Authority Arguments (Problems printing? Click here.)
First, there's now a downloadable worksheet that you can use to help you work the exercises.
Second, when you get down to the exercises, there's an interactive online quiz that might help you study a little bit.
The best thing about authority arguments you can read right now is this this piece by Paul Krugman in the New York Times.
Julius Geldhof found me this excellent little TED ED video: How do you know whom to trust? - Ram Neta
In an authority argument,
the fact that someone
makes a statement is held to logically support
the claim that that
statement is true. Let's just look at a few
1. Dinosaurs were still around when humans first walked the earth. That's what my grandpa says, and he's really old
2. The Hitlerage Institute recently announced that critical thinking will destroy society as we know it.
3. How can you say cat juggling is okay? Everyone I know says that juggling is the worst thing you can do to a cat!
4. Dragons are real. You can trust me on this one.
5. A bum on the street told me that monkeys really can fly, so we should all wear hats.
6. The state department recently announced that Saddam Hussein was a transvestite.
Exercise 2.1. Try to figure out what all the above arguments have in common before you read my description of what makes something an authority argument. (My answer can be found at the end of this chapter.)
Now, none of the following arguments are authority arguments.
7. A horse is like a hippogriff. Hippogriffs can fly, so horses can fly.
8. Handgun Control, Inc. faked statistics on gun violence. That proves all gun-control activists are liars.
9. Statistics show that once people start using a sunscreen, they almost never go back to sunbathing without it, so sunscreen use causes dependence on sunscreen!
10. If 100-mpg carburetors existed, someone would have put them into production. No-one has, so they don't exist.
11. Dogpatch community college should not require a freshman writing course. For god's sake, Harvard doesn't require freshman writing!
12. A recent study shows that pelagic fish like Mozart better than Beethoven.
13. People of different religions are always fighting each other, so we shouldn't let those Presbetarians move in next door. They're nice, but the fact that we're Quakers means we won't be able to avoid getting into fights with them!
14. There must be a magic cheese fairy. Where you think all that cheese comes from?
15. The dead man has defensive wounds to both his hands, so I don't believe your claim that he was lunging at you with a red-hot radioactive chainsaw when you stabbed him.
Exercise 2.2. What do all of the above arguments have in common that makes them not authority arguments
If we evaluate an argument by looking closely at the source of a statement, it's an authority argument. If the best way to evaluate a particular argument does not include looking at the characteristics of a person or group, then it’s is not an authority argument.
Exercise 2.3. Examine these arguments and identify all the authority arguments. For each authority argument, write out why it is an authority argument. For each non-authority argument, write out how that argument is supposed to work
16. The USDA classifies horses as flying mammals, so horses can fly.
17. Saddam has been seen in a cocktail dress, a string bikini, and a Raggedy Ann costume, so he's a transvestite.
18. Flush Limburger says that all gun-control activists are liars.
19. 95% of Canadian monkeys can fly, so all monkeys can fly.
20. The Republican Party announced that providing sunscreen to children only causes dependence on sunscreen.
21. Scientists working for the oil industry claim to have proved that a 100 mile per gallon carburetor is impossible.
22. The San Diego zoo has a fire-breathing dragon, and the New York zoo has two of them, so dragons really exist.
23. Dogpatch College associated students Union insists Dogpatch College does not need a freshman writing class.
24. Namor, Prince of Atlantis, says that pelagic fish like Beethoven much less than they like Mozart.
25. Cat juggling has been shown to give cats whiplash, motion sickness and colliwobbles. So it is really bad for cats.
26. The Pope says that Presbyterians are dangerous because they're always starting fights with Quakers.
27. Training people to think for themselves is just like training people to be terrorists.
28. President Bush says there’s a magic cheese fairy, which is why he will never declare war on Wisconsin.
29. A fossil Tyrannosaurus was recently found to have a fossilized human being in its stomach. The human was carrying a Betamax VCR and an eight track stereo, proving that he was eaten at the very dawn of human history.
30. The entire Mormon Tabernacle choir saw you stab that man, and they all say that he was not lunging at you with a red-hot radioactive chainsaw at the time.
How Authority Arguments Work.
We use authority arguments because there are circumstances where it is safe to assume that someone else has already done all the critical thinking necessary to determine the right answer. When we accept an authority argument, we are assuming two things. First, we are assuming that the person cited as an "authority" is in fact capable of doing all of the research and critical thinking necessary to determine the right answer to this particular question. Second, we are assuming that the only considerations that influenced this "authority" were the totality of the available evidence, and honest, conscientious reasoning from that evidence. Authority arguments hold force because there are people who take the time and effort necessary to deeply understand particular subjects, and these people are usually willing to share the results of their efforts with the rest of us. There are many people who make their livings by providing the best possible information. Besides the fact that most experts have a strong sense of professional integrity, they also have a strong interest in being right, because they can lose income and prestige if they are shown to be wrong.
How Authority Arguments Go Wrong.
If we don't have a strong reason to think that the "authority" has based his statement purely on his own competent and thorough research and critical thinking, then we should not take his word for anything. It might happen that the "authority" simply does not have the right expertise for this issue. Or it might happen that we have reason to think that the "authority" is consciously or unconsciously motivated by something other than a sense of professional responsibility in this particular issue.
How To Think About Authority Arguments
An argument from authority can only have persuasive force when something being said by that particular person or institution gives us good reason to think that there is another argument - maybe a difficult or complicated one - but definitely a logically compelling argument, for that same thing. Thus "Fred says that..." or "The Fred Institute says... " can only be taken as an argument if it is taken to mean "Fred (or The Fred Institute) is known to do unbiased, competent research using good logic and methodology, and has researched this topic thoroughly, carefully and competently, and has critically analyzed and evaluated all relevant arguments, and based on this research and reasoning, and has honestly, and without conscious or unconscious bias concluded that... "
Critiquing authority arguments can get pretty complicated, so I’m going to start off by identifying three kinds of specific reasons we might have to think that some authority has not properly used her expertise, as well as another kind of reason that might lead us to think that we cannot rely on experts at all in some particular case.
1. If the authority in question has a demonstrably bad track record for this kind of claim, that kills the authority argument. If his track record is bad, he's no authority.
2. Professional qualifications or training can give someone authority if her track record is unknown. But if she has the wrong kind of expertise for this question, then she's no authority, because wrong expertise is as bad as no expertise. So if the authority in question demonstrably lacks the right qualifications, and has no proven good track record, then the argument is no good.
3. If the authority has the right expertise and/or a good track record, he might still be unconsciously (or consciously) influenced by some material interest. If we don't know of any material interest in the case, we should assume there is none, but if we do know that the authority has some definite, proven, material interest in people believing his conclusion, the argument is no good. He might honestly believe in his statements, but he might also be influenced by that known material interest, so he cannot be treated as an authority in this case.
The above considerations can undermine an authority even if she is the only person currently put forth as an expert in this particular field. In contrast, the following consideration basically knocks the whole idea of using authority out of the window.
If a purported expert has a history of being off the mark, if she has the wrong expertise, or if she has a material interest in this particular question, we should have serious doubt that she’s appropriately using the right expertise for this question. But opposition by another properly qualified authority does not give us any specific reason to think that the first expert might not be properly using the right expertise. After all, it could be that the opposing expert is the one screwing up. However, one of these experts must be wrong, and it could be the first one, so we still can’t take her word for it.
The best way to prove that a person or institution has expertise is by citing a long-term track record of accurate pronouncements. If a person has turned out to be right over and over again, then that person is an expert, period. If a person has an excellent track record on a particular kind of issue, and we don't have any particular reason to doubt her word on this particular issue, then her word is definitely good, whether or not she has any formal training. (There are situations in which we would doubt the word of someone with a good track record, but we will discuss those later.) Remember, authority arguments are based on the assumption that the "authority" is using some effective method of figuring out answers to this kind of question. The only way to really figure out whether or not a method really works is to try it a lot and see what happens, so a good track record is the best proof possible that the authority is using a method that works. Conversely, a bad track record is all the proof anyone needs that someone is using a bad method. A person can be festooned with degrees, certificates and awards, but if he has a poor track record for accuracy, he has no authority whatsoever.
As long as we don't have any special reason to question Louis Ville's judgment in this particular instance, the following is a very good authority argument.
Louis Ville says that Ding Bat's batting average in 1908 was 0.397215. Louis has been telling me stuff like this about baseball for thirty years, and he's always turned out to be exactly right.
But the following is a bad argument.
Well, it's true I've been wrong every time so far, but I've studied this subject more deeply than anyone else in history, and I hold several advanced degrees in the subject, so you can be sure I'm right this time.
Now, which of the following is the best critique of this bad argument?
1. The speaker can't be relied upon because he's not a proper expert. His qualifications don't count because they don't matter here.
2. The speaker should not be trusted because he has a history of being wrong. Even if he is as qualified as he claims, we should still discount the claims of someone who has a bad track record, and this speaker definitely has a bad track record.
Notice that critique two mentioned the crucial fact that the arguer has a bad track record, and gave the logical rule that says what we should do with "authorities" that have bad track records. Good critiques tend to include mention of crucial facts and logical rules.
One word of warning. A history of agreeing with your personal views does not count as a good track record. Consider Connie. Connie reads and listens to Flush Limburger, Dill O'Slimy and Schmuck Dimwitty. None of these guys knows his posterior from a hole in the ground, but Connie believes every word they say because they make Connie feel that she's smarter and better informed than other people. Connie particularly likes it when her favorite authors disparage people she disagrees with. Logic and evidence are actively avoided because, quite frankly, the slightest attention to logic and evidence will reveal Connie and her favorite authors as morons. Now, even though everyone here has a track record that is pathetic to say the least, Connie firmly believes that each of these authors has an outstanding track record because every time each one of them has said anything, Connie has agreed vehemently.
Similarly, a history of disagreeing with you doesn't make for a bad track record. Imagine that back in the Reagan Presidency, when Saddam Hussein was at his most murderous, the following conversation had taken place.
Laurel: West Asia Eyeball just issued a devastating report on President Reagan's friend Saddam Hussein. They say that Hussein has committed numerous human rights abuses including summary detention, torture, assassination and use of nerve gas agains civilians.
Camren: Yes, well, what would you expect from an organization like WAE?
Laurel: What is do you mean? WAE is the most respected eyeballing group in West asia!.
Camren: Oh please! Just look at their record and you'll see that they don't deserve all that respect at all.
Laurel: What's wrong with their record? When have they ever been wrong?
Camren: You're so naive! Don't you know that WAE has a long history of criticizing President Hussein?
Laurel: So what?.
Camren: And they've never printed anything nice about him.
Laurel: Again, so what?
Camren: So they're obviously biased! Why else would they print such horrible things about Saddam?
Laurel: Um, because he does horrible things to people?
Camren: Now you're showing your bias against Saddam. And WAE's bias means that we can ignore them too.
Now, which of the following is the best critique of Camren's argument?
1. Camren doesn’t manage to come up with a single instance of WAE being wrong about Hussein. Since he would presumably refute any WAE report he can prove to be false, we can assume he hasn't found any he can refute, which strongly suggests that there aren't any to find. This implies that WAE has a good track record. The fact that they've produced an unbroken series of bad reports on Saddam Hussein doesn't show any bias on their part. It simply could be the case that Saddam is a total scumbag.
2. We can ignore Camren because he's wrong about WAE, and because Saddam Hussein is a scumbag. WAE has produced a lot of reports showing that he's a scumbag, and because he is a scumbag, we know that WAE isn't biased.
Notice that number 1 gives crucial facts and logical rules, while number 2 does not mention either one of these things. Even worse, number 2 claims that WAE is accurate because Saddam Hussein really is a scumbag. This is very bad, because the scumbagginess of Saddam Hussein is precisely what Laurel is trying to prove. Since this is the point at issue, it is only an opinion, not a fact, and so no one can use it as evidence for some other claim.
As I write this, in April of 2015, a book called "Clinton Cash," by Peter Schweizer is due to hit the shelves on May 5. The book purports to provide strong evidence that Bill and Hillary Clinton directly and indirectly received millions of dollars as a result of payments made by people who profited from decisions made by one or other of the Clintons during their respective times in office. As critical thinkers, the first question we should ask about this book is "how credible is this author." Given that lots of prople say lots of false things in books, and that makers of serious accusations need to be held to a very high standard, the author's credibility is of paramount importance here. As it turns out, Media Matters (which has a pretty decent track record) has documented author Peter Schweizer's long history of making false claims against mostly liberal public figures, and of making other false factual claims in his books. (MM) Given this author's history, it would be false authority to make a claim with "Peter Schweizer says this" as its sole supporting fact. Clinton Cash may or may not include some true claims about the Clintons, but those claims will have to be independently supported before we can think we have any reason to think they're true, because the fact that Peter Schweizer makes these claims gives us absolutely no reason to believe them.
Consider this dialog::
Primus: Did you hear that the Glymptons made a deal with
Electric Zombies from Mars that allowed them to come and eat the brains
out of all of our domestic appliances, and that after that, those
same Electric Zombies made a substantial donation to the
Glympton Foundation for blow-drying the hair of adorable puppies.
Secundus: Wow, that strongly suggests the Glymptons made that deal with the Electric Zombies because they paid them a lot of money. How do you know this?
Primus: It's all in Rock Scheißer's book Glympton Greenbacks.
Secundus: How does Scheißer back up this claim?
Primus: Well, he says he has witnesses and documents that all say it's true.
Secundus: Has anyone run down these sources to see if they check out?
Primus: No, we don't have to, because Scheißer has checked them all out, and he says they're on the level.
Secundus: Um, isn't Rock Scheißer the fellow who said that President Bender never met with his Secretary of Cybernetics during the rollout of the Affordable Cybernetics Act, when in fact Bender had met with Secretary Gilligan several dozen times during that period? And didn't Scheißer say that President Bender had "skipped" all his daily astrological readings, when the fact was only that he uploaded them through his USB port instead of taking them in through Bluetooth the way his predecessor did? In fact, doesn't Scheißer have an absolutely terrible record for accuracy?
Primus: Yes, so?
Secundus: So, we can't rely on this book as our sole support for this claim about the Electric Zombies from Mars.
Primus: Yes we can. The fact that he's been wrong a lot doesn't mean he's wrong about this particular thing.
Primus commits false authority by relying on Rock Scheißer as his sole authority for his claim about President Bender. Yes, there's talk of witnessess and documents, but if you look closely you'll see that the only reason we have right now to think that these witnessess and documents exist is that Scheißer says that they do, so Scheißer is Primus' only basis for making this claim about Bender, and, due to his track record, Scheißer is no basis at all. Finally, it'd important to notice, of course, that Primus makes a serious burden of proof error when he says that Scheißer's bad track record "doesn't mean he's wrong about this particular thing." Primus didn't start off by saying "did you hear that it has never been proved false that the Glymptons made a deal with Electric Zombies from Mars." He said "did you hear that the Glymptons made a deal with Electric Zombies from Mars," which imples that, in his opinion, this claim is proven, not just unproved. Compare to the following dialog:Tertius: Did you hear that it has never been proved false that the presidential candidate Sean Eliyahu Shrub would detonate nuclear weapons in all major American cities?
Would you take Tertius' claim seriously in this dialog? Well, if you wouldn't, you should just as switftly dismiss Primus' claim in the immediately previous dialog, because that claim has no more support than this one. When a claim is only supported by the word of someone who has a history of getting things badly wrong, then it's not supported at all.
An important part of a person’s track record is his or her habitual way of dealing with mistakes. Compare two well-known talk-show hosts. The first host once falsely claimed that his previous show had one two Peabody awards, when in fact it had won a single Polk award, and that after he had left the show. The second host made public statements excusing the behavior of a writer who had, for profit, exaggerated the extent to which his “autobiographical” novel was based on fact. Anyone can misremember, anyone can make a mistake, especially in the heat of a live interview. The difference in integrity shows up in how a person responds to people who point out his errors. The first host got very angry with people who criticized him, saying that the difference didn’t matter, and implying that his critics were being deliberately unfair. The second host made a public retraction and apology. That’s integrity.
Similar considerations apply to groups. Science, as a whole, has a strong record of integrity because scientists tend to police their own and each other’s mistakes. The history of science is littered with claims that were once widely accepted but which are now generally rejected. Adherence and enforcement of appropriate professional standards is a vital part of expertise, and evidence that a group does not police itself is evidence that that group should not be treated as authoritative. I may be wrong about this, but it seems to me that neither astrologers nor cereologists have ever retracted any important claims. If an astrologer ever publicly claimed that astrology had been ineffective in some particular case, or that some particular astrological doctrine had been proved false, that would strongly suggest that she at least had some integrity. If a prominent cereologist publicly disagreed with the majority of his fellow cereologists, and asserted that some famous crop-circle really could have been made by humans, I would certainly acknowledge that he did not lack integrity. Conversely, whenever a group has a track record of never showing internal dissent, and never retracting claims, that group had better clearly demonstrate s strong track record for accuracy before we should take it seriously.
It's important to mention that authorities don't have to be perfect. We should mostly worry about what people say in their professional capacities. What they say in private, and on chat shows, is less significant than than what is said when the speaker is speaking as an authority. Bill O'Reilly gives a good discussion( Video - Deadline) of this issue in regards to the Brian Williams case.
I think we should acknowledge integrity whenever it occurs, and particularly in people with whom we disagree. I remember an account - in a skeptical magazine - of a psychic who had written to newspapers denouncing psychic hotlines for not taking the trouble to make sure that all the operators they hired were real psychics. Unfortunately, the skeptic who wrote the article I read used this only as an opportunity to bash psychics, and thus failed to acknowledge the real integrity and moral courage shown by the letter-writer.
For more discussion of integrity, you can watch this video Bennington High Schoolers vs. Fox News and its sequel Fox Replies.
If you don't have a known track record for a particular person or
institution, you might be able to infer a track record based on the
type of person or institution involved. There is a strong presumption
that a recognized expert is very likely to be right so, in the absence
of any track record, (or other complication) we are justified in taking
the word of a recognized expert as an authority on his own subject.
Advertising agencies and public relations firms have a horrible track
record, so you should almost never take the unsupported word of an
advertising agency or a public relations firm. The same is true of
politicians. If you don't know a politician's track record for
accuracy, don't take his word for anything. Upon legal advice, I'm not
saying anything about lawyers. No sir, not one darn thing.
Expertise doesn't necessarily mean academic training. The school of hard knocks can confer valid degrees also. A claim of expertise could be backed up by university training, work experience, private research, or some other kind of experience that has led to real knowledge in that area. The key here is that we can generally assume that this person has learned from her training and experience, simply because the vast majority of people exposed to proper training and properly supervised experience do learn from it. However, mere exposure to a field doesn't confer expertise by itself. Prejudiced people, for instance, can and will misinterpret what they see to accommodate their prejudices. They can do this over and over again, each time becoming more and more certain that their prejudices are being confirmed by experience. A lifetime of this will produce a person who thinks he's an expert, but who actually knows less than nothing about his subject. This applies to distinguished professors just as well as to anyone else. The difference is that a professor or similarly educated person is supposed to have proved his expertise by demonstrating good reasoning and a good track record in his subject. Therefore, in the absence of countervailing reasons, we can take the word of an expert, such as a professor, or someone who has done private research, as a good reason to believe what he says. But beware, an expert is only an expert in his own field. Outside of his own field, a professor is just a layman. Professors of biochemistry are not necessarily authorities on biology, and vice versa.
As long as we don't have any reason to question their expertise, the following are all good authority arguments.
Professor Val Ence, who holds a doctorate in chemistry, says that "Aqua Regia" is a combination of two different acids.
Ally Eska, who spent 20 years studying forests in Alaska, says the "peat moss" found there is neither a peat nor a moss.
Every established Physicist in the world believes that some version of Quantum Mechanics will turn out to be correct.
The last argument is particularly strong, because the strongest possible authority argument is one based on a consensus of known experts. If, for instance, every biologist known to man believes that a certain biological theory is correct, and we have no independent reason to disagree or doubt their words, then that's an overwhelmingly good reason to believe in that theory, even if everyone else on the planet vehemently disagrees with it. But only the right expertise counts. The following are all crappy arguments.
Professor Val Ence, who is a doctor of chemistry, says that the "peat moss" found in Alaska is neither a peat nor a moss.
Critique. The conclusion of this argument concerns something found in Alaska. The right expertise for this kind of claim would be Alaskan botany or perhaps Alaskan biology. Certainly, the right kind of expert would be either a naturalist or someone who studies Alaska, but we have no evidence that Professor Val Ence has ever studied biology or Alaska. Since he's not the right kind of expert, we cannot take his word on this issue.
Ally Eska, who has spent 20 years studying the forests of Alaska, says Quantum Mechanics will turn out to be correct.
Critique. Ally Eska has not been shown to be an expert in physics, and only someone with expertise in theoretical physics will be a reliable source on the issue of quantum mechanics, we should discount what Ally Eska says about this matter.
Every established Physicist in the world believes that "Aqua Regia" is a combination of two different acids.
Critique. Aqua Regia is a matter of chemistry, not physics. We have no reason to think that any of the world's established physicists has any training or track record in chemistry, so we can safely ignore this consensus.
No matter how much you know about chemistry, knowledge of chemistry will never qualify you as an expert on Alaska. You can spend a lifetime studying the forests of Alaska, and none of it will help you understand quantum mechanics. Even if every established physicist in the world believe some particular thing, their agreement is meaningless if it is not a matter of physics.
Sometimes, determining whether or not an authority has the right expertise can be kind of tricky. What is the right expertise to determine whether or not astrology works, or whether or not all crop circles are made by human pranksters? Generally, biologists should be taken as authorities on biology, physicists as authorities on physics, and so on, but astrologers and cereologists cannot be taken as authorities on the effectiveness of astrology or the non-human origin of crop circles. The reason for this difference is simply that, for whatever reason, neither astrologers nor cereologists do double-blind controlled studies. Neither do they take any trouble to make sure that their claimed results are consistent with established scientific results. The use of double-blind studies, and a concern for consistency with science are important because they show a strong desire to root out cases where people have been fooled into believing a certain event has taken place, especially where such an event is scientifically implausible. The bottom line here is that the right expert is often the person who can look into a field from the outside and tell whether it’s possible that the claimed results are due to errors or trickery, or the person who can look at a claimed result and tell whether or not established scientific results give us good reason to think that it didn’t really happen. For this reason, a stage magician is the right expert to tell us whether or not a claimed psychic could be using trickery or an astrologer using cold reading to fool people, and an astronomer or a physicist is the right expert to tell us whether or not astrology or psychic powers are physically possible.
Finally, even the right expertise only counts when it is used. The following is a very bad argument.
I'm sure that the Indian King Ashoka was a Hindu. I mean, I'm only guessing. I've never looked it up, but you can take my word for it because I'm an established professor of Indian History.
Critique. This argument is bad because, no matter how well established the professor is, his expertise only counts if he uses it, and here he is clearly not using his expertise.
Expertise vs. Track Record
Basically, a known bad track record always trumps expertise. When we don't have any messy complications, a recognized expert with a good track record is about the best authority you can get. However, a recognized expert with a bad track record is absolutely useless.
We should trust Conn T. Nental when he says that the Himalayan mountain range is not getting any taller because, although he's usually been wrong when he tells us things like this, he does hold a doctorate in Geology, with an emphasis in Plate Tectonics and mountain formation, so we can take his word for it.
Critique. Normally, we would think that a person with these qualifications would be a reliable expert. However, we happen to know that Conn T. Nental has a very poor track record, and a poor track record always means that an authority is no good.
Advocacy and Authority
An “advocate” is a person who spend a significant portion of his time trying to get other people to believe some particular thing. Like-minded advocates often join together to create foundations, alliances and other groups. GreenPeace and Mothers Against Drunk Driving are prominent examples of such groups. Less famous groups might advocate for the rights of the mentally ill, for the existence of earth-visiting aliens, the non-human origin of crop-circles or the moral dangers of indoor plumbing. The mere existence of such a group cannot make it (or any of its members) into an authority, nor can an impressive letterhead, a stunningly designed website or millions of adoring fans. The only thing that can make such a group into an authority is a good track record for accuracy. If the group’s press releases have overwhelmingly turned out to be correct in all significant factual matters, then the group should be considered a reliable authority. If the group’s statements have frequently turned out to be importantly wrong on factual matters, then they are not an authority, no matter how many members and supporters they have.
There are also a large number of people out there who was taken as experts but who have not done the kind of research that would qualify them as experts. These people are widely read, and widely taken as authorities, just because because they tell people things they want to hear. They write about esoteric subjects and so may be taken as an expert by many people even if he or she has never applied appropriate reasoning to his or her subject. Even worse, because of the public popularity of bold and exciting claims about these subjects, people who do not make such claims will not be popular with the public. In such subjects, those who make exciting claims can be presumed to have a strong interest in making those claims, and thus such an authority should be discounted unless it can be shown that independent observers have found him or her to have a strong track record for accuracy.
A person or institution has an interest when he has a strong reason to prefer one side of a question to the other. People can be consciously or unconsciously influenced by their material needs. So if the expert in question has a personal reason to prefer one side over the other, then we cannot take his unsupported word on that issue. On the other hand, everyone has general interests. Cops make their livings providing people who can be convicted of crimes, and so every cop has a general interest in lying about what he saw the suspect do, where he found the evidence and so on. But we can't say that any particular cop has a significant reason to lie about any particular suspect just because cops in general can gain advantages by lying about suspects. Most people who can gain advantages by lying still tend strongly towards telling the truth, so a generalized reason for lying gives us no reason to think that any particular person is lying at any particular time. You can only say that someone has reason for bias in this case when there is some provable feature of his present situation that would predispose him to prefer that this specific case came out one way rather than another.
Here's an example of people losing their claim to authority because they have a financial interest in the issue they are speaking about: Leading Anti-Marijuana Academics Are Paid by Painkiller Drug Companies
I remember back when President Bush was preparing to invade Iraq I was
very impressed by the fact that the governments of both France and
Russia vgorously opposed the invasion. That is, I was impressed until I
found out that both France and Russia had massive investments in Iraq.
Now, it might have been true that they both
opposed the war because they honestly judged it to be unjustified and
in violation of international law based on their knowledge of the
region and their expertise in international affairs. But, on the other
hand, they might have been just looking to protect their investments,
and it is this latter possibility that means that we cannot take their
unsupported word for the illegitimacy of the Iraq invasion.
Remember it is only actual motives that can undermine an authority. If someone had made an unsupported claim that France and Russia must have investements in Iraq, that would not have been enough to undermine their authority. It is only if it is proved that they actually do have these investments that their authority is undermined.
Interest vs. Expertise and Track Record
Interest trumps both track record and expertise. Even a recognized expert with a good track record cannot be taken as an authority if his pronouncements also substantially serve his own interests. If we know that someone has a substantial interest in the position he is upholding, then we probably shouldn't take his word for it. (The only exception here might be if the speaker had a good track record that included a history of making true statements that were against his own interests. If a qualified speaker has proven that he would be willing to tell the truth if the truth hurt him, we should probably be willing to take his word when the truth helps him. Probably.)
Snot Rag tells us that a pocket handkerchief is absolutely essential to maintaining good respiratory health. Yeah, I know he's recently purchased shares in a handkerchief factory, but he's got a long history of making accurate statements about respiratory health issues, so he's bound to be right this time.
Critique. Because of his track record, Snot Rag would normally be considered an expert here, but we can’t take him as one since his financial stake in the handkerchief factory might have unconsciously influenced him to believe this claim about respiratory health.
As a prominent and well-respected physician with ten years of medical training and twenty years of experience as a medical doctor, I've always said that vitamin supplements were completely unnecessary for good health. Until now that is. Yes, I've recently discovered that vitamin supplements are completely vital to good health! Oh, and by the way, let me show you my new book on the need for vitamin supplements and invite you to try my new line of vitamin supplements, "Doctor Pan der Rer's Vitamin Supplements for Good Health and the Avoidance of Painful, Lingering Death."
Critique. Pan der Rer has a definite financial interest in this issue, and widespread acceptance of what he says about vitamins would lead to him making a lot of money. We don’t need to believe that he’s deliberately lying, but it’s still reasonably possible that the possibility of profit has influenced his judgment, so we can’t take his word on this issue.
False Accusations of Bias.
You should however beware of people who claim someone is "biased" because they have a general interest in the truth of the kind of claim being advanced. There are many, many advocacy groups out there who support themselves by selling books explaining their reasons for boring us to tears with endless stories of boring atrocities and tedious crimes against humanity. Just because these groups tend to get more money whenever people believe their stories doesn't mean they have a significant interest in lying. Many of these groups have excellent track records, and on their track record is how they should be judged. In fact, some of the best track records out there are held by advocacy groups, so you can't discount the word of an advocacy group merely because it's an advocacy group. Well-respected advocacy groups have considerable authority, mainly because such groups only ever get the respect of independent observers by being right over and over again. The following is therefore a logically compelling argument.
Amnesia Intentional is admired the world over for it's work combating the scourge of absent-mindedness in high places. Recently, Amnesia Intentional issued a report condemning the government of Mnemonia, which completely forgot about over two thousand of its citizens for whole holiday weekend.
And this is a bad argument.
You shouldn't trust Amnesia Intentional's report on Mnemonia because Amnesia Intentional is entirely supported by donations from people opposed to governmental absent-mindedness. After all, if people didn't believe that some governments are very forgetful, they'd never give money to Amnesia Intentional.
Critique. If Amnesia Intentional has a good track record, then you know it's usually been right even though it has always had this general interest in promoting reports of forgetfulness. Therefore that good track record is proof that Amnesia Intentional generally ignores it's self-interest in these reports, and only reports absent-mindedness in high places when it actually exists.
Remember, the rule is a good track record overrides a general interest while a particular interest overrides a good track record.
Both arguments given in the following conversation are bad arguments.
Nestor. Now you have to admit that all politicians are liars. Professor Cy Nick says so!
Jennifer. Rubbish! Professor Nai Eve says that no politicians are liars, so you have to admit no politician ever told a lie.
Nestor. Well, Cy Nick has been studying politics for thirty years, so you have to believe him!
Jennifer. Nai Eve is a distinguished professor of political science at a major university, so she's gotta be right!
Nestor. Cy Nick has never been wrong about politics, so he's right this time!
Jennifer. Nai Eve is a world-renowned expert, so she's the one we should listen to!
Nestor. Cy Nick is internationally famous too, so you should listen to him!
Jennifer. Oh yeah? Well Nai Eve has been studying politics for just as long as Cy Nick, so she's the expert here!
Nestor. That's a laugh! Well Cy Nick also holds a distinguished professorship, so he's the expert, not Nai Eve!
Jennifer. You know that Nai Eve has never been wrong? Did you know that? Huh? Huh?
Critique. Both of these arguments are clearly bad, and for the same reason. Given the fact that both of the experts described here are fully qualified, have good track records and no known interest in the matter, we would normally take both of them as authorities. However, their expertise conflicts on this question, and the opposition of each means that the other’s word cannot be taken here.
Experts are not oracles. Nothing is ever true merely because some particular person or institution said it. What experts have that the rest of us don't is prolonged access to the best information and arguments available for their fields. They can use that access to build up a knowledge base that they can share with the rest of us. But we can only rely on that knowledge base when we are sure that it exists and that what the expert says is based only on it. If the "expert" is not an expert in the relevant field, if she is biased, if her arguments have been discredited, if other experts dispute her conclusion, or if there is credible contradictory evidence already in play, then the appeal to her authority is fallacious. This does not mean that we should ignore her. Given that she has some expertise, she may be able to offer arguments in support of her claims, and one or more of those arguments may turn out to be good, even though her mere word carries no weight.
Exercise 2.4. For each of the situations described below, determine whether we should take the word of that particular person.
31. One person has no formal education in the relevant subject, but has a long history of successfully answering difficult questions in that subject. She has no interest in this particular question, and other experts do not express disagreement with her on this question. Should we accept her as an authority on this question?
32. Another person has extensive training, and has earned several advanced degrees in this subject. However, many of her pronouncements in this subject have turned out to be wrong. Should we accept her as an authority on this question?
33. A third person has an excellent track record in this subject, but her track record only concerns questions in which she has no particular interest. The present question is one in which she does have a particular interest. In fact, she stands to make a considerable amount of money if people believe her answer to this question. Should we take her as an authority on this particular question?
34. A fourth person has several advanced degrees in this subject, and is widely recognized as an expert in this subject, but he has a particular interest in this question, and stands to make a considerable profit if we believe his answer. Should we take him as an authority on this particular question?
35. A fifth person has advanced degrees in a different subject. She has no known training or track record in this subject. Should we take her as an authority on this question?
36. A sixth person has a very good track record in a different subject. She has no known training or track record in this subject. Should we take her as an authority on this question?
37. A seventh person is a well-respected authority in this particular subject. We don't know her track record, but none of her opponents have come up with any instance where she was clearly wrong before. She has no particular interest in this subject, and none of the people who disagree with her have qualifications that are even remotely comparable to hers. Should we take her as an authority on this question?
38. An eighth person makes his living as an expert in this particular subject. A lot of people accept him as an authority in this subject, and take his word for things without checking elsewhere to see if he is right. We don't know his track record, but he has no particular interest in this question, and no qualified experts disagree with him. Should we take him as an authority on this question?
39. A ninth person makes her living pointing out wrongdoing by a certain group. Whenever she reports negative things about this group, her income increases. Her answer to the present question constitutes a negative claim about this particular group. She has no more interest in this question than she has in any other question about this group, and all of her previous negative claims about this group have turned out to be true. Should we take her as an authority on this question?
40. A tenth person makes his living making negative claims about a certain group. Whenever he reports negative things about this group, his income increases. His arm to the present question constitutes a negative claim about this particular group. He has no more interest in this question than he has in any other question about the group, but at the present time we do not know his track record on this type of claim, and neither he nor anyone else can demonstrate that any of his previous negative claims have turned out to be true. Should we take him to be an authority on this question?
41. A twelth person has several advanced degrees in the subject, and is a widely respected authority on the subject, and has no particular interest in this question. However, at least one comparably qualified expert on this subject is known to disagree with him on this question? Should we take the first expert as an authority on this question?
Sometimes it is easy for a trained person to see that a particular argument is a load of crap. This is because there are certain bad arguments that are fairly often erroneously accepted as logically compelling arguments by untrained and/or dishonest people. These crappy but common "arguments" are technically called "fallacies." (Some people use the word "fallacy" to mean some particular belief that they disagree with. This is misleading, because one's disagreement with another's belief cannot by itself mean that the other is doing anything logically wrong by believing the disputed belief. And merely calling something a fallacy doesn't make it false.) So, a fallacy is a type of argument that is frequently taken to be a logically compelling argument, even though it is actually always a bad argument. There are a large number of fallacies, many of which are so common, or so interesting that they have special names all of their own. Here I will talk about all of the fallacies that might possibly be thought to be associated with authority arguments.
Broadly, an argument commits false authority when.
1. The person, group or institution making the claim clearly has no substantial expertise in the topic under discussion. and/or
2. The person, group or institution making the claim clearly has a bad track record on these kinds of claims. and/or
3. The person, group or institution making the claim clearly has an interest in this issue.
If someone says that some authority supports his conclusion, but doesn't tell us who that authority is, his conclusion isn't really supported..
Scientists have proved that we only use ten percent of our brains. (What scientists? When? How did they prove this?)
Someone who isn't qualified in any way cannot be taken as an authority.
Protein based shampoos have to use vegetable protein to work properly. I'm a poorly trained retail clerk, so I should know!
Of course aliens are abducting soap opera stars and replacing them with robots make of toilet paper rolls glued together with expensive, french-milled soap. Lux Flakes says so on his immensely popular website, www.soaprobots.com.
I was the world’s top actor for fifteen minutes back in the eighties, and you can take my word for it that Bunkumology is the only true road to mental and upper-colonic health!
Actually, if something’s only visible advocates are celebrities, washed-up or otherwise, that’s a good sign that there’s nothing to it.
And it's worse if that celebrity is being paid to ... um, "endorse” a product.
You've got to believe that the "Premauture Poverty Retirement Product" is the best available retirement plan and won't eat up your savings leaving you homeless, living under an overpass, freezing cold and so very, very alone. We've hired some of the worlds best loved character actors to do our commercials! You trust kindly-looking old character actors, don't you?
The wrong expertise is just as bad as no expertise at all.
We know that the Pennsylvania legislature did not blackmail Washington into spending the winter at Valley Forge because Professor Boon Doggle, a distinguished professor of Biology says so.
Remember that a bad track record always kills authority stone dead.
The Freedomland government insists that Draconia possessed weapons of mass digestion and would have used them if Freedomland hadn't invaded Draconia. I know that the Freedomland government was completely wrong when it previously said that the Spammish government sunk the FLS Potato with a giant potato-masher grenade, and they were wrong when they said that the nation of North Tofu was completely unprovoked when it invaded South Tofu, and they were lying through their teeth when they said that the North Vermichellians fired underwater sausages at a Freedomland Dessertship. In fact, the Freedomland government has never been accurate in claims of this kind. But, they have always had exactly the right kind of expertise to verify these kinds of claim, so we can absolutely trust them this time.
Pronouncements by persons or institutions of a type that that's never been reliable cannot be relied upon.
Shill and Knownothing, the public relations firm, has announced that the Rummybuddies, (who recently invaded Quseven) are committing atrocities against the Qusevenis. It's true that public relations firms have a bad track record in general, but Shill and Knownothing is a brand new company, with new people, and therefore no track record, so you can trust them.
And, of course, a particular material interest ruins even the best authority in that particular question
Skiffer Skillets are the best! You can trust them because super-sou-chef Emerlililililifobobobobob-bo-bop said they're absolutely the best skillets in the world, just after he inherited the company that makes Skiffer Skillets.
Finally, an expert who fails to actually use his expertise is just as bad as someone who isn't an expert at all. Sometimes an expert claims that, although there is no formal scientific research or other independent evidence backing up his claim, we should accept it as authoritative because it is based on his "trained intuition." The idea here is that experts get so that they have a "feel" for their fields, so that their guesses and gut feelings have the same force as those pronouncements that are backed up by actual research. Unfortunately, real research has shown that experts' "trained intuition" is no more accurate than a lay person's "guess." In fact, trained intuition actually lowers the performance of experts because they sometimes choose to ignore their training in favor of a gut feeling. Despite what we see in the movies, the gut never performs as well as training.
Based on my trained intuition, I can confidently assert that this prisoner will break parole by committing more crimes, and should therefore not be released on parole.
The basic idea behind the false authority fallacy is that an arguer is offering someone as an authority when we have clear reason not to take that person as an authority. This is either because the person offered hasn't been proved to be a qualified expert, or it is because we have some particular reason to discount his opinion in this case.
The red herring fallacy occurs when someone tries to distract us with something that isn’t really relevant to the issue at hand. I wouldn’t even mention red herring in this chapter, except that there's an interesting form of red herring associated with authority arguments. I say "associated" because it actually has nothing to do with authority, even though it tries very hard to pretend that it does. This is the use of phrases like "but who are you to say" as attempts at refuting arguers who have not given authority arguments.
Lee: We should believe that badger bowling is morallly wrong because a lot of badgers get bruised, and a lot of badger bowlers get bitten by badgers.
Alvin: But who are you to say what's morally wrong? Who gave you the authority to condemn badger bowling?
Notice that, even though Alvin is acting like Lee gave an argument based on her own authority, Lee actually gave an argument based on certain facts about badger bowling. Alvin's cry of "but who are you to say" completely misses the point of Lee's argument. (That’s what makes it a red herring.) The fact that Lee isn't established as an authority isn’t relevant to the issue of whether or not injuries to badgers and badger-bowlers justify banning badger bowling. Thus Alvin commits a huge, and rather whiney, red herring.
An argument is circular when questioning its dubious premise sooner or later leads right back to the unsupported restatement of the conclusion. (This can happen when someone attempts to save a question-begging argument by coming up another question begging argument for that question-begging premise. Keep doing that over and over, and you'll eventually start to repeat yourself.) An argument can only work if its premises are supported by existing, well-established knowledge, or by premises that themselves are supported by existing, well-established knowledge. An argument that attempts to support itself in mid air will always fall.
I know Jeff is honest because Marie insists that he is. And we can trust Marie because Rudy swears that Marie is absolutely honest. As for Rudy, well, Jeff insists that Rudy is absolutely reliable! (So the claim that Jeff is honest ultimately rests on... the claim that Jeff is honest!)
We know that astrology works because it has been validated by our best psychics. How do we know that validation by these psychics can be trusted? Simply because each of them has an astrological chart that indicates absolutely stunning psychic ability. (So astrology tells us that astrology is reliable.)
Benjamin. You should believe Rush Limbaugh is a political expert because Ben Stein says he is.
Shaylee. But is Ben Stein a good judge of political expertise?
Benjamin. Of course he's a good judge of political expertise! Rush Limbaugh says he's a genius!
Circular arguments demonstrate the need for fact mining. Look for an independently supported claim to authority in the above arguments. You won't find one. Not of these people are shown to be authorities by anything outside their circles, so none of their claims can be taken as exidence for anyone's expertise.
The fallacy of ad populum consists of thinking that something is true merely because a lot of people think that it is true. This counts as an authority argument because it relies on the credibility of a group of people who just happen to believe something. But such arguments are absolutely always bogus. The fact is that things that "everybody knows" very often turn out to be totally false, so popularity can never make a belief true.
Jaren. Don't even try asking old MacLir to contribute to your charity. He's Scottish, and everyone knows that Scotsman are tight with money.
Perry. Hoots mon, dinna fash y'self o'er yon haverin'!
Jaren. Come again?
Perry. Sorry. I meant to say you're committing an ad populum.
Jaren. I'm coming a what?
Everybody knows that chiropractic works!
Everybody knows that we only use ten percent of our brains.
Everybody says that whatever Fred says is true.
Because the general public has an absolutely terrible track record for accuracy, the united opinion of a million uninformed people are no better than the opinion of a single uninformed person. When the only support a claim has is the fact that "everybody knows" it's true, then it's not supported at all.
Poisoning the Well
This is a crude but effective fallacy by which people are set
disbelieve in a source that they might otherwise find credible. This is
done by simply making disparaging .remarks about the source in question.
You can read the story in the OC Weekly, if you're willing to wade through all that liberal fog.
(Inspired by a column by Ann Coulter) In other appeasement news, there was another peace march in Washington today.
You're going to hear that slippery two-faced human slime heap Henry Kissinger defend his role in prolonging the Vietnam War? Well, make sure you keep an open mind.
Liberalism is a mental disorder. (I saw this on the back of an SUV in Orange County.)
The essence of this fallacy is that the speaker is trying to persuade us to assume that some person or group of persons is unreliable without giving any evidence that she is. Of course, if the speaker can come up with legitimate examples of where the source has previously failed to tell the truth, then it would follow that the source is unreliable. But just throwing out a few insults won't cut it.
The fallacy of ad hominem is generally an attempt to discredit some argument or refute some claim by pointing out something objectionable about the person or institution who makes the claim. The objectionable thing will be true, but it won't be the kind of thing that could undermine the person or institution's authority. There's two ways to commit ad hominem. First, by trying to prove a statement false by pointing out some objectionable feature of some person who says that the statement is true.
Rush Limbaugh says that people have a prima facie right to own firearms. You know how unreliable he is, so people don't have a prima facie right to own firearms
Laura Schlessinger says abstinence is the only absolutely guaranteed way of avoiding pregnancy and STDs. She has no expertise in this area, so we know abstinence is not the only absolutely guaranteed way of avoiding pregnancy and STDs.
Now it's true that neither Rush nor Laura has any authority in these fields, but all that means is that we can't use them as authorities. It doesn't mean that what they say is false. The second way to commit ad hominem is to try to undermine somebody's authority by pointing out some objectionable, but irrelevant fact about that person.
Don't trust her. She plays the bagpipes!
Remember that a track record of producing nothing but negative reports isn't a bad track record. A bad track record is only a history of producing unreliable reports. The following is a terrible argument.
We shouldn't trust William Shirer's report that Herr Hitler authorized the murder of mentally ill Germans. Shirer has written many reports about Hitler, and all of them have been negative. How can we trust such a biased source?
Ad Hominem is often deployed in an attempt to undermine authorities. In such a case, the arguer will bring up a negative fact about an authority that has nothing whatsoever to do with whether or not he is using appropriate expertise in this instance.
We can ignore President Clinton's opinion on the budget. Didn't he lie about having sex with a woman not his wife?
Just like in false authority, the ad hominem fallacy offers us reasons that just aren't relevant to the issue.
A good strategy for defeating an explanation argument is to point out a reasonable alternative explanation for the given facts. But an alternative explanation is only reasonable if it is supported by other available facts. And, as seen above, when an explanation argument is attacked by offering an unreasonable alternative physical explanation it commits either weak explanation or empty explanation, depending on whether the explanation includes an unreasonable causal mechanism, or fails to include any causal mechanism at all. There is also a third variation on failure to explain away some inconvenient fact which occurs when the inconvenient fact is testimony by some witness, authority or other person. I call this version the "fallacy of slander" because in it the arguer actually slanders the person or persons she is attacking by making an unfounded accusation of bias or interest. (This is also a fallacy of authority, and as such is covered extensively in the authority chapter, but it is such a common fallacy, and it fits so neatly into this chapter, that I decided to briefly treat it here.) Compare the two dialogs below:
Tayler. Doctor Otto Gyro, a prominent scientist,
has attacked the theory of Heliogenic Mobile Surling (the idea that the
increasing surliness of Los Angeles drivers is caused by traffic
helicopters), so you can't say there's a broad scientific consensus in
favor of HMS.
Alonzo. But Otto Gyro has admitted that he's a paid consultant to the Traffic Helicopter Operators Progessive Society, and his tax returns show that he recieves generous grants from the helicopter industry.
In this dialog, Alonzo raises a compelling objection to Tayler's argument. An expert, no matter how experienced or educated, who is proven to be accepting money from one side in an issue, cannot be taken as qualified when he supports that side in that issue. The fact that he is provably accepting money from that side proves that he could be consciously or unconsciously slanting his opinion towards his benefactors. (We don't have to assume he's deliberately distorting his reasoning, only that he could be.)
The situation would be different, however, if Alonzo had merely raised the possibility that Otto Gyro was being paid by the traffic helicopter people. It's always true that an expert could be accepting money under the table, but the vast majority of experts are not corrupt, and we're not allowed to accuse people of corruption without compelling evidence. It would be different, therefore, if the accusation came without a shred of evidence.
There's a consensus of angelino traffic mood scientists that the recent
long-term increase in surliness in Los Angeles drivers is indeed mostly
caused by traffic helicopters..
Brisa. Yes, but that doesn't mean anything because the only way to get grants and publications in angelino traffic mood science is to produce papers supporting HMS. If one of those scientists tried to research evidence against HMS no-one would fund him, and if someone wrote a paper critical of HMS noone would publish it.
Sage. Is there any evidence for that claim? Is this the way it works in any other area of modern science? Has any competent traffic mood scientist ever been told "we won't fund your research because it might refute HMS" or "we won't publish your paper because it undermines HMS"? Has any independent authority ever shown that this is happening in angelino traffic mood science?
Brisa. No, but it clearly could be happening, and that's enough to prove that we can't rely on this consensus.
Again, it always could be true that an expert has a secret interest in the opinion he's expressing. But in the absence of evidence that such an interest actually exists, we should assume that no such interest exists, and that the expert is honestly expresing his considered, unbiased opinion. Since Brisa produces absolutely no evidence to support her accusation of bias, she commits the fallacy of slander. (In case you're ever tempted to undermine an authority or witness you don't like by making such an accusation, remember that exactly the same kind of accusation can always be made, with equal justice, against yourself or any authority you favor.)
Sometimes, when people are
contradicted by appropriate authority, they respond by lashing out at
the authority that contradicts them by accusing
that authority of having an unworthy motive or a material interest.
They do this based solely on the fact that the authority contradicts
them, and thus put forward absolutely no evidence to support the
accusation. The legal term for making such an unsupported accusation is
"slander", so I refer to this sort of thing as the "fallacy of
slander." For example:
Of course those scientists don't believe I have psychic powers. They're all driven by fear.
This is a fallacy because the speaker doesn't give us any reason to think that scientists are afraid of anything. He's just pulling this claim out of his ... out of thin air. (And it should be clear that anyone who disagrees with the speaker about his possession of psychic powers will also disagree with him about the scientists who think he doesn't have psychic powers, so this is a presumption fallacy)
So what if Valerie Vaughn says that there's published scientific papers in support of Astrology. That just proves that she wants to make money out of Astrology.
How does the speaker know what Vaughn's motives are? He doesn't want to deal with the possibility that those papers really exist, so he tells a slimy lie about Vaughn to distract people from the real issue. Again, the people who cite Vaughn as an authority would deny that she's influenced by a desire for profit, so the speaker here has to prove it. He can't just say it.
How do we know that the left hates America? Just look at the fact that the left is against the war! They're against the war because, as usual, they cannot put aside their hatred of America.
This argument is about the clearest example of dishonesty and moral cowardice that I can think of. The speaker is absolutely refusing to acknowledge the possibility that a reasonable person could disagree with him, (let alone the possibility that the war is a bad thing), so he makes up an imaginary motive, with no support whatsoever, and sneeringly attributes it to his opponents.
The essence of this fallacy is that the speaker wants us to believe that the person they're attacking has an unworthy motive without offering us any REAL evidence that they possess such a motive. It's true that these idiots think that the fact that speaker is expressing a particular opinion is "evidence" that he or she has a material interest in people believing that opinion, but that's complete nonsense.
Fallacy of slander is different from the legitimate tactic of referring to real independent evidence that an arguer has a particular interest in that the speaker either makes unsupported accusations of hidden motives, or refers vaguely to some general interest.
Remember, if the arguer
gives you actual evidence that the
speaker has a specific interest, it's not fallacy of slander.
If the arguer's only "evidence" is just the speaker's opinion, it's fallacy of slander.
Note that the only fact in such an argument is that the authority could have the interest or motive ascribed to him. But absolutely every authority ever cited could have a secret material interest or vicious motive for saying what he says. Fallacy of slander wants us to disregard an authority merely because is could be true that he has a bad motive. If this works, we should disregard all authorities.
If you're interested, the Fallacy of Slander is actually a variant of Empty Explanation because it attempts to "explain away" criticism or other inconvenient information by inventing an unworthy motive and falsely attributing it to the source of that criticism. Fallacy of Slander is also sometimes called "appeal to motive," and such arguments always fail because they never come with evidence that supports the idea that the source has an unworthy motive. This distinguishes them from counter arguments based on material interest that always come with some kind of factual evidence to back up the idea that the source might be unduly infulenced by self-interest.
This fallacy is generally resorted to by people who cannot even begin to deal with the arguments offered by their opponents. Instead of thinking about the actual arguments, they make up phony "explanations" for the fact that their opponents are saying what they are saying, and then pretend that these are the real reasons why their opponents think what they think. Whether this fallacy is committed deliberately or unconsciously makes no difference. It is profoundly dishonest either way.
You might have noticed that the rules are different between ad populum and fallacy of slander. When confronted with an opinion held by a vast number of people, we are entitled to simply dismiss that massively shared opinion on the assumption that there very well could be an entirely non-logical reason for all these people holding that opinion, but when we are confronted with an opinion held by a single qualified expert, we are not allowed to simply dismiss that single opinion on the assumption that there could be a non-logical reason for that opinion. We are required to show evidence that it would be plausible to think such a motive really exists. This difference stems from the fact that, as a group, disinterested gualified experts have a very good track for accuracy, while large random groups of people do not have anything like a good track record. Thus, on first look, an expert opinion is very likely to be right, so we need a good reason before we can dismiss that opinion, but a common belief is in itself not very likely to be right, so we already have a good reason to disregard that opinion.
This fallacy occurs when someone attacks an arguer's behavior instead
of her argument in a case where her argument is not
based on her own authority.
This fallacy occurs when someone claims to refute someone else's argument based on evidence that the other person isn't sincere. This is based on a reasonable rule of thumb, but it's a fallacy nevertheless. The fact is, we rely a lot on what other people tell us, so evidence that somone is insincere gives us good reason to distrust his testimony. Would you believe a Captain who told you "The ship's in no danger. Everything's fine!" as he frantically climbed into the only lifeboat? But the fact that he's abandoning ship only means that he thinks the ship is in trouble. We would only think that it really is in trouble to the extent that we think this particular Captain is an expert on this ship. If we knew he was crazy from Dengue Fever, for instance, his insincere assurances would not alarm us. Similarly, when someone's behavior belies her statements, all we can conclude is that she doesn't believe what she's saying. We can't conclude that her insincerity proves anything about her arguments. Consider this conversation.
Vicky. You know, animals have feelings and desires, feel pain and they deserve their lives for the same reasons that people do, so it really is immoral to cut up living creatures to make clothes.
Nell. Then why are you wearing a red leather wedding gown? Obviously, using animals for clothes is okay.
Who commits the fallacy here? Think about which of these two people gives relevant reasons for her opinion, and which cites a reason that has nothing to do with the real issue? (Many students get this one exactly backwards, even after several lectures on the subject!)
Now, if you take the time to do a little fact mining, and base your opinion on the facts, the issue becomes easier.
1. Animals have feelings.
2. Animals have desires.
3. Animals feel pain.
4. Vicky is wearing a red leather wedding dress.
These facts cannot add up to a conclusion that cutting up animals for clothes is morally okay. Fact number 4 does not contradict facts 1 through 3, and Vicky's argument is based entirely on those facts. Vicky does not give an authority argument. We would tend to disbelieve an authority who does not herself believe what she's saying. The fallacy here is in taking that insincerity as refuting non-authority arguments. This is like our first example of red herring, in that the person committing the fallacy treats a non-authority argument as though it were an authority argument.
If you are really, really, really sure you understand all the fallacies described above, you can skip this section and the one after it, and goes straight to Exercise 2.5. This section gives a brief recap of the fallacy definitions.
False authority is where an arguer relies on someone who is either unqualified, or at least is clearly unreliable in this instance.
Special pleading, in authority arguments, is when an arguer takes one expert as authoratitive while ignoring the fact that other, equally qualified experts disagree with the expert he likes.
Red herring is where an arguer refers to facts that really are not relevant in this particular case, such as the fact that someone who is giving a non-authority argument is himself not an authority on this issue.
Circular argument is where an arguer gives two or more mutually supporting "arguments" without providing proper independent support for any of them.
Ad Populum is where an arguer thinks the common belief is the same as having a properly qualified, independent authority.
Poisoning The Well is where an arguer derides a particular authority without giving any particular reason to question that authority's track record, qualifications or independence.
Ad Hominem is where an arguer attacks an authority by mentioning a true, but irrelevant fact about that authority.
Fallacy of slander is where an arguer "explains" something an authority says that by making an unsupported claim that the authority has a hidden motive to say that that thing.
In Phony Refutation an arguer attacks an argument by giving true reasons why the person giving the argument might be insincere.
Fallacy Exclusion Rules.
Here’s how to tell when a bad argument isn’t committing some particular fallacy.
False Authority If the argument does not cite someone as an authority, the fallacy cannot be false authority.
If there is no bad track record, lack of qualification, or specific interest, the fallacy is not false authority.
Special Pleading If there is no equally qualified second authority, the fallacy cannot be special pleading.
Red Herring If there is no documentable fact cited, the fallacy is not red herring.
If the fact given is actually relevant, the fallacy is not red herring.
Circular Argument If the doubtful authority is not supported by another doubtful authority, the fallacy is not circular argument.
Ad Populum If any specific authority is mentioned, then the fallacy is not ad populum.
Poisoning the Well If the arguer is not trying to knock down some specific authority, the fallacy is not poisoning the well.
If any specific reason is given to doubt the authority, the fallacy is not poisoning the well.
Ad Hominem If the argument attacked is not an authority argument, the fallacy is not ad hominem.
If the reason given is not a supported claim of fact about the authority, the fallacy is not ad hominem.
If the fact given is actually relevant to the authority, the fallacy. if any, is not ad hominem.
Fallacy of slander If the argument attacked is not an authority argument, the fallacy is not fallacy of slander.
If the negative claim about the authority is actually supported by facts, then the fallacy is not fallacy of slander.
If the motive mentioned would not be relevant to the authority, the fallacy is not fallacy of slander.
Phony Refutation If the attacked authority actually is cited in the attacked argument, then the fallacy is not phony refutation.
If it does not attack the credentials of the person giving the argument, then it is not phony refutation.
Exercise 2.5. Name that fallacy. Each of the following paragraphs is a description of an argument that commits some particular fallacy. For each paragraph, name the particular fallacy committed. If the fallacy committed is false authority, add one of the modifiers "bad track record," "no relevant expertise" or "particular interest" to your answer depending on precisely what is wrong with that particular type of argument.
43. The argument aims at refuting some other argument, and is only based on real evidence that the person making the other argument does not really believe the conclusion of that argument.
44. The argument is based on the authority of an expert with an almost unbroken history of being right about this kind of thing, but it is known that another expert, whose history of being right is just as impressive, disagrees with the first expert.
45. The argument is aimed at undermining the authority of an expert cited by someone else, and it does so by saying that the expert must be biased because he has some secret agenda in making this claim, without producing any independent evidence that the expert has this secret agenda.
46. The argument is based on the authority of an expert who has never before been wrong about this kind of claim, but this particular case is different in that, for the first time, it is well-documented that this particular expert has a private motive for us to believe his statements that he did not have in any previous case.
47. The argument is aimed at undermining the authority of an expert cited by someone else, and it tries to do so by pointing out a true fact that engages our attention, but which does not actually have anything to do with how the expert might be using his expertise.
48. The argument is based on the authority of a purported expert, but there is no evidence that this "expert" has relevant training, or a good track record, or anything else that would qualify him as an expert in this case.
49. The argument is aimed at undermining the authority of an expert, and does so by referring to the expert in contemptuous terms, or otherwise saying it is not a proper expert, or is untrustworthy, without giving any actual reason to think that the expert is not reliable.
50. The argument is based on the authority of someone who is only an expert in some completely different and unrelated field from the one that we are expected to take him as an expert in.
51. The argument is based only upon the fact that its conclusion is widely believed by members of the general public.
52. The argument is based on the authority of someone who has a long history of being wrong about this particular subject.
53. The argument is based on the authority of a person whose only claim to expertise is that he is considered an expert by some other person, and this other person's only claim to expertise is that he is considered an expert by the very person whose authority he is supposed to be certifying.
54. The argument is aimed at refuting another argument by pointing out that the person giving the argument is not an authority, but that other argument is not based on any claim to authority for that person.
Exercise 2.6. Name that fallacy, round two.
For the purposes of these exercises, let us say that Gear Head is an automotive technology expert with a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, a Ph.D. in automobile technology, and while he was an undergraduate he received a felony conviction for stealing a Bob's Big Boy statue from outside a Bob's Big Boy restaurant and converting it into a high-performance automobile which he drove all the way across the United States at an average speed of 102 mph..
Let us also say that Chain Smoker is a high school dropout who smokes four packs of cigarettes a day.
Clear Cut insists that Tree Farm is a leading expert on forest ecology. Tree Farm says that Chain Saw is a world-recognized authority on forest ecology. Nobody else considers any of these guys experts on anything, and none of them has documented training or successful track record on forest ecology.
Horn Spammity is a well-known radio show host who is famous for making numerous definite pronouncements on matters of morality, politics and culture. Millions of people listen to his radio show and applauded his comments, but people who take the trouble to check up on what he says find out that he is almost invariably wrong about matters of morality, politics and culture.
Toss Pot has a completely unknown background.
Eye Ball is an expert on eye surgery with impeccable qualifications and an impressive track record. Until now, he has not stood to gain or lose by anything he is said publicly about eye surgery. However, he recently acquired a considerable number of shares in the company that holds the patent to the "Jackhammer and Lemon Juice" method of surgical vision correction.
And Drive Train is another automotive technology expert with qualifications that are just about exactly as impressive as Gear Head's. Drive Train has done studies on hydrogen fuel cell technology, and has concluded that it would take at least 20 years to convert even 20% of California's vehicles to run on hydrogen fuel cell technology.
Each of the following paragraphs is an argument that commits some particular fallacy. For each paragraph, name the particular fallacy committed. If the fallacy committed is false authority, add one of the modifiers "bad track record," "no relevant expertise" or "particular interest" to your answer depending on precisely what is wrong with that argument.
55. Chain Smoker points out that The New England Journal of Medicine has published numerous unchallenged studies proving that smoking cigarettes seriously raises the risk of emphysema, heart disease and cancer. But can you really take this seriously, given that Chain Smoker smokes four packs of cigarettes every single day?
56. Everyone should support the new "Slash and Burn" plan for forest management. Clear Cut says that this is the only environmentally sustainable forestry plan, and he should know because Chain Saw says that Clear Cut is the world's most reliable expert on forest ecology. And we know that Chain Saw is an expert because Tree Farm says he is preeminent in the field. And you know that Tree Farm is an expert because Clear Cut has said many times that Tree Farm is one of the top men in the field.
57. Horn Spammity says quite clearly and unequivocally that the banning of cigar smoking from neonatal intensive care units is morally wrong, politically reprehensible, and culturally bankrupt because it will inevitably lead to the complete and utter destruction of Western civilization, and perhaps the eventual destruction of the planet Earth itself.
58. Of course McDonald's food is good for you. Everyone I know believes it's wonderful!
59. Don't listen to that idiot Gear Head when he talks about cars. Can't you see that he doesn't know what he's talking about?
60. Toss Pot says that marijuana smoking is absolutely immoral, so we should redouble our efforts to prevent people from smoking marijuana.
61. We cannot listen to Gear Head when he talks about engineering. Don't you know he has a felony conviction?
62. You really should consider the Jackhammer and Lemon Juice surgery to correct your vision. Eye Ball is a leading expert on eye surgery, and he says it is an amazing new breakthrough in vision correction surgery.
63. You should not believe Gear Head when he says my new car design, the steam locomotive converted to run on roller skates, is not practical. He's only saying that because he is secretly jealous of my automotive design prowess!
64. We should invest in hydrogen fuel cell technology. Gear Head has said that it is easily possible to convert 90% of California's vehicles to run on fuel cell technology within the next 10 years, so if we push the technology now, we can significantly improve California's air quality within a few years. (Check the information on Drive Train before doing this one.)
An argument, any argument, only succeeds if the facts given in its premises logically support its conclusion. If whatever facts there are do not support the conclusion, the argument does not work, and thus fails to prove its conclusion. In evaluating any argument, you always ask yourself two basic questions. First, you ask yourself whether or not all the premises of the argument are clearly true. Second, you ask yourself whether or not those premises provide so much support for the conclusion, that it would be unreasonable of you to continue to believe that that conclusion is false. If there is a premise that does not seem clearly seem to be true, then you would ask for and then evaluate the arguments supporting that premise, which would bring you back to thinking about whether those premises support that conclusion. So in either case, you will find yourself thinking about whether or not some set of facts supports some particular conclusion.
A fact is a claim to which all reasonable people will readily assent. It is something already proven. It is uncontroversial. If a rational audience cannot be expected to nod agreement when you say it, it's not a fact. If it's something upon which reasonable people would disagree, then it's just a claim. Claims can be well-considered judgments, casual opinions or wild-eyed delusions. I'm only worried about facts, because only facts can support conclusions. (For the purposes of this course I'll just ask you to take my word for what are facts and what are claims. In fact, I'm going to need you to take anything I treat as a fact to actually be a fact, at least for purposes of discussion. And at the end of the course, if you've paid attention, and done your work, and brushed your teeth, you'll be much better able to tell a fact from a non-fact, won't you?)
A set of facts supports a conclusion if there's no reasonable way to rationally explain those facts without assuming that the conclusion is true. Another way to look at this is to ask whether some logical principle connects the facts to the conclusion. If we can reasonably explain those facts without assuming that the conclusion is true, or if there is no real logical principle connecting the facts to the conclusion, the argument is no good.
In general, the trick to evaluating arguments is to ask yourself whether we can reasonably explain the facts given in the premises without also assuming that the conclusion is true. If we can reasonably explain those facts under a scenario that allows the conclusion to be false, then the argument is no good. That is, if it is reasonably possible for all of the facts to be true while the conclusion is false, the argument bites the big one .... I mean it dies. This is because the truth of the facts given in the premises doesn't compel us to believe in the truth of the conclusion, and arguments only work when the facts in the premises give us no alternative but to believe the conclusion.
For your in-class exercises, and in real life, you will need to be able to explain exactly what is wrong with some bad argument. There are various ways this can be done, depending on the type of error committed. You might find it works best to point out some crucial fact that the bad arguer has ignored. Or you might point out some genuine logical rule that allows us to discount something that the bad arguer is offering as evidence. Or maybe the best way will be to give the candidate principle that the bad arguer is relying on, and explain why it is a bad candidate principle.
Bad arguments can have true conclusions, but we can't ever be sure that something is true unless there's a logically compelling argument for it. You can believe whatever you like, but if you can't back it up with a logically compelling argument, you can't ever say that other people should believe it.
A good first step in evaluating any argument is to separate out the facts given in the argument from the arguer's opinions. An arguer can only expect us to take something as a fact if it is a claim that everyone agrees on, or is at least a claim that is much less controversial than the conclusion of her argument. Arguers often try to sneak their own opinions into the premises of their arguments in order to make their arguments appear stronger than they are. Don't be fooled. Take something as a fact only if it is reasonably uncontroversial. The things that an arguer ultimately wants you to believe are always his opinions. They can never be taken as facts.
In the "Uncle Jeff" example, the facts and opinions break down as follows.
Fact. Uncle Jeff says that Lutherans worship Lex Luthor.
Fact. Uncle Jeff is a Presbyterian minister.
I call these claims facts because they seem relatively uncontroversial to me. Nobody is disputing these claims, and I see no particular reason to disagree with either of them. Now he is the claim that I consider to be an opinion.
Opinion. Lutherans worship Lex Luthor.
I call this an opinion because it is controversial. It is something the arguer believes, and wants us to believe, but it is also something that we are unlikely to believe unless we are given very good reason. Since we had not yet decided whether the Uncle Jeff argument gives us a good reason to believe it, we can’t say that we have good reason right now, and so we should call it an opinion at this point.
Exercise 2.11. For each of the following arguments, write down a list of facts and a list of opinions. If you find you have to fill in something that isn't explicitly stated, put it in parenthesis, like a suppressed premise. (I'm going to put in at least one opinion for each question. This will usually be the person's conclusion.)
95. Nikki: Dinosaurs were around when humans first walked the earth. That's what my grandpa says, and he should know because he's really old.
96. Anyaial: Dude! Your grandpa was joking when he said that!
97. Easton: I just had my first cat juggling lesson. Boy, those cats were mad when we juggled them! They seemed okay afterwards though.
98. Daquan: How can you say cat juggling is okay? Everyone I know says that juggling is the worst thing you can do to a cat!
99. Salvatore: Flush Limburger says that adultery is worse than distorting evidence to justify an invasion in which lots of people die.
100. Asher: Yeah baby, but Flush Limburger is a plumber, baby!
101. Simone: No-one has ever seen even the slightest piece of evidence for the existence of Dragons.
102. Kyleigh: Dragons are real. You can trust me on this one.
103. Stacy: Monkey's don't got wings, no animal flies without wings, so monkeys don't fly.
104. Kane: Yeah, well, a bum on the street told me that monkeys really can fly, so we should all wear hats.
105. Jaron: The state department recently announced that Saddam Hussein was a transvestite.
106. Nicolette: Yeah, but they just did it because they were really, really bored that day.
107. Mollie: The Hitlerage Institute has announced that critical thinking will inevitably destroy society as we know it.
108. Gunnar: The Hitlerage Institute is an advertising industry research group. What do they know about thinking?
The one way of distinguishing facts from opinions that you're not allowed to do is to pick the side of an argument that you like and say that it has "facts" while the other side only has "opinions." To make up your mind this way is biased, and simply demonstrates prejudice on your part, so don't do it.
An argument only succeeds if it is clear to you, as a reasonable person, that it presents a clear and compelling logical reason for you to change your mind and agree with the conclusion. If it doesn't seem clear to you that the argument has presented such a reason, then the argument has failed, even if you passionately agree with its conclusion.
The Bottom Line
The basic trick to evaluating an argument from authority is to ask whether the information we have available supports the idea that the quoted source is an independent and reliable source of information on this topic. If we had any information that suggests that the quoted source is not independent and reliable, we should ignore the source. If someone tries to undermine the source by giving us information (or fantasy) that has nothing to do with the source's independence or reliability, then we should ignore that irrelevant information.
The problem with arguments from authority is that, even in the best of them, we still rely on someone's word. logically compelling arguments from authority get their strength from the fact that we can generally rely on the word of people who have already done the critical thinking necessary to determine the truth of the matter. Still, they don't give us any reason that we can examine to see for ourselves if their judgment is good or bad. Thus they are a fairly weak form of argument, only to be relied on when there is nothing else in play.
In real life a critical thinker who is working on a particular issue will look around for whatever arguments might be relevant to that issue, and will consider any arguments that are offered regarding that issue, whether he thinks they will turn out to be relevant or not. In this class we won't bother with that. Instead we will consider small sets of opposing arguments and pretend that each small set comprises all the arguments available. This makes it easier to focus on specific logical principles.
I like to base my examples and exercises on dialogs in which two speakers argue against each other. While there is no such thing as a completely ironclad argument, some arguments are clearly much weaker than others, and I will try to provide you with exercises and exam questions in which one argument is clearly weaker than the other. For teaching purposes, I require you to trust the "speakers" in each dialog as far as facts are concerned, but to be very suspicious where judgments, or inferences from facts are concerned. This is because we are here concerned with distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate rules of inference, and we need to treat some claims as facts in order to decide what can and cannot be inferred from those "facts." This means that when you are evaluating arguments in my dialogs, you must assume that all the factual claims in the dialog are true. Even if you disagree with some factual claim made by some arguer, you are generally supposed to assume that that claim is true for the purpose of evaluating the arguments in that dialog. (This will get a bit more complicated later, but I will explain the complications as they come up.)
If you want to do well in this class, you should do all of the exercises provided for practice. This is because critical thinking is primarily an attitude or mindset and only secondarily a set of concepts and techniques. The critical thinking attitude is characterized by a determination to think for oneself, and unwillingness to take anybody else's word for anything, and a determination to settle issues on the basis of logic rather than emotion. A person who knows all the concepts and techniques but who doesn't have the critical thinking attitude will totally fail to be a critical thinker, whereas someone who has the mindset will (eventually) succeed as a critical thinker, even if she doesn't start out knowing any of the concepts or techniques. The only real way to build up a mindset is to inhabit it on a daily basis, and the only way to do that is to do as many of these exercises as you can.
The first five exercises involve an imaginary radio personality, Dr. Laura Schlockslinger, (loosely based on someone else), but they are not based on anything particular that any real person has said. Just pretend that she said the words I put into her mouth here for the purposes of these exercises, and remember that I am no authority on what the real Dr. Laura has or hasn't said. (And I may be prejudiced!) For your information, both the real and the imaginary Dr. Laura holds a doctoral degree in physiology. Neither has any training or experience in philosophy, theology or moral reasoning. Got that? No training in philosophy, theology or moral reasoning! The books and radio shows of both are filled with claims about morality. For purposes of this exercise, I am going to say that our Dr. Laura doesn't like Larry Flynt. (My only evidence for this is just the fact that the real one once tried to organize a boycott of a surf shop that sold a surfing magazine published by Flynt.)
Your mission is to evaluate all of the arguments found in each of the following dialogs. You don't have to commit yourself to saying that one argument is absolutely perfect and the other is absolutely terrible. You do have to say which side has the stronger argument(s) and which is weaker. It might be helpful to remember that the basic way to evaluate any argument is to figure out what candidate principle is being offered to relate the available facts to the conclusion, and figuring out if that candidate principle is logically valid. The "right way rule" might also be helpful. You can standardize, context and/or analyze the argument sets on paper if it helps you. You can even do a full fist of death if that's helpful. But you don't have to do those things if you can figure out which argument is better and which is worse. Determining who commits a fallacy and who doesn't is also helpful. Exam questions may well ask you to identify various fallacies. Oh, and make sure you take the above background information on Dr. Laura Schlockslinger into account as you evaluate the Schlockslinger arguments. (Just in case you forgot, in the example of phony refutation given way up above above it is NELL who commits the fallacy. Vicky commits no fallacy!)
I'm experimenting with online quizzes. The following practice quiz will help you prepare for class.
I think that sex education is a good idea. It would help kids cope with
their sexual feelings if they knew where they were coming from and what
they could lead to.
Magdalena. You'd think that wouldn't you. The problem is, Dr. Laura Schlockslinger says that sex education is immoral and dangerous, so we should ban it from schools. That proves that sex education is a bad idea.
Tyshawn. Isn't Schlockslinger a Ph.D. in physiology? What does that have to do with morality?
Magdalena. Don't change the subject! She's a doctor, isn't she? That should be enough for you.
2.13. Sonny. Although I personally find Larry Flynt to be a disgusting person, I've got to admire the way he's dealt with being paralyzed. All those new magazines and other businesses he's started show he hasn't let being in a wheelchair slow him down.
Mireya. Dr. Laura Schlockslinger says that Larry Flynt is faking the injuries that put him in a wheelchair, so he's a fraud!
2.14. Tatiana. Dr. Laura Schlockslinger claims that human cloning will cause nothing but misery for everyone concerned. She says that the clones will grow up desperately unhappy, their parents will be unhappy, and the practitioners of cloning will be especially unhappy when they see all the misery they have caused.
Darrion. But Dr. Laura has made many pronouncements like that over the years, and almost none of her dire predictions have come true, so I don't really think that we can take her word for the future of human cloning.
2.15. Milton. Dr. Laura Schlockslinger has collected a wide variety of scientific papers saying that human cloning involves all sorts of physiological problems that are not well reported in the media, and that these problems could have devastating consequences for any human clone, so she says that uncontrolled human cloning carries horrendous moral risks.
Julien. But that's false authority because Dr. Laura is always saying that this thing or that thing carries moral risks! Just turn on her radio show, or open one of her books! You will find her saying that some thing is morally wrong. She's always saying that something is morally wrong, and she never says that anything is morally okay, so if she talks about something, she's obviously going to say that that thing is morally wrong. So obviously, we can ignore her claim that human cloning has moral risks.
2.16. Kacie. Dr. Laura Schlockslinger says that people learn quickest when their work is competently criticized, and that therefore teachers should not be banned from criticizing students' work.
Rylie. But that just proves that teachers should be banned from criticizing students' work! You know how conservative Dr. Laura is, and how little she really knows about education, so obviously criticism is bad educational practice.
2.17. Solomon. Did you hear that Doctor Beauregard Vineyard has proved that all the mountains in the world are in fact artificial structures erected in the distant past by super intelligent cows from other planets?
Deborah. Um, how do you know he's proved this?
Solomon. Because he says so in his new book, All of Our Mountains Were Erected by Cows. And he is the world's leading authority on ancient bovine astronauts. You know this because he was prominently featured in the world-famous documentary "What the Moo Do We Know?"
Deborah. But can we trust a movie?
Solomon. Normally, no. But we know this movie is accurate because it was lavishly praised on the website www.astrocowmountainmakers.com.
Deborah. Is this website on the level?
Solomon. Of course it is! Dr. Beauregard Vineyard says that this website is the most accurate and up-to-date source of information on ancient bovine astronauts and their mountain-making activities in the history of the world.
2.18. Alfonso. You really should take the ancient bovine mountain builders seriously. Dr. Beauregard Vineyard insists that they existed, and he is in fact the world's only authority on the subject. In fact, he has done an enormous amount of research on the subject, and is written nearly 300 books documenting all the evidence on this issue.
Joey. Doesn't he make his living writing these books? How much money would he make if he came out and said that these ancient bovine astronauts didn't exist after all?
Alfonso. Well, if he didn't say they existed, his books wouldn't sell, he would have to find another way to make a living.
2.19. Macie. You like action figures. Why don't you go out and buy a full set of the "Ancient Bovine Astronauts" figures, now on sale everywhere.
Amari. You think I should buy a bunch of figures of cows in space suits with shovels and dump trucks full of schist?
Macie. Dr. Beauregard Vineyard says they're the most authentic Ancient Bovine Astronaut figures there ever could be.
Amari. Doesn't he also own the company that makes these action figures?
Macie. Yeah, so?
2.20. Kenya. Dr. Rama Pithicus tells us that modern humans emerged from their pre-human ancestors in the vicinity of Bakersfield over 2 million years ago, so Dr. Crow Magnum could not have been using appropriate archaeological techniques when he decided that modern humans originated in Melbourne Australia, 2 million years ago.
Malia. But Dr. Crow Magnum is every bit as qualified as Dr. Rama Pithicus, so it must be Pithicus who wasn't using appropriate techniques.
2.21. Ramiro. Professor Her She has been studying chocolate for over 40 years. His study of chocolate took place at the top chocolate research labortories and universities in the world, and he has been repeatedly certified as the expert on the composition and effects of chocolate in the entire world. So when he says that liberal applications of chocolate on the scalp can cure baldness, you had better believe him, especially since he has absolutely no financial interest in this issue.
Angie. Doesn't Professor Her She have a long history of making outrageous claims about chocolate, all of which have turned out to be false?
Ramiro. Yes, but that doesn't matter, because he is still the world's foremost authority on chocolate.
2.22. Deshawn. Did you know that the Humanity Research Council has condemned the showing of nature films in hotel rooms. They say that these films promote domestic violence by encouraging men to act like male lions and tigers around the house, stalking their innocent family members before pouncing upon them and biting them savagely about the neck and shoulders. We must join the effort to prevent hotels from making nature films available to their guests.
Aurora. What kind of track record does the Humanity Research Council have for its pronouncements about things that influence people to act like animals?
Deshawn. Well, I don't know about their track record, but they are well known, and well-established advocacy group.
L. Alessandro. I was just reading a report by some feminist group or other. They took World Health Organization and United Nations statistics for the amount of the world's work that is done by women and compared it to the amount of the world's wealth that is actually controlled by women. It turns out that two-thirds of the world's work is actually done by women while only five percent of the world's wealth is controlled by women.
Liliana. That is complete and utter nonsense! Don't you know that PARADE magazine reported that 86 percent of all the personal wealth in the United States is owned by women! 86 percent! Now do you see that those feminists don't know what they're talking about?
M. Edith. Did you know that Pickup Styx, the chief Uninvited Napkins cuisine inspector, still maintains that there were no significant stocks of waffles of messy dessert items in Pastria at the time of the Cordon Bleu invasion of that country.
Carina. Are you nuts? Absolutely everyone I know says that Pastria had massive stocks of those messy dessert waffles at the time of the invasion! Everyone in my knitting circle has a different story of some clever way those Pastry Cooks hid some kind of waffle, and just about everyone in my book club has got a similar story. Who does this Pickup Styx think he is, going up against all my friends and acquaintances!
Possible Quiz Questions (By the time you finish this chapter, you should easily be able to answer these questions. If you can't, go back and read the relevant sections again.)
Should we trust an authority who has frequently been wrong about this kind of issue?
Should we trust an authority whose only expertise is in a completely unrelated field?
Should we trust an authority who stands to make a lot of money if you believe him in this particular case?
Should we disregard an authority because of some fact about him that has nothing to do with his use of his expertise?
Should we disregard an authority merely because she could have a vicious motive or material interest for saying what she says?
Does the fact that an authority makes a claim ever, by itself, prove that the authority has a vicious motive or material interest?
Should we trust an authority who relies on her feelings rather than her expertise?
Should we believe a claim merely because everyone else, or nearly everyone else believes it?
Should we disregard an authority merely because she has a track record of saying nothing but bad things about a particular person?
Should we disregard an authority merely because someone else has loudly disrespected her to us?
What's the difference between ad hominem and fallacy of slander?
What's the difference between fallacy of slander and poisoning the well?
What's the difference between ad hominem and phony refutation?
1. Regan. Don't you know that Professor Bar Soom says that the Mars Meteorites constitute definitive proof that there was once life on Mars.
Madisyn. But Bar Soom is a professor of literature who studies Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars novels!
2. Aden. I just read a fascinating book by man called Harold Peterson, who spent ten years researching the history of baseball. He says that baseball was brought to America by the British in the 1750's under the name of "rounders." Modern baseball was established and popularized in the 1840s and 50's by Alexander Cartwright and his friends of the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club.
Lizette. That's ridiculous. Everyone knows Abner Doubleday invented baseball at Cooperstown in 1839.
3. Beau. Man, liberalism must be a mental disease! Those people have no sense of facts or logic
Issac. Actually, the liberals I talk to are very well-informed, and they usually use good logic
Beau. Man, you've got to stop listening to them. It's a mental disease I tell you!
4. Tracy. Colonel Whiz Bang, the military aviation expert, is well-known for his knowledge of air fleet strengths. He says that the U.S. Army actually has more aircraft than US Air Force!
Justus. Yeah, but Colonel Whiz Bang is a war criminal! He bombed two hospitals, an orphanage and a petting zoo during the Vietnam war.
Tracy. But does that affect his military aviation expertise? And, anyway, he was probably trying to hit legitimate military targets.
Justus. In Cincinnati? No man, the air force must have way more aircraft!
5. Gunner. The well-known biblical scholar, Dr. Harry Mathea, says that there is no evidence that the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden of Eden was actually an apple. In fact, he says it was more likely to have been a fig.
Talon. Well that just proves that Harry Mathea has money in the fig business! He must have bought shares in fig ranches, and he's spreading this story to increase sales.
None of these arguments cites any person or group as the source of its
conclusion. Each one of them bases its conclusion on some fact that has
nothing to do with whatever any person or group says.
2.3. 16. Authority. The only evidence is given in support of the claim that horses can fly is that the USDA classifies horses as flying mammals. As no
other evidence is given, the reliability of the USDA is the only support the conclusion has, so this can only be an authority argument.
17. Not authority. The argument gives instances where Saddam Hussein has cross-dressed. If they really happened, that would be evidence
that Saddam was a transvestite. This is different from giving an authority argument because it gives independent evidence for the
conclusion rather than saying that somebody says that he's a transvestite.
18. Authority. (Flush Limburger )
19. Not authority. The argument is based on what is known about Canadian monkeys. Canadian monkeys are presumed to be representative
of all monkeys. No source is given for the claim that all monkeys can fly, so this is not an authority argument.
20. Authority. (The Republican National Committee)
21. Authority. ( Oil industry scientists )
22. Not authority. This argument is based on claims about the existence of specific dragons at specific places. If we know that specific,
identifiable dragons exist at specific locations, then it follows that dragons really exist, and the argument is not based on any claim about
what any particular person says.
23. Authority. (Dogpatch ASU)
24. Authority. (Namor, Prince of Atlantis, )
25. Not authority. No source is given for the claim that juggling is bad for cats. Instead, a list of alleged juggling-related injuries is given.
26. Authority. (The Pope )
27. Not authority. The argument claims that critical thinking instruction is the same as the terrorist training. The arguer seems to assume that
we will think that terrorist training is bad, and expects us to conclude that the alleged similarity between the two things that will lead us
to conclude that critical thinking instruction is bad also. The argument relies on a similarity between two objects, and not on the word of
some authority, so it is not an authority argument.
28. Authority. (President Bush )
29. Not authority. The argument gives physical evidence that can only be explained by assuming that a dinosaur (the tyrannosaur) and a
human being (the guy with the eight track and Betamax) were alive at the same time. This does not involve taking anybody's word for
anything, so this is not an authority argument.
30. Authority. (The entire Mormon Tabernacle Choir )
2.4. 31. Yes. She has a good track record, and we have no reason to think she's not using her expertise this time.
32. No. This person has a bad track record.
33. No. Her judgment could be consciously or unconsciously influenced by her particular interest.
34. No. His application of his expertise might have been influenced by his interest.
35. No. Training in the wrong subject is just as bad as no training at all.
36. No. A good track record in the wrong subject is just as bad as a bad track record in this subject.
37. Yes. Most real-life cases in which we accept someone as an authority fall into this situation.
38. Yes. Most real-life experts make their livings as experts. If they don't make every effort to be accurate, they won't be able to make money.
39. Yes. Her general interest did not affect her judgment before, so we should not think that it is affecting her judgment now.
40. No. We have no evidence that he has ever been right, or that his reputation depends on a track record for accuracy.
41. No. If the other authority has a similar track record, then he is equally likely to be right.
42. No. When comparably qualified experts disagree, they are both equally likely to be right..
2.5 43. Phony Refutation. (It looks like it refutes the other argument, but in reality it ignores the other argument.)
44. Special Pleading. (He wants us to accept authority where it favors him, but reject it when it opposes him.)
45. Fallacy of slander. (The arguer makes an unfounded slander of bias.)
46. False Authority. (The authority has a specific personal interest in this issue.)
47. Ad Hominem. (The arguer cites a true but irrelevant fact about the person.)
48. False Authority. (The “authority” is actually not an authority at all.)
49. Poisoning the Well. (Tries to get you to discount an authority when his expertise is actually not in question.)
50. False Authority. (If the field is unrelated, he can’t have the right expertise.)
51. Ad Populum. (A million non-experts is no better than a single non-expert.)
52. False Authority. (Bad track record.)
53. Circular Argument. (If there’s no independent evidence of expertise, then there’s no expertise, period.)
54. Red Herring. (Anti authority arguments only work on authority arguments.)
2.6. 55. Phony refutation. (The argument addresses Chain Smoker’s behavior, not his expertise.)
56. Circular Argument. (These guys all back each other up, but nothing else does.)
57. False Authority. (Nothing overcomes a bad track record.)
58. Ad Populum. (It’s just based on what people say.)
59. Poisoning the Well. (He does nothing but disparage Gear Head.)
60. False Authority. (No known qualifications nor track record. Just some random guy.)
61. Ad Hominem. (A felony conviction has nothing to do with engineering.)
62. False Authority. (Eye Ball has a financial interest here.)
63. Fallacy of slander. (Unfounded slander of bias.)
64. Special Pleading. (Equally qualified Drive Train disagrees, so the “trust authority” rule goes both ways.)
2.11. For each of the following arguments, write down a list of facts and a list of opinions. If you find you have to fill in something that isn't explicitly stated, put it in parenthesis, like a suppressed premise.
95. Fact. Nikki's grandpa says that dinosaurs were around when humans first walked the earth.
Fact. Nikki's grandpa is really old.
Opinion. Dinosaurs were around when humans first walked the earth.
96. It's pretty plausible to think that Nikki's grandpa really was joking, so I'll call this a fact. If you called it an opinion, that's okay.
(Opinion. Dinosaurs were not around when humans first walked the earth.)
97. Fact. Easton just had his first cat juggling lesson.
Fact. The cats were angry when they were juggled.
Fact. The cats seemed okay after the juggling.
(Opinion. Cat juggling is not bad for cats.)
98. Fact. Everyone Daquan knows says that juggling is the worst thing you can do to a cat.
Opinion. Juggling is the worst thing you can do to a cat.
99. Fact. Flush Limburger says that adultery is worse than distorting evidence to justify an invasion in which lots of people die.
Opinion. Adultery is worse than distorting evidence to justify an invasion in which lots of people die.
100. Fact. Flush Limburger is a plumber.
(Opinion. Flush Limburger is not an expert on morality.)
101. Fact. No-one has ever seen even the slightest piece of evidence for the existence of Dragons.
(Opinion. There are no dragons.)
102. Fact. Kyleigh says that dragons are real.
Opinion: Dragons are real.
103. Fact. Monkeys don't have wings.
Fact. No animal flies without wings.
Opinion. Monkeys don't fly.
104. Fact. A bum on the street told Kane that monkeys really can fly.
Opinion. Monkeys can fly.
105. Fact. The state department announced that Saddam Hussein was a transvestite.
Opinion. Saddam Hussein was a transvestite.
106. Fact. The state department was really, really bored that day.
(Opinion. Saddam Hussein was not a transvestite.)
107. Fact. The Hitlerage Institute says that critical thinking will destroy society as we know it.
Opinion. Critical thinking will destroy society as we know it.
108. Fact. The Hitlerage Institute is an advertising industry research group.
Opinion. The Hitlerage Institute is not an expert on critical thinking.
For the last few exercises, the information that is really necessary for a critique will be in bold type.
2.12. Based on the dialog between Tyshawn and Magdalena, sex education is a good idea. As Tyshawn says, sex eduction would help kids cope with their sexual feelings. It is a well-established fact that becoming properly informed about a type of situation is usually enormously useful, and being uninformed is usually extremely dangerous, and can be fatal, depending on the type of situation. I know of no situations in which people do better when they know less about what's going on. Because this fact is so well established, Magdalena, who thinks sex education should be banned, has to come up with an extremely compelling reason if she is to prove her point. Magdalena points out that the imaginary authority, Dr. Laura Schlockslinger, has stated that sex education is immoral and dangerous. If Dr. Schlockslinger is right, that would give us ample reason to ban sex education from schools. Unfortunately for Magdalena, Dr. Laura Schlockslinger is not an expert in either sex education or morality. She's a physiologist, which gives her no expertise in this particular area, and thus we can, and should, discount her statements. Without a qualified authority to back her up, Magdalena's argument fails.
2.13. Based on facts supplied by Sonny and Mireya, Larry Flynt is admirable. Sonny cites Larry Flynt's achievements to show that there is something admirable about Flynt, and it's very reasonable to admire someone who achieves a lot while wheelchair bound. However, Mireya cites Schlockslinger's authority as a physiologist to show that Flynt is a fraud. Sonny's argument depends on Flynt actually being wheelchair-bound. Starting new magazines and other businesses is not really that admirable if one is not confined to a wheelchair. Dr. Schlockslinger is a Ph.D. in physiology, which would qualify to discuss people's injuries and disabilities, but she has a well know animus against Flynt. That's not a material interest exactly, but she does have a track record of saying unfounded bad things about Flynt, so if she said this we'd have to discount it until we had evidence from an independent physiologist who could care less about Larry Flynt's life and work.
2.14. Based on the above dialog between Tatiana and Darrion, human cloning will not cause widespread misery. If Tatiana thinks that somebody else's actions will cause harm, it's up to Tatiana to come up with the evidence that it will cause harm. If this wasn't the rule, we would have to prove every new thing harmless before we could do it. Tatiana cites Dr. Schlockslinger as an authority for her claim that human cloning will be harmful. But it's hard to see how Schlockslinger could be qualified here and, as Darrion points out, she has a terrible track record, so double nuts to Tatiana. Even if Schlockslinger had substantial expertise in this matter, her unsupported word would not be enough to support this claim because we have evidence that she isn't good at making such predictions. Based on this, clones won't be miserable.
2.15. The preponderance of evidence given here by Milton and Julien supports the idea that human cloning does indeed carry moral risks. Dr. Laura seems qualified here because she's collected the relevant scientific papers, which is what experts are supposed to do. Milton appears to be giving an authority argument because he cites Schlockslinger, but notice that he actually refers to a wide variety of scientific papers, all of which Schlockslinger is competent to analyze because of her doctorate in physiology. Schlockslinger's Ph.D. at least qualifies her to find and read scientific papers, and she has no bias here, so we have no reason to discount her claims in this case. Julien attacks Milton's argument by accusing Milton of commiting the fallacy of false authority. He supports this by pointing out that Schlockslinger has a long track record of making precisely this kind of claim. Julien accuses Milton of relying on a biased authority, but his evidence for that bias is merely that Schlessinger predominately comments on things she thinks are morally wrong. Since the fact that someone makes it her business to point out bad stuff doesn't by itself mean that she's wrong about anything, Julien is bringing up a point that has nothing to do with the issue.
2.16. Based on Kacie's and Rylie's arguments, teachers should be allowed to criticize student's work. This is actually a very well established educational principle, and so we already have very good reason to believe it. We should only disbelieve it if someone comes up with an extremely compelling argument against it. This Rylie totally fails to do. Rylie argues that teachers should not be allowed to criticize student work because Schlockslinger says they should, and she's an idiot. But no matter how stupid Schlockslinger is, her stupidity can't change any facts, so she can't make something false merely by saying it's true. Schlockslinger isn't the only person in favor of criticism, so Rylie's got to come up with something that covers everyone who supports the idea of criticizing students's work. Unfortunately, his premise only applies to Schlockslinger! Since the usefulness of criticism is already accepted by educational professionals, it doesn't really need Dr. Laura's support, so since Rylie failed to meet his burden of proof, and the most rational conclusion here is that criticism is good educational practice.
2.17. Based on the dialog between Solomon and Deborah, we should say that proposition that all of our mountains were erected by cows is absolutely false. Our present understanding of mountains and cows implies that Dr. Vineyard's thesis could not possibly be true. If Dr. Vineyard was a competent authority, this might give us some reason to believe his thesis. However, his claim to expertise is based on a documentary movie, whose only claim to authenticity is in turn backed up by a website, that is itself only certified as an authority by Dr. Vineyard himself. This is a completely circular argument that provides absolutely no independent support for Dr. Vineyard's claim to expertise. Thus, Solomon's argument commits the fallacy of false authority.
2.18. The dialogue between Alfonso and Joey does not, by itself, really give us enough information to settle this issue. Our pre-existing knowledge of plate tectonics and cow history so strongly contradicts Dr. Vineyard's thesis that we would need absolutely incontrovertible evidence that it was true before we would even begin to think about the possibility of even thinking that it might be true, and in the word of a single expert, even if impeccably qualified would simply not be enough. Alfonso does cite the only person who could possibly be an authority on this subject but, since he does not cite a track record or any other evidence that Dr. Vineyard has done actual critical thinking about this issue, we don't really even have the beginnings of an authority argument. On the other hand, Joey's argument is no good either. The fact that Dr. Vineyard makes his living by writing about this theory does not mean that he's not an authority, simply because the majority of reputable experts make their livings by writing about their subjects.
2.19. The dialog between Macie and Amari suggests that we have no real reason to think that the "Ancient Bovine Astronauts" figures are the most authentic Ancient Bovine Astronaut figures there ever could be. Macie relies upon the authority of Dr. Beauregard Vineyard who, as the world expert on the Ancient Bovine Astronauts theory would normally be considered the premier expert on the authenticity of Ancient Bovine Astronaut figures, but he happens to own the company that makes this particular figures, and so he has a strong financial interest in this issue. Given this interest, we cannot take his word on this issue, and Macie commits the fallacy of false authority by relying on his word.
2.20. The dialogue between Kenya and Malia gives us no basis for saying anything about the origin of modern humans. Both speakers accuse the other of citing an authority who misuses his expertise, but the only evidence they give is that the other expert disagrees. Although disagreement between experts suggests that someone has messed up, the mere fact of disagreement does not tell us which one of them it was. However, because equally qualified experts disagree about this issue, we simply cannot rely on authority to settle the question. Furthermore, because each speaker wants us to accept his favored authority while at the same time rejecting another, equally qualified authority, they both commit the fallacy of special pleading.
2.21. After considering the dialogue between Ramiro and Angie, we have no real reason to think that rubbing chocolate on one's head can cure baldness. It is true that professor Her She has an enormous amount of expertise and no financial interest in the matter, but he also has a history of making outrageous statements that turn out not to be true. That, by itself, is enough to disqualify him as an authority, and so Ramiro commits the fallacy of false authority by citing an authority with a bad track record.
2.22. Based on the information in the conversation between Deshawn and Aurora, we should not try to make hotels stop showing nature films to their guests. Everything should be considered morally okay unless we have a specific reason to think that it is morally bad, so Deshawn bears the burden of proving that it is morally wrong for hotels to make nature films available to their guests. He tries to do this by citing the Humanity Research Council, a well known advocacy group. However, being a well-known advocacy group does not establish a good car track record or any other kind of qualification. Since the Humanity Research Council has no actual qualifications, it really cannot count as an authority, and Deshawn commits false authority.