Respect My Authority

South Park is an animated TV show that has been around for more than 25 seasons. It started in 1997 and continues today thriving on satirizing culture. The producers have no shortage of people, places, and ideas of which to make fun. The show follows a group of boys that remain ageless as they navigate their way through life in the Colorado suburb of South Park. In several of the over 300 available episodes we see one of the characters, Cartman, show up on his Big Wheel tricycle. He rides around blowing a whistle and yelling at those around him to “Respect My Authority.” Cartman sees himself as responsible for law and order. He figures he should be in charge and his method for gaining the “respect” or “obedience” of others is to tell them about his self-proclaimed “authority.”

Cartman clamors for respect while the world around him largely ignores him. To Cartman, authority isn’t something that is earned, it’s bestowed. Because he’s been given a badge, he’s in charge. The respect of others should flow automatically from the position in which he sees himself. Authority has two meanings. There’s the authority of Cartman’s mind which follows a position, a title, and reflects power and the ability to dominate others. This definition of authority is “the power to enforce rules or give orders… persons in command.” Then, there’s the authority associated with being a respected, knowledgeable, professional in a field. This definition is, “a person accepted as a source of reliable information on a subject.” Both have power but they come from two different places. One is title driven and the other is competence driven. The original etymology of the word authority had Latin influence. It was the latter form of authority that was its original conception. Authority related to creating, adding, enlarging, or enriching a field. It was about active development of understanding. Slowly, this authority morphed into that of influence from title, prestige, and power.

Let’s contrast Cartman with Winston Churchill, for example. Churchill lived a long and event-filled existence. Between the age of twenty and twenty five he saw combat in four different countries: Cuba, India, Sudan, and South Africa. He used what influence he had with his parents not to escape combat but to be dispatched directly to it. During this stretch he earned four medals and the Spanish Order of Military Merit. Concurrently, he wrote five books and was elected to a seat in his country’s parliament. These were some of the accomplishments he achieved before his twenty-sixth birthday. Churchill was a go-getter, a charger. He, literally, led one of the last cavalry charges in history. He did this in Cairo in 1898. The world in which Churchill lived moved from one where military combat involved men and horses to a world where space travel became possible. He saw the world at its worst and its best. He watched and participated in many momentous moments of history. He had a tireless work ethic that led to prodigious and prolific production. His writing generated over ten million words. Million! He won elections, and lost them. He was elected to the British Parliament over four decades during which he served in almost every cabinet office except that of Foreign Affairs prior to becoming Prime Minister. Churchill spent the better part of sixty years of his life in public service.

In what little free time he had, his hobbies were active. He painted. 500 original Churchill pieces sit in museums around the world today. For “fun,” he taught himself masonry and built brick walls. When he wrote, people read. When he spoke, people listened. His opinions were based on first hand experience and hard won wisdom. Churchill represents an earned authority where Cartman’s authority was based on little other than a self-proclamation. Shakespeare captured Cartman’s character when he wrote, “It’s the empty vessel that makes the most noise.”

Authority is simply a synonym for expert. In today’s world, we’re told to listen to the experts in any number of arenas. Just like our authorities, there are two kinds of experts: those with words and those with works. Nassim Taleb wrote in Skin in the Game that, “The curse of modernity is that we are increasingly populated by a class of people who are better at explaining than understanding, or better at explaining than doing.” Perhaps, our experts are heavily credentialled? Credentials that were first earned then bestowed on professionals become the badge of authority in a domain. However, as Seth Godin points out in his book, The Practice, “Credentialing lulls us into false confidence about who is actually an expert. The fact that you have a degree doesn’t mean you have insight, experience, or concern.” Moreover, with respect to credentials, when a profession establishes its criteria for what constitutes admission and subsequent levels of authority, how are their requirements as to how these are to be created determined? Most professions are self-regulating. The profession determines its standards. Expertise is that which the powers that be declare it is. Credentials are the stepping stones and roadblocks placed in front of aspirants. Credentialing is created by those that are benefitting from the current system. Credentials aren’t necessarily tied to any objective performance measure.

A separate issue with expertise, as the illustrator Milton Glaser observed, is “One of the problems with art is that it is self-anointing: Anyone can be an artist by simply pointing to themselves and saying so.” This, too, seems to be the case with expertise. The soapbox of social media has resulted in an explosion of experts. Expertise is seemingly everywhere. We have what look like highly credentialed individuals pontificating on the problems of the day. There are those with many letters after their names that present themselves as experts opining on current issues like free speech moderation. However, should one dig deeper to seek to determine if there’s any meaningful connection between the experts background and their opinion, the walls start crumbling. We have PhDs whose dissertations were based on studying prenatal smoking cessation. Moreover, this PhD has zero real world experience and hasn’t held a job outside of an academic setting. It seems the feat that this authority’s expertise rests upon is a handful of retweets. This background in no way qualifies them to be an expert on multi-billion dollar corporate acquisitions and the running of a social media company, yet opine they do. These so-called experts are doing little more than playing one on TV. We know better than to take medical advice from an actor than plays the role of doctor in a TV series. Should we not consider being equally skeptical of any “advice” offered by doctors that are being interviewed on TV? Particularly, where the doctor is offering input on an area outside of the one in which they trained or practice? As Justin Hart wrote in Gone Viral: How Covid Drove the World Insane, “The science is not what they say it is, and you are not required to acquiesce to anyone’s determinations but your own. Indeed, when someone declares himself to be the voice of authority in all things—run.”

Matt Parker a coach with Great Britain’s cycling team is quoted in Owen Slot’s The Talent Lab as saying, “Beware experts. None of us are really an expert at anything we do. As soon as you start thinking that you are an expert, your mind becomes closed.” Parker’s quote reveals a real risk of seeing oneself as an expert. Once cloaked in the cape of expertise, one believes they have the answers. The search for knowledge ceases and all energy is devoted to confirming and preserving the perspective that has resulted in being considered an authority. We inevitably depend on others to help us understand complex circumstances. However, we should be wary of the wise. As we’ve noted in the past, the Universe of what we don’t know is far greater than the little planet of knowledge that we do occupy. This is as true for gurus as it is for each of us.

Even where our experts might be brilliant within their bubble, in the real world their predictions are likely reduced to rubble. In his book, Peak, researcher Anders Ericsson writes, “Research has shown that the ‘experts’ in many fields don’t perform better than other, less highly regarded members of the profession—or sometimes even than people who have had no training at all. In his influential book House of Cards, the psychologist Robyn Dawes described research showing that licensed psychiatrists and psychologists were no more effective at performing therapy than laypeople who had received minimal training.” Alex Epstein in Fossil Future echoes Ericsson’s assertion noting, “We know that throughout history what the general public is told the ‘experts’ think has sometimes proved to be very wrong. In fact, some of history’s greatest evils—racism, slavery, eugenics—have been justified as supported by ‘the experts.’” We would do well to remain wary of those that proclaim to be wise. When it comes to experts we should adopt a cautionary stance, as science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke suggested that, “For every expert, there is an equal and opposite expert.”

Unfortunately, we seem to be living in a world with more Cartmans than Churchills. We should embrace our inner skeptic and question what we see, hear, and read. Whatever the subject, whomever the expert, we should default to a perspective that they aren’t offering their insight for our benefit but for their own. We shouldn’t be entirely closed off to all inputs. We should seek to critically evaluate what is being offered. We should work to accept our responsibility and know this NOCLYS. No One Cares Like You Should. We can’t rely on others to know what is best for us. We need to do the work to determine this on our own, independently and individually. How can we become increasingly critical of who we consider an expert? Begin by considering questions like, What does expert mean? Where was this expertise earned? Has it been learned from a book or experienced in real life? How are they being compensated? In what way is their expertise benefitting them? Is their perspective their priority or are they wedded to a thinking or investigative process? What is the consequence to them should their expertise be wrong? Do they have skin in the game? It’s no more complicated than how Douglas Murray puts it writing in The Madness of Crowds, “Educate yourself.” In future articles we’ll touch on some suggestions for both evaluating experts as well as establishing expertise. By the way, there are over 1,000 biographies of Winston Churchill. A thousand authors have considered Churchill’s contributions and authority worth writing about. I don’t think there are any biographies yet for Cartman. That’s a pretty objective evidence of expertise.