Adventures in Ethics and Science

There’s a lively discussion raging at the pad of Dr. Isis (here and here) about whether there isn’t something inherently obnoxious and snooty about identifying oneself as having earned an advanced degree of any sort. Commenter Becca makes the case thusly:

“Why are people threatened by the idea that a profession ought to have professional standards, anyway?”
1) It gives the gatekeepers even more power than they already have. Given a world where professional credentials are denied to certain groups, it can get a bit ugly. I think the worst part is that people who are traditionally trodden upon, because they fought so hard to get the darn credential, end up being the ones most viciously fighting against respect for people without the credentials.
2) I’m not horribly opposed to professional standards in general, I just don’t think they should necesarily apply to researchers. If an MD doesn’t know what she’s doing, she kills people. If a scientist doesn’t know what she’s doing, she can change the status quo by doing something incredibly novel that others couldn’t imagine (not that it’s the most likely scenario; the most likely scenario is she will fall flat on her face… but there is an important distinction nonetheless). Heck, a kid in a science fair can discover something new (ocassionally, at the highest levels like Westinghouse, even something that academics should recognize- something publishable).

Ultimately, we wouldn’t be having this conversation if we didn’t take “Dr.” as a proxy for respect. No one will ever earn my respect by spending X years in school. Plenty of people without PhDs will earn it.
I’ve met very few PhDs who have unearned my respect for their hard work and intelligence that got them that degree (note the distinction between symbol = degree and reality = character). But there have been a few. I feel no obligation to call them “Dr.”.

“Seriously, what is the problem with recognizing expertise, hardwork, perseverence, and yes, intelligence? Why is that not progressive?”
There’s nothing wrong with it, and a great deal right!
But the relationship between schooling, expertise, hardwork, perserverence and intelligence and the number of letters displayed after your name is not a one to one function. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something (most likely a diploma).

“Ms. Manners would suggest that the polite thing to do would be to inquire of Dr. Biden which she would prefer, and (so long as the preference is for an honorific she has earned) use that.”
Did you mean Miss Manners? On the original discussion I posted her commentary on this. It can be summed up as: if someone wants to use a title, give it to them. If you are thinking of your own title, however, it’s a tad crude to draw excessive attention to your need for status.

I’m sympathetic to Becca’s points here, so I want to explore why it is I find myself leaning in the other direction on the appropriateness of “Dr.” as an honorific.

First off, I think respect for persons ought to be absolutely central to our interactions with each other, every day and in every way. I’m with Kant on that one. People have the potential to do wonderful things — even of they haven’t delivered on that promise yet — and they have the potential to feel really bad if treated poorly by others. There’s never a good reason to go out of your way to treat someone poorly, and the extra effort it may take to treat the other people you encounter as actual human beings rather than just obstacles in your path is almost always worth it. (Sometimes the value comes in what kind of person it makes you to treat others well, but that’s still value-added.)

While we’re busy respecting each other as persons, there are other things we’re doing as well. Sometimes we’re psyching ourselves (or others) up to tackle daunting tasks. Sometimes we’re accomplishing those tasks. Sometimes we’re seeking the assistance of others in accomplishing our tasks, or being called upon by others to offer our assistance.

Some of the daunting tasks we psych ourselves up to tackle involve learning new things, or even bringing new knowledge into existence. Sometimes accomplishing those tasks is recognized with a degree, maybe even one that comes with the “Dr.” honorific.

Clearly, not all daunting tasks that people tackle and conquer are connected to academic degrees. Without a doubt, people do very hard, and very valuable, things that don’t confer academic status (or even a salary). Expertise, hardwork, perseverance, and intelligence are worthy of respect on their own, whether or not they also result in a degree. But this doesn’t mean that we should not respect expertise, hardwork, perseverance, and intelligence when they are accompanied by a degree!

And here’s where the messiness of the real world starts impinging on our Kantian utopia. There are a number of people who, in the world we currently inhabit, are repeatedly confronted with the experience of having their expertise, hardwork, perseverance, and intelligence discounted, in big ways and in small ways. When these people jump through all the hoops that the folks discounting them recognize as certifying something, are they supposed to shut up about their advanced degrees because it’s not quite polite to draw attention to them?

Let’s remember, in answering that question, that respect for persons includes respect for oneself.

Noting that advanced degrees are held by women, members of underrepresented (and traditionally undervalued) minorities, folks from lower socioeconomic strata, people coming to formal education late in life, people living with disabilities, etc., is one way to combat the default assumption that members of these groups aren’t quite worthy of the same respect other people are accorded before they even open their mouths. It’s a way to say, “By your own lights, I do know something worth listening to! So don’t write me off!” To me, that’s the main issue — shifting a default assumption where some people are preemptively accorded more respect, others less.

Now, none of this is to say that we won’t have occasion to update our assessments of expertise, hardwork, perseverance, and intelligence when people actually open their mouths. (We should still strive to respect the humanity even in people who say stupid things or behave like asses, although we may judge them less able to assist us in our projects, and we may deem their projects as ones in which we’re unwilling to participate, owing to how dumb those projects are.)

As well, the people pushing back against the default assumption that people of their sex or race or class or age or whatever are not worthy of regard and could not have real expertise or accomplishments, upon earning the higher degrees that might count as some kind of evidence against these default assumptions, ought not to pull up the rope-ladder behind them. Rather, they ought to point out that it was the talents and determination (and some measure of good luck) that they had, members of a suspect class though they were, that allowed them to earn those degrees, not the degrees that suddenly made them valid human beings — which means that other members of those suspect classes can be presumed to have that same potential.

Things can get tetchy if we start in on potential that people have versus potential that they bother to develop, so I’m going to walk around that issue for the moment. (As a parent, though, I’ll note that sometimes being respected can feel a little but like being pushed.) Also, there are instances in which we’re more concerned with locating actual expertise rather than the potential to develop expertise.

Still, we ought to be able to respect each other. To do that, we need to be willing to look at how others have been preemptively disrespected, and work out ways to shift the default closer to where we hope, in the glorious Kantian utopia, to end up.


  1. #1 Isis the Scientist
    February 4, 2009

    Another brilliant post from Dr. Freeride. I concur that it is lunacy to make someone feel less than proud about something they have worked hard to acheive. It’s not pretentious. It’s an acheivement.

  2. #2 Comrade PhysioProf
    February 4, 2009

    As I pointed out over there, I don’t give a flying fuck what people call me, so long as they don’t use the arbitrary and selective withholding or bestowal of honorifics as a disingenuous tool to shore up some people’s credibility and knock down others’. And the *last* people in the entire fucking universe I would trust to make these kind of distinctions in a legitimate and nondisingenuous fashion are our current crop of box-wine-swilling pig-sphincter-wienie-gobbling cocktail party “journalist” fuck-ups! After their complete abdication of every single professional responsibility they possessed over the last eight years, it is beyond me why anyone trusts these assholes to report anything more important than kindergarten performances of I’m A Little Motherfucking Teapot!

  3. #3 TomJoe
    February 4, 2009

    … kindergarten performances of I’m A Little Motherfucking Teapot!

    That must’ve been quite the kindergarten you attended CPP. Good to see it’s seen you through up to this point! 😉

  4. #4 Becca
    February 4, 2009

    “But this doesn’t mean that we should not respect expertise, hardwork, perseverance, and intelligence when they are accompanied by a degree!”
    Why, that would just be absurdedly preverse! I can’t imagine being contrary enough to act that way. *whistles innocently*

    “And here’s where the messiness of the real world starts impinging on our Kantian utopia. “
    I HATE it when the real world does that!

    To the degree this brewhaha was about making Dr. Biden feel less than proud for her acomplishments (and the tone of at least one of the quotes suggests that impulse was probably floating around)- I’m happy to use her title and wish others would as well. To the degree all use of titles serves to divide people needlessly (even if that provides an incentive to work hard to gain the knowledge to be an expert), the whole thing makes me somewhat sad.

  5. #5 Julie Stahlhut
    February 4, 2009

    With regards to the Jill Biden controversy: If she prefers to be addressed as Dr. Jill Biden, her preference should be respected. She has earned the degree, and she’s entitled to the honorific. Not all of us (whether our degrees are professional or research degrees) feel the same way about our own titles, but that’s not the issue.

    At any rate, this is an excellent teaching moment, because it should be more widely understood among the public that doctorates are awarded in many fields. (Not to mention the fact that not all Ph.D.s working in academia are professors!)

    And when in the midst of a medical emergency someone asks whether there’s a doctor present, everyone still knows what is meant.

  6. #6 Samia
    February 4, 2009

    I had no idea some people felt this strongly about calling someone “doctor.” I have two thoughts to share:

    1) Some of us learned that calling someone “doctor” is just like saying “Mr.” or “Ms.” before someone’s name– a respect thing, rather than a “you’re better than everyone else” deal.

    2) D.Phils who are members of underrepresented groups in their respective disciplines might appreciate the respect that goes along with the honorific. It doesn’t take anything away from the rest of us to respect that (as long as no one is being an ass).

  7. #7 Pat Cahalan
    February 4, 2009

    I don’t have a doctorate, my wife does (Chemistry).

    She doesn’t go by “Dr.” because she does not work in academia or as a researcher, and is of the opinion that one uses the honorific when it is appropriate. My idea of appropriate –

    If you’re a practicing researcher, professor, or medical doctor, you are entitled to use the honorific. If you’re discussing a topic that is related to the area in which you acquired your Ph.D., you are entitled to use the honorific. If you are addressing formal or semi-formal correspondence to someone who possesses the credentials (this includes referring to them in a news story), you always always include the honorific.

    If the bearer of the Ph.D just insists that people generally use the term to talk to you, he or she is probably an ass, but that’s their right.

  8. #8 Eriastrum
    February 4, 2009

    I think that in most situations, you can’t go wrong if you simply address people in the manner that they request. I see that as a natural kind of courtesy where you respect that person’s values and desires, no matter how silly or pretentious or undeserved you might consider them to be. In a journalistic context it does make sense to have standard rules for addressing or referring to people; but if they specifically request a particular form of address (as in this case), I see no reason why they shouldn’t follow it.

  9. #9 Jim Thomerson
    February 4, 2009

    I have had professors who wanted to be called by their first name. I did not feel comfortable doing that and called them “Doc”. Oddly enough, my major professor was universially known by a nickname, and I used it just like everyone else did. I have specifically told students who had completed their work with me to use my first name. I did this as a matter of respect and collegiality. Some of them would not do so. I don’t use Dr. or Professor in nonprofessional situations. As one of my hobby friends, who had known me for some time, remarked, “I didn’t know you were a professor. I thought you were just an ordinary old fellow.” On the other hand, there are a couple of hobby friends who call me Professor. Whatever.

    There is also the use of military titles, as in Col. Sanders. One of my hobby friends, who is a top-notch person in the hobby, is sometimes referred to as ‘The Colonel’ as a mark of respect.

    My wife is in a profession where people have a string of letters behind their name, as she does. However, she does not have a doctorate, and is quick to correct those who assume she does.

  10. #10 hypatia cade
    February 4, 2009

    I’m interested in Becca’s idea that scientists don’t kill people:
    “If an MD doesn’t know what she’s doing, she kills people. If a scientist doesn’t know what she’s doing, she can change the status quo by doing something incredibly novel that others couldn’t imagine (not that it’s the most likely scenario; the most likely scenario is she will fall flat on her face… but there is an important distinction nonetheless).”

    Indeed there is the likelihood that a scientist without proper training (whatever that is) will fall on their face rather than kill people. But what if a scientist without proper training does poor research that leads to changes in policy/administration of wrong therapies? There have been prior conversations here about how hard/rare it is to actually attempt replication…. And how much we take on faith. A PhD (Dr.) doesnt’ guarantee that, but….

  11. #11 frog
    February 4, 2009

    Very simple — title are an element of formality, so when everyone is being formal, then ‘Dr.’ is de riguer. But then everyone else gets their title too — even an 18 year old is at least Mr. or Ms. It’s just formal dress.

    But when one group gets a formal treatment and another is simply given first names, well that’s not formality that recognizes certain generally respected achievements — that’s a power play. If you’re “Dr. X” to your graduate student, but you call your graduate student “Johnny”, you’re a prick lording it over your underlings. You’re thou’ing him.

    Call me Dr. frog, and I’ll call you Ms. Toad, or Professor Toad, or any other degree you’ve earned by dint of having survived. We’re just signalling our steps in the dance. But if you call me froggy and demand that you’re Mrs. Toad, well you can go to hell. Call me ‘vous’ and I’ll return the favor — but don’t treat me like your peasant.

  12. #12 newdr
    February 5, 2009

    Along with some of my fellow recently-minted PhD’s, I’ve experienced conflicting feelings about being addressed as “Dr”: grateful exultation at the recongition of our achievement; modesty, with the awareness that others have contributed as much and more with less recognition; awkward uncertainty, especially in front of our first few classes of students required to address us as such.

    The conclusion my friends and I have come to recently is that we appreciate, and practice, the honorific in situations where it’s _relevant_. We’ve been advised to have our own students call us “Dr” in class (it’s hard enough to command respect as a young instructor). Similarly, I find it’s professionally expedient to address faculty as “Dr” in the workplace, at least until becoming familiar colleagues or otherwise on first-name terms. But outside the lab, campus, or academic gatherings, it seems like an affectation, and certainly not something I would request or even enjoy.

    I think we can apply the same rules to the media. If a local journalist had quoted Jill Biden a year ago about witnessing a neighborhood fire–a situation in which her only relevant credential would be possessing eyes and ears–her name would surely have sufficed. At the opposite extreme, an article about her work or views on education should surely recognize her academic achievement in that area, and refer to her as “Dr.” Anything in between–articles that reference her in a professional capacity, but not on particular issues of education–might fall in a gray area. However, it seems to me that in politics, professional credentials are always on the line.

    Of course, personal preference can always trump rules in this matter, and if Dr Lynn Cheney prefers to be addressed as “Mrs,” more humble power to her. But it seems entirely relevant to me to recognize explicitly Dr Jill Biden’s credentials in any political matter. That might mean anything in the press for the next 4 years, at least until lightning strikes their neighbors’ tree.

  13. #13 Melinda
    February 5, 2009

    Comrade PhysioProf,

    This is normally where I’d step in to defend journalistic standards and practices, but I can’t in this case. It’s just ridiculous.

    As for your characterization of our current crop of “journalists,” I must also agree. Journalism is now one of the least meritocratic professions and quickly becoming less so.

  14. #14 Jim Thomerson
    February 5, 2009

    When I completed my final orals, and my dissertation was accepted, my commitee members each shook my hand and addressed me as Doctor. I was moved.

  15. #15 arvind
    February 5, 2009

    Damn! I don’t check out scienceblogs for a few days and see what I miss!

    Once again, you display the kind of evenhanded thoughtfulness that makes your readers love you Dr.Free-ride!

    I kind of yo-yo about a lot in my feelings for traditional news outlets and mainstream media. I used to have the same feeling of sadness at the impending demise of print media that you expressed in your comment at Dr.Isis’ place. I have a lot of good childhood memories of spending weekend mornings with the bulkier weekend editions of newspapers (the arts and literary sections). But recently I started noticing the extent of bad coverage of science in traditional news outlets when I started reading scienceblogs. Then I had the same feeling regarding politics and several other topics after reading much better coverage by experts on blogs. Then there were incidents like the behavior toward Abbie Smith and Bora’s posts on that topic, and I finally started thinking that maybe these “journalists” deserve to go the way of the dodo. Then recently Chris Clarke wrote this thoughtful blog post that made me wonder and re-think some of my assumptions in dismissing traditional journalism. And now I come here to scienceblogs and once again I see ignoramuses like this Bill Walsh guy holding forth like total pompous douches and I wonder again if the traditional outlets have gone so far down the toilet in standards in recent years that it is better to let them become irrelevant. The other day I caught typos (yes Typos!) in the news snippets at the bottom of the screen in both CNN and BBC television news broadcasts. If having as much money as those channels have can’t get them to hire someone to even proof-read a 6 word snippet, it makes one wonder if there is any kind of respectable editorial oversight happening anywhere in traditional news media outlets anymore!

  16. #16 Kea Duckenfield
    February 6, 2009

    I would love to get Dr. Free-Ride’s take on being a Ph.D mom of school-age kids. Do all women automatically get called Mrs. (child’s last name) in every school setting? This where people are already intimidating me with early childhood education-speak. Yet the last thing I want to do is pull “That’s DR. to you” on my kid’s teacher, out of respect and a desire to preserve a positive working relationship. But it’s hardly a promotion from (child’s first name)’s mommy!

    I concur that abuse of a Ph.D is hugely offensive. I have seen professors treat co-workers lacking higher education with contempt and worked with research scientists who require their lab techs to accord them the title while insisting even doctoral students call them by their first names.And hiding one’s lack of actual credentials behind an irrelevant degree is sneaky at best.

    On the other hand I too regularly experience the conference call with Drs. A-E and Kea. When my (non-doctoral) supervisors are present, do I risk looking like an ass or a doormat?

    There’s a fine line at which you cease to stand on egalitarian principles and begin to stick up for yourself and your abilities. I haven’t quite pinpointed it yet. This discussion is a great help. Thanks everyone!

  17. #17 EuropeanFemaleScienceProfessor
    February 7, 2009

    Let’s just say that I go by a multiplicity of honorifics.

    In sports mode we just use first names. We are all equal under the showers.

    In Mommy mode I accept pretty much anything close: My son’s last name, some mangling of my last name.

    In wife mode there are honorifics that will get you a nice dinner cooked, and some that will get you something tossed in your direction.

    In professor mode I answer to “Prof. EFSP” or “Dr. EFSP” as the situation calls, but among colleagues we just use either first or last names, depending on how close we are. Good grad students get to use first names, but only after we have had a beer together.

    In talking-with-journalist mode I want the “Prof. Dr.” and my name spelled right in their publication even though they will twist my words around to suit what they want to say.

    Online I have lots of names, with and without honorifics :)

  18. #18 costanza
    February 7, 2009

    Two things:

    (1) Perhaps MD’s should insist on the honorific, as they are healers.

    (2) I personally don’t care if people refer to me as “Dr”, “Mr”, or “hey you”, EXCEPT when staying in a hotel. The “Dr” gets you MUCH better service!

  19. #19 anonymous
    February 8, 2009

    Dr. is one of the few gender-neutral honorifics available. As a woman (and hopefully a future PhD), I would like to be able to use a title that would allow me to make a first impression in writing without being automatically underestimated. The fact that I happen to be female should be nobody’s business except my own and my personal acquaintances’.

  20. #20 neurowoman
    February 14, 2009

    Late to the party – but Becca has it exactly backwards. When a person has EARNED a degree that confers a title, and you CHOOSE explicitly to not use that title in an arena in which it would be appropriate and you know better, you are actively DISRESPECTING that person. And that is why it gets up the hackles of the academic crowd; they perceive the disrespect.

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