March 18, 2008

Don't call me doctor or I'll call the police

I never did like being addressed as "Dr." by my students. I figured this feeling must be a result of my working class origins. To me seemed a bit pompous and looked too much like the American Psychological Association's publications that endlessly cite everyone with a PhD as Dr. so and so. So in the early years of my academic career I encouraged my grad students to call me by my first name. This worked fairly well until I got older. But even from the beginning my foreign students just couldn't force themselves to call me Roger.

The title game gets complicated when I testify as an expert witness at a trial. Opposing lawyers call me "Professor" because that gives the impression of an absent-minded, irrelevant dreamer who has nothing useful to tell the jury. The lawyers on my side of the case tend to call me "Doctor," I suppose because that gives the impression of a scientist who knows what he's talking about. "Mister" would suit me just fine, but it doesn't carry the weight of an expert and first names are too infomal for the courtroom setting.

But my problem is nothing compared with that of Ian Thomas Baldwin, who holds a PhD from Cornell, and now serves as researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena. The Washington Post reports that he's been accused of "title abuse" by the German police under a little-known Nazi-era law that specifies that only people who hold PhDs or medical degrees from German universities are permitted to be called "Dr." He faces a sentence of one year in prison for calling himself "Dr. Baldwin."

And we think WE have problems.

UPDATE: Mae Sander writes to tell us that persons with a PhD from an accredited US institution can now use Dr. in Germany without jeopardy. As I understand this, however, PhDs from Japan, Canada, and other countries are still banned from calling themselves Doctor. And David Reitter correctly points out that the prosecutors in Dr. Baldwin's case are probably going to drop the charges against him, which I should have indicated in my post. At any rate, I did not intend to give the impression that all German academics support this obviously archaic law. We have lots of archaic laws on our books in the US too, although they often relate to such matters as prohibiting the driving of cattle through city streets or failure to use a spittoon in public.

Posted by Roger Shuy at March 18, 2008 12:30 PM