Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Argumentum ad scientiam

There is an informal fallacy that is sometimes referred to by the Latin name Argumentum ad auctoritatem, which means, more or less, "appeal to authority". But an appeal to authority is not always fallacious. If you are having a dispute over what the weather tomorrow is going to be like, it is not fallacious at all to appeal to the authority of the weatherman, even though weathermen are not exactly the safest bets in town either. So to distinguish the non-fallacious appeal to authority from the fallacious kind, the latter is usually referred to as "appeal to unqualified authority." You commit this fallacy when you appeal to the authority of someone who is not really qualified to settle an argument on some particular topic. For example, if you are arguing with somebody over whether or not creationism should count as a science, you don't appeal to the authority of your local astrologer. You shouldn't appeal to the authority of your local creation scientist either, but that's another story.

I used to teach logic out of a textbook called A Concise Introduction to Logic by Patrick Hurley, but I will never use that book again. There is an exercise in which the student is instructed to "Identify the fallacies of relevance, weak induction, presumption, ambiguity, and grammatical analogy committed by the following arguments...If no fallacy is committed, write 'no fallacy.'" It then gives the following as one of the sample arguments:
Pope John Paul II has stated that artificial insemination of women is immoral. We can only conclude that this practice is indeed immoral.
You know how some books have the answers to selected questions in the back of the book? Well, it just so happens that this question has an answer at the back of the book, so I looked to see what the student was supposed to write. The answer: appeal to unqualified authority. Never mind the fact that it is highly disputable whether this is actually an appeal to unqualified authority--unqualified authority isn't even one of the fallacies the student was supposed to be looking for!

Well, it's one thing to be accused of appealing to an authority that isn't really an authority, but I think that I've identified a new fallacy, one that has not been identified before to my knowledge, the reason being, I think, that it is a fallacy of a sort that is not likely to be intentionally committed by very many people. I call it the Argumentum ad scientiam, or "appeal to knowledge". This fallacy occurs when you accuse somebody of knowing what they're talking about with a view to making it seem like what they're saying is irrelevant or unimportant.

How could that happen, you ask? Well, let me give you an example. Just the other day I was engaged in a dialectical exchange in which I made a claim about what followed from something somebody else had said, and my interlocuter replied that I was making "a fetish out of philosophical rigor." (Logical) Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, after all. It is totally accidental and beside the point that I am a philosopher, but by pointing out that not everyone makes "a fetish out of philosophical rigor" my interlocutor subtly suggested that, precisely because I am a philosopher and hence prone to drawing useless and pedantic distinctions, we need not take seriously the point that I was making. In other words, he used my own expertise in critical analysis as a point against me! An "appeal to my knowledge/expertise" in an attempt to discredit my point has got to be one of the most sophistic fallacies ever but, in a way, I have to admire it. To quote Jerry Seinfeld: I'd like to meet his balls.

I'm not the only victim of the Argumentum ad scientiam. I've actually seen it used quite often, though not often intentionally. You will often find references to "academics" made in such a way as to suggest that academics are unrealistic, or just a little bit weird, or dangerously out of touch with "reality". When I was in graduate school at Duke I used to drive over to Durham from Chapel Hill every day for classes, and to pass the time (even though it is only 6 miles away, traffic usually made the trip last about 30 or 40 minutes) I would often listen to Rush Limbaugh. One afternoon he was laughing very hard about a book he had recently heard about. The reason for his merriment: the book had raised a question about the evolution of sex, wondering what sort of advantage it offered that would make it something that was selected for by natural selection. He thought that was just about the funniest thing he had ever heard--only an egg-headed brainiac academic would be puzzled about how on earth sex could have been selected for, it seems. So even though the book was actually very scholarly and scientific, Limbaugh wanted to leave us with this impression that it must actually be kind of kooky and, hence, untrustworthy--precisely because only some kind of academic weirdo would even think of such a project.

Although it is rather tempting to wonder what on earth Rush Limbaugh could possibly know about sex, that would be the fallacy of Argumentum ad hominem, so we won't go there. Suffice it to say that in the popular culture the disdain for academics and intellectual pursuits is endemic and at least partly explains the culture of mediocrity that prevails in many school systems, where being intellectually curious is so uncool that some students actually avoid it and ostracize those who do not avoid it. I was not exactly a little Einstein when I was in grade school, and I remember how the kids who were perceived as geeky and smart were treated by the rest of us. I think things are marginally better in some school districts these days, but I'd be willing to bet that in other districts things have gotten worse, if only because the prevailing mediocrity of the popular culture has itself gotten much worse. Is it any wonder that more and more people are choosing to home-school their children?

I worry a little about my own son in this regard. He is finishing up the sixth grade this year, and next year it's on to middle school--in a different building from where he has spent the last seven years and with kids from all over the district (there are four elementary schools in Athens, but only one middle school). He has never been a bad student, but in the past two years he has become a great student, earning all As this year. I don't even want to think about the grades I used to get when I was his age. Is F-- a grade that lots of people used to get, or was it just me? But I have noticed that he has many fears and apprehensions about moving on to middle school and I wonder how much of that is connected to a worry that he will be perceived--and treated--as different.

Because I work closely with the Honors Tutorial Program here at Ohio University I get to see plenty of students for whom hard academic work and intellectual curiosity are ways of life. I am very fortunate, too, that most of the regular students I see have a healthy respect for learning even when they struggle with their own grades. But I also see students for whom the whole college experience is nothing more than a ticket to a job, and for whom critical analysis of arguments is just a waste of time. For these students, there is no need to think carefully about whether or why abortion is right or wrong, or capital punishment, or physician-assisted suicide, or gay marriage. They just form opinions and stick to them no matter what any old "argument" might suggest. For these kinds of students arguments don't do any good anyway, because they often are immune to the compelling power of logical validity. I'm not saying that there are tons and tons of these kinds of students around, but there are more than you might think, and it's more than a little disheartening to think that they could be informing themselves and strengthening their reasoning skills with logical rigor and critical acumen, except for the fact that their culture has persuaded them that it's just too uncool to make "a fetish out of philosophical rigor."


Tom said...

First, I like to use the expression "X did not make a fetish of Y" as a form of litotes (a term I just looked up), to emphasize the radical disconnect between X and Y. I lifted it from a Frank Sheed book, in which he wrote along the lines that certain popes did not make a fetish of personal sanctity. By, "Mark Shea does not make a fetish of philosophical rigor," then, I mean he comes nowhere near attempting to maintain philosophical rigor (which, stripped of rhetoric, I would qualify with "at least in his less formal writing").

Second, I would say that it's good for a philosopher to have a fetish (swinging around to hyperbole) for philosophical rigor. So even had I been insinuating that you did, it would not have followed that "we need not take seriously the point that I was making."

Third, the subtle suggestion behind my comment was that, whatever value Mark's less formal writing might have, it doesn't emerge in a close and critical study. I gave no thought to whether a close and critical study itself has any value, only to the fact that a close study would most likely be quite critical.

Scott Carson said...

So what you're saying is that it's not that my argument can be dismissed because of my expertise, but rather it should be dismissed because of Mark's lack of expertise. That makes me feel a lot better.

The fallacy, as I see it, lies in characterizing anything about what I said about his book as either an instance of "philosophical rigor" or an argument that can only be met by an application of "philosophical rigor".

I maintain that my argument was perfectly straightforward, requiring no special philosophical expertise at all either to understand it or to answer it. The fact that it was an argument made by a philosopher is purely accidental (hence the Argumentum ad scientiam is not unrelated to the Argumentum ad hominem).

I'm a little concerned now, however, about the emphasis you seem to want to put on Mark's book being an example of "his less formal writing". What exactly do you mean by that? That his argument there is incredibly slipshod? That's not exactly what I would call an effective advertisement for the book. If what you mean is that it's literally "informal" in the sense that he does not make use of the apparatus of formal logic, then that certainly does not mean that he is employing sloppy logic--he's still endeavoring to make an argument, and anyone who attempts to make an argument has got to be open to the possibility that their argument will be critiqued for validity and soundness, whether or not they are being "formal". That is, after all, what it means to be engaged in dialectic. If what one wants is blind acceptance of the hypothesis with no critical examination of the reasons for it, then it's hard to see how the project differs in any significant way from Dan Brown's own project, other than the obvious fact that they wind up drawing different inferences from their respective reasons.

But to say that the inference drawn just is what makes the difference between them significant is to admit that the work is not a response to Dan Brown at all, it is just a partisan statement of a different point of view. But that is not how the book is advertised--it is explicitly offered as a response to Brown's book, that is, as a reasoned attempt to show where Brown's book went wrong. That project will not succeed in the absense of "philosophical rigor" understood in a "less formal" way.

Tom said...

So what you're saying is that it's not that my argument can be dismissed because of my expertise, but rather it should be dismissed because of Mark's lack of expertise.

Wow. You just continue to insist that a statement about someone else is really a statement about you.

Still, I know you are perfectly capable of identifying the differences between what I have written and the interpretation you are giving it; of deducing the various additional premises and intermediate conclusions necessary to get from the one to the other; and of searching for evidence that I have anywhere proposed anything like the additional premises.

Or you can pout about being a victim of anti-intellectualism.

Or you can do both, of course. I don't mean to limit your options.

As for Mark's "less formal writing," I was referring to the interview you were commenting on, as distinct from his book. (Though, since I haven't read the book, I can't say for sure that it's any more formal.)

Scott Carson said...

"Wow" is right.

I don't really see how a statement directed at a remark of mine in an attempt to defuse that remark can fail to be "about" me, even if it is also "about" somebody else.

There are, apparently, a variety of different ways to pout.

Apollodorus said...

I have observed at least seven distinct modes of pouting in my time, and I am still quite young. I find Scott's sort of pouting the most engaging, when I find time to pay attention.

Tom said...


Scott certainly pouts well, in the artistic sense, sustaining his reasoned and conversational style even while indefensibly insisting that how he received a remark is necessarily the intent with which it was delivered.

He also rarely pouts for pouting sake, as in this case where he proposes the phenomenon of argumentum ad scientiam. I'm not entirely sold on the idea; at least the Rush Limbaugh example (granting I didn't hear the broadcast) doesn't sound quite like, "These people know too much, therefore their ideas are laughable." It sounds more like, "I know this idea is laughable; these people hold this idea; therefore, there's something about these people that makes them hold laughable ideas."

St. Thomas wrote that it would be the height of madness for a common man to declare a learned man's idea false simply because he (the common man) didn't understand it. I think what often happens (and what might have happened with Limbaugh) is that a common man declares a learned man's idea false because he (the common man) thinks he already knows the truth, concludes after a superficial inspection that the learned man's idea contradicts this, and never bothers to really try to understand it.

So the argumentum ad scientiam as I think I've come across it is something like, "Egghead opinions that contradict my opinions are based on kooky eggheadedness, and so can be ignored."

That's a fallacy, certainly, but it's not an accusation that somebody knows what they're talking about.