Al Gore today will not be introduced as Dr. Al Gore, although he was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters. Oh, possibly if he could get away with it but, let’s face it, everyone knows his degree was an honorary one, he might look foolish trying to pull that one off, and honorable men don’t want to risk the embarrassment of claiming to be “Dr.” under those circumstances.
For example, though controversy has surely ensued for the exceptions, rare is the attempt to attach the honorific to such recipients — Drs. Stephen Colbert and Hunter S. Thompson being noteworthy for daring to go where Drs. Slade and the Bee Gees, among others, have not. As Emily Post’s Etiquette puts it, “An earned title, indicating that a man or a woman has received a doctorate in history, philosophy, literature, etc., is generally used professionally, although it varies according to the feeling of the owner of the degree and the customs of his or her particular institution or academic field.” (emphasis in original).
Wikipedia – why cite Wiki? Read on! – states “Who’s Who publishers A & C Black note that honorary doctorates are not used in circumstances where they might be taken to imply an academic qualification and advises following the holder’s preference when determining whether to address an ‘honorary’ doctor as ‘Dr.’” (Citing Titles and Forms of Address: A guide to correct use, 21st edition. (2002.) London: A & C Black)
So the relevant factors are the individual’s preference and the customs of his field. Oh, and with the caveat that honorary degrees are not used in circumstances where they might be taken to imply an academic qualification, due to reasons of potential for confusion or misuse. Hence, if one insists on using the degree, a qualifier is typically used (see below).
As I have already written, NOAA styles the co-lead author of the looming “Unified Synthesis Product” as “Dr. Tom Karl”, though NOAA’s own various bios published for Mr. Karl list his highest academic achievement as a master’s degree (though he was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by North Carolina State in 2002). NC State says in an email that “Thomas Richard Karl took some post-baccalaureate courses here at NC State. He was not in a degree program.”
As far as I know, it is also not NOAA’s practice to call recipients of honorary degrees “Dr.” (for example, despite his five honorary doctorates, I see NOAA’s bio for “Mr. Sean O’Keefe” who never earned an academic PhD). The custom in the particular field of climate science is pretty clearly for only Ph.D. recipients to hold themselves out in professional settings as “Dr.” Mr. O’Keefe doesn’t feel the need to be seen as holding the title, though it is Mr. Karl’s preference that he be granted it.
So I was a bit surprised by the defensive justification when NOAA finally got back to me on my request for clarification of what academic background supports the “Dr.” title they assign to a man they only claim has earned a Master’s degree, but who also claims a Ph.D. from NCSU in 1978, in an actual CV posted by John’s Hopkins University. NOAA’s explanation for the “Dr. Karl” is rather longwinded and appeals to several authorities, none of which include a claim to a Ph.D., and boils down to:
“‘Honorary degrees’ are often considered not to be of the same standing as substantive degrees, except where the recipient has demonstrated an appropriate level of academic scholarship that would ordinarily qualify them for the award of a substantive degree. . . . Given NCSU’s charter on issuing honoris causa degrees and Karl’s significant accomplishments in the field in which the degree was offered, it is acceptable to refer to him as Dr. Karl.”
That’s inapposite and avoids the issue, as revealed even by the infallible Wiki. “An honorary doctorate is a doctoral degree awarded for service … [which] does not need [to] be academic in nature. Often, the same set of degrees is used as for higher doctorates, but they are distinguished as being honoris causa: in comprehensive lists, the lettering used to indicate the possession of a higher doctorate is often adjusted to indicate this, e.g. “Hon. Sc.D.” rather than ‘Sc.D’.” Does NOAA indicate this? No.
It seems relevant in a discussion of academic attainment to note that NOAA cribbed that “Honorary degrees are considered” part of the cited response verbatim from Wikipedia, if without the embarrassment of attribution.
So, Karl is “Dr.” to NOAA because a) it is good enough for NC State and b) he is quite the scientist in some way that would qualify for a degree if he tried. The standard remains, however, his preferences, community practice and qualification to avoid confusion. NOAA’s Wiki says what they are doing is a really no no: “The recipient of an honorary degree may add the degree title postnominally, but it should always be made clear that the degree is honorary by adding ‘honorary’ or ‘honoris causa’ or ‘h.c.’ in parenthesis after the degree title.” It isn’t. And that Hopkins CV really muddies things further. More on that later. Also, Karl wasn’t awarded an honorary doctorate of science, but humane letters, which again according to Wiki, “is always conferred as an honorary degree, usually to those who have distinguished themselves in areas other than science (these normally receive the Doctor of Science)”. So in more ways than one Mr. Karl holding himself out as Dr. Karl is an exception to the rule.
NOAA twice asks me to tell them just where it is that I claim they purport that Karl has a Ph.D. — of course, I never alleged that, but asked if they were under that impression, given they repeatedly call Mr. Karl “Dr. Karl”. So let me answer about as directly as they did: I notice that you do not “add ‘honorary’ or ‘honoris causa’ or ‘h.c.’ in parenthesis after the degree title” as you are always supposed to do, according to your chosen authority. Surely this correction is underway? Remember, ve haff vays of making you tell zee truse!