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On Being the Wrong Kind of Doctor

As far as I can tell, our soon-to-be first lady (first lady elect?) Jill Biden is an amazing person. She has two master’s degrees and a doctorate. And she got her doctorate at the age of 55 while she was working during the day as teacher. Anyone who doesn’t have respect for that should probably try it for themselves and see what it is like.

Like most people with that level of education, Jill Biden likes to go by “Dr. Biden.” That is not weird.

Or is it?

A recent op ed in the Wall Street Journal, written by a man who proudly points out that he barely got his bachelor’s and went no further in his education, took the first lady to task for having the temerity to call herself “Doctor.” What is so striking about it is the tone of the op-ed, which can only be called “mansplaining-ese.” It was quickly taken up and echoed by Tucker Carlson, who gave a performance of it that is really hard to top. I expect this on social media. But to see it in a national newspaper is jarring. Even if it is one that tilts to the right. In the op-ed, the author lectures Dr. Biden on what a doctor actually is, how hard it is to get a “real” doctorate – unlike hers- and sprinkles the article with words like “kiddo” and “comical” to describe Dr. Biden and her achievements. Classy.

Needless to say, people who value education have excoriated the author and WSJ for running the piece. If you want, you can make yourself angry by reading it here. The WSJ has acted surprised and hurt at the reaction, calling the public’s nearly universal condemnation a “coordinated political attack” by the Bidens. (Full disclosure, the Bidens are not paying me a penny for this, but if they want to I’m fine with it. Hit me up, Joe.)

This whole thing stirs up a lot of feelings in me. As a psychologist who works in a hospital, I’m called “doctor” all day long, and have been for years. Like Dr. Biden, I was a nontraditional (read “older”) student, who went back to school for a Ph.D. in psychology while I was working as a mechanic. I was chasing a dream job. And I was doing it later in life. Like her, I have faced people who have dismissed my hard work and discounted my expertise because I’m not a medical doctor. When they do this, they use the same tired arguments that appeared in the WSJ: I think real doctors deliver babies, calling yourself a doctor is confusing to me, and I guess “doctor” just doesn’t mean what it used to.

Like Dr. Biden, I’ve always heard that sentiment from people who have no idea what it is like to actually get a doctorate. I have never, not once, heard that sort of thing from medical doctors, and I work with them tending patients every day. That is probably because they have the life experience to know better than to devalue the work of someone who did what only 1% of people ever do. And to do it while working full time and raising a family like Dr. Biden? That is some off-the-charts heart and dedication.

I admit that I take all this a little too personally, but I do think this taps into a much bigger problem that we all need to be focused on. When people dismiss experts, and instead choose to believe those who have no real knowledge but strong opinions, it is dangerous. Not just for them, but for all of us. The writer of the op-ed knew his audience, and it was exactly those folks who have always thought that they know more than the experts, especially when the experts tell them things they don’t like. Instead of changing their minds, they simply dismiss the experts. When enough people do this, we end up in the situation we are in now: one where pandemics magically don’t go away, where misinformation spreads faster than life-saving truth, and where people are literally arguing over whether the Earth is flat.

This is a situation we have to change. And everyone has a part in that. As parents, educators, and consumers of information, we each have a chance to help the next generation value and understand the expertise and hard work of someone like Dr. Biden. We can all work to make the next generation one where voices like those in the op-ed are not published in mainstream national papers, but relegated to chatrooms and social media, where they belong.

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