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Problems with authority August 9, 2008

Posted by dorigo in personal, science.
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I have no problems with authority. Meaning that I do not feel an inferiority complex, or a defensive instinct, when I deal with people who have titles or power which can affect their interaction with me. I however have to acknowledge that it is a very common problem for many people, even intelligent, instructed, realized individuals. Having taken a moment to think at the issue for a minute, I am able to look around and identify the effect rather clearly in the behavior of people around me. So, I wonder where that kind of relational handicap really comes from.

I am no psychologist, but I can understand that there are rather common situations in one’s infancy which bring to the onset of a complex with respect to authoritative persons. For instance, an abusive parent. The abuse may not be a very direct one -not just sexual harassment, for instance. It does not even strictly need to be directed to the individual: it could be aimed at somebody with whom the individual automatically acquires some sort of likening. The effect is often the same. And we all usually take the part of the victim, when we witness an abuse.

However, I wonder if there are factors that ease the onset of such a reaction. Situations where authority is felt like something to fear, maybe. I think I am going to investigate the issue by reading some literature on the topic -I feel ignorant. Maybe I have my own inferiority complexes too. Do you have titles to suggest ? My time budget to read is currently -30%. Oh, but it may soon rise to -20%.


1. Don - August 9, 2008

The Authoritarians is useful.

Also see Alice Miller on the effects of childhood mistreatment:


2. Kea - August 9, 2008

Hah, I’d love to know what juicy event triggered this post. It is very tempting to spout, and then thrash, the common theory that such social evolution was necessary for the development of complex modern societies, but actually I’m not that interested.

3. Guess Who - August 9, 2008

One factor which I suspect may be underrated is raw intelligence, or “IQ” for lack of better terms.

How many people does the average person get to know well enough during the course of his or her lifetime to form a reasonable assessment of their intelligence? Could it be even 1000? An IQ of 150 is measured in less than 1 out of 1000 test subjects, so it seems perfectly possible for somebody with an IQ of 150 or higher, or equivalently for 1/1000 of the population, to never, ever meet somebody “smarter”.

Going through life realizing that parents, teachers, priests, politicians and other authority figures you meet along the way are all dumber than you must have an effect. Contempt for authority seems a likely outcome (“why are those pompous morons telling me what to do?”).

So maybe some of what you’re seeing around you is actually not an inferiority complex, but rather the opposite?

4. Alejandro Rivero - August 10, 2008

“when I deal with people who have titles or power which can affect their interaction with me”

I actually have problems, to interact with people whose title is supposed to be “subordinate”. I do not get to send the message for them to act in a subordinate way for the local circumstances where a decision must be agreed and taken immediately., Then the whole enterprise risks failure.

The point is illustrative: people recognizes the need of an authority when any consensus is better than no consensus. A good orototype is “battlefield officer consensus”: it is better to decide where to move, anywhere, than to not decide to move and be snippered out in open field.

Such authority “lease” is restricted to a knowledge corpus, and still consensual; usually the consensus has been fixed before the actual “authoritarian” decision. Problems come with this definite consensus in a number of ways, for instance when:
1) seems to leak out and apply to decisions out of its initial scope.
2) becomes fixed, neglecting new knowledge
3) is altered via opinion instead of knowledge.

5. Kea - August 10, 2008

Tommaso, I’m going to make you a friend on Facebook so that I have your email address.

6. mfrasca - August 10, 2008


What prompted this post by you if I can know? Authorities are always a concern for everybody.


7. dorigo - August 10, 2008

Don, thank you for the leads!

Kea, the trigger was nothing else than a conversation with my wife about the issue.

GW, yes, a superiority complex is also a problem with authority, but an intelligent person knows how to behave, usually.

Alejandro, I understand your problem. I also try to act “friendly” to my students, and often find myself struggling when I try to get them to do something by force.

Marco, see above. No trouble, just pure thought…

Cheers all

8. Don - August 11, 2008

Don, thank you for the leads!<

You’re welcome. I hope someday to see a summary of your investigative results. It’s one of those topics that I’ve always been curious about, myself. Ocassionally I’ve had people suggest to me that it’s because I have an authority problem, but I’m quick to assure them that I only have a problem with false authorities.




9. dorigo - August 11, 2008

Hi Don,

it will surely take a while, but I like to talk about different things in this blog, and the topic will be certainly worth a more serious post once I get instructed.


10. Tony Smith - August 11, 2008

Authority itself is not a problem.
Problems arise when authority is misused.
For examples over thousands of years of history see China
where emperors either ruled with the will of heaven or did not.
Mao might be regarded as a flawed emperor because of his suppression of ideas in the cultural revolution.
Deng Xiaopeng might be regarded as good because he encouraged new idea even though he ruthlessly protected his authority.
His successors might be regarded as flawed because of their obvious emulation of Nazi Germany – for only one example, compare the olympic opening ceremony with Leni Riefenstahl’s movie such as Triumph of the Will.

11. somamandal - August 12, 2008

I suggest reading “Feeling Strong” by Ethel Persons. About power and authority.

12. Anonymous - August 12, 2008

At many levels a healthy disrespect for authority is critical for the advancement of science. IMO, one of the most important qualities of good scientific leaders is the not just the acceptance, but the fostering, of opposing viewpoints to one’s own, whether from senior, junior, or similar level colleagues. When a viewpoint is not productive, I think the best thing to do is to simply state the reasons for your believing otherwise and leave it at that. What I’ve learned is that it is sometimes best to say nothing rather than to risk a personal argument developing. If you believe a discussion is truly not productive, let colleagues respond rather than yourself.

13. Andrea Giammanco - August 12, 2008

Loosely related: “Deschooling society”, by Ivan Illich. The issue of authority is not central to the book, but unavoidably it appears.
(And Ivan Illich had, clearly, a problem with authority.)

14. dorigo - August 12, 2008

Hi Tony,
you are right with identifying the issue with the use of authority. However, I am more interested in the personal bias coming from one’s own history.

Dear Somamandal, I will look into it if I have time.

Anon, your advice is very wise: “it is sometimes best to say nothing rather than to risk a personal argument developing”. Unfortunately I come from Venice, and people from Venice are known to be unable to shut up when they have something to say!

Andrea, interesting lead. How come you read that book ? Just stumbled into it, or had somebody advising it ?

Cheers all,

15. Andrea Giammanco - August 12, 2008

It was on the bookshelf in my parent’s house, it attracted my attention so I read it when I was 12 years old and hated school due to my own problems with authority 🙂
I re-read parts of it as an adult, and still I found it quite interesting.
His constructive proposal for a de-schooled education very closely resembles what one can get nowadays through internet. Amazing, since the book was written in the seventies…

16. nigel cook - August 16, 2008

‘I have no problems with authority. Meaning that I do not feel an inferiority complex, or a defensive instinct, when I deal with people who have titles or power which can affect their interaction with me. I however have to acknowledge that it is a very common problem for many people, even intelligent, instructed, realized individuals.’ – Tommaso Dorigo

‘Problems come with this definite consensus in a number of ways, for instance when:
1) seems to leak out and apply to decisions out of its initial scope.
2) becomes fixed, neglecting new knowledge
3) is altered via opinion instead of knowledge.’ – Alejandro Rivero, comment #4

‘Problems arise when authority is misused.’ – Tony Smith, comment #10

I like the following quotation about authority from Feynman:

‘It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is – if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong.’ – Feynman, http://www.vigyanprasar.gov.in/scientists/RichardPFeynman/RichardPFeynman.htm

In politics and in the media, beauty, intelligence, star-quality, and fame are more important than facts. String theory is currently being hyped by authority criteria (beautiful, intelligent, star-quality and famous). Here’s a personal example of how authority deals with unwanted facts:

Sent: 02/01/03 17:47
Subject: Your_manuscript LZ8276 Cook …

Physical Review Letters does not, in general, publish papers on alternatives to currently accepted theories. Yours sincerely, Stanley G. Brown, Editor, Physical Review Letters

It’s a falsehood that there is a ‘currently accepted theory’ predicting gravity, because although Edward Witten claimed ‘String theory has the remarkable property of predicting gravity’ (April 1996 issue of Physics Today), this claim was repudiated by Roger Penrose on page 896 of his book Road to Reality: ‘in addition to the dimensionality issue, the string theory approach is (so far, in almost all respects) restricted to being merely a perturbation theory’. String theory does not predict anything falsifiable about gravity. So this is a good example of how authority is abused.

When I challenged it, editor Stanley just got his associate editor to email me a message ignoring my point completely, claiming falsely that I was complaining, and stating that he supported the editor’s decision (I was asking for the mainstream theory prediction that my theory is allegedly merely an alternative to). At IoP’s Classical and Quantum Gravity, the editor tried to be more reasonable but sent my paper for ‘peer-review’ by a string theorist (not a ‘peer’!), who came back saying that the paper should not be published since it was not based on string theory.

There is no inferiority complex required in order to have a problem with authority. All you have to do to be falsely attacked by an authority, is to challenge that authority using empirical facts which the authority can’t find a rational basis to reject. If you look at the example of the USSR, e.g. Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed (Trotsky was of course famously murdered with an ice-axe in Mexico on Stalin’s orders), you see the problem is not with the dissenter, but with the authority which can’t find a rational way to respond. Doubtless Stalin thought he was doing what was best…

17. Authority problems « Gauge theory mechanisms - August 16, 2008

[…] Authority problems Filed under: About — nige @ 10:37 am Copy of a comment to: https://dorigo.wordpress.com/2008/08/09/problems-with-authority […]

18. Luboš Motl - August 17, 2008

Authorities play an important role in the society. They help to keep the traditions, rules, promote values.

They can be both of positive and negative signs and they can be respected for both good and bad reasons.

Ideally, authorities are respected for what they have done and for their potential, not for irrational superstitions and not because of pure fear or the instincts based on the childhood, as Tommaso pointed out.

We don’t live in the ideal world and authorities may thus be extremely counterproductive, especially if they become extremely powerful.

So I would join Tommaso in not giving authorities a universal sign. They can have both signs and their absolute value is usually greater than for non-authorities.

19. nigel cook - August 17, 2008

‘Here at Padua is the principal professor of philosophy whom I have repeatedly and urgently requested to look at the moon and planets through my glass which he pertinaciously refuses to do.’

– Letter from Galileo to Kepler, 1610.

‘In questions of science, the authority of a thousand is not worth the humble reasoning of a single individual. I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.’

– Galileo Galilei, 1632.

‘There is no place for dogma in science. The scientist is free, and must be free to ask any question, to doubt any assertion, to seek for any evidence, to correct any errors.’

– J. Robert Oppenheimer, quoted in Life, October 10, 1949.

But Oppenheimer was a terrible censor! See Freeman Dyson’s video account of Oppenheimer’s horrendous attacks on Feynman’s path integral work on QED in 1948:


““… the first seminar was a complete disaster because I tried to talk about what Feynman had been doing, and Oppenheimer interrupted every sentence and told me how it ought to have been said, and how if I understood the thing right it wouldn’t have sounded like that. … we couldn’t tell him to shut up. So in fact, there was very little communication at all. … I always felt Oppenheimer was a bigoted old fool. … Hans Bethe somehow heard about this and he talked with Oppenheimer on the telephone, I think. …

“I think that he had telephoned Oppy and said ‘You really ought to listen to Dyson, you know, he has something to say and you should listen. And so then Bethe himself came down to the next seminar which I was giving and Oppenheimer continued to interrupt but Bethe then came to my help and, actually, he was able to tell Oppenheimer to shut up, I mean, which only he could do. …

“So the third seminar he started to listen and then, I actually gave five altogether, and so the fourth and fifth were fine, and by that time he really got interested. He began to understand that there was something worth listening to. And then, at some point – I don’t remember exactly at which point – he put a little note in my mail box saying, ‘nolo contendere’.”

Tony Smith points out at http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=189#comment-3222 that Oppenheimer was later a dictatorial tyrant to David Bohm:

“Einstein was … interested in having Bohm work as his assistant at the Institute for Advanced Study … Oppenheimer, however, overruled Einstein on the grounds that Bohm’s appointment would embarrass him [Oppenheimer] as director of the institute. … Max Dresden … read Bohm’s papers. He had assumed that there was an error in its arguments, but errors proved difficult to detect. … Dresden visited Oppenheimer … Oppenheimer replied … “We consider it juvenile deviationism …” … no one had actually read the paper … “We don’t waste our time.” … Oppenheimer proposed that Dresden present Bohm’s work in a seminar to the Princeton Institute, which Dresden did. … Reactions … were based less on scientific grounds than on accusations that Bohm was a fellow traveler, a Trotskyite, and a traitor. … the overall reaction was that the scientific community should “pay no attention to Bohm’s work.” … Oppenheimer went so far as to suggest that “if we cannot disprove Bohm, then we must agree to ignore him.” …”. (Bohm biography Infinite Potential, by F. David Peat (Addison-Wesley 1997), pages 101, 104, and 133.)

Tony Smith at the page http://www.tony5m17h.net/goodnewsbadnews.html#badnews additionally quotes Feynman on the problem of the false ‘authority’ of ‘critics’ who dismissed (for bogus reasons) his path integral formulation of QED. These authority figures were not just Oppenheimer, but included other expert physicists such as Teller, Dirac and Bohr at the 1948 Pocono conference:

“… take the exclusion principle … it turns out that you don’t have to pay much attention to that in the intermediate states in the perturbation theory. I had discovered from empirical rules that if you don’t pay attention to it, you get the right answers anyway …. Teller said: “… It is fundamentally wrong that you don’t have to take the exclusion principle into account.” …

“… Dirac asked “Is it unitary?” … Dirac had proved … that in quantum mechanics, since you progress only forward in time, you have to have a unitary operator. But there is no unitary way of dealing with a single electron. Dirac could not think of going forwards and backwards … in time …

” … Bohr … said: “… one could not talk about the trajectory of an electron in the atom, because it was something not observable.” … Bohr thought that I didn’t know the uncertainty principle …

“… it didn’t make me angry, it just made me realize that … [ they ] … didn’t know what I was talking about, and it was hopeless to try to explain it further.

“I gave up, I simply gave up …”.

– The Beat of a Different Drum: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, by Jagdish Mehra (Oxford 1994) (pp. 245-248).

It was just as well that after Feynman had given up, Dyson and Bethe managed to convince Oppenheimer to take it seriously. I think this kind of story about authority problems in physics should be widely known. There is too much hero worship of mortal famous authority figures whose judgement is worth damn all assessing new work.

20. dorigo - August 17, 2008

Hey Lubos, that’s fine, but then how can you have sympathy for Berlusconi ? He is definitely too powerful…
If we discuss authority in a unbiased way, we need to recognize when it is misused regardless of the political side we are helping. Thus I dare you say what you think of the italian situation… To help you out, I will do my share in showing objectivity: Berlusconi’s government has done a lot during these first few months in power. I do not agree with the means but he managed well…


21. Luboš Motl - August 18, 2008

I will show my objectivity, too. I also think that he might be more powerful than what should be expected in a fully civilized country. 😉

Nevertheless, I simply like this guy. Berlusconi is the right type of guy for Italy – including you – and any sourball like Prodi et al. is bound to be counterproductive.

22. Don - August 24, 2008

Objectively speaking, Authortity is not what you decide to either ‘obey’ or ‘defy,’ it is what you express. Agreements are expressions of a shared kind and essentially what societies are built from.

“External” Authority is either by agreement (which makes it a contract between equals) or it’s not (e.g. tyranny). Altmeyer details the consequences of not understanding this well.


23. dorigo - August 25, 2008

Hi Don,

thanks for pointing to Altmeyer….

24. Colin - December 5, 2009

Amazing advice! I too have wondered many a time why i used to get fired. I eventually came to the conclusion (after a bitter mediation settlement) that it was a need to seek justice. It took someone to actually break the law. Truly break it to open my eyes to people drunk with power who routinely get away breaking the law…that their company/corporation will back even the smallest supervisor if the problem gets bumped up high enough.

It’s like the previous anonymous poster said, “When a viewpoint is not productive” (i assume the writer meant a viewpoint on the authority’s side that is irrational) it’s best to let things go, do some deep muscle relaxation exercises, and get to a place where the bullshit no longer baffles your brains.

As an aside, i was honest, patient and polite and eventually i found out from ex-coworkers of mine most of the higher management had been terminated/quit/laidoff. Didn’t get my job back, even though the law stated i could, but man it was great to realize i wasn’t crazy…well, except that i had tried to reason with people intoxicated (with power)

heck, i’d even had a raging drunk for a girlfriend during that time and dumped her within a week of sending in my appeal to WCB (BC, canada) which got me fired. fun eh?

Definitely seek counseling.

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