Monday, May 16, 2011

If I Could Have One Wish...

Okay, this probably wouldn’t be it. But if I had a short list, this would be on it.

I would ban the “Appeal to Authority” as a rhetorical move on campus.

The “Appeal to Authority” uses the status or stature of someone who holds a position as evidence for the position. It’s fairly common in advertising, where it often takes the form of the celebrity endorsement. Logicians classify it as a fallacy, which is technically correct, but it survives anyway.

It seems particularly common among faculty. “I’ve been teaching this for twenty-five years. If you want to know something about this program, just ask me!” Well, yes and no.

Such a raw appeal to authority covers up multiple issues.

The most basic issue, obviously, is limited perspective. Nobody knows everything. It’s a short shot from “I’m the expert” to “nobody can tell me anything,” though, so the appeal to authority can quickly become hostility to anything new. Being the smartest person in the room for fifteen hours a week, for decades at a time, can lead to some bad habits.

A more subtle issue is that it tends to collapse the distinction between the speaker and the idea. When that happens, criticism of an idea becomes criticism of the speaker. At that point, real dialogue becomes much harder.

Worse, it identifies -- falsely -- certitude with expertise. If the way you can identify the expert is by the vehemence with which she holds a position, then we’re reduced to a shouting match. The people I’ve admired the most have been the ones who have held on to a real inquisitiveness as they’ve gotten older. The blend of inquisitiveness and breadth of experience, when done well, is the best of all possible worlds; it combines the wisdom of experience with the wisdom of a knowledge of one’s own limits. It’s rare, and it doesn’t necessarily correlate with formal education. My grandfather had it, despite dropping out of the ninth grade; I had professors in graduate school who didn’t.

Finally, of course, there’s the basic conflict of interest. Are you advocating idea x because it’s the best available idea, or because it makes your life easier? When the speaker and the speech aren’t separable, conflicts of interest can get naturalized with breathtaking speed. What’s good for General Motors isn’t necessarily good for America, and what’s good for one department isn’t necessarily good for the college, or for the students.

I’ve long thought that there’s a basic disconnect at the core of the academic enterprise: we recruit lively minds, then have them repeat themselves for thirty or forty years. The best ones see the issue early, and find ways to keep the recurring issues fresh. The rest of us either find other things to do, or start to dig in our heels and wield status as a cudgel.

I’ve had my mind changed by campus debates, but never by an appeal to authority. The arguments that have worked -- and this may just be me, but still -- are the ones from on-the-ground practice. “How would that work?” can be far more persuasive than “that’s not how we do things here.” That’s not to say that experience doesn’t count, but it has to be shown to be relevant to the case at hand. The alternative is unthinking deference to age, which fares about as well as any unthinking deference does.

The appeal to authority shuts down discussion before it starts, and enshrines some perfectly awful ideas in holy writ. Now if only I could figure out how to get people to try something else...