Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)


Have you read the latest piece of anti-intellectualism to come out of the LATimes? Apparently, their so-called journalists are showing their ignorance by stating that Jill Biden, who earned her PhD in Education — and who also happens to be the wife of Senator Vice President Joe Biden — cannot be referred to as “Doctor Biden”. What have they been smoking??

“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. (He apparently agrees with the LATimes’ stupidity, because they cite him).

LATimes journalists and editors, especially Robin Abcarian, and also Bill Walsh: I am shocked at your astounding lack of background in the history and etymology of commonly used words in your own language, and I am offended that you are helping to define industry standards when you have such an obvious and demonstrably poor knowledge. Either that, or you are willfully misleading the public.

Since you seem to have forgotten about these things, let me remind you: after abandoning medieval thievery and tortures such as prayer, bleeding, and snake oil, medical practitioners took on the honorific “Medical Doctor” to signify that they had escaped from the grip of Hippocratic dogma and had finally arrived as members of the reality-based community who rely upon scientifically-based information to do their jobs. (Interestingly, a quick look into Finnish, which I am attempting to learn, reveals that the word for doctor, lääkäri, originated from the Finnish for “leech.” Hrm, where do you suppose that association came from?)

But even though you are American journalists, you should be blatantly aware of word etymology, but since you aren’t, let me fill in more of the blanks for you. Long long ago (in the early Paleozoic), Islamic law awarded the first Ph.D. degrees in the 9th century; a “Doctor of Laws” degree. Then in the middle ages (shortly after the extinction of the dinosaurs), the Ph.D. or Doctor of Philosophy degree (Latin; philosophiæ doctor, meaning “teacher of philosophy”) was expanded to include all fields of scholarship except theology, law and .. medicine. Let me repeat this in tiny words for the journalists in the crowd: the Ph.D. became THE most advanced academic degree awarded by the vast majority of the English-speaking world and it is required for those Doctors pursuing a career as a university professor or researcher in most scholarly, academic or scientific fields. By comparison, medical practitioners been known as “doctors” only very recently.

Those whose career it is to heal sick people using accepted medical practices are known as medical doctors, or as physicians, got it? So the take home lesson here is that Jill Biden’s proper title is Doctor Biden. Any journalist who takes pride in their professionalism, in communicating with the public using standard English understands this simple fact.

Even more to the point: neither “Dr. Henry Kissinger” nor “Dr. Condoleezza Rice” had (have) a medical degree, yet this is how they are often referred to in the media. What gives?


  1. #1 Dr. Free-Ride
    February 3, 2009

    To be fair, the writers who left us the Hippocratic corpus were doing their darnedest to establish something like a scientifically-based medicine. It was later generations of physicians who got too precious about the knowledge of the ancient world and failed to attend to the empirical data before them.

  2. #2 Peter
    February 3, 2009

    (psst… Vice President Biden)

    Sorry, I know I’m overly pedantic at times… But since I agree with your premise completely I thought it worth mentioning…

  3. #3 Bob O'H
    February 3, 2009

    Oops. Michelle Obama has a J.D., so (according to Wikipedia) is entitled to call herself Dr. as well.

  4. #5 chris
    February 3, 2009

    All MDs are Drs – apart from surgeons in the UK, who remain, stubbornly, Mr. (or Mrs/Ms, I suppose?).

    That’s the tonsorial background, that.

  5. #6 Vasha
    February 3, 2009

    Even within the domain of “healing the sick”, the title is contested — I’ve read blog comments from several MDs who get exceedingly huffy if a DDS uses the title “Doctor”; and I presume they’d feel the same way about a DVM. But really, just because these MDs want to reserve the title to their own use, there’s no reason other people should grant them that privilege, is there?

  6. #7 rpenner
    February 3, 2009

    Lawyers (those who have passed the state bar exam) pooh-pooh those who insist on the “Doctor” for their J.D. which is an inferior distinction to actually being a lawyer.

  7. #8 Flaky
    February 3, 2009

    lääkäri, originated from the Finnish for “leech.”
    No, it originates from Swedish läkare, which comes from the verb läka – to heal, which in turn derives from the same origin as the English leech.

  8. #9 Flaky
    February 3, 2009

    Incidentally, most physicians in Finland are not even doctors, but licentiates of medicine.

  9. #10 Barn Owl
    February 3, 2009

    In addition to the etymology ignorance displayed by such journalists, I think there’s the issues of misogyny, fear, and resentment of educated, intelligent women. PhDnis envy, if you will. Taking someone like Dr. Jill Biden down a peg (or believing that you do so), by speciously and arbitrarily demoting her degrees, might make it less likely that misogynistic journalists will pee their pants in fear, the next time they have to encounter a woman who can “use her words” intelligently.

  10. #11 Cherish
    February 3, 2009

    I think the leech thing came from the notion of bloodletting for healing. They used to use leeches. Blech.

  11. #12 Al
    February 3, 2009

    To be precise, as scientists should be, Jill Biden has an Ed.D. and not a Ph.D. in Education. The University of Delaware School of Education, which Mrs. Biden attended, offers both a Ph.D. in Education as well as an Ed.D., and the requirements are different. For example, the Ed.D. is described as a degree obtained with 3-4 years of part-time study and is designed for those who continue their jobs while studying, while the Ph.D. degree requires 4-5 years of full-time study. You can consult the University of Delaware School of Education web site to look at other differences between these degrees.

    Another famous personality with an Ed.D., Bill Cosby, refers to his degree in some contexts but not in others.

  12. #13 D. C. Sessions
    February 3, 2009

    They used to use leeches. Blech.

    “They” still do. Sterile leeches are raised for medical uses today, since they’re very good at maintaining circulation to re-attached body parts.

  13. #14 Bob O'H
    February 3, 2009

    Incidentally, most physicians in Finland are not even doctors, but licentiates of medicine.

    That’s how the Finnish degree system goes. You become licentious, then you get doctored, and finally docile (docent). The Germans, in contrast, don’t become docile, merely habilitated.

  14. #15 Jordan
    February 3, 2009

    Al beat me to it in comment #12, but Jill Biden has an EdD, not a PhD. Its funny how defensive PhDs get when someone says that only MDs are “doctors”. However, I have seen the same kind of stigma by PhDs for EdDs that MDs have for PhDs.

    The big D, whether a research or professional doctorate, allows people to address the degree holder as Dr. It is an interesting history, though, of how the medical profession has attempted to usurp the title of a different profession.

  15. #16 "GrrlScientist"
    February 3, 2009

    Jordan — “defensive”? is that what it is called when a person (regardless of their educational achievements) is correcting a piece of misinformation from being perpetuated?

  16. #17 Interrobang
    February 3, 2009

    It is when the speaker is male and the person correcting the misinformation is female. Women are always “defensive” when they’re standing up for themselves, don’t you know…

  17. #18 Dr. Free-Ride
    February 3, 2009

    Actually, as DrugMonkey did the legwork to establish, Dr. Biden earned a Ph.D. in education, not an Ed.D.

  18. #19 lylebot
    February 3, 2009

    It seems she actually is an Ed.D., not a Ph.D. All of the University of Delaware’s PR material refers to it as either an Ed.D. or a “doctorate”, and when I searched for her on ProQuest she came up as an Ed.D. Not that she deserves any less respect for that; just setting the record straight.

  19. #20 J. J. Ramsey
    February 3, 2009

    This reminds me of a post that Dr. Isis a little while ago, That’s “Dr. Little Missy” to You!, and there’s a quote that helps explain why Dr. Biden would want to make clear that she’s a doctor:

    “We occasionally get mail from our church addressed to “Dr. and Mrs. Isis” because, when the secretary entered the information into the mailing list, she must have simply glanced at the boxes we checked when we registered and assumed Mr. Isis was the one with the doctorate-level degree.

    “So, I can appreciate that many of us in the Ph.D. world try not to be overly pretentious about our honorary titles (this seems to be much less of an issue in my interactions in the M.D. world where I don’t think twice about correcting someone, but that’s a topic for another post). However, the ability to say that having your academic achievements recognized in how you are addressed by your students is unimportant is a luxury that is only enjoyed by white male academics. This is because individuals are probably more likely to associate white male academics with particular educational achievements than women or minority academics.”

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.