Argumentum ab scientia is not argumentum baculo: The difference between authority and expertise

May 7, JDN 2457881

Americans are, on the whole, suspicious of authority. This is a very good thing; it shields us against authoritarianism. But it comes with a major downside, which is a tendency to forget the distinction between authority and expertise.

Argument from authority is an informal fallacy, argumentum baculo. The fact that something was said by the Pope, or the President, or the General Secretary of the UN, doesn’t make it true. (Aside: You’re probably more familiar with the phrase argumentum ad baculum, which is terrible Latin. That would mean “argument toward a stick”, when clearly the intended meaning was “argument by means of a stick”, which is argumentum baculo.)

But argument from expertise, argumentum ab scientia, is something quite different. The world is much too complicated for any one person to know everything about everything, so we have no choice but to specialize our knowledge, each of us becoming an expert in only a few things. So if you are not an expert in a subject, when someone who is an expert in that subject tells you something about that subject, you should probably believe them.

You should especially be prepared to believe them when the entire community of experts is in consensus or near-consensus on a topic. The scientific consensus on climate change is absolutely overwhelming. Is this a reason to believe in climate change? You’re damn right it is. Unless you have years of education and experience in understanding climate models and atmospheric data, you have no basis for challenging the expert consensus on this issue.

This confusion has created a deep current of anti-intellectualism in our culture, as Isaac Asimov famously recognized:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

This is also important to understand if you have heterodox views on any scientific topic. The fact that the whole field disagrees with you does not prove that you are wrong—but it does make it quite likely that you are wrong. Cranks often want to compare themselves to Galileo or Einstein, but here’s the thing: Galileo and Einstein didn’t act like cranks. They didn’t expect the scientific community to respect their ideas before they had gathered compelling evidence in their favor.

When behavioral economists found that neoclassical models of human behavior didn’t stand up to scrutiny, did they shout from the rooftops that economics is all a lie? No, they published their research in peer-reviewed journals, and talked with economists about the implications of their results. There may have been times when they felt ignored or disrespected by the mainstream, but they pressed on, because the data was on their side. And ultimately, the mainstream gave in: Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Experts are not always right, that is true. But they are usually right, and if you think they are wrong you’d better have a good reason to think so. The best reasons are the sort that come about when you yourself have spent the time and effort to become an expert, able to challenge the consensus on its own terms.

Admittedly, that is a very difficult thing to do—and more difficult than it should be. I have seen firsthand how difficult and painful the slow grind toward a PhD can be, and how many obstacles will get thrown in your way, ranging from nepotism and interdepartmental politics, to discrimination against women and minorities, to mismatches of interest between students and faculty, all the way to illness, mental health problems, and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in general. If you have particularly heterodox ideas, you may face particularly harsh barriers, and sometimes it behooves you to hold your tongue and toe the lie awhile.

But this is no excuse not to gain expertise. Even if academia itself is not available to you, we live in an age of unprecedented availability of information—it’s not called the Information Age for nothing. A sufficiently talented and dedicated autodidact can challenge the mainstream, if their ideas are truly good enough. (Perhaps the best example of this is the mathematician savant Srinivasa Ramanujan. But he’s… something else. I think he is about as far from the average genius as the average genius is from the average person.) No, that won’t be easy either. But if you are really serious about advancing human understanding rather than just rooting for your political team (read: tribe), you should be prepared to either take up the academic route or attack it as an autodidact from the outside.

In fact, most scientific fields are actually quite good about admitting what they don’t know. A total consensus that turns out to be wrong is actually a very rare phenomenon; much more common is a clash of multiple competing paradigms where one ultimately wins out, or they end up replaced by a totally new paradigm or some sort of synthesis. In almost all cases, the new paradigm wins not because it becomes fashionable or the ancien regime dies out (as Planck cynically claimed) but because overwhelming evidence is observed in its favor, often in the form of explaining some phenomenon that was previously impossible to understand. If your heterodox theory doesn’t do that, then it probably won’t win, because it doesn’t deserve to.

(Right now you might think of challenging me: Does my heterodox theory do that? Does the tribal paradigm explain things that either total selfishness or total altruism cannot? I think it’s pretty obvious that it does. I mean, you are familiar with a little thing called “racism”, aren’t you? There is no explanation for racism in neoclassical economics; to understand it at all you have to just impose it as an arbitrary term on the utility function. But at that point, why not throw in whatever you please? Maybe some people enjoy bashing their heads against walls, and other people take great pleasure in the taste of arsenic. Why would this particular self- (not to mention other-) destroying behavior be universal to all human societies?)

In practice, I think most people who challenge the mainstream consensus aren’t genuinely interested in finding out the truth—certainly not enough to actually go through the work of doing it. It’s a pattern you can see in a wide range of fringe views: Anti-vaxxers, 9/11 truthers, climate denialists, they all think the same way. The mainstream disagrees with my preconceived ideology, therefore the mainstream is some kind of global conspiracy to deceive us. The overwhelming evidence that vaccination is safe and (wildly) cost-effective, 9/11 was indeed perpetrated by Al Qaeda and neither planned nor anticipated by anyone in the US government , and the global climate is being changed by human greenhouse gas emissions—these things simply don’t matter to them, because it was never really about the truth. They knew the answer before they asked the question. Because their identity is wrapped up in that political ideology, they know it couldn’t possibly be otherwise, and no amount of evidence will change their mind.

How do we reach such people? That, I don’t know. I wish I did. But I can say this much: We can stop taking them seriously when they say that the overwhelming scientific consensus against them is just another “appeal to authority”. It’s not. It never was. It’s an argument from expertise—there are people who know this a lot better than you, and they think you’re wrong, so you’re probably wrong.

How do we reach people with ridiculous beliefs?

Oct 16, JDN 2457678

One of the most unfortunate facts in the world—indeed, perhaps the most unfortunate fact, from which most other unfortunate facts follow—is that it is quite possible for a human brain to sincerely and deeply hold a belief that is, by any objective measure, totally and utterly ridiculous.

And to be clear, I don’t just mean false; I mean ridiculous. People having false beliefs is an inherent part of being finite beings in a vast and incomprehensible universe. Monetarists are wrong, but they are not ludicrous. String theorists are wrong, but they are not absurd. Multiregionalism is wrong, but it is not nonsensical. Indeed, I, like anyone else, am probably wrong about a great many things, though of course if I knew which ones I’d change my mind. (Indeed, I admit a small but nontrivial probability of being wrong about the three things I just listed.)

I mean ridiculous beliefs. I mean that any rational, objective assessment of the probability of that belief being true would be vanishingly small, 1 in 1 million at best. I’m talking about totally nonsensical beliefs, beliefs that go against overwhelming evidence; some of them are outright incoherent. Yet millions of people go on believing them.

For example, over 40% of Americans believe that human beings were created by God in their present form less than 10,000 years ago, and typically offer no evidence for this besides “The Bible says so.” (Strictly speaking, even that isn’t true—standard interpretations of the Bible say so. The Bible itself contains no clearly stated date for creation.) This despite the absolutely overwhelming body of evidence supporting the theory of evolution by Darwinian natural selection.

Over a third of Americans don’t believe in global warming, which is not only a complete consensus among all credible climate scientists based on overwhelming evidence, but one of the central threats facing human civilization over the 21st century. On a global scale this is rather like standing on a train track and saying you don’t believe in trains. (Or like the time my mother once told me about where an alert went out to her office that there was a sniper in the area, indiscriminately shooting at civilians, and one of her co-workers refused to join the security protocol and declared smugly, “I don’t believe in snipers.” Fortunately, he was unharmed in the incident. This time.)

1/4 of Americans believe in astrology, and 1/4 Americans believe that aliens have visited the Earth. (Not sure if it’s the same 1/4. Probably considerable but not total overlap.) The existence of extraterrestrial civilizations somewhere in this mind-bogglingly (perhaps infinitely) vast universe has probability 1. But visiting us is quite another matter, and there is absolutely no credible evidence of it. As for astrology? I shouldn’t have to explain why the position of Jupiter, much less Sirius, on your birthday is not a major influence on your behavior or life outcomes. Your obstetrician exerted more gravitational force on you than Jupiter did at the moment you were born.

The majority of Americans believe in telepathy or extrasensory perception. I confess that I actually did when I was very young, though I think I disabused myself of this around the time I stopped believing in Santa Claus.

I love the term “extrasensory perception” because it is such an oxymoron; if you’re perceiving, it is via senses. “Sixth sense” is better, except that we actually already have at least nine senses: The ones you probably know, vision (sight), audition (hearing), olfaction (smell), gustation (taste), and tactition (touch)—and the ones you may not know, thermoception (heat), proprioception (body position), vestibulation (balance), and nociception (pain). These can probably be subdivided further—vision and spatial reasoning are dissociated in blind people, heat and cold are separate nerve pathways, pain and itching are distinct systems, and there are a variety of different sensors used for proprioception. So we really could have as many as twenty senses, depending on how you’re counting.

What about telepathy? Well, that is not actually impossible in principle; it’s just that there’s no evidence that humans actually do it. Smartphones do it almost literally constantly, transmitting data via high-frequency radio waves back and forth to one another. We could have evolved some sort of radio transceiver organ (perhaps an offshoot of an electric defense organ such as that of electric eels), but as it turns out we didn’t. Actually in some sense—which some might say is trivial, but I think it’s actually quite deep—we do have telepathy; it’s just that we transmit our thoughts not via radio waves or anything more exotic, but via sound waves (speech) and marks on paper (writing) and electronic images (what you’re reading right now). Human beings really do transmit our thoughts to one another, and this truly is a marvelous thing we should not simply take for granted (it is one of our most impressive feats of Mundane Magic); but somehow I don’t think that’s what people mean when they say they believe in psychic telepathy.

And lest you think this is a uniquely American phenomenon: The particular beliefs vary from place to place, but bizarre beliefs abound worldwide, from conspiracy theories in the UK to 9/11 “truthers” in Canada to HIV denialism in South Africa (fortunately on the wane). The American examples are more familiar to me and most of my readers are Americans, but wherever you are reading from, there are probably ridiculous beliefs common there.

I could go on, listing more objectively ridiculous beliefs that are surprisingly common; but the more I do that, the more I risk alienating you, in case you should happen to believe one of them. When you add up the dizzying array of ridiculous beliefs one could hold, odds are that most people you’d ever meet will have at least one of them. (“Not me!” you’re thinking; and perhaps you’re right. Then again, I’m pretty sure that the 4% or so of people who believe in the Reptilians think the same thing.)

Which brings me to my real focus: How do we reach these people?

One possible approach would be to just ignore them, leave them alone, or go about our business with them as though they did not have ridiculous beliefs. This is in fact the right thing to do under most circumstances, I think; when a stranger on the bus starts blathering about how the lizard people are going to soon reveal themselves and establish the new world order, I don’t think it’s really your responsibility to persuade that person to realign their beliefs with reality. Nodding along quietly would be acceptable, and it would be above and beyond the call of duty to simply say, “Um, no… I’m fairly sure that isn’t true.”

But this cannot always be the answer, if for no other reason than the fact that we live in a democracy, and people with ridiculous beliefs frequently vote according to them. Then people with ridiculous beliefs can take office, and make laws that affect our lives. Actually this would be true even if we had some other system of government; there’s nothing in particular to stop monarchs, hereditary senates, or dictators from believing ridiculous things. If anything, the opposite; dictators are known for their eccentricity precisely because there are no checks on their behavior.

At some point, we’re going to need to confront the fact that over half of the Republicans in the US Congress do not believe in climate change, and are making policy accordingly, rolling drunk on petroleum and treating the hangover with the hair of the dog.

We’re going to have to confront the fact that school boards in Southern states, particularly Texas, continually vote to censor biology textbooks of their dreaded Darwinian evolution.

So we really do need to find a way to talk to people who have ridiculous beliefs, and engage with them, understand why they think the way they do, and then—hopefully at least—tilt them a little bit back toward rational reality. You will not be able to change their mind completely right away, but if each of us can at least chip away at their edifice of absurdity, then all together perhaps we can eventually bring them to enlightenment.

Of course, a good start is probably not to say you think that their beliefs are ridiculous, because people get very defensive when you do that, even—perhaps especially—when it’s true. People invest their identity in beliefs, and decide what beliefs to profess based on the group identities they value most.

This is the link that we must somehow break. We must show people that they are not defined by their beliefs, that it is okay to change your mind. We must be patient and compassionate—sometimes heroically so, as people spout offensive nonsense in our faces, sometimes offensive nonsense that directly attacks us personally. (“Atheists deserve Hell”, taken literally, would constitute something like a death threat except infinitely worse. While to them it very likely is just reciting a slogan, to the atheist listening it says that you believe that they are so evil, so horrible that they deserve eternal torture for believing what they do. And you get mad when we say your beliefs are ridiculous?)

We must also remind people that even very smart people can believe very dumb things—indeed, I’d venture a guess that most dumb things are in fact believed by smart people. Even the most intelligent human beings can only glimpse a tiny fraction of the universe, and all human brains are subject to the same fundamental limitations, the same core heuristics and biases. Make it clear that you’re saying you think their beliefs are false, not that they are stupid or crazy. And indeed, make it clear to yourself that this is indeed what you believe, because it ought to be. It can be tempting to think that only an idiot would believe something so ridiculous—and you are safe, for you are no idiot!—but the truth is far more humbling: Human brains are subject to many flaws, and guarding the fortress of the mind against error and deceit is a 24-7 occupation. Indeed, I hope that you will ask yourself: “What beliefs do I hold that other people might find ridiculous? Are they, in fact, ridiculous?”

Even then, it won’t be easy. Most people are strongly resistant to any change in belief, however small, and it is in the nature of ridiculous beliefs that they require radical changes in order to restore correspondence with reality. So we must try in smaller steps.

Maybe don’t try to convince them that 9/11 was actually the work of Osama bin Laden; start by pointing out that yes, steel does bend much more easily at the temperature at which jet fuel burns. Maybe don’t try to persuade them that astrology is meaningless; start by pointing out the ways that their horoscope doesn’t actually seem to fit them, or could be made to fit anybody. Maybe don’t try to get across the real urgency of climate change just yet, and instead point out that the “study” they read showing it was a hoax was clearly funded by oil companies, who would perhaps have a vested interest here. And as for ESP? I think it’s a good start just to point out that we have more than five senses already, and there are many wonders of the human brain that actual scientists know about well worth exploring—so who needs to speculate about things that have no scientific evidence?

9/11, 14 years on—and where are our civil liberties?

JDN 2457278 (09/11/2015) EDT 20:53

Today is the 14th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. A lot has changed since then—yet it’s quite remarkable what hasn’t. In particular, we still don’t have our civil liberties back.

In our immediate panicked response to the attacks, the United States passed almost unanimously the USA PATRIOT ACT, giving unprecedented power to our government in surveillance, searches, and even arrests and detentions. Most of those powers have been renewed repeatedly and remain in effect; the only major change has been a slight weakening of the NSA’s authority to use mass dragnet surveillance on Internet traffic and phone metadata. And this change in turn was almost certainly only made because of Edward Snowden, who is still forced to live in Russia for fear of being executed if he returns to the US. That is, the man most responsible for the only significant improvement in civil liberties in the United States in the last decade is living in Russia because he has been branded a traitor. No, the traitors here are the over one hundred standing US Congress members who voted for an act that is in explicit and direct violation of the Constitution. At the very least every one of them should be removed from office, and we as voters have the power to do that—so why haven’t we? In particular, why are Dan Lipinski and Steny Hoyer, both Democrats from non-southern states who voted every single time to extend provisions of the PATRIOT ACT, still in office? At least Carl Levin had the courtesy to resign after sponsoring the act allowing indefinite detention—I hope we would have voted him out anyway, since I’d much rather have a Republican (and all the absurd economic policy that entails) than someone who apparently doesn’t believe the Fourth and Sixth Amendments have any meaning at all.

We have become inured to this loss of liberty; it feels natural or inevitable to us. But these are not minor inconveniences; they are not small compromises. Giving our government the power to surveil, search, arrest, imprison, torture, and execute anyone they want at any time without the system of due process—and make no mistake, that is what the PATRIOT ACT and the indefinite detention law do—means giving away everything that separates us from tyranny. Bypassing the justice system and the rule of law means bypassing everything that America stands for.

So far, these laws have actually mostly been used against people reasonably suspected of terrorism, that much is true; but it’s also irrelevant. Democracy doesn’t mean you give the government extreme power and they uphold your trust and use it benevolently. Democracy means you don’t give them that power in the first place.

If there’s really sufficient evidence to support an arrest for terrorism, get a warrant. If you don’t have enough evidence for a warrant, you don’t have enough evidence for an arrest. If there’s really sufficient evidence to justify imprisoning someone for terrorism, get a jury to convict. If you don’t have enough evidence to convince a jury, guess what? You don’t have enough evidence to imprison them. These are not negotiable. They are not “political opinions” in any ordinary sense. The protection of due process is so fundamental to democracy that without it political opinions lose all meaning.

People talk about “Big Government” when we suggest increasing taxes on capital gains or expanding Medicare. No, that isn’t Big Government. Searching without warrants is Big Government. Imprisoning people without trial is Big Government. From all the decades of crying wolf in which any policy someone doesn’t like is accused of being “tyranny”, we seem to have lost the ability to recognize actual tyranny. I hope you understand the full force of my meaning when I say that the PATRIOT ACT is literally fascist. Fascism has come to America, and as predicted it was wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.

In this sort of situation, a lot of people like to quote (or misquote) Benjamin Franklin:

“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”

With the qualifiers “essential” and “temporary”, this quote seems right; but a lot of people forget them and quote him as saying:
“Those would give up liberty to purchase safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

That’s clearly wrong. We do in fact give up liberty to purchase safety, and as well we should. We give up our liberty to purchase weapons-grade plutonium; we give up our liberty to drive at 220 mph. The question we need to be asking is: How much liberty are we giving up to gain how much safety?

Spoken like an economist, the question is not whether you will give up liberty to purchase safety—the question is at what price you’re willing to make the purchase. The price we’ve been paying in response to terrorism is far too high. Indeed, the price we are paying is tantamount to America itself.

As horrific as 9/11 was, it’s important to remember: It only killed 3,000 people.

This statement probably makes you uncomfortable; it may even offend you. How dare I say “only”?

I don’t mean to minimize the harm of those deaths. I don’t mean to minimize the suffering of people who lost friends, colleagues, parents, siblings, children. The death of any human being is the permanent destruction of something irreplaceable, a spark of life that can never be restored; it is always a tragedy and there is never any way to repay it.

But I think people are actually doing the opposite—they are ignoring or minimizing millions of other deaths because those deaths didn’t happen to be dramatic enough. A parent killed by a heart attack is just as lost as a parent who died in 9/11. A friend who died of brain cancer is just as gone as a friend who was killed in a terrorist attack. A child killed in a car accident is just as much a loss as a child killed by suicide bombers. If you really care about human suffering, I contend that you should care about all human suffering, not just the kind that makes the TV news.

Here is a list, from the CDC, of things that kill more Americans per month than terrorists have killed in the last three decades:

Heart disease: 50,900 per month

Cancer: 48,700 per month

Lung disease: 12,400 per month

Accidents: 10,800 per month

Stroke: 10,700 per month

Alzheimer’s: 7,000 per month

Diabetes: 6,300 per month

Influenza: 4,700 per month

Kidney failure: 3,900 per month

Terrorism deaths since 1985: 3,455
Yes, that’s right; influenza kills more Americans per month (on average; flu is seasonal, after all) than terrorism has killed in the last thirty years.
And for comparison, other violent deaths, not quite but almost as many per month as terrorism has killed in my entire life so far:
Suicide: 3,400 per month

Homicide: 1,300 per month

Now, with those figures in mind, I want you to ask yourself the following question: Would you be willing to give up basic, fundamental civil liberties in order to avoid any of these things?

Would you want the government to be able to arrest you and imprison you without trial for eating too many cheeseburgers, so as to reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke?

Would you want the government to monitor your phone calls and Internet traffic to make sure you don’t smoke, so as to avoid lung disease? Or to watch for signs of depression, to reduce the rate of suicide?

Would you want the government to be able to use targeted drone strikes, ordered directly by the President, pre-emptively against probable murderers (with a certain rate of collateral damage, of course), to reduce the rate of homicide?

I presume that the answer to all the above questions is “no”. Then now I have to ask you: Why are you willing to give up those same civil liberties to prevent a risk that is three hundred times smaller?

And then of course there’s the Iraq War, which killed 4,400 Americans and at least 100,000 civilians, and the Afghanistan War, which killed 3,400 allied soldiers and over 90,000 civilians.

In response to the horrific murder of 3,000 people, we sacrificed another 7,800 soldiers and killed another 190,000 innocent civilians. What exactly did that accomplish? What benefit did we get for such an enormous cost?

The people who sold us these deadly wars and draconian policies did so based on the threat that terrorism could somehow become vastly worse, involving the release of some unstoppable bioweapon or the detonation of a full-scale nuclear weapon, killing millions of people—but that has never happened, has never gotten close to happening, and would be thousands of times worse than the worst terrorist attacks that have ever actually happened.

If we’re worried about millions of people dying, it is far more likely that there would be a repeat of the 1918 influenza pandemic, or an accidental detonation of a nuclear weapon, or a flashpoint event with Russia or China triggering World War III; it’s probably more likely that there would be an asteroid impact large enough to kill a million people than there would be a terrorist attack large enough to do the same.

As it is, heart disease is already killing millions of people—about a million every two years—and we aren’t so panicked about that as to give up civil liberties. Elsewhere in the world, malnutrition kills over 3 million children per year, essentially all of it due to extreme poverty, which we could eliminate by spending between a quarter ($150 billion) and a half ($300 billion) of our current military budget ($600 billion); but we haven’t even done that even though it would require no loss of civil liberties at all.

Why is terrorism different? In short, the tribal paradigm.

There are in fact downsides to not being infinite identical psychopaths, and this is one of them. An infinite identical psychopath would simply maximize their own probability of survival; but finite diverse tribalists such as we underreact to some threats (such as heart disease) and overreact to others (such as terrorism). We’ll do almost anything to stop the latter—and almost nothing to stop the former.

Terrorists are perceived as a threat not just to our individual survival like heart disease or stroke, but a threat to our tribe from another tribe. This triggers a deep, instinctual sense of panic and hatred that makes us willing to ignore principles we would otherwise uphold and commit acts of violence we would otherwise find unimaginable.

Indeed, it’s precisely that instinct which motivates the terrorists in the first place. From their perspective, we are the other tribe that threatens their tribe, and they are therefore willing to stop at nothing until we are destroyed.

In a fundamental way, when we respond to terrorism in this way we do not defeat them—we become them.
If you ask people who support the PATRIOT ACT, it’s very clear that they don’t see themselves as imposing upon the civil liberties of Americans. Instead, they see themselves as protecting Americans (our tribe), and they think the impositions upon civil liberties will only harm those who don’t count as Americans (other tribes). This is a pretty bizarre notion if you think about it carefully—if you don’t need a warrant or probable cause to imprison people, then what stops you from imprisoning people who aren’t terrorists?—but people don’t think about it carefully. They act on emotion, on instinct.

The odds of terrorists actually destroying America by killing people are basically negligible. Even the most deadly terrorist attack in recorded history—9/11—killed fewer Americans than die every month from diabetes, or every week from heart disease. Even the most extreme attacks feared (which are extremely unlikely) wouldn’t be any worse than World War II, which of course we won.

But the odds of terrorists destroying America by making us give up the rights and freedoms that define us as a nation? That’s well underway.