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Authority and Transcendence

Right now on TV they are having a special on the infamous Milgram experiment (link) which reminded me of a post I had in mind to write a couple of days ago.  The Milgram’s experiment puts to shame and disgrace the asinine, arrogant, and smug assertions of atheists that, “With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”  (Cogito quoting Weinberg). 

No, you really don’t.  And actually, since when do atheists possess an objective measure of ‘evil’?  What the Milgram experiment shows is that all you really need is an authority figure and participants that are used to deferring to the judgement and orders of that figure.  The Milgram experiment did not have ‘scientists’ justifying themselves based on religious scriptures or authorities.  In fact, apart from being a cautionary tale about the danger in general of deferring to authority, it is actually a very telling warning sign to my secular humanist friends that the deference to scientists in particular may be even more vulnerable to exploitation- and really, can we be so certain that they won’t exploit their positions of ‘authority’?

Secular Humanists try to paint themselves as free-thinkers who would never do something evil because they are enlightened, but what the Milgram experiment shows is that they absolutely would.  Having devoted nearly three paragraphs on this you might think that this is my point, but it’s not.  It’s related, but actually I want to build on it.

Consider this example.  Synopsis:

“Between 1977 and 1982, four doctors and a social worker at the Children’s Hospital of Oklahoma, in Oklahoma City, monitored the births of babies with myelomeningocele (the medical term for spina bifida). Parents who were poor were told that it would not be appropriate to treat their baby and given an extremely pessimistic picture of their child’s future life. Parents from better-off families were told more about the treatments for spina bifida and given more optimistic – and more accurate – information about their child’s potential.

None of the parents knew they were part of an experiment. Parents who were assigned to the “pessimistic outcome” group chose, by a factor of nearly five to one, not to have their babies treated. The experiment was not conducted to prove that babies with spina bifida will die if they are not treated. Doctors already knew that. The goal of the experiment was to prove that the families would accept a “do-not-treat” recommendation from their doctors.

It was no coincidence that the babies who died were the children of poor parents.”

24 children died in this event.  Again, like the Milgram experiment, it did not take ‘religion’ to take good people and make them do bad things.   The medical establishment is actually pretty aware of this and in my experience wields its power carefully.  But what this incident helps to expose, along with the Milgram experiment, is that there is absolutely no reason in the world that we should leave the scientific community to self-police.

For one thing, take some time some time to review the curriculums of various university science programs.  I’ve taken a look at some big name universities and there rarely were examples of students having to take actual coursework in ethics.  For that matter, I didn’t see much by way of straight logic, either.  One presumes (and hopes) that these are integrated in various ways into the classes themselves, but even so it does not follow that any given doctor or scientist is going to behave ethically.

I can see a medical professional or a scientist reading this blog and cringing, worried that my position is a threat to them.  Good.  They ought to cringe.  But I think many others would understand that what I’m doing is identifying how they might be a threat to the rest of us.  An argument from authority is a logical fallacy, and to the degree that it is proper to trust experts and authorities to a certain extent, these experts and authorities are humans, just like the rest of us.  For one thing, that means that the rest of us may know how to think for ourselves just fine, thank you very much, and furthermore, it’s not their loved one being exposed to risk.  Could you really sleep at night, having made a decision based on bad information, bad logic, or bad eithics, with the argument “Well, the guy who suggested this was wearing a white lab coat.” ?

It is a simple matter of checks and balances.   There is no reason to believe that those who have been specifically trained in medicine or other sciences are also well informed on morals and ethics.   It is good that the scientific community answers to the larger population.  It may be a blow to their egos, but unquestioning acceptance of the judgement of any person in authority has been shown time and time again to be very dangerous.  This is true of course about religious authorities, but it is very clear that non-religious authorities can perform the same abuses.  What do the two examples have in common?  Deference to authority.

In conclusion, then, we must understand that while it is generally good for society that we obey our authorities, authority does not speak to a qualitiative difference between us.  Our judges, our police officers, our pastors, our doctors, and yes, even our atheistic scientists, are all just people.  In the grand scheme of things, they have absolutely no authority over any of us that we don’t give them.  And this is where transcendence comes in.

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  1. […] I have to think that Google is the great equalizer here.  I’m sure both men are suitably skeptical of what could be found on Google and whether or not this material would make any sense to others… like me.  But I already know a bit about both men and about some of these procedures that I doubt they expected me to glean.  Sure, there is a learning curve, and sure, I’m never going to be capable of doing any of the operations.  But I think this well illustrates one of my personal principles by which I live:  don’t underestimate anyone’s ability to learn anything that they’re willing to put their mind to and don’t overestimate anyone’s abilities, either.  People can make mistakes.  Even the most brilliant among us can make mistakes.  Einstien is said to be wrong about Quantum Mechanics, for example.  And people don’t always have pure motives either.  (see this link to see what I mean.  See this link for another blog entry I did on that link, though slightly different topic.). […]

  2. […] are especially more logical or rational than anyone else… or more ethical.  For example in this entry here I discuss how more than two dozen spina bifida babies died in an experiment to see to what extent […]

  3. […] they are especially more logical or rational than anyone else… or more ethical. For example in this entry here I discuss how more than two dozen spina bifida babies died in an experiment to see to what extent […]

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