Critical Thinking & COVID-19: Argument from Authoritarianism

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

While it would be irrational to reject medical claims of health care experts in favor of those made by President Trump, there are those who do just that. Considerations of why people do this is mainly a matter of psychology, but the likely errors in reasoning are a matter for philosophy.

While those who accept Trump as a medical authority are falling victim to a fallacious appeal to authority, it is worth considering the specific version of the fallacy being committed. I am calling this fallacy the argument from authoritarian. The error occurs when a person believes a claim simply because it is made by the authoritarian leader they accept. It has this form:

Premise 1: Authoritarian leader L makes claim c.
Conclusion: Claim C is true.

The fact that an authoritarian leader makes a claim does not provide evidence or a logical reason that supports the claim. It also does not disprove the claim—accepting or rejecting a claim because it comes from an authoritarian would both be errors. The authoritarian could be right about the claim but, as with any fallacy, the error lies in the reasoning.

The use of my usual silly math example illustrates why this is bad logic:

Premise 1: The dear leader claims that 2+2 =7.
Conclusion: The dear leader is right.

At this point, you might be thinking about the consequences someone might suffer from not accepting what an authoritarian leader claims—they could be fired, tortured, or even killed. While that is true, there is a critical distinction between having a rational reason to accept a claim as true and having a pragmatic reason to accept a claim as true or at least pretend to do so. Fear of retaliation by an authoritarian can provide a practical reason to go along with them but this does not provide evidence.

No matter how brutally an authoritarian enforces their view that 2+2=7 and no matter how many people echo his words, 2+2=4. While fear can provide people with a motivation to accept an argument from authoritarian, there are other psychological reasons driving the bad logic. This takes us to a simplified look at the authoritarian leader type and the authoritarian follower type. The same person can have qualities of both, and everyone has at least some of these traits—the degree to which a person has them is what matters.

An authoritarian leader type is characterized by the belief that they have a special status as a leader. At the greatest extreme, the authoritarian leader believes that they are the voice of their followers and that they alone can lead. Or, as Trump put it, “I alone can fix it.” Underlying this is the belief that they possess exceptional skills, knowledge, and ability that exceed those of others. As Socrates found out, people think they know far more than they do—but the authoritarian leader takes this to extremes and overestimates their abilities. This, as would be expected, leads them to make false claims and mistakes.

Since the authoritarian leader is extremely reluctant to admit their errors and limits, they must be dishonest to the degree they are not delusional and delusional to the degree they are not dishonest. Trump exemplifies this with his constant barrage of untruths and incessant bragging.

Because of the need to maintain the lies and delusions about their greatness and success, the authoritarian leader is intolerant of criticism, dissent, and competition. To the extent they can do so, they use coercion against those who would disagree and resort to insults when they cannot intimidate. Because the facts, logic, and science would tell against them, they tend to oppose all these things and form many of their beliefs based on their feelings, biases, and bad logic. They encourage their followers to do the same—in fact, they would not have true followers if no one followed their lead here.  This describes Trump quite accurately.

While an authoritarian leader might have some degree of competence, their grotesque overestimation of their abilities and their fear of competent competition even among those who serve them will result in regular and often disastrous failures. Trump’s handling of COVID-19 provides an example of this. Maintaining their delusions and lies in the face of failure requires explaining it away. One approach is denial—to ignore reality, something Trump has been doing.

A second approach is to blame others—the leader is not at fault, because someone else is responsible. Trump has done this is well. One method here is scapegoating—finding someone else to bear undeserved blame for the leader’s failings. Trump has blamed Obama, the Democrats, the media, and the WHO for his failings. For the authoritarian, there is something of a paradox here. They must affirm their special greatness at the same time they are blaming vastly inferior foes who somehow manage to thwart them. These opponents must be both pathetic and exceptionally dangerous, stupid and brilliant, incompetent and effective, and so on for a host of inconsistent qualities.

An authoritarian leader obviously desires followers and fortunately for them, there are those of the authoritarian follower type. While opportunists often make use of authoritarian leaders and assist them, they are not believers. The authoritarian follower believes that their leader is special, that the leader alone can fix things. Thus, the followers must buy into the leaders’ delusions and lies, convincing themselves despite the evidence to the contrary. Trump’s supporters incorrectly believe him to be honest and competent. Some believe his untruths about COVID-19. And this is very dangerous.

Since the leader will tend to fail often, the followers must accept the explanations put forth to account for them. This requires rejecting facts and logic. The followers embrace lies and conspiracy theories—whatever supports the narrative of their leader’s greatness. Those who do not agree with the leader are not merely wrong, but as enemies of the leader—and thus enemies of the followers. The claims of those who disagree are rejected out of hand, and often with hostility and insults. Thus, the followers tend to isolate themselves epistemically—which is a fancy way of saying that nothing that goes against their view of the leader ever gets in. This motivates a range of fallacies including what I call an accusation of hate.

When I have attempted to discuss COVID-19 with Trump supporters, it almost always ends with them accusing me of hating Trump and their rejection of whatever claim I make that is not consistent with what Trump claims. I do think they are being sincere—like everyone, they tend to believe and reject claims based on how they feel about the source. Since they like Trump, they believe him in the face of all evidence.  This is fallacious reasoning. Since I disagree with Trump’s false claims, it must follow that I hate Trump—otherwise I would just believe his untruths. It also follows, at least to them, that I am wrong. While this makes psychological sense, it is obviously bad logic and can be presented as a fallacy—the accusation of hate. It has this form:

Premise 1: Person A rejects Person B’s claim C.
Premise 2: Person A is accused of hating B.
Conclusion: Claim C is true.

As my usual silly math example shows, this is bad logic:

Premise 1: Dave rejects Adolph’s claim that 2+2=7.
Premise 2: Dave hates Adolph.
Conclusion: So, 2+2=7.

While hating someone would be a biasing factor, this does not disprove the alleged hater’s claim. It can have great psychological force—people tend to reject claims made by those they think hate someone they like. This is especially true in the case of authoritarian followers defending their leader.

Since authoritarian leaders are generally delusional liars who fail often, deny their failures and scapegoat others, they are extremely dangerous. The more power they have, the more harm they can do. They are enabled by their followers, which makes them dangerous as well. In a democracy, such as it is, the solution is to vote out the authoritarian and get a leader who does not exist in a swamp of lies and delusions. Until then, non-authoritarian leaders must step up to make rational decisions based on truth and good science—otherwise, the pandemic will drive America into ruin while lies and delusions are spun.

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