An entirely untested hypothesis

Here’s a thought I just had: what if Americans aren’t anti-intellectual per se but have an aversion to the Appeal to Authority?

In my experience, actually taking the time to articulate the argument for a counter-intuitive idea at least gets the most right-wing and the most liberal Americans I know to consider the idea on its own terms.  On the other hand, making a claim, citing a source, and insisting that said source has a Ph.D in Thermodynamic Subjunctive Neurogeology from Harvard, or holding that the source of your right-wing argument is a highly-respected pundit from the right-wing think tank down the street from the other right-wing think tanks, doesn’t do as much work.

Or, to put it more briefly, as Americans, perhaps the problem is that “we” don’t trust “your” experts, and “you” don’t trust “our” experts.  Does anyone think that public-policy debates would go better if someone just made the argument, or have people’s attention spans really deteriorated to the point that even making the argument doesn’t do any good?

My contention is that the flaunting of “expert” credentials does even less work than an articulated argument might.  What think ye?

8 thoughts on “An entirely untested hypothesis

  1. Experts say you’re right.  (Couldn’t resist.)I think you’re on to something here.  Often this skepticism of experts seems to result from conflicting experts’ claims coming at us from different directions.  What, exactly, could I eat if I followed the all experts’ advice in avoiding foods that lead to cancer, foods that lead to high blood pressure, foods that lead to obesity, foods that lead to heart disease, etc.?

    1. BrettGilbert Nicely played, nicely played. :)I had in mind the controversy over climate change as well.  Tell people that “scientists say” this or that, and it’s my-experts-your-experts.  Explain the procedures for measuring the same, and the folks with whom I’ve talked tend at least to grant that it’s not just a cooked-up conspiracy.

      1. ngilmour BrettGilbert “Explain the procedures for measuring the same, and the folks with whom I’ve talked tend at least to grant that it’s not just a cooked-up conspiracy.”And this is the key.  One thing I’ve found in talking with people skeptical of anthropogenic climate change, is that they are *much* more receptive to hearing the evidence for it if you stick to the arguments and evidence, and not try to bolster your argument by appeals to consensus or authority.  They may not walk away with their minds changed, but at least they hear you out.  (And just so it isn’t clear, I think global warming is occurring, and that humans are largely to blame for the current episode).In theory, at least in the realm of science, arguments from authority have no place.  In practice, this is almost never the case.  Despite what I said above, however, I *do* think that consensus does have a place.  If a majority of scientists in a given field assent to a certain proposition X, such as the majority of climate scientists assenting to the proposition “humans are contributing to the current episode of global warming due to their emissions of C02 from the combustion of fossil fuels”, it’s very likely for a good reason, and in this case the reason is the weight of the scientific evidence.  This doesn’t mean that climate scientists aren’t subject to bias or irrational feelings regarding the matter: many of them are, it just means that, with high probability, the best evidence we have is pointing in that direction.But to get back to your larger point, I also think you are on to something, but I also think providing arguments to back up your position can also backfire (and often do) for other reasons, such as if the person you are giving the argument to begins to feel they are being condescended to.  Of course, this is a totally separate problem! 

  2. Going from the social psychological research, my position is that humans are egocentric, and that this egocentrism influences our processing of information.  We tend to spin our interpretations in whatever way will make the self look good.  So appeal to authority is fine when the authority figure agrees with me (“Science has SPOKEN. Deal with it and agree with me or be branded as a knuckledragging science-hater.).  If the authority figure disagrees with me, then researchers are just a bunch of ivory-tower navel-gazers who don’t understand how the world really works (and the one that disagrees with me is also probably bought and paid for by government or corporations or special interest groups or something).I don’t think that merely presenting a good argument will work either, because the same egocentric biases are at work.  If the conclusion of the argument is something that I disagree with, then I become a ruthless logic-chopper and skeptic (“Yes, you present evidence, but it’s not SUFFICIENT evidence. Plus, I looked up an informal fallacy at wikipedia that sort of reminds me of your argument, so you fail”).  Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s, in his book The Righteous Mind, presents evidence supporting the idea that humans are primarily influenced by intuitive and emotional factors, and only secondarily by reason (he describes it as being like a rational rider on top of an intuitive elephant. It’s a lot more effective convincing the elephant to go where you want it than trying to get the rider to fight the elephant.).  If you want to influence people, you must first get them to like you.  After that, they become much more receptive to your arguments, and will come up with their own rationalizations for why your position best fits logic and evidence.  We are rationalizing creatures much more than we are rational creatures.  But we tell ourselves (and others) that we are rational creatures.  Kind of like what happens in Presidential elections.  We tell ourselves that we are reasonable people evaluating the quality of the candidates’ platforms, and then we go and vote for the one with better hair who makes us feel good.Of course, if you don’t like my position, there is always the go-to response when psychological research disagrees with you: “Yeah, well, it’s not like psychology is a real science anyway.”

    1. Charles H Nicely played on the finish, Charles. :)I’m going to try out a follow-up assertion, and you can tell me whether I’m getting you entirely wrong.  Perhaps what I’ve experienced, then, are situations where I’ve taken enough time to establish ethos with the listener, whereas an appeal to authority would be much shorter and therefore lack the connection-time that an argument takes.  Am I missing the point, or might this be one of those places where rhetoric and psychology are actually helping each other understand stuff?

      1. ngilmour Charles H  If I understand correctly, “ethos” involves persuasion grounded in
        the characteristics of the presenter.  Is that right?  That does sound
        like we are approaching similar ideas from different angles.Based
        on the persuasion research, I can present a few thoughts (keeping in
        mind that this is a massive area of research, and that everything is
        more complicated than what fits in a blog comment):Begin by getting the audience on your side.  You can do this by appealing to shared group membership, by pointing out the many things that the presenter and audience have in common, by agreeing with the audience about something important, etc.  Much of this is described by researchers as “peripheral route” persuasion, as it is effective but does not involve the actual quality of the argument.  “Central route” persuasion is the logic and evidence contained in your argument.  Once you are seen by the audience as part of “our team”, then you can hit them with the harder central-route stuff. There are, of course, exceptions.  The more an audience is personally knowledgeable about a subject, the better an outcome you will get with a central route argument.  The more an issue directly effects the audience, the greater the success of central route persuasion.  Whether your argument style matches the audience’s expectations has an effect (for example, only offering your side of the argument when the audience was expecting you to also present and argue against the opponent’s case).  And there are more exceptions.

        1. Charles H ngilmour Good stuff, Charles.  I’ll just note at this turn that the core concept (I’d argue) in twentieth-century rhetorician Kenneth Burke’s theory is precisely identification, so I think that psychology and rhetoric are indeed pointing in similar directions.

    2. Charles H I completely agree with you that human beings tend to be “rationalizing beings” first, and “rational beings” second.  I’ve seen this in myself, and I also think that one of the chief ironies of the “New Atheist” movement is the fact that they are often anything but “rational” when championing rationality.  Arguments based almost entirely on emotion and outrage are common from that camp, but they get away with it because, after all, it’s for the cause of Reason…

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