Reason Hell: Arguments from Authority (Authority, Ad-Hominem, and credibility Part 3)

How should we distinguish good appeals to authority from bad ones?

Bad Appeals to Authority

  • Appeals based purely on somebody’s profession, or social status. Police officer, priests, academics, politicians will lie or make false statements for all sorts of reasons. They aren’t a source of truth simply by virtue of wearing a uniform, having a position of authority or even having studied. A scientist isn’t a reliable authority because they are a scientist but because of the process the claims they are making have gone through.
  • Appeals to authorities past their sell-by date. Sigmund Freud is a sound authority on the opinions of Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx is a sound authority on the opinions of Karl Marx but Freud is not a sound authority on modern psychology (the science has moved on and Freud’s theories have been largely debunked. Marx has fared even worse as it isn’t even the case that Marx is an authority on Marxism as the movement went off in a hundred different directions after Marx died. Charles Darwin is not an authority on the theory of evolution by natural selection – even though his work is still impressive and brilliant, the science has advanced far past what Darwin could have known.
  • The decontextualized authority. Quotes, anecdotes, sayings from notable people stripped of their surrounding context including either the social/cultural situation in which they spoke or even the surrounding text.
  • The fake authority. Both people who have been shown to be frauds and invented quotes or sayings of historical people fit here.
  • The authority by virtue of being a great man. The gendered term there is intentional as it is likely to be a man. Thomas Jefferson often falls into the other points listed above, as a victim of made quotes, real decontextualized quotes, his views on 18th century politics poorly applied to 21st century realities, or simply an assumption of him being right by virtue of being a very notable US President. Additionally his being regarded as being a particularly sage and insightful thinker makes him somebody often cited.
  • The talking our their hat authority. A noted expert may strongly assert an opinion perhaps on a matter of science – but if they are asserting that opinion just as their opinion without it being backed by research and peer review then it really doesn’t count for much more than ‘a notable person said something’. It doesn’t make what they said wrong and possibly it is something to pay attention to but it isn’t something you should put too much weight on.
  • The not really saying anything authority. Petitions, list, signatories – again these kinds of things when signed by noted authorities aren’t entirely nonsensical or necessarily wrong but they don’t carry a lot of evidential value. They show a group of notable people agree with a position and not much more. They may indicate that you should pay attention to this issue but they aren’t themselves strong evidence.
  • The authority by single experience. A single instance of a person from a given social or ethnic group is not necessarily an authority on the experience of the group in general. Of course they are an authority on their own experience.
  • The degraded by transmission authority. Not every supposed fact that is cited is as sound as it looks. Sometimes zombie factoids live on independent of actual evidence. Such zombie facts then live on by being cited back and forth. Tracking claims back to their original source is important.

Good appeals to authority

  • Referencing books by noted academics. A book can be wrong, an academic can be mistaken, lying, talking out of their hat or just plain crazy. However pointing somebody to a book allows for others to firstly check what the book says in context but also to find criticisms of the book and dissenting opinion. Evidence that can be further verified is good.
  • Referencing peer reviewed scholarship. Peer review has its flaws and lots of peer reviewed papers have flaws or are published selectively (publication bias where negative or disappointing results don’t get papers written or published). However like the first point a peer reviewed paper allows others to check and consider the way a study was done or to find critics of what was done.
  • Broad consensus of experts. Assuming this can be demonstrated and that the expertise is relevant, it is notable if many people in the same field all agree on a conclusion based on evidence and process.
  • Witnesses to an event, individuals about their own experiences. Without evidence to the contrary (including the plausibility of the claim made) people usually tell the truth.

Reason Hell special: Scares and authority

As anybody reading this blog may have noticed, I’m having a nice old chat with John C Wright about global warming. I’m sticking the global warming replies here but there is another issue in Wright’s post that I’m pulling out separately and which is best exemplified by this paragraph.

The hoax was clear from the beginning for those with eyes to see because of the hysteria surrounding it. It was a scare, a panic, and there was no more evidence for it than for the DDT scare, the ALAR scare, the radon scare, the mercury in the fish scare, the acid rain scare, the hole in the ozone layer scare, the power cables causing cancer scare, mobile phone towers causing cancer scare, the chloroflourocarbons scare, the overpopulation scare, the salmonella scare, the Mad Cow disease scare, and so on. Have you ever heard even one retraction or apology for any of these false alarms, even long after the fraud was exposed? Is DDT available even thought Rachel Carson’s mass-murdering fraud is well known to have been scientifically absurd?

In a more recent reply Wright has offered me a challenge:

I offer you the following challenge: name for me the environmentalist
scare that turned out to be wrong or exaggerated. It can be one I have
listed here, or another famous one.

Either put up or shut up. Either name the false alarm or admit that you cannot.

If you cannot admit that there are any false alarms in the system, not
even one, then you attribute unrealistic if not supernatural accuracy
and perspicacity to the system.

Which is really kind of fun – particularly as it ties in so neatly with the recent theme of authority and credibility. So, I’ve put Timothy the Talking Cat outside to chase small animals (he is no use at a time like this) and sharpened my debunkotron, fired up Google and off we go!

Continue reading “Reason Hell special: Scares and authority”

Global Warming [Updated]

OK I said I wouldn’t go and read John C Wright’s blog but whenever I talk to Timothy the Talking Cat I feel a need to check out what is going on there.

Wright has posted a message related to a claim made by Steven Goddard who is a Climate Change denialist of an odd sort.

I’ve posted my own reply but it may have gotten eaten by gremlins.

The reason why people from all sides of politics continue to assert that anthropogenic global warming is a thing that is actually happening is because it is a hypothesis well supported by the temperature record AND in accordance with what we know about greenhouse gas emissions from our industrial activities AND our understanding of other greenhouse gases such as water vapor AND our understanding of core aspect of the physics of carbon dioxide in relation to infra-red light.

Don’t like the NOAA data? OK than look at the temperature record from the UAH satellite data managed by Dr Roy Spencer (not a warmist and not a liberal). You will still find a warming trend over the whole span of the dataset. Don’t like the instrumental record? Then look at the BEST study (partly funded by the Koch’s) which again confirmed that the record is basically right. Think it is all down to bad data collection then look at prominent ‘skeptic’ Anthony Watt’s own analysis.

The facts don’t go away. It has been getting warmer for decades (in a noisy way but still). The levels of CO2 have been increasing. CO2 really is a greenhouse gas. None of the alternate explanations have stood the test of time or evidence.

{some replies there now}

Not really reviewing Terminator 2: a dialogue

Sarah Connor – interesting person and also she has a gun…

Timothy the Talking Cat: Ah Terminator: Genysis! I thought you said you weren’t going to watch it.

Camestros: I’m not. I’ve absolutely no interest in seeing it and..

Timothy: oh, groan, not another ‘sequels ruined my childhood memories’

Camestros: No, and please don’t interrupt. I’ve got some very specific thoughts on the issue and I wasn’t a child when Terminator 2 was released.

Timothy: So why are you reviewing Terminator: Genysis? Is it Mat Smith? It’s Mat Smith isn’t it?

Camestros: No, look read the bloody title. This is a review of Terminator 2: Judgement Day.

Continue reading “Not really reviewing Terminator 2: a dialogue”

Watson and the Big 5

personalityI discussed the Big 5 psychometric dimensions in an earlier post here. Interestingly the topic has come up again via a circuitous route which took me along to the IBM website. The Watson Developer Cloud is a set of what IBM are calling ‘cognitive computing’ – a mix of data mining and machine learning that does clever stuff.

Now one of the bits of clever stuff it is claiming to do is analysis of personality using written text and the Big 5 personality model. Which sort of makes sense, as in other fields automated marking of writing against multiple criteria has been shown to be relatively reliable. So it isn’t wholly unfeasible that a sufficiently representative text could provide sufficient data to make a broad assessment of personality – and note a profile against the Big 5 traits is a very broad brush stroke assessment. However, it isn’t necessarily the case that everything you write reflects your personality directly – it is possible (indeed necessary) to write intentionally in other tones (i.e. to write more assertively or to write in a way that shows more elevated emotions etc). Consequently even a long piece of writing may be a poor sample.

Enough of this! Let us discover what kind of person Camestros Felapton is! I need a longish piece of text that doesn’t contain any quotes from other people and the most appropriate choice would be my previous essay on the Big 5.

Watson says:

You are shrewd and skeptical.

You are philosophical: you are open to and intrigued by new ideas and love to explore them. You are imaginative: you have a wild imagination. And you are proud: you hold yourself in high regard, satisfied with who you are.

Your choices are driven by a desire for prestige.

You are relatively unconcerned with both tradition and taking pleasure in life. You care more about making your own path than following what others have done. And you prefer activities with a purpose greater than just personal enjoyment.

Smug, self-satisfied and prestige seeking hey? Damn you Watson!

More on that video game sexism study

In a post entitled An insight into video game sexism? I’m in two minds… I looked at a PLOS One study into how people playing HALO online reacted verbally to players they considered female. The paper recieved a lot of coverage because of its takeaway claim that the more verbally abusive players were losers.

While I liked the experimental design, I did have some doubts about the paper – particulalry the way it was framed in terms of an evolutionary model that didn’t seem that closely related to the study.

Rebecca Watson of Skepchic has a video which discusses that and other issues with the study:

There is a transcript here also:

Reason Hell: Authority, Ad-Hominem, and credibility Part 2

Mr Atomic endorses this post
Mr Atomic endorses this post

In Part 1 I discussed how people and credibility are unavoidable when it comes to argument and reason. An individual simply doesn’t have the time or brain power or expertise to do everything themselves and an individual cannot be everywhere at once to witness events as they happen.

We have to, at times, rely on others for
* information another person observed at a specific time and place
* information a person has researched and gather into one place
* analysis, proofs, experiments and other processes that another person has completed
* professional appraisal of facts by known experts
* interpretation of lengthy or technical documents by an expert
* translations of text from another language

Law and medicine are obvious areas in which this reliance on others is of great important but the situation is similar in many areas of human activity. A mathematical proof maybe the paradigm of an objective fact but very few people can actually check rigorously that a proof has been completed without error. We are obliged to trust that claims about mathematics have been checked properly by other mathematicians.

One solution would be to simply trust authority. However, I believe that is an error.

On the other side of the scale we know that our world is filled with people who are less than honest:
* people lie
* people cheat
* people mislead
* people are selective about what they tell you

And of course, sometimes honest people are just plain wrong.

One solution would be to simply mistrust everybody. However, I believe that is also an error.
Continue reading “Reason Hell: Authority, Ad-Hominem, and credibility Part 2”

Slow and Quick: two contrasting videos

The first is this video of work down to mitigate the damage done by a relatively fast lava flow.

The second is a video of a journey out from the Sun through the solar system at light speed.

I think the two show interesting perceptions of time. In the first we see geology happening quickly – which is far from our normal experience of geological events. Even here lava is not rapid but it is remorseless and its molten motion is sort of creepy.

In the second speed gives a sense of distance. The video has a hypnotic quality but not a lot happens for long stretches because the space between planets is big. Even traveling at light speed, you are going to want a magazine to read on the journey.