The nature of authority

Guest post by Graham Wayne

In a recent post, John Cook wrote:

"When it comes to complex science, whether it be climate science or heart surgery or how a plane manages to stay up in the air, we defer to the experts who do this stuff for a living. Why? Because they know every nook and cranny of their area of expertise.

Well, I think there is another reason why we should defer to the experts, but we have to be clear about what that deference entails, for words can be misleading. Sometimes, the dual nature of a word leads us to confuse one thing with another. Consider the word authority, for example.

I started out as a musician. I remember meeting plenty of older players, and they would tell me things from time to time. They didn’t equivocate, nor did they leave any room for doubt in the way they put things. Frankly, they sounded just like my dad, and equally certain. Since he was usually wrong, I assumed these musicians were simply as dogmatic as my old man, and probably talking as much bollocks as he did. ‘Don’t tell me what to do’ I would say, mostly to myself. As far as I was concerned, what they knew was like what my father thought he knew – assumptions, dogma, convention. What right did they have to insist certain things were a particular way, and had to be? I was young, ready to rebel, to change things. The world didn’t have to be like they said, like my father said. I could reshape the world in my own image. I acknowledged no authority but my own, and anyone who told me what to do or how to do it could sod off.

Fast forward 20 years. I’m talking to some young musician, and I have that self-conscious experience of listening to myself, and what I’m saying. And bugger me if I don’t sound just like them, just like my dad. What on earth has happened? How did I become so bloody sure of myself?

The answer is that I did the work. In those intervening years, I paid my dues (rather over-paid, I suspect, due to a certain intransigence). I gained experience, I practiced, I learned from mistakes, I worked hard, and with each passing year my knowledge was improved by my education. Out of these experiences, I gained something unexpected: authority over the subject matter I had spent so much time studying. There are rules, and you cannot break them except at your cost (and the cost of your audience). These standards must be met, else you are doomed to be second-rate.

There are, it turns out, inviolable precepts. If you aspire to excellence and consistency, you are obliged to both acknowledge and obey the precepts that apply. Those who think they can get away with it, take a shortcut, cheat a little here and there; they always discover the same thing – exactly as I did. You can’t fool your audience, not for a minute, and it is equally hard to fool yourself. The work must be done and the dues paid, no matter what discipline you seek to acquire or what reasons you have for doing so. Success is built on the foundations of discipline and experience; once you have these attributes, there is nothing that can undermine them because you know they are not arbitrary, they are not personal. I know now, from discussion and experience, that all the people I admire have learned the same thing, and applied that knowledge uncompromisingly. They respect the rules of engagement and obey them, because they are not optional and you ignore them at your great peril.

So, in this personal example, we can use a synonym for authority: we can call it mastery. In art, in science, in business; in any sphere, if you do the work – all of it – and do it diligently, you gain mastery over your subject. Consequently, when I speak about playing or performing, I am not equivocal – I’m telling it like it is. I’ve had students who argued with me, but they lost every argument, because I had paid dear for my knowledge, as did all my peers, and what I gained was a profound certainty in that which I can be certain about, because this kind of authority is tested under fire - every single time we enter the fray. Since what I learned never let me down – not ever – it becomes more than a theory (and when I ignored the rules, I always got my arse kicked). It becomes like the rules of physics, unbending and subject to no negotiation whatever. When I talk about the knowledge I have gained from such effort and discipline, I may end up sounding like my dad, but it turns out he knew a thing or two after all.


The other kind of authority is the kind that children resent when they are told to go to bed or wash behind their ears. It is the arbitrary authority of those bigger than us, stronger than us, richer than us, more powerful than us. Teachers deploy this authority. So do bosses, policemen, higher ranks in military establishments; anyone whose position in the pecking order gives them the notion they have the right to tell us what to do. Sometimes, we work for a boss who is smart, so perhaps we don’t mind him or her telling us what to do (and the wages generally provide sufficient leverage to mute our dissent).

What we resent is the arbitrary notion that underlies this authority. Who are these people? How do they assume they are somehow better than us, when they offer nothing more than a bribe or a cuff round the ear? That isn’t authority, it is bullying. Isn’t it? Taking advantage, in other words; getting us to comply with their wishes whether we like it or not, making us do what they want just because they say so. Just like scientists and their bloody climate change theories, right? Who gave them the authority to tell us what to do?

Well, nobody gave them authority. They earned it, and it isn’t authority over us, it is authority over their subject matter. Scientists have to struggle up a learning curve so steep it is beyond the comprehension of most lay people. To start with – before they can lay a hand on a test tube or a microscope – they must learn everything that has gone before. This can take a decade or more, and the rewards are not only paltry, but often unreliable, since many will not ever make the grade or the salary commensurate with all that work they put in.

After what we might call a very long spell in boot camp, after they have negotiated the training courses comprising several centuries of highly detailed work; only then may the fledgling scientist stand upright on the shoulders of the giants who preceded them, and take a look around them. Only then may they start to work on a theory of their own, or collaborate with others whose theories merit investigation. Even to call yourself a research scientist, it is necessary to gain that mastery, that authority, that uncompromising discipline that is defined by the scientific method. And some of these scientists are studying climate change.


Scientific authority should not be confused with the authority of parents, or teachers, bosses or politicians. I am constantly amazed at the way lay people dispute science, by attributing to it some arbitrary notion of authority. When all other forms of authority seem to be arbitrary, perhaps it is understandable that, when science speaks with an authoritative voice, it seems equally subjective or capricious. When hierarchical authority is exercised in the pursuit of an agenda – political, legal, caring, educative or whatever – its aims may be equivocal, self-serving or arbitrary, where a different aim or agenda would be equally valid.

Science isn’t like that: it tests what it find ruthlessly and repeatedly, for there is only one right answer to any scientific problem, only one theory that is wholly correct. It is often overlooked that scientists cannot afford to promote myths, or self-serving results. Scientific knowledge is a hierarchy too, where the last paper on a subject becomes part of the next paper, through the process of citation. Nobody wants to do all the work all over again – reinventing the wheel – so all scientists have a vested interest in making sure all the work that is incorporated into the body of science is scrupulously accurate and solid, because they may well base their next research project on the same work, the same given, the same method. Bad science puts all scientists at risk, which is one reason why all scientists are so keen to root it out.

When science speaks with authority, we should respect it, not resent it. And we should not be afraid to accept that there are people who are smarter than we are. One common tone I find in discussions about science is generated by a strange notion of equality, a rather topical political trope where all people are rendered so damn equal there isn’t any individuality left. There are a lot of people smarter than me, and it does not demean me to recognize this, or acknowledge them and their achievements. Of all the branches of human endeavor, science is one of the most intellectually demanding and difficult. What these people do astounds and humbles me. That they are cleverer than me at science does not make me less important as a human being. It does remind me that self-importance is a vice we can ill afford, especially when we try to ignore those who speak with genuine authority.

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Posted by gpwayne on Friday, 23 July, 2010

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