Should we ever trust anyone’s expertise? The “appeal to authority” is a well-known fallacy (nonrational way to reason) and some people claim that all appeals to authority are fallacious. I was once told that my religion is science because I trust the expert opinion of scientists, so apparently that person doesn’t think scientists should be trusted. I will explain why we should often trust expert opinion and we have little choice but to often do so.
Fallacious appeals to authority
It is true that there are fallacious ways we can appeal to authority. In particular, the following two ways are often mentioned:
We can rely on the opinion of someone who is not actually an expert of the relevant issue.
We can rely on expert opinion when there is no consensus – when the issue is actually controversial among the experts.
However, these reasons for an appeal to authority being fallacious seems to imply that not all are fallacious. In particular, an appeal to authority is not fallacious if the expert opinion being appealed to is truly based on the consensus of the relevant experts.
Moreover, an appeal to authority can be inappropriate when it’s not needed. You don’t need an expert to tell you that a cat is on the mat when you can just see it for yourself, and an appeal to authority is not needed by the experts themselves when it concerns an issue relevant to their expertise. Let’s say that Martha is an expert biologist and thinks lobsters can feel pain, but no other biologist agrees with her. The consensus of biologists would be irrelevant in that case. Martha should present an argument for her conclusion and other biologists should consider if she can prove her case.
Religion and appeals to authority
Is it religious to trust the opinion of experts? Maybe we can choose to believe our preacher who says that evolution is false rather than the opinion of biologists. Some people trust religious authorities and other people trust scientific authorities. We don’t really know who is right, do we? After all, scientists are often wrong.
My response is that religious authorities are not biological experts, and evolution is a biological issue. Religious authorities did not spend years considering the data and arguments that support evolution, but biologists did. Perhaps biologists are wrong, but the fact that a belief might be wrong doesn’t mean it’s okay to reject it. We are rationally required to have beliefs that don’t contradict the relevant data. It’s better to have a justified belief than an unjustified belief. Even if scientists are often wrong, we should trust their expert opinion anyway. Their beliefs are better supported than ours.
If believing in science is just a matter of faith and we have no reason to think scientifically informed beliefs are better than ones that aren’t, then we have no reason to think buying from a snake oil salesman is a bad thing. It’s just a matter of faith. Some people have faith in various types of nonscientific alternative medicine and others don’t. It is possible that the medicine sold by snake oil salesmen will work. The snake oil salesmen are charlatans who have no good reason to trust their own medicine, but maybe their medicine will be effective anyway. We might get lucky. However, it is clear that snake oil salesmen do exist, that the medical claims that snake oil salesmen are less likely true than ones that are justified scientifically, and that scientifically informed beliefs about medicine are better than those that aren’t. Medical scientists have a better reason to think they know what medication will be effective than those whose opinions are not scientifically informed. It’s not just blind luck when medical scientists get things right—their beliefs about medicine really are more likely right than the alternative. That’s why we generally shouldn’t trust nonscientific types of alternative medicine.
Some charlatans are pseudoscientists who might really think they know better than the experts. They try to convince others that the so-called experts are wrong. Trusting these charlatans has not gone well for us. It’s led to the anti-vaccination crowd that has often relied on fraudulent data, a multimillion dollar homeopathy industry (that sells water and says it’s medicine), climate denialism, and so on.
The appeal to authority is imperfect
It is true that sometimes scientists agree with some false conclusion. The appeal to authority is an argument strategy that is imperfect. There’s no guarantee that experts who agree are always correct. Sometimes another expert will prove their conclusion to be false at some point. At one point scientists thought that Newton’s theory of physics was entirely correct and complete. Their belief was well-supported, and people of that time should have agreed with the scientists, even though their conclusion was false (yet still accurate in many ways). Then at some point we found out that Einstein’s theory of physics was superior to Newton’s. The experts correctly evaluated the data and arguments to determine that what they thought at one point was false.
Science isn’t perfect and trusting the expert opinions of scientists does not guarantee that you will have true beliefs, but it’s better than the alternative. To believe that scientists are wrong—that you know better than the experts—is a reliable way to have false beliefs. The fact is that the opinions of non-experts is not equal to the experts, even when the non-experts consider several arguments. One reason we rely on expert opinion is precisely because they are much more informed than the rest of us. They know a lot more about the relevant data and arguments. There are lots of arguments that purport to prove scientists wrong given by non-experts, but they are rarely good arguments. They usually end up persuading people to believe the wrong thing. Fallacious arguments that have conclusions that conflict with the scientific consensus are often persuasive to non-experts precisely because expertise is often required to fully understand what’s wrong with the argument.
Consider how snake oil salesmen have duped people into buying ineffective medicine over the years. They often have arguments to persuade people to buy the ineffective medicine. Testimonial evidence is often appealed to. Most of us know that we should trust our doctors and the expert opinion of medical scientists rather than trust snake oil salesmen. We know there are charlatans out there duping people who aren’t capable of evaluating the arguments properly on their own.
Thinking for oneself
We often hear about how we should learn to “think for ourselves.” Critical thinking classes are supposed to help us learn to think for ourselves. Even so, we need to know our own limitations and realize that sometimes thinking for ourselves can be less reliable than trusting the experts. We could all try to be scientific experts about everything, but that is not feasible. Now there are so many specializations that take years to master, so being an expert about everything is not going to happen. Lucky for us expert opinion is often publicly available, which can save us all years of research. Relying on expert opinion is not as good as being an expert, but it is the next best thing. To rely on our own ability to evaluate arguments that are about some specialized domain is often a mistake.
There is little to no reason to expect your opinion based on your evaluation of various arguments to be equal to that of an expert who spent years studying the relevant arguments and data, but we often don’t see things that way. We often think we know better than the experts. One reason for this is the Dunning-Kruger effect. Novices overestimate their abilities and competence (in part because they don’t know when they make mistakes). Studies have shown that both novices and experts perceive themselves to be roughly as good at doing certain things when the reality is that the experts are much better. Moreover, experts are much better at correctly assessing how good they are at doing something relevant to their expertise, and novices greatly overestimate their own ability.
A novice who hears arguments relating to something like medical science will be likely think she knows what she should believe after evaluating the arguments, but her ability to evaluate the arguments correctly will be much lower than what she thinks. She will think of herself as good at reasoning about medical data as an expert, even though she will actually be much worse at it. None of that should surprise us considering how successful snake oil salesmen and other charlatans are.
Who is an expert?
One issue that many people have a hard time with is deciding who the experts are. Hopefully it’s clear that scientists and mathematicians are experts, but many people tell me that philosophers and logicians are not experts. It is not entirely clear that philosophers are experts in the same way that scientists are, but I have found that their beliefs concerning philosophical issues are much better justified than that of other people. Moreover, I think that it is obvious that philosophers are often experts of logic (good reasoning). Everyone is subject to the Dunning-Kruger effect and is likely to think they reason well, but studies have indicated that “[a] majority of people cannot, even when prompted, reliably exhibit basic skills of general reasoning and argumentation.”1 And it is clear that most people know little to nothing about logical form or logical validity. A great deal of this can be corrected by taking a single logic class, but that is certainly not enough to provide all the expertise that a logician would have.
I do not have a simple method to resolve how to know who experts are, and it seems likely that critical thinking is required to properly decide if someone is an expert. Other than that we can start with the assumption that mathematicians, scientists, and logicians are experts.
(Updated 7/19/13: I tried to clarify my initial point about snake oil salesmen and religion.)
1 Gelder, Tim Van. “Teaching Critical Thinking: Some Lessons From Cognitive Science.” (Austhink.com. Originally published in College Teaching; Winter 2005; 53.) 42.