Authority

Dr. Jones says, "Male lions taking over a pride will kill young cubs." Should you believe her? You might know that Dr. Jones is a famous specialist in lion behavior who has studied lions for twenty years in the field. Authority leads one to believe that Dr. Jones's statement is true. In a public bathroom, I once saw a little girl of perhaps four or five years old marvel at faucets that automatically turned on when hands were placed below the spigot. She asked her mother, "Why does the water come out, Mommy?" Her mother answered brightly, if unhelpfully, "It's magic, dear!" When we are small, we rely on the authority of our parents and other older people, but authority clearly can mislead us, as in the case of the magic spigots. And Dr. Jones might be wrong about lion infanticide, even if in the past she has made statements about animal behavior that have been reliable. Yet it is not "wrong" to take some things on authority. In northern California, a popular bumper sticker reads Question Authority. Whenever I see one of these, I am tempted to pencil in "but stop at stop signs." We all accept some things on authority, but we should do so critically.

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