Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Appeal to Anti-Authority

If you’ve been following my blog for more than a few posts you’ll know that periodically I like to talk about logical fallacies. I just think it’s helpful to recognize the flaws in our thinking and make sure that we understand why the logic is incorrect and how to recognize it.
A commonly used logical fallacy is the appeal to authority. Just because somebody with authority in one field voices his opinion in a field outside his expertise does not make him an authority in that field. I’ve grown quite weary of the numerous Albert Einstein quotes being used to support things besides physics. His opinions on politics and religion hold no more weight than yours or mine. His opinions on physics however, are within his expertise and hold a little more weight. But even then there should be evidence to back up his claims and not just a pronouncement by a famous scientist.
What has me upset lately is that I see that many people are embracing an odd variation of this fallacy. I’ll call it “appeal to anti-authority”. In its simplest form the more credible somebody’s authority and evidence the more likely they are to be wrong. And the converse is also true. The more humble somebody’s experience the more likely they are to be right. Take this ad as an example. The advertiser is asking us to not trust our dentist, the real authority, and instead trust a single mom’s procedure to whiten teeth.
I just don’t know how to even respond to this twisted anti-logic. Should I now avoid going to my local garage when I have car trouble? Perhaps I should seek out somebody who explicitly has not had any training in Toyota Tundras to fix my check engine light. Yet this is exactly what many people do and it really scares me. Rather than trusting thousands of immunologists and getting vaccinated they are trusting the anecdotes of actors and putting kids at risk of catching serious diseases. Rather than trusting the evidence presented by thousands of climatologists they choose to believe the talking heads, most of whom don’t even have degrees in journalism let alone anything that grants then any authority on scientific matters.
I saw a series of books the other day at the library. The all started with the line “The Politically Incorrect Guide to…” I find it very sad that more and more Americans are accepting something being politically incorrect as proof that it is true. Something being politically accepted or politically incorrect is irrelevant to the truthfulness of the claim. What does the evidence say? I don’t care who believes the claim or who is offended by it.

“...the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown. “
Carl Sagan


  1. Yes! Like who cares if a classroom teacher "invented" Airborne (that quack cold remedy)? That doesn't make me want to buy it!


  2. You could add any of Kevin Trudeau's "inventions" to that list too. For some people the fact that he has done prison time for his flase claims seems to add legitimacy to his claims. Go figure.

  3. I find my self an authority on many things because I don't have a degree any most things. I am, thus, brillant, and demand my own show.

  4. I actually got a few of those "Politically Incorrect..." books at work, and they do offer an interesting look at the topics covered (in my case, Americann History and the Constitution).

    Just the same though, I still take everything that a lot of people say with a grain of salt....and maybe a dash of pepper.

  5. I don't have a problem with the books. Just the mindset that many people have that being politically incorrect gives them unearned credibility.

  6. Have you seen the book Lies My Teacher Told Me?

    An interesting look at the way history is (mis)taught.

  7. I have. I particularly liked his sections on Columbus and Helen Keller. We read it with our oldest when he was about 11 and being home-schooled.
    Loewen has another book about how the history on roadside markers is equally distorted. I haven't read it yet but it's on my list.