The Authoritative Voice

by George Hatjoullis

The importance of the authoritative voice in individual and social lives is not always appreciated. It is the voice we accept without question. It is the voice that speaks the narratives that we internalize as truth, without question. The key feature is that we accept without question. In various blogs I have likened this to the priesthood. This was merely linguistic device to communicate the nature of this voice. Devout christians tend to accept the pronouncements of priests without question. Any voice that we accept without question has some of the character of the priesthood.

Scientists, I have repeatedly suggested, have some of the character of the priest. This has been unsettling to some readers judging by the comments that I have received. This is good as the purpose of my blogs is to unsettle the habit of comfortable but dangerous practices. Scientists tend to be believed because they root their pronouncements in evidence. This evidence is derived from experimental designs and data that is (should be) accessible to all and can thus be verified by other scientists and replicated. This all sounds solid and above reproach. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Science is a human endeavour and subject to all the frailties of human endeavours.

Anyone that has a postgraduate degree in a science or social science subject may be aware of what I speak. My own postgraduate study is in the fields of economics, finance and psychology (yes, all three). All three included extensive study of mathematical statistics and epistemology. Psychology included the experimental designs used in the medical sciences. The process has left me with an ear that hears the authoritative voice with a degree of care not typical of the majority.I have tried to encourage a more critical ear amongst my readers with very little success.

The question I put to you all is how do you check or verify or validate what you are told and choose to believe? Take today’s Guardian. It contains an article entitled Alcohol is a direct cause of seven forms of cancer, finds study. What will you do with this information? Many will not even read article because it contains a message they may not like. The message is, by the way, any consumption of alcohol above zero potentially increases the risk of some cancers. Whatever you do with this ‘information’, the one thing you are not going to do is check it. You are not going get hold of the research paper and read it and critique and follow-up on the references to the studies it cites (admit it, you will not). You will internalize the result and combine with other similar studies and warnings that you have read and this will cumulatively influence your attitude to alcohol. The narrative of the authoritative voice (zero alcohol consumption) will keep chipping away at your behaviour.

One of the problems the authoritative voice encounters is ambiguity. Somewhere you will have read that alcohol ‘in moderation’ can be good for you, though there is a growing consensus that alcohol is on balance best avoided. Scientists often seem to contradict each other and argue over the evidence. This is part of the iterative process of evidence based science but can very confusing for the layperson. The latter normally goes with the scientific consensus but not always. For one thing scientific consensus is often wrong and a minority comes along and demonstrates. One does not need to have read Karl Popper or Thomas Kuhn to understand this. This is how science is understood to progress. The other reason is that sometimes the scientific consensus tells me stuff I do not wish to hear. It does not make me feel good about myself. We are always more receptive to hearing echoes of our own heart, than to anything ‘objective’ (if indeed anything objective is available). Moreover, it may not be consistent with personal risk assessment and risk preference. All these points have been covered and discussed at length in various blogs. I have typically used climate change and vaccinations by way of illustration.

The use of climate change has been both instructive and perhaps unwise. It has become a matter of faith and anything that can be interpreted as questioning it or the prescriptions to dealing with it is now regarded with violent contempt. It is heretical and ignorant and dangerous ( I have been told). The irony is that I have not questioned it. The reader, it seems, is so emotionally invested in the idea to have been rendered incapable of thought or the capacity to read (which is very worrying). My point, in all blogs mentioning climate change, is the same as above ( which I doubt will upset anyone). How many of you that feel so emotionally about the climate change question have checked the data for yourselves? How many are capable of checking the data? How many even understand dimensions of the many questions that need to be asked? In all my blogs I make it clear that I am fully on board with the climate change policy responses but my reasons are not because I have checked the data for myself (and I could!). My reasons are many and complex and well thought out. Apparently this makes me ignorant (you should all be as ignorant as I am!).

The climate change debate is not quite as simple as it has come to be seen. There is a scientific consensus (see comment on consensus above). It has many components. First, the climate is undergoing a specific form of change. Second, this change will have existential implications for organic (and hence human) life. Third, the cause of climate change is human activity. Fourth, modification of human activity will restore the climate to a human-favourable structure. The main policy implication is that we reduce our consumption of fossil fuels as energy. I am very happy to accept the policy implication. There are also many other reasons why this is a good idea. I have not looked at the evidence on any of the four propositions so I have no view on validity. This is not the same as rejecting any or all of these propositions. This merely states, why go to all that trouble when I am happy to accept the behavioural implications. The fact that there is a scientific consensus is largely irrelevant. There is a quite a bit of scientific consensus on the existential risks of alcohol but has everyone stopped drinking?

The purpose of my blogs that have mentioned climate change has not been to question the validity of the propositions or policy prescriptions. How could I question validity without checking the propositions for myself? Admittedly I am less impressed by scientific consensus than everyone else but my reasons are well founded. Scientific consensus is expected to be wrong in some way and questioning it is part of evidence-based science making progress. I have fully embraced the ‘fossil fuels’ bad philosophy. My point was always to illustrate that science has greater similarity to religion than most realise. Both rely primarily on an authoritative voice to determine narratives. People do not typically check propositions for themselves. Freethinkers should always keep this in mind. If they do not then they are not thinking freely.

I have also made the point that there are some narratives that even I internalize without too much questioning. The reason is that society has limitations on what it will tolerate and it is dangerous to question some things. Free thought has limitations. The dangerous narratives vary through time but they always exist at each point in time. I emphasise internalize over accept. For some narratives you really must believe. To accept only risks detection by the thought police. Freethinking originated in a challenge to religion and faith in deities. But deities take many forms.