Debate about use of “Dr.” disrespects expertise, fuels distrust of science

December 26, 2021 9:00 am

First lady Jill Biden applauds National Teacher of the Year Juliana Urtubey, left, during an event Oct. 18, 2021, on the South Lawn of the White House. (Official White House photo by Erin Scott)

Jill Biden, educator and first lady, and I share the same nickname with students: “Dr. B.” We both have terminal degrees, hers an Ed.D. in educational leadership from the University of Delaware and I, a Ph.D. in English from Oklahoma State University.

I’m called “Dr. B” because my students have a difficult time pronouncing my Maltese name (Boo-JAY-ah).

The comparison ends there. Like tens of thousands of professors, Biden values education and the rigor required to earn a doctorate from a research institution.

Some cultural critics disagree.

Writer Joseph Epstein published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Dec. 11, 2020, titled: “Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an M.D.” Its subtitle read: “Jill Biden should think about dropping the honorific, which feels fraudulent, even comic.”

Epstein’s credentials include a bachelor’s degree and honorary doctorate.

His point in dissing Biden’s 2007 doctorate seems to be the degree isn’t what it used to be.

Requirements in his day at Columbia University were so demanding, he opines, especially during oral examinations, that a secretary sat outside the room with a water pitcher and glass in case anyone fainted from interrogation.

Epstein mocked Biden’s education doctorate, addressing her as “kiddo.” (One wonders what he called the secretary.)

Fox TV host Tucker Carlson also denigrated Biden’s credentials, stating she is a doctor “in the same sense as Dr. Pepper.”

The debate over Biden’s degree reignited recently when celebrity doctor and television personality, Mehmet Cengiz Öz (“Dr. Oz”), and longtime New Jersey resident, entered the Pennsylvania U.S. Senate race to replace the retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey

Öz earned a bachelor’s degree from Harvard and a doctor of medicine degree from the University of Pennsylvania — stellar credentials. But he also has been criticized for promoting quack and/or unproven remedies on his “Dr. Oz” show.

A scathing commentary in Missouri Medicine, published by the state’s medical association, cited his scientific achievements as well as his televised foibles, stating: “Simply put, Oz is an entertainer. Many believe he is doing great harm by preventing or delaying proper diagnosis, providing false hope, and encouraging people to waste money on useless treatments.”

The question —“Who is and isn’t a real doctor?”— arose anew after the Philadelphia Inquirer was criticized for using “Dr.” on first reference to Öz in a headline and caption, violating its own style guide, which states:

“Do not use Dr. on first reference for anyone with the title, whether they are a medical doctor or have a doctorate in a nonmedical field, to avoid complaints of unequal treatment from individuals who worked hard to achieve doctorates in nonmedical fields.”

Subsequently, the newspaper ran an op-ed announcing on first reference that “Dr. Mehmet Oz might be disappointed to learn that some news sites will not be using his honorific during his political campaign.”

(Did you catch that? It just violated its own style guide.)

After the commentary ran, Öz alleged the Inquirer was trying to cancel him.

Fact is, news organizations have different styles for use of the “Dr.” term. For instance, CNN’s style guide states that “Dr.” is used only for medical doctors, osteopaths, dentists, ophthalmologists, psychiatrists and veterinarians. “Dr.” is not used for Ph.Ds. or similar degrees or for honorary titles.

The Associated Press stylebook has a similar distinction, reserving use of “Dr.” in first reference for individuals who hold a doctor of dental surgery, medicine, optometry, osteopathic medicine, podiatric medicine, or veterinary medicine.

If context calls for use of the term, for individuals who hold other types of terminal degrees, AP requires the person’s academic discipline be cited in the next reference.

I find these distinctions confusing. For instance, how should CNN, AP and Inquirer refer on first reference to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King? To omit the term would be disrespectful.

As a professor, I have strong views, believing “Dr.” or “Professor” should be used by students in any reference verbally, orally, socially or formally. The cultural debate as argued by Epstein and Carlson exhibit contempt for those who have contributed to letters and science.

That argument was explored in “Please Call Me Doctor,” published in Scientific American, one of the world’s premiere journals. Beth S. Linas, an epidemiologist, writes:

“By abiding by the AP rule, news organizations are failing to create a more informed public. Further, they stand to create potential harm to the scientific method and to the individuals who dedicate their lives to acquiring expertise and advancing science and policy.”

Editor’s note: Iowa Capital Dispatch adheres to AP style on the use of honorifics.

Linas argues that earning a doctor of philosophy degree requires deep expertise involving data collection, statistical analysis, oral and written exams, a book-length dissertation, presentations at conferences, and later publishing in peer-reviewed journals.

“By refusing to use the titles scientists have earned,” she states, “news outlets contribute to the delegitimization of expertise.”

She is right. Microbiologists doing disease research also save lives, just as medical doctors do. Soil scientists and agronomists help farmers grow crops to feed the populace. That saves lives, too. Colleagues in engineering and the social sciences write grant-driven research that saves lives.

To borrow a line from the “Dead Poet’s Society,” medicine and other disciplines are necessary to sustain life: “But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”

Hurray for the arts and humanities.

If we continue to disrespect education, Americans to their own detriment will believe conspiracy theories, denounce fact and distrust science.

That irony already has played out in the pandemic during which millions disparaged medical doctors, including Öz, who urge vaccination as well as wearing masks to prevent infection.

That doesn’t save lives. It costs them.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Michael Bugeja
Michael Bugeja

Michael Bugeja is the author of "Living Media Ethics" (Routledge/Taylor & Francis) and "Interpersonal Divide in the Age of the Machine" (Oxford Univ. Press). He is a regular contributor to Iowa Capital Dispatch and is writing a series of columns on the topic of "Living Ethics."