Authority Figures in Movies

One of the curious things about the roles of authority figures in movies is that they are very rarely played by people who have ever had any authority. One might think that this wouldn’t have too much of an impact since the actors are just reciting dialog which other people wrote. (People who most of the time haven’t had any authority themselves, but that’s a somewhat separate matter.) And in the end, authority is the ability to use force to compel people, so does it matter much what the mannerisms an actor uses are?

Actually, yes, because in fact a great deal of authority, in practice, is about using social skills to get people to cooperate without having to use one’s authority. And a great deal of social skills are body language, tone of voice, emphasis, and pacing. Kind of like the famous advice given by Dalton in Road House:

For some reason, authority figures are usually portrayed as grim and stern—at this point I think because it’s a shorthand so you can tell who is who—but there is a great deal which can be accomplished by smiling. There’s an odd idea that many people seem to have that smiling is only sincere if it is an instinctual, uncontrollable reaction. I’ve no idea where this crazy notion came from, but in fact smiling is primarily a form of communication. It communicates that one is not (immediately) a threat, that (in the moment) one intends cooperation, that the order of the moment is conversation rather than action. Like all communication it can of course be a lie, but the solution to that is very simple: don’t lie with your smile. Words can be lies, but the solution is not to refrain from speaking unless you can’t help yourself; it’s to tell the truth when one opens one’s mouth. So tell the truth when you smile with your mouth, too. And since actions are choices, one very viable option, if you smile at someone, is to follow through and (in the moment) be nice.

Anyone (sane) who has a dog knows that in many ways they’re terrible creatures. They steal your food, destroy everyday items, throw up on your floor when they’ve eaten things that aren’t food, get dog hair everywhere, and make your couches stink of dog. And yet, people love dogs who do these things to them for a very simple reason: any time you come home, your dog smiles at you and wags its tail and is glad to see you. And it’s human nature that it’s impossible to be angry at someone who is just so gosh darned happy that you’re in the same room as them.

People in authority are rarely there because they have a history of failure and incompetence at dealing with people; it may be a convenient movie shorthand that people in authority are stone-faced, grumpy, and stern, but in real life people in positions of authority are generally friendly. It’s easy to read too much into that friendliness, of course—they’re only friendly so long as you stay on the right side of what you’re supposed to be doing—but this unrealistic movie shorthand makes for far less interesting characters.

And I suppose I should note that there are some people in positions of authority who are often stone-faced and grim, but these are usually the people responsible for administering discipline to those already known to be transgressors. This is especially true of those dealing with children, who have little self control and less of a grasp of the gravity of most situations they’re in and who need all the help they can get in realizing that it’s not play time. By contrast, during the short time I was able to take part in my parish’s prison ministry, I noticed that the prison guards were generally friendly (if guardedly so) with the inmates. Basically, being friendly can invite people to try to take liberties, but being grumpy usually gets far less cooperation, and outside of places like Nazi death camps where you are actually willing to shoot people for being uncooperative, cooperation is usually far more useful than people trying to take liberties and having to be told “no” is inconvenient.

But most of the actors who play authority figures don’t know any of this; and when you research the individual actors they often turn out to be goofballs who don’t like authority and whose portrayal of it is largely formed by what they most dislike about it.

Authoritative Authorities

In my previous post I mentioned that people will use science’s scheme of self-correction as a support of its authority, and that this is utterly confused. In fact, here’s what I said (yes, I’m quoting myself. Think of it as saving you the trouble of clicking on the link):

(It is a matter for another day that people take being wrong as one of the strengths of science, ignoring that a thing which may be wrong cannot be a logical authority, by definition.)

Today is that day.

Before getting into it, I need to qualify what I mean by an authority. There are multiple meanings to the phrase authority, and the most common one—someone such as a king, judge, etc. who should be obeyed and who enforces their will through force—isn’t relevant. I’m using the term “authority” as in the material logical fallacy, “appeal to authority”. Unfortunately, appeal to authority is often misunderstood because it would be much better named “appeal to a false authority”. A true authority, in the logical sense, is  anyone or anything which can be relied upon to only say things which are true. If you actually have one of those, it is not a fallacy to appeal to their statements.

A logical authority may of course remain silent; its defining characteristic is that if it says something, you may rely on the truth of what it says. These are of course hard to come by in this world of sin and woe, and you will find absolutely none which are universally agreed upon. That doesn’t mean anything, since you will find absolutely nothing which is universally agreed upon.

To give some examples of real authorities, Catholics hold that the bible, sacred tradition, the magisterium, and the pope when speaking ex cathedra are all authorities. God has guaranteed us that they will not lead us astray. Muslims hold that the Quran is an authority.

Not everyone believes there exists any authorities at all, of course. Buddhists don’t and neither (ostensibly) do Modern philosophers. If you insist on distinguishing Modern philosophers from Postmodernists, then Postmodernists don’t believe there exist any authorities either. In general, anyone who holds that truth is completely inaccessible will not believe in any authorities.

So we come to Science, and the curious thing is that science explicitly disqualifies itself as an authority. Everything in science is officially a guess which has so far not been disproved by all attempts which have so far been made to disprove it. And yet many people want to treat science as an authority. In some cases this is sheer cognitive dissonance, where people pick what they say on the basis of which argument they’re having at the moment, but in other cases there is an interesting sort of reasoning which is employed.

Both forms tend to piggy-back the bottom 99% of science on the success of (parts of) physics, chemistry, and to a lesser extent some parts of biology. This especially goes together with conflating science and engineering.

The first and stronger sort of argument used is that science may always be subject to disproof, but that after a sufficient amount of testing, any such disproof will be at the margins and not in the main part. The primary example of this is the move from Newtonian mechanics to Relativity, where the two differ by less than our ability to measure at most energies and speeds we normally interact with.

The problem with this argument is that there is relatively little of science to which it actually applies. Physics is rare in that most physicists study a relatively small of phenomena. There are less than two hundred types of atoms, and less than two dozen elementary particles, and apparently no more than three forces. So thousands of physicists all work on basically the same stuff. (It’s not literally the same stuff, of course; physicists carve out niches, but these are small niches, and often rely on the more common things in a way where they would be likely to detect errors.) This is simply not true of other fields in science. You can study polar bears all your life and never do anything which tells you about the mating habits of zebra fish. You can study glucose metabolism for five decades straight without even incidentally learning anything about how DNA replication is error-checked. You can spend ten lifetimes in psychology doing studies where you ask people to rate perceptions on a scale of 1 to 10 and never learn anything about anything at all.

The result is that in most fields outside of physics and (to a lesser extent) chemistry, theories are not being constantly tested and re-tested by most people’s work. In some of the fluffier fields like human nutrition and psychology—where controlled experiments are basically unethical and in some cases may not even be theoretically possible—they may not even be tested the first time.

The second and weaker argument is that science is the best that we have, and so we must treat it as an authority. This is very frequently simply outright wrong. In fields where performing controlled experiments is unethical, science consists of untested guesses where the people making the guesses had a strong financial and reputational incentive to make interesting guesses, as well as often a strong financial incentive to make guesses which justify government policies that the government would like to do anyway. But that only counts if the financial incentive is provided by tobacco companies or weightloss companies. Other financial incentives leave people morally pure because most scientists have them.

Actually, there is a third argument too, though it’s almost never stated explicitly. A lot of people work hard in science and believe that they’re doing good work, so it would be rude to doubt them. This is, basically, a form of weaponized politeness. The sad truth is that lots of scientists aren’t more honest than other people, lots of scientists aren’t smart, and lots of scientists are wasting their time. It’s mean to say that. Sometimes the truth hurts. It always sucks when honesty and politeness are enemies, but if a person prefers politeness to honesty, he’s a liar, and there’s nothing to be said to him except that he’s working to make the world a worse place and should stop.

Ultimately, of course, the real reason science is held to be an authority—as opposed to a potential source of truth which must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis because a scientific theory is only as good as the evidence behind it—is because this is a cultural thing. People need authorities in order to feel secure, and if they won’t believe in the right authorities they will believe in the wrong authorities.

Awful Authorities

I was reading an article by Richard Dawkins about why there is almost certainly no God. It’s impressive in how aggressively he misunderstands the subject matter, but it’s even more impressive how much he misunderstands what people have said about it. The way that he casually assumes he completely understands scholastic terminology—as if the scholastic philosophers like Aquinas were writing in conversational English—is a masterwork of arrogant stupidity, to be sure, but that’s not what I want to talk about. It would also be interesting to consider Dawkins as a Martin Luther Lite—Martin Luther was both supremely arrogant and not very bright—but at the moment I’m more interested in the people who accept Dawkins as an authority on religious matters. (I mean authority in the logical sense; to accept his characterization of an opponent’s arguments instead of reading those arguments in full in their original context is to accept Dawkins as an authority in this sense.)

To anyone capable of understanding brilliant thinkers like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Nietzsche, or Heidegger, Richard Dawkins is notable only for how utterly average he is. To put it colloquially, as a philosopher, he’d probably make an OK—but not great—bricklayer. An intelligent atheist who has studied philosophy and religion would be embarrassed by Richard Dawkins. So why do so many people respect and follow him?

The answer lies, I think, in how varying intelligence levels relate to intelligibility. This is especially observable in how people of varying intelligence levels follow arguments. Logical arguments for non-trivial things are very rarely made with every step in the argument being stated explicitly. It would take far too long, and explicitly stating connections between statements which are obvious makes an explanation seem dull, plodding, and even insulting. But which connections are obvious and which need to be stated explicitly depends on both the intelligence and the knowledge of the person trying to follow the argument. (For brevity, I will concentrate on the intelligence side of that, though the reality is more complicated because of the knowledge dimension, but the generalization from intelligence to intelligence-and-knowledge is relatively straight-forward.)

While explaining steps in an argument which are obvious to the reader can make the argument ponderous and boring, omitting steps which the reader cannot supply will make the argument entirely unintelligible. People can’t explain something at a higher level of intelligence than what they possess and most people will naturally explain an argument at the level of detail which they don’t find ponderous.  Now, while I think that intelligence is distributed among the population more like a poisson distribution than a bell curve, even if it is a bell curve, the inability to read (by lack of mental capacity, not whether one has been taught) forms a lower-level cutoff even to a bell curve, so either way, there is a large fraction of the population which is towards the effective bottom of the intelligence scale.

Given all of this, the most natural thing in the world is for people popular among people of average intelligence to be very slightly above them in intelligence. The slight edge will give them things to explain, but being very close means that (without much effort) their explanations will be intelligible. It is of course possible for a more intelligent person to condescend (in the etymological sense of the world—to come down and be with) to his less intelligent brethren; G.K. Chesterton is a great example of this because he was both  brilliant and quite popular. Still, the gift to understand people unlike oneself is relatively rare, as is the gift of being a good writer, and these two together with the willingness to expend the energy to condescend are rarer still. Still, it does happen, and so popularity does not give us any ability to predict the intelligence of the popular person.

But this does make Richard Dawkins’ popularity intelligible. A person who is in no position to judge whether Dawkins is right about religion will get the pleasure of being presented an intelligible thing, which can be convincing if it is in no way thought about. The less intelligent a person is, the more effort it takes to think about whether new information is congruent with what else is known about the world, making it especially unlikely for a person of average intelligence to think about whether Dawkins’ explanation is not only self-consistent but also consistent with the rest of the world.

Thus what Dawkins is doing may be regarded as a sort of unintentional seduction. His poor understanding has some explanatory power which is made very intelligible by it having been assembled specifically to appeal to an average intellect (his). It is then explained in a very intelligible way because he explains it at the ideal pace for a person of average intellect to understand it (i.e. at the pace he would want to read it).

This suggests that the best way to counter it is by presenting arguments which are similarly maximally intelligible to people of average intelligence. This is quite distinct from the strongest arguments against Dawkins’ position, and this is why I am leary about relying too heavily on cosmological arguments. They are incredibly powerful, but they are not simple. They rely on things like understanding that there cannot be an actual infinite regress. I love the argument from contingency, and in fact when I teach The Catholic Moral System in RCIA that is my starting point precisely because we can learn so much about God from it. But if people don’t always perfectly follow it, still, when I speak about the conclusions like God existing outside of time and space, or that God is perfectly happy and doesn’t need us, or that God’s relationship to us is one of pure gift from Him to us with no reciprocity, it works for them to take my word for it that this is catholic dogma, or even to recognize the truths as true once stated as the verbal formulation of something already intuitively known. They wouldn’t be in the Rite of Catholic Initiation for Adults if they didn’t already believe the faith is true, or at least very strongly suspect it (people are welcome to use RCIA to learn more about the faith and drop out if they think it was a mistake).

When it comes to people who are skeptical about the faith, I think that they will generally need something which they can not only accept, but something which they can fully recognize as true. For that reason, I don’t think that the argument from contingency (or other cosmological arguments) are the ideal way to go in arguing with most atheists. A much more intuitive argument is the argument from design, but since one of the pillars of Dawkinsian atheism is a creation myth based on the scientific theory of evolution plus a little astronomy, the argument from design is much less effective than it should be.

(I should mention that I’m not talking about a god of the gaps argument like you find supported by people like Michael Behe in Darwin’s Black Box. Rather, I mean that if you look at the world, it is imperfect but in the main rationally ordered according to a hierarchy of being. A hierarchy implies that there is something at the top. More colloquially: the universe looks like a work of art, and art implies an artist.)

Since this very natural proof for God is no longer very effective, I think that a better approach would be to argue from morality. This is an argument which is not yet well developed. Atheists generally dismiss the version of it which runs, “why would you be good if you weren’t afraid of going to hell”, and indeed this is not a great argument, though the way that the atheists dismiss it is worse. “I don’t need God to be good,” Christopher Hitchens famously said, and it would have sounded better if it wasn’t coming from a drunkard who abandoned the mother of his children to take up with another woman. But in any event this misses the point, because no one ever asked atheists how they will do something moral if they happen to feel like doing it, but why they would do it even if they don’t feel like doing it. I’ve never yet heard an answer to that question, except a few indignant yet half-hearted attempts to prove that everyone feels like doing the right thing in all cases. (Except the mentally ill, who should be medically treated, of course.)

That being said, despite the weakness of the atheist answer to even a childish argument from morality, I think that a more adult form of it would be vastly better. In particular, the fact that we recognize morality at all means that the world matters. The existence of morality proves that the world is real and not reducible to the meaningless arrangement of sub-atomic particles that New Atheists would have us believe. The New Atheists have a number of just-so stories to explain away morality as post-hoc rationalizations for instinctual behavior, but that’s obviously not true, and in general I don’t think that these arguments could persuade even a child. Work is needed, to be sure, to explain how morality is necessarily tied to God, but I suspect if done well this line of argumentation is more likely to be persuasive to the sort of person who finds Dawkins credible on religion.