A Complex Relationship With Authority
“The question you ask – what to read and whom to study – is one that I receive quite often. It ought to be an easy inquiry to answer. But it isn’t, and this for a series of reasons. The first and most obvious is that you should not look for arguments from authority.” -Christopher Hitches, Letters to a Young Contrarian, 2009
Christopher Hitchens spent a lifetime attacking figures of political and supposedly moral authority, rarely missing an opportunity to send pointed barbs at those who would go along with the accepted wisdom rather than thinking for themselves. Yet it would be an oversimplification to say authority itself was the underlying cause of the gullible masses and corrupt elites he skewered. Freethought must not be confused with anarchism.
Experience demonstrates how putting humans in positions of command or intellectual leadership creates certain temptations and blind spots. This is clear to those who have seen a police car speeding for no reason, suffered the tutelage of an arrogant mentor, or paid any attention to politics.
When people are elevated by others to be above the law, above suspicion, or beyond questioning, they often can and do take advantage of these public attitudes for selfish gain.
When the authority figure internalizes these attitudes and comes to believe they actually are enlightened or their actions are always morally justifiable, they can inflict monumental damage. Examples may include the thousands of priests who have sexually abused children, the millionaire megachurch pastors who enrich themselves out of the pocketbooks of the poor and elderly, the warlords and violent religious fanatics who force compliance with their views, and the politicians cynically claiming a special relationship with God in order to win votes from the credulous faithful.
To some extent, their positions of authority contributed to the corruption of these people. Our anecdotes have been replicated in the laboratory. Psychologist Phillip Zimbardo’s infamous prison study demonstrated how to transform randomly selected college students into sadistic, abusive authoritarians just by putting them in a position of power over other people. Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience experiment startled humanity years earlier, demonstrating that most people would administer a potentially lethal shock to someone else if an authority ordered it.
So authority is bad, right? And we should refuse to listen to anyone claiming authority, right?
Well, not so fast.
Individuals cannot make much headway in this complex world using senses and reason alone. We all survived childhood by trusting our first authority figures, our parents. We were educated with help from teachers, scholars, writers, and journalists. When we are sick or injured, we seek the assistance of people whose studies and experience make them medical authorities. When our car breaks down, we seek a mechanic whose experience makes them trustworthy. When we want knowledge about something, we look to the writings of other people. At work, we have different jobs because it is more economically efficient for people to specialize and become authorities in some activity. Who would feel safe in a city with no police, or in some imaginary culture without laws?
If we completely disregard authority, and refuse to recognize that to some extent authority may be well-deserved or beneficial, we discard science itself. Who has the time or genius to verify the motions of the planets with their backyard telescope, develop their own antibiotics, or independently re-discover the Theory of Relativity?
A rejection of scientific authority underlies the mentality of anti-vaxxers, creationists, climate change skeptics, and true believers in various forms of pseudoscientific woo.
Let’s pick on anti-vaxxers as an example. Hundreds of scientists across multiple generations have spent lifetimes studying vaccine safety, and yet anti-vaxxers are persuaded by celebrities and popular authors that the preservative thimerosal causes health problems. What exactly makes it unreasonable to reject the authority of scientists and accept the authority of Jenny McCarthy? Is it reasonable to be agnostic on the subject of vaccine safety, just because someone – anyone – disagrees?
A parent’s decision to give their child a potentially lifesaving vaccine may rest on which authority figures they choose: scientists or celebrities. Similarly, our knowledge about the age of the universe depends on whether we consider scientists or preachers to have more expertise on the subject.
Here’s the case for scientists: The scientific method has proven reliable again and again, scientists have studied their topics more diligently than anyone else for many years, and scientific evidence is based on real-world, replicable observations.
The case for celebrities, preachers, and celebrity preachers is that they are popular, charismatic, attractive, well-marketed, and speak on an understandable level.
Yet there’s more to it. Many of those afraid of thimerosal, for example, cite a seemingly commonsense rationale: one should not ingest mercury because mercury is poisonous. This claim may sound reasonable to someone trying to “think for themselves”, as it seems to follow from an accepted fact. A non-specialist in chemistry and biology, and specifically in vaccines, would be unable to articulate why the preservative is actually harmless.
Our lives intersect with hundreds of authorities. Most are transactional, or even beneficial. Some, however, are exploitative or simply incorrect.
This leads us to our question: Does rationality boil down to a method for selecting authoritative sources of information or leadership?
Well, it’s complicated.
Freethinkers are not hypocrites for accepting the findings of scientists while also instinctively disbelieving that Benny Hinn heals people with forehead smacks. We are only applying simple inductive reasoning.
At some point, we realized prayers go unanswered or we had too many questions about the philosophical problems of theism. At some point, we saw a pattern of religious opportunists, celebrities with unsupported opinions, and insincere politicians. We’ve also encountered scientists who apply meticulous rigor to their studies, principled police officers, and brilliantly effective professionals from auto mechanics to medical specialists.
We’re not putting our trust in authority at all. We’re extending limited trust to those people who apply methods that have yielded measurable, tangible results in the past, and whose methods are reliable and proven.