The story of Abraham and Isaac is probably the most shocking example of submissiveness to authority in the written records of our civilization. However, this tragedy is rarely used as an illustration of blind obedience to a mindlessly cruel authority. Our hierarchical society instinctively defends the privilege possessed by authorities and trusts them even in fields such as science, where self-criticism is the highest value.
In the animal kingdom, the mechanisms of obedience and blind imitation have biologically justified functions. Looking at animal behaviour may therefore, paradoxically, allow us greater insights into this human tendency.
Authority on the Savannah and in the Cage
In his classic book On Aggression, Konrad Lorenz describes the various means of transferring information from generation to generation among animals. The most widespread of these is genetic transfer, but more developed animals can also pass on information that is valuable for survival through social learning. For example, rats can pass on information about the smell of poisoned food through several dozen generations. First, the pack leader approaches the food and sniffs it. If he thinks the food is poisoned, he leaves it. The remaining rats then approach the food and sniff it in order to remember the smell. Finally, they mark the food with urine and faeces to warn others that it is unsuitable for eating. They even do this when the food is in a place where it is difficult to leave such markings. If the food were poisoned, but the leader didn’t recognise the smell, he would probably pay with his life. But a rat who survived such an adventure would be one smell wiser than his predecessor. In this way, through blind imitation of authority, rats are not only able to survive under difficult conditions, despite the traps and ambushes set for them, but they become ever wiser, since they don’t rely exclusively on that very slow mechanism for transferring information we call inheritance.
Social animals often mimic authority figures. This was graphically illustrated by an experiment Lorenz carried out on a group of captive monkeys. An carefully designed container, which contained visible bananas that were difficult to extract, was placed in the monkeys’ cage. Despite numerous attempts, none of the monkeys were able to extract the bananas. One monkey, who occupied a low position in the social hierarchy, was isolated from the group and taught how to extract the bananas from the container. Once she had mastered this to perfection, she was returned to the cage with the remaining monkeys. She extracted and ate the delicacies before their very eyes, but none of the other monkeys followed suit. The researchers then did the same thing with the leader of the group. They isolated him, taught him how to use the equipment and put him back in the cage. When the group’s unquestioned authority figure began taking bananas out of the container, the remaining monkeys observed his actions closely and soon all the animals were able to access the food without difficulty.
That experiment may hold the key to understanding authority in humans, even in such sophisticated fields as science. What is striking is that the monkeys did not even try to imitate the monkey who had the requisite knowledge, but did not occupy a sufficiently high social position to be an authority figure. In this case, we can conclude that the mechanism of imitating authority is non-adaptable. This is how it appears in the monkey cage, where the researchers interfered with the natural functioning of the group. Under natural conditions, imitation of individuals occupying low positions in the hierarchy is probably non-adaptable. The animals at the top of the hierarchy possess far greater levels of strength, fitness, knowledge and ability to learn than average members of the group. These high competences assure them the appropriate social positions, and these positions are continually verified by the surrounding environmental conditions, which uncover any pretence or falsehood. The two ingredients of authority—competence and position—therefore merge, and following a dominant individual has the same meaning as imitating the most competent individual.
The researchers managed to separate those two ingredients and show that, under artificial conditions, in which factors other than the natural play a role, position takes priority over competence. The environment that man has modified and adapted to his own needs—like the cage in which those revealing experiments were conducted—has long since ceased to be a gauge of knowledge and experience. Today, the strongest influence on us is that of celebrities—people famous for being famous, who differentiate themselves from us almost exclusively by their ability to remain the centre of attention. Despite this, we follow them as unthinkingly as if they possessed the knowledge of several dozen previous generations. They have a significantly greater influence over whether thousands of parents vaccinate their children than most professors of medicine. Together with poorly educated politicians—rather than professors of genetics or biology—they will decide whether genetically modified food will solve the problem of global hunger. Climate change, which we are already experiencing, unambiguously shows how we treat those who possess knowledge without social prestige.
When Authority Parts Ways from Wisdom
But what does this have to do with science, the only form of human activity that arose as the result of ceaseless improvements in the methods for counteracting the human tendency to self-delusion? Unfortunately, science is by no means an exception to this tendency. Most representatives of the world of science would agree that there is no place for democracy in science: a single individual is frequently more correct than the scientific establishment as a whole. However, a college janitor who has formulated a correct theorem has no chance of rivalling a professor, who may have an empty mind, but who, like a celebrity, is able to shape his career in such a way that he is the centre of attention in the academic world. The representatives of that world will follow him.
This was demonstrated many years ago by the data collected by a team of researchers from MIT, led by Pierre Azoulay. The team set out to test Max Planck’s famous assertion that “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” The results of subsequent papers published under the telling title “Does Science Advance One Funeral at a Time?” supplied the gloomy proof: the death of each scientific authority figure ensures the progress of science and the best thing an eminent scientist can do to advance science is to die.
The MIT team showed that, when academic stars die, publications authored by researchers who had not worked with the deceased increase by an average of 8.6%. Work published by scientists outside the circles of such authority figures has a significantly greater impact on the entire discipline and is more frequently cited than the research of academics closely associated with the stars. Azoulay argues that it is not the existence of scientific authority figures per se that hampers scientific progress, but the fact that, once they reach the top of their fields, such authority figures tend to stay there too long, surrounded by their faithful students. The current rise in the average age of academics and the longer average span of professional activity do not bode well for science.
The Takeover of the Pawns
So, is there a way to safely separate the two seemingly inseparable ingredients of authority: competence and social position? Yes. This ability was a little known discovery, stemming from the time when we lived in gatherer tribes. Anthropologist Christopher Boehm argues that the idea that gatherer tribes are not hierarchical is mistaken. Hierarchical behaviours did not disappear among gatherers—they just took a different form. He proposes the hypothesis that, in gatherer tribes, the group as a whole would keep the dominant male under strict control, rather than vice versa. He has successfully tested this hypothesis worldwide, in many different societies that are acknowledged to be egalitarian. He argues that such people do not lack the tendency towards domineering behaviour, characteristic of large anthropoids, but express it in a different manner.
Boehm’s research draws on a large sample of food gatherers and members of primitive tribes to reveal that moral sanctions are used to neutralise the tendency towards dominance hierarchies in groups considered to be egalitarian. He characterises the ability to conform, which influences the extent to which a group is hierarchical, as “domination by pawns,” emphasising that, among gatherers, the suppression of individualism and hierarchy is conscious and intentional. However, how can we suppress hierarchism without depriving the group of individuals with above average competencies?
In Boehm’s opinion, those tribes that consider any use of power outside of the family to be morally reprehensible and define the political relationship between adult males as equal also recognise the value of the individual and actively encourage individual rivalry in such competences as hunting or conflict with other tribes. They often acknowledge a group guide and endow him with special status, but only as long as he does not abuse that power. They can therefore submit to an expert during hunting or fighting, but not only do not award that expert the status of leader, but stifle all attempts at domination.
From the Village Marketplace to Social Media
Is there a place for domination by pawns in science? I am sceptical, though I have not completely given up hope of this. The representatives of the most self-critical sphere of human activity have just as much love of the trappings of hierarchy as any other group of people. In addition, in science—and especially in my discipline, psychology—it is impossible to deprive a scientific celebrity of her authority if she turns out to be a fraud, yet it is all too easy to destroy the career of a young scientist, who has not yet made a name for himself, if he points out the mistakes of those in authority.
The scientific crisis predates our century. In psychology, for example, Jacob Cohen has been drawing attention to the problems of testing zero hypotheses since the 1960s—warnings that went ignored until recently. Leroy Wolins and several of his successors proposed making raw research data more accessible nearly half a century ago—yet most academics still remain hostile to the idea. Ever since Sir Cyril Burt’s famous fraud in the 1970s, there have been new revelations of the fabrication of data by psychologists every couple of years. The problems caused by the drawer effect—aversion to publishing negative research results—have been talked about since at least the 1970s. John Hunter published an article entitled “The Desperate Need for Replications” in 2000, several years before the announcement of the replication crisis. Despite all this, over the course of the last decade, most scientific authority figures have fought to preserve the status quo and rejected all proposals for change.
But there is a glimmer of hope: the open science movement. This movement began in the seventeenth century, when the social need for access to scientific knowledge reached a point at which it became essential for groups of scientists to share their discoveries. The first scientific journals were published as a result of that need. The behaviour of the supporters of open science resembles the behaviour of egalitarians attempting to suppress the dominance aspirations of alpha individuals—transferred from the village marketplace to social media. They demand access to raw data, they replicate experiments, they verify methodology and, like members of gatherer tribes, they discuss attempts at fraud openly and publicly. Despite the fact that they are part of a tradition dating back to the seventeenth century, proponents of open science are often decried as “methodological terrorists,” “replication bullies”, “data detectives” and “false positive police”. They are still in a minority among scientists, although, over the last few years, their significance has steadily increased. If gatherer tribes were able to subdue the behaviour of dominant individuals, using the domination of pawns, and create and maintain egalitarian societies without precedent in the history of mankind, perhaps this approach could help science distinguish authority figures who possess real wisdom from those who are simply exploiting their social positions? I hope so. Because distinguishing wisdom from authority is one of the most pressing needs in science.