Politician claims medical degree is equivalent to biology degree

From promoting voluntary vaccinations to his views on American foreign policy, Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul has not failed to contribute to political controversy. Paul is now under fire for claiming he has an undergraduate degree in biology when, in fact, he does not. At the Lincoln Labs “Reboot Congress” conference on Feb. 12, Paul twice said that he has a biology degree. After The Washington Post published a column covering Paul’s fact-checked claim, Paul was granted three Pinocchios out of a possible four (the Post uses the “Pinocchio Test” to rate fact-checked claims of a politician, political candidate, diplomat or interest group. One Pinocchio is given if the claim is an exaggeration, but not a downright lie. Four Pinocchios are awarded if the claim is obvious lie).

According to The Washington Post, between 1981 and 1984, Paul attended Baylor University where he studied biology and English, but did not earn an undergraduate degree. But, Paul was able to attend Duke University Medical School because they did not require applicants to have earned a previous degree. Dr. Paul fulfilled all medical school requirements in an impressive two and one half years, and received his medical degree in 1988.

Sen. Paul’s senior communications director, Brian Darling, defended Paul by claiming, “It is unfair to give Senator Paul three Pinocchios because a M.D. Degree is the study of biomedical sciences according the the Duke University School of Medicine. In other words, a M.D. is a biology degree.”

Paul may have been referring to his medical degree, but is it accurate for Paul and Darling to imply that a degree in biology and medicine are synonymous? Questioning Paul’s credentials as a medical doctor is unnecessary, but this issue has caused suspicion of credibility as a “truthful politician”.

Assistant Professor and Program Director of the Seton Hill University Physician Assistant Program, James France M.D., earned his undergraduate degree in biology from St. Vincent College and his medical degree from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Having both a biology and medical degree, France said, “I agree that a MD degree is heavily laden in the biological sciences, but the degrees are distinct from each other… it would be a stretch, under any circumstances, to take credit for any degree without finishing the requirements for such a degree,” France said.

Although Paul studied biology at Baylor University before earning his medical degree, he did not finish and, therefore, did not earn a degree in biology. France said, “My class [in medical school] was made up of music majors, history and philosophy majors, pharmacists, lawyers, police officers, and a concert pianist.” For this reason, Paul’s understanding of a medical degree equating to a degree in biology is debatable; it is important to acknowledge the distinction between the two degrees. “If someone’s undergraduate degree was in, for example philosophy, and they took the prerequisite science courses to get into medical school and earn their MD degree, I think it would be a stretch to claim that they have earned a biology degree,” France said.

Some respondents to the Post’s column conclude Paul is dishonest because by stating he has a biology degree, he implied he graduated from Baylor, which is not true. So, is this issue newsworthy? From a political standpoint, yes. “…A politician’s character should be considered heavily in the public’s decision to elect him/her,” said France.

From a medical standpoint, the issue of Paul’s ambiguity is not newsworthy. Associate Professor of Biology, Steven Bassett Ph.D, weighed in on the issue, stating, “The short answer is that to practice medicine in the U.S. requires either an M.D. or a D.O., training at a hospital-based residency program, and passing certain licensing exams. Duke School of Medicine must have been satisfied with Paul’s undergraduate work when they admitted him.”

If Sen. Paul is simply understating his academic credentials, or buffing up his resume, this is not the first time his fact-checked claims earned him a few Pinocchios. “Sooner or later, mistruths will come back to cause you problems,” France said.

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