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...

Great post, and I completely agree with you. It is one reason why department meetings can be such a drag, when "authority" and "longevity" become conflated.

Let me suggest this, though, and I mean it in a serious way (not snark): talk with your adjuncts. These are people who usually cannot claim "authority" status based on tenure, position, or seniority. They usually MUST keep things fresh, or else they'll be out of a job. And they tend to have much more breadth of experience, because they teach/have taught in many different places. Finally, while loyalty to a school is valuable, so is a willingness to try new things. Adjuncts are more likely to be flexible, both to keep their jobs and because they aren't as wedded to "how we've always done it here."

At any rate, that has been my experience, working with long-term adjuncts & full time, non-tenured faculty in our area. That's where a great deal of innovation comes from on our campus, especially surrounding teaching. (Probably wouldn't work as well for some aspects of faculty governance though, since adjuncts rarely have a voice in those arenas)
"I've been doing this for 25 years, so please take this statement seriously" is an appeal to authority, but it's also pretty reasonable.

The way to defuse this is to say, "I understand that, and because you've been doing this for 25 years, I am definitely listening, but I have someone who also has that kind of experience saying something different, and now I have to mediate."

Separately, just saying that you want to dissociate the idea from the person seems like it would have a lot of strength in a community of professionals, much less intellectuals.
Actually, I have some sympathy with appeals to authority, in very limited situations. Two key factors would be:

(1) It's difficult to find objective information on which to base a decision and

(2) The person making the appeal is not the authority to whom appeal is being made.

So the appeal would go like this: "That's a tough one, and we don't really have much to go on. But Janet, whose judgemnt about things like this has been really good for a long time, thinks xyz."

And if there is widespread agreement that Janets judgement has been really good for a long time, it may at least give us reason to think.
Excellent observation.

We need an expression that can be used as a retort to discourage this ("appeal to authority" isn't very catchy). Email threads have "Goodwin's law" and TV has "Jumping the Shark".

What is striking to me is how often the mistake is made that an appeal to authority will contribute to an argument. At first utterance in a meeting, the voice in my head says (sounds strikingly like HAL from Space Odyssey) "This conversation can serve no purpose anymore."

Given that the better approach to to making a point is to make clear that you have experience,
I have to wonder if the appeal to authority is trotted out for other reasons. I guess I'll need to wait 25 years to find out.
In my experience, those who have earned enough of the respect of their colleagues to be viewed as an authority never need to state the obvious. I am immediately suspicious of anyone who prefaces a statement by an appeal to their authority.

I will confess to having been taken in too many times by such appeals, only to learn from sad experience that the self-claimed authority was talking out of the wrong orifice.
Some excellent points! I would particularly emphasize the conflict of interest aspect, which I find especially problematic when we are talking about decisions and conflicts affecting whole departments or programs. In an era of diminishing resources in many states, which programs should we contract or eliminate? Which should expand? What new programs make sense to embark on even within severe fiscal constraints?

I find it striking, both within academia and in mainstream journalism, how much weight is given to people in faculty positions when seeking pronouncements about what our society/economy/etc need. "Professor of X says Future of America Depends on
Training More Students in X" should be greeted, at the very least, with principled skepticism, since Professor of X has a clear personal financial interest in the outcome being advocated. Instead, the aura of authority seems to make us discard our critical thinking in a way we wouldn't with something more blatantly worthy of it - like, say, "Tobacco executive reassures public that smoking is safe."
It's interesting to me that DD and most of the posters above call out faculty on this. In my experience, appeals to authority are far more endemic to administrators than faculty. In any case, I agree that an appeal to authority typically reflects lazy thinking.
I was going to make a comment about adjunct expertise, but the first commenter said everything I wanted to, only better than I could have.

The only thing I'll add is my personal experience after nearly four decades as an adjunct and full-time faculty member and administrator who doesn't believe in staying in a job more than five years:

I've been at community colleges (more so back in the 70s and 80s) where the senior faculty, including department chairs and division heads, had never taught anywhere else (except perhaps high school) in their entire careers. They were astonishingly unaware how differently things were done or how they could be done at other places -- even colleges just across the street!

There's a good deal to be said for their longevity and the institutional memory it provides, but there's definitely a downside.
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