Is There a Doctor in the House?

Jonah Goldberg is starting fights again. He tweeted that referring to Jill Biden as “Doctor” is kind of silly. Mayhem ensued, of course. I’m split on the matter of calling non-medical doctors doctor. When addressing Paul Rahe, I do it out of immense respect. When addressing Rachel Lu I sometimes do it — also because of respect and because I feel like a student before a professor in some o…

  1. Foxman

    This can only be answered with this

  2. katievs

    I am cracking up, Foxman.  Thank you.  I’d never seen that before.

    In the academic world I came from, it was normal to call professors with doctorates, “doctor”.  Outside the academic world, though, I’m with Jonah.  Insistence on it comes across as simultaneously pretentious and pathetic.

    I remember a new Dean of Students, who had a law degree, suddenly requiring everyone to call him “Dr.”  


  3. Rachel Lu

    So, here’s the thing. I used to think it was dumb for people to be called doctors just because they have PhD’s. Don’t we all know that the “real” doctors are the medical kind?

    In my study of Latin, I came to realize something interesting: etymologically, it’s actually the physicians who have stolen the term from the humanists. In the ancient and medieval worlds, a “doctor” was a person of letters. A practitioner of medicine was a “medic” or “physician” (those being derived from the Latin and Greek terms, respectively) but never a “doctor”. 

    Does the etymology matter? Maybe not, and obviously language is always changing. But personally I think it is good to have some way of recognizing people of advanced learning, and honestly the most appropriate term for that seems to be… doctor. Plus, physicians already have two terms all their own, so why did they need to claim that one, too?

    I suspect that the morphing of “doctor” into a medical term reflects our society’s general trend of prioritizing scientific and material forms of learning over the study of letters, and that does seem like a sinister thing to me. (cont)

  4. WI Con

    If they can’t (legally) cut into you, prescribe drugs or medically treat you, they aren’t Doctors – period.

    This ‘PhD’ and ‘Doctor’ title issue has bugged me for a long time. How about a new title, say ‘Deep Thinker’.

  5. Rachel Lu

    As a practical matter: I appreciate the courtesy where offered, but I never really ask or expect anyone to call me “doctor” outside my classroom. It’s always pretentious-seeming to go around demanding honorific titles, and here on Ricochet I mostly just think of us as chatting among friends, who definitely don’t need to give one another titles.

    I feel moved to use the term “doctor” with certain sage personages such as Paul Rahe and Walter Russell Mead, but let’s just say… I’m no Walter Russell Mead.

    I have to run and teach a class now, but I leave you with this quote from CS Lewis: “Doctorates are only for women and Americans.” (A few old-school Brits, like Alasdair MacIntyre, are still proud of having made it in the Academy without one.)

  6. Amy Schley

    Is there a Doctor in the house? 


    Possibly …


    Maybe …


    Was there a certain one you were looking for?


  7. Amy Schley
    katievs: Insistence on it comes across as simultaneously pretentious and pathetic.

    I had a customer who insisted on signing his credit card receipts as “Dr. [Johnson],” and pretentious and pathetic is an excellent description of my reaction to it.

    He was a pretty good customer though.

  8. raycon and lindacon

    Refer to a PhD as “Doctor” when playing on his court.  He is the main dude in the conversation.  Off the court, he is just another member of the audience.

    Doctor Joe Shmoe is simpler than Joe Shmoe, MD.

  9. Fred Cole

    What is she a doctor of?


    If I had a PhD, you can be damn sure I’d be Dr. Cole.

  10. Foxman

    In more formal societies, Germany for example, I would be addressed as Engineer Fox.  Come to think of it they address doctors as Herr Doctor.

    What am I getting at?  Beats me.

  11. Frustrated iPad User

    This is really small ball. What happened here was the President mentioned her to honor her, and to add icing on the cake, he called her Doctor. Good for him, he is a good boss and so forth. Or, maybe he is a nightmare boss and this was theater.

    People who insist on being called Doctor outside the classroom likely ARE idiots (on the social IQ scale anyway). Most medical doctors don’t even do this in our current casual society.

  12. Foxman
    Eric Warren:  Most medical doctors don’t even do this in our current casual society. · 2 minutes ago

    When my late wife was in the hospital I was struck by the fact that we were always addressed as Mr and Mrs and the doctors as Dr, but the nurses were addressed by their first names.

  13. Joan of Ark La Tex

    I always thought the word “Doctor” means I spent majority of my time studying while my peers are out having fun and I am now busy paying off a lot of  study loans. It is a hard earned title. 

  14. Justine Olawsky

    My father, who is a Ph.D., would never use the honorific “Doctor” outside of his professional setting (and I’m still not sure if he does now at university, or if he prefers “Prof.” — Dad, if you see this, please enlighten me).  I asked him once, “Why?”  He said that, should a medical emergency arise in a public place, he did not want anyone to look at his name on, say, a dinner reservation or passenger list, and come to any grievously false conclusions about his life-saving abilities. 

    Mrs. Biden’s doctorate is in English.  I would have thought it might have been in Education based upon her dissertation title. 

    A Ph.D. is nothing to sneeze at, no matter what the field of study.  I wonder how someone competent enough to gain an advanced degree could stand being married to a man as incurably stupid as Joe Biden. 


  15. Z in MT

    Even calling PhD’s “Dr.” in the classroom is pretentious.  Professor is more descriptive and more honorific.  As a PhD I never use “Dr.” in normal everyday life unless to make a joke.  However, I do use Dr. in my professional e-mail signature (I am not a professor) because I think John Smith, PhD sounds even more pretentious, kinda of like those lawyers that use John Smith, Esq.

    I heard a story one time about a new Chemistry PhD graduate who went out and got a new drivers license so that she could put “Dr.” on it.  It lasted about a month before she got tired of explaining to retail clerks and waiters that she wasn’t a medical doctor.

    Face it.  In today’s lexicon, unless the context is known Dr. refers to a medical doctor.

  16. Jeff Chesnut

    As a physician, when I am in a formal setting or newly meeting either an MD or PhD, I address him/her as “Doctor”. I’ve not known anyone to insist on that, but it is a sign of respect for their achievement. When introducing myself to patients, I introduce myself as Doctor simply to avoid confusion. I once introduced myself as Jeff Chesnut and the patient wondered why I was there and when the doctor was coming. I tell medical students, techs and nurses that they may call me Jeff, but in front of patients I expect them to use the title, as I do when referring to another physician. 

    In informal situations, I NEVER introduce myself as doctor and, when someone else introduces me as doctor, I shake their hands and say my first name. When I am not in my professional capacity, it does seem pretentious for me to use the title.

    When I was in the military, for a medical person to address a physician by their rank, rather than as doctor, was often a subtle dig signifying that their medical skills were lacking.

  17. Johnny Dubya

    When Monica Crowley appears on Fox, it always irks me to see her name come up on the screen followed by “Ph.D.”  You just know that she insisted upon that in her contract.  But at least she earned her Columbia international relations degree with a thesis titled “Clearer than truth: Determining and preserving grand strategy. The evolution of American policy toward the People’s Republic of China under Truman and Nixon”.

    Contrast her with Bill Cosby, Ed.D., another person who likes to see his degree follow his name onscreen.  UMass recruited him to become a graduate student, and it awarded him a doctorate for his self-serving thesis, “An Integration of the Visual Media via Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids into the Elementary School Curriculum as a Teaching Aid and Vehicle to Achieve Increased Learning.”

    A professor who served on Cosby’s dissertation committee, Reginald Damerell, said that Cosby hardly took a class — and that he got course credit for appearing on Sesame Street and The Electric Company, “and wrote a dissertation that analyzed the impact of his show.” Damerell concluded that degrees like Cosby’s “do not attest to genuine academic achievement. They are empty credentials.”

  18. Rachel Lu

    OK, how about this set of rules? 1) Nobody gets to use the title “doctor” socially. 2) Everyone can use it non-pretentiously in professional settings in which their area of expertise is directly relevant. 3) If a person is being presented as a kind of quasi-authority or respectable personage, it is acceptable to use the title, but silly to insist on it. So we can, but needn’t, refer to “Dr Krauthammer” when he comments on Fox News. I think these rules are fair, but they would probably put Goldberg in the wrong on this one.

  19. David Knights

    Hey, I’m still ticked off that I have a JD, but no one calls me Dr., but my sister the MD, gets called Dr. all the time. :)

  20. Tsunami Blue
    Justine Olawsky:   I wonder how someone competent enough to gain an advanced degree could stand being married to a man as incurably stupid as Joe Biden. 

    I am convinced he is suffering from some degree of dementia and that for political reasons people are turning a blind eye. During the State of the Union speech he was repeatedly laughing inappropriately. He has always suffered from Foot-in-Mouth disease, but the goofiness of his recent pronouncements and behavior is so extreme I suspect a medical cause.

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