When I Fight Authority

“To punish me for my contempt for authority, fate made me an authority myself.” — Albert Einstein

Yes, I quoted both Einstein and John Cougar Mellencamp in succession. It’s called the liberal arts, yo. Now I’m gonna quote Bill O’Reilly:

“See, the water, the tide comes in and it goes out, Mr. Silverman. It always comes in, and always goes out. You can’t explain that.” — Bill O’Reilly

Others have done a thorough analysis of what O’Reilly gets wrong (from the point of view of science and from the point of view of theology), so I’ll send you to those other places rather than recapping what they’ve said. Instead, I wanted to zoom in on a particular version of false skepticism that we could call “false anti-authoritarianism”. (I need a catchier phrase for that! Any ideas?) Basically this translates to “scientists tell me something, but I’m not going to believe it” as an argument.

O’Reilly isn’t really anti-authoritarian; he just picks and chooses which authorities he trusts, and he sets himself up to be an authority on many issues. (In fairness, O’Reilly also is willing to debate people who don’t agree with him and will concede points at times when he’s wrong–something I appreciate, even though I rarely agree with him.) This is similar to those who would deny global warming: they borrow the language of skepticism, but they are fairly selective in what they choose to be skeptical about. Skepticism, despite its reputation, is not generally about rejection. To be truly skeptical about global warming or (in O’Reilly’s case) the origin of the Moon is to evaluate the evidence and draw conclusions based on said evidence.

Here’s what a true authority says: Don’t trust what I tell you just because I’m the one telling you. Doubt me. See what evidence I’m basing my statements on. If I’m doing a good job, I’ll provide you with my sources. As Albert Einstein recognized, being an authority means you’re going to be challenged by the rebellious young punks and reactionary old guard alike (Einstein lived long enough to go through both of those phases). If your authority rests on something other than just “I said so”, your position will stand against attacks.

There’s a reason the scientific consensus is in favor of evolution, of the Big Bang/ΛCDM model, of global climate change. It’s not because Darwin said it, I believe it, and that settles it; it’s not because of Al Gore or Neil Tyson. What they say is important, but it’s because they point to the evidence, something anyone can evaluate with enough openness and patience.


4 responses to “When I Fight Authority”

  1. Richard Francis Avatar
    Richard Francis

    Thanks for the “God of the Gaps” link. I was familiar with the term and concept from Bonhoeffer, but this pushes it back more than 50 years. Hammond’s remarks are possibly even more relevant today than when first published.

  2. […] about this stuff, there would be scientists all over it, picking it apart. It’s our way. Our authority doesn’t rest on our own say-so; anyone can check our work with sufficient patience and […]

  3. […] utterly failed to convince him.) The argument that scientists know best what constitutes science (even while showing why we know what we do) doesn’t fare very well when faced with a belief that we’re suppressing truth or even […]

  4. […] Science’s authority is a collective one, after all. You don’t have to trust what I or my fellow scientists say; our responsibility is to show people how to find and evaluate evidence wherever possible. Journalists’ authority is also collective, derived from their powerful code of ethics and often from the trustworthiness of their publishers. Even if you don’t know the particular journalist, the fact that they’re working for Scientific American or the New York Times or Nature (to name just three) should tell you that they are not simply making things up. A physicist writing about the Aharanov-Bohm effect or a paleontologist writing about stegosauruses (stegosauri?) are drawing on their education and the work of the collective science community. […]

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