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'Arguments from authority carry little weight — “authorities” have made mistakes in the past. They will do so again in the future. Perhaps a better way to say it is that in science there are no authorities; at most, there are experts.'

It'd be interesting to see what is left after applying this consistently to scientific announcements. E.g. much of the pro climate change arguments I see are: all the scientists think it is happening, so it must be happening. Not saying they are wrong, but why should only science get a pass when it comes to argument from authority?

Science is not the only field with experts, and it's hard to argue that only scientific expertise is real expertise without going in circles (which requires an expert in philosophy to avoid ;).

The answer is already there is the quote, if you charitably read it, and ponder on the meaning of the word "expert".

You have a scientific question [1] (like "is climate changed caused by human activities?") that you want answered. There is no authority that can/should dictate an answer. There can exist experts that spend a lot of time investigating the question and come up with their answer. You don't have to believe any of them them. In fact, science has often advanced by people not believing in the experts.

BUT if you want to answer a sufficiently complex question, you have two smart options: (a) either believe in one of the experts [2] (b) spend sufficient time investigating the question yourself and figuring out the answer. A third option (c) believe in the opinions of a non-expert, is very stupid. In general, you can check yourself over your lifetime, that (c) results, with high frequency, in you being wrong.

This answers goes for non-scientific things also. If you haven't spent adequate time investigating the question yourself, it is generally smart to defer to someone who has.

[1] A scientific question is one whose answer, in principle, can be refuted by empirical investigations.

[2] Some scientific fields are highly political, where sometimes, experts have agendas beside the truth. I am not getting into the separate question of how to determine if someone is an actual unbiased expert.

Let's take the Galileo case. There were a consensus of experts on Aristotelian cosmology, the best rational worldview of that day, and Galileo's model did not match observations at that point. So, his proposal was rejected. Obviously, Galileo was right to not listen to the consensus of experts in that case.

So, what makes current scientific consensus different than the Aristotelian consensus of Galileo's day? Why are dissidents wrong to question modern scientific consensus (of which climate change is only one controversial element), but right to question the medieval consensus? In both cases, the consensus meets the then current standard for rational worldview, so we can't use hindsight.

As I indicated, Galileo was an expert dissident, who had spent years looking at the question, and so he could rationally reject the consensus of the other experts.

You can still do that today. A expert person today can absolutely disagree with climate change or any other consensus theory. But for most of these issues, the amount of time required to be an expert, even a dissenting expert, is counted in 5-10 years of full time work on the subject. If someone is such a person and they disagree with climate change consensus, I highly encourage them to continue pursuing their line of reasoning. We need people like them in all fields.

On the other hand, if someone has read a couple of books, or taken a few courses, or looked at the issue for a couple of months, I am going to completely ignore them. Particularly, a common person in the 1600s, who had not spent years studying the stars, but claimed that the Aristotelians were wrong, was doing himself a disservice.

Alright, so it looks like the conclusion of this discussion is Sagan is not quite correct, there are plenty of situations where arguments from authority are indeed valid, if the authority is conferred by the consensus of experts in the subject. One is only justified in dissenting from the authority of experts if one has spent 10-15 years diving deep into the subject to become an expert themselves.

I assume another area where dissent from authority is justified is when experts make claims outside their realm of expertise, since they themselves have not fulfilled the requirement to become an authority in the field.

This also brings up the question as to what makes an expert. Is someone a self appointed expert? Or, if a group appoints themselves as experts, if they've studied a subject enough? Or, is expertise validated empirically by making predictions that are correct more often than those made by non experts?

If a body of labelled experts make predictions which consistently are incorrect, are they experts? Do they retain their authority conferred by being a group of experts?

What we really need is a consensus of experts in expertise and authority :)

Nope. You are using the word "authority" in a way that Carl Sagan did not. When he says "argument from authority", he means that someone declares that what they say is true is because of their position in the sociopolitical hierarchy, and no other reason.

On the other hand, an expert claims that what they say is true because they have spent 10 years to distinguish truth from falsehood; and you can read their analysis and papers to figure out exactly what they discovered. Morever, scientific models and theories are presented in a way that, in principle, some other expert could replicate exactly what the expert has done and reach the same conclusions.

So Carl Sagan is arguing against "argument from sociopolitical hierarchy to prove objective facts about the natural world". He is, and most reasonable people, are in favor of "argument from expert who has demonstrably done a lot of work on the subject, and you don't have the time to go through the whole exercise yourself, so you will believe her".

Of course, as you say, determining, who is or is not an expert is a very difficult question in the real world. I am not going to comment on it.

> When he says "argument from authority", he means that someone declares that what they say is true is because of their position in the sociopolitical hierarchy, and no other reason.

Not it at all. He's talking about the well known logical fallacy of "appealing to authority".


> He is, and most reasonable people, are in favor of "argument from expert who has demonstrably done a lot of work on the subject, and you don't have the time to go through the whole exercise yourself, so you will believe her".

Nope. He's arguing the opposite. He is saying an argument relies entirely on the merits of the argument itself, not from an authority. 1+1=2 not because your dad or your math teacher ( aka authority ) said so, it's because of the mathematical logic. An uneducated person could tell you 1+1=2 and it would be just as true regardless of how much "expertise" or "authority" someone has.

> Of course, as you say, determining, who is or is not an expert is a very difficult question in the real world.

The point of "appeal to authority" is to disregard titles or authority or "expertise" and check the facts/evidence. Meaning the facts/evidence is what matters rather than the authority providing it.

In other words, a^2 + b+2 = c+2 because of the mathematical proof, not because Pythagoras said so.

If you don't even know what "argument from authority" is, why are you acting like you know what you are talking about. Even worse, why are you putting words in Carl Sagan's mouth?

Who do you think are appealed to as an authority? A lowly postdoc or the senior scientist? Eg., From the wiki page, "LaCour’s impossible-seeming results were treated as truth, in part because of the weight [the study's co-author] Green's name carried".

I clearly stated "some other expert could replicate exactly what the expert has done". As a working scientist, and I am aware of the objective nature of science. I am trying to answer the question, "why believe in something an expert says?" I am sure you have not spent years verifying what the climate change experts say, but you believe them anyway. Why?

> Who do you think are appealed to as an authority?

Anyone deemed an authority. Priests, doctors, parents, teachers, TA, etc.

> A lowly postdoc or the senior scientist?

Once again, the point is that the merit of the assertion/claim is independent of the "authority". 1+1=2 isn't more true or false because a "lowly" postdoc or a senior scientist said it. Especially when it comes to science, it's the experiment and empirical evidence/data that matters.

> I clearly stated "some other expert could replicate exactly what the expert has done".

You are still not getting what "appeal to authority" is.

> As a working scientist, and I am aware of the objective nature of science.

Honestly your job status doesn't matter. Why even bothering writing this sentence?

> I am trying to answer the question, "why believe in something an expert says?"

That's not what you were doing. You were misinterpreting and misrepresenting what carl sagan wrote.

> I am sure you have not spent years verifying what the climate change experts say, but you believe them anyway. Why?

It doesn't take the same amount of time to verify something as it does to answer/research/etc. Which would take you longer to do. Solve a sudoku problem or verify an already solved sudoku problem? P vs NP?

I completely agree that science in principle can be verified by anyone. That is how papers are published and books written.

In practice that does not happen. If you gave me a paper from my own subfield of physics, it would take me at least a week to verify it. If you gave me a paper from a different subfield of physics, it would at least take me a few months to verify its correctness. If you gave me a paper from climate change, it would take me years to verify its correctness. There are so much background knowledge, skills, and understanding I lack about the details of climate change. My unknown unknowns about climate change are massive.

I believe in climate change research because I believe in the social institutions of science, that peer review works, that universities and professors have reputational effects to take care of, that climate change experts themselves constantly fight over the answers of various questions, that climate-change-adjacent-field-experts sometimes verify what climate scientists do, etc etc. I am also happy that climate change, in particular, makes predictions about the future (other fields, say Biology, don't make predictions about the future), so some amount of verification can happen that way. But honestly, I have never done that, because again, that is several weeks worth of actual work.

TLDR Science does not have authority figures, but it does have a web of experts and social institutions, which keep each other in check, and which is why outsiders actually believe in them, in practice.

I've never run across anyone who declares what they say is true because of their sociopolitical position. Not even the pope in the Catholic church makes this claim. Who does Sagan have in mind?

??? You just mentioned Galileo. The Church disagreed with him because god had made arguments from authority in the bible about Earth not moving etc.

Bad school teachers sometimes make these arguments. "This is so, because I said so". Or "because the book says so".

I don't know if you are a scientist, but one can often see young grad students believing in something only because the senior scientist believes it, and not because of actual good reasons.

You also see arguments from authorities in non-scientific debates. "We must believe X because because historical figure Y said so."

I think you should read up a bit more on the Galileo situation.

Alright, here's another example. Let's say I'm living in Nazi Germany, and the top population geneticists are unanimous in their opinion that Jews are an inferior and evil race, seeking to undermine the volk. I'm pretty sure they're wrong, Jews seem just as human as myself. Am I justified in dissenting from the authority of experts, even though I myself have not put in the 10-15 years of researching population genetics to become an expert? I would say so. What gives me this right to dissent from the authority of consensus of experts?

The answer is in the second part.. Galileo was willing to go deep to find the answers. It is perfectly fine to challenge the status quo and the experts, but do so only if you have spent the time to do the research and have facts to back up your claims (or invalidate theirs)

I looked at the submission title and I knew a comment like this would be here. I guess I'm spending too much time on HN, it's getting predictable.

Anyway, in the immortal words of Carl Sagan:

> But the fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.

Agreed. In other words, it's true there are some famous cases of eccentric people who at first were laughed at but later turned out to be right. From this one absolutely cannot conclude eccentrics are often right. In fact, they are most often wrong.

We put our faith in the scientific institution. (And if we are religious, political or etc, we put our faith in the appropriate institution for that too.)

Fact is, virtually all knowledge about what lies beyond our personal sight and understanding is authority-based.

Maybe that's unavoidable.

The key feature of science could be said to be the institution of the rule that, to be considered truly high-quality, a model must have a strong experimental reference.

Or you could say that the key feature of science is that we get such high-quality models that experimental reference is unnecessary. Which is a little scary. It's like we're just creating a more-airtight dogma.

(Wow, they're actually downvoting you.)

I've noticed a fairly big distinction in what I learned as science and the philosophy of science as it was practiced up until around the last 20 years or so and now.

Science was based on rigorous falsification. Scientists actively tried to prove themselves and other scientists wrong. Science has always been more about, 'well we know it's not all of these things, so it's probably that until we prove that wrong too'.

Sometime in the last couple decades, it's stopped being like that. Instead it's, 'my models and data say this, so it is this and everything else is wrong'.

Science at this point is really only authority driven because journals and even governments charge exorbitant prices for access to them, cutting out a vast majority of the population from actually partaking in any part of the scientific process.

When all you get is contradictory news reports on a handful of selected research from journalists that barely understand what they're reading, you're going to be stuck with an elitist authority driven system.

There's zero reason for this in todays world other than control and profit. Even within the scientific community, there's 'caste' systems, financial guardianship and other such barriers, keeping again, many people from learning and partaking.

Science isn't hard, it isn't magic, it's a systematic way of looking at the world through observation and falsification. That is all science is. Anyone can do science. I've taken groups of kids, volunteers and many people and in short time, taught them to do science.

It's just people don't really get taught to do this. It's easier to control a population that's trickled information through 'authoritative' sources than it is one that's educated and capable of thinking for themselves.

This is stuff I was literally taught in school, by other scientists. Like, we were actually taught that most people need to be given only the information they need to know, because essentially they're too dumb to understand and scientists should just run things in the world. I'm not making this up, we were actually told this by several of our professors.

I have two comments on your takeaways:

> Science isn't hard, it isn't magic, it's a systematic way of looking at the world through observation and falsification. That is all science is.

Science is also being open to critique from others, and listening to what others have found. If you only focus on your own observations, you can test Newton's and Maxwell's laws, but you'll be hard pressed to discover relativity or quantum mechanics. Some discoveries are hard because they require foundational knowledge and equipment and insight.

> We were actually taught that most people need to be given only the information they need to know, because essentially they're too dumb to understand and scientists should just run things in the world.

A more charitable explanation is that it takes time to learn things, and we can't know everything. For example, you don't need to know the experimental design to use the results from an experiment, but you would if you're evaluating the experiment. It takes time and effort to do peer review. You're delegating effort to scientists so that you can use the results of multiple experiments without a large investment of time.

I totally agree with teaching everyone the tools of science though. I just think you're overestimating how well those tools will protect people against charlatans. Some claims take expertise to debunk.

Science was never purely driven by falsification, or authority or anything. It was actually never pure, it was always driven by an equivalent of "hey, it works on my machine" and proven by successful application in some engineering or other practical discipline.

That broke since the late 20th century because science got much broader than any possible application.

I agree with that to an extent too. Actually, the whole history behind the modern scientific method and the various competing philosophies behind science over the centuries is pretty amazing and I recommend anyone that's interested to start here:


And go on to.read the referenced papers by Kuhn and others. There's a lifetime's worth of stuff to be studied there.

The thing is, much of our modern scientific progress has been through following these principles

>1. that there is an objective reality shared by all rational observers

>2. that this objective reality is governed by natural laws

>3. that reality can be discovered by means of systematic observation and experimentation

>4. that Nature has uniformity of laws and most if not all things in nature must have at least a natural cause

>5. that experimental procedures will be done satisfactorily without any deliberate or unintentional mistakes that will influence the results

>6. that experimenters won't be significantly biased by their presumptions

>7. that random sampling is representative of the entire population

The main issues I see these days fall around 5, 6 and to a lesser extent 7. Agenda driven, ego based research is prevalent in a lot of fields these days, tied directly into that authoritarian mind set. Scientists must be correct, the people funding their research must get the results they desire and to bring 7 in their, sampling will be done to skew results to that effect.

I've witnessed this first hand on projects where industry would have been impacted by results. In the case of one project, tens of thousands of dollars were spent mitigating absolutely nothing, while the actual issue was ignored because that would have cut into profits of the largest company in the community. I had a water sampling cup in my hand still, when they told us to stop and sample elsewhere after we found pH spikes suspiciously near some runoff. Those high pH samples never made it into the report.

In the case of my own project, our results would have impacted an active mine, so we were told by government not publicly release our results, under threat of loss of funding.

This type of bullshit occurs in every field of science. This type of bullshit is why authority driven science is not real science and is holding back human progress and honestly, puts the entire human race and much of life on Earth's continued existence at risk.

And perhaps

- that it is possible for humans and/or machines to understand and/or describe said natural laws

- that it is a good idea to attempt to do so

(e.g. scientific progress could lead to technology that eventually makes it impossible for anything to live on the Earth)

A hugely influential 'experimental reference' throughout history were wars. Don't believe oxygen exists? Think explosions are magical voodoo? Think you get sick from bad air? Good luck when the musketeers come knocking bearing blankets. Executed your best mathematicians for proposing heretical models of the universe? Will have a hard time getting your artillery to be as accurate as your foe's.

I think this kind of natural selection on a societal scale begrudgingly kept people believing in science and engineering, but now that progress has kind of leveled off and/or migrated into realms which don't have direct consequences the rest of society is sadly unbound.

> Already history has in a sense ceased to exist, ie. there is no such thing as a history of our own times which could be universally accepted, and the exact sciences are endangered as soon as military necessity ceases to keep people up to the mark. Hitler can say that the Jews started the war, and if he survives that will become official history. He can’t say that two and two are five, because for the purposes of, say, ballistics they have to make four. But if the sort of world that I am afraid of arrives, a world of two or three great superstates which are unable to conquer one another, two and two could become five if the fuhrer wished it. That, so far as I can see, is the direction in which we are actually moving, though, of course, the process is reversible.

George Orwell

Also to follow up - I do feel they selectively ignored some of Sagan's larger point about authority.

An 'Authority' figure is not in and of itself a trustworthy source. The head of the EPA is not necessarily the top Environmental scientist in the country. He is warning that we must be wary of accepting that because someone is in charge, they know what they are saying - not that we have the ability to pick and choose our preferred outcomes over scientific consensus

So Sagan thinks appealing to authority of consensus is fine, but not authority of someone in charge?

It's still not clear to me exactly what sorts of authorities we can and cannot appeal to, and why one sort is fine and another sort is not.

And what about authority of a cop (i.e. someone in charge)? If the cop tries to pull me over, am I free to ignore him because he's not a scientific expert, thus he cannot appeal to his own authority?

The authority of an entire field of experts vs. the single representative of said experts is a good distinction. Good evidence can be reviewed and confirmed easily. Bad actors will try to obfuscate their information

Much online argument seems to focus on which authority you choose.

If an expert in say, economics is telling me the the climate crisis is exaggerated, and an expert in climate science is saying that it isnt - I will tend to believe the expert in the most relevant field.

What if the relevant expertise is evaluating the veracity of statistical models?

That's significant, of course. However one statistical expert isnt going to outweigh a whole body of scientific findings

What if most of the finds are results of statistical models?

If you're implying that most of climate science is statistical modeling, please be specific and say so. While there is plenty of statistics in the field[1], the majority is basic physical science and dynamical modeling. Equivocation between statistical and dynamical models is surprisingly common on HN and leads me to suspect that a person hasn't taken much time to learn about climate science.

[1] Calling it a single field isn't really fair. It's the nexus of many specialized fields, most of which are purely physical sciences.

It looks like the output is a statistic. I.e. a trend line with error bars based on fitting prior historical data.

Additionally, the processing of said historical data also seems to be statistical in nature, since there is a lot of missing data once we go past a few decades, data is from a disparate variety of sources, most are proxies for temperature and CO2, etc.

So, it isn't obvious to me they are 'purely physical' as in there is some kind of direct reading off of physical facts. Instead, it appears most are a lot of inferences derived by fitting models to bodies of data, which entails a certain amount of uncertainty and a statistical nature.

It might be helpful to think about this situation this way:

What is your evidence that oxygen exists?

How would you test that?

What tools would you need to test that?

How do you know those tools work the way that you expect?

(I think the above comment is rhetorical, but if anyone wants to actually see what a serious answer to those questions might look like, I strongly recommend Michael Faraday's "the chemical history of a candle".)

Such a line of investigation would establish strong empirical grounding for any models you might come up with.

But you'd have to really care about the quality of your model to do all that work.

Models derived from authority may lack such grounding but they are way more convenient.

And convenience is king.

> much of the pro climate change arguments I see are: all the scientists think it is happening

It’s not if they think it is happening or not - it’s the data they are looking at and the hypothesis being drawn from the observations

What they “think” is the hypothesis.

Anyone can look at the same data and come up with a hypothesis. The important piece is engaging in the scientific method.

I never found that argument convincing either. What I do find convincing are the basic physics (CO2 absorbs more UV) coupled with actual physical evidence of effects in the real world.

In which case, scientists should focus on making the science abundantly clear, as well as addressing the numerous objections people have at the science level. It seems like they want to avoid the hard work of following Sagan's advice, and would rather appeal to authority.

Aren't there now a large number of people who have invested tons of time doing exactly that? For example the people who run realclimate.org?

I sort of agree. In my experience scientists who are also good communicators are rare. Sometimes it's a personality thing but it's also a time thing. Most scientists don't have time to talk about science. They're too busy doing it (and grant writing, and grant writing, and grant writing, and teaching, and grant writing, and grant writing, and ...).

The science expert and demonstrate using scientific method? Repeatable models?

Scientific don't "think" it, the theory it. Then show you their work. Makes it more trustworthy.

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