In one of her TEDx Talks (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QQTUtBJE5fs), a Stanford professor of Math Education, Jo Boaler, claimed to be a "mathematician" when in fact, her work lies solely in math education (she in fact, likely has not even taken intro to proof course or any of the upper-division courses). What would be in general, a potential legal consequence for misrepresenting academic expertise in public?

Here are some lingering questions:

  1. The word "mathematician" does not seem to me to be legally protected, so does that mean anyone can claim to be a "mathematician" if they say that they like doing math?

  2. To abstract further, is there any legal accountability of individuals with degrees in a field X, but claims an expertise in fields X', X'' which look superficially similar to X but in reality, very different? Let's also say that the individual does not claim a specific degree in fields X', X'' etc. - merely expertise (e.g. French major claims expertise in European history, or medical doctor claims expertise in evolutionary biology).

  3. Does Stanford University (or in general, any other top universities) have policies against faculty members misrepresenting credentials or others' research (as Boaler has done in several occasions), or is it protected under "academic freedom"?

  4. Boaler runs several online courses, and if say, students signs up for a course believing that Boaler is a "mathematician" and later finds out that she isn't, what recourse would a student have against Boaler? Is there no legal recourse due to reasons in 1)?

  5. Are there anything legal-related that I'm missing from this?


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    #3 is not about law and is outside the scope of this site. Oct 18 '20 at 18:08
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    @Nate Eldredge Fair comment. I'll edit it out. Oct 18 '20 at 18:26
  • This asks many different distinct questions (consequences of misrepresenting one's own credentials, consequences of misrepresenting others' research, Standford policy, students' recourses...), and should be edited to focus on one topic.
    – Ryan M
    Oct 20 '20 at 23:15

"Mathematician" is not a legally regulated term, so there are no laws that would prohibit me from calling myself a mathematician (I am not one). I do know a tiny bit about number theory, set theory, formal language theory and logic, but mostly I know about African languages. If I have no shame, I can legally call myself a mathematician. My employing institution has no policy that regulates self-appellation. In fact it is very common for people to self-mislabel in the fashion that you describe. Many people claim to be "linguists" when they are actually "English teachers" or are "translators".

However, if I were to claim to have a PhD from the Department of Mathematics at Yale University, that would be a false statement of fact, and potentially internally-actionable by the institution. My actual mathematician colleagues cannot sue me for damages (they have not been objectively harmed), but an institution could sack me for material misrepresentation of credentials (for which reason they might actually demand a copy of said credential). It is possible that a materially false statement of credential could be actionable as fraud, though I can't come up with a plausible scenario at the moment.

  • Thanks for the answer! This reminds me of Reza Azlan who claimed on multiple occasions, that he has a Ph.D. in [insert field] while only holding a Ph.D. in history. He didn't specify where he had that Ph.D. from though. Is that actionable? Oct 18 '20 at 18:29
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    The evidence indicates that he holds a PhD in Sociology from UCSB. Nothing is "actionable" in the abstract, is has to be actionable by someone specific for a specific wrong. A person offended by him has not been harmed; an employer might be harmed.
    – user6726
    Oct 18 '20 at 19:14

Your description reflects a confusion between "having an academic credential" in a field and "having advanced skills or expertise" in that field. The former is not requisite for the latter.

An academic degree only certifies that the person has met the requirements of a standardized curriculum in certain field. The degree is by no means indispensable for attaining expertise in that field. A skilled singer or a player of a musical instrument can reasonably represent himself as musician even if that person has never undergone formal training. Similarly, it is valid for a person with no academic credentials but with notorious math skills to portray himself as mathematician.

Nor does the fact that a person's "work lies solely in math education" negate that his math skills and identification therewith could be vastly superior to those of the average. A shorthand way of communicating the latter is by saying that the person is a mathematician. If anything, the fact that Boaler works in math education strengthens the notion that she is a mathematician (a lack of sufficient math skills would actually preclude her employment or career as math educator).

if say, students signs up for a course believing that Boaler is a "mathematician" and later finds out that she isn't, what recourse would a student have against Boaler?

A priori, none. In and of itself a misrepresentation of that sort is not actionable, in part because mathematician as a profession is not regulated. Actionability requires additional elements.

For there to be any viable claims, the student would need to prove that the extent of Boaler's intentional misrepresentation is so material that the neither the student achieved, nor a reasonable person could have achieved, the purpose (i.e., learning mathematics) that prompted the student to pay for the course.

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    Indeed. An amateur mathematician is another kind of mathematician. I'm aware of no jurisdiction in which "mathematician" is a licensed profession. "Physician" and "lawyer" are another matter. Trades such as "plumber" and "carpenter" are probably somewhere in between.
    – phoog
    Oct 18 '20 at 20:07
  • Largely correct, I think, except as to Question #4, where the answer seems to beg the question: "The students have no recourse for this sort of misrepresentation because this sort of misrepresentation isn't actionable." If we're going to analyze it as a contract issue, "frustration of purpose" is the wrong doctrine to invoke. Outside of pure contract law, there may be other issues, such as false advertising or other deceptive-trade-practices doctrines, at play.
    – bdb484
    Oct 18 '20 at 20:42
  • @bdb484 I tried to mingle related causes of action, but I agree that an argument of frustration of purpose would require adding rather convoluted assumptions. Oct 18 '20 at 21:20

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