When it is appropriate to use an argument from authority?
The most common criticism of arguments such as Doran and Zimmerman’s poll or a list of statements from organizations is, “That doesn’t mean they’re right.” Just because a topic has overwhelming agreement doesn’t mean it’s true.
I agree with that criticism. But I still believe that such arguments are appropriate at times. How can this be?
Firstly, to a scientist who has relevant experience, arguing from authority is not usually appropriate. If someone understands all the technicalities of a topic such as climatology, what others say shouldn’t necessarily influence them. If there is overwhelming agreement on an issue, they should certainly examine its evidence, but shouldn’t be subject to peer-pressure. If someone understands the science behind the issue, their own experience and analysis makes the popular opinion barely relevant.
However, to the individual with no climatology training, their own analysis can’t cut it. They simply need to trust those with relevant experience – who else are they going to trust? As Greg Craven says in Risk Management,
“Ask yourself this: does the Earth go around the sun, or does the sun go around the Earth? No one even seriously questions that anymore, right? Try this sometime. Stand and point to the sun in the sky. A few hours later, stand in the same spot, facing the same direction, and do it again. Is your arm pointing in the same direction as it was before? No! Clearly, the sun is the thing that moved, and clearly, the Earth is too large to have gone anywhere, and is right where you left it.
If your senses—and your common sense—are so easily fooled, then how do you decide what to believe about the natural world? Well, why do you so firmly believe that the Earth orbits the sun, despite all evidence and common sense to the contrary? You believe it because: smart people told you so. And you trust them, when it’s their area of expertise, and enough of them agree. Of course authority matters. That doesn’t mean it’s infallible—just ask Galileo. But it’s certainly a better bet than armchair analysis.”
Additionally, to the average non-scientist, the physical truth does not matter as much as the probability of the event in question. They don’t really care about D-O events, Milankovitch cycles, or the relative strength of different greenhouse gases. The real question they are asking is, “What do we need to do about climate change?” People care about what will impact them. For scientists, that means data and conclusions, as that’s their job. For average individuals, that means risk management and mitigation, as that determines which policies they will support and what individual action they will take.
And when over 97% of the scientific community agree that humans are causing the Earth to warm, the probability of emission reduction being worthwhile seems pretty high.
It’s important that the authority used to argue the probability of a point is large and diverse, however. It’s easy to cherry-pick one of the outspoken 3% of scientists who reject climate change and say, “See, they know more than you do, so you should vote against Waxman-Marley.” Statistics such as “97% agreement” or “every professional scientific organization that has issued a statement on climate change” gives the audience a much better sense of the mainstream scientific opinion.
Therefore, to the average person, arguing from authority is appropriate, because it reflects probability and risk management. And that’s really all that the general public cares about.