Thursday, October 27, 2011

Conspiracy Theories and Appeals to Authority

If there's one thing conspiracy theorists are good at, it's making appeals to authority. Whether we're talking 9/11 truthers, climate deniers, creationists, UFO believers, or New World Order nuts, there always seems to be a tendency to name-drop some "expert" who "totally PROVES" the conspiracy in question, rather than providing evidence or arguments firsthand. Check out this website, check out this book, check out this guy's work... the believer may know a few of the primary lines of rhetoric from memory, but rarely are they able to go into a detailed debate without tossing out the names of other conspiracy theorist sources. The funny thing is that you can usually detect an immediate frustration when you call someone out on using biased sources. The reaction is almost always, "Well, so what?!"

An appeal to authority is not always a fallacy, though it is often used fallaciously. There are two major factors that determine the strength of an appeal to authority: if the authority is a legitimate expert, and if there is a consensus among other legitimate experts. By legitimate expert, I mean someone who is actually qualified in the relevant subject - your average preacher is not an expert on evolution, nor is someone like Kent Hovind, who earned his credentials from a diploma mill. That's not to say that someone needs a degree to be considered an expert, but that they must have a demonstrated knowledge of the subject, and in addition, their knowledge must be confirmed by other experts, preferably those who do hold credentials.

Many of the names dropped by conspiracy theorists fail to accommodate either factor. Alex Jones is not a legitimate expert on any subject. The vast majority of scientists disagree with creationist and climate denial theories. When conspiracy writers have no relevant credentials, they call themselves "researchers." Being an independent researcher is nothing in itself, but when a researcher's opinions stray far from the consensus of established experts and qualify as extraordinary claims, it is perfectly reasonable to reject the appeal to authority as fallacious. Conspiracy theorists like to object, saying that consensus and college degrees don't determine truth, and though they're right in principle, the odds that some amateur researcher has stumbled on a real secret missed by countless legitimate experts are quite negligible - it's part of why they are called conspiracies.

Appeals to authority are inductive arguments, which cannot produce a guaranteed conclusion, but only a probable one. Combine this with the improbable needle in a haystack reality of conspiracy theories that I just described, and things look fairly bleak. This is why I'm always much more interested to hear someone's own arguments for their beliefs, rather than just be given a recommendation for some crackpot who I'm not talking to. It seems inconsiderate as well. I'm taking the time to have a conversation with you, so at least grant me the courtesy of a real conversation, not one in which the flow is interrupted by periodic references to books I haven't read, websites I haven't viewed, and so forth. If you can't make a case for your beliefs on your own, it doesn't seem like you really grasp them all that well. And if that's true, why on earth should I care to hear you out in the first place?