Scrutiny over authority is needed now like never before

I doubt any of us suspected that over the last two weeks, since my last #DMIL2020 post about COVID-19’s likely impact on not just our health, but our information, economy and society, things would escalate so quickly.

I am, at least, working at and thus teaching from home for the foreseeable future. So greetings from Drew’s bedroom at 10:45am on Wednesday 18th March 2020 (pictured. Don’t worry, I’ll move to the living room to do Friday’s online classes).

Working at home
Today’s work spot

I’m one of the lucky ones, though. The livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people in, for example, the airline and hospitality industries are directly, and immediately, under serious threat. And no one knows what deep psychological scars will be left by this crisis. I feel at the moment that I am on one of those beaches from which the waves have retreated, pre-tsunami. I’m bone dry still, but something’s coming. This first-hand report from Italy by Tobias Jones makes somber reading.

How will we come to see this time in future years? Will it be just a blip, a pause of sorts, something from which we may have learned a few useful lessons about the value of certain things? Or the opening act in something darker? None of us know, but I will hazard this at least — that the answers to those questions partly lie in what authorities we bring to bear, and how we scrutinise these authorities, judge their worth and validity.

The word ‘authority’ is, at least in English as well as the Romance languages (e.g. French, Spanish), semantically linked to ‘author’. Both stem from the Latin root auctor meaning, originally, to increase or produce. The author of a text or utterance has produced it — I am typing these words right now, ergo, I am the author of this blog post.

But whether you see my opinions, in this context, as authoritative depends on much more than just the relatively technical fact of authorship. You, the readers, are in fact making a whole series of judgments about what I am saying and your reception of it depends — consciously or unconsciously — on your own feelings about who I am, what you know about me and how you came across this post. Do we believe something we read or hear? Do we trust it? Do we find it credible? These are just a few of the things that combine into whether you consider me an authority.

And in that information literacy, as it’s being defined on this DMIL course, is centred around revealing the ways that we do, and should, make judgments about the information we encounter, digital or otherwise, then it is worth enquiring more deeply into this notion of authority. For me the key work in this field is Patrick Wilson (1983), Secondhand Knowledge. When we do not have first-hand knowledge of something, we depend on the knowledge of others, acquired second-hand. Wilson states that in this case — which is true in the great majority of situations — we make judgments about that information, that secondhand knowledge, based on our perception of the cognitive authority of the source: which Wilson defines as “influence over our thoughts that we would consider proper”.

Dentisti X-ray
That’ll be a filling needed there, then

Note that to accept the authority of a given speaker is not necessarily the same as agreeing with them. We can engage in debate or discussion about its interpretation or validity, but still accept that a statement is authoritative.

Authority is linked to many things but a particular locus of it is role and status. When my dentist, say, tells me I have a cavity (here he is — those were my teeth, unfortunately) I give this statement authority. However, nice guy though he is, if he tells me how to vote or where to invest my money: I doubt I would give these statements authority. And authority of this kind must not just be held, but recognised. After all you might never know that the person you have just met in a particular context is an authority in a different context. I am a published author in academic journals, but also in a well-respected football magazine. So now you know. But don’t ask me for any advice on health, fixing a car (or indeed any other machine or device), money matters…. etc.

Authority changes over time. It is relative, and needs to be demonstrated and, occasionally, renewed. Are the authorities that we must listen to basing their own judgments on the world as it is now, or as it was at some time in the past, when they acquired authority?

Such questions are not just relevant for individuals making judgments about their teeth or football, of course. They are fundamental to our whole rational decision-making process, whether in the corridors of civil services, the workings of democratic government and the scientific method — currently being deployed in research laboratories across the world as a matter of extreme urgency. Let me ask, then: What is this crisis illustrating about the structures of authority on which our dependence is now being illustrated so starkly?

Chancellor Rishi Sunak and PM Boris Johnson

On the one hand, the British govermment do seem to have suddenly rediscovered the value of ‘experts’ (cf. Michael Gove, whom I cited last time). The change in UK policy on Monday 16th was declared to have been based on new data about the likely impact of the virus on Britain’s intensive care capacity, drawn from evaluations of the experience in Italy. The new importance of science in decision making is being stressed by PM Johnson and key government figures like Rishi Sunak — in the latter’s case it is just as well he has advisors, having come into the job only a few weeks ago after his predecessor, Sajid Javid, disagreed with Johnson and resigned. The resilience and future of economies around the world and the livelihoods of tens of millions of people now depend on people like him and the decisions they make. (Whether their interest in science as a basis for sound political decision making comes to change their view of, say, climate change, or the negative impacts of existing inequalities on all this, remains to be seen).

Much the same is true in the US. In The Atlantic on March 13th, Peter Wehner argues that there, the political process has put into place a man psychologically unfit to take important decisions at a time like this. Wehner admits that: “One has to take into account that in government, when people are forced to make important decisions based on incomplete information in a compressed period of time, things go wrong.” This is a fundamental point about decision making; that all decisions are ultimately fallible. But that is why good-decision making also includes active scrutiny and review of decisions made.

But Wehner then notes that Trump’s psychology, as he has demonstrated for years, is disinformational. There has been an “avalanche of false information” from the President, personally. In particular:

in one of the more stunning statements an American president has ever made, Trump admitted that his preference was to keep a cruise ship off the California coast rather than allowing it to dock, because he wanted to keep the number of reported cases of the coronavirus artificially low.

Is the UK immune to these trends: No. As George Monbiot points out in an article published today , the political institutions in the UK, US and also Australia have been captured by corporate interests and, as a result, “the politics of the governing parties have been built on the dismissal and denial of risk”. Changes in discourse have taken place: the thinktanks (informational disseminators) have

dismissed scientific findings and predictions as “unfounded fears”, “risk aversion” and “scaremongering”. Public protections were recast as “red tape”, “interference” and “state control”. Government itself was presented as a mortal threat to our freedom…. Their purpose was to render governments less willing and able to respond to public health and environmental crises.

Monbiot provides back-up:

When Boris Johnson formed his first government, the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), which has been funded by the tobacco industry, boasted that 14 of its frontbenchers, including the home secretary, the foreign secretary and the chancellor, were “alumni of IEA initiatives”. The foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, has published one book and launched another through the IEA, which he has thanked for helping him “in waging the war of ideas”. The health secretary, Matt Hancock, in a previous role, sought to turn an IEA document into government policy. He has accepted significant donations from the organisation’s chairman, Neil Record. The home secretary, Priti Patel, was formerly a tobacco lobbyist. One in five new Conservative MPs have worked in lobbying or public relations for corporate interests.

In a short time these people will be those passing a bill into UK law that will enact a wide range of emergency powers . Whether these are the right or wrong steps to take, in the short-, medium- and long-term, cannot be answered, by me or anyone else, at this time. But one thing is for sure — never in any of our lifetimes will a few Britons have secured so much authority over their fellow citizens. And we can probably expect the same in many countries.

Let us hope, then, that medical science now develops an authoritative voice that is seen to supersede those of the corporate oligarchs — and that their practitioners’ efforts to contain and eventually eliminate COVID-19 are successful. For if left just to the ‘authoritative’ voices of the Johnsons and Trumps of this world, I suspect that this ‘crisis’ will last indefinitely. Even if, as Peter Wehner hopes, the authority of our present neoliberal political leaders is exposed as a sham and thus decays, this will leave a vacuum — and into that, right now, anything could move.

We have a need to scrutinise authority as never before. We need to learn our way, as a global society and as a species, out of what is happening. These things can be done, but they depend on an information landscape that stays as healthy as it can, particularly over the crucial next few weeks. Thank God for the Internet, in fact. Keep talking, folks.

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