Authority vs. Expertise: Or, Why Steven Pinker is Winning
In 2011, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker wrote a book called “The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes.” In it, Pinker argued that the incidence of physical violence worldwide (wars, terrorism, various assaults) has been trending downward over the past several thousand years — and precipitously so since the Enlightenment.
We think the world is supremely violent, Pinker argues, but that’s actually a perceptual distortion fueled by media coverage. No era has been as peaceful.
It’s not an exaggeration to say “Better Angels” has helped defined the decade in ideas. Bill Gates called it “the most inspiring book I have ever read.” In a recent informal poll of students in elite colleges he was addressing, New York Times columnist David Brooks discovered the person most of the students wanted to be like was…Steven Pinker.
And with his new book, “Enlightenment Now,” Pinker has become a leading avatar of those who want to take a scientific, rationalist, optimistic approach to affairs. He’s a rock star.
Keep in mind: Pinker isn’t a historian. He’s a cognitive psychologist and linguist. So he’s not an expert in the history of violence. It’s not what he studies for a living.
But “Better Angels” and “Enlightenment Now” do have strong POVs; compelling, counterintuitive arguments that grab attention; convincingly marshaled research; and a lot of goodwill banked from Pinker’s previous thought leadership.
Pinker had published five books before “Better Angels,” including the best-sellers “Blank Slate” and “How the Mind Works.” He speaks well, writes fluidly, fields questions in TV and live interviews with aplomb, and has authored many op-eds and articles.
In other words, Pinker already had tons of cultural authority before “Better Angels.” People trusted him.
But what if Pinker’s thesis about a historical decline in violence were wrong? Who would tell us?
A group of historians tried last year. They got together and published a special issue in the journal Historical Reflections that argued Pinker’s read of the literature and the data on violence throughout history are “seriously, if not fatally, flawed.”
Some of the article titles in this special issue: “Getting Medieval on Steven Pinker: Violence and Medieval England.” “Whitewashing History: Pinker’s (Mis)Representation of the Enlightenment and Violence.” “What Pinker Leaves Out.”
In the introduction, the editors of the special issue wrote they were worried that a “Pinker Thesis” was spreading globally, being “elevated into a founding statement in the historiography of human violence.”
But their arguments have gotten zero traction.
Almost all the articles are paywalled — so no one knows about them except those few with journal access.
Their views haven’t received any English-language news coverage.
Pinker doesn’t even deal with them in his online FAQ on the book.
The meme that Pinker initiated — that “violence has been declining throughout the modern era” — continues to dominate conversations about whether the world is getting better or worse.
To be crude: Pinker might have wildly distorted historical trends in violence. But his meme is winning.
That’s because he’s an authority, playing among mere experts.
What’s the distinction? Isn’t an expert always an authority?
No. And this is where I see researchers and research-driven orgs get tripped up again and again in their outreach.
In science and research, “expertise” — i.e., specialized skill or knowledge — is certified, based on standards set by the expert community. You earn the designation of “expert.” You can’t confer it upon yourself.
“Authority,” on the other hand, is won, not conferred. It’s about power and influence — ”the power to influence other people because they respect your opinions or knowledge,” per the MacMillan Dictionary.
It requires two parties: one to trust, and one to win that trust. It’s an informal dynamic, fragile at first. The influencer has to cultivate and maintain it.
Researchers can win authority — like anyone else — through persuasive argument, compelling storytelling, association with a brand-name institution or paradigm we admire, and/or the approval of others in our community we trust.
Expertise is often a key marker of authority — but usually and increasingly, it isn’t enough by itself.
If you’d rather do an edited volume than mount a sustained public ideas campaign with opinion pieces, social media, and media and podcast outreach, you’re not going to win the argument.
Authority eats expertise every time. See: climate change communications.
Is all this unfair? Wrong question, I think.
Better question: Why aren’t more experts also doing the work of becoming authorities? Because you can be both.
Bob Lalasz is CEO of Science+Story, which guides research-driven organizations to become thought leaders.