Trust The Experts? Maybe Not

The very first time we’re asked to write a paper, we’re told to appeal to authority figures. Supposedly, we guarantee the information’s truth by doing so.

Of course, it’s not always guaranteed that the information is true. In light of that, we’re told to cite relevant authority figures — people who have spent a lot of time studying the subject we’re writing about. Statements from relevant sources are taken to be more likely true.

This makes a certain amount of sense. Experts have mastered a particular subject’s reasoning, techniques, background information, etc. It, therefore, seems likely that the expert’s statements are true. Hence, our claims appear to be on solid grounds when we appeal to an expert.

I’m not entirely convinced that appealing to relevant authority is good reasoning.

I’m of the opinion that any appeal to authority, insofar as we’re trying to make truth claims about the world, is fallacious. However, that’s an argument for another time. I’m taking a more modest aim: establishing that we have good reason to doubt that an appeal to relevant authority is always a good bet.

Here are three problems with that way of reasoning:

  1. Assuming that authorities are reliable sources of information requires us to assume that their subject’s reasoning, techniques, background information, etc. is true, accurate, reputable, etc. That might not be the case. For one thing, the foundations of the subject might be inherently fallacious. For another, what counts as valid reasoning changes over time. This is how it is for science — what counts as valid scientific reasoning has changed at various points throughout history, often quite drastically.In fact, to test the accuracy of any subject matter’s claims, we often have to appeal to the criteria of either that subject matter or some other subject matter. If we appeal to the criteria of the relevant subject, we’ve committed circular reasoning. If we appeal to the criteria of another subject matter, we will quickly run into the same problem. In short, we enter into a series of dilemma after dilemma, each of which can only be resolved by another dilemma, each of which contains at least one circular solution.

    Okay, so what’s the upshot? We’re appealing to someone who cannot justify their methodology non-circularly, which renders the connection between their subject mastery and veracity of their claims dubious at best. In plain English: we’re justified in being skeptical about truth claims, even from authorities.

  2. Here’s a much simpler problem (although not as powerful as the first one): the expert’s reasoning might be crap. Because, let’s be honest, experts make mistakes too. It happens. Unfortunately, no one is sufficiently equipped to check the veracity of every expert’s claims. We simply don’t have the subject-matter training necessary to do so. The answer to this problem, then, is not to blindly trust their word. For all we know, their reasoning is faulty. The proper attitude to adopt towards faulty reasoning is one of skepticism — we shouldn’t trust the conclusion, at least not entirely.
  3. We have know way of knowing whether or not the expert is being honest. For all we know, there’s a shadow conspiracy going on to keep the public uninformed. Now, there’s a reason why I’m putting this one last — the crazy-conspiracy-theory version of this problem seems inherently dubious.There’s a not-so-crazy version of this one, though, and it’s the problem of the status quo: an authority figure might make a truth-claim simply because they know that claims to the contrary are seen as crazy or blatantly false, even though they turn out to be true. This, obviously, is far more plausible and really does happen (e.g. pharmaceutical research).

The last two problems are resolvable — on the assumption that the first problem can be solved. I’m not sure that it can be solved, but that means we would have to be skeptical of the very possibility of knowledge.

What do you think? Is it reasonable to appeal to relevant authority in order to establish that a claim about the world is true? Do you think the first problem can be solved?

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6 comments

  1. YourPhilosophyBlog · March 29, 2016

    Hello,

    first of all: nice post. I really like that you structured everything so clearly. That makes it much easier to comment on one specific claim. I love the topic as well. Please keep up the great work! =)

    ———————————————————————-

    The topic of epistemic authority is an interesting, relevant, and also difficult one. If I understand you correctly, you are imagining the situation of an individual that has just started to learn about a certain scientific topic. Because of this, I assume that the person only has a very basic stock of information and is not yet fully trained in the method of the relevant science either (if one presupposes a more advanced student the situation changes, of course).

    You mention one general problem when it comes to making use of another person’s premises. We have to assume quite a lot of things:

    a) honesty on their part
    b) correctness of reasoning and
    c) use of adequate methods and technology

    I wish to add two more issues:

    d) epistemic security – and, therewith, I describe my knowledge of the track record (the beliefs that are (implicitly) presupposed) and the justification relations that have been used by that person.
    e) existing power structures and biases (I realize that you included that point in your text already. I just want to separate it from the second one, because I think it is of greater importance).

    I assume that only the fourth (and the last) aspect(s) are of importance in the situation described above and I’ll try to show you why I think that this is the case.

    Discussion of b): The expert’s reasoning may be faulty.
    The first thing I want to assume is that an authority in a certain scientific field usually makes his argument transparent to the reader, which means that we can analyze it and decide for ourselves. I understand that some of the commonly used premises might be problematic, but considering the situation of the new student, I would still assume that the expert is in a distinctively better position to evaluate the existing premises and theses. This is the case, because the person is simply much more informed and can access a greater amount of data to make their decision.
    Additionally, although it is certainly not impossible for anyone to be wrong, the papers that an expert has written are
    peer reviewed and discussed by his critics. The person would not have the status of an expert for a very long time, if their reasoning had a tendency to be faulty.
    On the other hand, there is a student, who is still in training and has not fully developed his argumentative skills. He has a smaller stack of known argumentative structures and common fallacies and is therewith much more likely to make mistakes. Additionally, all problems that you describe for the expert in this section can also be applied to the student.

    An analogous argument can be made for problem c).

    Problem a): Honesty
    My assumption is that dishonesty usually does not occur without any reason (which is mainly an empirical question, but depends on ones conception of a “lie”). Unless there is some benefit for the scientist or some underlying issues of power (point e)), it is unlikely that the expert is lying. Therewith, the problem should be attributed to the last problem mentioned above.
    Although people do lie, it is not reasonable to assume that they do so most of the time, because it would render any scientific discourse useless and leave us with the possibility of absolute epistemic egoism, only (this position is problematic, because it only enables us to gain a very limited amount of knowledge about the world).

    Problem d): Epistemic security
    This reason can even be used to argue for epistemic egoism. Everything else equal, we will always have a better track record of our own beliefs and justification relations, because we can try to access them introspectively. We also have the possibility to try and be sensitive to our own biases and include this self-knowledge in the evaluation of our argument (although this is not successful in many cases).
    On the other hand, we can only use the information that another person offers us when we rely on their assumptions. There is also always the difficulty of miscommunication.

    You already gave reasons for e) in your post.

    Footnote:
    Most of my thoughts about this are evidently based on the study of philosophy, because I’m most knowledgeable in that field. There may be differences when focusing on other sciences.
    ——————————————————————-

    A last note: Although I was arguing for the trust in an expert that I tried to describe as a reasonable epistemic authority, I do not in the least want to encourage people to not read and think critically! Please do so and please keep doing so when you advance in your studies. If you study a lot, there will be the day where you come to be one of the experts and contribute to your field (and maybe even significantly change it).
    I hope to see that day soon as well :P.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ryan Cook · March 30, 2016

      Hi,
      Thanks for the thoughtful reply! I’m glad to see my work is reaching fellow philosophers (which is why I am now embarrassed that I’ve been vague and maybe a little too off-the-cuff). Let me reply thoughtfully, in kind. 🙂

      “If I understand you correctly, you are imagining the situation of an individual that has just started to learn about a certain scientific topic.”
      Not necessarily. Even though I did bring up the issue of ever-changing scientific standards, my intent is to have this apply to any subject matter that makes truth claims about the world. For instance, it would apply to gender studies, which isn’t a science yet still makes claims about the world insofar as sex/gender issues are concerned. We can keep the discourse about science, though. It seems the most obvious victim here. 😛

      To your discussion of (b): everything you’ve said is all well and good, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t avoid the very first problem I brought up in the article (viz. the circularity problem). To re-phrase the argument in greater detail: it might very well be that the researcher’s claims and stated premises line up with the current framework of his discipline. Nevertheless, it could be the case that the present conceptual framework which grounds their methodology, reasoning, etc. is fallacious. If it’s intrinsically fallacious (e.g. it’s a matter of logical validity), then the problem might be solved a priori.*

      However, I don’t think that’s often the problem. Scientific study (formerly: natural philosophy), simply as an example, has not changed in this formal sense.** Rather, it has changed because of substantial shifts — paradigm shifts, as Kuhn has called them. In short, the way scientists (or natural philosophers) viewed the world metaphysically and epistemically shifted, and thus the way they approached natural inquiry changed.

      Where does the problem come in? Compare two completely different paradigms, A and B. We operate under B, which means Paradigm B colors the way we investigate the natural world, how we judge natural claims, etc. Under Paradigm B, (at least some of) Paradigm A’s claims are believed false. This can be interpreted in only two ways.*** On the one hand, we might be saying that Paradigm A’s claims are not valid**** under Paradigm B. On the other hand, we might be saying that Paradigm A’s claims are not sound.

      If we mean the first, then we’re not making a claim about the real world, so that’s not relevant. If we mean the second, it initially seems relevant — we are now concerned with the claims’ truth as far as the world is concerned. However, we’ve already stated that Paradigm B dictates our view of the natural world. To say that A’s claims are unsound while we operate under Paradigm B simply amounts to saying that A’s claims are unsound under Paradigm B. At that point, though, it sounds like we’ve simply reverted to saying that the A claims are invalid.*****

      How is this problem to be solved? By justifying Paradigm B independently. And, well, I indicate how that ends in my article. No need to repeat myself, right? Anyway, here’s the upshot: even if we have good reason to believe that the expert’s reasoning is good, we need that reasoning to be independently verified — both outside the existing paradigm, and outside the discipline. It doesn’t seem like that can happen.

      —————–
      That’s pretty much it for my reply. Everything else I didn’t really have a problem with or didn’t really understand. 😛 Would you mind explaining “epistemic security” and its terms? I don’t know if you read my “About Page”, but I only have my Bachelor’s in Philosophy (I’m hoping to become one of those experts I’m lambasting :P) and epistemology wasn’t my focus. I’d be much obliged by a little more exposition. 🙂

      *That might be too generous. A friend of mine has argued that even rudimentary logical thought cannot be justified non-circularly. I don’t agree, but I’m simply acknowledging this is a problem.
      **I realize this is a contentious claim. I’m assuming it to be true simply for the sake of argument.
      ***I know I’m in danger of drawing a false dichotomy. Feel free to ask for justification.
      ****Okay okay, “valid” isn’t the right term. I’m being lazy. 😛
      *****I say “sounds like” as a way of indicating “this seems intuitive”. I can produce a fuller argument if you’d like.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. YourPhilosophyBlog · March 30, 2016

    Hey,

    thanks for the nice reply. I didn’t look into your other pages before writing my comment yesterday (it was about 1:00 am and I was so tired^^), but I did just now. Your choice of words there reminds me of a friend that started an art association to bring art and creativity in the everyday lives of people, which is a great thing do in both cases.
    I have a similar goal, but I’m still really struggling with the balance between making it “readable” for individuals that are interested in the topic, but not (yet) aware of the commonly used vocabulary or even distinctively precise way of wording, and scientific accuracy. In many cases everyday wording can simplify the situation so much that it becomes intangible, but using too many special terms will frustrate even the most eager readers.

    ————————————————————

    “Not necessarily. Even though I did bring up the issue of ever-changing scientific standards, my intent is to have this apply to any subject matter that makes truth claims about the world.”
    That makes for a whole different argument then. Your introduction with the student and the reference to experts made me think that you were (mainly) talking about a scientific context. Hence, I also assumed that the term “authority” was used synonymously. I would be curious about your definition of authority. Can you give necessary and sufficient conditions for being an authority or having authority (I’m not sure how you’d prefer to put it)?
    I agree that we should stick to one of the sections (science) just because we were at it already. I just want to mention that I think it is pretty important to specify the different scenarios in detail. Mainly to be able to judge the positions of the involved subjects better. One could write books on any of those distinct versions.

    I think that I kind of know where you are going. I unfortunately haven’t read the Kuhn text you mentioned (it would be nice if you could add the source), but Bernard Rollin also criticizes an ideology he calls scientific common sense:
    “Scientific common sense […] decrees that there are only two ways that established scientific theories or hypothesis can be overturned. […] [T]hrough empirical disconformation […] or […] by showing that [they are] conceptually or logically flawed.” (Rollin, 2013, 19) As you said that does not seem to be the case. There can also be a paradigm shift which Rollin calls a “valuational revolution” (20). The example I’m aware of is the shift from a psychology that worked with the ascription of mental states to behaviorism and back. As you said, scientific theories are rarely logically flawed and in certain cases the empirical evidence fits with more than one paradigm and can be used to support different theses..

    I think our different views in that case resulted from different focuses and I noticed that just now. In my reply, I’m emphasizing the expert’s individual position and contrasted it with the student of the relevant subject. Your focus was on the science itself, hence the different answers that are not mutually exclusive, because they deal with different aspects of the scenario.
    In philosophy, the questioning of the implicit and explicit background assumptions is normal (one will find pros and cons for any popular paradigm, but we are still not immune and have to stay careful). The danger of masking paradigm shifts seems, to me, greater in the so called hard sciences, because the ideal of scientific common sense seems prevalent (another empirical assumption that would have to be checked).

    I am, indeed, curious about the reason for a dichotomous structure. The paradigms could have a certain amount of shared beliefs and I don’t think it is necessary to neglect the possibility that certain individuals operate somewhere in the spectrum of the paradigms.
    If I try to make my mind up for a reason of a possibly existing dichotomous structure, I’d assume that it could come to be, because one of the paradigms has often been developed as a reaction and in opposition to the first one. This would lead to a (mostly) contrasting set of beliefs.

    Are you criticizing that there are certain “axiomatic” background beliefs in the sciences in general? This would be the case for any individual growing up in a specific time and culture as well, but maybe I’m super far off now (topic and interpretation wise), so that question is only half serious. :p

    —————————————

    Sure, the way I use it in this context can be described like this:
    P1) The more information I have about the beliefs and justification relations that a subject employs when making a certain argument, the better my position to evaluate the soundness and validity of the argument.
    P2) I usually (if not always) know more about my own beliefs etc. than about the beliefs etc. that other subjects base their arguments on.
    C) Therefore, I am in a better / more secure situation when I stick with my own argument, IFF everything else is equal.

    The term is also used differently in the discussion revolving around self-knowledge. I wrote a blog post that mentions this topic as well (although I did not use the term to exclude some big and scary sounding words^^).

    —————————————–

    Also, would it be ok for you if used my respond as a blog post on my page and gave a link to our discussion?

    Liked by 1 person

    • YourPhilosophyBlog · March 30, 2016

      I didn’t find the edit button so I’ll just add it here^^. The full source is:
      Rollin, Bernard E.: Animal Mind. Science, Philosophy, and Ethics. In: (eds. Klaus Petrus and Markus Wild) Animal Minds and Animal Ethics. Connecting Two Separate Fields, Bielefeld, 2013, 15-36.

      Like

    • Ryan Cook · March 30, 2016

      Hi,
      Thanks for this! I’ll give a more substantial reply later, but for now I’ll gloss over some of the non-philosophical things mentioned here.
      ————————-
      “I’m still really struggling with the balance between making it “readable” for individuals that are interested in the topic, but not (yet) aware of the commonly used vocabulary or even distinctively precise way of wording, and scientific accuracy. In many cases everyday wording can simplify the situation so much that it becomes intangible, but using too many special terms will frustrate even the most eager readers.”

      I know what you mean. In my efforts to be brief and, well, not too technical, I often find my words becoming vague and argumentation somewhat muddy. In trying to be brief, I actually ended up deleting the concept that sparked this particular post. More on that later.

      “would it be ok for you if used my respond as a blog post on my page and gave a link to our discussion?”

      I am absolutely okay with that. It seems like, in fact, at the time of my writing this, you’ve already done so. I’m honored. 🙂

      Like

  3. Pingback: A Discussion About Epistemic Authority | Your-Philosophy-Blog

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