Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Ignore that man, he knows nothing

One of the pillars of modern science is a strict rejection of appeal to authority arguments. Reputation, esteem, or even experience are not enough to convince others of the validity of your positions. Statements must be supported by evidence, and the strongest evidence wins disagreements. It is an aspect of science that I still find inspiring, and gives me a special delight every time I see individuals challenge better established or more respected scientists in their field.

This, of course, doesn't mean statements made by experts in a field don't carry more weight than statements made by laypersons or people with a track record of being wrong. Obviously, if an expert on orchids and “Dancing” Dave (an old drunk guy at a dive bar I frequent) give me conflicting information on orchids, I'll be more inclined to accept the information from the expert. Just as I would be inclined to, when discussing torture, place a higher value on the opinion of a person who has actually been tortured than someone who has not. 

When arguing with someone with more experience or greater expertise on a topic, the onus is on me to prove my position has more validity. And the greater the disparity in our experience or expertise, the greater my evidence must be. Pointing out that an expert opinion cannot be simply dismissed without evidence if you disagree with it is not an appeal to authority argument.

Now, all of this up to this point has simply been a superfluously wordy justification of calling Rick Santorum an asshole without sounding like I'm making an argument from authority. 

John McCain, who was tortured for intelligence during his 5 ½ year stay in a North Vietnamese POW camp has been arguing against the use of torture. McCain, though I'm sure it's a natural temptation, has not been using an appeal to his own authority as the basis of his arguments, but has actually come to the debate armed with facts and evidence. This is politically inconvenient for Rick Santorum, so Santorum has simply dismissed McCain by saying “He doesn't understand how enhanced interrogation works.” What the fuck? He doesn't understand how it works? 5 ½ years. That's long enough for McCain to have earned a PhD in the effectiveness of torture.

Here's Rachel Maddow with the whole ugly business


I wouldn't take McCain's position simply out of an appeal to authority argument, but I wouldn't dismiss it out of hand either. And I certainly wouldn't say he doesn't understand how torture works. It's not an appeal to authority to say if I disagreed with McCain on this issue I would feel obligated to come to the duel with more than a creepy smile and my middle class upbringing.

Being authoritative about a topic doesn't make someone automatically right. But it does mean they have to be shown to be wrong. 

By the way. This is not, in my opinion, the most disgusting thing Rick Santorum has ever said in a political debate:

I suppose I can bring myself to understand how Bob Casey Jr. 'senate candidate and son of a popular former governor' could sit inches from a guy telling him his dead father would be disappointed in him with no reaction other than a pained smile. But having buried my father in the Appalachians of Pennsylvania where I grew up, I will never understand how Bob Casey Jr.   'Irish-American kid from Scranton' didn't reach over and beat some much needed respect into Santorum.

If you have never had the misfortune of having Rick Santorum represent you in Congress there is no way you could understand just how repulsive I find him.

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