[extropy-chat] Appeal to Authority

Hal Finney hal at finney.org
Thu Mar 16 10:14:23 UTC 2006

Ian Goddard writes:
> I can't find a good explanation of why "appeal to
> authority" is a fallacy or at worst something not
> properly done in argument. So here's my rough effort
> at articulating a possibly inherent vacuity in any
> appeal to authority during argument. This should apply
> as well to appeals to a consensus of authorities
> versus any dissenting authorities. Of course, comments
> are welcome.

I think your reasoning makes sense, but here is my version of it.

What is the point of an argument?  Ideally, it is not to convince the
other guy that you are right.  After all, a priori given the symmetry of
the situation he is as likely to be right as you are.  Rather, the point
should be to pool your knowledge and sharpen your ideas.  The argument
structure, where one person advances one side and the other person
argues for the other, is an excellent method to do this.  It works so
well that we actually use this same method for the most important actions
our government takes: the legal system and the legislature.

In the courtroom lawyers argue their sides vigorously, but no one pretends
that they actually believe their own arguments.  It is their job to
advance their case with all the skill they have.  Someone's life may
hang in the balance.  We use the argument format for these incredibly
weighty and important decisions because it is the very best method we
have for getting at the truth.

So I think, whether we are aware of it or not, that this is much of
what is going on in personal arguments as well.  We pit the two sets of
ideas against each other in a no holds barred competition, because that
is what works.

Given this structure, it will work best if the competing ideas can be
directly and explicitly exposed and challenged.  Appeals to authority
undercut this goal because they are "black boxes".  Without knowing
why the authorities believe as they do, we cannot pit the competing
arguments sharply against one another.  Black box arguments are like
blunt or padded weapons in this battle of ideas.  We need sharp swords
to slash and parry in order to get a maximally effective test.

Having said this, I do think that appeals to authority have a role to
play if your main goal is to get at the truth, rather than to improve your
thinking and understanding.  In fact, courtrooms typically do allow expert
witnesses to make claims without backing them up with a full explanation
of the facts.  Juries are expected to accept what an authority says,
within limited circumstances in the courtroom.  Nobody wants a trial
lawyer to be able to make arguments that defy the laws of physics or
any other well accepted consensus within an expert community.


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