Sunday, September 13, 2020

Arguing from Authoritah

I sometimes get frustrated by common logical misunderstandings. Here's one that just boils my butternut squash: when people think that, since there are fallacies of appealing to authority, all appeals to authority are fallacious. This is not the case. In informal logic (inductive and abductive inference) appeals to authority are fallacious when the authority is an authority in an unrelated field. The fallacy does not rest in the appeal to authority per se but it in the irrelevancy of the authority's authority. For example, if you want to find out whether Newton or Leibniz discovered calculus first, I wouldn't ask someone who's an authority in pharmacological science. Of course, this person may have researched the subject such that they are uniquely situated to answer the question, but if we appeal to the fact that she is an authority, by virtue of her standing in pharmacology, we commit a fallacious appeal to authority.

That may seem easy, but people tend to strongly react against it. Here, for example, is a standard example of a fallacious appeal to authority. 

See, Einstein was a physicist. His area where he could speak as an authority is physics and other closely related fields. He was neither an expert nor an authority in political science or international diplomacy. Was he really, really smart? Yes, of course. Shouldn't we accept his claims about political science and international diplomacy by virtue of his extreme smartness? NO. That is a fallacious appeal to authority. His statement might be right (spoiler: it isn't), he might even be in a good position to affirm it, but it is outside his field of expertise. This is precisely why he declined the offer to be one of the first presidents of Israel.

But there are valid appeals to authority. Traditionally in Western civilization arguments from authority have been considered the weakest possible type of argument, at least according to the medieval Christian theologians. The reason it's extremely weak is because it doesn't involve you coming into direct contact with the truth of a matter: you're just accepting it because someone else has supposedly come into contact with it. But it's still a valid argument merely because, well, let's let Asimov say it:

What this counts for is a matter of dispute among philosophers. There are plenty who say that it only has relevance alongside other arguments. Others say it has strength by itself, but not so much to overturn an assertion. And some just reject the whole shebang.

Where people tend to gloss over the distinctions between valid and invalid appeals to authority is in appeals to science. Authority, supposedly, is of the old system, but science and a rejection of authority is the new system. Ignoring the point that the old system explicitly specified valid arguments from authority as the weakest of all arguments, science is completely beholden to authority. The glory and strength of science comes from its ability to challenge authorities -- background assumptions, traditional modes of understanding -- but of course the individual scientist cannot challenge all authorities. In order to get any work done, she has to accept the vast majority of claims on the basis of the authority of those who made them. She has to build up from what others have already accomplished, and this requires her to accept their claims on the basis of their authority. And of course the non-scientist has to accept scientific claims on the basis of the authority of the scientists who make the claims and the strong authority of science in general. I'm not challenging science at all, by the way, I'm just pointing out that a) appealing to authority isn't intrinsically bad and b) appeals to authority cannot realistically be removed, even from science. If your concept of science doesn't allow this, you're probably thinking of it as fundamentally iconoclastic rather than truth seeking. (Having said that, I'm writing these posts because I thoroughly enjoy telling people that they're wrong. So maybe we're even.)

The rabbit hole goes much deeper, of course. Does all this apply to individual authorities, or should it be reserved for the consensus of authorities? Can the collective efforts of the scientific community avoid appealing to authority even if the individual scientist can't? And who gets to decide who qualifies as an authority -- and who gave them that authority?

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