Adventures in Ethics and Science

What’s in an honorific?

It would seem that the Los Angeles Times is uncomfortable around people who don’t hide their advanced degrees:

[Jill] Biden [who earned a doctorate in education from the University of Delaware and is currently teaching two courses at Northern Virginia Community College] is thought to be the first second lady [i.e., spouse of the Vice President] to hold a paying job while her husband is in office.

“I think she is unique,” said Joel Goldstein, a professor at St. Louis University School of Law and an expert on the vice presidency. Other second ladies — Cheney, Quayle, Tipper Gore and Joan Mondale — wrote, lectured or did important volunteer work.

“But I think Dr. Biden is the first . . . to basically continue in the regular workforce,” said Goldstein, who has a DPhil (the English term for doctor of philosophy) from Oxford and a JD (juris doctor) from Harvard. He seemed mildly amused upon hearing that Biden liked to be called “Dr.”

“It’s a funny topic,” Goldstein said. “Occasionally someone will call me ‘doctor,’ and when that happens my wife makes fun of me a little bit. But nobody thought it was pretentious to call Henry Kissinger ‘Dr. Kissinger.’ ”

Joe Biden, on the campaign trail, explained that his wife’s desire for the highest degree was in response to what she perceived as her second-class status on their mail.

“She said, ‘I was so sick of the mail coming to Sen. and Mrs. Biden. I wanted to get mail addressed to Dr. and Sen. Biden.’ That’s the real reason she got her doctorate,” he said.

Amy Sullivan, a religion writer for Time magazine, said she smiled when she heard the vice president’s wife announced as Dr. Jill Biden during the national prayer service the day after President Obama’s inauguration.

“Ordinarily when someone goes by doctor and they are a PhD, not an MD, I find it a little bit obnoxious,” Sullivan said. “But it makes me smile because it’s a reminder that she’s her own person. She wasn’t there as an appendage; she was there as a professional in her own right.”

Newspapers, including The Times, generally do not use the honorific “Dr.” unless the person in question has a medical degree.

“My feeling is if you can’t heal the sick, we don’t call you doctor,” said Bill Walsh, copy desk chief for the Washington Post’s A section and the author of two language books. …

Estela Bensimon, a professor at USC’s Center for Education, said she cared about being called Dr. Bensimon only if she was being addressed by her first name while male colleagues were called doctor.

You know, I’m not someone who insists on formality. A few of my email correspondents insist on addressing me as Dr. Stemwedel even though, blogospherically speaking, we’re more like peers; they keep signing emails with their first names, and I do the same. My guess is that most of my neighbors don’t know that I have one Ph.D., let alone two. I’m still negotiating the manner of address that achieves the right balance of respect and accessibility in my relationship with my students.

But I’m getting a strong impression that the LA Times would not be treating Jill Biden’s preference for being called “Dr. Biden” as an affectation worthy of comment if she were a male. Did the papers give Henry Kissinger crap for his “Dr.”? Do they think it’s obnoxious to append the “Dr.” before “Martin Luther King, Jr.”?

What is obnoxious is that the standard feminine honorifics (which are not tied to an advanced degree or elective office) make one’s marital status an issue. Why the hell is that a matter of public interest? If we’re interested in cutting down on the obnoxiousness, we might even look into honorifics that are gender neutral.

Yeah, I’m sure the newspapers will get right on it.

Also obnoxious is the condescension that seems to drip from the “smile” it provokes that Dr. Biden might want a job beyond being Mrs. Joe Biden and showing up for the required tea-parties and photo ops. How darling! She wants to be her own person!

I don’t want to get into a dispute about whether MDs or PhDs have a better claim to the “Dr.”, either on historical grounds or on the basis of their powers in the world. (A pathologist can have an MD without healing the sick, after all; would Mr. Walsh at the Washington Post refrain from identifying a pathologist as Dr. Quincy?) Let’s stipulate that it’s hard work to earn an advanced degree. To the extent that people have done that hard work and would like to commemorate that achievement with the honorific that goes with the degree, why on earth should that be a problem? Dr. Biden is teaching education classes, not claiming that she can cure anyone’s sciatica.

I understand that some members of the American public have a knee-jerk distaste for pointy-headed intellectuals, all of whom are assumed to be pompous quaffers of lattes or chardonay (depending on the time of day). Perhaps if they knew that these Doctors of Philosophy walked among them, shopping at their stores, volunteering in their kids’ classrooms and coaching their soccer teams, and behaving pretty much like other members of the community, for better or for worse, Joe and Jane Six-Pack could re-examine their prejudices.

Whether the arbiters of honorifics at the LA Times can re-examine their prejudices is another question.

Hat-tip: Mike

Comments

  1. #1 Comrade PhysioProf
    February 2, 2009

    These motherfucking fake-ass “journalists” who have taken over the entire fucking journalism profession are a goddamn blight on the entire motherfucking nation. Deranged box-wine-drinking wienie-eating scuzbuckets like Walsh bear huge responsibility for the fact that our country is swirling down the motherfucking shitter.

  2. #2 Matt Springer
    February 2, 2009

    I don’t know about the LA Times for sure, but the New York times and a number of other newspapers have a pretty simple style guide for this sort of thing. If you’re a medical doctor, you get to be called Dr. If you’re not an MD, you don’t – with the single explicitly named exception of Dr. King. You’d probably be hard pressed to find a major newspaper using “Dr. Kissinger.”

    Condoleezza Rice has a Ph.D. and she was never Dr. Rice in the papers. She’s also a she, but then there’s three Ph.D. physicists in congress as well – all men, two Democrats and a Republican. None of them are called Dr. in the papers.

  3. #3 Janet D. Stemwedel
    February 2, 2009

    Mike Dunford’s post included some data:

    A quick search of the [Washington] Post’s website turns up quite a few mentions of “Dr. Kissinger” and “Dr. King.” In fact, the Post ran an editorial just a couple of weeks ago that used the phrase “Dr. King” no less than three separate times

    Having failed at consistency, the papers get to have readers analyze what might be behind their inconsistencies. It’s the American way!

  4. #4 Pinko Punko
    February 2, 2009

    Matt,

    You are so wrong it is Platonically so.

    Dr. Rice

    Dr. Kissinger.

    The fact that this “journalism” scoop needed to quote the undeniable expert, blogger Amy Sullivan, arbiter of style, amuses to no end.

    I read this last night and thought that the sexist LA Times had reached a new low. Also note their non-stop wave of “style” stories relating to female politicians and of course the new First Lady.

  5. #5 Pinko Punko
    February 2, 2009

    OK, I’m the one that is wrong- Matt is right about newspaper style, but the larger point stands that using Dr. for a non-MD can be relatively standard outside of a newspaper style guide and there is nothing whatsoever out of the ordinary for Jill Biden to use the honorific.

  6. #6 jc
    February 2, 2009

    I hate the whole fucking article. Suck it Mr. Walsh. Dr. Biden is a class act.

  7. #7 steve s
    February 2, 2009

    Ph.D was the original “Doctor”. Medical Doctors used to by called Physicians. They appropriated the title Doctor in order to get the prestige accorded at the time to Ph.Ds. IIRC this happened in the 18th & 19th centuries.

  8. #8 Kenny Easwaran
    February 3, 2009

    My understanding was that the New York Times gave people with doctoral degrees a choice about which honorific they use, so you see plenty of articles in the science section referring to Dr. so-and-so even when nothing remotely medical is going on.

    One useful thing about this whole affair is that several people seem to have stated in comments on blogs that I read that they use “Dr.” in professional contexts, and not otherwise, and that since medical doctors are in some sense always on-call, they use “Dr.” almost always. This was useful etiquette advice for me, since I haven’t yet figured out whether it feels pompous or ordinary to use the “Dr.” option when buying airplane tickets or whatever.

  9. #9 Mark C
    February 3, 2009

    I am most familiar with my father’s situation (PhD Chemistry). His office said Dr. Our mail came with the title Dr. Everyone he knew called him “Bud.” But he also made sure vendors, etc., called him “Doctor.” I’m pretty sure he would put airhead journalists who won’t respect the amount of effort and education it takes to earn a PhD in the same category.

  10. #10 Allen Hazen
    February 3, 2009

    I’m not sure of German idiom, but I think you, as a holder of two doctorates, would be referred to, auf krautish, as “Doktor Doktor Stemwedel.” (I have two colleagues with double doctorates; we only call them Doctor Doctor in fun, though. Australia is informal.)

  11. #11 not a doctor
    February 3, 2009

    During my time working in data entry, I loved seeing “PhD” after people’s names. It saved me the stress of guessing their gender and/or marital status. There are too many names that either I know for a fact can go either way or with which I’m unfamiliar. Until we “look into honorifics that are gender neutral,” I’m calling everyone I can “Doctor.”

  12. #12 perceval
    February 3, 2009

    Allen Hazen, I am afraid you are incorrect. In Krautish, Janet would be Frau Professor Doktor Doktor Stemwedel. Full title, please, Bruce.

  13. #13 Song
    February 3, 2009

    Ass. prof. = Dozent?

  14. #14 Epinephrine
    February 3, 2009

    I am fine with using the term Dr. for PhDs, though I think that a separate term for PhDs to distinguish them from medical doctors might help keep things clear.

    What I object to are doctorates in complete crap. Doctor of acupuncture, doctor of naturopathy, doctor of chiropractic… wow, talk about fooling people. Putting the title “doctor” before these is leading the public to believe that they are qualified medical professionals. Doctor of placebo effects?

  15. #15 Jennifer, MCE
    February 3, 2009

    I went to a university where most people graduating have PhDs in Pharmacy (PharmD) or Physical Therapy (DPT). It amazed me that a close friend felt the need to sign all items, for years, with Dr. Smith. And never pointed out that it was not a medical degree, while working with patients in a medical field. I hate to think of the number of people who mistakenly thought she was a health care practitioner of the same training as an MD or DO. (In my state, Pharmacists can not prescribe, as they can in some states- this even would make patient confusion worse if she were addressed as Doctor).

    On the same front, I understand people with PhDs in Pharmacy and PT and other fields are highly educated and knowledgeable, and should be recognized as such. However, I still feel that if someone gets a doctorate to have a title (rather than be called Mrs.) is missing the point entirely. Your self worth should not need to come from a title. As a teacher (chemistry and biology), I always knew the personality of the parent by their self introduction on back to school night. Those who needed to use doctor felt the need to imply their knowledge and status, while those who introduced by first name (whom I knew to be physicians) were much more concerned about their child. This was confirmed by (medical) doctor friends of mine who feel all introductions should be made with doctor. Others simply use their first name. Guess who comes across as jerk, and who people like more? Those who need the titles come across as asking for respect when those who don’t use them usually get it automatically.

    I think the real issue is that people should use their initials (Md, DO, DPT, JD, etc) after the name, in addition Dr., for all written correspondence. It doesn’t address issues of how you refer to someone in person, but helps some. This alone would prevent confusion on multiple levels, and would work successfully in print journalism.

    Interesting side point- surgeons in the UK do not use the honorarium of Dr.

  16. #16 TomJoe
    February 3, 2009

    I am fine with using the term Dr. for PhDs, though I think that a separate term for PhDs to distinguish them from medical doctors might help keep things clear.

    Why should we have to go to the trouble to separate ourselves from the M.D. (C’s get degrees) crowd? What a crock.

    Since I have a Ph.D. if I want to have people call me doctor*, it’s my right. I earned the freaking degree after all.

    *Typically, I don’t. I only pull it out when someone has a been a royal prick to me, and I want to rub their ignorance in their face. Ok, not really.

  17. #17 Samia
    February 3, 2009

    Wow, that article was obnoxious, but your post was spot on. Boo L.A. Times.

    I was raised to respect people who hold a doctorate by using the honorific. By American standards, my parents are very formal with their friends. Education is extremely important to everyone in my family, and even the most destitute relatives who live in sunbaked huts will use the word “Dr.” to honor a person they know holds an advanced degree. If anything, I’m weirded out by people who *don’t* respect the title but I do realize it can be a cultural thing.

    Everyone who meets my dad calls him “Doctor” because he’s just too professor-ly not to. Little snowy-haired Indian dude in slightly-too-short slacks and a tweed blazer. :) I plan on dressing exactly like him the day I get mine. EXACTLY. It will be awesome.

  18. #18 Lorax
    February 4, 2009

    +1 to steve s. The fact that MDs basically decided to take over the “doctor” title doesnt mean PhDs no longer get to use it, even if the NYTimes says so. As CPP said fuck em.

    Regarding a sub-topic, I insist my classroom students refer to me Dr. or Professor, although I ask the students that work in my lab to call me by my first name. In general, I think it is more appropriate to be more formal when interacting with colleagues, I write to people as Dr. so-and-so and sign with my first name. If a colleague writes to me and signs with their first name I will then take that as an ok to be less formal. I know everyone is different, but from my discussions with female professors in my area, the impression they have is that students are more likely to be non-professional around them than around male professors. So, they tend to require students to use the honorific.

  19. #19 Grant Canyon
    February 4, 2009

    “To the extent that people have done that hard work and would like to commemorate that achievement with the honorific that goes with the degree, why on earth should that be a problem?…”

    “I understand that some members of the American public have a knee-jerk distaste for pointy-headed intellectuals,… Perhaps if they knew that these Doctors of Philosophy walked among them, shopping at their stores, volunteering in their kids’ classrooms and coaching their soccer teams, and behaving pretty much like other members of the community, for better or for worse, Joe and Jane Six-Pack could re-examine their prejudices.”

    Oh, come on now. On the one hand, you approve of someone self-titling themselves to pat themselves on the back for something they’ve done. On the other, you decry, as _prejudice_ no less, the fact that regular folks view the first group as pompous windbags and see them as different from regular folks.

    These regular folks have themselves accomplished things which took just as much hard work as the doctorate, and for which they are equally proud, but they don’t walk around giving themselves silly titles and honorifics. If you want to be treated as regular folks by regular folks, then stop trying to set yourself apart from regular folks with your self.

  20. #20 Epinephrine
    February 4, 2009

    Why should we have to go to the trouble to separate ourselves from the M.D. (C’s get degrees) crowd? What a crock.

    Since I have a Ph.D. if I want to have people call me doctor*, it’s my right. I earned the freaking degree after all.

    Because it’s an important distinction, especially in medical matters. It doesn’t matter that you have an equivalently lengthy education, what matters is the perception that a “doctor” knows something about medicine, and that advice of a medical nature is coming from one with the appropriate credentials.
    You state that you’ve “earned the degree”. What’s that mean? Why should I accord respect to someone whose degree I may not respect at all? Doctorates in acupuncture and sham science? In theology? In cultural studies?
    Frankly, I personally have little use for the honorific – perhaps you’ll say it’s because I don’t have a doctorate, but I could just as easily write BA, BSc, BMath, MSc after my name, and I don’t. I find it ludicrous, and figure that people will respect me for my intellectual ability and demonstrated knowledge, not because I managed to go to school for a long time. I’ve met a fair number of pretty useless PhDs, and of course a large number of really talented ones. I’ve known quite a few people with no formal education (or perhaps only undergrad degrees) who are sharp as tacks, and who know a heck of a lot. Yes, an honorific is cute to show that you went through a long education, but unless it has some consistent meaning, it’s just not worth much to me. Signifying that you may be an expert in some field of some sort, provided that you actually went to a respectable university and studied in a field in which it actually matters? Ok. Because an article like “A New Geometrical Description of Entanglement and the Curative Homeopathic Process” by Lionel Milgrom, PhD, FRSC, MARH, MRHom just goes to show what utter crap can get “peer reviewed”. I don’t think that the letters are worth much when they put you on even footing with idiots of that calibre.
    Yes, a doctorate requires a lot of work, but so does becoming a master craftsman. I know a guy who just went for his master plumber’s licence. If the association of master plumbers were to change the term “master” to “doctor,” would you start calling plumbers Dr. such-and-such?
    My big issue is that people with PhDs in fields related to medicine (say, neuroscience, and acupuncture, to name two at opposite ends of the spectrum) will be perceived as something they aren’t – medical doctors. This matters when dealing with people who will see them in an environment in which the expectation is that their advice/opinion represents that of the medical community. While a PhD neuroscientist knows a heck of a lot about the brain, and likely far more than most doctors do, they don’t necessarily know anything much about the medical side of it. And the acupuncturist knows diddly squat, having studied an elaborate placebo – yet by having the title doctor puts him/herself on even footing with medical doctors, and treats patients, implying that he/she has the same depth of knowledge of medicine. That’s a problem.
    Oh, and I love your implication that somehow medical degrees are less important because “Cs get degrees”. Grading is adjusted based on the required grade. My GPA was up around the 4 mark (we use a 12 point scale – my lowest grades were a few As, the rest were A+) but I know damn well that it’s in part because of lighter grading at the graduate level. We were told straight up that a grade of B- was essentially a big warning, a failing grade, and that a C+ or lower mean that the professor felt we didn’t have what it took to continue, since a Cs will get you kicked out of the program. Compressing the grades into the B- to A+ range doesn’t make the students any smarter. It just means that you should be embarrassed if you get less than an 80% on anything, and I ensured that only a few grades were below 90%.

  21. #21 TomJoe
    February 4, 2009

    … what matters is the perception that a “doctor” knows something about medicine …

    Who’s perception is that? Yours? It certainly isn’t everyones. I don’t live in the most educationally gifted region of the country but when I’m introduced as “Dr. So-and-So” people don’t automatically start asking me medical questions. Often, they ask me what I do, and given my response it’s quite obvious that asking me for medical advice would not be met favorably.

    My big issue is that people with PhDs in fields related to medicine (say, neuroscience, and acupuncture, to name two at opposite ends of the spectrum) will be perceived as something they aren’t – medical doctors.

    What a crock. How many Ph.D.’s run around giving medical advice, diagnosing people, or anything of the sort? If a person can’t be bothered to investigate who may be giving them information on particular matters, why should I have to do it for them by giving up what is rightfully mine to bear?

    Oh, and I love your implication that somehow medical degrees are less important because “Cs get degrees”.

    Do not assume. My implication wasn’t that they’re less important, my implication is that they’re easier to obtain. It tells you something when, at least in this country, it’s harder to get into Vet school than it is Med school (and I know a number of individuals who became MD’s because they couldn’t get into Vet school — anecdotal evidence I know, but med schools vastly outnumber vet schools here in the US).

  22. #22 MikeS
    February 4, 2009

    MD-PhD (I went back for the MD after deciding I was more interested in clinical work than doing research – funding is a pain)

    I agree completely with the response to the article in general. It’s plain insulting, and not even remotely consistent with newspaper behavior (as has been pointed out).

    To the silly people that think that medical school is some sort of joke, compared to doctoral programs, I would like to remind you that there tends to be more competition for MD programs because of the large applicant size than there is in most PhD fields (with plenty of exceptions). I received far more interviews initially to PhD programs than I did when I applied to MD programs (with my PhD in neuroscience), and I applied less than half as many programs.

    Honestly, the assumption that an MD is easier to obtain is a joke. I found the education more difficult. Passing some classes is far harder than getting a B to pass in graduate school (again, depending on the program). I know it’s a natural reaction to go slightly on the offensive against something that is incorrectly perceived to be better, harder, or more real, but in reality the two experiences are of comparable difficulty. And there is almost certainly far larger variations between individual PhD programs and MD programs than there are between the difficulty of getting the MD or PhD in general.

  23. #23 MikeS
    February 4, 2009

    Oh, and as to my opinion on when to use Dr. I used it in all professional correspondence prior to applying to medical school, at which point I stopped using it until residency, for clarity. I always preferred people just use my first name, and never bothered to correct strangers, however. I did not do any real teaching: I imagine I would have used it in that context as well, though.

  24. #24 Epinephrine
    February 4, 2009

    why should I have to do it for them by giving up what is rightfully mine to bear?

    Oh, yeah, that “right” to be addressed a certain way.

    A university deciding that you deserve some title doesn’t imply that everyone need use it. The university has no ability to enforce use of the title, and its use is a courtesy really, something extended by others who follow that particular custom.

    If you address a doctor (whether PhD or M.D., or D.V.M, or whatever the heck kind you care to name) as “Bob” you aren’t infringing on any “right”. Newspapers (and the AP) have decided to stick to using the word doctor when referring to medical doctors. It has nothing to do with rights, and it simplifies things for the average person.

    What a crock. How many Ph.D.’s run around giving medical advice, diagnosing people, or anything of the sort?

    Umm, quite a few. They are PhD psychologists working in hospitals (dealt with these), anti-vaccination morons who feel that they get more clout by using the word “doctor” in front of their names, people like Lionel Milgrom, who is a homeopath and writes as “Dr.” thanks to his PhD, and is involved in promoting a pointless placebo as an “alternative” medicine.

    If there weren’t people using the term to try to seem qualified to discuss things that they aren’t, I wouldn’t care what you called yourself. You can ask to be addressed as “your highness” for all I care, but if you are in a medical setting or giving out medical advice, the use of the word doctor (however legitimate in an academic setting) is potentially deceptive, and as can be seen by numerous examples in the fields of alternative medicine, often intentionally so.

  25. #25 BiophysicsMonkey
    February 4, 2009

    I’m conflicted on this. On the one hand, I was definitely conditioned to believe that Ph.D.’s* who insist on being called “Doctor” everywhere they go are pompous wankers.

    On the other hand, there’s no way that the LAT would have devoted an entire article to sneering at Biden’s degree if she were a man.

    Also, Biden has a bit better excuse than most. In addition to academic environments, people are also generally given their full titles at official occasions. Someone with a Ph.D. testifying before congress, for instance, would probably be addressed as Doctor (e.g. “Dr. Stemwedel, are you now or have you ever been a member of the WAAGNFN?”).

    Since Biden is a public figure by way of being married to a politician, I suppose that any public appearance of her’s could be considered somewhat official.

    *I’ve got one myself.

  26. #26 killinchy
    February 4, 2009

    Of course the Brits screw everything up by calling their surgeons “mister”

  27. #27 TomJoe
    February 4, 2009

    A university deciding that you deserve some title doesn’t imply that everyone need use it.

    A little bit of reading comprehension would go a long way. I don’t care if you use it or not, whether you’re referring to me, yourself, or any other individual. I however do have every right to use it if I see fit, especially seeing as I earned it.

    … anti-vaccination morons who feel that they get more clout by using the word “doctor” in front of their names …

    Ah yes, the typical knee-jerk reaction. So because some moron misuses it, everyone else has to suffer, even if they went to a reputable university and did all the requisite work. Riiiggght. That makes a ton of sense.

  28. #28 Kenny Easwaran
    February 5, 2009

    Also, I just saw an article today in the NYTimes (well, I think it was in the International Herald Tribune, but I believe the articles are generally the same) referring to “Dr. Ayad Allawi”, the former prime minister of Iraq, who has some sort of doctorate in neurology.

  29. #29 opony
    February 5, 2009

    for real doctor it is not a problem when someone called him mister…I am sure of that

  30. #30 opony
    February 5, 2009

    for the real doctor it is not a problem when someone called him mister…I am sure of that

  31. #31 Jammin
    November 8, 2009

    Tomjoe, with all due respect, you are talking out your rear end; you obviously know nothing about either medical education or other education for that matter. Veterinary school is harder to get into because there are only a few spots each year, and because it is considered a desirable course of study. As for your “C’s get degrees” nonsense, I can only second what others have said, that the grading is relative to others in the class and a “C” or an “A” really has no intrinsic value. That said, by any standard, I’d bet you would find that a “C” student at Johns Hopkins med school will be quite capable of performing the duties of a physician. Comparisons to PhD grading are irrelevant. Surely you are not that stupid.

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.