For the closing days of summer, I am posting every chapter of the first edition of Everything You Believe Is Wrong. My enemies ravaged the first edition, inserting typos galore while I was distracted in the service of our people. I here leave their efforts untouched, so that the insidiousness of their behavior is plain. Meanwhile, I am completely revamping and expanding the book, and looking forward to incorporating your comments and criticisms (no need to point out typos and grammar errors). The second edition will be glorious.
This is the Chapter 6: Stars In Our Eyes.
Every kid learns what seems to be, but isn’t, the Appeal to Authority Fallacy early when he asks “Why should I?” and is told “Because I said so.” Only this isn’t a proper fallacy because kids should listen to and honor their parents, and because parents, besides having authority over their children, typically know what’s best for them, and what’s best is in the command, but unspoken. What’s best is in tacit premises behind the father’s “Because”, which turns what might be a fallacy into wisdom.
Yet a lazy father, or school official, or bureaucrat might, and often does not, have these tacit wisdom premises in mind when issuing directives. That’s when we have the hoary old Authority Fallacy. This is where an authority says the proposition he is asserting is true because he, the authority, is touting it.
This is an informal fallacy because the proposition asserted could, and in some areas of expertise, often is, true. Thus a pilot who says “This airplane can fly because I say so” is technically committing a fallacy, because the airplane is not flying because he said so. It is still flying, though. So his statement is not false. It is only his deduction that is in error (there’s the logical sinew snapping again).
People are fooled by this simple fallacy, but they are just as easily disabused of it when it is pointed out. Because of this, there is no chapter in this book specifically devoted to the Appeal to Authority. There is another, far better, reason for skipping it, though. That is the existence of a far worse, far more pernicious, and far more destructive fallacy which is a kin to the Appeal to Authority.
This is the Appeal to Non-Authority Fallacy.
I shiver when thinking of it. No fallacy is good, of course, but not all fallacies are equal in their pestilential powers. The Ultimate Fallacy has the worst individual consequences, but the Appeal to Non-Authority is the most annoying.
Modern advertising, and, more depressingly, our entire media and governmental apparatus, relies on and seeks out this fallacy. We could even say it is worshiped.
In my Stats 101 class notes Breaking the Law of Averages (a free pdf on my website1), I asked this Chapter One homework question (stick with me, here): “Stanford Financial took out a full page ad in the Wall Street Journal with a picture of golfer Vijay Singh listing his enormous number of tournament wins with the words `Vijay Means Victory.’ Given this evidence, what is the probability Stanford Financial won’t lose money on your investment?”
The obvious answer is that you can’t know. Singh’s golfing prowess is irrelevant, inconsequential, incidental to whether gambles (i.e. “investments”) with Stanford Financial will lose or win you money. Logically, they may as well have touted my golf scores, or yours. They may as well in their ad featured a pretty actress and printed the words “This is a pretty actress and we are Stanford Financial”. The logical content would be the same. Which is to say, it would have had none at all. Singh, God bless him, is a Non-Authority on financial matters. Listening to him, as it were, on investments because he is an authority in some sport is insane.
Beer commercials use the same ploy with beautiful girls, though everybody knows beautiful girls have nothing to do with fermented rice (some breweries still use barley) and hops. The technique works and does sell beer. Well, the Wall Street Journal is aimed at well-educated elites and golf is a rich-man’s game. Which proves that even those who think themselves sophisticated and well educated are as prone to the fallacy as unlettered beer swillers.
Our culture worships celebrity, and has done so for quite some time, at least a few generations, so that we no longer see it as odd or unsightly. It is strange, this worship, and a sure sign of decadence.
Lieutenant General Sir John Bagot Glubb, the respected founder and leader of the famed Arab Legion, wrote an essay, now remembered only by a few, entitled “The Fate of Empires” in which he discovered a common end to civilizations. “The heroes of declining nations are always the same,” he said, “the athlete, the singer or the actor. The word `celebrity’ today is used to designate a comedian or a football player, not a statesman, a general, or a literary genius.”
In the latter half of the Ninth Century the cultured remnant in Baghdad, Glubb said, “commented bitterly on the extraordinary influence acquired by popular singers over young people, resulting in a decline in sexual morality.” Pop singers “accompanied their erotic songs on the lute”, and “much obscene sexual language came increasingly into use”. The singers were often banned, but just as often returned.
Sound familiar? If not, then look at the lyrics of today’s most popular songs. Listen to the “music.” All of attributes discovered by Glubb are shared in our declining age.
Except it’s worse with us, because we have invented the category famous-for-being-famous. Singing and running with a ball requires at least requires talent, but being noticed requires nothing except the ability for self-promotion. Which we reward with all manner of riches—and attention. That we listen and heed these mush-minded non-entities on any matter is, I consider, sufficient proof of our impending doom.
Instead of being scorned and ridiculed, celebrity endorsements of any kind are welcomed and praised. When have you ever heard anybody laugh at a Congressman who invited, say, a football player to give testimony on a subject in which the celebrity is a Non-Authority? The celebrity himself may be teased by those on the other side of the question for his ignorance, but that he was invited in the first place seems to no one idiotic.
Actors, singers, and sports players are used by our elites to lecture us on every imaginable subject. Except the subjects of acting, singing, and playing ball. Celebrities, with vanishingly rare exceptions, which occur when celebrities become ex-celebrities and learn some new skill, are always non-authorities. They should therefore never be listened to.
They are, though. People hunger for celebrity and identify with celebrity so strongly that every time it is learned a celebrity has adopted a viewpoint similar to one’s own, there is a (forgive the word) celebration. It makes us happy to learn a celebrity, a vapid nothing and Non-Authority, has agreed with us. We also don’t want to disappoint our celebrities, and so we are willing to be persuaded by their non-authoritative arguments. This is pathetic.
Celebrities are also often heard braying about pet causes, even when they are not being paid or sponsored by any elite. There is no strict fallacy here because in a democracy where everybody must have an opinion on every subject, celebrities must have opinions, too. We are all most of us non-authorities most of the time on most of the subjects we are made to have opinions about. Yet when we offer an opinion on a subject on which know little, we aren’t and shouldn’t be heeded, whereas celebrities are.
What’s especially distressing are those times when a celebrity speaks out on a technical subject about which they are ignorant, and when the experts in this field don’t admonish or correct the celebrity, but instead welcome the celebrity support. A popular subject at the time of writing is the thermodynamics of externally heated fluid flow on a rotating sphere. That’s the more technical name of global cooling (1970s), global warming (1990s), and climate change (2010s): the name changes with the politics. The number of people who can grasp this subject such that what they have to say on it is interesting and worthy is small, very small. Your author is one of them, hence the many examples in this book, including an important one below.
No celebrity I know of is versed in this technical and rigorous subject. Yet it has not stopped a small army of actors, singers, novelists, fashion designers, and other Hollywood effluvia from warning us that the earth is doomed unless their favorite solution is implemented. This kind of fluff is expected in a democracy, yes. What makes it a true disaster is the scientists who also favor the same solution as the celebrities never correct the celebrities for their many mistakes. Partly this sympathetic scientists reasoning that the ends justify the means. But a good number of these scientists are also star struck.
As of this writing, there is in physics no consummated marriage between the theories of gravity and relativity. Two major competing rivals for this matrimony are string theory and loop quantum gravity. Both are hideously complex theories, and both purport to explain how gravity and relativity work together. To explain these theories even in their bare outline would take pages.
All we have to know here is that they are both serious contenders, and that neither is close to simple. Physicists, being made of people, and rivalries being rivalries, heated words have been known to be exchanged between the string and quantum loop gravity partisans.
This rivalry would not be of much interest to us, except that for some odd reason it excited the interest of middle and high schoolers a little while back. Maybe you remember it. These kids actually organized themselves all across the Western world in early 2019. They took a Friday off to protest against string theory, which somehow offended their sensibilities. Kids these days! The media gave these brats much play; they were encouraged by their parents and teachers. It was a “thing.”
Spokes-student Greta Thunberg was widely quoted as saying, “It’s, like, loop quantum gravity is, like, so close to our beliefs as, like, youth? I’m like, `Whoever heard of strings? You can’t, like, see them?'” She pointed to her lace-less sneakers as proof there was no need of string theory. “Like, quantum foam speaks to our lived experience.”
“You have to, like, have no brain to believe in branes [branes are a feature of the topology of string theory]. I’m all like `How dare you!’,” she added, before logging on to her Instagram account and posting a selfie looking cute while ignoring a reporter’s question.
Here’s what’s odd. These kids have no training whatsoever in physics, not a scratch, not a hint, not a whisper. Yet they’re they were, going on strike the world over to protest a concept which they cannot possibly understand. About which they were appallingly ignorant. About which they knew nothing. Nothing as in niets nada nill naught zero zilch zippo.
Isn’t that bizarre?
Wait, don’t answer yet! For I also have this tidbit for you to assimilate: their protest was a sort of success. Yes. Confidence in loop quantum gravity was bolstered in the minds of most people because of the protest. It cannot be denied that string theory became a little sordid, almost an embarrassment to profess.
This was a true story. Except it wasn’t loop quantum gravity the kids “raised awareness” about. It was global warming. The spokes-student Greta Thunberg is real, as was the adulation by the media, teachers, parents, and politicians about the protest. All agreed that what these kids did was a great and noble thing—even though these kids didn’t have a clue what they were talking about.
If the Argument from Non-Authority is asinine using cele-brities, it is preposterous using children. Adults, being older, have at least the chance for educating themselves in subjects which inflame their dudgeon. Children, unless they are true prodigies, are necessarily ignorant. There were no prodigies among the global warming kids.
Why should we listen to kids? Answer: we should not. We do, though. Why?
Everywhere children are employed to “raise awareness” on those subjects most interesting to our leaders. The explanation why this is done is simple. Children are innocent, they are pure. Their morals have not yet been corrupted. If they are concerned about a thing, because they are pure, the thing itself must be pure. And if things it must be that the thing should be investigated. This chain of reasoning is almost too obviously fallacious to bear mentioning. That we have to mention it is proof of how far gone we are.
If these wee brats are anxious and exercised to great degree, if their passions run hot, if they weep for “the cause”, because we love them we take them seriously. Even though in cases like global warming they should be spanked and sent to bed without dessert. Rather, it is their parents and authorities that need spanking. It was they who put the kids up to this, knowing the kids were unschooled and would be used as political pawns.
The Argument from Non-Authority when used involving kids becomes the Earnestness Fallacy, a form of the Meta Fallacy. We can’t help ourselves. We all take a person’s level of passion as a rough guide to the truth of a proposition they are espousing.
For everyday concerns, this is not a bad rule of thumb. It is always a strict fallacy, but we can work with it. If mom swears up and down she left her glasses at the Pilates class, even though an initial call to the facility produces a denial from the manager, it’s still not out of the question that’s where her glasses are.
If instead a child takes to the street and says, “I demand we ignore all uncertainties in ten-year global temperature forecasts resulting from the use of unverified, shaky cloud parameterization schemes,” we might think this child is advanced beyond her years. She might indeed have something interesting to say on the subject of global cooling.
But if a group of brats chant “Stop climate change!”, and they use real tears to emphasize their tenacity, we know we are dealing with the rabble and the Earnestness Fallacy. A cute, kind, innocent, well-meaning rabble, but a rabble nonetheless.
(Incidentally, the climate on earth cannot be stopped from changing. This is not just unlikely, it is impossible, and it is impossible no matter what “solution” is proposed.)
The opposite of the Argument from Non-Authority is the Those Darn Non-Authorities Fallacy. It isn’t necessarily true that because a brat or actor or some other celebrity is trotted out that therefore the subject on which they are preaching is false. It’s true that an actor is a person who stands where he is told, wears what he is told, moves as he is told, emotes as he is told, and, of course, speaks as he is told, and is thus akin to an empty-minded machine.
But it could just happen the lines written for him this time are true words. Think Shakespeare. And so the words cannot be dismissed out of hand. Unless those true words are about how to stand, move, emote, and say what you are told, i.e. about the practice of acting, there is no good reason to heed them, though.
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