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  On Authority
The conflict between reason and obedience

Copyright © 2014, Paul LutusMessage Page

Introduction | Now and Then | Religion and Science
Growing Up | Scientism | References

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The only thing more tragic than a child who blindly rejects authority
is an adult who blindly accepts it.

In the early 21st century, with world population ascending over seven billion people, and given the worldwide shift toward high-density city living, it may not surprise my readers to hear that individual pursuits are giving way to group dynamics and, in many people, a near-reverence for various kinds of authority.

In light of these trends and absent any deep philosophical reflection, a person might assume that becoming an adult in modern times simply means changing authorities: governments and/or religious leaders instead of parents. This article suggests something else — it makes the case that there's an essential stage in personal development past authority, and that true adulthood requires something beyond choosing whom to follow.

In a great irony, the single most important driver of modern progress — science — doesn't function within the authority-driven atmosphere surrounding it, indeed science cannot simultaneously honor authority and remain effective. This article explains that the values of science may serve as a model for individual development, that the goal of personal evolution might be to develop the instincts of a scientist, and that a scientific outlook is more natural and productive than a typical adult's way of negotiating reality.

The premise of this article is that people who become chronological adults, but whose lives remain guided by authority, represent tragic cases of arrested development. Many people halt their personal journey toward a direct, one-to-one relationship with nature, with reality, not realizing one cannot become a fully functioning adult while still seeking the approval of authority — any authority.

Now and Then

Now: very large population

At present the earth is crowded with people numbered in billions, and other species are being wiped out to make room for more of us. Some scientists describe modern times as the sixth extinction event, a rapid, human-caused erasure of many species. Because of our numbers and the density of our settlements, it's fair to say that a high degree of cooperation and obedience are required to make modern life possible.

But modern humans have been around for several hundred thousand years, and our immediate forebears in the hominid lineage have existed for at least three million years. During the majority of that time, an average person lived in relative isolation. Different instincts and behaviors were essential for survival, behaviors that would seem very much out of place today, behaviors more appropriate to isolated individuals and small groups than modern societies.

Then: very small population

About 70,000 years ago, a volcanic event of global influence, known as the Toba supereruption, took place in Indonesia. Because of its enormous size and global effect, and because it coincided with the beginning of an ice age, this event nearly wiped out the human race. Modern genetic analysis of human diversity suggests that this eruption and its aftermath created a near-extinction that reduced world human population to about 3,000-10,000 individuals.

To provide some perspective on this event and the people of the time, remember these were modern humans that, in the right circumstances, would appear normal to us in every way. And in the broad sweep of geological time, 70,000 years is not very long ago (just 3,500 human generations).

When modern people hear this story, I think it's natural that they picture the survivors as knowing each other, but it's much more likely they were scattered over a wide area of Africa and Asia and led individual lives. Indeed, apart from this near-extinction and for the majority of the history of modern humans (over about 200,000 years), it's very likely that we functioned as individuals or as members of small groups of hunter-gatherers.

My point is that, in view of our history on planet earth, given the skills and behaviors our forebears developed in order to survive, we're the evolutionary descendants of people who sorted out everyday reality as individuals, not as members of a committee or by consulting authority. Given that genetic history (given who we are), a modern person's attitude toward, and acceptance of, authority seems distinctly unnatural.

Religion and Science


Many studies of the relation between intelligence and a reverence for authority show a significant positive correlation between intelligence and independent thought / rejection of authority. In a 2013 meta-analysis that summarized 63 scientific studies comparing I.Q. and religiosity, 53 of the 63 studies found a negative correlation between religiosity and intelligence. As with most such analyses, this result is suspect on the ground that no effort is made to explain the correlation, but it's intriguing that the correlation is as strong as it is.


Because of its authoritarian nature, religious belief may serve as a social marker for acceptance of authority. In a similar way but with opposite emphasis, a scientific outlook may serve as a social marker for rejection of authority. It seems that our attitude toward authority can be used to locate us on the spectrum that separates religion and science, on the ground that to reject the role of authority in religion is to undermine the religious process, while to accept any role for authority in science is to undermine the scientific process. The opposite role of authority in religion and science may serve to explain the historic conflict that divides them.

In historical times, before science played any significant part in human affairs, to reject the church's authority was to risk expulsion or even death. In modern times, with some notable exceptions, those who stray from the flock aren't killed, just described as heretics and cast out of the community. Notwithstanding this change and over time, one part of religious thought remains the same — an uncritical acceptance of dogma, of shared, unexamined beliefs.


The contrast between the religious and scientific outlooks is extreme. To the same degree that religion uncritically accepts the truth of a fixed set of beliefs, science is skeptical of unsupported claims and takes the default position that ideas lacking evidence are false.

In scientific reasoning, authority has no role whatever — indeed, an invocation of authority in a scientific context constitutes a logical error named Argument from authority (argumentum ab auctoritate). In science, only empirical evidence and logical argument can decide matters of fact and theory, and to be regarded as legitimate, a scientific theory must have a basis for empirical falsification.

On first learning science's priorities, many people miss something subtle but essential, which is that science is steered by tests against reality, against nature. For example, to say that a legitimate scientific theory must be potentially falsifiable in practical experiments means it must be possible to compare the theory to reality, and if reality disagrees with the theory, a scientist must reject it (a pseudoscientist may choose to reject reality).

Critical Thinking

It should be apparent that critically comparing ideas to reality is more complex than uncritical acceptance of an authority's pronouncements, but this issue has more depth than it may seem at first glance. A mental discipline called critical thinking provides the skills required to navigate an uncertain world, and this ability is widely accepted as one sign of an educated person.

Critical thinking has in common with science itself the goal of separating reality from fantasy. On the topic of scientific observation, Einstein said, "God is subtle, but He is not malicious", a remark that's been taken to mean nature won't reveal her secrets easily, but she also won't twist the facts. But people certainly do twist the facts, and nearly all our observations of nature arrive by way of one or more fallible human observers, including ourselves.

Much has been written about the difficulties that attend accurate observations of nature and the many ways people misinterpret the evidence of their senses, either innocently or with intent. As a result, science has been described as, not so much knowing, as knowing that we know, a goal that requires very disciplined methods to eliminate bias in observation and reasoning.

As modern science evolved, methods to improve observational accuracy have evolved in step. A number of principles are now regarded as essential to accurate observations, and rejection of authority is always included in the list. The British Royal Society, likely the world's oldest scientific organization, have adopted as their motto "nullius in verba" (Latin for "on the word of no one"), which in modern language can be taken to mean, "Take no one's word for it". The Society explains their motto this way: "It is an expression of the determination of Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment."

On this basis, and with small risk of oversimplification, it seems the primary difference between religion and science is that religion enthusiastically embraces authority, while science rejects it on principle.

The primary attraction of religion is that someone else does your thinking for you, usually an overtly paternalistic figure of authority (preferably someone who claims a special relationship with the ultimate paternalistic figure), and who provides one set of thoughts for the entire flock. Any expression of doubt or skepticism is rejected and/or punished, sometimes severely. Getting religious people to agree on an idea is relatively easy — all one need do is claim the idea came from God, often on slim evidence. On that basis, as an institution religion is fundamentally conservative.

The primary attraction of science is that, by rejecting authority and emphasizing skepticism and critical thinking, it allows a reasonably accurate perception of reality. Science encourages doubt and skepticism, and the core precept of science is the null hypothesis — the position that an idea lacking evidence is false. Getting scientific people to agree on something is next to impossible and might be compared to herding cats. All scientific theories are in principle falsifiable, and finding flaws in theories is encouraged. More Nobel Prizes have been awarded for work that overthrew existing theories than supported existing ones. On that basis, as an institution science is fundamentally subversive.

A religious idea has merit to the degree that religious authorities accept it and agree on it. A scientific idea has merit to the degree that valiant, sincere efforts to falsify it have failed so far. On the basis of these essentially polar outlooks, I think those who claim there's no real conflict between religion and science, understand neither religion nor science.

Growing Up

The dichotomy between religion and science is reflected in how we mature as individuals. As children, we haven't learned life's essential lessons, so we accept authority because we must. As adults, we have learned life's essential lessons, so we reject authority because we must. The only thing more tragic than a child who blindly rejects authority is an adult who blindly accepts it.

In everyday life, examples abound in which one's first impression of an institution is that it's a fair and efficient solution to a social problem, but as we mature as individuals, and as society evolves, we often discover that we were being naive. One example is the criminal justice system, which on first glance seems to efficiently and fairly determine which people are guilty and deserve punishment, and which are innocent.

DNA Testing

Before there was any serious role for science in law enforcement, one may have assumed that if people were arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison, they deserved to be there — that the evidence presented in court determined their guilt and justified their sentence. But recent scientific advances, in particular DNA testing, are casting doubt on that assumption, and hundreds of convicts have been proven innocent and freed.

The Innocence Project is an organization that applies modern scientific DNA testing methods to old cases in which DNA evidence was present but, for lack of modern science, could not be used as a defense against a criminal accusation. All that has changed — at the time of writing (early 2014), 312 convictions have been reversed through DNA testing, but this figure shouldn't be assumed to represent all those who have been wrongly convicted. Many questionable cases either had no DNA evidence to test, or may have been based on other kinds of questionable evidence that remain out of reach of contemporary science. Studies of the U.S. criminal justice system estimate that between 2.3% and 5% of U.S. convicts are innocent. Given the present U.S. prison population, if these figures are true, it means between 46,000 and 100,000 prisoners are innocent.

It's fair to say that scientific DNA testing has produced some public doubt about the reliability of the criminal justice system, and with respect to this article's thesis, we can say the public has acquired some appropriate skepticism and has "grown up" a bit — has moved toward a more scientific outlook.


When I want an example of pseudoscience, I always pick psychology (by which I mean psychiatry and clinical psychology, both branches of the pseudoscience of human psychology). The reason for this choice is that fields "lower" than psychology on the spectrum between science and religion (like sociology and astrology) don't have clinics and don't pretend to be doctors, while those fields "above" psychology that do treat patients (like conventional medicine) are required to meet scientific standards. This historical oddity makes psychology a particularly dangerous public health threat — it has clinics but no science, it possesses a degree of unearned public trust, and its belief-based treatments often harm the public.

This comparison is not meant to argue that conventional medicine is always either scientific or effective, only to say that when it fails, legal remedies are available to punish wrongdoing and stop the practice of failed methods. This isn't true for psychology — if a practice is discovered to be ineffective or harmful, psychologists may be discouraged from practicing it, but psychology has no scientific standards or evidence of the kind that medicine uses to create legal prohibitions.

Immediately after World War II, psychology reached a peak of public acceptance and was regarded as both a science and an effective treatment for mental ills. But this was an elaborately crafted illusion that has since unraveled for a number of reasons:

  • As soon as reliable statistics became available that tracked patient histories, it was discovered that neither talk therapy nor drugs had any curative effect on serious mental disturbances such as schizophrenia and (what is now known as) bipolar syndrome, and no reliable effect on lesser ills. After decades of effort, psychologists can only treat the symptoms of diseases whose causes they don't understand, the available symptomatic treatments are largely indistinguishable from the placebo effect, and there are no cures.

  • As time passed, a number of questionable practices, including Recovered Memory Therapy, Facilitated Communication, and the now-abandoned Asperger Syndrome, created public scandals that eroded public confidence in psychology's scientific basis and its ability to treat mental illnesses.

  • As mainstream medicine evolved into a more scientific practice, with clearly established correlations between treatments and effects, and because of the all-important presence of evidence-based explanations for those correlations, the absence of science in psychology, and its reliance on description rather than explanation, became more and more of an embarrassment.

  • Over time, because of a lack of scientific discipline and an absence of reliable, testable theories, the field of psychology has become a financial hostage of Big Pharma, dispensing drugs of questionable efficacy and safety, often for conditions the drugs weren't originally designed to treat, and often with severe side effects.

As a result of these trends, and as the public's understanding of psychology has improved, society has begun to seek a scientific replacement for psychology, and neuroscience (the scientific study of the nervous system) seems a likely candidate. At the time of writing neuroscience hasn't evolved far enough to offer more than a handful of treatments, but because it's a science-based field, its future is bright. Also, recent psychological scandals have been sufficiently troubling that the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health has ruled that the DSM, psychology's "bible" and primary treatment guide, may no longer be used as the basis for scientific research proposals, for the simple reason that it has no scientific content.

The overview of this change is that society is replacing an authority-based practice with a science-based one, the change is tied to the value of science, and science's value is tied in large part to its elevation of evidence over authority.


A naive appraisal of politics is that its effectiveness is based on the arbitrary exercise of power, of authority, and history largely supports this assessment. But since about A.D. 1600, politics has begun to evolve away from its reliance on the blunt exercise of authority toward a more nuanced approach, one consistent with increased public knowledge of history and public affairs.

I choose 1600 for my historic turning point because that was the year the Holy Roman Church burned Giordano Bruno at the stake for his heretical views on astronomy and the solar system. Briefly, a debate had begun in those times about whether the sun orbited the earth or the earth orbited the sun. (In fact, neither is true — the sun and earth orbit their common center of mass, a point located deep within the sun, but for the present historical purpose we can argue that the earth orbits the sun.) This debate took place in the context of widespread social changes that had begun to prefer evidence over dogma, changes that eventually transformed religion, politics and science.

The idea that the sun orbited the earth had become Church dogma centuries before, at a time when people simply wanted to be told what it was acceptable to think, but by 1600 observational evidence had begun to support a different model. Interestingly, from a mathematical perspective, the heliocentric model (the idea that the earth orbits the sun) is both simpler and able to explain much more than the older geocentric model, which as time passed had become rather cumbersome, requiring more and more ad hoc adjustments to force it into agreement with observation. This means the more scientific and mathematical thinkers of the time had begun to prefer the heliocentric model, both because it had greater theoretical elegance and because it agreed better with observation.

But from the Church's perspective, and from a political perspective (on the ground that the Church was the political power of the time), the heliocentric model had two problems. One, it contradicted Church dogma, and two, it seemed to demote the earth to the status of just another planet wandering around the sun ("planet" comes from the Greek word for "wanderer"). As far as the Church was concerned, the earth was the center of the universe, and the Church was the center of the earth, therefore by demoting the earth, these new ideas demoted the Church as well.

So in 1600, in an act that would come to haunt them, the Church burned Bruno at the stake for holding and expressing these heretical ideas. But by 1633, the time of Galileo's trial for expressing basically the same ideas, the Church had lost so much ground with thinking people that it could only threaten Galileo with torture and place him under house arrest. And things quickly became worse — such was the velocity of social change that the Enlightenment quickly followed and the Church's influence — and its role in politics — rapidly declined.

This is not to suggest that religion has no political power in modern times — clearly it does — but that modern systems of government limit its power by excluding religion from any direct role in government, and courts of law regularly rule against efforts by religion to insinuate itself into (as one example) science classrooms, disguised as science.

Contrary to widely held belief, modern politics is not the simple exercise of power. Instead it's a process in which the more astute players avoid taking controversial positions, find out what people are going to do anyway, order them to do it, then try to take credit for the result. To readers for whom this description seems overly cynical, let me remind them of various governmental programs that tried to contradict this model, that tried to actually exercise power from the top, like Prohibition and the War on Drugs.

Prohibition had the perverse effect of creating an illegal underground network to supply people with the drinks the government had outlawed, turned many Americans into criminals, and spawned organized gangs of criminals that remain with us today. The enormously costly War on Drugs has only served to incarcerate any number of otherwise productive citizens and (as with Prohibition) create and nurture a criminal underground. Now, decades after the war on drugs was declared, and against the wishes of the federal government, individual states have begun passing laws that make certain recreational drugs legal — and tax their manufacture and sale.

These changes aren't meant to suggest that alcohol and drugs are harmless — they're sometimes very harmful, even dangerous — it's only meant to show they can't be meaningfully controlled through exercise of governmental authority. If these substances should ever be brought under control, it will be through public education and the practice of science, not authority. These examples, and many others, demonstrate that authority doesn't work — it invariably replaces one problem with another, bigger problem.

Modern politicians become successful by learning the same lesson society has learned — that government isn't about the exercise of authority, it's about the exercise of reason, and authority is an illusion. Totalitarian regimes quickly discover that the blind exercise of authority only invites retaliation. The most skilled diplomats learn, not just that it's counterproductive to express a preference for one outlook over another, but that in truth there's no preferred outlook — they're all equal viewpoints in a morally neutral universe.

To put it simply and in the final analysis, there is no authority. People who believe in authority quickly discover nature has different ideas, and science is effective only to the degree that it rejects authority. I don't admire people who act as they do out of authority — I reserve my admiration for people whose actions are informed by reason and a nuanced grasp of reality.

Actress Ellen Page (click for larger size)

I end this article with a word of caution. Scientism has been defined as "the dogmatic endorsement of scientific methodology and the reduction of all knowledge to only that which is measurable." Because of science's successes in modern times, and because of the gradual decline of unscientific social institutions like religion, scientism has become a real risk.

For certain personal and social issues, a scientific outlook is required, but for many equally important activities, science serves no purpose at all. There are large areas of human experience that many people regard as essential to a complete life where science can't offer any guidance. For example, there's a certain actress who I personally think is extraordinarily beautiful (see "Ellen Page" at the right), but I'm sure there are as many opinions on this topic as there are people, and (notwithstanding any number of ill-conceived psychology studies that presume to quantify beauty) all such opinions have equal merit.

Obviously what one regards as a beautiful face is a subjective judgment, so even if it possessed some basis in science, the choice would remain personal and not very important. But there are some shared experiences, experiences that carry a greater social and economic weight, where science has little or nothing to offer. As one example, Netflix, the video distribution company, started a competition to try to improve their rating prediction algorithm, an algorithm that uses a customer's past video purchases to predict their future ones and their opinions of films. In the contest, a million dollars was offered to anyone who could improve the algorithm's accuracy by just 10% (Netflix's business is of such a size that a million dollars was a small price to pay for a 10% improvement).

Many people and teams worked on the problem, but for a long time the 10% goal remained tantalizingly out of reach. Eventually one team succeeded and was paid the million dollars, but Netflix, citing practical difficulties, never put the new scheme into service. It is stories like this, with a great deal at stake but little or no guidance from science and mathematics, that led novelist and screenwriter William Goldman to famously say, "Nobody Knows Anything", referring to the well-established fact that, notwithstanding the huge monetary sums involved, Hollywood has no idea how a movie will be received by the public in advance of its release, and no way to find out.

But, granted that science has a limited domain, deciding whether or not to apply science is often easy. For example, the choice to be an atheist or a religious person can't be a scientific issue. But the choice to allow religion to masquerade as science in a public school science classroom is certainly an issue that should be resolved by science, and by reason — to do otherwise would be incredibly irresponsible.

Thanks for reading.

  1. U.S. and World Population Clock — 2013 world population was over seven billion people.
  2. World Bank / Urban Population — 2013 U.S. population was 82% urban / 18% rural.
  3. Holocene extinction (Wikipedia) — the so-called "sixth extinction event", this one caused by people.
  4. Toba catastrophe theory (Wikipedia) — a volcanic supereruption 70,000 years ago that nearly wiped out the human race.
  5. Genetic bottleneck theory (Wikipedia) — genetic analysis suggests that the above volcanic event caused world human population to decline to 3,000-10,000 individuals.
  6. Timeline of human evolution (Wikipedia) — modern humans have existed for about 200,000 years.
  7. Studies comparing religious belief and I.Q. (Wikipedia) — of 63 scientific studies comparing I.Q. and religiosity, a negative correlation between intelligence and religiosity was found in 53 out of 63.
  8. Argument from authority (Wikipedia) — in a scientific context, an appeal to authority is always a a logical error.
  9. Defining Critical Thinking — a disciplined way to assess reality and experience.
  10. Royal Society — likely the world's oldest scientific society, and source of the motto "nullius in verba" (Latin for "on the word of no one").
  11. Null Hypothesis (Wikipedia) — the core precept of scientific thinking, the position that an idea lacking supporting evidence is false.
  12. Innocence Project — an organization that uses modern scientific methods to overturn unjust criminal convictions.
  13. Placebo Effect | Mechanism of the effect (Wikipedia) — a description of the real effect of pretend medicine.
  14. Recovered Memory Therapy — A now-discredited practice in which mental health clients were encouraged to "remember" suppressed memories of traumatic events, many of which turned out to be inventions.
  15. Facilitated Communication — a now-discredited practice in which severely handicapped patients were assisted in communicating with their loved ones, but later investigation showed that the communications largely originated with the facilitator, not the patient.
  16. Asperger Syndrome — a now-abandoned mental illness diagnosis that, because of its attractive diagnostic indicators, triggered an epidemic of diagnoses of people whose only mental defect was intelligence.
  17. Pharmaceutical lobby (Wikipedia) — an account of the activities of a pseudo-political entity known as Big Pharma.
  18. Neuroscience (Wikipedia) — the scientific study of the nervous system. In the long term, a likely replacement for psychology.
  19. Transforming Diagnosis (NIMH) — a source document explaining the reasoning behind the recent NIMH decision to exclude the DSM from scientific research proposals.
  20. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Wikipedia) — the DSM is psychology's "bible" and primary diagnostic guide.
  21. Giordano Bruno (Wikipedia) — Dominican friar, philosopher, mathematician, poet and astronomer, way ahead of his time, burned at the stake in 1600.
  22. Heliocentrism (Wikipedia) — an astronomical model in which the earth and other planets are pictured as orbiting the sun.
  23. Galileo affair — an account of Galileo's famous tussle with the Church between 1610 and 1633 regarding the heliocentric model and dogma.
  24. Age of Enlightenment (Wikipedia) — a historical transition from belief to reason.
  25. Prohibition (Wikipedia) — a spectacularly failed project to outlaw alcoholic beverages.
  26. War on Drugs (Wikipedia) — a spectacularly failed project to prevent the use of various recreational drugs.
  27. Scientism (Wikipedia) — defined as the dogmatic endorsement of scientific methodology and the reduction of all knowledge to only that which is measurable.
  28. Netflix Prize — a famous competition, with a million-dollar prize, meant to improve Netflix's rating prediction algorithm.

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