References to Authority Can Be Analyzed Thanks to World Wide Web

(Posted 02/17/2007) - Anyone who follows the public discourse is inundated by a diversity of opinion. Much of what is said can be reduced to "my opinion is thus." But at some point one must argue the logic of an opinion if there is dissent. It is here that things get really interesting.

There is a classic debate tool called "Reference to Authority." Instead of building an arguement from basic principles, the advocate makes reference to an expert opinion (an authority) that is widely held as true. A connection to the current debator's position and the authority position is then made by syllogism. This is really a form of logical substitution and as such perfectly reasonable.

But, what if the reference to authority is flawed? If I say Einstein believed in God, and I'm arguing for a belief in Christianity then I'm on shaky ground factually. Einstein was a deist, but not a Christian! Besides, Einstein was a great theoretical physicist, but why should his opinion on theistic religion carry the weight of authority? This demonstrates that what appears to be a reference to authority can fail when the syllogism is examined.

But there is an even more flagrant abuse of reference to authority -- that is when one makes up an authority or makes up fact(s) and attributes them as being part of a wider body of known and accepted truths.This is fraud, but embedded within a complex argument it can buttress the rest of the logic and strengthen the debator's position.

I've reached the point where I'd like to observe that the World Wide Web offers everyone an opportunity to quickly evaluate all references to authority. There are excellent resources for fact checking and for evaluating expert opinion through peer reviewed organizations (the democracy of science).

I'd like to point out just one example of how easy it is to come to the truth these days. It is in fact what prompted this 'soapbox' rant today. I'd heard Congressman Don Young (R-Alaska) stand up during the Congressional debate on Iraq and "quote" Abraham Lincoln as saying that legislators that opposed Lincoln's management of the Civil War should be arrested, exiled, or hanged.

Upon hearing this Reference to Authority, which appears to also equate George Bush's Iraq Occupation with Abraham Lincoln's attempt to put down a Civil War at home, I said to myself -- could Abe really have said this? Off to the Internet to explore; 2-minutes later I'd found 5 different sources that show this "quote" to be total drivel (a fabrication).

Did Abe ever even imply something like what Young attributed as a quote? Here's a reliable resource that attributes the historical documents searched, and which concludes definitevly, no, Lincoln was too good a politician to ever go there (too bad Representative Young is at the other end of the spectrum). Visit FactCheck.Org Here.

There are a lot of folks who love to grab any second hand lie that supports their opinion and run with it -- because if they are called on the misinformation they can argue that it was in the public domain (not their responsibility to fact check their source). I have no sympathy for this tactic. If I use a refrerence to authority in my argument and have not researched the authority, then I'm guilty too. I'd love to see all the self-righteous talking heads and pols stand up and take responsibility for their slovenly research and self serving rhetoric.

But, until they do, let us all do their homework for them and then punish those who use reference to authority inappropriately by proclaiming them liars and scoundrels (are your ears burning Representative Young?).