In the last ‘Fallacies’ entry we considered the appeal to popularity. In this entry we’ll look at a similar tactic known as the appeal to authority. This is a common argument used to shortcut any analysis of the issues and jump straight to the conclusion:
“Professor such-and-such thinks this is right so who are we to argue?”
There is some merit in this line of argument, especially when discussing complex issues about which most people know very little. We need to rely upon the judgement and opinions of experts simply because nobody has the time to study everything in enough depth to make informed decisions on all the topics that come up in modern society.
But if we don’t know enough to make our own decisions then we need some way to judge which expert does. This is no easy task.
It’s an old question that was first discussed (to the best of my knowledge) by Plato, an ancient Greek philosopher who covered it in his ‘Discourses’. Plato came to a rather unsatisfactory conclusion. He argued that the only way to judge the value of expert opinion is to become an expert yourself.
As we have seen this isn’t really an option. But if we want to make sense of the world we have to try because let’s face it – even experts can be fallible.
We have several basic problems here…
Expert in the right field
An expert in one field isn’t necessarily an expert in another. Indeed – the time and effort required to become an expert in any field means that it’s very unlikely that most people will be able to do it in more than one area of study. But it’s not enough to have a Ph.D. – you need to have the right Ph.D.
For example it is not uncommon for creationists to argue that some (admittedly not all that many) leading scientists deny evolution. But you’d be hard pushed to find an evolutionary biologist (or even a general biologist) to take their claims seriously. This was the crux of the problem with the 2005 school curriculum trial in Dover, Pennsylvania.
Although some members of the community and the school board wanted ‘Intelligent Design’ (the new incarnation of creationism) to be pushed on to the vulnerable minds of children in science classes, those who understood the issues (the teachers) refused. The case went to Court and (of course) the teachers won.
It’s not enough to cite an expert – it must be an expert in the appropriate area of study because nobody knows everything.
This was the problem with Bjorn Lomborg’s controversial work on climate change (The Skeptical Environmentalist, 2001 and Cool it, 2007). Lomborg is not a climate scientist, he has a Ph.D. in political science. The overwhelming majority of actual climatologists (those who understand climate science) reject his work out of hand and it’s not hard for even a layman to understand why.
His arguments contradict themselves (he can’t even make up his mind whether or not global warming is a good thing) and the evidence he uses to uphold one argument is conveniently ignored when he tries to make a different point without the merest hint of explanation.
None the less climate change deniers and right wing politicians regularly cite his work as an ‘appeal to authority’. This would be like asking someone with a Ph.D. in theology to recommend treatments for psychiatric patients, a ridiculous situation indeed. It isn’t reasonable to expect someone with no knowledge of the relevant field to be taken seriously when they make recommendations. None the less this is precisely what Archbishop John Sentamu did when he suggested in the UK’s House of Lords that exorcism should be available to psychiatric patients on the National Health Service.
Authority in the organisation
There are other types of authority to be wary of though. There’s the authority that comes from organisational structure – the boss.
As we all know people rise through the ranks in organisations for a variety of reasons and they’re not always the best person for the promotion. Managers are promoted because someone owes them a favour, because nobody else wants the job, because they have a good relationship with powerful outside funders or supporters or sometimes even because they know stuff.
Often though they are just in the right place at the right time. That’s not exactly a qualification for the status of expert. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has worked for incompetent managers and spent significant amounts of my time sorting out the messes they created.
The Peter Principle is the phenomenon of promoting people to the level of their own incompetence. The fact that John is a good technician doesn’t mean he will be able to manage other technicians or run a departmental budget. But he gets promoted (because of his technical ability) into a job that requires a completely different skillset – and John just can’t cut it.
But he doesn’t get sacked or demoted back to his former position. He just stays where he is. He’ll never climb any higher because he’s not good at his lower management job so he just stays there – perhaps for decades – making poor decisions and holding back his department’s progress. That’s the Peter principle at work. You’d be a fool to trust John’s judgement about anything to do with management. He’d be great at answering technical questions though. That’s his real area of expertise.
Experts are fallible
Even true experts are fallible. That’s why Alfred Russel Wallace (co-discoverer of the theory of evolution) was suckered by spiritism and spent much of his life vociferously supporting fraudulent mediums. He was good at what he did but he was far from perfect – just like the rest of us.
Whenever we try to assess the credibility of experts we come up against these sorts of problems and it’s genuinely difficult to know who to trust. It’s almost impossible to make that decision with absolute certainty. But there are some questions we can ask ourselves that may help:
Is this expert skilled in this particular area?
What do the majority of similairly trained experts think?
What does the evidence say?
How often has this person been right/wrong in the past?
If they’ve been wrong before have they been prepared to admit it?
Is this person ideologically driven?
Is this person financially driven to say this stuff?
Are there any other forms of bias you are aware of?
Does the expert use real data as evidence or just rely on stories and anecdote (you can make any point you like in a story)?
If you follow them and they are wrong – will there be a cost?
If you don’t follow them and they are right – will there be a cost?
What research could you do to check out their assumptions?
You see there’s much more to being right than merely being an expert or a boss.
The appeal to authority has merit – in fact it would be impossible to function in the modern world without trusting someone but it’s always a good idea to think carefully about which authority you choose to follow.
We have now reached the end of this blog series as originally planned. However I’ve enjoyed writing it so much I’m sure I’ll be adding to the ‘Fallacies’ blog category as time progresses.
About the ‘Fallacies’ series
The ‘Fallacies’ project was built up from a series of instalments that first appeared online during the summer of 2012. It is republished as part of a larger set of changes intended to rationalise the contents of several different blogs into just 2. The other remaining blog focuses mainly upon social care and mental health related issues. It can be found at http://www.TheCareGuy.com