Damn it, Rondi! I’m a doctor, not a medical doctor!

Note: I am, of course, borrowing my title from the original Star Trek’s Doctor “Bones” McCoy, who in various adventures reprimanded his captain with the line, “Damn it, Jim! I’m a doctor, not a [fill in the blank]!” I particularly recall a case, in the episode “The Devil in the Dark” involving a silicon-based life form called a horta, injured before the Enterprise crew figured out that she was an intelligent life form and how to communicate with her, that had been trying to protect her eggs from Federation miners. In it, that blank was filled with “bricklayer.”[1]

So this morning, I saw that the Wall Street Journal carried an op-ed lampooning the use of the honorific “Doctor” with the author claiming, “I am fortunate to spend a lot of time in Italy, where very nearly everyone is a doctor—a lowly bachelor’s degree will do.” Context here is important: As Ms. Rondi Adamson notes, “during the [Brett] Kavanaugh confirmation madness[,] Christine Blasey Ford was scrupulously referred to by media and members of the Senate Judiciary Committee as ‘Dr. Ford.’ Failure to comply was frowned upon.”[2] And we should note that the opinion pages of the Journal were as friendly toward Kavanaugh as those of the National Review and the Daily Standard. Which is to say, very friendly indeed, and utterly dismissive of any questions of Kavanaugh’s alleged sex offenses.

Ms. Adamson cites her brother, a mathematics professor, whom she claims asserted, “If you can’t write a prescription, you shouldn’t be called ‘Doctor.’” Her brother, it seems, is no longer alive to comment.[3] We can add that at least some medical doctors would like to reserve the honorific to themselves[4] and the Associated Press specifically limits the honorific to doctors of dental surgery, medicine, optometry, osteopathic medicine, podiatric medicine, and veterinary medicine.[5]

They are wrong. A doctoral level degree means just that: The recipient is a doctor, in my case, as with any Ph.D., a doctor of philosophy in some field (mine is Human Science), representing the highest scholarly rank, although there are other, lesser, doctoral degrees also entitled to the honorific. It is customary among holders of doctoral degrees to refer to each other by their first names and it is customary to accord the honorific once a student has defended their dissertation. Furthermore, although Ms. Adamson thinks to do so is to “go big,”[6] and I am personally appalled by such examples as Bill Cosby, who has received numerous honorary doctorates (and had some revoked), yes, recipients of honorary doctorates are indeed entitled to the honorific.

To deny the honorific is to deny respect for the achievement. It is in fact anti-intellectual. And indeed, to refer to the holder of a doctorate by Mister or Ms. is an active form of disrespect. Whenever you hear a doctoral degree holder call someone Mr. or Ms. so-and-so, it is a reminder that the latter does not hold such a degree. It is mildly—depending on the degree of annoyance involved—disparaging.

So you can call me David. You can call me Dave. Or you can call me Dr. Benfell. But do not call me Mr. Benfell.

And as for Dr. Ford, I would take Ms. Adamson’s op-ed as yet one more insult.

  1. [1]Star Trek, episode 26, “The Devil in the Dark,” directed by Joseph Pevney, written by Gene L. Coon, featuring William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and DeForest Kelley, aired March 9, 1967, on NBC.
  2. [2]Rondi Adamson, “Is There a Doctorate in the House?” Wall Street Journal, October 11, 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/is-there-a-doctorate-in-the-house-1539298906
  3. [3]Rondi Adamson, “Is There a Doctorate in the House?” Wall Street Journal, October 11, 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/is-there-a-doctorate-in-the-house-1539298906
  4. [4]Roger Collier, “Who is entitled to the title of ‘doctor’?” PubMed Central, September 20, 2016, doi: 10.1503/cmaj.109-5303
  5. [5]Associated Press, The Associated Press Stylebook 2018: and Briefing on Media Law (New York: Basic, 2018).
  6. [6]Rondi Adamson, “Is There a Doctorate in the House?” Wall Street Journal, October 11, 2018, https://www.wsj.com/articles/is-there-a-doctorate-in-the-house-1539298906

Author: benfell

David Benfell holds a Ph.D. in Human Science from Saybrook University. He earned a M.A. in Speech Communication from CSU East Bay in 2009 and has studied at California Institute of Integral Studies. He is an anarchist, a vegetarian ecofeminist, a naturist, and a Taoist.

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