Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Arguing From "Authority" Instead of Evidence

DrugMonkey has written up a great post on the problem of relying on "authority" or credentials in scientific discourse:

"In science, the distinction arises when one wishes to short-circuit the process by which the expert demonstrates her expertise by providing the interpretive narrative and rationale by which she has arrived at her conclusions. Once one moves on to the "just trust me on this" or "well, my professional experience and judgment lets me know that ...." argument, it becomes an appeal to "authority" for authority's sake, as opposed to an appeal to the experienced individual's actual related expertise."

One would think this would be self-evident, especially to bloggers professing to be scientists of great "authority". However it was none other than Greg Laden who kicked off the whole discussion with commentary following Kamel's recent post on anonymous blogging. Laden seemed to be arguing that anonymous blogging is a bad thing because one is unable to assess the credentials of the speaker, and therefore unable to determine the validity of their arguments.

I've said most of what I have to say on this topic in the comments to Kamel's post and over at DrugMonkey's place. Here I'll summarize by saying I tend to think that the validity of an argument has to do with evidence and reasoning, and not how many degrees or prizes the speaker has won. An accurate statistic quoted by an anonymous blogger for example, is no less accurate because the identity of the person citing it is unknown. Likewise, it is no more likely that HIV is not the cause of AIDS just because Kary Mullis won a Nobel prize for the invention of PCR.

But that's just my opinion.

UPDATE - Greg Laden has now posted a clarification of his position on anonymous/pseudononymous blogging at his place. Go there to read his opinion for yourself.


Anonymous Coward said...

To be fair Kamel asked Greg to comment on his post.

Kamel said...

Thanks for clearing that up, AC. You beat me to it.

Greg left a comment at PhysioProf's place that ended: "Thus, in my view, anonymity produces both a risk and a responsibility that I’m not sure that all anonymous bloggers understand or address."

I asked him, via email, if he would elaborate on that comment and what he considered were the risks and responsibilities of anonymous bloggers, either on my post or on his own blog.

Drugmonkey said...

One of my main points bears re-emphasizing too. Although it is entertaining to poke fun at others for their pomposity, we are all subject to forces that incline us towards argument-from-credentials.

Bayman said...

I'll add that I don't disagree with a lot of what Laden has been saying - things like the value of expertise and so forth - all I object to is using the concept of scientific authority in an effort to discredit anonymous bloggers, so as to avoid useful evidence-based discussion.

Anonymous Coward said...

This blog was more fun when it was about quirky research papers and fart & dick jokes. All this meta "blogging about blogging" stuff is intellectual masturbation.

Bayman said...

Hey you're the animal penis "authority". Get serious and whip us up some evidence-based dick posts.

The Key Question said...

To me, there's nothing wrong with relying on credentials. It's simply indicative of the training that a person has been through.

Only wrong if a person claims blanket expertise in multiple fields simply because of credentials in one specialization.

Nobody is an expert on everything. Sometimes we'll have to take someone's word for it because she is neck-deep (or way better read than we are) in that field.

As for anonymonity, there is an additional dimension to it. I mentioned this on Sandwalk before: I may be blogging with my own name, but reality I am still effectively anonymous. Just one more voice in the cacophony of 100 million voices.

You guys at Bayblab worry about possible consequences of using your real names because you are optimists.

I am not. I doubt that anything I write will make any difference to anything. I write because it is my curse.

Bayman said...

Your writing has touched my life Lim...

The Key Question said...

Thanks Bayman.