• fdrake
    4.1k
    I was thinking a bit about the idea of basic competence and an appeal to authority. Mostly about establishing the failure of an appeal to authority.

    The situations under which we should trust an authority on an issue are when we have no good reasons to doubt their competence on an issue. Reliably producing true, relevant and well contextualised statements regarding an issue is necessary for a source to be regarded as an authority on that issue.

    Since we don't have access, or even time, to check a source's whole track record, we need heuristics to judge whether a source is an authority on an issue or not.

    Moreover, considering that no one is a domain expert in all domains, we can't assume that our knowledge of the issue is sufficient to judge whether a source is an authority on the issue based off of our knowledge; we should not assume that we know what is true, relevant or well contextualised for the issue in question when dealing with a context in which appeal to authority is appropriate.

    Because in the general case we are not domain experts in the domain the source is allegedly an authority in, and we do not know enough to comprehensively assess their authority, what seems efficient are heuristics based on indicators of whether a necessary condition for that source to be an authority holds.

    Efficient in the sense that if indicators that a source is not an authority on an issue are present, they are grounds for dismissing the source as an authority on the issue. Logically, if a necessary condition for a source to be an authority does not hold, then the source cannot be an authority. The purpose of that is to block, defeat or dismiss an appeal to authority, not to disprove the claims being supported by that appeal to authority.

    Therefore, an efficient indicator for whether a source is an authority on an issue is then a statement which the source must agree with if they are plausible to hold as an authority on the relevant issue. Rendering it implausible that the appeal to authority vouchsafes the truth of the claim( s ) it regards is as good as we can do.

    Statements of the form "If they are an authoritative source on X, they must know Y" seem to be such indicators. The domain of expertise in X must be sufficiently similar to the domain of expertise in Y to count as a good indicator. Commonly believed truths in the domain of X are good candidates for Y, why?

    It is much easier to assess whether someone has basic training in a domain than whether they are an expert in it; while no one is an expert on all domains, we can expect experts to know the low hanging fruit that even lay people have regarding the discipline.

    An authoritative source must have basic training in the domain, if they make false statements which they are extremely unlikely to make if they have received basic training in the domain, they are very likely to be acting in disaccord with their basic training in it or simply have not done it. Which requires a good explanation from the person appealing to the authority why the authority they cite believes such a contradiction of lay knowledge and basic domain training when they are also being touted as an authority in that domain. Giving well justified reasons why the source is acting in disaccord with the claim (partisanship, motivated reasoning, funding conflicts etc) strengthens the argument that seeks to defeat the appeal to authority.

    This shifts the burden of demonstration to the person making the appeal to authority in the first place; if they cannot provide a good explanation for why their cited authority demonstrably does not believe things they would believe if they had received basic training (which we have lay knowledge of), their argument should be dismissed.

    There will be cases, many cases, where an assessment of basic competence using lay knowledge is highly flawed; an example might be criticising a dietician treating an iron deficiency in a patient but not prescribing the readily available spinach: "If they know their shit they'd be telling me to eat spinach!", despite the exemplary iron content of spinach ultimately being a myth with many supporting citations and (erroneous) common knowledge. (Edit: an interesting corollary; a commonly held falsehood can function as the death of trust in an authority)

    If the failure of the source to function as an authority regarding the claim in question can be strengthened to a demonstration that the the source often makes such dubious claims, or that they have a representative agent which makes such dubious claims, by the above that is sufficient grounds for dismissing the source as an authority on the domain until very strong evidence otherwise is presented. Physicsists were in part right to dismiss Einstein's theory of relativity until Eddison gave extremely compelling evidence for it; why trust a patent clerk doing weird new math vs the weight of common knowledge buttressed by experiment?
  • Outlander
    580
    Good post above. Read it all. And feel enriched.

    Though. Won't there always be a difference between referencing a fact's evidence witnessed firsthand and one by what is legally hearsay? If not minutely or virtually inconsequentially?

    Back to the focal point of the topic though. Ad hom meaning blindly attacking a source for a characteristic that does not explicitly undermine it's credibility in the specific field substantially. More or less right? Naturally depends on the topic. If we're talking about say hotwiring a car or how to rob a bank a criminal or jailbird would be very qualified. Sure, the source in this case may be a liar, a despicable murderer, and a whole bunch more other negative things. But. That doesn't undermine their credibility in the context of the aforementioned question.

    Anyway. Science is about trial and error. So, a scientist or group of them, naturally would have many errors that can be looked into or referenced (not published of course but there all the same). More than successes even. No?

    It's good to look into the reason a source is discredited and even better to understand how to be able to prove something as the process must have been referenced in order for an authority to state a fact.
  • Isaac
    2.9k
    Giving well justified reasons why the source is acting in disaccord with the claim (partisanship, motivated reasoning, funding conflicts etc) strengthens the argument that seeks to defeat the appeal to authority.fdrake

    Does the opposite effect ever weaken the argument that seeks to validate the appeal to authority? An argument was posted on the coronavirus thread that the WHO (usually regarded as a valid authority, surely), were not justifiably appealed to on the matter of facemasks because they had some cause to be dishonest - they wanted, so the theory goes, to underplay the effectiveness of facemasks in order to preserve stocks for healthcare professionals. In this case the common knowledge that "of course masks have some effectiveness" was used against what it usually a valid authority and supported by the claim that the authority had some ulterior motive.

    We know this does happen, Public Health England were, not to long ago, taken to task because their report claimed that any amount of alcohol was bad for your health despite there being no evidence at all to support this (most studies show a j-curve). They admitted their misstep but in their defence cited the fact that it fitted their purpose better, convincing people to drink less, if the message was clear and simple.

    The problem is, once we open this particular route, who wouldn't fit in it? Medical researchers have pharmaceutical company ties, academic publishers have their citation rings, psychology has its replication crisis, what organisation doesn't have internal politics, economic pressures... And let's not forget, scientists are people too with in-group pressures, political biases and cultural prejudices.

    I don't know what the answer is, just saying that if we allow factors regarding a source's motivation to strengthen a claim against their validity as an authority, we need to circumscribe the applicability of such factors to limit their use.

    Doctor being paid by the tobacco industry claiming cigarettes are fine > not a valid authority; but Doctor who happens to be a Labour Party member claiming workplace stress is damaging > too tenuous a motive to undermine their authority?

    Edit - I guess what I'm saying is, similar to the point I made to Baden, is this extra consideration at risk of muddying the water? Your "If they are an authoritative source on X, they must know Y" seems like a strong and sufficient measure of validity on its own. Does it need the additional consideration of motive, or could that be an argument tangential to the validity of their authority?
  • fdrake
    4.1k
    The problem is, once we open this particular route, who wouldn't fit in it? Medical researchers have pharmaceutical company ties, academic publishers have their citation rings, psychology has its replication crisis, what organisation doesn't have internal politics, economic pressures... And let's not forget, scientists are people too with in-group pressures, political biases and cultural prejudices.Isaac

    Edit - I guess what I'm saying is, similar to the point I made to Baden, is this extra consideration at risk of muddying the water? Your "If they are an authoritative source on X, they must know Y" seems like a strong and sufficient measure of validity on its own. Does it need the additional consideration of motive, or could that be an argument tangential to the validity of their authority?Isaac

    This isn't a particularly systematic reply. I don't know how to address the problem in general, so it's scattered thoughts with a common theme.

    Everyone probably fits in to some degree. If you gave an expert an introductory course exam for their domain, they might fail if they were having a bad day, and so there's some ground for doubting basic competence.

    I imagine that "they might fail if they were having a bad day" is quite important; if there are explanatory circumstances that localise the failure; say the WHO on face masks in the pandemic; it would be hasty and uncharitable to weigh that heavily when considering their track record outside of that context.

    I do agree that it's difficult to demarcate contexts like that; how far should doubt in a source based on a dubious claim be propagated into our belief networks regarding them? If the WHO made a similar statement regarding hand washing with ethanol gel, it could be used to further undermine their authority in that context given the consonance of plausible motives. But I don't think it's right to transfer that doubt to their role in stopping the Ebola crisis, SARS and their work on measuring neonatal mortality. They haven't failed to live up to high standards frequently enough or over enough domains to cease being an authority. So a reasonable conclusion if both of those things happened seems to me to be the imperative: "Trust the WHO's statements regarding the benefits of public use of vital transmission reducing resources commonly used by professionals less than before".

    A decent reason to block that transmission of doubt from face masks to other domains the WHO is an authority on strikes me as: the motive that plausibly explains their failure of authority regarding mask advice (acting to mitigate mask shortages for professionals) doesn't apply in Ebola or SARS or their neonatal mortality studies. If the motive can't be plausibly established to apply in a new domain, it should be dismissed. I realise how much work "plausibly" is doing there. It remains that the WHO's (alleged) use of motivated reasoning is a (possible) scandal for them precisely because they have a well earned reputation as a good source in their domains of expertise.

    Another reason is a source endorsing a clam performatively or for rhetorical purposes, like say "You have nothing to lose but your chains!" in the Communist Manifesto, shouldn't be judged solely on its declarative content. That statement should not be judged based on the fact that in any plausible revolution, someone may lose something which is not a chain; they might drop their keys. The extent to which a source uses facts in that way probably scales with how much motivated reasoning it does. So we can easily dismiss politicians using racist tropes instead of data; when the performative aspects of the claim dominate its content; but we shouldn't dismiss a paper studying the effects of immigration on crime and the lowest income brackets for the same reasons we'd dismiss the politician.

    If the source tends to only endorse claims or state facts in a domain when also doing motivated reasoning regarding it, that seems stronger ground to dismiss their authority in that domain. Like what we'd expect from the highly partisan sources on immigration in the UK of The Sun or The Mirror, but not from the UK's Office of National Statistics and the Oxford Migration Observatory.

    I don't think it's fair to dismiss a source for using motivated reasoning regarding something if they've otherwise done work to establish the facts regarding it. If it really were true that immigration to the UK had caused the immiseration of low income workers in the UK, motivated reasoning regarding that makes a lot of sense.

    If we're already at a stage where we can't in practice distinguish motivated reasoning using badly interpreted, overstated or false claims from well interpreted, well contextualised and well justified ones, public knowledge is in bad shape.
  • TheMadFool
    7.1k
    To my knowledge, an attack on a person - his character, associations, beliefs, attitudes, etc. - is not an ad hominem if and only if these attributes have a bearing on the soundness of a given argument.

    Appeals to authority are arguments that heavily depend on the testimonies of experts in a relevant field, these testimonies then serving as premises for further argumentation.

    If one is to rebut an argumentum ad verecundiam then it's permissible to cast aspersions on the authority for the simple reason that the character of the authority in question decidedly affects the nature of the words the authority writes/speaks.
  • Isaac
    2.9k
    If we're already at a stage where we can't in practice distinguish motivated reasoning using badly interpreted, overstated or false claims from well interpreted, well contextualised and well justified ones, public knowledge is in bad shape.fdrake

    I'm somewhat reluctant to say it, but I think this was something like where I was going. Not to say the public in general are that bad, but that the very people who need to be persuaded about the validity of certain sources, are.

    It kind of repeats what I was trying (but ultimately failing, I think) to communicate in the conflict resolution thread. For any given list of rules/factors/thresholds we might dictate, I think we'd get almost 100% agreement on them from our interlocutors, maybe some tweaking at the edges (and that might turn out to be really important - don't know yet), but general agreement would be the order of the day.

    Accompanying this ruleset are always a list of graduated measures (just how contrary to lay knowledge is enough to worry about, just how much ulterior gain is enough to cast doubt, just how much leeway with 'simple vs true' can we allow...). And these are all judgement calls, which is fine - we wouldn't expect it to be simple, but... If the ability to make judgement calls is itself being used to (in)validate an authority in order to win an argument (rather than to genuinely judge the authority) then we've no recourse to dispute that by stating the rules, they were agreed anyway, the issue was the degree of some particular judgement call, and we don't have a rule for that (that's the whole point of a judgement call).

    Take for example, the rule "the source should not regularly conflict, or appear unknowledgable about facts in their field which even lay people know (except cases like spinach where lay knowledge is generally wrong)". I don't think many would disagree with that rule. Where they'd make their case would be to claim "this is my 'spinach' exception".

    We can do the same for a motivated reasoning rule "a source is invalid if they have some strong ulterior motive to make the claim they do (except where that motive is well-reasoned or exceptional or set against a sufficient background of quality output)". Again, you'll get very little complaints about the rule itself, but when it comes to an actual dispute, the argument dissolves to whether the ulterior motive really is 'well-reasoned', just how exceptional it is, whether such and such level of previous quality output is enough or not.

    It's possible that you can ignore all of this as it might be quite specific to my experience. I recognise we probably do have people here quoting sources so beyond the pale that we don't need to entertain any dispute over judgement. We've probably also got people who actually would disagree with even the most basic rules.

    I also wouldn't want you to get the impression I'm dismissing discussion of the actual rules as pointless, far from it. I'm just bringing up the dimension of the whole issue which I find most interesting.


    in any plausible revolution, someone may lose something which is not a chain; they might drop their keys.fdrake

    Ha, yes. Pesky revolutions. I lost my reading glasses during the Easter Uprising, quite spoit the day for me.
  • Becky
    38
    I’m concerned with “ Sometimes appealing to authority is appropriate.”. Religious figures are seen as authorities. Next thing you know you’ve drank the kool-aid.
  • Hanover
    5.7k
    For example, for medical claims, scientific evidence, should be required, such as the studies or supported statements of reputable scientists or medical professionals. Needless to say, scientists or medical professionals who are known to make pseudoscientific claims cannot be considered to be reputable and it is legitimate to dismiss their claims on this basis. Note that dismissing a claim is not the same as refuting a claim. You cannot refute a claim on the basis of its source. You need either a good argument of your own or counterbalancing evidence from a reputable source to do so. And it's this conflation of dismissing claims with refuting claims that those who would accuse you of an ad hom when you question the credibility of their authority play on in order to support their accusation.Baden

    What is the distinction you wish to draw between the two other than "refutation" entails offering a meaningful and detailed response and a "dismissal" means offering a cursory and summary response? In either event, your objective is to defeat the claim, and the latter doesn't seem a way to defeat the claim. It's just a way to express your disdain for it and to wash your hands of it.

    If the way you attempt to defeat a claim is by attacking the legitimacy of the speaker, you have committed an ad hom fallacy, regardless of whether you describe your attempt as a "refutation" or a "dismissal."

    So, if 600 surgeons sign a petition indicating the response to covid-19 is more harmful than helpful to the health of the nation, that claim can only be defeated by actually looking at the outcomes of differing types of responses to the pandemic. If, on the other hand, you summarily dismiss the claim because those surgeons are found to be part of a conservative group that holds various disproved pseudoscientific claims, then you have committed an ad hom fallacy.

    I will concede that if a doctor tells me that the covid response has been detrimental and I then learn that same doctor believes the world to be flat, I will be naturally skeptical of his claims about covid, but that skepticism isn't logically supported by the fact that the doctor is a nut case.

    The weighing of credibility, I'd submit, becomes relevant when the speaker is offering information that is dependent upon his credibility. A case of that would be if I told you that I saw Bob murder Joe, and it is then learned that I am schizophrenic, that I hate Bob, or that I have claimed to witness thousands of murders in the past week. Those things would rightly cause someone to question what I said based upon who I am. That would not be an ad hom fallacy.

    But, when you have a bunch of doctors whose claims are independently provable, there's no reason to insert ad hom objections into the mix. It is true that those doctors attempted to bolster their claims by alerting us to the fact they were bona fide doctors, which is a form of the ad hom fallacy in reverse. However, it is very possible that their use of the reverse ad hom (i.e. bolstering based upon who the speaker is) had some value to the extent it made those who relied upon speaker credentials alone to now start questioning those opinions..
  • Baden
    10.7k


    In the post in question, you appealed to the authority of this organization in support of the idea that the lockdown causes more harm than good. There was nothing in your post except that appeal. Your appeal didn't work because your source was demonstrated to lack credibility. That means you're left with no evidence and your post (containing nothing else) can be dismissed. If you want to make the argument that lockdown causes more harm then good, (an open question), you'll need to provide evidence from a credible source.

    By the way, not only have this organization promoted the idea that HIV doesn't cause AIDS, other pet causes include anti-vaccination, climate change denialism and the idea that abortion causes breast cancer*. All pseudoscience, all politically motivated. I don't know how to put this any simpler than your "authority" is absolute garbage. Considering their record, no reasonable interlocutor would consider their statements as evidence for anything (amusingly, they're against evidence-based medicine anyway, so they probably wouldn't care.)

    "AAPS .... [pushes] fringe views that most mainstream conservatives do not endorse, such as the belief that mandatory vaccination is “equivalent to human experimentation” and that Medicare is “evil.” ... It’s the most curious of medical organizations: a doctors’ interest group that seems more invested in the interests of doctors, rather than public health."

    https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/02/aaps-make-health-care-great-again/607015/
    https://sciencebasedmedicine.org/the-journal-of-american-physicians-and-surgeons-ideology-trumps-science-based-medicine/

    Edit: Dismissal here is like "So what?" directed at the empty appeal to authority in your post. You tried to lend the organization weight by pointing out they are "doctors". I undermined that weight by pointing out they are a politically orientated group that promote pseudoscience. So, we're back to square one. Refutation would be me claiming to have proved you wrong about the lockdown. I didn't do that. I've given plenty of previous evidence why I think the original lockdown was effective, but the degree of further effectiveness is debatable seeing as the population is "trained" in social distancing already. If you want to take part in that debate, you'll need to come up with evidence from a credible source.

    I've said all I'm going to say on this by the way. If you don't get it now, so be it.
  • Hanover
    5.7k
    I've said all I'm going to say on this by the way. If you don't get it now, so be it.Baden

    You draw no distinction here between refutation and dismissal, but you instead are just pointing out that in my original link to some quackery group of doctors they provided no basis for their position, so you are not in a position to refute that which was never properly presented.

    That then should be your response, not the long winded path you took. You should simply have stated that my link was lacking in substance and therefore not something worthy of discussion. Instead, you presented an ad hom attack, which remains a fallacy. Contrariwise, if my link was to the world's most renowned doctors, it still would have been of no value because the opinions asserted were without basis.

    Now I offer you two challenges: (1) to fight off your OCD tendencies and actually not speak additionally on the subject as you've said you wouldn't, and (2) to find a better use of the word "contrariwise," which I have now introduced in the discussion and which will likely become a staple word in my vocabulary from here on out.
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