Between Scientists & Citizens

Morano Analysis #6: The appeal to authority, by the numbers

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I have to feel sorry for Maslin. Once he’s accepted AGW as the central issue in this debate, he’s taken responsibility for presenting evidence of a centuries-long, world-wide, multi-system process. And he’s got about 60 seconds to get the job done. As we’ve seen, he can invite his audience to “look at” the evidence or he can remind them of some vivid event that they’ve already experienced. But the former isn’t going to help him meet his burden of proof now, and the latter is misleading and thus easy for Morano to knock down. The appeal to authority is a third option; can Maslin pull it off?

Case: Morano v. Maslin

Legitimate appeals to authority

Morano seems to be making an accusation early in the exchange, when he characterizes Maslin’s case as based only on an “appeal to authority” and an appeal to fear. He’s got it wrong, for authority at least. Appropriate appeals to authority were taken off the list of fallacies long ago. For good reason: we couldn’t survive without others’ expertise. We’re everywhere dependent on knowledges divided up into disciplines far more minutely than the work in Adam Smith’s old pin factory. In some cases our very lives may hang on the specialized knowledge that went into the design of a car’s floor mat or a factory’s system for washing spinach–although we’re only likely to remember it when the design goes bad.

In principle, any one of us could become an expert in any one discipline, or any two or four. But no one is going to be able to master them all. So we have to live with epistemic [i.e., knowledge-based] asymmetries, dependent on people who know more than us. That means we’re sometimes, under appropriate circumstances, going to have to trust what experts tell us–that is, we’re going to have to accept appeals to epistemic authority.

Maslin indeed makes such an appeal:

If you look at the IPCC report five thousand leading climate change scientists put together all the leading science together.

Notice that the emphasis here is on the scientists and what scientists have said (the “report”): we’re not being asked to believe in evidence and draw a conclusion, we’re being asked to trust these people and credit what they tell us. Should we do so?

Counting scientists

One of the central challenges in pulling off an appeal to authority is that it can be almost as hard for the audience to figure out whom to trust as it is to figure out what to believe. A speaker can help his audience out by giving them information that will allow them to assess his appeal. In this case, Maslin points us to several factors. The people whose report we’re being asked to trust are:

  • scientists
  • [specializing in] climate change
  • leading
  • five thousand

The first two factors seem vital–they establish these people as ones who know stuff, and stuff relevant to our judgments about climate change. Morano doesn’t dispute them (here, at least) so we in the audience are licensed in taking them to be true. (As an aside, it’s worth noting the significance of Morano’s implicit admission. Even though scientists may feel themselves attacked, Morano is not here attacking science as a whole, or even climate science.)

Maslin’s final factor–the number of scientists–serves to sharpen the appeal: “five thousand” does sound like a lot, and the report of five thousand scientists is probably more authoritative than the report of just one. This focus on counting scientists, however, gets Maslin into trouble. It gives Morano three lines of attack, each of which he exploits.

Counting up IPCC scientists.

First: When you count scientists, you need to get the count right. Maslin here says “five thousand”; according to Morano, he said “four thousand” the week before. The “four thousand” is roughly what you get if you totaled up the different categories in the official representations of the report (as in this slide, from IPCC head Pachauri’s presentation of the Fourth Assessment Report). The “five thousand” is probably a slip. Unfortunately, it’s just the kind of slip that brings Maslin’s whole appeal into doubt. Maslin is asking us to trust scientists, including him; messing up numbers doesn’t encourage trust.

Second: When you count scientists, you open the issue of who gets counted. Morano gives us just a whiff of the trouble he can cause when he claims that the maximum count Maslin will be able to defend is “if you include delegates, 2800.” These “delegates” aren’t scientists, but governmental representatives; after the debate on ClimateDepot Morano gives them a more pungent name– “UN bureaucrats.”  Should they be included among the experts? Probably not. Checking out Morano’s blog shows that there were several other objections the advocate had up his sleeve (and thus also that Maslin was walking into a trap).  These include: some scientists had multiple roles in the IPCC process, and so are being counted multiple times; others may not really be climate scientists; and even official representatives of the IPCC have themselves given various counts. Maybe, Morano suggests to Maslin, the real count is “52 UN scientists”–that presumably being (roughly) the number who Morano thinks he can document as explicitly taking responsibility for the report’s central claim about AGW.

Whatever! This topic seems clearly a distraction from the main issues of the debate. It is, however, a distraction that Maslin committed himself to, when he opened the idea of counting scientists.

Third: When you count scientists, you admit that counting scientists produces relevant and important information. This means your opponents can count scientists, too. When Senator Inhofe collects “700 international scientists” who challenge AGW, you won’t be able to object that scientific authority can’t be established by counting scientists.

The alternatives?

Maslin is not alone in counting scientists to amplify authority; one of my projects documents this technique going back to the earliest representations of the IPCC First Assessment Report.  Given the problems counting scientists, why not count something else instead?–something that could help the audience assess the quality of the scientists’ expertise, while at the same time being easier to measure and less easy to imitate (or fake, as with Inhofe’s list). For example, defenders of the IPCC report might highlight:

  • the range of disciplines involved
  • the eminence of the participants (Maslin’s “leading…scientists” seems a good start, and Maslin needs to be able to amplify it quickly)
  • the years of work involved
  • the extent of the peer review (e.g., the number of comments made & responded to)
  • even the number of pages!

Each of these has its own problems–the pages could be pages of drivel, and the years of work wasted. Still, they seem to be more plausible and defensible measures of the quality of the scientists than counting scientists.

There is another alternative, however, that suggests we put aside counting entirely. When Maslin says “5000,” or even “4000,” he doesn’t mean any particular number. What he really means is everybody–what’s also called “the scientific consensus.” I’ll take up that possibility in my next post.

For more: see bibliography: appeals to authority.

Written by jeangoodwin

March 15, 2010 at 10:20 am

One Response

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  1. Jean, Great blog, came here from WUWT. Another issue that is hotting up is cold fusion and has a lot of interesting issues related to your interests. Here is a video interview with quite a lot of material and a short introduction to it here

    An authority issue raised in the video is an innovation with abundant evidence that fails to break through to the academic and popular press (as opposed to an issue with very little evidence like AGW that takes over the academic and popular press). Be interested in what you think.


    July 17, 2011 at 6:22 am

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