Question Authority


Question authority may be the single most valuable piece of advice to come out of the sixties. In those days everyone was worried about the Man. Everyone wanted to be part of the revolution. Which of course, established a whole other set of authorities. People — once in power — wanted to stay there. And the majority of us sort of shrugged and let them do that.

Questioning authority on a regular basis is the foundation of any rational inquiry. A key element of science is based on the continual questioning of authority, that is, the generally held views of the scientific community. A lot of times the answer to the question is, sorry, you’re wrong and here is the evidence that proves your wrongness. Other times, the entire world is turned on its head as the questioner discovers new evidence that overthrows the established theories.

Nothing wrong with that. It’s how we make progress. The same is true of non-scientific progress.

The wrench in the gears is status. As primates, deferring to status is practically hard-wired into us. We’re not as bad as baboons (well, most of us aren’t) but nonetheless we do have a tendency to give more weight to the words of those who are perceived to have high status. For example, scientific theories sometimes only change when a new generation replaces the old one.

That’s also why a lot of people would rather believe the bullshit of celebrities like, say, Gwyneth Paltrow than the evidence of some nerd in a white coat whom we never heard of before. Gwennyth has status and the nerd only has a Ph.D. (and evidence).

We do the same thing all the time. Even revolutionaries defer to the rebels farther up the chain. I have sometimes called this the fascist instinct. It, in my view, persists and is pernicious and it is something that everyone who wants to be free needs to resist in their own nature.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not advocating for some sort of libertarian iconoclasm. We are, as part of our primate heritage, also social creatures and it is inevitable that we will be in situations when we should listen to others. In some case, as in escaping a burning building, we should unquestioningly obey the commands of those in the know (usually designated by wearing a firefighter’s uniform). We should defer to people who know more than us — but only about their area of expertise.

Linus Pauling — the father of the Vitamin C as cure-all movement — knew a lot about chemistry (he won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry and another for Peace) but that knowledge didn’t extend very far into biology. Yet his authority in one field got transferred into another — based solely on his status and not his knowledge.

It happens all the time. Military leaders become political ones. Businessmen presume to know how poverty works. And we listen to them with hardly a shrug.

So in future, question authority. Ask me anything.

And that’s ten minutes.


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