Doctor in the House

Jill Biden earned her Ph.D. Ed.D. in 2007 in education. Robin Abcarian, reporter for the Los Angeles Times, must be having a tough time finding material to write about, given the article attacking Biden for being identified as Dr. Jill Biden. The level of research Abcarian undertook is exemplified by this erratum in the online version:

The headline in an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Jill Biden had a doctorate in English. She has a doctorate in education.

Media Matters has an excellent response to Abcarian, taking apart many of the slights that Abcarian had worked into the article. One of the most annoying moments in the Abcarian article was its quoting of a newspaper staffer about policy:

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.

Bill Walsh is confused. While doctor as a description of what someone does for a living is tied to the medical profession by modern usage, the “Dr.” title of address is accurately applied to any holder of a terminal research or professional degree that is a doctorate. That is inclusive of medical doctors, but not exclusive of doctorates in the arts, sciences, and other professions.

The hypocrisy issue raised by Media Matters was particularly telling: would the LA Times demur from calling LA Lakers owner Jerry Buss as “Dr.”, and go so far as to publish articles attacking him for using his earned title? Certainly the “policy” cited by Walsh is inconsistently applied. The LA Times has published articles that do use “Dr.” to refer to people other than medical doctors. Like this article that includes a reference to “Dr. Jerry Buss”.

Of course, the low point in the Abcarian article as pointed out by Media Matters has to be the implication that someone using “Dr.” as a title might be guilty of a criminal offense, “title fraud”:

German investigations of “title fraud” don’t have anything to do with Jill Biden. Nobody – nobody except the LA Times, that is – is suggesting that Jill Biden is guilty of “fraud.” And Germany doesn’t prohibit non-medical doctors from using the title doctor; it prohibits people who didn’t earn their doctorate in Germany or the EU to call themselves doctor. Again: this has absolutely nothing to do with Jill Biden. It’s just a cheap shot; a clumsy effort to suggest there is something fraudulent about her use of the title “doctor,” even though there is nothing wrong with her doing so – by American standards or German.

It’s probably a safe bet that Robin Abcarian doesn’t hold an earned doctorate. The sort of anti-intellectualism that comes through that article doesn’t usually come from a background in graduate studies.

Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Data scientist in real estate and econometrics. Blogger. Speaker. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

6 thoughts on “Doctor in the House

  • 2009/02/03 at 10:29 am

    In fact in Germany it is considered correct and polite to address all holders of a doctorate as “Doctor”. Something that I on principle don’t do!

  • 2009/02/03 at 12:48 pm

    In Germany you may call yourself “Doctor” even with degrees from non-German or -EU universities, but they have to be confirmed by a university in Germany. An important difference is that the German “Doktor” requires you to have finished a scientific doctoral thesis, something that seems a lot more like a PhD in the US. The exception to this is the medical doctor, which can be obtained so easily that it is considered a pure vanity title by most of the academic community.

  • 2009/02/03 at 1:50 pm

    The regulations in Germany sound like a pretty straightforward bulwark against phony doctorates (e.g., Kent Hovind) presenting themselves as professionally qualified to work in some field. Given the degree of respect higher education has in German culture, this is not surprising.

    Diane had a course that was taught by an Austrian astronomer. He related to her an anecdote about traveling to Germany for a conference by rail with a German colleague. The railway crew were treating him to the standard degree of disrespect due a random Austrian traveler… until his colleague made a point of addressing him as “Herr Doktor Professor”, after which he got the same deference as had been accorded his colleague.

  • 2009/02/03 at 1:52 pm

    @ Thony C: In fact in Germany you are also considered a pompous idiot if you insist on being called “Doktor”, although you’re right that officially your title becomes a part of your name and is included e.g. on your ID card (on request).

  • 2009/02/03 at 3:10 pm

    I have an MA. If I were to meet Abcarian or Billy Walsh, I will insist they call me “Master Michael.” If I’m feeling particularly friendly to them, I’ll deign to allow them to use my first name, Master.

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