Critical Thinking & COVID-19: Argument from Authority

Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., NIAID Director (26759498706).jpgDr. Anthony Fauci graduated first in his 1966 class at Cornell Medical College

Critical Thinking & COVID-19: Argument from Authority
by Professor

There are many sources of information about the pandemic and not all of them are good or reliable. But accurate information is critical to your well being and even your survival … Some sources mean well but are unintentionally spreading misinformation. Other sources have malicious intent and are spreading disinformation. While being an expert on these matters is the best way to sort out which sources to trust, most of us are not experts in these areas. But we are not helpless. While we cannot become medical experts overnight, you can learn the basic skills for assessing sources and gain the ability to critically evaluate those who claim to have the truth.

When you accept a claim from a source because the source is supposed to be an authority, you are using an argument from authority. Despite its usefulness, it must be remembered that it is a relatively weak argument—you do not have direct evidence for the claim but are believing it because you think the source is credible. The gist of this reasoning is that you are accepting a claim because the source probably knows the truth and is probably telling the truth. Despite the inherent weakness in this argument, a true expert is more likely to be right than wrong when making considered claims within their area of expertise. While the argument is usually presented informally, it has the following structure:

Premise 1: A is (claimed to be) an authority on subject S.
Premise 2:  A makes claim C about subject S.
Conclusion: Therefore, claim C is true.

An informal example would be to believe that you should not shake hands anymore because Dr. Anthony Fauci says you should not, and you trust his expertise. So how do you know when an authority really is an expert? Fortunately, there are clear standards that can be applied even if you know little or nothing about the claim being made. To the degree that the argument meets the standards, then it is reasonable to accept the conclusion. If the argument does not meet the standards it would be a fallacy (a mistake in logic) to accept the conclusion. It would also be a fallacy to reject the conclusion because the appeal to authority was fallacious.

First, the person must have sufficient expertise in the subject. A person’s expertise is determined by their relevant education (formal and otherwise), experience, accomplishments, reputation, and position. These should be carefully assessed to consider how much they establish expertise. For example, a person might occupy an impressive position because of family connections rather than ability or knowledge. The degree of expertise required varies from claim to claim. For example, someone who has completed college biology courses could be considered an expert when they claim that a virus replicates in living creatures by hijacking the cell mechanism. But a few college courses in biology would not make them an expert in epidemiology.  Dr. Fauci is an excellent example of an expert on the pandemic.

Second, the claim must be in the person’s area of expertise.  Expertise in one area does not automatically confer expertise in another. For example, being a world-renowned physicist does not automatically make a person an expert on morality or politics. Unfortunately, this is often overlooked or intentionally ignored. Actors and musicians, for example, are often accepted as experts in fields far outside their artistic expertise. Billionaires are also often wrongly regarded as experts in fields way outside their lanes. This does not mean that their claims outside their field are false, just that they lack the expertise to provide a good reason to accept the claim. Once again, Dr. Fauci is an excellent example here in the context of the pandemic.

Third, there needs to be an adequate degree of agreement among the other experts in the field. If there is not adequate agreement it would be a fallacy to appeal to the disputing experts. This is because for a claim made by one expert there will be a counterclaim by another qualified expert. In such cases appealing to the authorities would be futile.

That said, no field has complete agreement, so a certain degree of dispute is acceptable when using this argument. How much is acceptable is a matter of serious debate, but the gist is that the majority view of the qualified experts is the rational thing to believe. While they could turn out to be wrong, they are more likely to be right. In cases in which there is majority consensus non-experts sometimes pick the dissenting expert they agree with. This is not good reasoning; agreeing with an expert is not a logical reason to believe that the expert is right. Fortunately, the medical experts generally agree with each other about the key pandemic facts—though some disagreements do exist.

Fourth, the expert must not significantly biased. Examples of biasing factors include financial gain, political ideology, sexism, and racism. A person’s credibility is reduced to the degree that they are biased. While everyone has biases, this becomes a matter of concern when the bias is likely to unduly influence the person. For example, a doctor who owns a company that produces an anti-viral medication could be biased when making claims about the efficacy of the medication on COVID-19. Bias needs to be judged carefully and to reject a person’s claim because of bias can be a fallacy. After all, a person could resist their biases and even a biased person can be right. Going with the anti-viral example, to reject the doctor’s claim that it works because they can gain from its sale would be an ad hominem fallacy. While unbiased experts can be wrong, an unbiased expert is more credible than a biased expert—other factors being equal.  Dr. Fauci serves as an excellent example here—he only seems biased in favor of keeping us healthy and alive.

Fifth, the area of expertise must be a legitimate area or discipline. While there can be a debate about what counts as a legitimate area, there are clear cut cases. For example, if someone claims to be an expert in magical healing crystals and recommends using quartz to ward off COVID-19, then it would be unwise to accept their claim.  Using Dr. Fauci again, his field is clearly legitimate.

Sixth, the authority must be identified. If a person says a claim is true because an anonymous expert makes the claim, there is no way to tell if the person is a real expert. This does not make the claim false (to think otherwise would be a fallacy) but without the ability to assess the unnamed expert, you have no way to know if they are credible.  In such cases, suspending judgment can be a rational option. As would be expected, unnamed experts are often used on social media so it is wise to be even more wary about such platforms. It is also wise to wary of false attributions—for example, someone might circulate false claims and attribute them to Dr. Fauci.

Finally, the expert needs to be honest and trustworthy. While being honest means that a person is saying what they think is true, it does not follow that they are correct. But an honest expert is more credible than a source that is inclined to dishonesty. But to infer that a dishonest source must be wrong would be an error. Dr. Fauci has an excellent reputation for honesty.

While these standards have been presented in terms of assessing individuals, the same standards apply to institutions and groups. For example, the CDC as an institution is a credible expert.

In terms of who to trust in the pandemic, the clear experts are Dr. Fauci, the CDC, and WHO. This is not to say that you should uncritically believe all their claims, but they are the best sources. As far as other sources, some are good while some are actively dangerous to believe.

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