Expert Opinion and Arguments from Authority

        It is not as a general rule irrational to place some degree of trust in expert opinion if that expert opinion is informed by the scientific method.  This is because the success of the method is irrefutable.  And to the extent that experts adhere to the scientific approach and submit their work for peer review, we may assign some credibility to their work.  If every physicist on the planet says x is true, I had better have done the research before I attempt to refute them.  We do not have time to become experts in every possible field, but we know the methods of those who are, and we can see whether knowledge is generally arrived at through sound reasoning in the scientific community for example.  We also know the methods of the Catholic Church, which is why we would not be rational to assign their authorities a high degree of credibility in matters of, say, the origins of the cosmos.

        Ad verecundiam is not a generally reliable method for establishing facts.  But the agreement of many scientific authorities does to my mind tend to increase the probability of something being true, though evidence will be the ultimate arbiter of truth.  Let us say that I will assign more credibility to a proposition (provisionally) then conduct further research to test whether my credibility is warranted.

The key here is "further research."  Opinion is no substitute for research.  Aristotle was wrong.  Ptolemy was wrong.  Galileo's academic contemporaries were wrong.  To quote Feynman, "The test of all knowledge is experiment. Experiment is the sole judge of scientific 'truth'"

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Comment by Michael Penn on October 25, 2015 at 10:20am

An argument from authority would almost certainly involve who the authority was and what qualifications he had that made him an authority. It isn't always as it seems.

I remember an article I read in modern times about the "fastest gun in the west." (You would have to Google for details.) This 60 something sheriff had bad blood between himself and one of his deputies. Arguments were getting out of hand. Finally the old sheriff walks up to the car the deputy was in and kills him dead in one shot that witnesses said happened in the blink of an eye. The sheriff went on trial for murdering his deputy but the defense claimed the deputy went for his gun first.

Next the defense attorney produces a man called the fastest gun alive, and this guy shows the court room how everything is done. Fast draw, quick shooting, etc. all done for the jury, and the man claims he taught the old sheriff how to shoot. He also said the old sheriff was better than he was at it.

This "aurgument from arthority" got the old sheriff declared not guilty and he didn't even have to take the stand during his trial nor prove his ability with his gun. The sheriff left the court room as the fastest gun alive.

This true story is what happens from expert opinions and arguments from authority.

Comment by Dyslexic's DOG on October 25, 2015 at 7:54am

I think even Socrates had the right idea regarding Authority.

As he considered those who truly have the greatest knowledge also know that they know almost nothing or as I think Lawrence Krauss put it, knowing more and more about less and less.  Thus the humility of genuine scientists and scholars as Loren mentioned earlier.

So a truly knowledgeable, wise person of authority would caution their listeners/observers that while some of their knowledge may be considered as accurate, it is likely only of a very narrow focus, tentative and of limited usefulness only within that focus.

I laugh at some who cite the creationist Andrew Snelling who peer reviews junk from biology to cosmology and these clowns swear that the peer review is authoritative.

Yet, even most of Snelling's writings on his own field is discredited, so he has destroyed his claim for authority in all fields, even that he is academically qualified in.

I'm certain Lawrence Krauss wouldn't even try to peer review biology papers, nor would Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris, think of attempting to be peer reviewers for cosmology papers.

Such is the desperation and irrational lengths, some groups with no authoritative figures in their midst go to, in order to appear scientifically valid.

Comment by Wyatt on October 25, 2015 at 6:19am
Sorry, Loren, I meant to post that comment on the creationist article not here.
Comment by Loren Miller on October 25, 2015 at 6:07am

Wyatt, solving this problem is very little different from dealing with religion, no great surprise because frequently, the two have the same root cause.  We have to call it out when we see it, though that means being public about the matter and exposes us to criticism and reprisals.  Supervisors or government officials need to be notified and informed of the problem.  In religious cases, this is not something we have to do alone, as there are organizations such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, who have considerable experience in confronting such events.

When the emperor has no clothes, it's up to US to say so, loud and proud, and at least attempt to break the spell.

Comment by Wyatt on October 25, 2015 at 3:07am
Correction -- Ptolemy not Copernicus.
Comment by Loren Miller on October 19, 2015 at 8:03am

The thing to keep in mind as well is that ALL scientific results are subject to further review and refinement.  Instruments get better, data sources from more observation points, and understanding of a given phenomenon improves with more in-depth analysis.  Anyone who wants to claim that they absolutely KNOW something and don the mantle of "Authority" may be right.  They may also (and far more likely) be sucking for Humpty-Dumpty's trip.

The smart scientist has at least a touch of humility to him in understanding that what he thinks is true can be overturned or at least modified by a new discovery or a previously unknown fact.  My take on those two words is this: an authority thinks he has it all locked down.  An expert knows what he knows, but also recognizes his knowledge's fragility.

I'll stick with the experts, thankuverymuch.

Comment by Dyslexic's DOG on October 19, 2015 at 7:55am

The nearest we can get to absolute truth is:

Gravity Sucks :-D

And Death is Final :-(

Comment by Dyslexic's DOG on October 19, 2015 at 7:42am

Truth is always tentative.

There is no such thing as Absolute Truth, regardless of the many theists who claim such knowledge.

I consider all truth to have a probability rating.

I rate very highly any person, authoritative or not, who supplies multiple authoritative, reliable citations for their ideas, such as Robert Sapolsky, who would often, as in his book, "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers". has one or two valid scientific studies cited for every paragraph within.

So, even opinions of authoritative figures, are only opinions, until they back them up with data from genuinely validated scientific research.

As Christopher Hitchens stated in his "letters to a young contrarian."

"Picture all experts as if they were mammals."

Which, technically, they are.  LOL

Though my Catholic friend considers that his citations validate his opinions, but citations from an ancient set of books, with unknown writers and unverified claims, makes little sense and demonstrates no more authority or perhaps even less authority than citations from "The Hobbit".

Comment by Gerald Payne on October 18, 2015 at 9:22pm

Whether it's reasonable or not many theists have no need for evidence to confirm their convictions, they seem to subconsciously know these things. Their explanations always describe an inner feeling they have of some divine presence. It's difficult to make sense out of these ideas although they must stem from a sense of dualism that they have and this maybe leads to this intuitive certainty of their illusions, either way these days I try to stay away from any discussion they may want to start.

Comment by Michael Penn on October 18, 2015 at 10:05am

Well said. I'm reminded recently of theists wanting evidence of god where I recieved an upsetting answer to my post. He said:

"Jesus you are boring. Of course you are correct because evidence can only be produced in an objective view of everything. This is the only way things are domonstrable."

I read this and assumed him and his theist buddies were playing the game of "what if," and trying to make up the biggest lie, or maybe they were bragging and wanted to write a support piece for who had the biggest penis. I'm forever amazed that theists want to go on and on with their nonsense when it is all in subjective reality. Then they want answers from the bible and especially Genesis, when there is nothing new in there. The writings are static and they can say no more. The only way for me to believe them and think they are fluid would be to discover hidden codes in the writings that would reveal scientific and health formulas that could cure all our diseases and so forth.

Instead, theists try to convince you their god is in another universe. It's like we live in one fish bowl and he lives in another. Then he (god) enters our fish bowl to do some miraculous thing and leaves no evidence. The problem here is that god never has left any evidence. That's because he is make believe.



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