[extropy-chat] Appeal to Authority

Lee Corbin lcorbin at tsoft.com
Fri Mar 17 01:13:08 UTC 2006

I thought that it was obvious why Ian was raising this
interesting question about Appeal to Authority. We were
just concluding a thread in which two thoughtful and
well-respected  :-)  writers, Hal and Robin, were in
essence encouraging us to believe the consensus of experts
in lieu of our own ruminations.

Yet we have *all* at one time or another in the middle of
argument been irked by a sudden appeal to authority from
out of the blue. It strikes us as irrelevant! As Eliezer
likes to say "trust content, not speakers".

Moreover, its *officially* a logical error! An irony that did
not escape Ian himself in a later post:

> Appeal to authority must be a fallacy, after all it's
> listed as such by authorities on argument! ;^)

And any number of people have pointed out all the genuine cases
(especially in law) when argument from authority just about
trumps everything else. I really liked Rafal's example, though,
which wasn't about law:

   ### If my parents are dumb alcoholics and the other kid's 
   parents are highly financially successful MD/PhD/JDs, 
   he can reasonably tell me to shut up and accept the
   opinions about biotechnology patent law that he learned
   from them...

   ### Appeal to authority is a rational argument whenever 
   the participants in the discussion do not have the 
   ability to understand or otherwise verify the arguments
   produced by authorities but can agree on a way of
   assessing the authorities themselves.

No, appeal to authority is not *only* valid when the participants
are lacking in ability. It's even valid when they're very capable:

Here is what I think is really going on: so far as this question
is concerned, the search for truth takes place on two different

The first level is that of rational and logical discourse, in
which each of us rather proudly asserts his own independence
and his own confidence in his ability to understand, analyze,
and arrive at trustworthy conclusions. This is a delicate
process, and those who interrupt it with irrelevancies are
rightly scorned. It's normal, healthy, and even vital that
we retain this pride and seek to understand completely many
issues on their own terms, and while engaged in this process
totally reject argument from authority.

Yet on another level---which must be kept quite separate---we
absolutely must acknowledge the probable correct functioning 
of nervous systems very much like our own but whose circumstances
in all objective likelihood give their owners' conclusions greater
weight, i.e., are more probably in synch with the truth, than ours

So we must embrace each kind of discourse, but we must try
to do so separately. In the final analysis we will do as we
always have done: we submit everything we've thought and heard
---especially including these two kinds of truth-seeking---to
our own judgment, experience and intuition. (It's really pretty
laughable when people think that they can presently do any better,
e.g. formalize or rationalize the process.)


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