On Authority

Some author, I can’t remember who, once pointed out that the vast majority of everything we know has come to us through an authority we trust. Very little has come through our direct experiences.

Think of how little science we have tested for ourselves, how little history we have investigated, how few places we’ve seen with our own eyes. If a mechanic tells us we need a new alternator and it will cost us $400 dollars, we call our spouse and lay out the truth for her like we had seen it with our own eyes. We might go on to diagnose a friend’s faulty alternator at a later date based on what the mechanic said. We trust his authority without testing for ourselves.

We can read something in a book and tout it as fact for the rest of our lives if we trust the author.

Anywhere from 99-100% of everything most people know about the political system in the US—the way the government works, the history of any given political figure, and even the meaning of “democracy” and why it’s superior to socialism, marxism, communism, or any other ism—they know through listening to an authority they trust. They have not been a senator and learned the culture and ethos of that job. They’ve never been in the Oval Office. They’ve never sat in a cabinet meeting. Yet the trust is so deep they will separate from friends who see issues another way.

When two people argue about an idea with heads full of information—information which they did not learn first hand—what’s really happening is a contest between the sources who influenced them.

Why do some people argue against vaccinations, for example? Is it because they are doctors and have given vaccinations to thousands of patients on their own and proven that they don’t work, or is it because they read someone who said they didn’t work and, for some reason, found them to be a more trustworthy authority?

The most important question becomes: How do we determine who the authority is?

I don’t know, but it’s a worthwhile question.

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