Thursday, February 5, 2009

Dissing the doctor

PZ discusses a reporter at the L.A. Times dissing Jill Biden over her doctorate.

The really really stupid thing about this is you don't need to do more than the most basic research available to any moron with a good dictionary on the shelf or a keyboard - if you type "doctor" into wikipedia, it clears things up very nicely.

In short - the word "doctor" comes from the Greek "Didaktor Philosophias"* -- "teacher of philosophy", via Latin. Since the earliest degrees were law degrees, and the first law degrees were doctorates, the first such "doctors" were all doctors of
law - licensed to teach law. As the word "doctor" became more heavily used to refer to medical personnel, lawyers were known as "civil doctors".

*(transliterated into Roman characters here, since many people reading this don't read ancient Greek - though mathematical types can generally sound it out; I presume few actual ancient historians or people of classical education are readers of this blog)

The use of the word "doctor" to refer to someone of great learning in a particular academic sphere predates the use of it to refer to medical doctors.

Anyway, I have some thoughts on this. I have a PhD myself, and like most such, I'm not a stickler for titles.

Within any academic institution, I ask people to call me by my first name. However, if someone insists (against my wishes) on calling me by a title, then I will ask that if they must do so, they at least give the correct one.

(For some reason, at that point most of them knock it off and just use my name. Why not when I asked? Don't ask me.)

One reason I ask to be called by my first name is that I think when you're discussing ideas, they need to be disrespected. Beautiful and precious darlings though they may be, ideas that don't stand up to the harshest scrutiny need to be taken down to the idea vet, and given radical, lifesaving surgery, or for the ones beyond such help, unceremoniously put out of their misery.

Now if people are too busy bowing (and yes, that's actually happened) and respecting the person, they can't at the same time kick the crap out of their ideas. When that happens, there is no hope for them (the people or the ideas).

So first names, like we're colleagues trying to figure this stuff out. Paradoxically, I see it as a sign of respect, but it's a very particular kind of respect.

Outside of academia, my own attitude is one of laissez-faire - generally, my PhD is completely irrelevant. Most people neither know nor particularly care what a PhD is, and I don't tend to bring it up unless it's directly relevant to the conversation, someone specifically asks, or is being a major dick about it in some way.

Well, my employer puts it on my business cards; I don't begrudge them that, since they say it makes them look good.

There is exactly one person who universally refers to me by the title "Doctor". Perhaps ironically, given the current discussion, it's my GP. (He puts it on every prescription, on every referral, and calls me "doctor" to my face. And when he does it, he makes it mean something. It's very touching.)

So, given I don't really use it myself, it might seem weird to care about the use of academic titles.

But on the other hand, it annoys me to see people disrespect the honorific. A PhD is generally a signal that someone has done a great deal of very hard work, sometimes at a significant cost to themselves, their families and maybe even their health. It's also generally a sign that that someone knows a lot about their particular subtopic.

That entitles them to be called "doctor" in formal writing, whether or not a reporter with an inferiority complex likes it or not. Further, if the possessor of such a title wants their title used at other times, then dammit, they have that right, too. If you don't like it, go and damn well get one, and then you can tell people not to call you doctor.

Good luck with that. We could use more people who give a damn about learning, especially among reporters.

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