When Authority is Relevant

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.


17 thoughts on “When Authority is Relevant

  1. Thank you! This is great information. The OBXCommonGround blog has one page ‘devoted’ to skeptics who also attend open public forums and protest, quoting scientists and international conferences. They have the right of free speech and we are willing to allocate to them their five minutes – or page. This policy keeps the majority of space and time open for much needed communication and dialogue on climate change. We live on a sandbar.


    • That’s a good way to do it. Give them their little space to fill so they leave you alone – although I checked out the stuff they had on the page and it drove me crazy. None of the surveys they quoted (where only 20 some percent of scientists agree that climate change is anthropogenic) appeared to be peer reviewed – I actually think I’ve seen one of them and it’s by the Heartland Institute. Wouldn’t put a biased sample space, statistical misrepresentation, or made-up data past those guys. The surveys so deeply contradict the peer-reviewed stuff, eg Doran and Zimmerman or Oreskes. Additionally, they quoted the Oregon Petition….we all know how I feel about that….:)

      I suppose it’s a good policy – let them have their say while making clear they’re the minority – but when so much of their stuff is illegitimate….I don’t know how you stand it :)

      • Check out the Heartland Institute if you haven’t already. Believers in free market economy and no government interference in education, environment, money, etc.

        The blog was started following a public film event and discussion. In our audience that night was a very vocal skeptic. Rather than have him constantly interrupting folks, I gave him his five minutes up front. Then the group voted on what to do with the remainder of the time. Worked quite well.


      • I have seen the Heartland Institute…..very scary. I have nothing against their political and ideological beliefs, but they’re willing to twist science to suit their convenience. This video – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2T4UF_Rmlio – I’d recommend skipping to the second half unless you’re really interested in the history of climatology – talks about something called “free market fundamentalism”. It’s absolutely fascinating.

  2. Hi Kate,

    Thanks for the visit and kind feedback over at my place! I like this article, it is well articulated and solid. Best wishes and see you around the blogosphere!

  3. I use the term ‘scientific literacy’ to refer to the issue you’re tackling here.
    We can’t all dig up our own fossils of wrist-like fish fins, smash atoms, or build a climate model, but we can learn to recognize the credible scientific literature. I frame all my letters to editors in this context, and I’ve written many. Some time ago, I switched my effort to illustrations, having concluded that half the problem is how few people read primary scientific literature.

    Addressing evolution vs creationism has a parallel in the climate change debate. I started a project I think of as “simplify then inundate”. Here (www.brightstarstemeculavalley.org) you’ll find a geological timeline inspired by the numerous letter writers in my community who denounce evolution (most of the same group denounce global warming, but fewer are fluent in the talking points). My timeline simplifies time periods with an interactive format and places snippets of science by geological period. But each snippet is a summary of an article I’ve read (most from Nature). As you examine each, the innundation occurs. You have to say, “wow, these are just one person’s notes; there must be a lot more out there.”

    I’m planning to do the same with climate change, but I’m still searching for a common metaphor to hang all the notes on (and working out the bugs in my timeline). Another presentation I’m working on (same link as above) shares my lay person’s approach to understanding one part of climatology, orbital forcing. When I’m done, I’ll have presented notes from numerous credible publications and authors. These notes overlap with the refereces cited in the IPCC’s chapter 4 on the same subject. In other words, what I ‘ve done is a pale copy of what the IPCC has already done.
    Now if I had started from authority, e.g., “here, look at what the IPCC has to say on orbital forcing,” I would have encountered people who’ve been innoculated against the IPCC (It’s a political organization, etc). Instead, doing what amateurs do, rewalking the footsteps of professionals and then bearing witness (a term I love borrowing from my creationist friends) in person, can be very persuasive. Ideas and information can go viral via the Web, but I think persuassion still needs to be don on foot.

    great blog you have here.


    • That’s fascinating. I’m very glad there are other people trying to get ideas about credibility out there. If you’re someone like you or I who is actually interested in how climate change works (fascinating stuff!), reading all you can is a great idea – the IPCC can be dry and hard to understand. I have read about climate change from more sources than I can count. Some (eg IPCC) is really solid stuff. Some (eg the Heartland Institute) use a lot of weasel words (“studies show” without citing the studies) and made-up stats to reach a pre-conceived conclusion. Some (eg Al Gore, elementary science textbooks) are so oversimplified that they’re almost incorrect. However, if you are the average citizen who really only cares about “what does this mean for me?” and not someone who is perpetually questioning and curious, presenting them with “this is what the IPCC says” works quite well. I haven’t actually encountered anyone in Canada who is opposed to the IPCC. We’re a much more liberal country than the States. We generally like the UN.

      Personally, I don’t see why the evolution debate really matters. Firstly, evolution does not prove creationism wrong (evolution explains how organisms changed….not where they came from in the first place. That’s the Big Bang!). But most importantly, what does it matter if someone else doesn’t believe in evolution? It’s not like climate change where enough people disregarding it will threaten the human species….correct me if I’m wrong in any way, I haven’t done a lot of research into evolution, I’m not religious so it doesn’t really offend me at all.

      Thanks for all your comments and support. Spread the blog around if you can.

  4. Here’s a survey conducted by researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago as reported by Science Daily. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/01/090119210532.htm

    and an interesting exerpt

    “In analyzing responses by sub-groups, Doran found that climatologists who are active in research showed the strongest consensus on the causes of global warming, with 97 percent agreeing humans play a role. Petroleum geologists and meteorologists were among the biggest doubters, with only 47 and 64 percent respectively believing in human involvement. Doran compared their responses to a recent poll showing only 58 percent of the public thinks human activity contributes to global warming.

    “The petroleum geologist response is not too surprising, but the meteorologists’ is very interesting,” he said. “Most members of the public think meteorologists know climate, but most of them actually study very short-term phenomenon.”

  5. Hi Kate

    Several geologist friends of mine are climate change ‘skeptics’, and of course one very famous Australian geologist, Dr Ian Plimer is a climate change skeptic (but I would put him in the denier camp). My comment is not ‘scientific’ in that I am basing the next statement on personal experience, not a survey, but 12Volt’s blog struck a chord with me. It strikes me that my geologist friends and other skeptical / denier geologists (like Dr Plimer) are more likely to be experts in fields other than mine (palaeoclimates), such as petrology, petroleum geology, mineralogy etc – fields that work closely with the mining, and oil & gas sectors, just as this research showed.

    I’m not saying all of these geologists are skeptical because they have a vested financial stake in being skeptical (but some clearly do), but I am saying that many of the geologists I know or have met who are skeptical of AGW are not expert in climates of the past (or present); their knowledge of climate change (in the geological past) is from reading other people’s research. To them, the idea of climate changing (warmer of colder) is perfectly reasonable, because it has happened many times in the Earth’s geological past. I have an astonomer friend who is similarly convinced that the sun’s variable output is the complete answer (he studies a particular star). Their disagreement with me and with the whole notion of AGW is whether climate change can be caused by human activity.

    In talking to these geologists and my astonomer friend it is clear to me that they are persuaded by the notion that the magnitude of geological processes (e.g., greenhouse gases from volcanism, natural sequestering of carbon in the oceans) and the sheer power of the sun overwhelms any possible anthropogenic enhancement of climate forcings. When I explain to them that these processes (including variations in the sun’s output, and Milankovitch orbital changes) ARE included in the modelling and the study of past and future climate change, some of them say they will look at this. But few actually do. I suspect there is peer pressure to conform to a particular paradigm. I have also found that the larger the university the less likely geology professors are to be AGW skeptics.

    I have posted this link on Kate’s blog before, but given the comments above by JohnG, I repeat it here. The link is to a talk by Dr Alley given last year (Dec 2009) at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. AGU is a gathering place for climate scientists, geologists and other scientists interested in how the Earth works, including its atmosphere, oceans and their interactions with nearby space (including the sun). Dr Alley’s talk was electrifying in person, but the online video is very instructive on the Earth’s geological record of climate change, and our understanding of natural forcings, especially CO2, and how human activity affects these:


  6. Alley is inspiring and electrifying even on youtube, and his ‘knob’ talk was fantastic.

    (I wonder how much preparation goes into one of those talks?)

  7. Perhaps relevant, quoted from:

    “… those who learn entirely on their own often pick up bad habits and misunderstandings that are difficult to correct. In my Internet travels I have come across a person, for example, who thought there were three types of minor key (natural, harmonic, and melodic). Another self-styled composer who posts scores of his music incessantly on various Internet forums makes all kinds of blunders in using instruments that a good course in orchestration would easily correct. (He could not understand, for instance, why the first violin in his string quartet could not play middle C and the A below at once, he wrote a harp chord tied over four bars in andante tempo, etc.) And all efforts to try to help this person were met with self-protective hostility, as if any attempt to offer guidance was motivated by spite or envy.

    Going to cooking school does not necessarily mean you can cook, but not going is no guarantee you’ll be a great chef either.”

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