Back to main page

Back to home page

Printer friendly

Basing Knowledge on the Authority of Other People

A huge amount of what we know about the world is based on what we are told by other people.  In fact one of the main advantages that humans have over other animals is that we can convey information to each other using language.  On the other hand, a large percentage of people's false beliefs are also the result of other people telling us things that are not true.  Indeed, many wars and genocidal slaughters might have been avoided if people had not been manipulated by the deceptions of unscrupulous leaders.  Whether to avoid political mistakes or just to make wise shopping decisions, it is crucial that we learn as much as possible about when we can believe what other people tell us.

Who is an authority?

For the purposes of this website, we will use the word "authority" to mean anybody whose statements we use as a source of information. Our parents are our first authorities. We may also get information from friends, political or business leaders, teachers, clergy, newspaper reporters and columnists, recognized experts in various fields, people who are famous for some reason, and authors of books. Since we cannot check out every fact for ourselves, much of our knowledge comes from authorities. How can we tell how reliable they are?

We tend to believe what other people say simply because what they say is, in fact, usually true. If a newspaper says a plane crashed, it is almost always true. If a friend says they just came back from the supermarket, it's almost sure to be true. If we ask a stranger what time it is, they will almost always tell us the truth. It is understandable that when we hear a statement from another person, we expect it to be true unless there is some reason to believe otherwise.  But when others do tell us things that aren't true, it can result in considerable harm to us or even cause us to harm others.

Powerful Authorities

People who are in positions of power, like elected officials, administrators, executives, and leaders of various organizations, are often looked up to and their statements often carry a great deal of weight.  At the same time, they often have very strong motives for promoting a certain point of view, whether or not it is accurate.  We have to be very careful about believing what powerful authorities tell us. (more about powerful authorities)

Manipulative Persuasion

If a person has something to gain from persuading us of something, we have to be particularly careful about whether we believe them. Such people may or may not believe what they claim, but their primary purpose in not to inform us of something.  Instead they want to persuade us to buy their product or vote for their candidate, or in some other way get us to do something.  Most of us already know we should be wary of people who have some product or point of view to sell, but  we still get taken in far more often than we should be.

The most common motive for persuasion is money - marketing a product or service like Coca-Cola or Hertz rental cars. Other common situations include the politician trying to get elected, promoters of political or social or religious ideologies, confidence artists, or just people wanting us to do them a favor.

People whose living involves persuasion - sales people, politicians, public relations and advertising experts, and con men, for example, are often very good at it. Mere suspicion will not always be good enough to prevent us from being misled. Sometimes studying their techniques will help us see what is going on, but there will always be new ploys and techniques we haven't run into. Here are some of the ploys I've run into. Considering such cases will help us if we run into similar situations, and it should also make us realize we're not always going to be able to recognize the deceptions that are aimed at us.

People who are sincere but wrong

While the dangers of believing people who have a manipulative agenda are great, we also must recognize that we can often be mislead by people who are totally sincere about what they tell us, but are wrong anyway. Here are some examples of how people can be sincere but wrong:

  • A friend has seen an infomercial for an exercise machine and tells us it will work wonders. The infomercial is manipulative, but the friend is sincere.
  • The leader of the Heaven's Gate cult told the members they should kill themselves so they could join the aliens in the space ship following the Hale-Bopp comet. Both the leader and the cult members obviously sincerely believed this because they actually did kill themselves.
  • Sigmund Freud, recognized at the time as one of the world's greatest psychologists, promoted theories about interpreting dreams that most psychologists now feel have little validity.
  • The author of a book on alternative medicine claims wearing a digital watch will sap your strength.
  • Newspapers originally reported that 5000 people died in the World Trade Center attack when the actual number was about 3000.
  • People usually raise their children to accept their own religious views, but since there are many conflicting religions, most cannot be entirely true.

The unfortunate fact is that we cannot assume what we are told even if the source is absolutely sincere and sane and intelligent. Even very bright people make mistakes. They get caught up on one side of emotionally charged, polarized issues. They get misinformation from sources they thought were reliable. As responsible thinkers we have to be willing to question even sources we think of as normally reliable, or else we risk being wrong ourselves. (more about sincere authorities)

Superficial indicators of wisdom

Since there is considerable power in being able to persuade people of what you would like them to believe, people often use every superficial indicator possible to increase their appearance of reliability. This includes dressing well, speaking with great confidence and sincerity, using intellectual sounding terms and complex sentence structure, quoting famous people, and acting sympathetic to the beliefs and concerns of their audience.

The authority of many of people

One sort of authority is the authority of the masses. If almost everybody around us believes something, we are usually inclined to think it is true. If we look to history, we often find that common public beliefs were wrong. Most likely there are many commonly held beliefs that are wrong today as well. (see Analyzing Arguments and Evidence: Cultural Assumptions)

Authorities we love or hate

If there is an issue that polarizes people into two camps, there is a strong tendency to believe the claims offered by somebody on "our" side and be extremely skeptical of claims offered by people on the "other" side. A variation of this is believing people because they are from a group we feel has been oppressed or otherwise treated unfairly. The fact that someone has been treated badly doesn't mean they are correct.

Similarly we may assume something is false because someone we don't like favors it. If, for example, Hitler felt everyone should drink lots of milk, it wouldn't mean that drinking milk was bad.

Unnamed authorities

We will sometimes hear statements like "Jones has been called the meanest man in Frump County". Even if true, this means nothing if we don't know who called him that. This statement could be technically true if the writer himself said aloud "Jones is the meanest man in Frump County" just before writing the statement. Even a stronger statement like "experts say peanuts cause hair loss" means little as long as the experts are not identified.

Authority of the past

If something has been done a certain way for a long time, we may believe that there must be a good reason for it. Is red wine really better than white wine with red meat? Should we assume somebody very wise in the past came up with that idea? It's more likely to be a pointless tradition. Is good posture really better for your back, or is this just a traditional belief? It's easy to see how this could have become a superstition, but hard to see how it could have been proven.

I suggest the following principle: if a belief or traditional practice cannot be supported on the basis of evidence available today, the fact that it was believed or practiced in the past is of almost no consequence. About all we can say is that the belief did not cause complete failure of the culture that held it (assuming that culture is still around).

Most of the time believing in the authority of the past is the same as making cultural assumptions  (see Analyzing Arguments and Evidence: Cultural Assumptions ).


Sometimes what people tell us is not merely a mistake, but a deliberate lie. Since it is an insult to call a person a liar, we may be tempted to rule this out as an explanation for what they say, but it is foolish not to consider it as a possibility. We should also not assume that a person would not lie because they would get into trouble.  Lots of people lie and, even if caught, get into very little trouble.

Finally we should not assume that we can tell if someone is lying. We may be able to tell in the case of a friend or someone else who is not very skillful at lying, but if a person has risen to a position of importance, it may be partly because he or she is a very skilled liar, and we would not ordinarily be able to tell if they were lying by means of their mannerisms.