The Power of Authority

Many of us do not have a clue what to think.

Not so very long ago there was a widespread belief that the Moon was made of green cheese. Then this was dispelled when American astronauts went there, at enormous expense, and brought back some rock. So we believed that it was not made of green cheese after all, but of rock. Because they brought the rock back, that was a proof.

Simple, isn't it?

Well, not quite. I don't know about you, but I've never actually seen the rocks they brought back with them. I've seen pictures of them. That's not quite the same thing, is it? And even if I did see them, how do I know that these rocks I see were in fact the ones that came from the Moon? Or even that there were any at all?

This brings us to the Power of Authority. You could ask, why should I disbelieve that the rocks are real? Well of course, they are real rocks, but the question is, are they real moonrocks? Perhaps I should not disbelieve they are real. After all, they were brought back by NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, a respectable organisation of the United States government. They would not lie to me, would they? Why should they lie?

This argument is very powerful. Why indeed should I be skeptical? The scientists at NASA have a professional duty to tell the truth about their findings, so why should they lie?

But I think we now see that the situation is not as simple as we may have imagined. Because my acceptance that the rocks in question actually came from the Moon, hinges on one thing only. My trust in the organisation NASA and its team of scientists. Their integrity. Only on belief and trust, not on proof in any rigorous sense of that word.

Nothing has been proved to me by science. I have not been given access to the Moon rock, to conduct any analyses of it. And most of us would be unable to perform any analysis even if we had. So we accept the authority of the scientists.

Accepting the authority of the government and of the scientific community is something that we are all constrained to do, for that reason. And it works fine, doesn't it?

Until we find out that those authorities have told us even so little as only one lie.

As soon as that happens, then everything the government and the acientists have told us is thrown into doubt. The Power of Authority is lost.

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