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. 1 Richard Francis February 4, 2011 at 19:35

    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.

  1. 1 The Creationist’s Trilemma « Science Vs. Pseudoscience Trackback on March 2, 2011 at 10:27
  2. 2 Creationism Apocalypse Now « Science Vs. Pseudoscience Trackback on March 24, 2011 at 09:07
  3. 3 On What Authority? « Galileo's Pendulum Trackback on April 27, 2011 at 12:36
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