The Responsibility of Using the Academic Title of Doctor

“You’re Dr. Jenna Jacobs, right?”
“Yes, Sir.”
“Forgive me, Dr. Jacobs. Are you an M.D.?”
“A Ph.D.”
“A Ph.D.”
“Yes, Sir.”
“No, Sir.”
“Social work?”
“I have a Ph.D. in English literature.”
“I’m asking ‘cause on your show, people call in for advice and you go by the name Dr. Jacobs on your show, and I didn’t know if maybe your listeners were confused by that and assumed you had advanced training in psychology, theology or health care.”
President Bartlet and Dr. Jenna Jacobs in “The West Wing”

There is an influence of the academic title of “doctor” on the evaluation of the assertions this person makes. Usually people use the title of “doctor” as a surface indicator for quality. And in many cases these surface indicators are decisive in which information we trust. After all, we are confronted with so much information and so many topics, we cannot examine all of them deeply. These peripheral shortcuts are very useful to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Thus, if you use the title of “doctor”, people might think that you know what you are talking about.

However, as the quote in the beginning of this posting nicely illustrates, a doctorate does not mean that you actually are an expert in the subject matter. That title might be in a completely unrelated field and — personally, I strongly agree with this quotation here:

There is nothing so stupid as the educated man
if you get him off the thing he was educated in.
Will Rogers

Yup, a study — or better a meta-analysis of studies — would be needed here, but I’m not using my title here either 😉 However, Sternberg wrote a brilliant book on how smart people can be really stupid which might be relevant here.

But seriously, science is so broad that academic title of “doctor” tells you almost nothing about the qualification of the person. What qualifies as science, the methods and its quality criteria — it’s so different from discipline to discipline. And don’t get me started on the knowledge needed to actually apply these methods intelligently … or the time and effort needed when one applies one’s knowledge.

I also think there is a risk of it being a bit self-defeating if using the title in non-academic contexts: It might lead to the impression that the writing cannot stand on its own, so this title is used to deflect possible criticism. And if that’s the strategy, I think it’s a bit like Margaret Thatcher’s definition of “being powerful”:

Being powerful is like being a lady.
If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.
Margaret Thatcher

Sidenote: If your writing and arguments really suck, people might ask whether “Dr.” is actually an abbreviation for “Dieter” or “Dagmar” (to quote a letter to the editor I read in a newspaper years ago). 😉

And, ah, not to mention that “qualification”, knowledge, or intelligence has nothing to do with character. After all, to do real damage, you need some real skills, knowledge, and intelligence — and unfortunately, some people are really … anyway.

In short, this academic title has near-zero diagnostic validity regarding the quality of the assertion this person makes in everyday life — but unfortunately, many people are influenced by this title nonetheless.

Trust and Responsibility

Given the trust many people bring towards the title of doctor and the little relevance is probably has for the quality of the writing outside the narrow area of expertise of that person, it bugs me when people post or even retweet information/links while using this title but without having evaluated the information themselves. Even worse if they do not have the ability to evaluate this information themselves, because it’s outside their discipline or outside their narrow range of expertise.

I think the academic title of doctor comes with responsibilities. If I write something and put the “Dr.” in front of my name, I feel that I am conveying that I have written the text from a scientific point of view. While all knowledge is constructed and uncertain, there is still a better and a worse, and with that title I vouch that this text is actually based on scientific best practice, actual empirical research, and the like.

card.jpgI mean, sure, I can totally understand why people are proud of having a doctorate if they worked hard for it. Personally, the week I got my certificate I changed my passport to have the “Dr.” added (see image) — in case I wake up in cold sweat, wondering whether I actually did finish my dissertation. I wanted to have something tangible to reassure me. (Yup, it was stressful. And no, you can’t feel the letters in the dark 😉 ).

But using the title, even if only in the name, in online discussions that have nothing to do with the area of expertise? Or when retweeting links to news articles? Or when conveying one’s outrage about scientific findings reported in the news? I’d be essentially adding support to distorted representation of science by news organizations and the like. It’s like putting a stamp of approval near the end of the “scientific news cycle” — up to not only your grandma saying “I’m wearing this to ward off “A””, but you saying with your title: “You are right, I’m a doctor, a scientist, an expert, and I approve this [completely bogus and stupid] conclusion.”

Just imagine you witness an accident and when someone screams “Is there a doctor here?” you raise your hand. It’s okay if it’s an M.D., but it would be pretty scary and unethical if you have any other doctorate (barring some rare other occasions). The same holds true to commenting on issues outside ones (sub-)discipline.

This “ex-cathedra” view might be a bit extreme, but I think it is needed. But I am interested in your opinion — what do you think, and why?


  1. In my home country, the term “doctor” had also been used to refer to lawyers in the past, and even further in the past it’s how anyone with money or any scholarity would be referred to by peasants. The incredibly absurd result is that to this date, there are people in Law that are not PhDs putting on acts to be referred to as Dr., and MD’s also putting on acts because they think they are PhDs (“doctor” is “doctor” and there’s no acronym distinction in PT-BR). It’s incredibly annoying, it devalues the effort of an actual PhD, and it lends the term a completely unnecessary amount of pump that any good scientist would think twice about using. Years ago I got into a discussion with one of my professors because he wanted me to sign something I wrote for his students as MyName, M.Sc. I thought that was completely unnecessary at the time and still think so. Academia only loses when title hierarchy comes into play. Everyone knows piling up titles does not reflect one’s competence as a scientist.

  2. Also, given that, it’s incredibly annoying the way this is portrayed in shows like Bones and The Big Bang Theory, where the characters systematically say things like “I have 3 PhDs”. So? My first question to such a person would be “has your country recovered from the recession, then? or is it that difficult to get a professorial position still?”

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