Concept-Checking: Authority Figures (AFs) vs. Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)

On the surface, one may think that an ‘authority’ or ‘authority figure’ is the same (or nearly the same) as an ‘expert.’ Teasing out the key differences to these concepts is of philosophical significance.
Let’s take an ‘authority figure’ first. Someone who is an authority figure is someone who is seemingly responsible, either preventatively or reactively, for enforcing observance or obedience to a particular norm/rule/principle/ideal. They either encourage us to uphold (or at least not to break) that norm/rule/principle/ideal. Or, if we decide not to do what is asked or expected of us, they may punish us for our seemingly incorrect choice.

We can think of 3 key examples within our daily lives: the religious leader (e.g. priest, rabbi, imam, guru, etc.), the police officer (or military official), and the calculator (or the computer program).

A religious leader may be expected to be knowledgeable about the doctrines of their religious tradition so that they are better able to guide and influence their congregation or tribe in either upholding a particular religious tradition or resolving a religious-based dispute among members. But there are likely to be instances when a religious leader has not experienced a particular life event that one or more members of their congregation or tribe have. Perhaps we have a religious leader who has never (a) experienced the death of their child, (b) been divorced, (c) suffered from drug addiction, (d) been sexually molested or assaulted, and/or (e) been physically abused or robbed at gunpoint. These are just 5 unique examples, but there are undoubtedly more that we could think of. The point to be drawn from these is that if the religious leader has not experienced or been through these events, but members of their congregation or tribe have, they will be unable to empathize.

**Note: this observation does not count against the religious leader; it merely highlights the fact that they do not have to be comprehensively knowledgeable of their discipline, at least not in a key aspect, in order to retain that status as an authority figure. That observation will be important later when we compare the ‘authority figure’ to the ‘expert.’**

This is significant because empathy represents a deeper knowledge, a deeper understanding, of some phenomenon than mere sympathy or conceptual recognition. In that way, the religious leader does not need to be comprehensively, or even extremely, knowledgeable about the entirety of a particular phenomenon or discipline. The religious leader may give proactive instruction and guidance to the congregation or tribe so that the norm/rule/principle/ideal is upheld. But the religious leader may also provide reactive punishment or disciplinary action against an individual or group within that congregation or tribe that has broken the norm/rule/principle/ideal.

A police officer may be expected to be knowledgeable about the various codes for city ordinances, state laws, or federal statutes, but they may not have to be knowledgeable about why those particular rules exist and why they are to be enforced as they are. A police officer may not know (or even have to know) the underlying legal or moral theories that justify their use of force or provide the basis of their standard operational procedures. Rather, the police officer only needs to be able to recognize when the law has been compromised or broken and why that may be the case so that, presumably and hopefully, the rest of the legal system’s processes can take place. This is similar to the potential inability of the religious leader to empathize despite the expectation of the authority figure to be able to give advice that is concrete, useful, and time-honored. There is no need for an authority figure to be comprehensively knowledgeable about their field or discipline.

The police officer may give proactive instruction by warning an individual or group that they are about to be detained, arrested, or ticketed for violating that norm/rule/principle/ideal. But the police officer will also provide reactive punishment or disciplinary action against an individual or group as soon as they are seen as breaking that norm/rule/principle/ideal.

A calculator (or a computer) is similarly only as good as the coding, algorithms, and software features that its creators provided it with. Whenever an error is committed or discovered, the calculator or computer program will typically let us know. In its most rudimentary forms, it would simply tell us that we had done something wrong. In more recent forms, it gives us some suggestions that may help us find the answer we were looking for (or at least how to better ask the question).

These three examples clearly demonstrate that an ‘authority figure’ is someone, some object, some event, or some process that guides or regulates the behavior, motion, or interactions of something else by recognizing when something has gone astray or when there is a need for advice. But the authority figure does not need to be knowledgeable about the origins, functions, and most recent developments of its field of study or discipline.

In contrast, let us consider a few examples of Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). SMEs are expected to have a certain level of knowledge about their field of study or discipline. For instance, lawyers are expected to understand the historical, social, and political development of law as a human phenomenon. They must continually earn educational credits to retain their ability to practice law. They must also uphold strict ethical norms and protocols. They have to know exactly what they can and cannot do as well as how best to represent their clients. If you ask a lawyer a direct question about a particular law, they are expected to know the answer (or at least how to argue convincingly for a particular answer).

Individuals designated as subject matter experts are typically sought out by others interested in leveraging their unique expertise to solve specific problems or help meet upcoming or anticipated challenges. We can say the same about the brain surgeon or the rocket scientist. Even with novel developments in their field or discipline, they are expected to be able to accurately forecast potential scenarios of interest or concern (or at least their complications). The authority figure is not expected to be similarly capable (albeit it is a huge plus if they are able to do so).

All of this shows that there are important conceptual and philosophical differences between authority figures and SMEs. As a result, we cannot and should not use these terms interchangeably, lest we risk doing damage to language or sacrificing clarity and nuance in favor of efficiency/laziness.

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