Questioning Authority

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Independence Day is a day for celebrating the freedom we have in our republic. One of our most precious freedoms is the freedom to question authority. Let me share with you a lightly edited version of an email I sent one of my coauthors a while back on how deeply I feel about the right to question authority: 


I was pleased that I did a little better today about handling gracefully the issue of scientific authority. I have been embarrassed about getting so heated about that on some occasions. I think I am getting closer to figuring it out. 

As a practical matter, the main thing I want you to know is that I respect you, way more than a random paper in the literature, even if it is by someone called an "expert" on some topic. So your saying you think X carries a lot more weight to me than saying "the experts on this think X."

Here are some of my relevant values and experiences:

  1. I am a child of the 60s. "Question Authority" was one of our watchphrases and is burned into me. 
  2. My path out of Mormonism (a very big deal in my life) involved questioning authority. There in particular, the primacy of truth versus hierarchy was something I felt deeply. 
  3. My relative success as an economist has involved questioning authority all along the way. 
  4. I have a very strong value of giving everyone a fair hearing. So I don't need someone to claim authority for me to be willing to listen to their idea. (On Twitter, people find my willingness to treat the questions and ideas of people with no particular status seriously quite unusual.)

The ultimate nonnegotiable principle for me in our work is that we make the final judgment—not any other purported experts—or even scholars accepted as experts by general (but uncareful) social consensus. There may sometimes be tactical reasons to act as if we were deferring to the experts, but in the first instance we should make our own judgments (except in cases where we don't care enough—then we might as well defer to whomever our audience might be induced to think is an expert). 

Anyway, sorry for the excess heat along the way on this.