Question Authority – But Not Mine

“The death of the expert” has been either lauded or lamented for a while now. At least since the 1980s would be my personal guess, but that’s when my memory for things academic begins, so it probably goes back farther. I seem to recall reading about the 1968 crowd insisting that people older than them couldn’t be trusted, and “the Man” was certainly not to be left unchallenged. Now members of that same cohort are the senior advisors, senior faculty, and Powers That Be (in the US at least), and heaven forfend that anyone dare raise a hint of doubt about their pronouncements. Funny, that.

“How dare you question Science?” Well, that’s part of “doing science,” yes? You have a hypothesis, you test it, you repeat the tests, someone else repeats the tests, and you either keep your theory, you modify it to fit the data, or you mope for a day or two, mourning for the collapse of your beautiful theory, and then go back to work. [No, I have never, ever done that, because I never found data that shot down a perfectly lovely hypothesis. Noooooo. Not me. Not around witnesses at least.] Unfortunately, the past few years have not been good for people who prefer to have their grand pronouncements left unquestioned.

I’d argue that some of the problems are because Great Thinkers don’t like being challenged. None of us do, and the older and more senior in the field a person is, the less they appreciate young bucks challenging them. So the reaction is to huff and puff and fuss a little, and argue that the young Turk didn’t her sums right, or needs to re-read the original paper because she doesn’t understand why the Great Thinker was right. This is why my class notes have sources and footnotes, so I can tell challengers, “Here’s my source. Go read it, then bring me your data and we’ll compare.” In my case, the challenger usually backs down, because three monographs and a recent academic paper beat four Wiki articles.

That’s human, and I do not fault senior people for getting their backs up when outsiders say, “Hey, wait a minute!” I do it too.

But the last few years have seen more and more arguments based on “because I’m right and you’re not. Because I got the grant money and you never will if you keep pushing like this. Because I’m [title] and you are not,* so hush, child, and go back to your playpen.” Not to forget the ever popular, “I have [two digit] years in the field and I know better than you do what is good for you, you poor ignorant soul.” Or just “How dare you question 98 scientists?” In my opinion, 98 sociologists, economists, and similar do not equal 98 geologists, paleontologists, and climatologists when it comes to discussing a subject matter specialty. But that’s my opinion.

I’m young enough to bristle at the “argument from years.” I also revert to that counter-argument myself on occasion. Glass house, stones, and so on.

The worst, in my opinion, are the people who snarl, “Because I feel strongly about this, so I’m right.” At that moment you are dealing with Postmodernism and all the rules of evidence go out the window. They have their preferred experts and authorities, and they feel strongly. Therefore, they are right, because their truth feels right, and yours feels wrong, so they are in the right. If you get the sense that the logic is, at best, circular you are not alone. Things like that are the reason I sometimes dream of taking a time machine back to the 1960s and 70s and going after Jacques Derrida (among others) with a cluebat.

One result of all this is people who don’t trust any possible pronouncement colliding with those who only trust “my experts.” Repeated experiments go out the window, in part due to funding limits and “scientific narrative” as established by the super-experts who can’t be wrong, unless they are. No wonder things fall apart. Remember a few years back when half the published papers in a major journal turning out to be irreproducable and were retracted? *facepaw*

So we have the generation that urged everyone to ignore authority acting as authorities. And they get huffy when the younger cohorts, the former-rebels’ students, challenge their elders. If the stakes in public policy and public health were not so high, I’d roll my eyes, get more fancy popcorn, and sit back to watch the show.

*This is related to the argumentum ad Cartman, aka “Respect mah Authoriteh!” that arises when someone gets appointed to a position of authority and unleashes their inner thug.


14 thoughts on “Question Authority – But Not Mine

  1. Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity was widely regarded as heresy by the establishment scientists of the time. Ironically, later, Einstein was a severe critic of some of the weirder aspects of quantum theory, which are just now being definitively proven.

    Some of our current problems stem from the near total dependence on scientific research on government funding. This inevitably brings politics into the mix. If your research doesn’t conform to the political agenda of the funding agency, you don’t get any funds. The corollary of this is that those who write the most successful grant applications, not the best scientists, become the department heads.

    • To be fair to Al, chaos theory wasn’t widespread during his time. Massively chaotic systems look a lot like randomness, and can be successfully modeled that way. (Copenhagen is bunkum!)

      • Real stochastic applications were a few decades ahead of them. Also takes a more flexible set of minds to understand where/how stochastic behavior blends into either classical or quantum physics.

    • It should be noted that Einstein thought of ways that his theories could be disproven.

      I’m not knowledgeable about the history of quantum theory to if the people who thought it up, thought about how their theories could be disproven.

    • The cautions in Eisenhower’s Farewell Address covered your second point, in the very same section of the speech in which he warned of the military-industrial complex. He was right to be concerned.

      • The entire cite, usually truncated:

        Military – industrisl – Congressional complex

        Where there’s a vote, there’s a way.

        • He didn’t directly reference Congress: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

          A little while late he warned: “Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”


  2. Have Mr. Peabody set the Wayback Machine for the 1950s, and use rebar. There are an awful lot of Silents sneaking or weaseling away from their complicity in the ” never trust …” chant, all of them magically not that age. “Beat Generation” needs a new meaning.

    I had the new guys come in with great ideas. I wanted to see how their results correlated to collected data and accepted lower fidelity models. Not being a jerk, I knew the price tag to repeat testing and then model validation. They were right, and could show how to use archived data as well, showed how modeling matched and where not. Of course I backed them! I wasn’t doing the work forever, and needed a competent successor team.

    Handover is the hard part. Need new ideas or tools in, but need to understand and retain good data and results.

  3. 1968 cohort: “Question authority! … I’m not authority, how dare you question me!”

  4. The loss of trust is very interesting.

    Some folks are trying to propose simple solutions to reverse the entropy.

    Probably instead looking at longer slower less foreseeable process that cannot be dictated.

    As for the rest of my thoughts, I cannot sort out the raving lunacy from the truths that need to be said or the stuff unwise to admit to knowing.

  5. Ah yes, those pesky facts again… Problem is facts always trump feelz… Regardless of how loudly someone yells. And no ‘real’ science is settled, and probably never will be in our lifetimes.

  6. If memory serves, the Question Authority bumper stickers started to disappear around the 2008 election.

    On scientific study retractions, I wonder how many soi disant “scientists” realize that The Journal of Irreproducible Results” is supposed to be humor, not the gold standard for scientific literature.

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