Do you think for yourself or do you believe what authorities tell you? Hah, I bet 100% of us would answer we think for ourselves. We’re free, independent thinkers. Authorities can’t tell us what to think!
And I would not try to contradict that independence of thought, but candor forces me to admit, for myself and to pose for your consideration, that much of what we do know—we know from authorities. Much of what we base our opinions on, we know from authorities. Indeed, much of what we think derives from authorities, even though it is not a direct command like “think this”, “believe this”, or “act this way.”
Authorities We Listen To
We all listen to authorities. These authorities include teachers, media spokespeople and editors, scientific leaders, government figures, and people asked their opinions. As we see on cable TV, the information that authorities assert often conflict with the statements of other authorities. That will be discussed farther down, but let’s investigate the information we get from authorities.
Authorities provide us not solely with facts, but various levels of information.
- Facts which occur beyond our personal sphere.
- This is the most benign type of information we get from authorities, although with “fake news” we do need to check before we believe them.
- An inevitable, but worth remembering, aspect of facts from your favorite authority is that not all facts are shown. Contrary facts are often not discussed, also selected facts may be repeated beyond their natural importance.
- Explanations and Evaluations. Theories that weave together multiple facts into a consistent whole.
- Evaluations are a personal reaction to facts. Example: It’s good we went to war in Iraq.
- Explanations usually rest on evaluations. Example: the Middle East exploded because we left Iraq too quickly.
- Do we share the authority’s evaluations? Do we share the authority’s explanation?
- Forecasting future events using facts and theories
- Financial and political authorities often advocate a particular action in response to a forecast. Example: The Fed shouldn’t raise interest rates because that will damage the US economy.
- Is the authority forecasting in his special area of knowledge? Do we also believe that the forecast (raising interest rates damages the economy) is true?
A scan of the headlines quickly reveals contradictory pronouncements from authorities.
- Immunization. The current orthodoxy is advocated by influential doctors (and government regulations), while other doctors (and influential trend setters) insist that immunization can cause side effects which leads them to advocate resistance .
- Authorities both pro- and anti-immigration abound. There are facts about numbers. There are evaluations and explanations relating the current social reality to immigration facts. Finally, there are strident voices on both extremes that predict doom.
- Government deficits.This one has an amusing topsy-turvy aspect to it. The two political parties are on opposite sides. Two years ago they also were on opposite sides, but on the reversed sides.
Who to Believe
- Examination of statements. Is the supporting information laced with maybes and mights, while the conclusions are concrete and unyielding?
- Splitting the difference. Consider a political case. You note what Fox News says and what MSNBC says. Then you assume that a position halfway between their views. The problem is that if either one is right, then you’ll never get to it in this manner.
- Test past predictions against current reality. This takes time and effort, so often we avoid it. It’s inevitable that we end up relying on authorities. Not solely because we aren’t everywhere, can’t perform every experiment, or analyze the result of every decision, but because we have our own daily life which consumes much time and effort. Authorities fill the gap.
Three Test Cases
Periodically, test your authority’s veracity (facts) and reasonableness (useful predictions from explanations and evaluations. How? Look back at what they said last year and before. Did their predictions come true? Or did they exaggerate fears and promises?
Here are three facts that authorities offered opinions and forecasts on. How did your authorities do, now that you have the benefit of hindsight?
- Nationalization of industries did not occur when the federal government responded to the 2007-2009 financial crisis.
- George Bush did not start WWIII.
- Over the past 30 years, the magnitude of average CEO compensation relative to their average full-time employee has grown dramatically.
Were the authorities you trust lead you to proper preparation for these occurrences
We need to rely on authorities to understand our complex world. There is no denying it; however, let’s make the effort to periodically check the reasonableness of our authorities.