|Stephen Novella responds to the email writes:|
Well, thanks for writing the email, Mark, we appreciate the question, the feedback. And this is an excellent topic because we deal with this issue quite a bit, and it really gets to the heart of scientific skepticism.
I do think that there is a difference between the argument from authority and having an appropriate level of respect for a consensus of scientific opinion, because honestly, most of us, all we have in the areas outside of whatever our area of narrow expertise, and if you're not a working scientist that's all areas of science, is a distillation from the consensus of scientific opinion.
I think that if you think that your own personal reading of the evidence supersedes that, that is incredibly arrogant. And actually, at the same time, it's naive. It really means that you don't understand the gulf that exists between the amount of information that we have as lay people versus the amount of information that scientists at the cutting edge of any discipline have.
So, to look at this another way, when I am conveying a consensus of scientific opinion, I'm not saying this claim is true because there is a consensus. I'm saying there's a consensus because it's probably true. And the reason why I can say that, my premise to this, is that if you have a mature scientific discipline where there has been decades of robust, transparent, open debate about an issue, a specific question or a specific scientific discipline, and a fairly solid consensus emerges from the evidence and the research and the debate, that consensus is very highly reliable. It's not necessarily true, it can be wrong. Science is always tentative and contingent and is amenable to revision if new evidence or new ways of thinking about things comes to light, but we can rely to some degree upon a hard-earned robust consensus of scientific opinion. At the very least, if you disagree with that consensus, you better have a damn good reason for doing so. And dismissing it as an argument from authority is not appropriate, and that is an actual abuse of that logical fallacy.
I do think that where people get into trouble with the argument from authority is investing authority in an individual scientist. Any individual can be biased, quirky, can just be wrong, for whatever reason, but when you have a community of scientists hammering out the issues over a long period of time there is some legitimate authority that you can invest in that.
Interjection from one of the other panelists: So in other words, the consensus here is that this guy's a jerk?
No, this is a very common misunderstanding about the argument from authority. But again, if you do take it to that extreme, to say that basically you can never refer to the scientific community, the opinion of either the scientific community as a whole or specific organizations that have panels of experts that have reviewed the evidence and come to consensus opinion, if you just routinely dismiss all of those then what do we have, again, to rely upon? Again, it's arrogant to think that as a layperson who hasn't spent a career studying this data, who isn't intimately familiar with the technical literature, that your opinion can somehow supersede those who have and are.