The "authority" argument

Having torn a thin strip off statician William Briggs recently for what seems to me to be a disingenuous attack on the climatology community, it seems only fair to commend him for a succinct and poignant post, this time on the nonsensical argument over who's allowed to criticize.

Briggs, tired of being criticized for criticizing the anthropogenic global warming consensus because he's not a full-time climatologist, points out that

...the public-comment restriction must, by logic, go both ways. If you are not allowed to offer negative commentary because you are not a climatologist, then you are not allowed to offer positive reviews either.

How true. And well timed, to boot, coming on the heels of the resurfacing of Marc Morano's silly list of 400-odd alleged scientists who also don't believe climate change is something to worry about.

The list, to put it mildly, is a distraction. Morano, a former Republican propagandist masquerading as a journalist now working as a propagandist for Sen. "Climate Change is Hoax" Inhofe, keeps trying to convince anyone who will listen that it matters that some people with PhDs don't buy into the AGW consensus. He found the time over the space of a couple of days to post several thousand words (I'm not kidding) at Andy Revkin's Dot Earth blog post on the American Geophysical Union's recently statement on climate change. That post drew 588 comments last time I checked, and many concerned Morano's list.

Which, as others have said, is a distraction (aside from error-strewn as it include scientists who do support the consensus) because it's not the academic credentials and expertise that matter in the debate. It's the evidence.

Of course, I have to agree with Briggs in this case, because I only have an undergraduate degree in marine biology, and otherwise I wouldn't be qualified to weigh in on the subject, leaving this blog to dwell forever on creationism, astrology and dowsing. But I have to part ways with Briggs when he adds that

Anybody, apparently, is allowed to offer positive thoughts, or glowing, unrestrained praise, on the theory that mankind significantly alters global temperatures, and they never have their credentials questioned.

Except that there are plenty of exceptions to this particular use of the word "never." Morano, for one, has attacked Weather Channel climate maven Heidi Cullen on occasion. A better example would be the enormous grief Al Gore gets for supporting the consensus. I hardly need to provide a link to such.

So, yes, let's do away with the argument from authority. But let's not pretend that the problem is a one-way street.


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Nice post, thanks James! I have had tons of friends with doctorates over the years. That means that at some point in time they learned enough about a particular topic to be called doctor. Many of them hadn't kept up with their fields over the years which means they can still be called doctor but it is possible that some high school student who is passionate about a subject could know more than they do about it! Credentials are great but they don't mean absolutely that you are the world's leading authority on something!
Dave Briggs :~)

Since appealing to consensus is an obvious instance of the argument from authority, it's not at all clear what's being claimed. One needs to be careful not to fall into the trap of calling the existence of consensus part of the data supporting the consensus view.

By bob koepp (not verified) on 01 Feb 2008 #permalink

Since I have no authority but it all concerns our common future (regardless of academic degrees), here is a story I heard once:

Once upon a time, during an excavation, a very old and exquisite vase was found. It was brought to the emperor and the greatest authorities were invited to offer their opinion. They all praised it as the most precious vase of the empire, but then a disagreement broke out about its content capacity. No one's calculation would agree with the other's. The arguments kept going on for months with no sign of agreement. Upset, the emperor decided to call a very wise man whose judgment was always respected by all. When the wise man learned about the problem, he asked for scribes and some workers. The vase was going to be filled with sand grain by grain, while the scribes kept record of the number of grains. The work started and kept going on for weeks as grain by grain the vase was getting filled and the number scrupulously recorded. After more than a month there came a point when the old vase couldn't take any more the weight of the sand and broke. The wise man stopped the process and announced that the precise capacity of the vase had been discovered beyond any doubt and offered the counted number of grains of sand as the answer to the dispute.

In response to Bob's notion that "appealing to consensus is an obvious instance of the argument from authority," I have to object.

For those who don't share an expertise in the subject at hand, a consensus represents perhaps the only way to judge the value of a lone opinion. It is, in some ways, the opposite of an authority argument.

Of course, he is correct to imply that relying on a consensus rather than the strength of the evidence is another logical fallacy. But in the real world, it may be the only thing most of us have to go on.