Call another Doctor Doctor


Back in September, Australia’s very own Dr Siobhan O’Dwyer went viral and became an international news after complaining on Twitter that a Qantas air crew member (gender unspecified) referred to her as Miss rather than a Doctor, despite her ticket clearly stating her honorific as the latter. “I did not spend 8 years at university to be called Miss,” wrote DOCTOR (that’s D-O-C-T-O-R) O’Dwyer, who lectures at University of Exeter Medical School, specialising in family care, ageing, suicide and homicide (of people who don’t refer to her by her proper title (just joking (I think))).

Now comes Beth S. Linas, PhD, MHS, “an infectious disease and digital health epidemiologist…  [who]  completed her PhD and postdoctoral training in epidemiology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.” Two days ago, Dr Linas wrote at the Scientific American blog complaining about media editorial standards, which generally in their reporting reserve the title Dr for medical practitioners but not Doctors of Philosophy:

As a trained scientist with a PhD in epidemiology, I was extremely disheartened and disappointed to learn that news organizations follow such a simplistic, flawed and misguided recommendation, particularly as national sentiment suggests that experts are increasingly unnecessary. Following AP style on this matter comes into direct conflict with some organizations’ own missions. For example, NPR’s mission “is to create a more informed public, one challenged and invigorated by a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas, and culture within the United States and across the globe.” 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…

By refusing to use the titles scientists have earned, news outlets contribute to the delegitimization of expertise. Some argue that using the term “Doctor” to describe an individual’s credentials is elitist. This is incorrect. Having a PhD or other terminal degree does not make one elitist; elitism is a behavior, based on how an expert acts or shares knowledge. (The general charge of elitism may come from people who feel insecure about their lack of expertise.) Besides, if someone with a PhD is elitist for using the term, why isn’t someone with an MD equally so?

The academic credential is particularly important in the case of women in science, as many face extra obstacles to success that most men don’t have to contend with.

I agree with Dr Linas: elitism is not being a doctor; elitism is a behaviour – such as insisting that one be called a doctor.

But this isn’t just a feminist issue. It’s an issue of recognizing achievement and knowledge. If news organizations strive to be leaders in creating a more informed public, it is incumbent upon them to lead by example. Though our titles are not why we continue to pursue scientific discovery, it is only appropriate to recognize us for the experts we are. We have doctorates of philosophy. Please call us “Doctor.”

You can find my thoughts on the issue of doctor-calling in my previous piece. Here, Linas has half a point – it’s arguable that when journalists write stories about higher education, science and research, titles like Doctor or Professor could be used the same way they are routinely used at universities, research institutions or scientific conferences. It’s the right context. But it still strikes me as wankery. I’m not convinced that it’s the media’s mission to “recognise achievement and knowledge” and that failing to mention the credentials is tantamount to “failing to create a more informed public” and is risking “potential harm to the scientific method and to the individuals who dedicate their lives to acquiring expertise and advancing science and policy”. Most people who are reading news stories about science understand that the individuals mentioned and quoted in such stories are credentialed experts and not some randoms from the street. The contention that “it is only appropriate to recognise us for the experts we are” smacks of preciousness. I’m an expert, hear me roar. Well, please do it in private.

Dr Arthur “Daily” Chrenkoff has a Doctorate of Philosophy (in Law) from the University of Queensland, which he doesn’t use and is willing to swap for something more appropriate. Please do not call him “Doctor” unless you want to irritate him, and believe me, you don’t want to irritate him.