Appeals to authority and skepticism

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Ken Fabos
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Appeals to authority and skepticism

Post by Ken Fabos » Fri Oct 14, 2016 1:11 am

It's a common claim that appealing to authority (in this case with regard to climate change science but more broadly too) is fallacious and that such arguments therefore have no weight. I think that is incorrect and that, except for working scientists, it is not only correct to defer to the mainstream expert advice, for those who hold positions of trust, responsibility and decision making power to fail to take account of expert advice - where that advice warns of potential harms arising as consequences from their decisions - it can be so wrong as to be criminally negligent. And even for working scientists I think it is wrong to automatically presume the work of their professional colleages, that has been done within the framework of professional standards, should not be accepted until personally verified by applied skepticism. It should be provisionally accepted and, where appropriate, verified or contested after application of their own skills and time. It is, or should be, considered professional misconduct to misrepresent the mainstream, accepted conclusions of their professional colleagues or misrepresent their own work as being being widely accepted or representative of the professional consensus.

Simply because witholding judgement about the validity of expert advice paralyses decision making it is dangerous in practice. There are strong legal precedents around liability for harms arising from decisions made contrary to best available expert advice - even if our legal systems tend not to be well suited for assigning liability for a problem of this complexity, magnitude and multi-generational time scale; liability tends to be assigned after harms have occurred at smaller scales and those precedents used to prevent harms continuing at larger scales. Yet the essential legal principle is there.

For working scientists within a complex multidisciplinary subject like climate science I suggest a complete personal verification of every element is not possible and nor is it necessary; specific elements are verified piece by piece by applied skepticism but the whole body of knowledge is not. It is verified in aggregate by the accumulation of it's elements being verified piece by piece.

Skepticism is one way to provide solid grounding for a body of knowledge but it is not the only way - students learn how fundamental understandings came about and why they are valid without necessarily subjecting it to strict 'skeptical' examination. it would certainly be a serious mistake for them to reject those understandings until and unless they personally verify them.

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Re: Appeals to authority and skepticism

Post by Gord » Fri Oct 14, 2016 1:41 am

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_from_authority
An argument from authority (Latin: argumentum ad verecundiam), also called an appeal to authority, is a common type of argument which can be fallacious, such as when an authority is cited on a topic outside their area of expertise or when the authority cited is not a true expert....

...In the Western rationalistic tradition and in early modern philosophy, appealing to authority was generally considered a logical fallacy.
More recently, logic textbooks have shifted to a less blanket approach to these arguments, now often referring to the fallacy as the "Argument from Unqualified Authority" or the "Argument from Unreliable Authority".

However, these are still not the only recognized forms of appeal to authority. For example, a 2012 guidebook on philosophical logic describes appeals to authority not merely as arguments from unqualified or unreliable authority, but as arguments from authority in general. In addition to appeals lacking evidence of the authority's reliability, the book states that arguments from authority are fallacious if there is a lack of "good evidence" that the authorities appealed to possess "adequate justification for their views." Other recognized fallacious arguments from authority include when authorities disagree on the subject (except for a lone wolf), and when the authority is misquoted.
Note that I removed eight numbered footnotes from these quotes because I didn't want to post those links as well as the text I've quoted. Wikipedia has rules governing the verifiablity and reliability of the sources it requests for the information posted in its articles: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Help:Intr ... i_Markup/1

There's one particularly interesting discussion on the Talk page for https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_from_authority regarding a quote by Carl Sagan. Someone suggested it should be removed because it was itself an appeal to authority. Others commented:
What Sagan wrote here is very elementary stuff. Any scientist who does not know this is grossly incompetent. And Sagan, as a popularizer, knew how to say it. When you claim that Sagan was not an expert on this, you are saying that he was not competent to do his own job as a scientist.
By the way, Galileo used to emphasize the same point very much. I guess he wasn't competent either. --Hob Gadling (talk) 14:31, 29 September 2016 (UTC
)
Furthermore, the basic argument being used to justify deleting Sagan is flawed. "Argument from authority" does not derive from whether the individual is or is not an authority, but rather from whether the arguer and audience thinks he is. Thus "the Pope says X" is an argument from authority when used by or aimed at individuals who recognize the authority of the Pope. It wouldn't be an argument from authority to a Mormon, just as "Joseph Smith said" isn't an argument from authority to a roman catholic. --Guy Macon (talk) 17:39, 29 September 2016 (UTC)
Yeah it's frankly bizarre that anybody would try to argue that we can't cite scientists on scientific procedure. Unsurprising that the guy trying to do it has gotten multiple bans in the past. PraiseTheShroom (talk) 02:59, 30 September 2016 (UTC)
Most scientists are extremely incompetent about everything that is even the tiniest bit outside their own field and the many instances of Carl Sagan doing half-baked philosophy on television are a great example of this Sagan himself is quite often quoted as an argument from authority.
I am working on a video about this topic and am going to show this quote on Wikipedia as an example. But I thought I'd better try to remove it at least once so I don't get brain-dead defenders of Wikipedia telling me its open for anyone to edit and fix errors like this. It's not. BenMcLean (talk) 16:42, 8 October 2016 (UTC)
The fact that you completely ignored my counterargument ("the basic argument being used to justify deleting Sagan is flawed. 'Argument from authority' does not derive from whether the individual is or is not an authority, but rather from whether the arguer and audience thinks he is.") and instead responded with an insult ("brain-dead defenders of Wikipedia") has been duly noted. I refer you to the reply given in the case of Arkell v. Pressdram. --Guy Macon (talk) 21:23, 8 October 2016 (UTC)
The reference to "the reply given in the case of Arkell v. Pressdram" can be understood by reading this article: http://www.lettersofnote.com/2013/08/ar ... sdram.html (If one finds the brief piece too long to bother reading, just skip down near the end.)

And this is the quote from Carl Sagan that the posters were discussing: "One of the great commandments of science is, 'Mistrust arguments from authority.' ... Too many such arguments have proved too painfully wrong. Authorities must prove their contentions like everybody else."
"Knowledge grows through infinite timelessness" -- the random fictional Deepak Chopra quote site
"Imagine an ennobling of what could be" -- the New Age BS Generator site
"You are also taking my words out of context." -- Justin
"Nullius in verba" -- The Royal Society ["take nobody's word for it"]
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Re: Appeals to authority and skepticism

Post by Ken Fabos » Fri Oct 14, 2016 5:49 am

"One of the great commandments of science is, 'Mistrust arguments from authority.' ... Too many such arguments have proved too painfully wrong. Authorities must prove their contentions like everybody else."
I would say that within their profession, scientists must prove their contentions to have them accepted. It is unrealistic to expect or require that to apply to non-experts in assessing the broadly accepted contentions within that profession - and the decision making powers to deal with the climate problem are in the hands of non-experts. For those charged with decision making on our behalf to work from a basis of mistrust, when they do not have the capability to independently and personally assess those contentions prevents appropriate decisions being made and, unless the field itself has high levels of disagreement and uncertainty - and about the fundamentals climate science doesn't - it would be a gross dereliction. Because the consequences lead to physical and financial harms that could and should have been avoidable.

I would suggest that the "too many instances" of well established scientific knowledge being painfully wrong is gross exaggeration. For a field like climatology where there is so much scrutiny, including by independent panels within prestigious and respected science advisory bodies like the US National Academy of Sciences and UK's Royal Society it is mistrusting it that should be considered painfully wrong. Any mistrust by those charged with decision making on this should be and has been addressed to such bodies: their assessments should be respected. Or else decision/policy making is paralysed.

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Re: Appeals to authority and skepticism

Post by Gord » Fri Oct 14, 2016 9:17 am

Ken Fabos wrote:I would suggest that the "too many instances" of well established scientific knowledge being painfully wrong is gross exaggeration.
"Too many" is a subjective expression. One person might think a single instance is too many, and another might find a hundred to be acceptable.
"Knowledge grows through infinite timelessness" -- the random fictional Deepak Chopra quote site
"Imagine an ennobling of what could be" -- the New Age BS Generator site
"You are also taking my words out of context." -- Justin
"Nullius in verba" -- The Royal Society ["take nobody's word for it"]
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Re: Appeals to authority and skepticism

Post by Paul Anthony » Fri Oct 14, 2016 5:15 pm

For most people, "scientific knowledge" is what they read in main-stream media. Very few people have the time or expertise to read scientific journals, so too many people accept the New York Times or USA Today as authorities. I do not apologize for questioning the accuracy of such sources.
Christians, Jews and Muslims are raised to believe what they are taught because "it is written". As an author, I can attest to the fallacy of that. I've written several books, but my words are not authoritative just because I wrote them.
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Re: Appeals to authority and skepticism

Post by bobbo_the_Pragmatist » Fri Oct 14, 2016 8:10 pm

An appeal to authority.

I think we all agree that an appeal to faulty/unqualified authority is always wrong? So the issue is the pros and cons of appealing to qualified authorities????

My question would be: whats the alternative?

Silly discussion really.
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Re: Appeals to authority and skepticism

Post by OlegTheBatty » Fri Oct 14, 2016 11:01 pm

bobbo_the_Pragmatist wrote:An appeal to authority.

I think we all agree that an appeal to faulty/unqualified authority is always wrong? So the issue is the pros and cons of appealing to qualified authorities????

My question would be: whats the alternative?

Silly discussion really.
Where is the dividing line between 'accepted authority' and 'not an accepted authority'?

If a physicist breeds prize winning roses, is she an expert in breeding roses? Would it be a fallacy to cite her work in a discussion on horticulture?
. . . with the satisfied air of a man who thinks he has an idea of his own because he has commented on the idea of another . . . - Alexandre Dumas 'The Count of Monte Cristo"

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.......................Doesn't matter how often I'm proved wrong.................... ~ bobbo the pragmatist

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Re: Appeals to authority and skepticism

Post by bobbo_the_Pragmatist » Fri Oct 14, 2016 11:23 pm

Oleg: you are dithering at the edge.

Of course, if the qualification of the authority is disputed THEN THAT is the issue. It gets resolved/agreed to or not...and the dialectic continues.

Simple.
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Re: Appeals to authority and skepticism

Post by Gord » Sat Oct 15, 2016 1:51 am

OlegTheBatty wrote:If a physicist breeds prize winning roses, is she an expert in breeding roses?
Yyyyyyes? Maybeeeee?

ex·pert
ˈekˌspərt
noun

1. a person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area.

So, if you win prizes, you probably have a "comprehensive and authoritative skill" in something. It depends on the quality of your competitors, really. I have a trophy for speedskating, but I was never any good at speedskating -- I was just the only person in my age category. If there'd been another participant in my category, I would have come in second.
"Knowledge grows through infinite timelessness" -- the random fictional Deepak Chopra quote site
"Imagine an ennobling of what could be" -- the New Age BS Generator site
"You are also taking my words out of context." -- Justin
"Nullius in verba" -- The Royal Society ["take nobody's word for it"]
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Re: Appeals to authority and skepticism

Post by OlegTheBatty » Sat Oct 15, 2016 8:01 pm

Gord wrote:
OlegTheBatty wrote:If a physicist breeds prize winning roses, is she an expert in breeding roses?
Yyyyyyes? Maybeeeee?

ex·pert
ˈekˌspərt
noun

1. a person who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area.

So, if you win prizes, you probably have a "comprehensive and authoritative skill" in something. It depends on the quality of your competitors, really. I have a trophy for speedskating, but I was never any good at speedskating -- I was just the only person in my age category. If there'd been another participant in my category, I would have come in second.
My example was deliberately ambiguous, as there is a big element of luck in breeding prize-winning flowers.

A person can be an expert in areas that are not their primary field, so blanket avowals or disavowals don't really define expertise. Their body of relevant work does (and the data).
. . . with the satisfied air of a man who thinks he has an idea of his own because he has commented on the idea of another . . . - Alexandre Dumas 'The Count of Monte Cristo"

There is no statement so absurd that it has not been uttered by some philosopher. - Cicero

.......................Doesn't matter how often I'm proved wrong.................... ~ bobbo the pragmatist

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Re: Appeals to authority and skepticism

Post by Ken Fabos » Sat Oct 15, 2016 8:37 pm

Where is the dividing line between 'accepted authority' and 'not an accepted authority'?

If a physicist breeds prize winning roses, is she an expert in breeding roses? Would it be a fallacy to cite her work in a discussion on horticulture?
If she breeds prize winning roses then it sounds like she has demonstrated and peer recognised expertise - although I suppose someone could just get lucky with amateur rose breeding.

But sure, who is an accepted authority can get blurry, especially when you step outside the accredited institutions and the credentialed scientists working in them or of peer reviewed publication. Recognition of their contributions by those 'inside' peers of un-credentialed 'outside' experts would surely count. In the case of climate change governments (and various officeholders) have commissioned studies and reports through accredited institutions - institutions that specifically study climate and climate change related issues, reports their authors take professional responsibility for - and which remain open for review and critique. There are codes of conduct and bodies overseeing professional standards as well as institutions like NAS and Royal Society that have long and distinguished histories - and deserved reputations - for undertaking reviews and advising governments on scientific issues that have wider policy significance. It looks to me like reviews they have done included 'inside' experts as well as 'outside' ones who have skills appropriate for rigorous examination of data and methodology. Such reviews are themselves open for wider scrutiny.

Ordinary people can believe what they want but people who hold positions of trust and responsibility do not - my essential point is that for them to do their jobs responsibly they cannot reject the mainstream advice on the basis of doing so being undue deference to authority that they themselves have not personally reviewed and confirmed. The mainstream advice would be those commissioned studies and reports - and if requesting their own it should preferentially be through those accredited institutions; commissioning them from someone that holds appropriate qualifications but provides conclusions quite different to the already available studies and reports is probably a breach of professional standards for the one making the official request and potentially for the 'maverick' expert if he or she misrepresents their own work and/or the work of her peers.

For the maverick ideas and dissenting professional opinions there are legitimate means of presenting and arguing them; presenting them as reports and advice to office holders in positions of trust as representative of the available professional advice would be a form of professional misconduct for both them and potentially for whoever selected them in preference to experts who would keep their advice within the bounds of what is broadly accepted within their field of expertise.
Last edited by Ken Fabos on Sat Oct 15, 2016 8:54 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Appeals to authority and skepticism

Post by Paul Anthony » Sat Oct 15, 2016 8:48 pm

Ken, based on what you've posted Galileo should not be considered an authority? (At least not in his lifetime).

The "mavericks" have often been proven right, but not quickly.
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Re: Appeals to authority and skepticism

Post by Ken Fabos » Sat Oct 15, 2016 9:12 pm

Ken, based on what you've posted Galileo should not be considered an authority? (At least not in his lifetime).

The "mavericks" have often been proven right, but not quickly.
I think that Galileo example is in a context so different from our current one as to be meaningless; the entire body of well grounded knowledge is vastly expanded and the institutions and practices of current day science is vastly different from that of Galileo's time. The church is not the authoritative voice in our modern context and scientific "authority" speaks within a professional code of conduct, referencing a huge body of well scrutinised knowledge that could be seen as post-skeptical. The essential physics and chemistry of climatology is grounded so solidly that it's not a matter of time for 'maverick' notions to overturn them. In our modern context there has been plenty of time for climate science fundamentals to be overturned if there were sufficiently solid grounds for doing so. Delay of crucial policy decisions until mavericks are disproven is just a variant form of dithering. If it's not actionable criminal negligence.

I think I would dispute the "often", especially within a field of study that has been very thoroughly scrutinised within our leading institutions.

(just did some editing for clarity)

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Re: Appeals to authority and skepticism

Post by bobbo_the_Pragmatist » Sat Oct 15, 2016 10:11 pm

Good catch and post. I was going to quibble about "often" as well. Good sound reflection.
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Re: Appeals to authority and skepticism

Post by Ken Fabos » Sun Oct 16, 2016 10:38 pm

Sagan-
"One of the great commandments of science is, 'Mistrust arguments from authority.' ... Too many such arguments have proved too painfully wrong. Authorities must prove their contentions like everybody else."
I haven't read that Sagan truism in context but I think that, whilst it has the ring of truthiness it really needs that fuller context to be a "great commandment". Perhaps, as a kind of authority, he needed to prove that contention - and do so within the context of science as it is practised in recent times.

As in my comment to Paul about Galileo, I think many of the commonly cited historic examples of established knowledge (arguments from authority) being "painfully wrong" don't really apply here and now and aren't grounds for opposing action on the basis of what we do know. It's not an armchair philosophical argument about what we can and can't know but a very serious practical debate about persistent and consistent expert advice about drastically changing the global climate system in ways that are ongoing, currently at the highest rate so far, are cumulative and irreversible even when the emissions stop - but that can be limited by changing how we make and use energy. Delay for absolute certainties and unanimous agreement - when we are not going to get them - is not the default, conservative, safest and most sensible option. "Painfully wrong" in this case applies far better to misplaced mistrust in the authority of consistent expert advice about how serious messing with the atmosphere's GHG levels really is.