The Basics of Critical Thinking Part 2: Who Should I Believe?

Yesterday’s post discussed the beginning of a book I used some years ago while teaching a college class: Crimes Against Logic: …. Here are some of the issues raised in the book with interspersed comments.

Motives – The motive fallacy refers to the notion that exposing someone’s motives for expressing an opinion tells us whether the opinion is true or false. Suppose I tell you that my church is the only true one because I want you to contribute money to it. That is my motive. Still my church might still be the one true one. Money may motivate lawyers, but that doesn’t tell you whether their clients are innocent or guilty. Only the evidence, with varying degrees of certainty, can tell you what’s true.

Yet motives are relevant when dealing with someone’s testimony. If I know that you enjoy making up fantastic claims, then I have good reason to doubt your story of having been abducted by aliens. Or if I know that your motivation is to make money—say you are an oil company—then I have reason to be suspicious of your claim that climate change isn’t happening.

Politics has become so rife with consideration of self-interested motives that the benefits or harms of policies are often secondary. If a politician says “we must worry about voter fraud. That is what these illegal aliens and poor people do. They go to polling places using fake IDs.” I certainly have reason to be skeptical of this claim, since voter fraud is virtually non-existent and voter-suppression omnipresent. Real “voter fraud” is stealing or buying elections.  So motives are relevant.

Authority – “Because I say so.” If you heard this as a child, it might have been your parents way of saying, “stop asking questions!” But suppose you ask a factual question: “Were some people in the past born to virgins?” or “Who won the 1967 baseball World Series? The answer, because I said so, doesn’t work here.  And that’s because while parental authorities may determine your bedtime, with or without a reason, they don’t have the authority to determine whether someone was conceived without sex or who won the 1967 World Series. Of course on many topics the experts are more likely to be correct than non-experts. In physics or biology, which are objective and precise, appealing to authorities makes sense. If a non-experts says: “no way time is relative to motion or evolution is just a theory,” we should reply, “you need to go the national academy of sciences website where you will unanimous scientific support for both of those ideas.”

People – So the fallacy of authority occurs when you confuse people who have power or unusual influence with people who are experts. You may love your parents or some celebrities, but that doesn’t mean they are experts on the history of baseball or scientific theories. Of course authorities may threaten you if you don’t believe them, and this may motivate you to believe their claims, but that doesn’t provide evidence that something is true. “For those interested in believing the truth the unsupported opinions of the ill-informed are of no help and are not improved by being offered up at gunpoint.” (21)

In the past authority figures held more sway, making it harder for people to understand the authority fallacy. Now the idea of “the people” as authority has become popular. They are constantly cited in support of various views, but the people are typically not experts on almost anything. Consider that most Americans are scientifically illiterate, but that doesn’t mean that science is false. Public opinion may decide which policy is adopted, but it doesn’t decide which policy is better—only the facts do that. The public may decide that they want to continue to have millions of people go without health care, but whether that is morally or economically better than having everyone covered—as is typical of most western democracies—is independent of the people’s opinion. The people often choose the wrong policy, and are more likely too if they lack critical thinking skills.

Opinions – Facts do not depend on opinions. The claim that Jupiter is a gaseous planet isn’t true because many people believe or don’t believe it.  It’s true independent of people’s opinions. “No fact can be made just by being believed.”(24) Of course some things are a matter of taste—carrots taste good to one person and bad to another. But don’t confuse this with thinking that everything is relative. Who won the 1967 World Series or the first Super Bowl, or whether Apollo lives on Mt. Olympus, don’t depend on what you think.

Victims – Since we fear being undemocratic, disagreeing with the general consensus “is not merely bad luck for a politician who would like to be elected; it is looked upon as some kind of moral failing.” So we are expected to consult victims of crime, for instance, as if they are experts on social policies. But they are not experts, and their personal experience may cloud their judgment about what is the best public policy. It is astonishing how person’s ignorant of all sorts of things are asked their opinions, and often on national television! Who cares what a plumber thinks about monetary policy or a moose hunter thinks about geopolitics or a philosopher thinks about quantum physics? This is not to say these may not be nice people, and they might know a lot about plumbing, hunting, and philosophy, but that doesn’t make them experts on other topics.

Celebrities – Actors, musicians, celebrities and the like aren’t usually experts about evolutionary biology or whether you should drink coca-cola. Isn’t this obvious? I suppose not, since celebrities are used to sell all sorts of things. To spot the authority fallacy, try to determine if someone is really an authority, and whether there are authorities on the subject matter. There really are experts in evolutionary biology and quantum physics, but there are not authorities on whether carrots or coca-cola taste good. Some subject matters are precise, like the natural sciences, and you can feel confident about what the experts tell you. Others, like the humanities or film studies, are less precise, and you can feel less confident about what those so-called experts tell you. And regarding some topics, like theology, it is doubtful that the idea of an expert even makes sense.

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4 thoughts on “The Basics of Critical Thinking Part 2: Who Should I Believe?

  1. I would like to point out one kind of appealing to authority that is false but not so obvious. This occurs when in two kinds of ways;

    1. The first kind occurs when an expert in a certain field speculates with some opinions at the frontier of the field and such opinions are used by non-experts to support their own views about what is real and claiming that they are supported by experts in the field. An example in mind is the physicist John Archibald Wheeler’s idea “It from bit” which means that all matter and energy are ultimately made of bits of information. This was used by an acquaintance of mine as proof that nothing is real and all are just ideas. Another example is Dr Eben Alexander, the Harvard-educated neurosurgeon who fell into a coma for seven days and came out that he had experienced the reality of Heaven.

    2. The second kind occurs when a well-known figure in a certain field of expertise expresses his/her opinions on issues on general matters which bear no relation to the field of his/her expertise that are usually encompassed under wisdom sayings such as utterances by Einstein. Each saying of such people should be examined for its own merit irrespective of who had made it.

  2. I agree with you on both of these points. And I appreciate your careful reading of my work on critical thinking. JGM

  3. “or a philosopher thinks about quantum physics?”

    and yet, would not a philosopher do a vastly better job about even quantum physics than a plumber about monetary policy? At least a good philosopher will make the other party aware of his limits of this knowledge, whereas “people” seem to have no shame about their delusional self-righteousness, ignorance and foolishness. A good philosopher, ironically, would probably say: “you have to ask a scientists about that.”.

    Thank you for your excellent article.

  4. I agree completely. But I always reminded my students when I discussed say quantum mechanics or relativity theory for example, that I only had a lay person’s understanding and didn’t have the mathematical background to understand them at a deep level.

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