You Will Respect My Authoritah!

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:
South_Park_BlogAvatar1.jpg

... 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.
South_Park_BlogAvatar1.jpg 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.
South_Park_BlogAvatar1.jpgA 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.

35 responses so far

  • PhysioProf says:

    Plinth!?!?!?
    Dude, what the fuck crazy DEA-regulated shit did you order from Sigma this week?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Plinth!?!?!?
    I put that in there for some blogger who totally ♥ architecture.

  • bayman says:

    Very nice. This message really needs to get out...glad you took the time to make the case so well. It's incredibly discouraging to see more than one blogger calling themselves scientists campaigning against the necessity for evidence-based scientific discussion. And this is really the crux of the anonymity debate. If the evidence is all you need then it makes no difference whether you are anonymous or not - the evidence speaks for itself.
    I think you're bang on that the tendency to emphasize authority likely originates from those spend more time in the classroom than near the lab. Not only is the prof the authority in the classroom, the subject matter being taught is generally limited to areas of science that have largely been figured out. So when in comes to the material in the textbook or course notes, the teacher can operate with the daily certainty of knowing that he/she is right. Active researchers however operate and the border of the known and the unknown, and therefore are immersed in a world of relative uncertainty, where discussion must remain open to many possibilities if "truth" is to be discovered. In experimental science, the frequency with which one's hypothesis are trashed forces one to accept the difficulties of knowing anything with certainty.
    Since this struggle with uncertainty is the process through which science actually advances and knowledge is gained, I think it's important to highlight the role of open, evidence based discussion and critical thinking when communicating about science through the blogosphere. Scientists have to do it, because no one else can or will.
    (Not to jump on profs. Their job is an important one. Perhaps it was no mistake that the duties of research scientist and teaching have traditionally been combined under a single job title. Maybe there is a culture gap emerging in science as these facets of academia have been compartmentalized into distinct specialized jobs, that of the ProfessionalResearcher and the FullTimeClassTeacher.)
    Sorry to rant.

  • Julie Stahlhut says:

    John Cleese and Graham Chapman's first touring comedy revue was called A Clump of Plinths during its first incarnation at Cambridge.
    Not to divert attention from the main post or anything, but that's the first time I've seen the word "plinth" in print in years!

  • Noah Gray says:

    I see your points and do agree somewhat, but there is always a fine line between letting the authority go to one's head and actually just spitting out what one was trained to spit out. If you are the expert in a certain area, and I need help in that area, speak up!!
    It took me a while, but I finally dug up the old post where we had quite a lot of fun going back and forth about several issues (as an aside, having just found that post and having re-read through the comments, I do have to say that this series was truly one of my finer experiences with the whole commenting thing...dare I call it a "classic"?), and obviously I have a soft spot in my heart for anonymity since I felt that double-blind peer reviewing would be an interesting experiment. Yet people jumped all over me, suggesting the pitfalls of easily guessing the authors based on reference choices, topic, language, etc... A double-blind peer review system allows the potential for the scientific evidence and arguments to be assessed independent of "authority". It seems inconsistent to throw up one's hands and state that the double-blind system will never work, but to then turn around and preach on the danger of believing someone only because of who they are.
    By the way, what's the deal with the constant fight between you guys and Greg?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    It seems inconsistent to throw up one's hands and state that the double-blind system will never work, but to then turn around and preach on the danger of believing someone only because of who they are.
    I think you still don't grasp my position fully. The idea of double-blinded review of papers (and grant applications) is a great fantasy. I'd be all in favor of getting irrelevant sources of potential bias out of the system. Sure. The fact that I think this is unworkable in practice and represents a distraction from more realistic fixes doesn't mean I think the status quo is the best way to do things.
    what's the deal with the constant fight between you guys and Greg?
    huh? I dunno about "constant fight". I certainly disagree with the position he staked out on bayblab with respect to arguing from authority. I think he's really talking about appeal-to-authority and that he favors this approach.
    This comment over on bayblab was a convenient jumping off point, mostly. I missed a bit of a "thing" on pseud blogging that made the rounds after that clownish attack on pseudonymous blogging was published on the Chronicle site. FSP got some good discussion going. PP chimed in and has some links to others in an update.
    In short, there is a "position" vis a vis anonymous discussion that goes well beyond any particular person's views and I hope I managed to address the general rather than the specific here...

  • litespeed says:

    Oh DM --some of the comments appear to agree with yourbasic position but are truly misguided. Your choice of terms has me a bit confused on your position too.
    Maybe these commenters need to check the air circulation on their hoods as there are breathing the wrong kind of air. Like espousing the myth: "evidence speaks for itself." It cannot. Never has. Never will. Evidence (I prefer to spell it data) is not equivacol, it is multivocal. Data is always subject to alternative interpretations. Generating data quite frankly is the easy part. Assigning meaning, establishing significance is where the heavy lifting begins. It is on this end of the continuum of research where experience and insight are critical. "Argument from authority" is a bunch of crap--another myth that unfortunately has vigourously withstood the test of time. Generally one argues from a position of authority when you have weak data, lousy logic, and no sound warrants to place on the plinth (I like plinths too--place offerings to the science gods on one each morning.)
    By-the-way in my book the word "expert" is a synonym for "authority" so too is it in the Oxford Unabridged Dictionary. So working from a position of expertise is just as bad. There are by far better descriptors to use.

  • cobbler says:

    So what you're really saying is that Laden is self-righteous blowhard who parades around with his Harvard fucking Ph.D. when no one has any idea from what work his alleged authority derives. And for all the dick-sucking PZ gets, when was his last paper outside of a Seed article? Or were you talking about Orzel with the teaching professor slam.
    You have some fucked up shit at ScienceBlogs. What a bunch of lame scientist poseurs. Thank FSM that they finally hired on some real working scientists like you numb nuts.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Assigning meaning, establishing significance is where the heavy lifting begins. It is on this end of the continuum of research where experience and insight are critical.
    litespeed, I tried to distinguish arguing on the strength of "credentials" from the argument on the basis of real and specific experience. For me, "authority" connotes "credentials" whereas "expertise" connotes a specific talent, skill and/or knowledge that is tangible and applied. Don't get too caught up in the semantics though. We should be able to understand the essential difference regardless of how it is labeled.
    I am not suggesting that data do not need to be interpreted and placed in context. Far from it. And I was trying to stipulate that under many circumstances those with the credentials also possess the specific and applied expertise. We should, however, respect them for the application of that expertise, not the credential. Because focus on the credential leads to a slope down which lies application of the credential in areas in which the individual does not in fact have specific and/or superior expertise.
    cobbler, I can understand you'd like to stir up some beef. however, the general principles I'm trying to discuss apply well beyond the trio of Sb bloggers you identified. My experiences derive from many, many other individuals IRL who shaped my thoughts on this issue. And to be clear, the "mid-career" section is supposed to be a caution to myself as much as anyone else. These forces edging one into a reliance on one's standing are not unique to anyone in particular.

  • This is something my advisor does in a somewhat different form and it drives me a little crazy. We'll be discussing a paper and he'll say 'Oh, I know So-And-So, so we can trust them, they must have done this the right way.' No, if either a) the paper does not specify the details or b) they do and it's open to discussion whether the data support the hypothesis, not so much.
    On a related note, several months ago I read an article by Phil Sharpe (Nobel, RNA work) and found it deeply unconvincing. All his authority and experience didn't help his lab put out a convincing, careful paper.

  • Interrobang says:

    If I may contribute a semantic point, I think part of the problem here derives from a problem with the popularisation of logical fallacies. The actual name of the fallacy in question is the Appeal to Improper Authority. In other words, the authority in question may very well be an authority, just not the right authority for the point you're making, not unlike, say, quoting a popular novelist on the subject of climate change. A popular novelist demonstrably knows how to write things that shift copies, but their expertise in climate change is much less clear-cut...

  • bayman says:

    "Maybe these commenters need to check the air circulation on their hoods as there are breathing the wrong kind of air. Like espousing the myth: "evidence speaks for itself." It cannot. Never has. Never will."
    Since I made this comment, let me clarify what I was getting at. I wasn't trying to suggest that how the evidence is interpreted isn't important. Indeed, this is why the evidence must constantly be discussed - otherwise interpretation is not possible.
    My meaning was that the validity of evidence, observations facts, whatever, is unaffected by the credentials or authority of the person presenting them - therefore they speak for themselves. An accurate statistic quoted by an anonymous blogger for example, is no less accurate because the identity of the person citing it is unknown. Likewise, it is no more likely that HIV is not the cause of AIDS just because Kary Mullis won a Nobel prize for the invention of PCR.
    Like DM, I'm not trying to say I don't respect the value of scientific expertise. But a true expert knows he/she has to be able to explain how s/he has reached conclusions. This is the only true way that real scientific experts can distinguish themselves from charlatans and quacks.

  • Greg Laden says:

    Language is complex and individual. Since I (or someone) used the word "authority" your internal lookup table went right to the "appeal to authority" warning bell and this apparently caused you to fail to absorb my argument. Your quote mining ignores what I really said (I've made a clarification on my site, a post that will be up in a short while, feel free to read it). I have never argued for appeal to authority. I am insulted that you would make that obnoxious assertion. Is it possible that the only reason that you manage the hubris to say this is because you are anonymous? Is that why you blog in this manner? So that you can play fast and loose with the facts and get away with it?
    Almost every CV ever written starts with education and moves on to field experience and/or publications, talks, etc. I find your assertion that I value credentials over experience obnoxious and insupportable. Is the reason you dare to make such an obnoxious assertion, and get away with is is that you are anonymous?
    I am not against pseudonymous blogging. I am, however, bothered by practiced poor social skills.
    My experiences derive from many, many other individuals IRL who shaped my thoughts on this issue.
    Oh please, you can not be anonymous AND appeal to authority at the same time, dude!

  • Greg Laden says:

    Like DM, I'm not trying to say I don't respect the value of scientific expertise. But a true expert knows he/she has to be able to explain how s/he has reached conclusions. This is the only true way that real scientific experts can distinguish themselves from charlatans and quacks.
    Yes, exactly.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Your quote mining ignores what I really said (I've made a clarification on my site, a post that will be up in a short while, feel free to read it). I have never argued for appeal to authority.
    While resorting to a blogger StockCritique of "quote mining" is an easy dismissal it is really beneath you and clearly inaccurate. In this case, the "quotes" I lifted are actually quite pertinent to understanding your position as expressed repeatedly in similar discussions of anonymous/pseudonymous blogging. Most particularly your dustup with the PP a little while back. Together, the representation is consistent with the persona you project-of course I'm not so much interested in what your "true" beliefs might be, just what your blogger-persona beliefs are. The comments you make vis a vis not being able to value the observations of someone who is anonymous never seem to relate to what they have written but rather to the fact that you do not know who they are. Finally, the fact that on your "about" page and P3.14 interview you choose to talk about your credentials in preference to discussing what you have actually accomplished is consistent with my representation. Admittedly, when you distinguished "argument from authority" and "appeal to authority" I was thinking that perhaps you had made a breakthrough in your understanding of some of the arguments in support of pseudonymous blogging. Your ire here suggests this as well.
    What can I say to that? Well, if your future actions comport with this apparent understanding then I won't have any reason to use you as an exemplar of the argument-from-credentials position.
    I am insulted that you would make that obnoxious assertion.
    Why? If the shoe doesn't fit and you have no respect for anonymous bloggers why would you be "insulted" by anything I have to say?
    Is it possible that the only reason that you manage the hubris to say this is because you are anonymous? Is that why you blog in this manner? So that you can play fast and loose with the facts and get away with it?
    In a word, no.
    Oh please, you can not be anonymous AND appeal to authority at the same time, dude!
    To refer to my real world actual experiences is not the same thing as arguing from credentials. It is the difference, for example, between saying "I learned X, Y and Z in my months with the pygmy tribes of the Ituri forest" and "I know this because I was the last surviving student of Dr. HufflePuff". In this case, acquaintance with several dozen (or score) teaching college professors is hardly a rare or unique experience that requires much elaboration.

  • bayman says:

    bayman:
    Like DM, I'm not trying to say I don't respect the value of scientific expertise. But a true expert knows he/she has to be able to explain how s/he has reached conclusions. This is the only true way that real scientific experts can distinguish themselves from charlatans and quacks.
    Laden: Yes, exactly.
    I'm glad we agree here. Perhaps you will go a step further, and agree with me that this process of elaborating on the evidence and rationale that has been used to reach a particular conclusion can stand on its own merit, and is neither aided nor impeded by the reputation of the speaker or writer. And, therefore, lack of authority or credentials should not be used as a basis to discredit anonymous bloggers, but rather it is sufficient to judge them on the content of what they write. In other words a scientific "expert" can make worthwhile contributions to the blogosphere whether s/he is anonymous or not. And likewise, non-experts can make worthwhile contributions if their evidence and reasoning is sound.

  • Greg Laden says:

    Bayman, I don't think that would be extending the argument at all. I think what you are saying here is true and evident.
    My argument has been about something else entirely. My argument is this. Two people can walk up to me at a bar and say the sky is blue. Both are correct. But the person who tosses a drink in my face prior to making the argument that the sky is blue cannot expect me to sit down and have a chat about the weather. The dude who tosses a drink in my face prior to stating that the sky is blue is lucky if he does not get stomped by me. And if he later comes along needing a favor he can stick his swizzle stick where the sun don't shine.
    My main argument is that I don't like assholes. My secondary argument is that it is possible that anonymity can lead some to be more ass-hole like than they otherwise might be.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    My main argument is that I don't like assholes.
    Actually, your usual first argument is that you don't credit the arguments of anonymous/pseudonymous bloggers and commenters. Thus tossing the aforementioned drink in the face of such people. When called out for this, you start flailing around saying, in essence, "See, this proves they are assholes thus justifying why I made my comment in the first place".
    The dude who tosses a drink in my face prior to stating that the sky is blue is lucky if he does not get stomped by me.
    I'm sure you are a complete and utter bad-ass bar brawler Greg. Nice place to go. Argument from "oh yah, well I can kick your ass!" is almost, but not quite, as fresh as argument-from-authority.
    But perhaps you can explain where in this post or elsewhere I was performing a rhetorical drink-toss? Or is criticizing your apparent (from multiple blog comment sources) opinion on some issue by itself tossing a drink in your face?
    I note that nowhere here have you addressed the substance of my post. Which, in case you missed it, comes around to the point of warning about the ways we all might have pressures moving us toward arguing from credentials. With the goal, I might add, of being a reminder to ourselves (yes, me too) to recognize and avoid these tendencies. Do you have anything to contribute in that area?

  • BugDoc says:

    DM,
    I think your post today is also relevant to the discussion on your previous post "It Doesn't Hurt a Bit to Be "That Guy"...
    It's not uncommon for a (sometimes female) candidate's application or grant or invite to a meeting to be torpedoed, sometimes very subtly, by the lack of enthusiasm voiced by someone with credentials. After all, both jobs and grants are very competitive to come by these days and it doesn't take much to move out of the top range. I find it interesting that when challenged, Dr. Authoritah sometimes can't articulate why exactly he doesn't like a particular application, which should make us all skeptical, Nobel Prizes notwithstanding.
    In interesting contrast, I met a seminar speaker today that was da bomb. You didn't need to see this man's impressively long and weighty CV to appreciate his elegant work and insightful approach to science. Now that's Authoritah!

  • Stephanie Z says:

    DrugMonkey, I appreciate you pointing out that your comments on the dangers of leaning on one's authority weren't directed at any particular blogger. Why not assume that Greg's comment is directly related to his post on the subject (which it seems to be) rather than being posturing aimed at you (when he was replying to bayman)?
    On a separate note, the best teachers I've had were the ones who encouraged me to reason out or find some answers for myself, not necessarily the ones who knew their subject inside and out. Now that may be because I asked a lot of esoteric questions, but I'd really love to see it happen more, particularly before people get to college. I'd always thought of it as being good for the students. It hadn't occurred to me that it might be good for their teachers.

  • Barn Owl says:

    I use a pseudonym for the simple reason that there are a lot of weird-ass freaks on teh interwebz, and many of those freaks have (apparently) a lot of time on their hands, and not much constructive to do with that time. 99.9% of these freaks, even those who cyber-stalk, are probably no threat in any real-life sense, but they can be annoying, especially when they pop up at all hours on a message board or comments thread.
    I'm not convinced that using my real name would change anything in a positive way. If someone has already dismissed me as unworthy or intellectually inferior, neither checking my education and credentials on a departmental webpage, nor looking up my recent papers on PubMed, is going to change that person's mind. The cyber-freak with a bug up his or her ass can still dismiss me by believing that I gained my degrees and credentials through dubious means, or that I didn't really write or contribute to the papers on which my name appears. In my limited experience with such internet wackjobs, the person may not know enough about academic science to understand the concepts of senior or corresponding author, and assumptions will be made to fit the preformed opinion regardless.
    There's also the more common attitude of just ignoring a person whose opinions are inconvenient, even if you understand and have checked the background, education, publications, whatever. There are many ways to be dismissive and to retain childish egocentric thinking patterns, whether your opponents have pseudonyms or no. I think this works both ways...for example, the creation "scientists" and IDiots, who use their real names to blog and bloviate, still have their fans and sycophants, even though anyone can easily determine that there are no credentials or research publications to back up their ludicrous claims.

  • the real cmf says:

    Greg, when you say "The dude who tosses a drink in my face prior to stating that the sky is blue is lucky if he does not get stomped by me," does that mean that you are now advocating *violence* in the blogiosphere??!! Why that is almost as bad as massageinisiscmny~!

  • juniorprof says:

    I have never argued for appeal to authority. I am insulted that you would make that obnoxious assertion. Is it possible that the only reason that you manage the hubris to say this is because you are anonymous?
    Your erroneous claims against Dr. Buck (which you refused to acknowledge for far too long) are a fine example of the argument in practice
    I am not against pseudonymous blogging. I am, however, bothered by practiced poor social skills.
    You do realize that DM and PP have gained their reputation by 1) working hard to make suggestions to improve the peer review and granting process at NIH through their online forum and 2) tirelessly dishing out advice to junior faculty and postdocs trying to make it in the research profession. None of the recipients of this advice know who they are... imagine how much gratitude we'd be heaping on them if we knew where to send the champagne.

  • juniorprof says:

    Which, in case you missed it, comes around to the point of warning about the ways we all might have pressures moving us toward arguing from credentials. With the goal, I might add, of being a reminder to ourselves (yes, me too) to recognize and avoid these tendencies. Do you have anything to contribute in that area?
    I have been thinking about this alot since you originally wrote the post. When I first started having trainees (as a senior postdoc) I tried to always tell them that "I already know the jargon and have a good grasp of the literature in the field, other than that (and you'll catch up fast) we have exactly the same potential." I still do this but I never really thought about why. The current discussion has made it clear to me that, whatever the reason for starting to reiterate this point, it does a good job of helping me keep myself in check. I believe I'll stick with it... after all, I believe that it is completely true.

  • Gibbon1 says:

    My Authoritah!
    Seems to me that the real issue is where someone falls on the scale of
    1) Has the relevant data and training to posit X
    2) Has the training and experience to judge X
    3) Lay Person.
    The first guy basically has observability. Data and the training to be able to potentially understand it.
    The second guy could review the first guys theories and have some idea if he's right or blowing smoke.
    The third guy basically has no clue really other than what people tell him. So the important question is really, who has the the observability? Because thats a much easier question to answer.

  • Barn Owl says:

    Oooh, got treated to the Respect My Authoritah! argument today, by psychobabbling corporate lackeys for a Hallowed Standardized Test (HST). Dr. X, whom I adore for repeatedly challenging Authoritah, pointed out that part of the HST is heavily dependent on texts and excerpts written by Dead White Northern European Males.
    Lackey A denied this, smote us with her degrees and training in Psycho and Babble, and claimed that the newest version of HST had been analyzed by Gobbledy-blab Parameters to ensure that it was not culturally biased. "Dr. X, you must have an OUTDATED version of the HST".
    At which point Dr. X pulled out the latest released version of HST, and smacked it down on the table. "No, this is the latest version released for test prep. The texts it contains were all written by Dead White Northern European Males. How would you feel about taking this test if your cultural background was different, and you were raised with other texts? Might influence your performance, huh?"

  • Dan says:

    If you can't trust someone's degrees, what is the point of giving them out? If I can't trust the degree on my doctor's wall or my lawyer's wall, that sucks. My life just got a whole lot more complicated.
    Why does producing new research have anything to do with being an authority in anything except the research that you do? If I do research on cancer drugs, does that make me more of an authority in cancer treatment than a doctor that specializes in the treatment of cancer patients? That is what you seem to be arguing.

  • rjb says:

    Speaking as one of those liberal arts professors in the middle of nowhere...
    I think there's a distinction that needs to be made in this discussion. The "argument from authority" does have a valid place, and I think we all use it in certain circumstances. As a scientist, when I view other scientific work, I have the background and experience to judge someone's argument on a scientific topic. Thus, I do not base my acceptance of their argument from their authority or credentials. However, if I view an argument on economics, or art history, where I cannot make the same informed decision, then authority, or credentials to be more precise, do play a role. This argument from authority is something that we all rely on in many aspects of our lives.
    I just thought I'd throw that in, because it seems that the argument being made here is discussing the first situation that I described.

  • bill says:

    You know, I wasn't actually following up -- it was sheer coincidence that we were talking about the same things at the same time. I've been staying out of this little storm-in-a-Borg-cup because one side (guess which) brings me out in a rash.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    agh, sorry bill. I knew that but just rushed the link without thinking that the whole thing made it look like I was saying that you were responding. I fixed it.
    ('cause, that's what one does when one is WRONG ON THE INTERNETZ and does not suffer from an overwhelming case of narcissism)

  • bill says:

    Aw, I didn't mean that as a complaint -- you didn't have to change it. Thanks though.

  • This post is still hilarious a year later.

  • cashmoney says:

    It is sort of entertaining to see the self-same bloggers who are into OpenEverythingzz and hate on science journalists in the MSM as well as theological authority get all fussed when they are called out for their own authoritah! complexes, isn't it?

  • ChimChiminy says:

    This business of 'restoring science to it's proper place' makes me concerned that it will be all about restoring BigName scientist's opinions to 'their proper place'. How do we keep from simply replacing one set of idiot talking heads with a slightly smarter crowd?

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