Tuesday, September 16, 2014

No Higher Authority

Graduate Student Expertise

Sometime during graduate school, I became the expert. No, I did not understand everything. I still felt small, inexperienced, and sometimes quite dense around brilliant and experienced thermodynamicists, structural biologists, molecular biologists, crystallographers, and various other specialists. But at some point, after studying, experimenting, analyzing data, writing, and doing them all again and again, I knew a handful of things better than anyone else in the world. When something went wrong, I could go to my adviser, or to one of my associates, and ask for advice, encouragement, or even help, but I couldn't ask for answers. They didn't have them. No one did. I was the expert. I knew more and had better answers than anyone else on this very narrow, arcane subject. I had to trust myself.

I'm sure graduate school isn't the only place where a person can become an expert, but it's important to note the kind of expertise I'm talking about. It may not be a very important expertise--who cares about the preferential interactions of trimethylamine-N-oxide with potassium glutamate? Besides me, that is. Yet original research can result in a different kind of expertise than is typically acquired in professional programs where there is a relatively well-defined body of knowledge that everyone is expected to acquire to be called expert. It's like getting part way through law school and being asked to make a ruling for the Supreme Court. Way less important, but you are it. There is no higher authority to turn to for a decision. This is why graduate school is only the beginning for research scientists. Yeah, it's cool that you got through and got your PhD, but that's just permission to venture out on your own, not proof that you are a competent scientist. A PhD means you just might have picked up that skill of becoming your own ultimate authority on subjects where no one knows the answers.

So I have a PhD, and maybe I'm a scientist. Mostly, I'm a teacher, but I do occasionally help other scientists with their research, and I help a few undergraduates with some little projects when I can. But I did at least once have this amazing (and sometimes traumatic) experience of asking questions and digging at them until I became the expert.

Questioning Mormonism

I have lived my life with a brand of Mormonism that loves questions. Questions have been there since the very beginning. Asking has been the command since before I cared about knowing for myself and not relying on parents or teachers. Since I was a teenager I've bridled at implications that there are questions that shouldn't be asked, or things that should just be accepted without trying to understand the reasons, or that there are unimportant questions (just because someone else thinks they are trivial). I felt like people with those attitudes didn't really understand Mormonism, and I willingly joined the quote wars to show that my viewpoint was supported by scripture and General Authorities. Now I tend to fight on my turf and worry less about differences, but there are times and places where the tension still causes me distress.

I'll mention a fact that almost doesn't need mentioning--in the LDS church, only the president of the church can speak with conclusive authority on any matter of policy, doctrine, or theology. Until you are the prophet, there is always a higher ecclesiastical authority who can overrule your answers. And even then, God can overrule the prophet. So until you are God, there is always a higher authority. So what's the purpose of learning to find answers for yourself? Why take the risk of being wrong and being corrected or even abused? Yes, it feels good to find answers, but I think there is eternal purpose to learning to be the expert.

God is in the business of making independent creators. It seems likely to me that the cosmos is so vast and varied that even God, with his life and knowledge reaching toward eternity, can never know everything that is or will be. If this is the case, then God is bent on making us the experts. He will raise us up until we are learning things that not even the Gods know, yet. We can turn to each other for advice, encouragement, or even help, but there will be no higher authority.

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