Unappealing Authority, Or Whom Can You Trust?

In our modern day and age we face a plethora of social and political issues that revolve around science. Whether the weather or questions of global warming, forest management, wildlife management, economic crunches, morbid obesity, dog training, ear wax, or what have you, the arguments frequently rely on the expertise of authorities.

An “authority” is an expert with uncommon knowledge about a particular subject. In our modern day and age, authorities often bear Ph.D. degrees and publish in peer reviewed journals, both of which are de facto qualifications for their lofty perch.

Of course, certain recognized authorities may be completely wrong in their scientific assessments, or stray beyond their field of expertise, or may be utter charlatans. Or they may be unappreciated geniuses whose bullseye pronouncements are largely ignored.

In our modern day and age, sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which.

The subject of authority and the “proper role” of scientists was broached in a recent article in the New York Times (a media authority of debatable sagacity). The essay by John Tierney touches on Obama’s new science advisors and raises some pertinent questions:

Politics in the Guise of Pure Science

By JOHN TIERNEY, NY Times, February 23, 2009 [here]

Why, since President Obama promised to “restore science to its rightful place” in Washington, do some things feel not quite right?

First there was Steven Chu, the physicist and new energy secretary, warning The Los Angeles Times that climate change could make water so scarce by century’s end that “there’s no more agriculture in California” and no way to keep the state’s cities going, either.

Then there was the hearing in the Senate to confirm another physicist, John Holdren, to be the president’s science adviser. Dr. Holdren was asked about some of his gloomy neo-Malthusian warnings in the past, like his calculation in the 1980s that famines due to climate change could leave a billion people dead by 2020. Did he still believe that?

“I think it is unlikely to happen,” Dr. Holdren told the senators, but he insisted that it was still “a possibility” that “we should work energetically to avoid.”

Well, I suppose it never hurts to go on the record in opposition to a billion imaginary deaths. But I have a more immediate concern: Will Mr. Obama’s scientific counselors give him realistic plans for dealing with global warming and other threats? To borrow a term from Roger Pielke Jr.: Can these scientists be honest brokers?

Dr. Pielke, a professor in the environmental studies program at the University of Colorado, is the author of “The Honest Broker,” a book arguing that most scientists are fundamentally mistaken about their role in political debates. As a result, he says, they’re jeopardizing their credibility while impeding solutions to problems like global warming.

There is a logical fallacy in that last sentence. Global warming is not a problem. It thus requires no “solutions.” Moreover, proffered “solutions” are likely to have zero effect on global climate anyway.

I tell you these things based on my own expert judgment of the matter. You can trust me or not. And you can cite this essay as your source of authority if you like.

If you do that, or cite any other authority in the debate, you may unwittingly fall prey to argumentum ad verecundiam, the logical fallacy of Appeal to Authority.

According to the Wikipedia (another modern authority) [here] Appeal to Authority is:

… one method of obtaining propositional knowledge, but a fallacy in regard to syllogistic logic, because the validity of a syllogism is independent of the qualities of the source putting it forward.

That is, it doesn’t matter who said it, an argument is either true or false regardless.

Just because Einstein, or the Pope, or Oprah, or me, or any other authority says X, it doesn’t make X any more true or more false. X stands alone in its validity.

The opposite is also true. It is often argued that X is false because the proponent of X is a moron of the first order. That is known as an ad hominem attack. It may be true that so-and-so is a moron, but that does not mean that X is perforce false. Even morons find an acorn once in awhile.

It is also a fact that a consensus of authority does not make a proposition true. Just because everybody and their brother believe X with a burning passion, that does not make X true. Mass insanity is a common human condition. We don’t get to vote on the Truth, or more precisely, we can vote on it but that doesn’t make a proposition true (or false).

Popular opinion is frequently polled by pollsters and reported by reporters but Truth (and Falsity) are impervious to opinion.

The Appeal to Authority fallacy can be a troubling matter, especially to authorities. Experts got to where they are by dint of grueling study, hard work, and painful experience. They earned their perch, mostly (some of us are born geniuses, but not many).

That’s why the loftiest of experts (Wall Street bankers, for instance) get paid the big bucks.

[Note: I should credit Dr. Stangenberger of UC Berkeley for pointing out the NYT article to me, and Dr. Briggs (PhD from Cornell in Mathematical Statistics) for his authoritative discussion of the aforementioned logical fallacy [here]. Both of these gentlemen are bona fide experts, in my opinion, even if they don’t make the big bucks.]

The Appeal to Authority fallacy is also problematical for poor common sots like you and me, and for the morons in Congress, who are often called upon to make policy decisions that turn on complicated matters of science.

We appeal to authorities because they are there, and because they ostensibly have expert knowledge the rest of us lack. It makes sense to ask Dr. Science. It is likely that he knows more about it than anyone else.

And Dr. Science revels in the role. It is too much to ask experts to refrain from politics. They hold the shining lamp; why shouldn’t they cast out the darkness? It is their duty, calling, responsibility, and preference to guide in matters pertaining to their expertise.

Mr. Tierney reports on Dr. Pielke’s book, “The Honest Broker”:

Most researchers, Dr. Pielke writes, like to think of themselves in one of two roles: as a pure researcher who remains aloof from messy politics, or an impartial arbiter offering expert answers to politicians’ questions. Either way, they believe their research can point the way to correct public policies, and sometimes it does — when the science is clear and people’s values aren’t in conflict.

But climate change, like most political issues, isn’t so simple. While most scientists agree that anthropogenic global warming is a threat, they’re not certain about its scale or its timing or its precise consequences (like the condition of California’s water supply in 2090). And while most members of the public want to avoid future harm from climate change, they have conflicting values about which sacrifices are worthwhile today.

A scientist can enter the fray by becoming an advocate for certain policies, like limits on carbon emissions or subsidies for wind power. That’s a perfectly legitimate role for scientists, as long as they acknowledge that they’re promoting their own agendas.

But too often, Dr. Pielke says, they pose as impartial experts pointing politicians to the only option that makes scientific sense. To bolster their case, they’re prone to exaggerate their expertise (like enumerating the catastrophes that would occur if their policies aren’t adopted), while denigrating their political opponents as “unqualified” or “unscientific.”

It appears that authorities are prone to engage in the Appeal to Authority fallacy as much or more than anybody. The most logical among us sometimes fall into logical traps when pushed, or even when not pushed.

Exacerbating the problem is the cynical and ironic gestalt of Postmodernism. The appeal to authority ran out of gas with the Dawn of our Postmodern Age. The assumed validity of abstract structures gave way to ironic tautologies of reflexive deconstructionism. There are no experts and everyone is an expert. Truly, subdialectic dematerialism rejects hierarchy and thus the narrative of expression is a self-sufficient semiotic paradox [here].

Expert textpert choking smokers
Don’t you think the joker laughs at you?

from I Am The Walrus - Lennon/McCartney

All of which imposes the question: whom can you trust?

One philosophical path out of the woods of confusion is pancritical rationalism [here]:

Pancritical rationalism (PCR), also called Comprehensively Critical Rationalism (CCR), is a development of critical rationalism and panrationalism originated by William Warren Bartley in his book The Retreat to Commitment. PCR attempts to work around the problem of ultimate commitment or infinite regress by decoupling criticism and justification. A pancritical rationalist holds all positions open to criticism, including PCR, and never resorts to authority for justification.

That translates to trust no one, decide for yourself, and then question yourself because you can’t trust you either.

That’s a little too cynical, even for me. We have to trust each other to some degree. The best path is to weigh the arguments themselves and not rely too much on the qualifications of the experts who make them.

At the same time, it doesn’t hurt to honor the experts who consistently make good arguments.

That’s what we try to do at W.I.S.E. We post the best arguments we can find (the cutting-edge science) and express our gratitude to the scientists responsible. We try not to ream the morons whose arguments are pathetic (although we slip up now and again, and always regret it afterwards — nobody is perfect).

And what role should scientists play in politics? Mr. Tierney writes:

Dr. Pielke suggests that scientists could do more good if, instead of discrediting rivals’ expertise, they acknowledge political differences and don’t expect them to be resolved by science. Instead of steering politicians to a preferred policy, these honest brokers would use their expertise to expand the array of technically feasible options.

That’s asking a lot. Scientists, like the rest of us, have to eat. We all tend towards actions that reward us. Scientists are incentivized by funding (like almost everyone else) and sky-is-falling dire reports garner more attention and funding than cool, calm, collected rationality.

It is a defect of our Postmodern Age that marketing trumps logic and rationality. In fact, it could be a defect of all Ages of Man — it’s just that recently we have perfected marketing while at the same time heaved rationality into the dustbin of history.

But hope springs eternal. Integrity is a rare jewel and not to be discarded lightly. It behooves us all to cling to the life preserver of rationality as best we can.

My expert advice: weigh the arguments, not the arguers.



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