Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A proper Dr.

I wrote in my bio for The Geek Atlas that (speaking about myself in the third person) "Because he has a doctorate in computer security he's deeply suspicious of people who insist on being called Dr.". I am very suspicious of people who shove their PhD in your face, or who insist on being called Dr. In fact, like a British surgeon, I would much prefer to be called Mr. (which I suppose is a form of snobbery) mostly because it's what I've done after my doctorate that I'm most proud of.

Which brings me to the case of "Dr." Gillian McKeith. I only became aware of her because of the wonderful Ben Goldacre who has taken her to task about her qualifications and claims.

In an old article Goldacre talks about McKeith's qualifications and her legal threats against people who criticize her. He makes the very good point that it's easy to validate real credentials (e.g. if you want to check that I've really got a DPhil from Oxford you just need to call them up or, unlike McKeith, you can read my thesis).

Another person with a PhD from an unaccredited institution is John Gray (who wrote Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus). He refers to himself as Dr John Gray or John Gray PhD.

A striking similarity between McKeith's and Gray's web sites are the special sections explaining their degrees. John Gray has a page on the subject and McKeith explains her degree in detail:

Gillian then spent several years re-training for a Masters and Doctorate (PhD) in Holistic Nutrition from the American Holistic College of Nutrition (USA).
[...]
To obtain a PhD in Holistic Nutrition from the College, it is a pre-requisite that a student must have a Masters Degree and then undertakes study through a number of preliminary courses and a core curriculum, including general nutrition, immune system health, detoxification, herbology, human anatomy, enzymatic nutritional therapy, vitamin and mineral studies, nutrients, relationship of diet and disease, geriatric nutrition and nutrition and mental health. Doctoral students also have to prepare an original and practical dissertation. Gillian studied and completed the PhD course and dissertation over a period of more than 4 years between 1993 and 1997.

The PhD in Holistic Nutrition is a doctorate programme that is approved by the (American) National Association of Nutrition Professionals (NANP), a non-profit organisation which maintains the integrity of the holistic nutrition profession by establishing educational standards, a rigorous code of ethics and registration of nutrition professionals.

Whenever I see these long explanations I can't help remembering the line: "The lady doth protest too much, methinks". Let me, for the record, do a special section describing my qualifications: "John Graham-Cumming, MA (Oxon), DPhil (Oxon)"

Which brings me to the question of what the proper title is for someone who has a PhD that isn't really a PhD (or at least a PhD from an unaccredited institution). Might I suggest Ph. in front of their name for 'Phony'?

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If you enjoyed this blog post, you might enjoy my travel book for people interested in science and technology: The Geek Atlas. Signed copies of The Geek Atlas are available.

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