In the study of logic and in philosophy, a logical fallacy is any argument that is erroneous in its logical structure and its effort at reasoning. That being said, this blog of mine will be focusing on one particular fallacy with relation to the matter at hand: Appeal to Authority or (latin) argumentum ad verecundiam.

So what is it? The appeal to Authority fallacy, simply put, is an erroneous argument made in rhetoric and education such as ‘something said by a person in authority must be true, because of the person’s authority/expertise on the field‘. At some times, statements such as this might be reasonable, for instance while talking about an expert scientific consensus on something empirical (taken that you have a good understanding of the subject matter), but in most other instances is likely to fail in logic.

You might be wondering as to why I’ve chosen this particular fallacy among a myriad of others? As you already might have had some hint from the title itself, my intention today will be to address the impact of authority in the very process of learning in the 21st century; the good as well as the bad, with a major focus on the health education sector within South Asia. Being a medical doctor who recently graduated from a medical school in Nepal, I’ve had varying experiences with authority myself. So may I start from the positive side?

The Benefit…….

Especially in the medical sector, if you ask any professional or student in most institutes in most places of South Asia, they will opine that authority is a must in this discipline. There is a set hierarchy, from the student being in the bottom most level and the professors residing at the highest. It is imperative for the student to strictly obey the ones above him until he himself becomes of authority one day.

That sounds reasonable doesn’t it, at least for the purpose of the structural stability of a service system? Imagine what would become of the military were authority to be abolished and every cadet and lieutenant were work on their own? There would be no order, and chaos would ensue in the line of battle.

Since the very inception of the discipline of medicine in antiquity, knowledge has been passed from an experienced and skilled master to an inexperienced and less-skilled apprentice or pupil. This is true of any discipline if we look back in history. What’s a better way to learn than to do so from someone deemed wiser than yourself?

This way is effective for many reasons. One being that for maintaining order as I’ve mentioned earlier on, and another being that the process of learning is faster with a master than when compared to learning without a master. Plato, Aristotle, Lao Tse, Hippocrates, Chanakya, Susruta Ibn Sinha, Ibn Batuta, Einstein, Alexander Fleming, Jonas Salk and the like all had teachers from whom they sought their wisdom and knowledge. Imagine the rate of human progress if these personalities were to have had to learn everything by themselves, without any sort of tutoring.

It is possible to learn something without a teacher or an expert, but the process will be slower. And it is naturally implied in a teacher-student relationship that the teacher has the immediate authority of the knowledge the pupil has come to gain, until and unless the pupil reaches the level of the teacher.

So authority is a human construct and is rather useful and thus cannot be completely discredited as only adversely affecting the process of learning. Authority eases the process of learning.

The Problem…….

I will reiterate what I wrote above, that it is naturally implied in a teacher-student relationship that the teacher has the immediate authority of the knowledge the pupil has come to seek.  The problem with this notion, in the 21st century at least, is that it is not always consistent.

Getting back to South Asia, many inconsistencies can be found in the sector of medical education. First of all, respect is demanded from the students rather than being implied. Second of all, it is assumed that pupils are consistently, completely null about the subject matter. Thirdly, questioning and academic dissent is somewhat frowned upon and lastly, teachers are not always updated themselves for them to pass on sound knowledge to their students.

 

Go back to the part where I’ve made the military analogy in order to explain the usefulness of authority for the purpose of maintaining order. While it may have been a useful comparison, and while it may work in many instances, it is not always consistent either. Because the discipline of medicine consists of both empirical science and art; that is to say both rational and creative thinking. Medicine needs more thinkers and philosophers and lesser orderlies. Authority and respect here is better if implied and not enforced like it has been normalized in majority of South Asian Medical schools.

Thinking for oneself, while also remaining conscious of the beneficial aspects of authority, is of utmost importance in today’s age of the internet. This is to ensure that we do not sway away from intellectual humility while we simultaneously learn to be creative thinkers.

Anecdote and Evidence…….

Such is the culture out here in the sub-continent, that we are taught to be morally obliged to a certain authority from an early age. Respect priests, respect your parents, your teachers or your relatives no matter how mean their personalities may be because it is assumed that the ‘collective’ is better than the ‘individual’. The enforcement and demand of respect or authority is validated by the society, so it’s nothing surprising for a teacher in this region to demand the same from their pupils.

Reflecting on my own life as a student, it is also important to note that my experience with different types of teachers and their differing personalities and qualities may also have fostered my understanding of the impact of authority in my region. Where there were encouraging and enthusiastic teachers, who implied respect and enjoyed teaching, I enjoyed the subject and did rather well as they were rather interactive and the classroom environment was less tense. Same was true for my peers.

On the other hand, in sessions with sulky or strict teachers who demanded respect and enforced authority despite the arrogant, bothersome or troublesome nature of their teaching methods, I used to perform less well as I would not enjoy their teaching methods for the same reason I wasn’t appealed by their demanding personalities. The atmosphere of stress created around them called for a self-study and self-study without an effective teacher is actually slower than expected.

It is not just my anecdotes which suggest that teaching methods do directly affect students’ performance in a subject, there are plenty of research which justify the scenario above. Implicit respect and authority (teacher-student interactive methods) in a class makes for a a much better and effective learning process than when compared to classes with enforced or demanded respect or authority (teacher-centered methods).

Viva Voce…….

For every medical student in the region, these two syllables are synonymous to what we can rightly call our worst nightmares! Such is the fear that Vivas in my part of the world deserve their own memes like the ones shown below.

viva-1viva2

Such is the nature of reality out here, that in most institutions, decisions for scoring in vivas are completely upto the examiner himself. If a student is not well dressed, if a student has a habit of making illustrative hand gestures, if a student says the word ‘however’ too much, if a student fumbles, if a student is in a state of nervous breakdown (which is natural and nothing to be ashamed of) he/she might be liable to failing as it may not be agreeable to some examiner’s standards, which is completely irrelevant to the candidate’s academic and curricular potentials. And the fact which upsets me the most, is that there are crude sadistic examiners who entertain themselves on students’ misery.

While Viva voce are effective strategies to help examiners screen students who display sufficient knowledge on a particular topic of interest, they pose the risk of unnecessary and preventable subjective biases, if not designed systematically. This could lead to even the most hard-working, talented and knowledgeable students to fail their exams for some or other subjective variable. Vivas need to be modeled strategically and they need to be rid of biases for them to be as effective as they were meant to be.

Old big shot professors from reputed institutes, big names, respectable people who set an air of dominance and ego in the room they reside in. When a student makes a small mistake, many examiners blow them out of proportion and humiliate them in front of their faculty and peers, which only discourages them. When a student coughs too much examiners get irritated and biased scores are thrown around. When an examiner makes a mistake and a candidate corrects him, marks may be deducted for he dared to question authority. If a patient lies about his symptoms in bedside vivas in clinical exams, the poor candidate is liable to fail even if he is well-versed in both theory and practicals.

Like I said before. No standards, no criteria, no objective rules; just plain subjectivity hijacked by authority, maintains the thin-ice on which a student’s career depends on. A very troubling revelation I came to experience during my final year of medicine. Although I was lucky enough to escape (pass) unscathed, it was rather unsettling to witness close friends and able peers who fell victim to the flawed model of examinations.

The Take-Home message……..

During my contract as a medical officer in TUTH Emergency, I happened to come across many foreign electives and exchange students who’d been posted there. Talking to them and from research, I came to learn that failing is not considered as humiliating as it is out here, in their part of the world (Sweden, Australia and New Zealand to name a few). Because I came to learn that in their region, failure was seen by many as part of life but in our authority-worshiping region, failure is constantly associated with social stigma.

And autority only makes it worse. That which is said by an old professor is taken as correct many times even in light of new updated evidence, in most colleges. When we answer questions, ‘it has to be exactly as written in a book’. When some students dare to think for themselves, they are humiliated, especially in Vivas and sometimes are even intentionally failed. Suicide rates among medical students in India alone is one of the highest in the world and I’m not even including data from other SAARC nations. The medical sector itself is a stressful field of service, and add to that an ever stagnant authority-conforming mentality, the stressors double in proportion.

 

 

Our region may be one of the fastest growing ones in the world, with rapidly advancing healthcare facilities and health tourism bringing in foreign wealth at an exponential rate, but what is the value of such growth when we ourselves are falling victim to it?

The take home message, simply put, is that the sole purpose of authority should be to ease the process of learning. Once authority itself becomes an obstacle or a pain for learning, we tend to face a troubling regression in the quality of all forms of education, let alone in that of medicine.

Reference

  1. Teaching Methods and Students’ Academic Performance
  2. Your Logical Fallacies
  3. Suicide among medical professionals in India
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