So, it’s just an average day and you’re having a debate about climate change. If we assume that the debate is framed in the black and white way used by almost every major news publication then you’re probably arguing for or against anthropogenic (human caused) climate change.
The question is, as a busy person who doesn’t have the time to do the research, what appeal to authority can you make to strengthen your argument?
An appeal to authority is when you use the position of an expert or institution in place of an actual argument.
This might take shape like this, “Bono says that peace is important, so I do too.”
An appeal to authority can sound great, and in some cases (not in the case of Bono) it does strengthen your argument. For instance, “Doctor X has been researching the impact of Y for ten years and has found Z. Therefore I argue that Y causes Z.”
But problems occur when we fail to critically evaluate why we’ve used one expert over another.
Let’s look at an example.
Say I was opposed to human caused climate change and wanted to make the point that alarmist positions with regards to rising temperatures in Australia were spreading a misconception that climate change was happening faster because of human activity.
To find evidence to support my perspective (not that you should technically be finding evidence to support your view, it is technically supposed to happen the other way round – but that’s a topic for another day) I might go to the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change’s archive and look for a report on temperature change in Australia.
Oh, and here’s the report I’m talking about (or, more accurately, here’s a quite biased summary of the report).
So now, armed with my report showing that only alarmists believe that Australia is warming significantly faster than the rest of the globe, I feel comfortable saying the following.
“Because of this report and the NIPCC, I believe that climate change is not anthropogenic.”
Which all seems pretty straight forward, right?
Well… there are some problems with approaching evidence and citing experts in this way.
For one thing, I haven’t constructed a proper argument – I’ve just used two sources of authority that I agree with. And, in selecting my material, I’ve cherry picked evidence by going straight to the NIPCC rather than performing a wider search.
This first level of problems with my argument are simple enough, and they happen often enough when we’re stretched for time – or when we don’t want to admit that opposing arguments exist.
But there’s a second level of issues which are more troubling. These issues relate to my use of ‘experts’. The NIPCC, for those who don’t know, are a group of climate change skeptics who are financially supported by the Heartland Institute. If this weren’t troubling enough (as the Heartland Institute is backed by fossil fuel companies among others), then I should also note that the NIPCC has previously been accused of pseudoscience. Accusations of misrepresentation and, in some cases, data modification have been floating around for quite some time.
The impact on my argument is that my ‘evidence’ is now weakened because the authority I’ve appealed to can be shown to be flawed and (really really) disreputable.
What are the implications for the way we argue about climate change?
To put it simply, when we talk about any controversial topic it’s important to at least be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the authorities you mean to rely on. Otherwise you might just find yourself a little red faced.