I was on the beach, and in one day my dream vacation became a desperate search for an authority that could tell me the truth about what was going on.
It should have been fun! I was in Bali, Indonesia, soaking up the sun and finishing a nice long vacation before going back to my job in China. But one day, my friends in Canada started messaging me about a virus in Wuhan (one province over from where I was working). It was mostly jokes at first, back when the idea of wearing a mask everywhere seemed funny. Suddenly, China declares it’s going to close its borders, and things aren’t so funny anymore. I head to a pharmacy, thinking maybe masks aren’t such a bad idea, but it’s only the end of January and they’re already sold out.
So here I am, sitting in a hotel room overlooking the ocean, deciding if I should go back to China, and maybe get stuck there during a pandemic, or should I abandon my job, my apartment, and all my possessions and go straight home to Canada?
We all face tough choices every day, and when you don’t know what to do, who do you listen to? I was stuck looking for answers. I had to sift through all this garbage online, from random message boards to Chinese government press releases. I don’t think I have ever been so unsure about what was true, and I really didn’t know what to believe. So it leads to the pressing question of our times, who has the authority to tell you what is true? Who should you decide to listen to?
TLDR: You choose who you give the authority to tell you what is true, give it to whoever is held most accountable for telling the truth (if you didn’t already guess, it’s probably scientists).
First off, let’s clear some things up about authority. Claiming to have authority doesn’t make you right. I’m sure we have all encountered the incredibly frustrating experience of someone, usually older than you, telling you “Because I said so,” when you ask why. This is called an appeal to authority and it’s a pretty common trick that you’ve probably seen online. Maybe you have heard of “Qanon”, which is probably the wildest and most unrealistic appeal to authority ever created. A random internet user claimed to be an upper-level government official (an authority) and used that to “prove” their fanfic about Trump personally taking down a satanic cannibal cult. Almost half of fake news uses this tactic to try and trick you, either by pretending to speak from authority or pretending to be someone who has it, so keep an eye out! (1)
So for me, sitting on the beach and wondering what country I was going to live in next week, I was looking for an authoritative source of info and trying not to get fooled by appeals to authorities from fake news (Scientist reveals Bill Gates planned it all along!) This was early enough that I had to listen to a lot of news from the Chinese government, but I think looking back, it is pretty fair to say that they used their authority to suppress the truth instead of spread it. (2)
You might wonder, what’s the big deal? Who cares what information you listen to? Well, many of my coworkers listened to the voices saying that COVID was no big deal, or well contained in Wuhan. All of them returned to China, and some faced 2 months of complete quarantine. This wasn’t like in Canada where the government politely asked us to stay home, some of them were not able to leave their apartment, even for groceries, for an entire month. Luckily for me, I ended up back home in Canada, even if I showed up in Toronto in February wearing shorts and flip-flops.
So this far, it doesn’t look good for the role of authority in truth. Is it all cover-ups and logical fallacies?
I think the role of authority can really do some good when it comes to the truth. Some scholars even argue that appeals to authority aren’t a fallacy at all, as long as the person actually has expertise. (3) Look at it this way, if you give the same value to random Instagram comments that you do to scientific studies, you’ll never be able to make any decisions. If I had treated news from the World Health Organization, news from the Chinese government, and comments I read online saying that it was all made up as the exact same, I’d still be stuck on that beach, wondering if it was real. If we want to make decisions then we have to value some opinions more than others, but how do you decide who is an authority?
First, I’d argue that you give someone authority to tell you what is true. You decide that they are worth listening to. But why should you give them that authority? I think you should do it based on accountability. It’s pretty simple when someone is held accountable and faces consequences if they tell a lie, then they probably won’t lie very much. So let’s think for a second, who is accountable for what they say? Someone running their own blog or YouTube channel has almost no accountability, they can say whatever they want with no consequences. What about governments? Some, like Canada, have quite a bit of accountability, others, like authoritarian governments, have almost none.
So let’s start at the top, science, which includes scientists, peer-reviewed journals, and groups like the World Health Organization. Basically, science has the most accountability due to the peer-review process (where other scientists verify what they said is true). Scientists are even held accountable for the work that other authors contribute to their papers. (4) Of course, this doesn’t mean that scientists are always right, or even that they always agree, but it does mean they are unlikely to purposefully lie to you, which you can’t say for all sources of information!
Now let’s drop down a tier and compare this with governments and politicians. If they say something untrue, does anything happen? Sometimes. Politicians often make campaign promises that they never follow through on, but ultimately they are accountable to voters and can be removed from office. However, governments might twist the truth for various reasons (national security, national pride, trying to avoid a panic), so it is always good to be critical. In fact, studies have shown that trusting the government too much can make you more susceptible to untruths, while trusting science actually makes you less susceptible to lies and misinformation. (5)
How about the media? In general, the media is held accountable by a combination of public pressure (6) and government oversight. (7) There are also journalistic standards that most news outlets will try to uphold, and journalists and editors are likely to lose their jobs if they report lies. A credible news organization will even retract stories they have run that turned out to be incorrect, which can be a good way to determine if they deserve your trust. But not all news is created equal! Some fringe news outlets with an agenda to push are likely to ignore these standards, so you have to do your research. It’s also worth thinking about whether news outlets are more accountable to who provides their funding (corporate sponsors, ads, donations, the government) than the truth.
So to recap, scientific journals and organizations, representative governments, and well-respected media outlets are all pretty accountable sources. When they get something wrong, someone has to pay for it. In contrast, things like YouTube channels and anonymous posts online face zero repercussions if they are lying, so you need to really question what they are telling you, especially if it conflicts with what more accountable sources are saying.
Now maybe you’ve asked yourself, what if someone has no accountability at all, but what they are saying is true? What if a guy on a street corner yells that the earth is round, does that mean I should believe it's flat? Like anything, there are no easy answers. Scientists can be wrong and people with no accountability can be right. So here is the thing, accountability is a starting point when you are looking at information. It’s a way to ask yourself, is this even worth reading? You can look at the source, question whether they will face consequences if they are lying and use that to figure out how much faith you will put in what they are saying.
Unfortunately, sometimes there are no clear-cut answers and you’re going to have to piece together the truth from a ton of different sources, both good and bad. And that’s exactly what I did. I’d love to tell you that I read nothing but The New England Journal of Medicine when I decided to come home, but I was messaging my friends, reading posts online, and everything I could get my hands on. Luckily, this included the World Health Organization, and they declared a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” back when most of us hadn’t even heard of COVID yet. (8) Since they would be held very accountable if they were wrong, I let it guide me more than all the other stuff I read, and I think looking back I made the right call by coming home.
I know this won’t be the last time that I, or any of us, will be faced with tough decisions and conflicting information. When the time comes again, who will you listen to?