Harvard University. The Mayo Clinic. Oprah Winfrey. Mercedes Benz. The New York Times. These brand names inspire in us a sense of confidence and trust. We assume that anything going through their ranks must be high quality. Must be effective and reliable.
The idea is good: Create institutions with standards that spare us from individually pre-screening each and every single study, doctor, book, car, or news item. Create some kind of a measuring standard — a point of reference from which we can determine the worth of that which is around us and make decisions based on that evaluation. So that, you know, we have time to do laundry and watch The Gilmore Girls reruns.
But the system is flawed, even dangerous.
For starters, social agreement – ie, popular belief — determines the standards by which the “best of the best” are chosen. Social agreement is by its very nature prone to error and foolishness, because it is a human system. It is the root cause of “The Emperor Has No Clothes” syndrome.
Second, the system demands deference. As in, how fascinating that you think Mayo clinic doctors wrongly diagnosed and medicated you. But you’ve never even been to medical school, my dear, so who the hell are you to challenge their findings?
Third, the system fosters laziness, by combining the two items above. Rather than sharpening our own intelligence and honing our own bullshit detectors, we look outside ourselves for instruction on what to think. Which further feeds the system.
In college, I was regularly frustrated by the requirement to use footnotes to substantiate my assertions. I was doing a lot of field research and drawing my own conclusions, based on my original thinking. Nonetheless, my professors made me pour through endless books, in search of someone else who thought the same damn thing I did.
Why should the fact that someone else did or did not say the same thing make my thinking any more or less valid (assuming I could even find anyone thinking remotely the same thing as I)?
Sure, if a million studies come to the same conclusion as yours, you’ve got quite a bit of weight behind you. But what if the core question in each of those studies is inherently flawed? Does it matter that everyone to date has found the same thing? What if a young child comes up with the million-dollar question that scientists need to be asking? Will the brilliance of that question be recognized? Will anyone even consider listening to that child?
The idea of quality control is good. It just needs a little tweaking – namely, it needs to be taken with a grain of salt. We need to figure out what we think, what we believe, and what we need. We need to listen carefully, with both an open mind and discernment. We need to value our own experiences in and of themselves. We need to measure everything around us by our own damn standards.
Because if we don’t, we may reject ideas that can change the world. We may pass over treatments that can save our lives. And we may spend our lives not knowing who we are.
I like the way a t-shirt I saw today sums up the matter: “Everything I say can be substantiated by my own opinion.”