Criticism, Knowledge, and Authority

Learning about informal logical fallacies turns young philosophy students into gun-slinging logic vigilantes. I love how this comic (courtesy of Existential Comics) portrays the phenomenon.

fallacy man, authority, belief fallacy man, authority, belief

But, as Alexander Pope wrote, “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” In his Essay on Criticism, Pope critiques the critics, warning them of trying to evaluate beyond their skill. The essay (written in verse) holds great wisdom, well-worth the hour it might take to read through. One takeaway is this: if you plan to engage in criticism of a view, be sure you know what you’re talking about. Otherwise your photo may end up on Wikipedia’s Dunning-Kruger Effect  page. “Drink deep, or taste not the Peirian spring.”

The Appeal To Authority

hawking, authority, testimony, scienceOne of the fallacies mentioned above that gets frequent abuse is the “appeal to authority.” Those who have only sipped at the Peirian Spring misunderstand this concept, and so make two common errors: 1) they accuse others of it falsely, and 2) they become oblivious to their own appeals to authority. Let me illustrate a little.

Fallacious appeal to authority:  Brett claims that beer causes Alzheimer’s Disease. Conrad replies, “That’s silly.” Brett says, “My friend, Dr. Swanson, said it. Therefore, it’s true.”

Legitimate appeal to authority: Mark claims that black holes emit radiation. Kenny says, “But nothing can escape from a black hole.” Mark retorts, “Stephen Hawking has argued powerfully for this and talks about it in his book, A Brief History of Time.” 

What’s the difference? For one, Stephan Hawking clearly satisfies any reasonable criteria for being a legitimate expert on black holes. It is not at all clear that Dr. Swanson is an expert on Alzheimer’s. Conrad may not even know who Dr. Swanson is.  Second, Brett bases his argument solely on the word (hearsay) of Dr. Swanson, while Mark offers at least one checkable resource. Third, Brett fashions his argument in deductive form. But an argument from authority should take inductive form, i.e., the evidence from authority does not guarantee the conclusion–it only makes it more likely to be true.   A fourth mistake sometimes made in appeals to authority, though not in this case, is when someone misquotes or misrepresents an expert.

We All Do It

court room, testimonyThe bottom line is: we all rely on legitimate appeals to authority, and rightly so. Testimony (information transmitted to us from other persons, as in court) acts as one of at least five sources of knowledge (inference, memory, perception, and consciousness being the others). I simply cannot help but rely on the words of other people to help me form my beliefs about the world, like when my daughter tells me she is at a friend’s house. And I especially rely on those who have expertise in various areas: scientists, philosophers, doctors, lawyers, musicians, etc.

But I still need to treat authority carefully. When I decide whether to believe something I read or hear, I should make sure I know the source. Not all sources — people, publications, websites–are created equal. I would check to see whether the writer/speaker is an expert or is quoting an expert. And I still use reason and background knowledge to filter the expert’s claims. I address some of these ideas in this 2 minute clip from a talk at the University of Missouri Skeptics Club:

(You can see this video, “Responsible Believing,” in it’s entirety here.)

 A Final Paraklesis

pipe, health, authority, testimony(I like the Greek word ‘paraklesis’ because it can mean both “encouragement” and “exhortation.”) Sometimes extra caution is required. I may take risks, at times, with my own health–like when I indulge in pipe-smoking. But I should think twice about the health risks when recommending such things to others. Similarly, I am sometimes negligent with my epistemic health–like believing something without sufficient consideration. But I try to exercise extra caution and care when conveying ideas (teaching, writing, speaking, using social media), based on authority, to others. Take an extra moment to ask, before you post or assert something based on authority,

  • Is the authority legitimate? (not always an easy question)
  • If the issue is controversial, have I portrayed it as one-sided by only quoting one expert?
  • Is the authority an expert in the relevant field?
  • Did I accept this expert’s word uncritically, or have I checked it out?
  • Have I represented the authority accurately?

And before you draw your fallacy six-gun and dispense epistemic justice on someone, ask whether they might be making an appropriate appeal to authority.

Bad Thinking, Part 3: The SI Jinx

missouri chase daniels SI jinx
Not Pete Rose

Pete Rose, infamous Cincinnati Reds baseball player, appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in August of 1978, in the midst of a 44-game hitting streak. That same week, his streak ended. Numerous other examples over the years foster the belief that players or teams who achieve SI cover-status will experience the “SI Jinx” soon thereafter. A pair of local favorites: the University of Kansas football program appeared on the November 2007 cover after an 11-0 start, and lost the following week to rival Missouri; Missouri then graced the cover in December 2007 after reaching their first #1 ranking, and lost the following week to Oklahoma. The SI Jinx strikes again!

Coincidence or curse?

SI jinx sports thinkingTo this day, many athletes shun appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In January 2002, Kurt Warner declined to pose for the cover, so the magazine ran a photo of a black cat instead. The headline: “The Cover that No One Would Pose For.” Are their fears well-founded? If it isn’t a curse, then what explains the bizarre coincidence?

Thankfully, Daniel Kahneman provides enlightenment. In Thinking, Kahneman describes a statistical phenomenon called “regression to the mean.” (Ch. 17) According to Wikipedia,

Regression to the mean is the phenomenon that if a variable is extreme on its first measurement, it will tend to be closer to the average on its second measurement—and if it is extreme on its second measurement, it will tend to have been closer to the average on its first.

In other words, if an athlete performs at a remarkably high level one week or one season, the following week or season is very likely to be worse, and vice versa. I imagine that if SI started featuring especially low-performing athletes on their magazine cover, we would soon discover a SI Cover Miracle!

Getting Lucky

regression to the mean kahneman jinxOne reason for our error in judgment here: we fail to account for luck. In many endeavors, luck plays a huge role, including sports, academic testing, and business success. Our performance in these areas tends to follow a curve, with frequent average performances (relative to personal skill), and few examples of either really awful or amazing performances. Luck (or the lack) is usually what accounts for the “outlier” performances on the edges of the curve. But we attribute this to skill or other non-causal factors instead.

dice luck jinx thinkingKahneman relates an interesting anecdote about a flight instructor who claimed that praise for good performances was detrimental, but intense criticism for bad performances was helpful. Why? Because when he yelled at a pilot for an especially poor flight, the pilot performed better the next time out. And when he praised him for “clean execution,” he got worse. The instructor failed to realize that this was statistically predictable and probably attributable to pilot luck. A classic example of regression to the mean.

The Upshot

happy luck jinx regression to the mean kahnemanIn my daily life, identifying regression to the mean can help me avoid emotional whiplash. I know that an amazing day is likely to be followed by an average day, so I’m not as disappointed when this occurs. Similarly, a really horrendous day will probably be succeeded by a better day, so there’s hope! Substitute whatever professional metrics you like for “day,” and you can apply the same truth in your life: sales figures, enrollment, attendance, stock performance, child behavior, or team wins.

I also remember to include luck, or perhaps unpredictable Divine intervention, in my evaluation of performance. This means that my absolute best and worst performances are probably not solely attributable to my skill. I should look at my average as a better gauge for evaluation, rather than taking the “outlier” as the norm.

bad luck jinx thinking kahnemanFinally, we can do away with belief in jinxes. Even if you could show a high correlation between some odd event and bad performance, this would not prove causation. Interestingly, while 37% of SI cover stars were “jinxed,” 58% maintained or improved their performance following their cover appearance, according to an 1984 study. The jinx myth endures because of yet another kind of “bad thinking:” the negativity bias! We tend to remember negative events and give them more weight in our reasoning.

I still plan to give away a copy of Kahneman’s book to a lucky subscriber! Sign up for Ground Belief updates with your email for a very high chance to win (I only have 2 subscribers as of yesterday).