Over lunch yesterday I witnessed a revealing exchange between a pair of my comrades. They were debating some issues in semiconductor technology. One obviously had a huge respect for scientific "Authority Figures" and cited them whenever possible in support of her positions. The other obviously had a huge skepticism and gave no weight whatsoever to "Expert Opinion" in his thinking. A fascinating divergence.
Some 30+ years ago I remember buying a mail-order lapel button from some libertarian/anarchist 'zine. The button said, in stark black letters, Question Authority. Not a bad sentiment.
But thinking further about it, belatedly, in light of my friends' argument I now believe a better bumper-sticker would read Recognize Authority. Not everybody has time, or mental energy, to develop a high level of expertise in every subject. We always have to rely on the judgment of others, to a greater or lesser degree. The trick is to recognize who's worthy of trust, and to separate legitimate authorities from those with personal biases (listen for the sound of grinding axes in the background!) and from those who pretend to know more than they actually do.
And sometimes authority-recognition is too tough, and we have to trust a meta-authority (e.g., a national academy, a royal society, a presidential commission) to indicate who's expert and who isn't. That can be risky. It's important to realize the delicacy of the situation, and not rely too heavily on judgments hanging by such a thin thread.
(See BluffingVersusHumility (22 Apr 1999), MissJudgment (17 May 1999), IdeaChampions (4 Jul 1999), NegativeResults (2 Nov 1999), OnHubris (27 Dec 1999), QuestionAuthority (18 Jan 2000), SixWhoKnow (23 Mar 2000), BigNames (13 Jun 2000), UsualSuspects (15 Oct 2000), ExpertiseAndScience (19 Feb 2001), FormulaStory (2001 Aug 15), SoundBiters (20 Feb 2002), ...)