Following on from our look at the pitfalls of confirmation bias in science and research, and also in its reporting, we shall now examine a very much related problem that leads almost everyone down the same wrong path to misinformation, confusion and ignorance when searching for truth and knowledge – Appeal to Authority fallacies.
This is at the heart of the issue when people we see as ‘experts’ in society are asked to comment on or give insight into various issues, usually by the media, and then those opinions are taken directly as gospel. In other words, we consider what experts say to be totally true and accurate, often leading to people unquestioningly accepting what they say.
To avoid any misunderstanding, it is important to first acknowledge that of course we do actually need experts, and there are legitimate authorities that can provide us with the facts or guidance we need in the fields that they are specialists in. However, problems arise when we rely on so-called experts, when they are not actually qualified in or knowledgeable about the issues that they are commenting on.
This is the case with Stephen Hawking in some of his writings about robotics, aliens and warfare. Of course he was an extremely intelligent person, but he was also very much only a specialist in very limited areas of science, and not so much in other areas, although that didn’t prevent him from opining about various topics that he was not, and should not, be considered an authority on.
This is the first of the Appeal to Authority fallacies: Appeal to Unqualified Authority. Before considering the advice or opinions offered by experts, it is essential to establish that they truly are experts in the field being discussed, that they are authorities on the specific area of the field in question, and finally – the one that most people forget – that there is general agreement amongst experts in this field with what this particular expert is claiming.
Examples demonstrating this are that it would be extremely foolish to credibly rely on the opinions of a rock star if they are offering advice about anything besides rock music, the ideas of a painter if they aren’t discussing painting, or a physicist if they are talking about biology.
Fallacies of Relevance: Appeal to Authority