Respect my authoritah!

I was reading a fellow blogger’s post about the vaccination debate (a debate that should not even exist) as the author of the blog had highlighted a particular response to her blog from a physician and posed the question about why are we not willing to


listen to the physicians point of view.  She was also interested about why we would trust doctor’s in one case, but not in the case of vaccinations.  This is a very valid question.  If you are going to say doctors are out to lunch on vaccines and the very same medical science goes into everything else in the profession then you should never go see a doctor, take care of things on your own, and most importantly keep your kid at home so he or she doesn’t infect anybody else.

However it is the “Why don’t we believe the physician?” question that had me thinking as I drove to work this morning and I started thinking about how this is true for things like climate change and other scientific issues now and in the past like GMOs, evolution, the dangers of smoking, etc.  I was reminded of an excellent YouTube video that I have posted many times before called Good without Gods that talks about the basis for morality in a society.  One of the ways in which we can acquire morality is by default to authority, sometimes mistakenly so.  I believe that this is a basic cognitive bias humans have, perhaps because we all, from a very young age, default to the authority of our parents.  Part of growing up is realizing that your parents don’t have all the answers and don’t know everything, but part of our brains never really grows out of this default to authority bias.  This is in part why many people feel comfortable deriving their morality from religious authority without question.  Of course there is too much to know in the world and defaulting to authority saves time, and thus energy of which we all have only a finite amount of.  As a scientist I would say always be skeptical, but that means that we should also be equally skeptical to somebody who says vaccines cause autism.  In the face of controversy it seems the default to authority is what people rely on, so the question is, why isn’t the authority thousands of scientists who by consensus and exhaustive amounts of research say one thing as opposed to a politician who says another?  I have come up with a few possibilities but would be interested to hear what others think.  Here are the thoughts that I have come up with so far:

  1.        False authority figures. Who are the people we value in our society?
    Michele Bachmann – Not an authority figure (From

    Here in the U.S. it seems like the views of celebrities, politicians, and people with money (who are sometimes all one and the same) carry weight as being an authority on scientific issues.  This is simply not the case.

  2.        The power of money. In a highly consumer based society, money is seen as equivocal to power and thus authority.  If you have a lot of money you must have been smart to get it.  That is false of course.  Many people inherit their wealth, have connections, work very hard (but don’t necessarily have a high intellect), and some just get lucky breaks. Most of the smartest people I know don’t make money their goal.
  3.        Devaluing intellectualism.  In many countries I have visit those who are well educated, teachers, scientists are well respected in the community and in society at large.  Education itself is increasingly devalued here in the U.S. and so if educated people don’t have value in society that how can they be a worthwhile authority on anything?

The American Dream was built on valuing education, change, and progress.  We do not live in a society in which that dream is simply unobtainable for most and yet we believe in the concept like it manifested itself out of nothing.

12 thoughts on “Respect my authoritah!

  1. ryan59479

    Excellent post. I especially agree about how we devalue science in this country. Not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but I’ve always had a hunch that the decline of intellectualism in this country is directly related to the plutocracy that runs our government. George Carlin had a bit he used to do about why the country was continually getting dumber and dumber, and it goes a bit like this: the plutocracy in this country want people who are just smart enough to pull the levers and do the paperwork, but too stupid to sit around the kitchen table and realize how badly they’re getting screwed over as their wages stay stagnant (or decrease) and their benefits disappear. So they lobby congress to defund education, break up unions, and pass voting restriction laws. And it seems to be working. The GOP has convinced millions of people that it’s actually in their best interest if millionaires get tax breaks and they don’t. They’ve convinced those same people that it’s bad that everyone has access to healthcare. It’s absolutely astounding.

    And as far as the religious go, don’t even get me started. I’ve never understood how science can be right about everything else except creation. And I’ve confronted creationists about this BS. They sit behind a monitor and decry science all day…on a computer and the internet, created by science. After driving their car–also created by science–home from work. Before taking their artificial insulin and antibiotics (again, science). The religious loooove science when it benefits them. But as soon as it challenges their beliefs, it’s of the devil. The only consistency in the religious is their hypocrisy and ignorance.


    1. I agree Ryan. I think I mentioned this on one of your posts too about the contradictory nature of many of the religious right, and you boy Silcox had a long rant about why that wasn’t true. LOL But it is. I guess if they pick and choose what parts of the bible they want, they also pick and choose about anything else that they want to believe and what they don’t. I think that’s what it comes down to. While we are all susceptible to belief, it seems to me that some people simply cannot deal with and accept new information, but rather only seek ways only to reinforce the beliefs they already hold ignoring everything else in their path, regardless of how it might contradict those beliefs.


  2. I was trying to think about how I might comment here, but Ryan pretty much sewed up the whole thing.

    About all I can add is I simply do not understand the pop culture types that simply buy everything that is being shoveled in their general direction. I never was one to hop on any bandwagon, and since I was a kid have questioned damn near everything. This is in stark contrast to those that believe everything they hear without question. There should be some middle ground in there somewhere, although I don’t know if I have ever seen it…


    1. Ryan is good that way. 🙂 I do think that a lot of this is very cultural. It’s not been my observation that people in other countries react quite the same way. So there is hope…just perhaps not in this country. 😦 The sad part is that our culture is the one being spread everywhere…I hope they take only parts of it.

      I do think there is middle ground. I just think that in general argumentation often doesn’t work very well to convince anybody to change their mind about things. Life experience is much more helpful. I have seen students come into our program who were raised as big believers, but if you don’t really directly address their beliefs, but really show them how science and critical thinking works they can get there on their own. This is why I am very for better scientific literacy in education.


  3. I am not anti-vaccine, and I value intellect, however I don’t completely agree with your point. I believe that many people don’t trust the physician, because of the way big-pharma has infiltrated the medical profession. When big-pharma pays medical school bills, manipulates and cherry picks results from industry sponsored studies, and pays big bucks to hand-picked MDs to do damage control when medications start to show harmful effects – people will lose faith. It’s not science that causes doubt, it’s the loss of professional ethics caused by greed.
    I did a research paper about drugs for depression, and read through vast amounts of information, and quite frankly – I was disgusted by how much influence big-pharma has on the medical profession. I don’t doubt scientists that have little to gain from big-pharma, but I do, and will continue to question the validity of those who do.


    1. Thank you for you comments! I didn’t mean to imply that they were always free of corruption or that the medical practice was perfect. Only that while it always is good to skeptical, a presentation of contrary information, like vaccinations cause autism should be regarded then with an equal amount of skepticism, in which are distrust can at least be partially sated by then following up with evidence and research within the appropriate field. Over medication is a big problem in this country and I would agree that the FDA often pushes drugs out in the market before they have been adequately tested. I am also hesitant about trying brand new medications unless my own situation was dire enough such that the risks outweigh not taking any medication at all.


  4. TK

    I was just thinking about this the other day. A coworker of my is vehemently against evolution (like that’s even a thing. Can I be against trees having leaves?) At the same time, she was excited to go to a science and industry museum that weekend. I can’t understand. So, that science is sound, regardless of understanding, but evolution isn’t? How does that work?

    When it comes to physicians though, I will say that I feel like some of them push the pills pretty hard. That isn’t to say I don’t value their knowledge. When I am sick, I go see a doctor and take their words to heart. I just do my best to avoid going to the doctor (aka, not getting sick). I know some health nuts that are against vaccination. They think the way they live will be enough to prevent their children from being sick. Now, depending on the research, I could buy the idea that, by living a very strict type of lifestyle, a person with the right body chemistry might avoid these illnesses. What I don’t buy is that anyone can control a child to the extent of holding them to that lifestyle.


    1. I agree TK. I think the shift is starting to take place, but for awhile modern medicine focused on cures over prevention. Preventative medicine though is actually one of the hallmarks of a good national health care system. Part of the reason why the average life expectancy is longer in Canada is because of the focus on nutrition and preventative health over simply going to the doctor once you become ill.


      1. David

        I found that an odd comment. Having lived in Canada a long time, I am not convinced that nutrition is valued or devalued more or less than in the US… in both societies, it is class-related, I’d say. Surely, the obvious reason we’re healthier is that WE DON”T PAY AT THE PURCHASE POINT. So if I’m sick, my contribution (and my parents’ before me) to the tax base has long covered (at least some of) the cost.


        1. Perhaps although having lived in both places I would say there is a difference. But you’re right that economic class has definitely a lot to do with how nutritious you can afford to eat. When everybody has health care you are more apt to see a doctor before things get really bad. This naturally puts the focus on prevention over just treatment when you are really sick. Increased consultation with health care professionals increases the advice you receive about taking care of yourself better which includes advice for nutrition and exercise. This is especially valuable for those in low income situations. Because even with low income there are still healthier options in terms of diet and nutrition.


  5. Alex Manton

    I have special contempt for #3. Living outside the US has given us new perspective on how other places and cultures value education, and educators. Going to make it hard to go back to where teachers are seen as no more valuable than convenience store clerks. Side note, hopefully this counts for your map as a reader from Indonesia…typing from Bali


    1. haha…thanks! I already had Indonesia strangely…perhaps Krista checked out my blog earlier in the week! Enjoy Bali! Never been, but my sister has been several times and loves it.

      And I agree wholeheartedly. Having been to Malaysia and India I know the value they put on education and teachers, such that it’s hard to believe how different things are here sometimes. Even the fact that kids don’t want to go to school, while there are so many kids in other countries who have no chance for an education and want it desperately. And their parents want it desperately as well for their kids.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s