The great sociological philosopher Eric Cartman provided a bit of gentle guidance on acceding to the wisdom of authority in one of his more famous works. A somewhat lesser philosophical talent offers similar advice in a comment posted to a recent discussion on pseudonymous/anonymous blogging at bablab. The commenter suggested that:
... there are a lot of areas, even in science, where experience (from which real authority derives) matters. An undergraduate who has never been to the field and an experienced geologist can go up to the same geological formation and have the same tools and the same list of tests and procedures. They can both do similar things to the sediments, and they can end up with totally different conclusions as to what they are looking at.
They both have the same argument, structurally, logically, but with different conclusions. The experienced geologist, however, is much more likely to be correct.
An excellent rationale for prioritizing scientific contributions on the basis of the contributor's credentials, is it not?
It is not.
Now, I will agree that it is probably a good bet that the scientist with directly related experience can come up with a more "correct" interpretation of data, perhaps evaluate conflicting information more surely, link one exemplar to a larger body of experiments/observations and can troubleshoot "bad" data more effectively. There are a host of other talents that the well-experienced bring to just about any job which is likely to improve the performance of this expert relative to the performance of the less-experienced. This, to me, is not the same thing as "authority" and I think that at best this commenter confuses demonstrable expertise with "authority".
Or perhaps he is not really confusing the issues?
"Argument from authority" is not a logical fallacy. Legitimate authority from experience, training, prior learning, reflection, and so on is something of great value.
The "Appeal to authority" argument is different. That involves the guy behind the curtain (Wiz. of Oz analogy), using a position of authority that may or may not be legitimate to make an argument that is demonstrably weak compared to the known alternatives.
Right. "Appeal to authority" is what I'm criticizing.
In science, the distinction arises when one wishes to short-circuit the process by which the expert demonstrates her expertise by providing the interpretive narrative and rationale by which she has arrived at her conclusions. Once one moves on to the "just trust me on this" or "well, my professional experience and judgment lets me know that ...." argument, it becomes an appeal to "authority" for authority's sake, as opposed to an appeal to the experienced individual's actual related expertise.
So what exactly is "Argument from authority" then? I don't know. I can't imagine how or why one needs to argue from "authority" (meaning credentials) rather than "expertise" (meaning specific experienced based reasons, rationales or judgments). A lengthy comment thread following PhysioProf's recent post on the benefits of asking questions and generally engaging in scientific seminars and journal clubs contains many cogent observations on the benefits of participatory science. While it may be quite entertaining to consider how some individuals who critique pseudonymous blogging seem to prioritize their own credentials over their accomplishments, there is a serious point here.
Science works best when it is grounded firmly on the plinth of extant facts. In other words, the data. Interpretation of the data is obligatory for progress, however, the data must be generated in the first place. Science can tolerate, and maybe even requires, interpretations of the data to be manifold. Science is made vibrant by interpretations derived from multiple perspectives and backgrounds. In the end, consideration and further testing of multiple interpretations is the best way to arrive at the most "correct" interpretation. Depending on the "authority" of a relative few is an inferior way to arrive at the closest approximation to the "correct" interpretation. Individuals, no matter how "expert" (and after all an expert is naught but a has-been drip under pressure) can be wrong, biased, blinded or blind-sided. Twenty or more very smart and informed individuals hammering over the facts are less likely to overlook plausible interpretations or analyses. For example, one of the overlooked features of the "Aetogate" dustup, was the fact that the "authorities" had originally missed the mark- some relatively junior members of the field came up with a "more correct" analysis and interpretation of the extant facts. The fact that the experts in this case waxed nearly Cartmanesque in their reaction to the challenge to their "authoritah!" is.....sublime.
As enjoyable as it is to make fun of easy marks, it strikes me at this point that one of the occupational hazards of moving into "mid-career" of science (and beyond) is the seductive lure of "authoritah!". It's so easy. You save a lot of words just by saying "Well, from my considerable experience I can tell you that clearly the most correct interpretation..." instead of laying out your evidence. You can save a lot of tedious searching out of references before you put together your talk. You can even co-opt someone else's authority by a simple trick "...did I mention I was the last surviving student of Herr Professor Doktor Helmut Smergenbergen before he succumbed to tse-tse flies, crocodiles and the vapors?" to make everyone just shut up and take your word for it (nevermind the fact that you were the idiot the good Professor Doktor refused to allow in the field or near any real data). Bench scientists can play too! "I was a postdoc in Dr. Maria Blazenutz' group during that run of C/N/S papers, you know..." And humanities scholars! "I have degrees from Hahvahhd, Yale and Princeton so clearly I am teh bomb and you are an idiot..."
It is sooo easy.
I'll mention that the occupational hazard of mid-career and beyond is totally reinforced by circumstances because people start seeking you out explicitly for your "authoritah!". You are sought for grant review and editorial board duties. Funding agency staff start to depend on your view of what is "important" and "new" and "the future" of your subfield. You are asked to contribute the newsy reviews of hot papers. Etc. It is just so easy in all of these venues to take the shortcut. To cop out with "I think this is one of the best grants I've seen in years" instead of explaining why it is so great. To claim a paper represents a "significant advance" (or is complete crap) without any definable reasons other than your gut feeling. To say you "doubt" someone's experimental results without a convincing rationale.
Fight it. Fight the seduction of the dark side of "authoritah!" my friends.
A final comment on the special SuperDuperz occupational hazard of the teaching college professor. Now, I love you all, really I do. And I once aspired to be one of y'all. Heck, I may eventually be one of you. For full disclosure I'll further admit that I spent a considerable number of my formative years in rather close proximity to one of you. Here's the thing. Your whole professional life is predicated on you as the Authority. In the classroom, you have all the knowledge and the students have relatively little. They are explicitly seeking you out for your authority. Even within most "teaching departments" you are the sole expert in not just a narrow area but in several subfields, are you not? And...c'mon, 'fess up. It goes to your head after awhile doesn't it? And even more pernicious...do you teach at a small college in the middle of nowhere? Plopped down amongst the local rubes? So you are more worldly and informed on many topics than most of your neighbors? Which makes you...an authoritah? On oh-so-many things?
Is it any wonder you develop into a know-it-all who cannot conceptualize anyone else having valid opinions or rationales? Any wonder you start to broaden the scope of your claimed authority? After all, nobody challenges you in your day to day life. And for the most part, you are right. But not all the time, my friend, not all the time.
Fight it. Fight the lure of "authoritah!"
UPDATE: Followups from Zen Faulkes, bayman and Greg Laden. And a little weigh in from Drs. Free-Ride and Janet D. Stemwedel that is, in the words of Cartman, "Kickass!".
UPDATE2: and from PalMD
and bill. Over at Open Reading Frame bill was on the topic for entirely different reasons.
UPDATE3: PZ Myers has concluded that the shoe fits, or possibly simple wishes to assert that in his Exalted Opinion no teaching professor anywhere could possibly suffer from "authoritah!" issues. Greg Laden just can't leave it alone.