Can you trust us?

As I do regularly, I’m going to open with my personal experience. I hold a doctorate degree. My doctorate is from Durham which is one of the more respected UK schools. It’s basically an Ivy League degree. I’m not saying this to brag, but the reputation of various schools throughout the world is pertinent to this discussion. Anyway, none of this will come as a surprise to those of you who have seen my other social media handles because I’m usually quite out there and honest with the fact that I’ve been building up my education my entire life.

I do use my title, Dr., basically everywhere and if someone calls me Miss or Ms. I correct them. Now, the reason I do this is tied in directly with feminism. My academic title does not make any sense to use outside of a situation where we are actively talking about archaeology, osteology, or pathology. And arguably morphometrics but that’s another story entirely. The reason I insist on it is because any other title refers to my relationship with men. To me, that’s even less relevant. If I wish to tell you about my father I shall and if I decide to tell you the paternity of my children that is also my decision and is unrelated to the remainder of my identity. Regardless of how you feel about it you are getting more pertinent information about me using the title Dr. than you would using Miss, Mrs. or Ms. And of course there’s this and this.

There is more to it though. Throughout American culture we have this idea that to be female or feminine is inherently bad or wrong or less. And we’re not yet at a point where we can properly own and rehabilitate our femininity. So if a person is talking to a man and uses the title “Mr.” that is respectful, but if they’re talking to a woman and use “Miss, Ms., or Mrs.,” it usually is not except in explicitly formal situations. The use of non-professional or familial titles with a woman outside of a formal situation is almost always implicitly meant to remind her that she — in our culture — does not own her own identity. And of course the best part of it is the jerks that use this technique can claim they’re being polite.

So then let’s talk about how mad guys get when they have to call me Dr. It’s super mad. They get so mad. Frankly, it’s delicious. I may be relegated to poorly paid academic jobs with no possibility of advancement for the rest of my life and a crippling work schedule, but the impotent anger of the men who will never understand that at my mere existence gives me strength. This was basically the thrust of the #immodestwoman hashtag. In a moment I’ll talk briefly about what getting a doctorate entails, but we have every right to be like, “nope, it’s Dr.”

It might sound like I’m saying that women with doctorates is a rare thing. That’s not true. At all. In fact here’s a fun interactive chart you can play with and just below I’ll put an image of it. But women in higher education are not given the same respect that men are. The argument that misogynists use to explain this is that we haven’t earned it but … I mean …. lols.

Title IX was not passed until 1972.

Again, I’m not saying that prior to the passage of Title IX there weren’t women in graduate programs or female physicians or researchers. In fact, name basically any field and there will be a woman who essentially founded it or contributed to it in such a way that her work cannot be discarded and then was erased from history. My partner is a computer scientist and until about a month ago he didn’t know about Ada Lovelace. Have a play with that interactive chart and you’ll note that we’re still very uneven in STEM.

Women can and have succeeded in these fields because … there’s actually essentially no neurological difference between men and women. I’ve imaged brains and the only difference is that women tend to have a larger corpus callosum and “female” hormones tend to be a bit more neuroprotective than “male” hormones. So you can’t really make the argument that either sex is smarter than the other but if you wanted to you’d have to give the edge to women.

But discrimination makes it difficult for women to succeed. Prior to Title IX women could be denied an education entirely on the basis of their sex. To get into a graduate program a woman had to not only have all the test scores and letters of recommendation and support despite people not being socially disposed to help her out but she also had to essentially argue her way in. And we’re still fighting that legacy. I’ve been in situations where I’ve been expected to clean up after or serve my male colleagues not because they outranked me but because they were male. And yeah. I do hold it against them. Y’all owe me actual gallons of tea and that lab better be spotless you selfish so-and-sos.

The issue is the lack of women in postgraduate programs or for that matter, politics is self-perpetuating. I actually got lucky. My field is dominated by women. But this was not always the case and I owe a great deal to the women a generation or two before me who essentially wrote the books on Palaeopathology. If not for them, it is questionable whether or not I would have felt I had any business pursuing a PhD in this field. Which leads me to another point …. impostor syndrome.

Impostor syndrome does actually effect everyone, but it hits women and members of minority populations harder because they are treated as impostors in their fields. This is hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t actually experienced it but when you’re a woman in science or a woman in a position of power you are actually treated in every situation as if you are transgressing an unseen barrier. It’s not in your head, you are actually being devalued and expected to prove yourself to a far greater degree than any man would. This leads to exhaustion in a lot of women and minorities because we’re already dealing with all sorts of discrimination but then if we fail …. we’re letting down other women and minorities.

Keep this all in mind when you’re confronted with a woman with a PhD or a person of color with a PhD. They are not just an expert in their field but they dealt with decades of discrimination and gaslighting to get there.

So then let’s talk about why holding a doctorate makes you an expert.

I have described this in previous posts. When you are admitted to a doctorate program it’s not just because you have spectacular grades and references, it’s also because you have a specific research question in mind that can be translated into roughly 100k words of writing. Let me put this in perspective here. My doctoral thesis is in excess of 140k words. Several of my friends had to print theirs in two or three volumes. For both my Masters and PhD I provided to the department and other institutions I worked with an electronic database or set of images for future research. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s stone is about 76k words. Imagine that for a moment. Fiction books which partially create pleasure through florid passages tend to be shorter than doctoral theses which are valued through the efficiency of word choice.

I’m not saying that fiction isn’t a great thing. It is, but just imagine writing that much science. And that’s JUST length. Fiction authors research because if they don’t you end up with unbelievable premises that don’t sell well, but to get a PhD the research is … far more intense. Before I so much as applied for my PhD I did an MSc or a Master of Science. That itself included laboratory and library research. When I applied for my PhD I had to prove that I knew enough about the field and about the methodologies I planned to use just to ask a reasonable question and propose a manner of finding an answer to it. And if you know nothing of science this may seem really simple but … well okay here’s the relevant equations for Procrustes analysis I had to prove I could use before being fully admitted to my PhD program with a thesis on human remains.

What I’m saying here is that normal people do go into PhD programs, but you’re not admitted just because. You do have to show your work as it were. And then after I was admitted I read well more than I already had, spent countless hours in a lab reconstructing shattered vertebrae, searching for porosities, evaluating lesions and measuring things and all this was BEFORE I could put pen to paper and write a single word of my thesis. Well, actually. That’s not true. Before I could go into the laboratory I was expected to submit drafts of my methodology and background chapters. It’s just that after I started in the lab I realized major revisions were in order. And that’s essentially normal for a PhD. You write huge amounts of schtuff based on thousands of pages of research just for admittance into the program and then you realize you were not ready and have to rewrite everything.

Assuming you finish your doctorate and …. not everyone does … you have contributed to the general knowledge in the field. Doctorates are hard. Getting admitted to a program is hard enough but finishing is even harder. So a doctorate does actually mean you have expertise in a field. Now yeah, it is possible to contribute to a field without a doctorate. My mom was considered by her colleagues as having contributed to her field to the level of a doctorate in it because … she authored multiple regulations concerning human subject protection, multiple articles on ethical human research, and was a noted and respected speaker in her field. She never completed her BSc. But note all that stuff she did. She was considered an honorary doctorate because she’d basically completed one in her field just incidentally. She was known and respected and for that reason did not really pursue a proper doctorate, but a proper doctorate does denote that the holder has that level of expertise and experience.

Moving on almost entirely, not all graduate programs are equal. Like I said, my PhD came from what is basically an Ivy League school. There’s several of these throughout the world that if you’re in the academic know you basically really respect the institution even if you don’t respect all the people that come out of them. These include of course the Ivy Leagues, the big five in Japan, and the Doxbridge universities in the UK. There’s more but I’d be at this for some time if I listed all of them. Those institutions give a solid education at all levels. There’s other schools that are sometimes considered “second tier” which I personally think is pretty elitist because the students and faculty in the “second tier” are usually every bit as good as the Ivy Leaguers, they were just either unlucky or didn’t have as much privilege. And then … there’s degree factories.

Now, fortunately you don’t really have to worry about this last category largely because degree factories are basically ways for absurdly rich stupid people to put letters behind their names. And I put it this way because if you’re rich you can buy your way into an Ivy League school. Durham was really bad for this. I might have been literally starving while I was there but many of my students had nightly champagne parties on the roof of the castle. None of that is an exaggeration. The headmaster at one point took me up there so we could have a look at what sort of damage they’d done. These students probably could not have gotten into Durham based only on their merits, but they also weren’t complete fools. They did do their homework and actually wrote their own essays so although I suspect that they were admitted because of their scholastic achievement and a donation from dearest dad they weren’t the absolute worst. (I did enjoy when the headmaster made them pick up trash though. I won’t lie.)

But some people are entirely hopeless. Durham had it’s share of very average children of very rich parents but there are “universities” which cater to the Donald Trump’s of the world. Again, I’m not casting aspersions on Wharton. There’s two ways to to buy a degree. You can properly buy it from an unknown university that takes your money and prints your name on a diploma without you having to show up (these are actually pretty rare) or you can go to a private University buy your way in and then buy essays and test-takers to get through it. That’s now pretty hard to do because it does damage the reputation of the University and so invigilators and teaching assistants are trained to catch people trying to do it. That’s why undergrads have student IDs with their pictures. We do check.

But the long and short of it is most people with doctorate degrees did properly earn them and particularly if you’re talking to a woman or a person of color with a doctorate they’ve leaped over rather absurd barriers to do it.

When you are questioning whether or not someone with a doctorate has any business talking in that subject you have several things to consider.

  1. Are you simply questioning them because they are a member of a minority group or because you disagree with them?
  2. Is their doctorate in the field you’re discussing?
  3. Are you using their doctorate as a measure to evaluate their intelligence?
  4. Did they receive their doctorate from a school with a decent reputation?
  5. If they are not a doctorate in the field you are discussing, how much do you think they’ve read on the subject relative to you?

I mention these things because I’ve met a lot of people who tried to discredit me because I have a doctorate degree. Now, yeah, as I say my doctorate is in Palaeopathology not politics and yet I’m all up online posting about politics. You might think this is hypocritical, but if you do first ask yourself whether or not you have a degree in politics. At present in my Mendeley I have 142 articles in my politics folder and the vast majority of them are from peer reviewed journals. This is why I feel confident discussing politics. It’s not my degree but because of my degree I know how to research a subject and I have. Now, 142 sources does not a political science doctorate make, but if you want to question my ability to share my opinion of politics ask yourself how many peer reviewed journal articles you’ve read. Not NYT, not WaPo, not … Intercept … peer reviewed. journal. articles.

And of course if I’m telling you about diseases prior to the invention of vaccines or discovery of penicillin you’d best respect.

So where does this come from? Well, a lot of people accuse me of being “elitist” when they find out I have a doctorate. Again, there’s a clear underlying misogyny here. If I were a man with a doctorate they’d never say that even if they disagreed with what I was saying. But that’s not the only part of it. Some of it’s jealousy and weirdly a suspicion of authority figures. I say weirdly because I don’t really consider myself “authoritative.” Depending on exactly how one uses the word I suppose it could apply, but I always think it’s weird. Again, this all is almost inseparable from misogyny. I have a PhD which makes me an expert on the subject but men don’t want to listen to me because as a woman they consider me inferior to them in all respects.

My having a doctorate and being a woman is an insult to men’s intelligence.

But you gotta ask yourself: could you or would you do it? Cards on the table would you want to spend the years and effort to do what I did and could you actually? It is okay for the answer to be, “no.” But for a lot of white men whose worth is defined by believing that no matter how much they fail they’re still better than women and people of color my existence is an identity shattering problem. If you don’t have an advanced degree and are okay both with me having one and you not thinking you could or would get one, then great. That makes you a really excellent person because it means that you don’t feel the need to define your self-worth relative to your perception of mine. But this means even if you disagree with what I’m telling you you respect it.

And this is where things fall apart. Guys get mad at me because I persist in insisting that white men should not be the only people deciding whether or not women get to hold property or have healthcare. But a much better example of the rejection of expertise is in the vaccine debate. We can talk about sophmorism or dunning-kruger, and while these things have merit in this discussion we’d be at it for just way too long.

Ultimately, the issue is that when you hold a belief and you are confronted with evidence contrary to that belief your brain is conservative. It does not want to accept that information particularly if the belief in question is tied to your perception of yourself. So it’s much easier to try and dismantle the person or source presenting the evidence or argument than to actually confront your own mistaken beliefs.

This is not to imply that PhDs are always right and that we know everything. We don’t. That’s why I still have impostor syndrome. But in general you can …. mostly … trust us. We do disagree with one another quite a bit, but not on the big things. It’s actually really hard to make an example here because the most interesting places where we do disagree basically require an advanced degree to understand in the first place. The thing that pops to mind is the nitty gritty of Human Evolution and it’s just so … weird that I really can’t explain the debate efficiently or even explain my own take on it.

In conclusion, you are basically psychologically primed to distrust “expert” opinions and you are socially primed to distrust them when they come from women or people of color. That’s not a reflection on your character, but on human nature and society. I don’t want to tell you to just trust us because … well, that’s boring. But what I would suggest is that you be very aware of societal and psychological bias. Scientists are trained to do outreach so we often will link articles or even directly explain issues in our field when asked. Hell, I’m kinda doing that right now. But because of our training we do tend to overdo it and there are people out there who will engage in “sea-lioning.” Don’t be that guy. Because of that guy I’ve blocked a lot of people who *might* not have been doing that. That guy has done a ton of damage to intellectual debate simply because he wanted to be a jerk to a girl.

If you find your beliefs challenged by someone like me what I would recommend is that you go to google scholar and start reading. Don’t shout abuse, don’t try to one up me because you didn’t understand one of my tweets, don’t try to doxx me, or figure out where my kids go to school so you can follow them home … read. If you don’t like me then you shouldn’t engage with me at all. Please, if you’re so mad at me that you feel the need to call me the c-word or suggest that I’m part of the “establishment” just block me. We’ll both be happier. But, if you’re not that guy and I’ve said something that you really don’t understand or don’t agree with, then read. You can trust me, but you don’t have to. Many of the sources in my Mendeley are available for free online. It’s a lot of effort yes, and you may want a JSTOR account which is it’s own kind of frustrating, but you’ll be able to see for yourself what the academic debate is all about.

Doctor of Palaeopathology, rage-prone optimist, stealth berserker, opera enthusiast, and insatiable consumer of academic journals.

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