Re-examining the Expert, and the Fallacy of Appeal to Authority

Re-examining the Expert, and the Fallacy of Appeal to Authority

Sometimes not too long ago, I was in a conversation with someone who said something that was obviously wrong.

“Excuse me, but that’s not true,” I responded. This was something that had to do with the sequence of a particular trail of events and he got them mixed up uncontrollably at some point.

His response to what I said was “Don’t argue with me, I am a journalist ”

By that he meant that what validates his statement was the fact the he was a journalist, someone who deals with information and not the fact that what he said was verifiable from any source. I had expected facts, provable facts; instead he used his reputation as basis for the validity of his claims. His words were more like a gateway to salvation (belief /faith)  than a gateway to facts. In logic, that’s a kind of fallacy called Appeal to Authority.

Experts, professionals or anything you may choose to call them; watch out for them. We need them all the time, they are right most of the time, but there are those little moments when their predictions could go wrong. More like when someone asks “who watches the watchmen, who polices the police? ”. It’s good to keep an eye on them. 

In 1986, Mohamed Ali’s doctor told him he had about ten years to live. That was after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.  He lived eventually for thirty two years after the prediction. Experts are not always wrong, and they aren’t always right. Still they are likely to  know more about their areas of expertise than the average guy out there but that doesn’t mean infallibility.

According to PragerU (a right wing conservative pressure group), in 1989 the United Nations predicted that the entire Nations could be wiped off the face of the earth by rising sea levels by the year 2000. It’s two decades past the deadline and Nations aren’t missing and people are now living longer, healthier lives. Before you attack me on climate change, it’s good to point out that I’m not an expert and I am not claiming to be one, rather I’m just citing a prediction from experts that went wrong. 

In 2015, inmates from New York maximum security prison  beat the Harvard team in a debate. Their victory made headlines internationally and highlighted something very significant to anybody who is willing to pay attention. That wasn’t the first time they had done something similar.  Earlier, they defeated a nationally ranked team from the University of Vermont and the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York and eventually lost a rematch against West Point. So they won against those who were supposed to be better at the game they both played. 

In all these, it is consistent to say that titles do not always represent value as this could play out in so many ways in everyday life. From HR’s recruiting to doctors treating and even scientists predicting, it is crucial to observe critically beyond the names and portfolios. Of course, scientists are included  too. Science doesn’t always have all the facts, it only tells you that the method followed in gathering the facts is systematic (the scientific methods of observation, hypothesis, experimentation etc).

Careful consideration is needed because you just can’t tell. If not,  you might end up just paying for titles and prefixes and symbols.

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