SoftestPawn’s Weblog

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Deferring to Authority

Posted by softestpawn on August 1, 2009

“Deferring to Authority” is to claim someone’s opinion is valuable because they are an expert in the subject. “Arguing from Authority” is to claim that your opinion is valuable because you are an expert.

This is one in a series of posts about evidence and how it does or does not support a claim. Although this particular one is about opinion, not evidence…

There’s nothing very bad about using an expert’s opinion, but it can be seen as irrelevent in a controversial subject where the evidence is being discussed. If you are arguing about whether homeopathy can cure cancer then you want to look at the facts, not quote people who might have vested interests. Or others who might also have vested interests.

Workable Life

Few of us have the time, inclination, or expertise to carefully check every single thing that we decide. Using expert opinion is a perfectly sensible way to approach life.

There are just a few things to bear in mind:

  • Authority might not be Authority
  • Authority isn’t always expert
  • Authority can be wrong.

Authority might not really be authority

Gillian McKeith is famous for handing out advice on diet, and claims to be an expert on the subject. She even uses the title ‘Dr’ – a title that is restricted in the UK to try and prevent people from claiming a qualification they don’t have. The advertising standards authority were notified, proceedings pursued, and she has been forced to (mostly) stop using it. She has no training, qualifications or authority for her opinions on poo, carrots or lard-fried chips.

But you’ll notice here I’ve not put any links; this is my opinion. It’s based on expertise gathered from far too many hours on Ben Goldacre’s BadScience web site, where the actions to stop her misuse of the title were first formed by some of the forum regulars. So I am an expert, but you should check it yourself, rather than believe me… Google is only a few clicks away…

Authority might not be an expert

Expertise is often quite narrow. People who work in the ‘environment’ industry are not experts in all of it; thus the opinions of neither David Bellamy nor David Attenborough on global warming are expert. It goes further than that; an expert in one particular field of climate cannot claim expertise in the whole subject.

This specialisation can sometimes be quite surprising. Your General Practice doctor has quite a wide medical expertise, but when it comes to a road accident, you will probably be better off with a an amateur St John’s Ambulance volunteer.

Some authority qualifications are so broad as to be meaningless and offer no real authority at all. A “scientist” is generally just somebody who researches something and is no more intelligent for it than many other professions; a “government scientist” in particular is not an expert on everything, any more than you are or I am.

Scientists running in packs (or ‘committees’ as they are sometimes known) are similarly suspect. Pronouncements from Committees of Scientists on things outside their fields of expertise should be treated cautiously.

Authority might just be wrong

This is perhaps too obvious to bother mentioning, but in any controversial field we expect differences of opinions amongst experts; some of them must be wrong.

And sometimes great swathes of experts in a field can be quite spectacularly wrong.

So?

Expert opinion is a perfectly sensible thing to use. My GP’s expertise trumps pretty much anyone else I know on medical matters.

Just remember that sufficient evidence trumps opinion every time.

Further Reading

Argument From Authority (Wikipedia)

Deferring to Authority: Popular Science Communication as a language of control (PDF)

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