I’m sure we’re all aware that one fairly common form of logical fallacy is the argument from authority. In this fallacy, it is assumed that because some person in authority says something, that thing must be true. We’ve all encountered this in it’s obvious form, especially as children. (“My dad says….”) But there are more subtle ways to exercise this technique without giving it away. Some of these are even legitimate things to do. Use of a title is one such example.
By “use of title” I mean titles like “Doctor” or “Professor”. Titles that carry weight with most people, titles that make you suspect that the person at least has some experience or a clue as to what they’re talking about. (Of course, many would argue that this just means that the general public hasn’t met enough PhDs to realize that we don’t have the faintest notion most of the time.) It’s fair to be proud of these titles. They take a lot of work and at least some talent to earn, after all. But they can also be abused. I’m actually a little bit guilty of this myself: when I’m writing annoyed letters to customer support, I’ll usually select “Dr” just in case that gives my complaints more weight. (Forgive me?)
More pernicious is when people use “Dr.” or “PhD” to introduce themselves before selling you on an idea or, worse still, a product. I first noticed this pattern when reading a book on health that I’ll discuss later. One thing that immediately concerned me was that the author’s name on the cover read, “XXXX XXXXXXX, PhD”. I hadn’t really thought about including the “PhD” before then. I realized suddenly that what bothered me was the fact that usually people don’t include the title in such works. For a popular work, it doesn’t really matter if the author has a doctorate or not, just that they know enough to explain the material clearly. For scholarly work, it’s pretty much assumed that the author has an advanced degree. So really, any time I see “Dr” or “PhD” right in the by-line, I start to wonder why the author is touting that.
If you’re inclined to delve further, check what the degree or title actually applies to. It’s pretty common for people to point to their PhD and try to stay quiet about what it’s in. But if you think about, a PhD in Astrophysics (say) is not really any more qualified to make medical claims than a car mechanic or a grocery clerk. So it is quite important to know what the degree is in. (Or what kind of professor someone is. Or what field of medicine an MD specializes in, even.)
Of course, it’s true that an advanced degree in the relevant discipline (or being a professor in the field, or a doctor of that specialty, or whatever) means you probably should give at least some extra attention to what the person is saying. They’ve most likely learned more about the topic than you have, after all, thanks to years of dedicated study. But that doesn’t carry over to other fields. Titles like “doctor”, “professor”, or “PhD” indicate a high degree of specialization in a topic and it’s exactly this that means that we need to ensure that the specialty matches the claims.
In the end, titles are dangerous and you’re probably better regarding people who use theirs with caution, at least until you can verify that it’s the right title for the claim. And remember, when dealing with factual claims, there are no authorities, only experts. And experts, even in their own discipline, are wrong every day.