The appeal to authority fallacy is one of the most common logical fallacies in internet debates. It is a favorite tactic among climate change deniers, anti-vaccers, young earth creationists, and pretty much anyone else who rejects “mainstream” science. I previously wrote about this at length and explained when it is and is not a fallacy to appeal to authority, as well as discussing some of the different forms that the fallacy can take. In this post, however, I want to focus on one particular variant of the fallacy and explain why it is actually just a special case of cherry picking and is the result of strong cognitive dissonance and motivated reasoning. This variant occurs when you cite one particular expert as if they are infallible while ignoring a much larger body of experts who disagree with them.
As I have frequently said on this blog, no matter what crackpot proposition you believe, you can find someone, somewhere, with an advanced degree who thinks you’re right. That does not, however, automatically make you correct. Simply having an advanced degree doesn’t guarantee that someone knows what they’re talking about, nor does it make them infallible. On literally any scientific topic, you can find a handful of people who disagree with the rest of the scientific community, but blindly assuming that those people are right is problematic for a number of reasons. Most importantly, science is determined by evidence, not authority. We always need to look at the evidence that has been published in support of a position, rather than the list of names associated with it.
The second problem is a logical contradiction that is inherent to this variant of the fallacy. Namely, this argument implicitly assumes that someone must be correct just because they are a scientist, however, in so doing, it also implicitly assumes that thousands of other scientists are wrong despite the fact that they are scientists. Do you see the inherent problem here? It posits that having the support of a scientist is sufficient evidence that a position is correct, while simultaneously ignoring a much larger group of scientists that don’t support the position. This is why it is a special case of cherry-picking. This fallacy cherry-picks which people to trust based entirely on personal biases and ideology rather than actual expertise.
Let me use a few comments that were recently left on my Facebook page to illustrate. These came from climate change discussions, so before I discuss them, I want to be clear that the vast, vast majority of scientists agree that we are causing climate change, and there are very few climatologists who disagree. The exact number varies depending on which survey and methodology we’re talking about, but it is consistently in the high 90s (close to 100%; I talked about all of this in more detail here and here, and I discussed the fraudulent “Oregon petition” that purports to have signatures from thousands of scientists here). The point is that very few climatologists dispute the evidence, so using one of the handful of scientists who disagree as evidence is inherently cherry-picking.
To illustrate, let’s look at the comments. The first of these (orange above) was fairly mild and pointed out that Dr. Patrick J. Michaels disagrees with the consensus on climate change. The second took a more forceful approach by insisting we aren’t causing climate change because Dr. Richard Lindzen (the MIT professor) says we aren’t. Indeed, the commenter mocked the rest of us for saying that a 30-year MIT professor is wrong. According to this commenter, Lindzen’s academic status and experience must make him correct. If we stop and think about this for five seconds, however, it becomes obvious that the commenter was himself laughing at and trying to discredit literally thousands of professors from respected universities from all over the world. Thus, mocking everyone else for disagreeing with one professor makes no sense given that the commenter was disagreeing with thousands of professors. It is an inherently hypocritical and disingenuous argument. Similarly, the first commenter was focusing on the fact that Michaels disagrees with the consensus, while ignoring the fact that thousands of other scientists disagree with him. Do you see the point? If we are going to play this game of appealing to authority, then surely it makes more sense to trust the vast majority of experts rather than a handful of cherry-picked individuals. Or, to put this as a question, why should you place blind, unwavering faith in people like Lindzen, while totally ignoring the vast majority of experts who say he’s wrong?
The answer is simple: confirmation biases. People don’t cling to the words of people like Lindzen because he actually knows more than every other scientist. Rather, they follow him because he says what they want him to say. He gives confirmation to their pre-established views; therefore, they blindly trust him and use his degrees to give their position a false sense of credibility. Indeed, motivated reasoning is so powerful that most of these people don’t even realize the inherent logical contradiction in their views. They don’t see why it is inherently contradictory to say that one person must be right because of their degrees/experience while also saying that thousands of other people with the same degrees and experience are wrong.
There is also another issue here that is worth mentioning. In many cases, the handful of experts who disagree with a “mainstream” position have conflicts of interest or other issues that make them untrustworthy. To be clear, I’m not engaging in baseless speculation here. This is well-established. Case in point, Lindzen has been on the payroll of fossil fuel companies and interest groups for quite a while, including receiving $30,000 from Peabody Coal and $25,000 a year (starting in 2013) from the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank was started by one of the Koch brothers (this was revealed in 2018 court documents that you can read here). Patrick Michaels also has a lengthy string of connections with the Koch brothers, Cato Institute, etc. from which he has received hundreds of thousands of dollars. This type of situation is the norm for the handful of climatologists who deny anthropogenic climate change. Meanwhile, many climatologists struggle to adequately fund their research, and they make very little money. There are exceptions, of course, but most research comes from independent scientists (see note).
To be clear here, I’m not saying that people like Lindzen and Michaels are automatically wrong because of their conflicts of interest, but those conflicts do mean that we should scrutinize them more closely, and we certainly shouldn’t be placing blind faith in them and assuming that they are actually smarter than the entire rest of the scientific community. Further, when we apply that scrutiny, we find that they both have a long history of making false statements about climate change (examples for Lindzen; examples for Michaels). Nevertheless, the people who appeal to their authority generally have an inflated sense of their credibility (both comments I posted illustrate this).
So, which makes more sense, trusting a handful of scientists most of whom have enormous conflicts of interest, or trusting the vast majority of scientists, most of whom don’t have conflicts of interest? To put that another way, Occam’s razor states that solution that makes the fewest assumptions is usually the correct one, and there are clearly fewer assumptions involved in assuming that a handful of scientists are wrong as opposed to assuming that nearly the entire scientific community is wrong.
Before I end this post, I want to state again that I am not saying that climate change is true because of all the scientists who say it is true. Rather, we know that climate change is true because of the thousands of studies showing that it is happening, we are causing it, and it is dangerous. The consensus among scientists exists because of that consistent body of evidence. That’s how a consensus works in science. First a consistent body of evidence is accumulated, then that body of evidence results in a consensus among the scientists themselves. So, my point is not that we should blindly follow an expert consensus. Rather, my primary point is that we should not blindly follow cherry-picked experts, and my secondary point is that if we are going to appeal to authority rather than basing our views only on the evidence, the consensus among experts is nearly always based on a consensus of evidence, thus making it fairly reliable, and it makes far more sense to trust a view that is shared by the vast majority of experts, rather than blindly following a handful of dissenting voices.
In summary, arguing that a contrarian must be right because of their credentials is inherently logically contradictory, because that argument implicitly assumes that thousands of other scientists are wrong despite having the same credentials. Science is about evidence, not authority, but if we are going to appeal to authority, then surely it makes sense to trust the majority of experts, rather than a few fringe scientists. Finally, I want to make it clear that although I have focused on climate change for this post, the same thing happens on other topics, and it is just as flawed there. Anti-vaccers, for example, love to cite the handful of doctors and scientists who oppose vaccines as if they are infallible, but doing so is illogical and foolhardy. The fact that someone has an advanced degree does not automatically make them right.
- 25 myths and bad arguments about climate change
- Global warming isn’t natural, and here’s how we know
- Research, you’re doing it wrong: A look at Tenpenny’s “Vaccine Research Library”
- The Rules of Logic Part 5: Occam’s Razor and the Burden of Proof
- The Rules of Logic Part 6: Appealing to Authority vs. Deferring to Experts
Note: Governments are by far the biggest funding source for climate change research, with much of that money going to independent scientists working out of universities. Many people seem to think that receiving a grant from the government is a serious conflict of interest, which has always baffled me (particularly when talking about countries like the USA). Politicians have, historically, been very opposed to the concept of anthropogenic climate change, and in countries like the US it is still hardly a popular political position, and many administrations have refused to accept it or take it seriously. So why would anyone think that money originating from those governments is a conflict that would bias research towards showing that we are causing climate change? Why would a government that doesn’t acknowledge climate change want to fund research showing that we are causing it? You really don’t think that politicians would LOVE a study saying that we aren’t causing it? My point is simple, grants from the government are usually (and correctly) considered to be neutral sources of funding, rather than conflicts of interest, but if we wanted to say that they are biased, surely that bias would be in favor of the fossil fuel companies who spend billions lobbying politicians.