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.