I haven’t done a post in almost two years to add to my very incomplete series on logical fallacies and fallacious argument techniques. However, due to recent posts – especially in the comments section – on my blog, I thought this would be a good time to re-visit the specific and very common logical fallacy of the “argument from authority,” and I want to then contrast that against the “scientific consensus.” They are not the same thing.
In actuality, I have addressed this difference before, albeit it was in the very early days of my blog and I want to pull out more specific examples and be more explicit this time.
The Argument from Authority
The argument from authority is really a very simple logical fallacy to spot: Person A has seeming authority in some subject, therefore Person B needs to believe what they say.
An example from the Apollo Moon Hoax lexicon is that David Groves, Ph.D. (the authority) showed in a study that the radiation experienced by astronauts would have rendered their photographic film damaged beyond repair (exposed) so they could not have possibly taken the pictures that NASA claims. He has a Ph.D., therefore he’s right. Except, not. His study did not use the same camera, film, nor shielding that NASA did. He exposed the film to 1000 times the strength of radiation for 100x as long (effectively). Not exactly a valid experiment to demonstrate what is claimed.
Another example, courtesy of Answers in Genesis, is that they have a Ph.D. astrophysicist on staff, “Dr. Jason Lisle, Ph.D.” Yes, his Ph.D. is valid, was in the actual science field, and he graduated a year before I entered grad school from the same department I got my degree in. Does that make his creationist writings any more valid than a guy ranting on the street? No. Does that make his claims that the fact we can argue with logic means the Bible is true (yes, he does claim that)? No.
Or, to use a contrived example from my first post on this subject, 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.
Other Examples of Argument from Authority
Isaac Newton: One of my favorite examples of the argument from authority is that of Isaac Newton. By pretty much any account and all measures, Newton was the founder of modern physics and mathematics. He didn’t just codify calculus, gravity, and motion, but also optics. He truly is one of the most important people and most authoritative people in modern science. If anyone is an authority, he is.
But then, Newton was a fervent believer in alchemy. He thought that you could turn ordinary, cheap metals (for example) into more valuable ones like gold if you combined them with the right chemicals. He pursued this as much as he pursued figuring out why we have tides.
If Newton were alive today, I would likely believe anything he said about physics (at least classical physics). But alchemy? No. I’d call him out on that pseudoscience just as much as I call out Terry Nazon on her made-up astrology. It doesn’t matter if he is revered and respected — individual arguments from authority are a logical fallacy for a reason, and citing an individual who claims one thing that does not make sense given what we know about the universe is as bad an argument as “’cause I said so, that’s why!”
Dr. Richard B. Hoover, Ph.D. from NASA: First reported widely on FOX news in early March, 2011, Dr. Richard B. Hoover, “an astrobiologist with NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center,” found life on a meteorite. He published his findings in the “peer-reviewed” Journal of Cosmology. This was very quickly torn apart by most scientists in the field and in related fields where we (yes, I participated) pointed out that he was seeing pareidolia shapes in rocks, his findings were not verified nor replicable by his peers in the field, and that the Journal of Cosmology is one of the crackpot “journals” in astronomy.
JoC is a fringe journal at best. To quote PZ Myers, “it isn’t a real science journal at all, but is the ginned-up website of a small group of crank academics obsessed with the idea of Hoyle and Wickramasinghe that life originated in outer space and simply rained down on Earth.” In response to Hoover’s paper, it contacted the editors of Science and Nature to put together a panel of experts to evaluate the claims. Then it stated, “any refusal to cooperate, no matter what the excuse [will be] vindication for the Journal of Cosmology and the Hoover paper, and an acknowledgment that the editorial policies of the Journal of Cosmology are beyond reproach.” With that, they clearly cross into the tactics used by many pseudoscientists whereby either (a) they wear out the critics to the point the critics just don’t care anymore, or (b) the critics never cared enough in the first place to dignify the original challenge because it was so fringe to begin with.
With that said, the JoC’s editorial board is made of seven Ph.D.s, one who is the director of the center for astrobiology at Cardiff, one from NASA JPL, one who is the senior research scientist in the science directorate at NASA Langley, and another who is the head of the department of computer science at Oklahoma State University. Seems “highly qualified.” But, this is another example of a few who put together a journal being an argument from authority. I actually looked up one of the Ph.D.s because he is in my former department here at CU-Boulder. Looking further into him, there’s really nothing to find other than he’s emeritus faculty — basically retired but still hangs around. His personal website was last updated in 2001.
So we have another case where all because someone is a NASA scientist, all because someone is a department chair, all because someone is a center director, it does not mean that all of their claims can be taken as true.
Similarly, if you can convince a NASA scientist, an imaging professional, someone at the CDC, someone who runs the computers for a major NASA mission, or someone who builds spacecraft that your particular claim is true, that does not mean that everyone else needs to believe it.
My 8th Grade Science Teacher: We started out 8th grade science with going around the room and saying what our parents did for a living. The teacher then told us that he used to work in the local hospital. For some reason, that seemed to convey some authority at the time. In hindsight, I think he was trying to make himself feel good.
That authority quickly vanished during our astronomy unit when he explained to us that the moon was three times farther away from Earth than the sun, a kilometer is longer than a mile, and that to stop a space ship in space you shut off the engines and wait for it to wander near a planet and have the planet’s gravity slow you down. After some checking, his job at the local hospital turned out to be in security. Obviously, this was a case where a stated authority (working at a hospital) and a presumed authority (being the teacher) could not mask gross incompetence.
Scientific Consensus: NOT An Argument from Authority
In contrast, the scientific consensus is not an argument from authority. There are a couple of ways to think about this. The most basic and concise is that the scientific consensus is not based on an individual’s or small group’s credibility.
A more lengthy way to think about this is that the scientific community is convinced by evidence, not by individual charisma nor authority. I’ve said it many, many times before in this blog, and I’ve written at least a whole post on it, that contrary to seemingly popular opinion, scientists want to create new paradigms. They want to be able to convince their colleagues and detractors that they are correct. Upholding the status quo means you are guaranteed to be forgotten. And, the only way you are going to convince everyone that you are correct is to provide them with overwhelmingly convincing evidence and to show that your new model/idea explains all of the evidence that the previous one did at least as well, if not better.
Once this is done, the people who are experts in the field will be convinced. They can then go out and convince others in related fields that this is the actual way things work. Again — it’s not an authority, they are convincing people by the evidence. This process continues to trickle throughout the scientific community until there is a broad consensus on that issue.
By that point, what is a lay person to do? Should they trust Dr. Linus Pauling, a twice Nobel Laureate who claimed that high doses of Vitamin C basically prevented almost all illnesses and cured many diseases, including cancer? Or should they trust the scientific consensus – a group of tens of thousands of medical professionals who have read and been convinced by the research – that Pauling was deluded?
I’m not saying that you should trust the consensus view blindly. Try to understand it. Understand why the consensus is what it is. What is the evidence that has convinced everyone? At that point, if you still think they may be wrong, then figure out why the consensus view is not convinced by the evidence that you are. It is highly likely that you are misunderstanding something, not thousands of people who have spent their lives studying the issue.
The Scientific Consensus is Not Infallible
That all being said, scientists will usually be the first (as in, not the last) to admit that the consensus is fallible and that their views can be changed by the evidence. That is how new paradigms happen. Plate tectonic theory was laughed at for about two decades before overwhelming evidence for it was presented that changed the entire consensus opinion within just a few years. The same was true with the death of the dinosaurs — there were many different hypotheses out there but when the iridium layer was found at the K/T boundary and the crater was finally discovered off the Yucatan peninsula, the scientific consensus changed very rapidly in light of the evidence.
Certain scientific paradigms/consensuses (according to spell-check, that is the plural of “consensus” even though it sounds wrong, but who am I to argue with spell-check?) that we hold now could very likely change in the future. What is unlikely, though, is for them to change to something for which there is currently very convincing evidence that it is not the case. An example of this would be astrology – there is absolutely no mechanism for it to work, and all statistically robust studies show that it fails to produce results better than chance.
In the end, the argument from authority is quite an easy logical fallacy to spot. Differentiating it from the scientific consensus is not as easy, and understanding the difference between the fallacious argument from authority and the non-fallacious scientific consensus is even harder. Steve Novella has a post on this topic from about a year ago, and I recommend reading it if you’re still a bit confused about the difference.
What should also be re-emphasized is that you should never take anything on blind faith/authority. If you hear an argument from authority, investigate the claim. If you hear a scientific consensus that you disagree with, first understand the evidence that convinced the scientists, and then figure out why you disagree. If you think you have solid evidence to the contrary, it has not been shown to be wrong, and your model can explain all of the data that the currently accepted model does at least as well, then present it and try to convince them. But also be humble enough to realize that the evidence that convinces you, when it may be pointed out by people within that scientific community that it’s wrong, actually is probably wrong. At the very least, you should admit that people disagree with you and find faults because of [insert reason].
That’s what scientists do, too.