU was baseless, they should have won. They lost. It’s all very well to cry ‘Foul’ and claim it’s part of some conspiracy, but such claims are, as yet, unproven and so are not themselves, facts.

    Fact 3: This is not about attackingh distance learning. Far from it, I am very interested in the subject, as I am thinking of taking a post-graduate qualification by that very method. But I will probably choose a body like the Open University, or a similarly accredited university, because I want no doubt whatsoever about the rigorous nature of the adjudication. If you look at some of the ways in which people were awarded credits at CPU for basically doing what they already do and not for any academic study or research, then you should worry. I am sure your doctorate was completely legitimate, and down to your hard work and dedication, but it is devalued by the actions of others.

    Fact 4: Your Eductaional CV – You get a million squids for point-scoring, but 0 for relevancy. You may have been educated on three continents, but frankly that means nothing. Overall it looks very impressive, and the only problem would be why you completed doctorate courses at Concordia and then wrote a dissertation for CPU – why not for Concordia? And why don’t you call it a ‘thesis’? I did not wish to call into question your individual qualifications, but why you may seek to defend the association that one of them has with CPU. It’s understandable that you would be defensive about having a CPU degree, and I don’t disagree that it is entirely possible that many were conferred in a proper manner. But it is also true that some were not, and entirely possible that many more weren’.t

    Fact 5: It’s spelt ‘holistic’, by most people. That makes sense as the word derives from the Greek ‘holon’, rather than the english ‘whole’. Well that’s how Jan Smuts defined it.

    If those facts insult you, Paul, all I can do is apolgise for the state of reality.

  8. paul hartal said,

    October 22, 2006 at 6:56 pm


    Starting from the end, I find it quite arrogant that in your concluding sentence reality is assumed to be identical with your perception. You present falsities as established facts. For example, “If the case against CPU was baseless”, you write in “Fact 2″, “they should have won”. Nonsense. The real fact is that in the USA, and elsewhere, there are thousands of cases of miscarriage of justice. Please do your homework and read carefully the documents how CPU was closed on the basis of a fabricated “investigation”, www.cpuniv.us, published also on Wikipedia.

    You also write that being educated on three continents “means nothing”. Are you telling me that experiencing first hand different life styles, being immersed in a variety of cultures, or learning fluently a number of languages, have no educational value? You must be kidding!

    The difference between a thesis and a dissertation is that the latter is written for a higher university degree. Basically, a dissertation is a doctoral thesis. I began to write my dissertation in history at Concordia University in Montreal. Unfortunately, one day I dared to contradict my supervisor and supperted my argument with David Hackett Fischer’s book, Historians Fallacies. Now, minf you, traditional universities are medieval institutions and my supervisor was an academic dictator. It did not take much time and he gave me a proper demonstration of might is right: He kicked me out of the program. At CPU if you had a problem with a professor, the school would simply assign you another. A substantial gain of writing an interdisciplinary thesis at CPU turned to be that I was able to interact with many renowned scientists and scholars in conducting my research. Also I wrote the dissertation on a subject that really interested me.

    While CPU was not regionally accredited, I would like to stress that it is absolutely incorrect to call CPU an “unaccredited” school. California State documents confirm that CPU’s approval was equivalent to regional accreditation in the USA. Thus CPU was a California State accredited university.

    About what you call “Fact 5″: Thank you for giving me a lecture on how to spell ‘holistic’, but you forgot to mention that the Greek ‘holos’ means whole. Coined by Arthur Koestler, the concept of Holon is smultaneously a whole and a part. In the philosophy of history, holon is a historical configuration that makes other historical events inevitable.

    Please, look up in a thesaurus that innuendos, aspersions, and undervaluations are synonymous with insults. One main difference is that insults are less sneaky and therefore more honest.

    Paul Hartal

  9. Danivon said,

    December 15, 2006 at 8:24 pm

    Just because there are some miscarriages of justice, does not mean that your case is one of them. Otherwise, we’d have to listen to a lot of convicted criminals who are convinced of their innocence, wouldn’t we?

    I’ve read the cpu website, and while intriguing, it doesn’t convince me.

    Still, that CPU did credit people for doing basically their normal job, rather than for any actual academic work, seriously undermines their ‘degrees’, and that is what CPU was being ‘persecuted’ for.

  10. paul hartal said,

    February 19, 2007 at 4:14 am

    You are right. And the logical opposite is also true: Just because you are not in prison does not mean that you are not a criminal.
    CPU awarded credits not for “normal job” but for proven academic, educational, professional or creative experience. An experienced teacher, for example, knows more about teaching and education than a teacher who completed his or her studies but has no teaching experience. This deserves recognition. Similarly, a writer who already writes and publishes in two or more languages deserves more recognition and credits than a beginner who just finished his or her program and is unilingual. However, CPU gave usually credits for academic work completed already at other schools. This is in contrast to many traditional schools that want you to start from scratch. Yet students did also course work at CPU itself and wrote theses. Please, bear in mind that traditional universities serve a different student population than CPU and they hate competition. The bottom line: Unfortunately, CPU failed to meet changing California regulations and made a big mistake in continuing to operate after its approval was denied. But the court that closed CPU also ruled that CPU degrees are legal and valid. For more information, including dissertations and news, please, see www.columbia-pacific-university.net .

  11. paul hartal said,

    February 22, 2007 at 12:56 am


    This 1998 web catalog of Columbia Pacific University offers detailed information about the school’s educational philosophy, courses, credits for experience and learning contracts.

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