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Take it from me, kiddo – each and every one of us ‘doctors’ is deserving of the title

Joseph Epstein’s diatribe in the ‘Wall Street Journal’ on Dr Jill Biden was another shot fired against experts in an angry post-truth world that seems to equate boring with unimportant

Alexis Paton
Monday 14 December 2020 14:25 GMT
Dr Jill Biden’s PhD is not worth the paper it is written on, according to a US opinion writer
Dr Jill Biden’s PhD is not worth the paper it is written on, according to a US opinion writer (AFP/Getty)

There’s always a doctor in my house. In fact, there are two. While we cannot perform medical marvels, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better match of expertise for the current situation than the EU policy expert and medical ethics expert that reside in our cosy home. According to Joseph Epstein, however, I live in a house of lies.

Epstein’s diatribe last week in the Wall Street Journal on Dr Jill Biden was not just a personal attack, but another shot fired against experts in an angry post-truth world that seems to equate boring with unimportant.

Headlined “Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an MD”, the article argues that using the title of “Doctor” if you “only” have a PhD is both “fraudulent” and “comic”. It opens: “Madame First Lady–Mrs Biden–Jill–kiddo: a bit of advice on what may seem like a small but I think is a not unimportant matter. Any chance you might drop the ‘Dr’ before your name?”

His reasoning? Because, and here he loses me completely, PhDs are somehow not what they used to be. Any PhD earned in the last two decades is, apparently, not worth the paper it is written on.

Epstein ends his bizarre rant by stating that any university can “give” a PhD out, and so they are simply no longer a mark of academic excellence. Tough words from a man who, by his own admission, has never undertaken one, and so would have little notion of the work involved.

It is true that academia has a poor track record of reaching out and explaining who we are and what we do in plain language. Even within my own field of medical ethics there seems to be an unspoken competition among some to use 25 words when six would have done – all while writing in the most obfuscating language available. Lord knows why. A good argument requires no flowery language and length is never a guarantee of quality. For anything.

That being said, as bad as academia has been at expressing itself, this does not take away from the expertise those within it hold. Epstein charges that Dr Biden’s thesis title – “Student Retention at the Community College Level: Meeting Students’ Needs” – is mediocre and boring. That somehow this takes away from her expertise and ability. But so are most. PhDs are not written as titillating bestsellers, but as accurate and clear arguments that provide new knowledge on a topic. They are the physical example of the expertise of the writer.

My own is an example of a title so boring it still puts me to sleep: “Issues of Autonomy and Agency in Oncofertility: A socio-bioethical exploration of British adult female cancer patients making oncofertility decisions”. Hardly a candidate for The Times bestseller list.

Instead, it is 253 pages that earned me a PhD conferred with no corrections. And most importantly, as this is the point of a PhD, it earned me my title of Dr Alexis Paton, respect for my expertise in the field, and my position of lecturer that I now hold. It is the proof, a written reference to my and all my fellow academics’ abilities to collect evidence on a topic, analyse it and use that analysis to develop new theory and recommend better practice. It is my “expert” calling card. That it is boring is completely and entirely irrelevant.

Facts are so often boring. Truth is most often both inconvenient to a sexy narrative and not very attention-grabbing. But it is expertise that develops those truths, that generates through (largely) academic scholarship those facts on which the world turns.

Without the expertise of us “not real doctors”, we would not have the knowledge we have now that has allowed us to develop multiple Covid vaccines, determine the economic effects of the pandemic, plan (or not) for Brexit, develop guidelines for good clinical practice during Covid, determine which groups need the most support due to the pandemic, nor the myriad different ways we have all needed to adjust to new ways of working.

These facts were not developed in a vacuum. They did not simply spring to life thanks to a viral Facebook post. These are the fruits of labour from global expertise. Not all experts will hold the title of “Doctor” – and that is fine with me – but every single one who does will have earned that title honestly. They have been judged by their peers as being capable and competent enough to make a difference in the world.

Take it from me, kiddo – each and every one of us “Doctors” is deserving of the title we have worked so hard to hold and will use it as the badge of honour that it rightly confers.

Dr Alexis Paton is a lecturer in social epidemiology and the sociology of health at Aston University, chair of the Committee on Ethical Issues in Medicine at the Royal College of Physicians, and a trustee of the Institute of Medical Ethics

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