Bogus authorities

"After reading Captive State, I will never be able to take the Labour
government seriously again."
Thom Yorke, lead singer of Radiohead (Quoted on cover of George Monbiot’s
Captive State)

In my opinion – which has never been humble – and in the opinion of many others,
Radiohead are the best rock band on the planet right now. They are one
of only two groups whose latest album I buy as soon as it comes out, without
listening to it or reading reviews first.

But although I am prepared to acknowledge the genius of Thom Yorke et al in
the realm of music, I was not aware that Yorke was also a political commentator
worth paying serious attention to. True, some saw the lyrics of "You and
Whose Army?" from the Amnesiac album as a cutting attack on the
Blair government. But can anyone seriously suggest the lyrics "You can
take us all on/You and whose army?/You and your cronies/You forget so easily"
are evidence of an expert knowledge of contemporary British politics?

Why then should Yorke’s endorsement of a book on "the corporate takeover
of Britain" be considered worth splashing over the dust jacket? What lends
his words any authority? Why should we value his opinion on this more than we
do that of my aunt Mable?

The short answer is that there is no reason. Yorke is not an authority in matters
of politics and the only reason what he says on the subject is taken seriously
is because he is very popular for reasons totally unconnected with current affairs.
Celebrities get to mouth off about whatever they want and people listen. This
is just an extreme example of how people are often treated as "authorities"
on certain subjects for no good reason.

If all bogus authorities were so obvious there would be little point in drawing
attention to them. But they’re not. Consider, for example, a more usual authority
to quote on a book jacket: an endorsement by a leading writer or critic, or
words from a review in a major publication. Aren’t these, if not completely
authoritative, then at least bearers of some authority?

The truth is that it’s hard to tell. For example, on the cover of Colin McGinn’s
admittedly rather good autobiography, The Making of a Philosopher, Oliver
Sacks testifies, "Brilliantly written, devastatingly honest, often very
funny…" and gushingly on. It’s even more hyperbolic on the back cover.
The praise loses some of its power, however, when you discover on page 226 of
the book that McGinn knows Sacks and describes him as "remarkably erudite"
and an "exceptionally thoughtful conversationalist, who weights his words
as if they were precious stones…" and gushingly on again.

I’m not suggesting Sacks and McGinn are engaged in anything sinister or cynical.
I myself have had quotes from Nigel Warburton on the covers of two of my books.
I did not solicit them and as far as I know my publisher didn’t know if we were
acquainted. However, I am in fact privileged to count Nigel as a friend, and
while I am sure he didn’t lie to do me a favour (he could have turned down the
request for comments in confidence), I am sure knowledge of our acquaintance
would lessen the sense of authority someone might otherwise attach to his endorsements.

In the world of books, grudges, rivalries and friendships infect a large number
of reviews, more than reviewers would care to admit. For that reason I have
come to see endorsements from reviews or big-names on book jackets as carrying
less authority than I used to.

But perhaps the greatest problem of bogus authorities comes in the area of
morality. In medical ethics, for example, who is considered an authority? Doctors
for one, according to the Daily Telegraph, which ran a reasonably lengthy
story recently when a leading transplant surgeon, Prof Nadey Hakim, called for
the legalisation of a regulated trade in human organs. But why should a surgeon
be in any better position to pronounce on the ethics of organ sales than, say,
Thom Yorke? Hakim’s expertise is in surgery, not ethics.

This is a tricky area, for arguably there is no such thing as an "expert
in ethics", at least no experts to which we should all defer in the same
way as there are experts in engineering or medicine. But there are people better
qualified than others to examine and deal with complex ethical issues. Newspapers,
radio and television tend to focus on what doctors, bishops, leaders of pressure
groups and media pundits have to say. None of these, I would argue, are the
best placed to provide moral guidance. We should reply more instead on members
of ethics commissions and moral philosophers, who think about these problems
in much more depth than anyone else but who do not get the chance to contribute
as much to the debates as they deserve.

The problem of bogus authorities is thus much more widespread and much less
obvious than it is in the extreme case of the singer-cum-political commentator.
Still, it’s amusing to see Yorke warble on the latest album, this time seemingly
putting words into George Bush’s mouth, "Don’t question my authority or
put me in the dock." It’s not just George’s authority that we should question,
Thom. It’s yours.

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