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The Anti-Authority Authority [A Doctor’s Disclaimer]

I’ve begun reading Robert “Bob” Sears’ The Vaccine Book. Despite what you might be thinking, the impetus to begin learning more about baby (and child) vaccine’s actually came from my wife. I’m not always obsessed with needing for info!

Having just started the book (Just finished reading Stumbling on Happiness), I was immediately struck by a paragraph in the Preface which not only plays the skeptic to doctors generally, but also disclaims the authority of the writer. It’s this anti-authority slant, where someone who is perceived as an authority casts doubt on himself and other perceived experts, that I find so important*. In the field of medicine, where the egos of doctors are bigger than the size XL scrubs they so frequently don, this sort of disclaimer strikes me as particularly unusual, but nice to see!

Some people feel that vaccine books aren’t necessary; after all, why not just ask your doctor if vaccines are abolutely necessary and safe and leave it at that? It takes all of one minute, then you’re done. no research or effort on your part is needed. Here’s the problem with that approach. Doctors, myself included, learn a blot about diseases in medical school, but we learn very little about vaccines, other than the fact that hte FDA and pharmaceutical companies do extensive research on vaccines to make sure they are safe and effective. We don’t review the research ourselves. We never learn what goes into making vaccines or how their safety is studied. We trust and take it for granted that the proper researchers are doing their jobs. So, when patients want a little more information about shots, all we can really say as doctors is that the diseases are bad and the shots are good. But we don’t know enough to answer all of your detailed questions about vaccines. …

Even though vaccines are important, you as a parent are still entitled to know what you are giving your child. you have a responsibility (and a desire) to make informed health care decisions for your family.

*Notably, a real slick charlatan knows the importance of this disclaimer, too, so it’s by no means an “all clear” indicator that the disclaiming expert actually knows anything.


Transcending the Authority Complex

Creative Commons License photo credit: escolanomade

In researching Erwan Le Corre’s MovNat (Ref: Le Corre Link Repository) I continue circling back to two related concepts. The first is the idea of the “guru” and the second is human tendency to defer to authority, a problem I’m calling the authority complex.

We homo sapiens—enlightened apes—face a dilemma of awareness. The more we know about the world, the more we realize that we are little more than the by-products of our DNA’s self-perpetuating existence on a tiny planet that could disappear tomorrow without any noticeable impact on our galaxy (to say nothing of the Universe). There’s a sense of futility that arises from this awareness, our existential angst, which is probably why we so rarely think about it.

So we shelve our angst and continue living. It is our biological imperative, after all. It is in this living that we seek answers to all sorts of questions to improve our lives. Do I have kids? How do I best support my family? How can I be a better parent, friend, spouse? How do I increase my wealth (Some ideas)? What should I do with my career? What should I eat? How do I find happiness? What is my purpose? How should I live?

Our hunger for “the” answer to any particular question leads us to seek out gurus. A guru need not be a spiritual leaders (even as many “experts” often a distinct “spiritual” flair); today “guru” means more “expert” or “authority” on any given subject. On the Internet alone, I have plenty of go-to gurus on health, fitness, politics, and economics, all of whom I “follow” on a regular basis via Google Reader. It seems that gurus like to blog.

To some extent, I play the role guru (Don’t we all?). People ask me about diet, the economy, and technology. It feels good to be considered an expert, even as I secretly confess how very little I really know.

Whether we get answers directly from observation of the world combined with introspection/reflection or we turn to others—the gurus, experts, or authorities—our questions will get answered, and this can sometimes be a problem.

“If you meet the Buddha on the way, kill him!” — Zen proverb
Creative Commons License photo credit: woordenaar

If it is answers we want, then it is answers we will receive. Of course, many of the answers we receive from consulting authority, which includes not just the gurus but also established traditions, religions, science, theories, etc., will be right. Unfortunately, many others will be wrong, and the trouble lies in telling the difference.

The tendency of deference to authority is what I’m calling the “authority complex*.” I think we are all affected by the authority complex. We’ve all drank the “Guru-ade” from time to time, and our only assured defense against this problem is awareness that it exists. It reminds me of an idea (probably a bad one) for a bumper sticker stating the imperative to “Question Authority!”

Why? It always comes back to this.

As much as we all want to find truth, many of the most important questions are simply unanswerable with any certainty. Even when we think we’ve figured things out, it is often only a matter of time and testing before our understanding is refined, corrected, and improved. This unanswerable quality applies to all understanding, be it scientific queries or more philosophical questions such as ascribing meaning to our lives. Beyond many questions just being unavoidably open-ended, there is the sense that whatever answers you seek are intrinsically dependent on you and not things that can be prescribed by some one-size-fits-all authority. Even supposing truths are discovered, how likely is it that an authority will be able to convey clearly to others the knowledge they’ve acquired from a lifetime of experience and learning?

Question authority. That is the imperative that arises from awareness of the authority complex. More pointedly, we must be critical of gurus and authorities who claim to have the answers because scarcely any claim is more telling that these so-called experts are no such thing. If you find the buddha, kill him (Nietzsche said something similar in Thus Spake Zarathustra as I recall). The point, as I take it, is that when you think you have all the answers, you most assuredly do not. Any philosophy, religion, or other authority that fails to account for the authority complex is at best incomplete.

Question authority! Question everything. Even if our questions remain forever unanswered, it is the asking that works to define our lives.

Finally, to bring these thoughts full circle, Erwan Le Corre is an emerging guru who seeks to rehabilitate humans suffering from modern day domestication, which is to say he seeks to set human beings free. I wonder if the authority complex is the fundamental barrier to human freedom. Perhaps if we can transcend the complex, even as we fail to find our answers, we might find a freedom that brings us peace.

* My first blog was “autodogmatic,” which is a made-up word that essentially captures the problem of human tendency to defer to authority.

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Jon Stewart vs. Jim Cramer


Just watched the showdown between Jim Cramer and Jon Stewart from The Daily Show on Comedy Central last night. It’s worth watching if you’ve kept up with the back and forth and the original CNBC takedown by Stewart (See Jon Stewart Throttles CNBC).

I enjoy Stewart’s ongoing crusade against network television. He has similarly gone after CNN (Crossfire) for being more about entertainment than about reporting. Stewart is clearly in a better position to throw stones as he can pull apart the mistakes (and there are many) of the mainstream media; however, he is doing hard reporting. That it gets the networks up in arms is a testament to Stewart’s progress.

Having said that, I think there is a bigger picture that is widely being overlooked. That is that media outlets usurp individual authority on a very subtle and sinister level. Many Americans outsource their own analysis and thinking to these talking heads on tv. Ultimately, it is the Americans who put their trust in Cramer, who go to Fox News for “facts” and come away with more opinions, and who fail to take responsibility for their own behaviors and perpetuate their own victimized demise.

So even as I like how Stewart is going after the networks, I think the fingers should be pointed elsewhere — at the American people.

It is for that reason that the below clip, which is from around the 17 / 18 minute mark of the Hulu/Yahoo TV 21 minute snippet from last night, is fantastic.

Secondarily, I think Cramer’s explanation of how they were essentially duped into thinking 35:1 leverage ratios were okay is spot-on — at least, it fits extremely well with the business cycle argument that excess credit leads to seemingly prosperous or booming times. These booms more-or-less trick investors/businessmen/entrepreneurs into believing that things are fundamentally sound and returns will continue going up in perpetuity. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and beyond the infomercials that try and tell you otherwise, we human beings should realize when someone is trying to sell us snake oil!

So here we have some actually solid television programming — on a tv station that is centered around laughs.

JON STEWART: Honest or not, in what world is a 35 to 1 leverage position sane?

CRAMER: The world that made you 30% year after year after year from 1999 to 2007 . . .

STEWART: But isn’t that part of the problem. Selling this idea that you don’t have to do anything. Any time you sell people the idea that, “Sit back and you’ll get 20% on your money,” don’t you always know that that’s going to be a lie? When are we going to realize in this country that our wealth is work? That we’re workers. And by selling this idea that, “Hey man I’ll teach you how to be rich!” How is that different than an infomercial?