Exposing PseudoAstronomy

September 11, 2008

Logical Fallacy – The Difference Between Argument from Authority and Scientific Consensus


The purpose behind this post is to explain the difference between two things that pseudo-scientists often confuse:  The logical fallacy of “Argument from Authority” versus the concept of a Scientific Consensus.

“Argument from Authority” is effectively the idea that Person A is a supposed authority in Subject B.  Therefore, anything that Person A states about Subject B is true.  For example, I could make the claim that Dr. Crusher is an expert on human anatomy.  The fallacy then goes that if I were to say to my friends that Dr. Crusher says the neck bone is connected to the foot bone, then it must be true because she’s an expert in that field.  But, obviously this is not true.  In other words, the validity of the claim does not follow from the credibility of the source.

Less contrived examples of this are in some of the creationism and intelligent design posts that I have made.  In them, the interviewer often states that their information comes from Dr. So-and-so, a scientist.  This is the argument from authority, though, for any individual scientist is fully capable of self-deceit or deceiving others.

When I debunk these claims on this blog, I try not to use argument from authority for that basic reason.  What I use is the general scientific consensus about what are the facts or general understanding of the subject at-hand.  For example, the existence of the Kuiper Belt and Oort Clouds are accepted by the majority of astronomers — they have reached a consensus.  A scientific consensus represents the most likely explanation given everything that we know at the time.

This, too, may sound like an argument from authority, but it is not.  That is because the reason the argument from authority is a fallacy is that it is based on an individual‘s credibility.  That is why science is supposed to be peer-reviewed – so that you can convince your colleagues of the claim’s validity based upon the scientific evidence.  If the evidence is not real, sufficient enough, and/or can’t be replicated, then your claim will fall by the wayside and not be accepted by the scientific community.  It is only after the claim has been vetted and accepted by the majority of scientists that it becomes a consensus opinion and hence not subject to the logical fallacy of argument from authority.

An example of this in modern science is the global warming “controversy.”  The majority of climate scientists and modelers agree that global warming is in fact occurring and will continue to happen.  This is the scientific consensus.  However, there are still several scientists who disavow this viewpoint.  If a news article were to just quote one of those scientists to say that there is still a scientific controversy over whether or not global warming is occurring, then they have just committed the argument from authority fallacy.  The consensus is that it IS happening, and the debate over whether global warming is “real” or not is pretty much over.

6 Comments »

  1. This is an important misunderstanding to talk about. It’s source of endless frustration to me, anyway. 🙂 Because the public at large doesn’t read scientific literature, but instead has its information on science issues filtered through the media, the arguments based on scientific consensus can seem weak to non-scientists. They’re interpreted as “as everybody says so” arguments. Oddly, this seems to inspire skepticism, even amongst the kind of people who thought Osama bin Laden and Sadam Hussein were best buddies. Arguments from individual authority figures are more powerful to non-scientists, because people are accustomed to trusting individual doctors, teachers, and co-workers in their particular areas of expertise. And thus the Jason Lisles of the world are able to convince people that cavemen road around on dinosaurs, and Michael Criton’s denials of global warming assuage people’s guilt over driving SUVs. Grrr.

    Comment by Hanna — September 11, 2008 @ 1:59 pm | Reply

  2. Yeah, this argument also comes to bear with the Intelligent Design “debate.” The Discovery Institute has a list of “Dissent from Darwin,” where anyone who “doubts Darwinism” and holds a Ph.D. can sign. They have around 700 names after a few years. They tout this as saying that hundreds of scientists doubt Darwin and therefore Evolution is far from being an accepted “fact.”

    In response, the National Center for Science Education started their own list, the “Steve” list, where any Ph.D. whose name is “Steven” who thinks that evolution is correct can sign. They have nearly 1000 names last I checked … that means that JUST the scientists named Steve out-number all the scientists the Discovery Institute can come up with. That’s the nature of a scientific consensus.

    Comment by astrostu206265 — September 11, 2008 @ 4:11 pm | Reply

  3. I’m afraid I don’t fully agree with the distinction made between “the logical fallacy of argument from authority” and the concept of scientific consensus. It seems to be based on two mistakes.

    First, it’s suggested that arguments from authority are always fallacious. In other words, they can never be reasonable. I wonder why this should be the case? I agree that such arguments could be fallacious, but if someone’s really an expert in the field that the argumentation is about (for example, Darwin on his evolution theory), then referring to him seems perfectly fine to me (like “According to the evolution theory, the principle of selection applies most effectually in nature, because Darwin said so”). Not all arguments from authority are, of course, reasonable(think “According to the evolution theory, the principle of selection applies most effectually in nature, because President Obama said so”). But to disqualify all of them seems a bit harsh.

    Second, it’s suggested that scientific consensus constitutes reasonable argumentation. But, though I’m sure there’re cases in which such consensus indicates the correctness of a claim, it’s nevertheless equally possible that scientific consensus indicates that the majority of scientist simply got it wrong (meaning that an “ad populum” fallacy has occurred). Imagine participating in a discussion about geocentrism in Ancient Greece, while possessing all modern astrological knowledge. You wouldn’t find the argument “but all Ancient Greek scientists agree that the universe is geocentric” all of a sudden reasonable, would you?

    So, actually, I’d recommend simply critically looking at types of argumentation in the context in which they occur, rather than always preferring one over the other. The latter seems to be an approach that doesn’t do justice to the nuances of argumentation.

    Comment by Emma — September 17, 2009 @ 8:29 am | Reply

  4. Astrostu

    “In them, the interviewer often states that their information comes from Dr. So-and-so, a scientist. This is the argument from authority, though, for any individual scientist is fully capable of self-deceit or deceiving others. When I debunk these claims on this blog, I try not to use argument from authority for that basic reason.”

    BUT

    “As I stated above, there is simply NO basis for the (2012) claims (my emphasis).

    To quote another Mayanist scholar, Sandra Noble:

    “To render Dec. 21, 2012, as a doomsday or moment of cosmic shifting, she says, is “a complete fabrication and a chance for a lot of people to cash in.”

    You use ‘argument from authority’ all the time. But you will say this is just an example of consensus view of peer reviewed studies.

    Academia has to use ‘argument from authority.’ There are not enough hours in the day not to. But it is a dangerous process to rely on. I cannot see an alternative though. 90% of the time we don’t even have the data/text to work with So how do you

    “simply critically look at types of argumentation in the context in which they occur, rather than always preferring one over the other.”?

    Comment by Mick — September 18, 2009 @ 4:46 am | Reply

  5. @Emma

    “According to the evolution theory, the principle of selection applies most effectually in nature, because Darwin said so”

    I would bet that most scientists would change that to be more correct: According to the evolution theory, the principle of selection applies most effectually in nature, because *the data* said so. (The rest of your comment suggests we probably are in agreement)

    .. For myself, I agree in principle with Stuart’s take on this, but the problem is that “might is right” is also a fallacy. I think where consensus prevents itself from being “might is right” is that scientists rely on data, not peer confirmation bias/pressure.

    Also, for most laymen such as I, it’s perfectly reasonable to look to someone’s credentials as an idea for whether or not they know what they’re talking about. You have studied astronomy, I have not, therefore you’re probably going to be better educated on the subject and better able to inform me as to what to think on some new piece of astronomical data.

    Comment by flip — August 13, 2012 @ 6:58 am | Reply

  6. […] * Does he really believe that constantly repeating I’m a scientist and I understand the brain! is a substitute for showing us data — for instance, a list of medications he was given, or EEG traces made during the coma? Again and again, he offers only that hoary old fallacy, argument from authority. […]

    Pingback by “Heaven is Real!” « The Squarest Peg’s Blog — October 13, 2012 @ 8:49 am | Reply


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