Authority Versus Evidence Part 2: When Authorities Collide

     Those without expertise who nevertheless posture as authorities do so for a range of reasons, but most common among them is the desire to promulgate a falsehood. The causal logic behind this is unfortunately quite compelling. If you want people to believe a thesis that is untrue, when there are sources of information that contradict that thesis, what are your tactical choices?

  1. You could marshal political power – force – to censor the alternative sources;
  2. You could mount a campaign of defamation against the alternative sources;
  3. You could posture as a source of superior wisdom: i.e., an authority.

     Tactics #1 and #2 aren’t always available to the falsehood-promoter. Even when they are, they involve heavy costs and the possibility of a powerful adverse reaction. Tactic #3 is almost always the preferred choice, at least at first.

     However, the pseudo-authority stands at risk of being opposed by someone with true expertise. (Let’s leave aside the existence of contrary evidence for the moment, since that has nothing to do with authority.) Such a dueling-authorities situation is evident in many avenues of American public-policy discourse today. All of them excite high emotions – not the least from the authorities themselves.

     Consider the subject of lethal violence and the role of certain classes of firearms therein. “Authorities” associated with the anti-firearms-rights forces have repeatedly claimed that “assault weapons” (a category they staunchly refuse to define) are the tools of choice for innumerable shootings and deaths. Other authorities claim this is the reverse of the truth. John Q. Public, assuming he’s not capable of gathering the “ground truth” data for himself, must decide which of these authorities to believe. When the subject is as emotionally laden as public violence and death by gunshot, it can tax him badly.

     One of the possible responses – and it may be the most common one – is to throw up a barrier of denial to the whole subject: “Make it go away.” In effect, this invalidates both authorities, regardless of which one is nearer to the truth. When a sufficient fraction of the public does this, one consequence is an increase in the de facto power and latitude of governments. Any field left unwatched tempts those who wield political authority…and those folks are legendarily weak before such temptations.

     Other responses include the emergence of “discourse warfare,” in which each set of authorities acquires some degree of public support. after which the authorities and their adherents then “duke it out” in available public fora. Such public disagreements often become vitriolic in the extreme. Only the arrival of indisputable evidence sufficient to settle the core question can put an end to such wrangling.

     However, “indisputable evidence” is often bitterly disputed by the losing side. After all, its “authority” is at stake. That’s when we see tactics #1 and #2 deployed. In such cases, the most powerful elements of the media are importuned to take a position – again, usually on the strength of some “authority” – and to support that position both editorially and in their reportage.

     Ironically, those same media could settle many such clashes simply by unearthing and publicizing facts sufficient to answer the core questions. That this has become exceptional behavior is one of the principal reasons for the bitter divisions that afflict us at this time.

     Most of this is “of course” material: i.e., you’re likely to nod and say “of course…after you’ve read it. But it indicates the importance, to the analyst of public disputes and the campaigns and combats they feature, of “reasoning backwards:”

  • From tactics,
  • To strategy,
  • To objectives,
  • To motives.

     For only when you know your opponent’s motives do you have a decent chance of defeating him:

     “You must move heaven and earth, if necessary, to discover your opponent’s motives. His tactics will be determined by them. If his motives change, his tactics will follow. There lies your opportunity, if you can get him to adopt tactics unsuitable to the conflict. Of course, he could try to do the same to you.”
     “What’s the countermeasure?”
     “Constancy. Refusal to let yourself be diverted. Of course, that can be a trap, too. Motive is partly determined by objectives. If your adversary’s situation changes but his objectives remain the same, he could find himself committed to paying an exorbitant price for something that’s become worthless.”
     “And that’s the time to stop playing with his head?”
     His grin was ice-cold. “You have a gift.”

     [From On Broken Wings]

     More anon.