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13.3.1: Argument from Authority

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    Suppose a high school science teacher says to you,

    The scientists I’ve read agree that Neptune is a cold planet compared to Mars, Earth, and Venus. So, Neptune is definitely a cold planet.

    This argument from authority does not jump to conclusions. The high school teacher offers expert testimony although it is secondhand. It might be called hearsay in a courtroom, but it is reasonable grounds for accepting the conclusion. So, the conclusion follows with probability.

    But with how much probability? Nobody knows, not even the scientists. Nobody can say authoritatively whether the conclusion is 85 percent probable or instead 90 percent probable. All they can properly say is that the appeal to authority makes the conclusion a safe bet because the proper authorities have been consulted, they have been quoted correctly, and it is well known that the experts do not significantly disagree with each other about this.

    The conclusion of the following argument is not such a safe bet:

    The scientists say astral travel is impossible. That is, our spiritual bodies can't temporarily leave our physical bodies and travel to other places. So they say. However, my neighbor and several of her friends told me they separately traveled to Egypt while their physical bodies were asleep last night. They visited the pyramids. These people are sincere and reliable. Therefore, the scientists are wrong about astral travel.

    Is this a successful inductive argument? The arguer asks us to accept stories from his neighbor and her friends. These anecdotes are pitted against the claims of the scientists. Which should you believe? Scientists have been wrong many times before; couldn't they be wrong here, too? Yes, they could, but it wouldn't be a good bet. If you had some evidence that could convincingly show the scientists to be wrong, then you, yourself, would likely soon become a famous scientist. You should be cautious about jumping to the conclusion that the scientists are wrong. The stories are so extraordinary that you really need extraordinarily good evidence to believe them. The only evidence in favor of the stories is the fact that the neighbors and friends, who are presumed to be reasonable, agree on their stories and the fact that several times in history other persons also have claimed to be astral travelers.

    The neighbor might say that she does have evidence that could convincingly show the scientists to be wrong but that she wouldn't get a fair hearing from the scientists because their minds are closed to these possibilities of expanding their consciousness. Yes, the scientists probably would give her the brush-off, but by and large the scientific community is open to new ideas. She wouldn't get the scientists' attention because they are as busy as the rest of us, and they don't want to spend much time on unproductive projects. However, if the neighbor were to produce some knowledge about the Egyptian pyramids that she probably couldn't have gotten until she did her astral traveling, then the scientists would look more closely at what she is saying. Until then, she will continue to be ignored by the establishment.

    Egypt’s Giza Pyramid [with author and his daughter]

    Most of what we know we have gotten from believing what the experts said, either first hand or, more likely, second hand. Not being experts ourselves, our problem is to be careful about sorting out the claims of experts from the other claims that bombard us, while being aware of the possibility that experts are misinterpreted, that on some topics they disagree, and that occasionally they themselves cannot be trusted to speak straightforwardly. Sensitive to the possibility of misinterpreting experts, we prefer first hand testimony to second hand, and second hand to third hand. Sensitive to disagreement among the experts, we prefer unanimity and believe that the greater the consensus, the stronger the argument from authority.

    Also, we are sensitive to when the claim is made and to what else is known about the situation. For example, a man returning from a mountaintop might say to you, "Wow, from there the world looks basically flat." Twenty anecdotes from twenty such people who independently climbed the same mountain do not make it twenty times more likely that the world is flat. You can't trust the twenty stories because you know there is much better evidence to be had. However, in the days when the Egyptians were building their pyramids, the twenty anecdotes would actually have made it more reasonable to believe that the world is flat, although even then it wouldn't have been twenty times more.

    It's important to resist the temptation to conclude that in ancient times people lived on a flat world but that now they live on a round one. This is just mumbo jumbo; the world stayed the same—it was people's beliefs about the world that changed. Do not overemphasize the power of the mind to shape the world.

    This page titled 13.3.1: Argument from Authority is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Bradley H. Dowden.

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