The argument from authority (or lack thereof)

By Ken Perrott 03/01/2012

In the natural sciences arguing from authority is frowned on. Sure, we do have to give credence to authorities when attempting to understand subjects outside our field. But, in our own areas (and in the end with any scientific subject) authority counts for nothing. After all the best test of any scientific idea is to measure it against reality. Evidence counts more than authority.

So I always find arguments from authority  weak. And when the arguer uses only that approach, maybe even using the argument from authority as a way of ignoring evidence (or even details of the argument itself), I suspect that argument from authority has become a way of avoiding the issue completely. One can end up debating at length the importance of authority, or the rights of others to have opinions, and never once deal with the real issue which sparked the debate.

Natural science vs ideological agendas

While argument from authority tends not to be used by natural scientists I find that it is far more commonly resorted to by those who may have ideological agendas. So I was interested to come across this confirmation in a comment from the linguist Noam Chomsky:

In my own professional work I have touched on a variety of different fields. I’ve done work in mathematical linguistics, for example, without any professional credentials in mathematics; in this subject I am completely self-taught, and not very well taught. But I’ve often been invited by universities to speak on mathematical linguistics at mathematics seminars and colloquia. No one has ever asked me whether I have the appropriate credentials to speak on these subjects; the mathematicians couldn’t care less. What they want to know is what I have to say. No one has ever objected to my right to speak, asking whether I have a doctor’s degree in mathematics, or whether I have taken advanced courses in this subject. That would never have entered their minds. They want to know whether I am right or wrong, whether the subject is interesting or not, whether better approaches are possible — the discussion dealt with the subject, not my right to discuss it.
But on the other hand, in discussion or debate concerning social issues or American foreign policy, Vietnam or the Middle East, for example, this issue is constantly raised, often with considerable venom. I’ve repeatedly been challenged on grounds of credentials, or asked, what special training do you have that entitles you to speak of these matters. The assumption is that people like me, who are outsiders from a professional viewpoint, are not entitled to speak on such things.
Compare mathematics and the political sciences — it’s quite striking. In mathematics, in physics, people are concerned with what you say, not with your certification. But in order to speak about social reality, you must have the proper credentials, particularly if you depart from the accepted framework of thinking. Generally speaking, it seems fair to say that the richer the intellectual substance of a field, the less there is a concern for credentials, and the greater is the concern for content.

Chomsky (1979 ) Language and Responsibility: Based on Conversations With Mitson Ronat Translated by John Viertel. New York: Pantheon. [French original: Dialogues avec Mitsou Ronat. Paris: Flammarion, 1977.]

Reviewing “The God Delusion”

In my experience this argument from authority (or avoiding argument by debating authority) seems widespread with religious apologists. To paraphrase Chomsky: “the poorer the intellectual substance of a field, the greater there is a concern for credentials, and the less is the concern for content.” I think that’s an apt description of the field of theology, don’t you?

This stuck out (to me) like a bloody nose in Terry Eagleton’s infamous review of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. He starts with:

“Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.”

And that is basically it. He contends that Dawkins has no credibility discussing the possible existence of gods or otherwise – because he is not a theologian and has no training in theology! And that’s basically it! No attempt to discuss or debate the issues raised in Dawkins’ book.

And that particular review seems to have been used as a template for almost all reviews by religious apologists of books written by the so-called “new atheists.” It’s become a knee jerk reaction – mention the words “Richard Dawkins” and he is derided as being ignorant, (specially of theology) with never trying to discuss any issue he raises. In a sense this technique has been successful – it has given religious adherents (and some atheist “accommodationists“) a way of avoiding issues raised by Dawkins and others. But, of course, this tactic is completely unsuccessful in countering Dawkins’ arguments for anyone who seriously considers them. That is the problem with the argument from authority ( or lack of authority) – there is no engagement with the issues.

An avoidance technique?

Personally I find that when debates with religious apologists deteriorate to arguments from authority (or lack of authority) I start to think of better things I can do with my time. Perhaps my discussion partner is attempting to lead me on a wild goose chase to avoid the real issues. To waste my time.

A recent example with a local blogger concerned his dogmatic support for “divine command ethics.” A commenter pointed out that such ethical systems had a basic problem outlined in the Euthyphro Dilemma. Applied to this situation the dilemma for “divine command” ethicists is – are “moral truths” ” good and just because God wills it.” Or does “God wills it because it is good and just.” Inevitably in any real situation such an ethicist is making her moral decision for her god by appealing to some other outside source of morality. Or they talk themselves into the silly position the apologist W. L. Craig did recently when he ended up justifying biblical infanticide, genocide and ethnic cleansing – because it was commanded by his god (see Concern over William Lane Craig’s justification of biblical genocide).

The blogger resorted to an argument from authority by declaring “Euthyphro Dilemma has been well and truly dealt with by divine command meta-ethics. This has been done so many times I find it incredible that anyone still brings it up!” As far as he was concerned that was the end of it. No details were going to be discussed under his watch. And indeed, when I pointed out that  such an attitude is to be expected for “divine command” ethicists – “Such self deception is common in ideologically motivated groups of all types” –  and not to “be surprised that others aren’t convinced” – I was accused of “trolling.” And banned from further commenting!

Well, that’s another way of avoiding discussion, of avoiding the real world.

My message – question authority. But also be suspicious of arguments from lack of authority. Avoid arguments related to authority and get to the heart of the matter – the evidence.

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