Mister, Doctor, or Does It Matter?

 

My mother was the secretary at Glennwood Baptist Church in Morris, Alabama for about eight or nine years. My parents attended Glennwood for a while, and the pastor (David Bays) is someone I respect and admire very greatly. Even when I moved to St. Louis, after I got married, and after Shannon and I moved to Memphis, we continued to get a newsletter from Glennwood, and I enjoyed staying abreast of what is going on there. The newsletters that came to our house changed shortly after I defended my dissertation in May, 2006. “Mr. and Mrs. William Arthur Carden” became “Dr. and Mrs. William Arthur Carden.” In trademark display of motherly pride, I’m sure Mom really enjoyed changing “Mr.” to “Dr.” in the church’s mail-merge.

Getting a PhD is an accomplishment and it is rightly something to be proud of; however, it also provides, for many, an occasion for conceit bordering on arrogance and tactlessness. A few days before Christmas in 2007, I was flipping through my in-laws’ copy of the Birmingham News when I came across a letter to “Miss Manners” from someone who had sent a Christmas card to a cousin with a PhD. The card had been addressed to “Mr. So-and-so” rather than “Dr. So-and-so.” Instead of responding with grace, as one might have hoped that someone of Dr. So-and-so’s high stature would, apparently he wrote back with a self-addressed envelope to “Dr. So-and-so,” a copy of his diploma, and a note saying that it is customary to refer to someone of his stature as “Dr. So-and-so” or “Firstname So-and-so, PhD.”

My thought: wow. That’s pretty insecure.

This caught my eye in part because I’ll admit, I sometimes chafe–with tongue planted firmly in cheek–at getting stuff addressed to “Mr. Carden” when I have earned the right to be addressed as “Dr. Carden,” presumably. When I get arrogant about it, I remember Michael Myers in one of the Austin Powers movies as “Dr. Evil,” reminding people that he “didn’t spend five years in Evil medical school to be called mister, thank you very much.” What a joke.

Economist Tyler Cowen has blogged about how, apparently, people who conspicuously refer to themselves as “Dr.” or “Firstname Lastname, PhD” are often those with arguments or claims that are somewhat weak and that need to be bolstered with an air of authority. While I will admit that qualifications and affiliations are important signals—I’m much more likely to listen to a PhD economist at Harvard in a discussion of the minimum wage than I am to listen to someone who has never taken an economics class but nonetheless maintains a very strong opinion about the subject—reliance on authority is the weakest form of argument or evidence. There are a lot of smart people saying a lot of very off-base things. Nonetheless, they have the credentials to back themselves up. As people stay in school longer and as life expectancies increase, the letters “PhD” will come to have far less signaling value.

Dr. F.A. Hayek’s Nobel Prize address was entitled “the pretence of knowledge,” and while it sought to upbraid those who thought that central planning (or coherent macroeconomic policy) were possible, it speaks today to those who think they are something when they are not. Just because you have a PhD doesn’t mean that you have automatically earned glory, respect, and approbation. While it is customary (and wise) for people to address you properly or defer to you in areas where you have expertise, it is grotesquely immature to insist upon it.

So what’s the message, then, to the newly-minted PhD and to those around people who have doctorates? For the friend or relative, it is customary to refer to someone as “Doctor” in formal communication. This doesn’t give someone the right to get his or her underwear bunched up if someone forgets to say “Doctor” or “PhD” or “Grand Poo-bah” or what have you. If you have something important to say, let that stand on its own merits. If you want to be respected and loved, be respectable and loveable. Don’t rely on the fact that you spent five, six, seven, or however many years grinding away at a graduate degree to earn your favor in another’s eyes.

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