Authority as a Source of Knowledge

eastern district highAuthority as a source of knowledge often involves both inquiry and/or practical instruction.  The concept of schools and universities is based on the idea that “authorities” in a particular field can provide knowledge to those who are not.  When we walk into a classroom, we take for granted that the teacher or professor knows more than we, as pupils do, with regard to the overall subject matter we are trying to learn.   Authority provides efficiency in our quest for knowledge.  If we can take for granted that something is valid, based on credible authority, we can expand our knowledge by building on that authority’s knowledge.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Authority as a Source of Knowledge

The disadvantage of authority is that it is not  always reliable, but then again, sources of knowledge most needed and most applicable to our lives are also not 100% reliable.

We cannot and do not discount authority as a form of knowledge, because we would severely limit our ability to make progress (both daily and long-term).  It would also seriously impede discoveries that benefit our quality of life.  Like other forms of obtaining knowledge, authority is reliable enough for us to depend on its validity in our daily lives.  It is justifiably practical to do so.

Levels of Authority

empty classroom

There are different levels of authority.  One of the most obvious being In academia.  One example of increasing authority could be the college student taught by the PhD candidate, who learns from the tenured professor.

We not only validate and classify the level of knowledge authorities have to offer with such titles, but we also determine the value of the authority’s knowledge based on other evident factors such as how much success one has in a particular area.

E.g. We assume a prize-winning, best-selling author to be good, if not excellent at his craft, regardless of his educational background.

Choosing the Most Reliable Sources of Authority

We can expand our knowledge by combining authority and inquiry – asking a contemporary about a topic with our goal being to obtain information or knowledge.  We choose the authority based on what we are trying to know or understand.

michael jordan playingFor example, if we want to know what it is like to be a successful professional basketball player, we would do better asking Michael Jordan than we would asking a professional player who never gets any playing time.  Jordan’s response could offer us a glimpse into the reality of his experiences.  We are, in essence, relying on the information he provides us as a trusted authority, based on his demonstrated expertise.

Similarly, if we wanted to better understand trigonometry, we would be more successful in our quest for that knowledge, by consulting an advanced mathematician, rather than someone who has a PhD in Russian studies.  (The exception being that, by some chance, that person happens to be an expert in both areas.)

How We Use Knowledge Provided by Authority

Authority as a source of knowledge can come in many forms including but not limited to:

  • eyewitness accounts
  • written accounts such as emails, memos, historical documents etc.
  • conversations e.g. with a friend, off-the-record interviews etc.

We make use of such authority almost everyday in both our personal and professional lives.  That is, we make decisions based on authority, ideally coming from a trusted, reliable source.  The times we do so are countless.

Parents rely on teachers to provide knowledge of their children’s progress in school.  A journalist will most likely go forth with a story based on information provided by a trusted inside source.  A child born often relies on the knowledge of her parents and grandparents in order to better understand what life “was like” before they were born.

We use authority to obtain knowledge and make decisions by taking for granted that the authority’s information has a larger probability of being accurate than inaccurate.  We make a practice of this so much we often fail to acknowledge it.

One final point: when we make use of authority as a source of knowledge in almost any field of academic study, we classify them into primary and secondary resources — the topic of a future post.

Copyright © 2013
  • Crystal

    The trouble with authority is that it is fickle. It is like basing your truth on a moving target, or shifting sand. I may view my father as an authority on a subject, but you may not have such a high regard for my dad. As a woman of faith, I place ultimate authority on God and the Bible (although interpreting them is often challenging). Still, an atheist would not give authority to the Bible. Someone may be very swayed by an opinion by a Nobel Prize winner in science. Another person may be more influenced by Justin Bieber’s opinion.
    Authority is only useful within a group of people who agree on who has it. In a family, the kids generally agree that mom and dad have authority. Even if the law gives authority to the parents, that authority only works if the family agrees to it. Otherwise you have chaos in the home and runaway teenagers.
    It is the same way in acadamia as well as within professional groups. These groups come to a consensus on certain key operatives, even though they may leave some wiggle room for fringe controversies.
    Dr. Spock was the authority on parenting in the 1950s and ’60s. Not so much anymore, and thats okay. We have to leave room for people to grow and learn – even our authority figures.
    Who has all knowledge? Who has all truth? Who is the ultimate authority? Can truth be knowable? These are all excellent questions. Intellectually curious people will grapple with them and intellectually honest people won’t be afraid when their search for the Capital T – Truth leads to God. That’s my belief. But I don’t expect anyone to think of me as an authority. So go find it out yourself.

    • rworldview

      I agree Crystal. As usual, you bring up many good points. Authority is not 100% reliable and it’s potential to provide us with knowledge can be problematic depending on the scenario, but we are forced to rely on this method of obtaining knowledge whether in academia, family life, and even in the courtroom. And, I definitely agree that people once considered experts in their fields of study turned out to be very wrong after say, subsequent advancements in science contradicted their opinions and conclusions.

      I’ll also add that many people are who are successful at promoting themselves and their opinions can be mistaken for being authorities in a particular area simply because they may be famous or achieved some type of commercial success. You brought up Justin Bieber. I would argue that his commercial success is not a proportionate indication of his expertise at the piano or his singing ability. I have heard singing of greater substance and range from “average people” in bars, and I’ve seen child pianists much younger than he is, whose skills far surpass his. Bieber’s wealth and fame may cause some to mistakenly believe he must be one of the world’s great authorities in music, when in fact far greater authorities in music are many; they merely lack the influence he has.

      Authority, can also be abused. People are often lazy and rely too much on the opinions of so-called experts without challenging the opinions of their superiors or taking the time to seek out knowledge pertaining to their given topic using other resources. Authority should never be relied on solely, unless the situation or scenario provides no other alternative.

      I think the bottom line is authority is often practical, useful, and it provides the possibility of obtaining knowledge, but it should be used, whenever possible, in conjunction with other ways of acquiring knowledge.

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