Sunday, July 05, 2009

Why "argument from authority" is a perfectly good strategy for nonexperts

Excerpts from the excellent Climate Change and Argumentative Fallacies by Julian Sanchez.*
In short: If you're a layman - as most of us are, in most areas - it makes sense to adopt the experts' views - as long as they are, in fact, credible experts in the field in question.
We’re accustomed to calling the “argument from authority” a fallacy, but in fact, that’s what the vast majority of us have to go on most of the time. Provided you ensure that authority’s authority actually applies to the field in question, it’s as good a strategy as any.

Obviously, when it comes to an argument between trained scientific specialists, they ought to ignore the consensus and deal directly with the argument on its merits. But most of us are not actually in any position to deal with the arguments on the merits. (The gauging your own competence level well enough to know when to assess arguments and when to assess arguers.)

...[The "baffle-em-with-BS works unfortunately well, since] a peddler of horseshit...need only worry about what sounds plausible. If my opponent is trying to explain what’s true, he may be constrained to introduce concepts that take a while to explain and are hard to follow, trying the patience (and perhaps wounding the ego) of the audience.
[When] the setup is “snappy, intuitively appealing argument without obvious problems” vs. “rebuttal I probably don’t have time to read, let alone analyze closely” ...we’ll systematically tend to go least outside our own necessarily limited domains of knowledge. Indeed, in such cases, trying to evaluate the arguments on their merits will tend to lead to an erroneous conclusion more often than simply trying to gauge the credibility of the various disputants.

If climate change is actually going to be profoundly harmful, then it’s precisely the sort of problem libertarian principles say the state ought to be trying to solve.
and from a commenter:
"Most fallacies aren’t really fallacies when you reinterpret them as ...reasons to give an idea more credence rather than iron-clad syllogisms. Without the “argument from authority” and the “ad hominem fallacy”, you would either never get lunch or you’d give all your money to Nigerian spammers."


Intuitively, we grasp this.

Related, from The One Minute MBA -
"There is much made by people who long for the days of their fourth form debating society about the fallacy of "argumentum ad hominem". There is, as I have mentioned in the past, no fancy Latin term for the fallacy of "giving known liars the benefit of the doubt", but it is in my view a much greater source of avoidable error in the world..."

1 comment:

Anna Haynes said...

I'm posting this since I wanted to be able to link to the gist of Sanchez's argument, since his full post was proving difficult for some local readers (and not just the usual suspects!) to make their way through.