Repost: You Will Respect My Authoritah!

Jan 22 2014 Published by under #FWDAOTI, Academics

I am amused today by two individuals who simply cannot wrap their heads around the idea that one's authority and influence in a given area is not uniquely and solely tied to ones accomplishments in traditional academic professional pursuits. One such individual is over at Isis' place:

And it’s also telling that, now that I know your identity, I find myself actually more educated and qualified than you, but I wouldn’t speak on half the topics you did. Makes me wonder if anonymity didn’t make you feel more important than you actually were.

I really look forward to seeing what possibly makes someone more qualified than Isis to address the topics she blogs on. Really, I do. A Ph.D. in DomesticandLaboratoryGoddessology perhaps?

The other credential humper is over at Mike Eisen's blog:

You don’t know who I am, what my qualifications are, where I studied, where I am from, or what my research is about. But why should I be granted a soapbox to stand on and criticize you when you can’t necessarily respond. How am I qualified in saying anything without my credentials to back it up?

Well, try saying something. If it makes any sense, people will tend to grant you a soapbox. This is called "blog traffic". If you are not saying anything useful, you will enjoy the sound of crickets. Putting your "credentials" on the masthead will only take you so far in this, trust me.

Oh, glory, this one doubled down.

she used Dr. Isis to put herself above those 7 billion people without the credentials to back it up no? In the end, Dr.Gee showed that she was insignificant in the community. I don’t want to mention her identity here but her actual education and credentials have very little to do with half the stuff she’s commented on and used her anonymity to be an authority on things she really wasn’t. Because anonymously I can be Stephen Hawking,

No, actually you can't. Christ I weep for the Academy (and public life) if people really think that credibility and influence only comes from a certain set of professional/academic credentials.

Anyway, I think it worthwhile reposting the following. Pay special attention to the occupational hazards of being an academic.


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.

13 responses so far

  • Ola says:

    As anyone with kids will tell you, "because I said so" is a losing strategy. It doesn't get any better as the kids become adults, so why anyone would attempt to use it is beyond me.

    Of course, the other wonderful part to this argument is the rare (but very satisfying) occasion when it is discovered that the anonymous person whom is being dissed as unqualified, is actually the world's frickin' expert on said topic, so STFU already. I love those moments.

  • Susan says:

    You left out the most crucial part of that comment:

    "I ran it by my professor ... He said ... ".

    I literally laughed out loud. Authoriteh!

  • It's all good and well to claim that arguing from authority is bad and unjustified in theory, but in practice it is kind of required because often there is no way to give the information needed in a timely fashion to people without the required education. I've had to deal with acquaintances of mine who are Creationists and/or who are anti-vaxxers. Yes, I can (and do) start with a 15 minute explanation of how evolution and vaccines work, and maybe in borderline cases these can convince people to embrace sanity, but oftentimes not. The fact is the evidence behind evolution and vaccines isn't really something that can be covered in 15 minutes, especially not to people who haven't had any scientific training. Education really counts for something; that's why we *have* it. I accept that my dentist knows more about my teeth than I do and the fact that he has a dental degree is not irrelevant to that conclusion. While he might give a brief explanation as to why I need another crown, I accept the fact that he can't really explain everything about dentistry to me.

  • Dave says:

    The only thing that matters is whether the person blogging is saying something that one finds useful, interesting, helpful, provocative, whatever.

    For all I know, DM doesn't even have a PhD and works at Domino's, but he/she sure knows a lot more about grantsmanship than I do, so I read. End of story.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    JB- I don't know exactly wtf the first commenter means but let's say it is feminist and minority sociology, philosophy, etc that is the issue. I've read a shitload from Isis, Züska, Janet, Jess Palmer, DrRubidium....the list goes on. Even PhysioProf. Not sure many have formal training in feminist / minority Academic blahdeblah. But suchlike has been often linked. And while all parties don't always agree the stuff all of them say sounds really credible. And where relevant is backed by citation of the credentialed stuff.

    Some 5th year grad student in feminist theory comes along spouting a different line....sorry but those credentials aren't going to sway me. I'm going to need a really good argument laid on the table.

  • Rico says:

    I have often felt the "authoritah!" kicking in. I liken it to turning into the Hulk...and then my wife knocks it right out of me.

    I thank her each time.

  • Joe says:

    Doing experiments, or helping your students design experiments, is good at keeping one humble. You may have been well educated and great at teaching in your area of expertise, but the natural world does not care about your authority. The experience that got you your position of authority is great for generating hypotheses, but when you do the experiments you frequently find that you were flat-out wrong.
    I have made some discoveries in my career because I was too naive to know not to do the experiment, i.e., if I had been steeped in the dogma, I wouldn't have tried the experiment. This is what worries me about the trend toward fewer graduate students. We need the people to ask questions that the PIs won't ask.

  • […] person can track down my students. Of course, any writer should be judged by one’s words and not by one’s credentials. So, the credence that I might get from my identity would only be temporarily bought, from the […]

  • Anonymous says:

    The hypocrisy here is making me laugh. I used to comment under a name that made it clear that I was a grad student. Can't tell you the number of times that some very popular bloggers -- including yours truly, DM -- used the authoritah argument on me. Then I started commenting under a different name that did not make this aspect of my background visible, and I got very different responses. Same views, mind you....

    So I understand why Isis knowingly gave people the wrong impression about her career stage -- and let's not kid ourselves that she was unaware! -- she wanted people to read and consider her words before they outright dismissed them due to her lack of experience. However, many of her posts dealt with career advice, and it is precisely for this reason that I don't take what I read on pseudonymous blogs too seriously. You never know if the person giving you all that "great" advice really knows what the fuck they're talking about! And it's really not that hard to fool people in online discussions into thinking that you do. Anyone who was surprised by Isis' background should know that by now.

  • rs says:

    I some time even wonder the idea of peer review in proposals which seems to reinforce the old boy club. I wonder why they nitpick proposals by new investigators, specially in the light that science is continuously evolving entity.

    http://www.nature.com/news/stephen-hawking-there-are-no-black-holes-1.14583

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Anonymous-

    How is it hypocrisy when you are underlining the very point that I am making?

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  • Eli Rabett says:

    One of the interesting things about blogs and comments by nyms is that they offer the nyms the possibility of creating their own authority, e.g. by their comments and posts yee shall know them.

    And, as Eli tweeted, who is this Henry Gee besides being one of Charon's under under assistants who gets to choose those that raft over the Styx to undying fame in Nature? Gotta be one of the most self important stuffed shirts on Earth.

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