15 Appeal to Authority: "Ipse dixit" or "He says so!"

In this day of specialization, all men must rely on authority in the fields of technical information. Since no one can be a specialist in everything, even specialists must defer to each other. The mechanic consults the doctor about his health, the doctor consults the mechanic on the maintenance of his car, both consult an accountant when they make out their income tax. In argument, as in everyday matters, it is entirely proper, indeed inevitable, that authorities be called on for information. It is not, alas, inevitable that source material derived from authorities is always used fairly. Source material should be given the weight due to an authority if and only if the source is (a) personally reliable, and (b) qualified as an expert.

An authority is personally reliable in the same way that anybody else is. The chief conditions to watch for in questions of personal reliability are these:

1. There is reason to believe that the witness is telling the truth as he sees it, or at least no reason to suppose he is lying. The witness, for example, is not an habitual liar. If he were, it would be foolish to trust his words even though he might know a great deal about the matters he is reporting on.

2. There is reason to believe that the witness is disinterested, or at least no reason to suppose him swayed by bias. A highly biased or partisan report would convince no one who recognized it as such. Such reports, even from acknowledged experts, usually result in learned confusion at the best.

3. There is reason to believe that the witness is conscientious, or at least no reason to suppose that he has not been attentive to the problem and diligent in gathering data. Casual statements from a witness, however competent, who has been too busy or too lazy to investigate properly, ought not to be regarded as authoritative.

An authority must be qualified as an expert in the field in which he is cited. Expert qualifications show the following marks:

1. The authority is clearly identified. The assertion "A leading expert says . . ." is a device of slovenly journalism. How can it be a proper appeal to authority? Since the expert is not named, his qualifications cannot be examined.

2. The authority has professional standing. The qualifications of experts are properly judged, not by laymen, but by fellow experts. The standing of a surgeon should be established by his colleagues, not by the size of his practice or by his popularity among his patients.

3. The authority is current. Darwin is a great name in biology, but before relying on Darwin as an authority, one would want to check present opinion in the science. In some fields today the growth of knowledge is so rapid that a few years or even months may suffice to render an opinion obsolete.

4. The authority is expressing an opinion within the field of his special competence. Einstein may have held very worthy opinions on world peace, but he was not to be regarded as an expert on international relations just because of his reputation in physics. It is of course possible -- and this may have been the case with Einstein -- for a man to be expert in several fields, even as far apart as physics and politics.

5. The authority in the opinion cited must hold representative views in his field. Where there is controversy, it is not proper to cite one side without acknowledgment of the other.

It is easier to see merits of these criteria of personal reliability and expert qualification than it is to apply them in some practical cases. Just how is the bias of a source to be determined? Just how can it be learned whether an article or a book is representative of settled opinion in a field? -- or even is really current? There will be no neat answers to these questions. Yet it often happens that they must be faced. Until there are experts on choosing experts, a man who wants reliable information will have to do the best he can.

Again, even where opinion comes from an impeccable source, human experience suggests care in applying it. Even the greatest expert is human. Revision in science is almost synonymous with progress, and where there is revision, there usually is correction. Life problems of great importance are wisely referred to more than one authority in order to fend against human error. It is good sense to pay for consultation of several surgeons before putting one's life under the knife of any one of them.

Sometimes the surgeons disagree. This is always a perplexity to the layman. Should he accept the opinion of the majority, or of those best qualified as far as he can judge, or of those who are clearest in their explanations? One certain thing emerges from substantial disagreement among authorities, and this is that human knowledge has not reached a satisfactory degree of certainty in dealing with the matter in question. A conflict among experts spotlights the risk of error.

This is a small satisfaction. It is a false generalization, however, to conclude that one man's opinion is always as good as another's. Although it is obvious that, where all knowledge is subject to revision there will always be uncertainty in the world, this does not amount to conceding that an ignorant guess is as good as a responsible opinior There are whole bodies of problems best submitted to experts -- from TV repair to astro-physics. It is perhaps the most difficult question of all to determine, in the practical situation, which problems fall into the group to be sent to the experts, and which do not. No expert can tell a man how to vote or judge for him basic political issues. At the other extreme lies technical information: here the layman is entirely at the mercy of the expert. The problem, as often, is one of the marginal cases.

The value of expertise varies with the state of human knowledge. Where the field is exact, knowledge is the property of the expert. Where the problem is a matter of taste, of moral judgment, of the application of life experience, there may be wisdom, but knowledge in the technical sense is lacking. Knowledge, then, is the field of expertise, and it is for knowledge that the layman appeals to authority.

In summary, an appeal to authority is proper where the problem is technical and the expert cited is qualified and personally reliable. Otherwise, the appeal is suspect: at best the speaker may not .realize what is required for a proper appeal to authority; at worst he may be trying to give some opinion of his own a weight it would not have without the aid of great names or unidentified "'expert opinion."

A senator argues, "George Washington warned against entangling foreign alliances. Invited on all sides to internationalist adventures, we should remember the wisdom of the Father of our Country." Granted that political scientists consider George Washington to have been astute, the admonitions of his Farewell Address are clearly obsolete. If the first President could be brought back to life today, it would take him years to acquire an understanding of the present world situation. His reputation for being astute might be tarnished if it turned out that he would change none of the many opinions he held in 1798, including, quite possibly, the opinion quoted.
Sign on a billboard, "Thousands of physicians smoke Whank Cigarettes." The testimonial is a stock in trade of advertising ballyhoo. Thousands of physicians also go without sufficient sleep. This is not even a forthright appeal to authority, since it is not the opinion of the physicians that it cited but their practice. Perhaps we are supposed to get the idea that if the physicians smoke Whanks, we may safely smoke them also, that the practice of smoking Whanks comes from the established opinion that they are not bad for us. There is no evidence offered for such an "opinion."
Peter and Paul are talking about the control of atomic energy. "I am impressed by Oppenheimer's views on this problem," says Paul. "Oh," rejoins Peter, "I don't care what Oppen-heimer thinks or says about controlling atomic energy. He's a theoretical physicist." Peter is right in insisting that any man, even one as outstanding as Oppenheimer, must be qualified in the field in which he expresses an opinion before his view is entitled to any special weight. The remark, "He's a theoretical physicist" seems to indicate that Peter regards high qualification in one field as somehow operating as a disqualification in other fields. This does not follow.
Overheard in a library, "Look! This Webster's Dictionary says that 'primp' means 'dress up' or 'preen.' So that's what the word means and not something else." The "authority" of a dictionary is a special case. Dictionary definitions have no finality, for the editors of a dictionary do not lay down what words should mean. Rather, they base their definitions upon research into how the words are in fact used by educated speakers of the language. Some words are reported as having a colloquial or slang use. Thus a reputable dictionary is authoritative in the sense that it is a scholarly report of how words are used in practice. Though a dictionary "binds" no one, he who wishes to use a word in an unusual sense will do well to point out the special meaning that he intends or he will run the risk of being misunderstood.

There is a special misuse of authority which is notorious under the name of quoting out of context. This may be done in either of two ways that seem especially attractive to the unscrupulous. The first is for one to make out through a suitable manipulation of the text that an authority is on his side. This is done by omitting distinctions, exceptions or qualifying remarks, or by otherwise distorting the text. The second is to treat the opponent as a sort of authority of his own position and to pounce upon something he has said that can be used against him -- if the rest is ignored. A brief example of each of these tricks will suffice.

A man tells his wife that they should not eat eggs or other forms of animal fat, because, according to an article in a medical journal, fat causes heart attacks. His wife dutifully eliminates the undesirable foods from the family diet, at great trouble in preparing the menus. If the husband had quoted the article correctly, he would presumably have mentioned all sorts of qualifications and restrictions on the statistical correlation between excessive accumulation in the body of animal fat and the incidence of heart attacks. He would, moreover, have mentioned to his wife that a certain amount of animal fat is necessary in the diet for health. The layman is particularly liable to quoting scientific authority out of context through innocent oversimplification (see p. 171).
One of the most flagrant uses of an opponent's own words against him occurred during the campaign of Upton Sinclair for the governorship of California. Billboards made it out that Sinclair was a hater of America, the Flag, God, and Motherhood. The quotations in all cases were out of context. Sinclair was no politician. As a writer he had frequently used vigorous expression and epigrammatic style. Many politicians do not permit themselves sharply worded statements, for these can look damaging in or out of context.