Argument Against Authority

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Also Known As: Argument Against Expertise

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This fallacy occurs when a person rejects a claim simply because it is made by an authority/expert. It has the following form:

 

Premise 1: A is an authority/expert in field F.

Premise 2: A makes claim C in field F.

Conclusion: Claim C is false.

 

This fallacy can be seen as the reverse of a Fallacious Appeal to Authority. In that fallacy, an unqualified person’s claim is accepted because they are mistakenly attributed expertise. In this fallacy, a qualified person’s claim is rejected because of their correctly attributed expertise. That is poor reasoning can be illustrated with an example from geometry:

 

Premise 1: Euclid is an expert on geometry.

Premise 2: Euclid claims that triangles have three sides.

Conclusion: Triangles do not have three sides.

 

This fallacy has the unusual feature of not only being bad reasoning but also reasoning in which the premises will often support the rejection of the conclusion. This is because the target of this fallacy tends to be a qualified expert speaking in their field and, as such, someone who is likely to be right. But not guaranteed to be right.

There are rational grounds for doubting experts, as discussed in the Fallacious Appeal to Authority. When a person rationally applies the standards of assessing an (alleged) expert and determines that the expert lacks credibility, they would not be committing this fallacy. But to reject a claim solely because of the source is always a fallacy (usually an ad hominem) and rejecting a claim because it was made by an expert would be doubly fallacious if there were such a thing. But this fallacy can have great psychological force and explaining this takes us to visit our good, dead friend Socrates in ancient Athens.

One of Socrates’ friends went to the oracle of Delphi and asked them who was the wisest of men. It was, of course, Socrates. While many would accept such praise, Socrates believed that the gods were wrong and set out to disprove them by finding someone wiser. He questioned the poets, the politicians, the craftspeople, and anyone who would speak with him. He found everyone believed they knew far more than they did and the more ignorant a person, the more they believed they knew. Reflecting on this, Socrates concluded that the gods were right: he was the wisest because he knew that he knew nothing, that his infinite ignorance eclipsed what little he knew. While some were grateful to Socrates, more were outraged and saw to it that he was put on trial and sentenced to death.

While we now have smart phones, people have not changed since those times: most believe they know far more than they do, and they resent those who would disagree. Technology has made this worse—thanks to the “university of Google” and social media, people not only doubt the experts, but regard themselves as equal to or better than them.

We can continue our philosophical adventure by visiting our good dead friend John Locke. While Locke is best known for “life, liberty and property” he also wrote on enthusiasm. By “enthusiasm” he did not mean being really excited about your favorite sports team or getting free guacamole. He was concerned with the tendency to believe a claim because how strongly one feels it to be true. While Locke, as a devout Christian,  focused on religion, he held to a very sensible general principle that one should believe in proportion to the evidence rather than in proportion to the strength of feeling.

While psychologists and cognitive scientists have examined the various cognitive biases that contribute to what Locke calls enthusiasm, his basic idea is still correct: believing based on strong feeling is not a rational way to form beliefs. True beliefs can be backed up with evidence and reason. The power of this enthusiasm leads people to believe based on the strength of their feelings and they will often be wrong. This leads people to reject what experts claim when there is disagreement. They will feel that they are right and that their strong feeling counts more than expertise.

Americans, like me, are especially prone to rejecting experts and a mistaken conception of democracy serves to fuel this fallacy. While American political philosophy professes that everyone is equal and everyone has a right to free expression, these are often wrongly interpreted as everyone being equal in knowledge and that all opinions are equally good (although each of use sees our opinion as first among equals). The science fiction writer Isaac Asimov noted this: “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

A clever tactic is to misuse the standards discussed under the Fallacious Appeal to Authority and accuse the targeted expert of failing to meet those standards. While this could be done in good faith ignorance, this will usually be a bad faith tactic involving lies or disinformation. This tactic can create the illusion of logical force since it resembles the correct way to assess an alleged expert. It will also have the advantage of psychological force, since it is not constrained by the requirements of a good faith assessment. This allows for the use of other fallacies when engaged in the bad faith criticism.

As would be expected, Ad Hominem attacks are often made on experts to provide fallacious justification for rejecting their claims. For example, an expert might be accused of being whatever the boogeyman of the day is to “refute” their claims. Wicked Motive is also a popular addition to this fallacy. For example, an expert in climate change might be accused of the wicked motive of trying to destroy capitalism to “refute” their claims about climate science. As another example, a business expert might be accused of the wicked motive of wanting to exploit workers to “refute” their claims about business. The Fallacy Fallacy is also useful here: a critic could claim that those who believe the expert’s claim are committing a Fallacious Appeal to Authority and then conclude, fallaciously, that the expert’s claim is false.

As a final point, this fallacy can be committed even if the target is not an expert. In this case, the person committing the fallacy would have a false premise (that the person making the claim is an expert in the field) and be making an error of reasoning (that the alleged expert is wrong because they are allegedly an expert).

 

Defense: This fallacy is often self-inflicted due to arrogant ignorance.  Fortunately, a fundamental lesson of philosophy provides an excellent defense: realizing, as Socrates did, that wisdom is recognizing that we know nothing relative to the infinity of what we do not know. This is not to embrace empty skepticism in which everything is doubted, but to accept a healthy skepticism of the extent of our own knowledge and to develop a willingness to listen to those who (probably) have knowledge.

This fallacy is also often accepted because of the incitement of strong feelings about an expert’s claims. This can be self-inflicted or caused by others. The defense against this is not to become unfeeling. It is to be aware that feelings are not evidence and to try to believe proportional to the evidence and not our enthusiasm. This is difficult to do since it is hard to fight feelings. But rational decision making that can be a matter of life or death requires it. How we feel about pandemics, guns, economics, vaccines, or climate change does not tell us which claims about them are true.

For my fellow Americans, the defense is not to reject democracy or freedom of expression but to realize that neither entail that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” We can accept democracy and accept that people have the right to express themselves, but the truth of a claim is not decided by a vote nor is any opinion automatically as good as another just because they can be freely expressed. Most people get this in what they see as practical matters: while some people attempt to do their own dentistry, build rockets, or rewire their house, most realize that root canals, major electrical work and rockets are best left to people who know what they are doing. We turn to dentists, electricians, and engineers because they are experts. We should get that the same applies beyond these areas. This is not to say that we should blindly believe the experts, but that we should accept claims made by credible experts over our own ignorance.

 

Example #1

Seth: “Yeah, that epidemiologist says that we need to get vaccinated to stop the Squirrel Pox pandemic, but I have done my own research. So, I am not getting vaccinated. I am sure that because I work out, I will be fine.”

Example #2

Yolanda: “I guess people are still mad about the election.”

Jeff: “I am. I did my research and I know that the election was stolen.”

Yolanda: “What sort of research? Experts across the country looked for evidence and there were almost a hundred court cases. Nothing significant was found.”

Jeff: “I figured you would trust the ‘experts.’ But I did my own research and I know they are wrong. Those experts think too much and don’t do the kind of research I do. Also, they are biased and full of hate.”

Yolanda: “You keep talking about your research. What research did you do?”

Jeff: “I did my research. You should, too.”

Example #3

Interviewer: “As I am sure you know, there has been some turmoil in Agrabah. Would you favor using military force against the country if doing so was in America’s interest?”

Don: “Ah, yes. They are saying a lot about the trouble in Agrabah.”

Interviewer: “When I interviewed foreign policy experts, they said it would be impossible to use force against Agrabah.”

Don: “Those pointy-heads don’t know anything. We are the most powerful country in the world, and we could wipe Agrabah off the map. Right off the map.”

Interviewer: “So, you know a lot about foreign policy?”

Don: “I sure do.”

Example #4

Rick: “Hey, can you pick up some chips when you go to the store?”

George: “Sure. What kind?”

Rick: “Salt & vinegar chips. Check to make sure that they are not GMO. Also, check to make sure they are organic, vegan, free-range and cruelty free.”

George: “Why no GMO? They are safe. Well, as safe as non-GMO food.”

Rick: “Who says they are safe?”

George: “Scientists and researchers.”

Rick: “I’ve Googled GMO a lot. I know the truth. I’m not going to believe those researchers. This YouTuber has this video that shows how eating GMO foods can change your genes!”

George: “I don’t think food works like that. Also, who is this YouTuber?”

Rick: “They talk about health. Like how healing candles can cure cancer.”

George: “Do they have a degree in genetics or something?”

Rick: “No. But that is why I trust her.”

George: “Does she sell candles?”

Rick: “Yes.”

George: “Are they gluten free?”

Rick: “Of course.”

Originally appeared on A Philosopher’s Blog Read More

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