Science | the Web

Worrying about loss of ‘authority’

June 9, 2010

Many academics and other professionals worry about social media and the loss of authority in other voices which often now have equal power. On the other hand, those ‘less authoritative’ voices are just the latest in a long history of people complaining how the ‘establishment’ fails to let others in.

But the very reason that there is an ‘establishment’ is that this is a group made up of people who have spent their lives working, researching and thinking about these things. It has always been possible for someone on the outside to write about a specialist – just look at the popularity of fringe archaeology books – but now it is easier for more people to voice their views.

The establishment does not want to exclude people just beacuse they are not in the estabishment. It is the fact that not being in the establishment means you have not done the training, and put in the thought. So many non-standard archaeological theories, for example, have already been thought of by archaeology, and long ago discarded when the evidence stacked against it. Theories revolving around civilisations in contact in the ancient world are a case in point.

The fact that pyramids are used in both Egypt and Meso-America looks to the non-specialist as evidence of intercommunication, but to the specialist the similar facade falls away when actual research is done into the vastly different functions of the sites. To the architect also, the similarities of the buildings have no need for an explanation which includes trans-global communications. Fringe archaeological hypotheses can be characterised as more naive, and often more convoluted, than the established ideas.

But my point as regards social media is that the increase in the number of voices could mean that the odd one or two might contain more knowledge than the established voices. So they are right to worry, because although authority of one kind is under threat, it is authority of another sort which will replace it. Authority will always come from the statement of facts which stand the rigours of peer pressure. That this peer pressure falls upon more numerous and less ‘traditional’ sources is nothing about which the establishment can do.