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Dive 47: Why you need to question authority figures more
Hey, it’s Alvin!
There was once a smart physics student named Sheldon. He wanted to show off his genius, so he entered the school’s physics quiz show competition. The competition pitted two teams of four against each other. The team that correctly answered the most questions would win.
That was no good for Sheldon.
Sheldon wanted to prove he could single-handedly answer all the questions and win with no help from teammates. But rules were rules, so he paid three people to join his team: the third-floor janitor, the lady from the lunchroom, and her son.
The teams were neck-and-neck right until the last question, worth 100 points. Sheldon’s team is only down 25 points, and the opposition just got the answer wrong. If Sheldon could answer correctly, he would win.
As seconds ticked by and the host demanding an answer, one thing was clear:
Sheldon was stumped.
Then, the sound of a buzzer…
“The answer is: -8πα.”
It was the janitor.
It turns out the janitor used to be a physicist in the former Soviet Union. His answer was correct. But Sheldon set out to prove he could win on his own. So, he rejected the answer from his own teammate, and conceded the loss.
Yes, this story is from a TV show. The explicit lesson from the episode was about teamwork. But there’s another buried Below the Surface…
Sheldon’s choice of teammates was not entirely random. All his teammates were people he didn’t expect to be able to answer any questions. In his own words to the janitor, “our arrangement was that you sit here and not say anything. I answer the questions.” Sheldon was a person who judges others by their professions. He looked down with contempt on jobs he deemed “less intelligent.”
We see this in the real world, too.
I have relatives who went to university. My parents never did. And any time my parents offer suggestions or opinions on anything, these relatives are particularly critical. They don’t seem as critical when I give my opinions on anything, even though I often share the same opinions as my parents. I went to university, though. They just seem to think highly of anyone else who’s had a “higher education,” and lesser of those who don’t.
“Higher education” is a term I loathe because it trains you to see people as “above” and “below” you in terms of education level. And education level is often seen as a proxy measure for intelligence. So, this perspective subconsciously trains people to see those “above” as “smarter,” and those “below” as “dumber”.
That’s a dangerous illusion for a couple of reasons.
For one, people don’t learn from those who are “beneath” them. It would destroy the illusion of their own superiority. In reality, we can learn from people from all walks of life. I still learn from my parents.
People like Sheldon would never fix their own toilets, not just because it’s dirty work, but because they think the work is “beneath them.” But I don’t like to look down on other professions. If I did, I wouldn’t have learned how to fix my own toilet. I would’ve had to call a plumber who would’ve charged me more than $100 to replace a $20 valve. Looking down on others has REAL costs.
But I think that’s a lesson most people are familiar with. Here’s one few think about:
People are easily fooled by those they see as “above” them.
Just because someone has an “advanced” degree doesn’t mean they’re brilliant. It might sound counterintuitive and incredulous. But that’s just because most of us grew up with an education system that sells this idea that the further up you go, the smarter you are.
For a long time, that’s how I thought until I met a psychology professor who couldn’t practice psychology.
Several years ago, there was an aviation incident where a passenger was freaking out on a plane mid-flight. The pilots landed the plane. Then the police showed up and arrested the passenger.
A psychology professor wrote an article about it. She opined how the flight attendants should have done more to placate the passenger with a free meal. The professor blamed the pilots for landing the plane, leading to the arrest since it led to an arduous ordeal for the passenger.
I said, “hold on a second. That’s highly presumptuous.” The professor didn’t know how many meals were available, how rowdy the passenger was, or what the general situation was in the cabin. The prof wasn’t there.
In response to my comment, the professor restated their position, completely disregarding all the points I made.
My mind was blown.
That was the moment I realized a PhD doesn’t automatically imply intelligence. How is it that a professor of PSYCHOLOGY could not understand my point of view or have a civilized discussion? It’s such a basic application of psychology. I was baffled.
That’s when I realized it’s too easy to make false idols of those we believe are smarter when they’re just more educated. We risk mindlessly accepting bad ideas. That has real costs, too.
Can you imagine if the airline industry adopted this professor’s suggestion to placate every unruly passenger with a free meal? We’d see an increase in unruly passengers because we’d be rewarding destructive behaviour.
More recently, Harvard professor Francesca Gino was caught authoring research papers with fraudulent data. This is a renowned behavioural scientist. She even wrote articles for popular business magazines like the Harvard Business Review, which I read as far back as 10 years ago. And I know people who have referenced her articles when making decisions, business or otherwise.
But it turns out professors are human beings. And human beings are fallible. Sometimes, the lure of prestige or money entices people to be unethical—education level be damned. Pete Judo dives more into the Gino story here.
This isn’t a slight on professors. I’m just saying we shouldn’t mindlessly accept what someone says just because they have an “advanced” degree. And we need to be careful how we measure superiority and inferiority.
Personally, I don’t like to see others either way. Because I grew up in an era when we were taught to see one another as equals.
We need to get back to that.
If you’re open to it.
I hope you enjoyed this dive Below the Surface of social stratification. Reply to firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions or comments. I’d love to hear from you.
Thank you for reading. Stay humble. And I’ll see you in the next one.