Argument from authority is necessary for scientific progress.

Sir Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” Every scientific advance is based on the work of others and so we need to know what scientific work is accurate so we can stand on a solid foundation rather than on a pack of lies and errors. The usual way to judge the work of others is to judge how much authority they have.

But awarding absolute trust to any authority is a logical fallacy called an appeal to authority and the line between the fallacy and good judgement of authority can be confusing.   Some amount of deference to authority is necessary for science because everyone cannot double-check every fact and experiment that others have done previously.  We are forced to appeal to authority most of the time in deciding what facts are accurate because of our very limited resources.

Wikipedia illustrates the appeal-to-authority fallacy with the example of Theophilus Painter who thought he determined that humans had 24 pairs of chromosomes.  There are actually 23 chromosomes, but for 36 years scientists said there were 24 and numerous scientists miscounted the number because they gave too much authority to Painter.  But we cannot all independently verify how many chromosomes exist in human cells because we don’t all have the equipment the time. Everyone has to decide when to trust the authority of others to be able to gain from the specialization and exchange that makes scientific progress possible.

The only way to make scientific exchange possible is to appeal to authority in deciding who is most likely to be honest and accurate and who is not. The real problem with the so-called “logical fallacy” of appeals to authority are when authorities are deemed to be infallible or when someone’s claim is given too much weight (such as Painter’s claim).

It is a crucial skill in science to learn how to evaluate authority using Bayesian thinking. Evidence from authorities with stronger reputations for accuracy must be given more weight than contradictory evidence from authorities with weaker accuracy, but no authority can ever be so strong that it permanently outweighs all possible counter evidence. People who complain about the so-called “logical fallacy of appeals to authority” are really complaining about excessive Bayesian weights for the accuracy of authorities who should be doubted more.

Evaluating Authorities

To be good thinkers we need good judgement about the authorities we will choose to stand upon. Here are some ways to judge sources and determine how authoritative they are:

  1. Is it peer-reviewed?
  2. Is it published by an institution with a reputation for accuracy?

    A) The websites of democratic governments (.gov) are generally accurate.
    B) Official university publications are usually accurate, but sometimes university websites also host work by students that lacks quality, so look for other signs of quality too.
    C) Books published by university presses or professional associations (e.g. National Academies Press) are more credible than books published by popular presses (Random House) which are generally more credible than books that are self-published, but not always.

  3. Does the author have credentials in the subject? (Such as a PhD in the area or a body of authoritative publications.)
  4. Does the paper cite solid sources?

If in doubt, you can get help from experts like college librarians who are good at finding reputable sources. Textbooks and peer-reviewed articles cite quality sources so you can find more sources by looking up who they cite.  Wikipedia often cites quality sources, but it is very uneven and you will have to use your own judgement.

As for non-scholarly sources, it is harder to judge quality, but again look for how much depth the author has in the topic by how many sources (and the quality of the sources) the author has cited and how much the author has written on the topic.  The publisher is also an important source of quality control.  News organizations vary in their reputations, but generally speaking news organizations with broader audiences (particularly if they have international readership) that write long, in-depth, investigative reporting are more credible than smaller organizations that write short pieces for people with short attention spans.

You also have to pay attention to the difference between news articles which are fact-checked by editors and editorial or opinion articles which typically have much lower standards of accuracy. For example, The Wall Street Journal publishes internationally-respected news pages with high accuracy and that also in the same publication includes a highly-partisan opinion page with low standards of accuracy. As the opinion page itself says about their different missions: “While our news pages are committed to informing our readers, our editorial pages are dedicated to advocating a consistent [political] philosophy…” The errors in the opinion page got so bad that hundreds of journalists on the news side of the paper have signed letters complaining about factual inaccuracies in the opinion pages including errors that callously endangered the life of one of their journalists.

Other popular publications with international reputations for accuracy include The Economist, The Atlantic, The BBC, The Financial Times, Foreign Affairs, wire services (The Associated Press, Reuters, & Bloomberg News which provide articles for other news organizations), The New York Times, and The Washington Post, although as with the Wall Street Journal, the opinion pages of the latter are more biased than their straight news articles. Some publications like the Economist (on the center right) and The Atlantic (on the center left) tend to mix editorial and news without labeling which is which, so readers have to separate the two. Fox News also mixes editorial and news, but unlike Fox News, the Economist and the Atlantic fact check everything for accuracy. TV news tends to be worse at fact-checking than printed news because video productions simply tend to be more rushed and sloppier than written work. In particular, the live broadcasts interviews that FOX and CNN specialize in are impossible to factcheck before publication and are particularly prone to misinformation.

This photo shows windows from Chartres Cathedral where the four New Testament authors of the gospels are sitting on the shoulders of the four major prophets of the Old Testament who are depicted as giants. The sentiment was to show that even if the apostles had been smaller, they would have seen more than their giant forebears because of relying upon them.

Posted in Culture, Philosophy and ethics

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