ECONOMY - 15 SEP 2015

Authority Bias: To Question or Not to Question

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Some weeks back, an interesting debate erupted on what is now known as Nigerian Twitter. The Ooni of Ife, Oba Okunade Sijuwade Olubuse passed away, but this wasn’t the intriguing part. The more interesting part was the funeral ritual where a designated chief called the 'Abobaku' was meant to accompany him into death. According to several reports, this Abobaku fled. Quite predictably so – no matter how well fed, no sensible ram who sees the opportunity of freedom can be expected to be there for the feast. Anyway, some felt that the ritual was primitive and barbaric, and should be abolished, while others argued that it was an important part of the culture and needed to be upheld.

Stay long enough in Nigeria and this pattern of argument becomes familiar. It’s called the argument from culture, which is a variant of the argument from authority. This argument from authority is a consequence of the authority bias. The authority bias is the tendency to unequivocally accept the opinion of someone who’s seen as an authority or expert on a subject. We frequently take the word of authority at face value and do things out of sheer obedience to authority. 

As children, we start off by treating the words of our parents and teachers as sacrosanct. By the time we’re adults, we’ve included the words of our pastors and experts – pundits, doctors, economists etc. to this sacrosanct list.

This authority bias encourages people to make arguments from authority, which often results in a logical fallacy.

Naturally, it makes sense to believe the words of those who pose as authorities on certain subjects. After all, you’d assume that a doctor knows more about curing malaria than you do. However, this belief becomes problematic when it becomes unequivocal and unwavering. You wouldn’t believe a doctor who told you drinking engine oil could cure your malaria, just because she’s a doctor, would you? It’s easy to spot the fallacy here because some things are quite obvious.

However, what happens when it’s less obvious? For example, my dad made a comment about marriage. My dad is an expert on marriage, therefore, my dad is correct about his statement. Do you spot the fallacy? It bypasses the validity of the statement and instead relies on the status of the individual for reassurance. But as illustrated by the doctor example above, being an authority on an issue does not make one infallible. 

A quick search reveals how frequently experts are wrong. Few economists questioned the dynamics of the financial system until it came crashing down in 2007/2008. The system performed brilliantly until it didn’t – and only a few economists predicted the devastating outcome.

Religious leaders make statements, prophecies, and predictions, which are often taken as fact but are frequently vague and even when specific – turn out to be wrong. A recent example is the divine prediction of the 2015 presidential elections. Pastors ranging from Pastor Matthew Ashimolowo to Guru Maharaji predicted the victory of President Jonathan in the 2015 election. But yes, let’s not question their expert prophecies, which can be as reliable as MTN’s network.

Unfortunately, in a culture that eschews the act of questioning authority, the words of an expert or authority can easily go from being innocuous to being insidious and exploitative. Is your engine really bad or is your expert mechanic trying to leech more money off you? Do you really need to go through all these medical procedures, or is your expert doctor simply trying to rack up your hospital bill? 

Even when it does not lead to exploitation, the authority bias stifles accountability, innovation and creativity. You fail to correct or improve on your superior’s idea because you take her every word as sacrosanct. You refrain from criticising Buhari because, well, Sai Baba.

To defeat the authority bias, one must learn to do one thing in particular. One must learn a habit so vilified that it tends to be flogged or slapped out of most inquisitive Nigerian children – one must learn to ask questions.

Questioning reveals flaws and introduces new approaches. The book ‘Startup Nation’ finds that the culture of questioning is one of the several reasons Israel has an incredible amount of successful startups. According to the book, time spent in the army contributes to the culture of questioning. Everyone goes through the army, where low ranking officers have to take on huge responsibilities and make quick decisions. Consequently, the structure is horizontal and everyone can criticise both peers and superiors. This creates an environment of innovation and better decision making, as biases are filtered from decisions. 

Fortunately, Nigerian youths are less amenable to the authority bias as the wealth of knowledge offered by social media has created a platform for questioning. BudgiT, a startup with a mission to examine and question the spending of public funds is one of several organisations doing a splendid job using this platform.

As with any system or person with a claim to expert knowledge, there will be a push back against questioning, but it need not be so. Eliminating authority bias is a mutually beneficial endeavour since it helps the expert sieve out his errors and provides the masses with better answers.

As my brother succinctly put it, ‘Questioning has no fault. It either reinforces the truth or exposes a lie.’ Next time you’re eager to believe the words of authority, take a second and question – perhaps it’ll keep you from being an unwitting Orubebe.

Writer

Chuba Ezekwesili