Media-style "authority" has more to do with popular acceptance than with proof.
There was a time when the reader of nonfiction was treated essentially as a judge, who would critically weigh the evidence presented, and either accept the author's thesis or reject it.
Today, the reader is often treated more like a consumer of, say, cake mix. As has become part of marketing lore, when cake mixes were first introduced, the manufacturers found it advisable to have the housewife add a fresh eggnot because it actually improved the quality of the finished product, but because it gave her a satisfying feeling of having added a wholesome and caring touch. Purveyors of ideas now display a similar tendency to cater to nonrational or emotional concerns, while downplaying or dismissing logical and rational ones.
Sometimes the pursuit of popular acceptance ends up involving little more than providing a convenient fit with other, already prevailing beliefs and perceptions.
As an example, many approaches to child rearing that currently enjoy wide acceptance originated in the late sixtiesthe time when lots of Baby Boomers, who constitute one of today's most statistically significant groups of parents, were coming into adulthood and formulating their core views about life and society. This was a period when personal freedom and self-actualization tended to be viewed as highly desirable ends, while authority and limitation in almost any form tended to be seen as repressive, even evil. Not surprisingly, the parenting techniques that originated in this era tended to shy away from any hint of authoritarianism.
Some of them have even gone so far as to recommend eliminating parental "coercion" altogether, propounding instead the notion of letting the child experience the "natural consequences" of an actionfor example, allowing a child to find out for herself that if she refuses to wear her coat in the rain, she will be wet and cold. (Or to put it only slightly differently, having the parent abdicate the traditional responsibility of ensuring the child's physical well-being and safety).
Do such techniques actually produce better results in children? Well, perhaps. Then again, maybe they are more responsible for mothers having excruciating difficulty getting their offspring through what were once routine and simple activitiesand perhaps also contributing to children growing up unprepared to deal with, say, a normal job directive.
But in the contemporary consumer marketing of ideas, difficult or unpleasant considerations such as these have a way of fading from view. What is foremost is success in getting people to buy the book. If you sell a lot of copies, you establish yourself as "somebody. " Authority thus becomes coequal with sales.
Perhaps the archetypal contemporary expert is Dr. Ruth Westheimer, with her popular spiels on what makes for "good zex." Whatever her formal credentials or accomplishments may be, these did not put her in her current position. Dr. Ruth owes her prominence to marketing factors, not least of which is the ability of a little lady old enough to be just about anyone's mother to give a kind of implicit permission and respectability to people's natural desires to put a little more zip in their hanky-panky. Millions of people listen to her because she taps something emotional in them. The fact that millions of people listen to her then renders her an authority.
(c) COPYRIGHT 1998 ROBERT WINTER. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.