Who You Calling Dr?

I saw a recent episode of Criminal Minds, in which the character Spencer Reid (who has 2 PhDs – neither of them in medicine) explained to the mother of a victim, “I’m a doctor. I think in terms of rationality”. I would NEVER say “I’m a doctor” in that context, and I can’t imagine any of my colleagues doing so. It would seem both pretentious and misleading. It smacks too of hucksters selling self-help books. But in the media, look at the models we have for PhD holders: nerds suffering social arrested development (like those guys on Big Bang Theory – aren’t they professors at CalTech? Why are they still sharing an apartment?), Ross Geller (whose job was also used as a demonstration of geekiness – maybe because his dinosaurs didn’t come alive at night), and Spencer Reid – referred to always as “DR Reid”, which also makes it seem like he’s the only person in the FBI who went to graduate school. Really? Surely half the people there have PhDs in psychology, criminology, or forensics. And the mathematical savant on Numb3rs? It seems like having a PhD may enable someone to catch serial killers, but partly because he is not far from being that “Quiet, white man, of above average intelligence, who probably lives alone....” himself. And when an academic shows up on Law & Order, you just KNOW he was sleeping with an undergrad and strangled his wife. So the model we have is male and (at best) socially dysfunctional. Where are the women, and the PhDs who are not losers?

Also recently, I was thinking about the attitude to real people with doctorates in the media. Gordon Brown has a PhD (in history), and Barack Obama, while not a PhD, has a JD and taught at law school. What struck me was the difference in the way these academic credentials have been mentioned (or not) in the press. Gordon Brown is never referred to as “Dr” and his academic background was never played up much by either his supporters or detractors. On his supporters’ side, that’s less surprising – Old Labour not being overfond of “book learning”, but it wasn’t seized on as something to criticise either. Meanwhile, President Obama’s academic background is made much of by those for and against him, either to demonstrate his intelligent sophistication, or that he is a typical pointy headed intellectual.