Monday, September 12, 2011

Borrowed authority

As is true for most households in Canada and the United States seldom a week goes by that we don't get flyers in the mail. We generally check them out only as a way of finding out food prices at different stores without expending time/gasoline. However, this week one of the non-groceryflyers immediately caught my eye. "Books" I exclaimed, "which bookstore has a sale going on?" My excitement quickly died down when I realized that the flyer was from the local Christian bookstore and there was little chance that what they had on sale would be something that I wanted to buy.[1] However, there were a lot of pictures of books and a lot of descriptions of books so it was impossible to throw out the flyer until I had read it.

The first several books seemed to be typical examples of what I think of as "soft, fuzzy" Christian books but the next caught my attention. In The Coming Economic Armageddon: What Bible Prophecy Warns about the New Global Economy the author, David Jeremiah, writes,
"As global financial earthquakes increase in frequency and intensity, many are beginning to wonder if we are on the threshold of Armageddon!" [p. xi]
Correction--the author is, according to the cover of the book, Dr. David Jeremiah. I ponder for a moment the chance that the author of this book on the world's economy is either an economist or has a degree in international relations and then, of course, I google him. I find, not to my surprise that, David Jeremiah isn't an economist. More to the point it is a stretch to refer to him as Doctor. I can, quite legally and accurately put Dr. in front of my name. I do after all have a doctorate. However in the academic communities in which I studied, researched and taught one didn't use the honorific except in formal circumstances or when it was relevant. If David Jeremiah had earned a doctorate ( from an accredited degree granting institution) in some discipline not directly related to the subject of the book it would still be misleading and even academic bad manners to put Dr. on the front cover of the book. Note the word "earned" in the previous sentence. A little research makes it unlikely that Jeremiah actually "earned" a doctorate -- what he apparently has is an honorary doctorate. According to Jeremiah's own website he has a BA, an MA (in theology) and
He completed additional graduate work at Grace University and was granted the Doctor of Divinity degree from Cedarville College[2] in 1981.[BIOGRAPHY OF DR. DAVID JEREMIAH]
I noticed, when I was living in the U.S. that many pastors are referred to and addressed as Dr. just as the ranking officer on a sea-going vessel is given the title Captain even if that is above hir actual rank. But only while they are onboard--when ashore the officer's actual rank is used to refer to and address them.

The rank of Captain, like the title Doctor has a contextual significance. On a ship someone is in charge. I have a doctorate in a particular discipline and my expertise in that area does not automatically bleed over into other areas of life. Thus even if Jeremiah had an earned (as opposed to an honourary) doctorate in divinity one could call into question its relevance on economics.

By the way, if the reader is wondering why the use of the title "Dr." took me aback they can look at the practices of other authors. For example, Paul Krugman (Ph.D. from MIT) does not call himself Dr. Krugman on the front cover of The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008, although he is billed as a Nobel Prize Winner in Economics which, since it is a book about economics, does seem contextually relevant. If you look at Capitalism and Freedom its author is listed simply as Milton Friedman. Neither men needed to "borrow authority" by including their academic titles in their names.

I imagine that Jeremiah (and his readers) would insist that his knowledge of the bible makes him better able to predict future economic conditions than a mere economist. Again I cry foul. There is no indication from his webstie or his educational resume that Jeremiah is a student of the languages in which the bible was originally written. Therefore he is making predictions on the basis of someone else's translations.

If you have ever spent time among highly trained translators (especially those who work with ancient documents) you would be less likely to think that there are clear and obvious meanings to many passages. Consider the opening lines of The Illiad as translated by Robert Fitzgerald [3]
Anger be now your song, immortal one,
Akhilleus' anger, doomed and ruinous,
that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss
and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,
leaving so many dead men--carrion
for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.
as opposed to the same lines translated by Robert Fagles [4]
Rage--Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' song Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many many sturdy souls,
great fighters' souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feats for dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving towards its end.
In one translation the lines are address to Goddess and in the other immortal one. In one Achilles' rage is murderous and in the other ruinous. In one Zeus will still moving towards its end and in the other it had been done.

Unless you are a scholar of Homeric Greek and know not only the language but the ways in which the original words were used at the moment they were captured in writing you cannot speak to which translate is more "correct" although you can have an opinion as to which is more moving.

So, to return to the flyer (and the book it was advertising) what do we make of Jeremiah's use of the title Doctor? Is it making the claim that as a pastor he is more knowledgeable about meaning of the words in the Bible than someone who has studied the original languages? If he is making that claim then is he also making the claim that divine inspiration (or leading) trumps actual training and knowledge? And if that is the claim he is making is he arguing that that is true for all areas of expertise? Is one better off having someone with an honorary doctorate from a Christian college cutting into one's skull than a neurosurgeon who is guided only by years of study and training?

Or is there a list of disciplines where a "leading" outranks skills and training and a list of disciplines where it does not?

I suspect that it the latter is indeed the opinion of many who describe themselves as "born again" and many who describe themselves as members of the tea party. I do not think it is an accident that the same people who think that an honorary doctorate in divinity adds gravitas to the opinions of someone about world economics gives less weight to the scientific opinions of Nobel Prize winning scientists than they do their pastor or some radio-show host.

To them, I suspect, the title "doctor" reflects prestige or hierarchical authority not the acquisition of a set of skills and knowledge relevant to a particular discipline.

[1] I do own quite a collection of books that might be on sale at the store but I bought all of them at library sales. Some authors/books seem always to be available in abundance at library sales. If you attend them regularly you can soon have a large collection of Stephen King, John Grisham as well as the entire Left behind series.

[2] Cedarville College does not, according to the information on its own website, have any doctoral programs. The only graduate degrees it offers are in Education and Nursing Science.

[3] Homer - Robert Fitzgerald - Anchor Press - 1974

[4] Homer - Robert Fagles - Bernard Knox - Viking - 1990


  1. Reminds me of a chap I knew slightly who insisted on having the "BA" - no, in fact, it was "BA (Hons)" listed after his name in any even slightly formal context. He seemed to think that this would impress people. Which, in a way, it did...

  2. Back in the day (when I was still teaching undergraduates) students would sign letters with
    every fraternity/sorority office they held and every present (and past) position they ever held. For example, Your annoying student, assistant treasurer, FRAT; past president of the homecoming organizing team.

  3. Unfortunately, this is extremely common and evangelical circles. After all, those "worldly authorities" with their "liberal degrees" might try telling them that the evidence for evolution is too immense and detailed to ignore or explain away, just to give one example. So creating their own "authorities" is essential.

  4. In evangelical circles this certainly goes back as far as "Dr. Billy Graham," and I grew up knowledgeable of - and suspicious of - the practice of citing doctorates.

    My own PhD I cite primarily in circles where it is germane (i.e., the professional discipline of history), but I confess to throwing it in gratuitously in other contexts where I hope it may make weight, e.g., letters of complaint, where it is meant to imply that I Am Not Someone To Be Trifled With. (Of course if I am complaining in person I assume my natural gravitas and majesty convey the same effect. ;} )

    This is probably wrong of me. Alas.

  5. It's not just evangelical Christians. This abuse of credentials seems to be a symptom of cargo cult science. I'd post links, but apparently I'm not thinking of the right keywords to dredge out relevant posts from Respectful Insolence. If I did manage to find them, a lot of them would point to assorted anti-vax groups, oh yeah, and Dr. Michael Egnor, neurosurgeon and creationist nutbag.


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