(About an 11 minute read)
Before we properly begin today, dear reader, I feel it is my duty to inform you that some of the material we will be covering is scandalous in its nature. I must therefore recommend that, as a simple but necessary precaution, you have handy your smelling salts.
With that said, let us now properly begin: I think it is reasonable of me to hazard that you, dear reader, are a dedicated student of both logic and epistemology, just as am I. Therefore, I can deduce that you, too, might be aware of the well established fact that poets are suspect. Highly suspect.
Obviously, that is because poets far more often than not harbor theories of knowledge, truth, justification, and belief that are so poorly defined a sensible man or woman might be fully justified to believe the typical poet has never more than two or three times in his or her life studied an academic journal’s worth of articles in the blissful fields of logic and epistemology!
Now, it is quite understandable if you think I’m exaggerating, if you think such a thing is improbable. But please trust me: I know what I’m talking about. For, as it happens, I’m a worldly man, an experienced man, a man who has seen shocking things in his life, even things as appalling as the heartbreaking story of a poor, wretched, old homeless woman I once befriended only to discover in an especially poignant moment during one of our casual conversations that she was entirely ignorant of the simple distinction between a priori and a posteriori knowledge!
Instantly, I was so choked up that tears welled in my eyes and my voice failed me. I could not even lecture her, let alone speak to her, and all I could think to do was mutely give her all the money I had on me — a hundred or so dollars — though I felt that was not possibly enough to console her. Perhaps you can imagine how touched I was when the poor dear, bless her, pretended to be thrilled merely in order to comfort me.
You may be forgiven, dear reader, if you are now in something approaching a state of shock. Yet, I fear what I have to say next will — will, if you fail to stoutly brace yourself at once — topple you into madness or, worse, into committing a tu quoque, arguably the most easily avoided of all known fallacies of logic.
You see, poets now and then get it right!
A case in point: Byron by name; Lord by title; English by birth; poet doubtlessly by horrific accident. His exact words were, “If I am fool, it is, at least, a doubting one; and I envy no one the certainty of his self-approved wisdom.”
Now, a clear implication of “Byron’s Theorem”, as I like to call it, is that we cannot absolutely rely on the authority of anyone, not even that of ourselves, for it is always possible for a human — or even dare I say, an epistemologist — to make a mistake. Clearly, that is implied by the Theorem.
I will not go into the precise and exacting reasons why that is implied. I would only be repeating myself, for I engagingly lay out those reasons in a chapter in the second volume of my insightful sex manual for newlyweds, Towards an Epistemology of Carnal Knowledge: A Popular Guide to the Hot Topics Every Couple Lusts to Discuss on Their Wedding Night. Colorado Springs: Charging Bore Books, 2009. Print. I confess though, the chapter might not fully satisfy your thirst for an in-depth discussion of Byron’s Theorem because the whole series itself is light reading targeted to a wide audience. Unfortunately, the only country the volumes have sold well in is England. Odd, that. I suppose it must mean English epistemologists are tops.
As it happens, Byron’s Theorem matches a principle of deductive logic. Since even an authority could be wrong, any and all deductive arguments that appeal to an authority in support of their conclusion are necessarily fallacious. There are no exceptions.
Yet, the same is not true in inductive logic. Inductive logic is far less strict in this matter than deductive logic and it allows for some appeals to authority.
But why does deductive logic forbid all appeals to authority while inductive logic permits some appeals? At the risk of being slightly superficial, this is as short of an explanation as I can personally make of it:
♦ In a deductive argument, the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises if the premises are true.
♦ In an inductive argument, the conclusion probably follows from the premises if the premises are true.
♦ Even though an authority on some subject might usually be right, it is always possible that they could be wrong.
♦ Hence, appealing to an authority as a premise for a deductive argument is invalid because doing so would mean that the conclusion would not necessarily follow from that premise (since the authority could be wrong).
♦ But, in an inductive argument, appealing to an authority as a premise is valid because doing so would mean that the conclusion was made more probable (since the authority is probably right, and despite that the authority could be wrong).
In brief, the reason appeals to authority are allowed in some inductive arguments, but not in any deductive arguments hinges on the difference between “likely to be true” and “must be true”.
Now, I think I might safely say that just about any person who knows me, if asked to pick but one word with which to best describe my emotional side, would pick the word, “passionate”. I am, after all, a man of passions, strong, towering passions — especially, say, when savoring an argument exquisitely formulated in doxastic logic that perhaps suggests to me a floral hint of orange blossom when I am perusing its axioms.
And like most people of a passionate nature, I sometimes wear my emotional side on my sleeve. Thus, I should warn you, beloved reader, that we are about to embark upon a discussion of fallacies — a topic almost certain to provoke me, perhaps even provoke me to raw, untamed outbursts in which I might express my opinions with unusual force and vigor — even for the internet. So I apologize in advance if my stormy language at such moments causes you the vapours.
Having given fair warning, I will now turn to three common ways in which an appeal to authority becomes a fallacy of logic, beginning with:
Citing Someone Who is Not an Actual Authority
Suppose you have a Valentine’s Day date with your cute research colleague in paleobotany. You’ve already turned off the lab lights, romantically lit a couple Bunsen burners, slipped out of your lab coats, and ordered the pizza. Now you and your colleague are gazing into each other’s eyes over the soft blue glow of the burners, exchanging witty small talk about the lab director’s fossilized pollen samples, when suddenly, out of nowhere, your beloved colleague cites Albert Einstein as an authority on post-glacial plant recolonization.
Alas! The mood is broken. But is there a way to recover it? Yes! The trick is to gently correct your colleague’s faux pas when inevitably pointing out to him or her that they have indulged themselves in the fallacy of appealing to an authority because Einstein, while an authority on physics, was not an authority on post-glacial plant recolonization. That is, an appeal to an authority is only good if the authority’s expertise is in the relevant field.
Be sure to avoid harsh words, shocked expressions, and spontaneous squawks of disbelief when gently pointing out your colleague’s indulgence. If you manage that, the rest of the evening can be saved.
Asserting that Authority is Proof
Suppose you and your friends have spent a few hours in the coffee shop pounding down the green teas while good naturedly bragging about the impressive lengths of your curricula vitae. After legitimately citing a string of human resource personnel who’ve all said your c.v. was the longest they’ve ever seen, the dangerous levels of caffeine you’ve consumed finally get the better of you, and you blurt out, “That absolutely proves mine is the longest!”
Proves? On the contrary, no number of authorities, no matter how many you cite, can actually prove your conclusion. Instead, they merely support your conclusion. The reason is because it is at least possible that all your authorities are wrong. Thus, you can only say they make your conclusion probable, but you cannot say that they make your conclusion necessary.
Tut! Tut! Tut!
I must apologize now in case my nearly spontaneous outburst of passionate “tutting” has disturbed your composure.
Giving More Weight to a Minority of Experts than to an Opposing Majority of Experts
Suppose you are spending a pleasant sunny afternoon with your best friend in the park, lying on the green grass idly chitchatting about ancient Sumerian technologies. Casually, you toss out the fascinating fact that 97% of the experts in the field agree that it was the Sumerians who first invented the sail.
Your friend nods agreeably and you are about to happily go on when a passing member of the merchant marine overhears your conversation and, quite unexpectedly, interrupts you to arrogantly list a mere half dozen or so authorities who disagree with the 97% consensus view you mentioned.
How can you correct the old salt without unduly embarrassing him?
Perhaps the best way to begin is to politely point out to him that his claim is extraordinary since it would seem highly unlikely for 97% of the authorities in a field to be wrong, while a mere 3% were right. You should then remind him of the principle that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”, and then gently ask him to provide you with the top fourteen or so reasons he believes his half dozen or so experts have the edge on most of the rest of the researchers in the field.
You see, it is possible that his minority of experts are right and that your majority are wrong. Yet, it is unlikely that’s the case. And since an inductive argument rests on the likelihood of the evidence supporting the conclusion, the sailor is more or less obliged to add weight to his claim by going into detail about why his minority of experts are right after all.
To summarize, there are at least three common ways of turning an appeal to authority into a fallacy of logic. Those ways are (1) citing someone who is not an actual authority during a romantic evening in the lab, (2) mistaking authority for actual proof of one’s conclusion while pounding down the green teas at the coffee shop, and (3) giving more weight to a minority of experts than to an opposing majority of experts without any justification for doing so while lying on a green lawn in the park.
Now to be sure, the mere fact that an argument contains a fallacy does not mean that the conclusion must be false. It is quite possible for a fallacious argument to have a true conclusion. However, one should get into the habit of considering fallacious arguments suspect, much as one is already in the habit of considering poets suspect.
This is because fallacious arguments tend to arrive at false conclusions, just as poets tend to arrive with scandalous frequency at radically speculative epistemologies. I confess I have my days when I suspect poets seldom properly study The Philosophical Review at all! How on earth they so often arrive at sharp insights and deep observations is simply beyond the grasp of any sensible man or woman.