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Authority

CONTENTS

Zen & Understanding the Middle East

Introduction
Sellers' Market
Will to Believe
Rules of Thumb

"The truth is out there "
Use & misuse of words
False information signals more false information
Technical whiz-bang
Understand the Context
Lies, More Lies, Damn Lies and Newspapers
Beware of Generalizations
Theology and scripture
Misleading Statistics
Smoke in your eyes
What is Missing?
Myth versus fact versus narrative
The past was not like the present; the future will be different

Fallacy Recognition in the Middle East

Fallacies and Arguments
Cause and Effect
Slippery Slope
Gambler's Fallacy
Ad Hominem
Authority
Beliefs
Appeal to Novelty
Appeal to Emotion
Appeal to Tradition
False Dilemma or Black and White Thinking
Special Pleading
The Spotlight Fallacy
Who is to Say?

Fallacy Handbook

Authority

Reference: Appeal to Authority

Arguments based on authority are, in a way, the opposite of the "Ad Hominem type error. An argument cannot be discounted solely because the person who advances it is distasteful or has a bad character, nor can it be accepted solely because the person is an "authority." LaBossiere notes that arguments based on the opinions of "authorities" are not cogent if the persons are not experts in the field. The opinions of an American movie star or a millionaire about the Middle East are not more valid than those of their taxi driver. Unfortunately, the millionaire or the movie star have far greater resources and can use them to make their opinions known and ensure that they are respected.

However, appeal to authority regarding questions of empirical fact is always risky, no matter what the status of the person in question. Experts and authorities can only give definitive statements about matters which it is in their competence to define. The king can define the law of the realm. If he says poaching is against the law, then it is true by definition. The religious authorities can define the laws of religion. If they say poaching is immoral, then it is immoral. But if the king or the moral authorities say 'there is no poaching in the land,' it may be true or not, and it doesn't depend on their authority. If brother John saw Bill Smith shoot a deer, then it doesn't matter a bit if King Henry proclaimed that there is no poaching.

The greatest authorities in the world believed, prior to the 19th century, that heavier than air flight was impossible, that men would never walk on the moon, that "negroid" "races" were "inferior" to "caucasoid" "races, and many other things we no longer hold to be true.

Regarding the Middle East, you can find an authority to back any opinion or point of view and to advance just about any factual assertion. Choose the right authority and you can put the population of "Palestine" (no such political entity at the time) in 1900 at anywhere from 200,000 to about 500,000 souls (see  here ) , and you can spin all manner of arguments based on that. You can find authorities who insist that radical Islamism will evolve to moderate democracy, and authorities who insist that the opposite is true. They all have cogent arguments and data to back their assertions.

John Esposito and Bernard Lewis are both authorities on the Middle East, but they have opposing views on many questions. The only thing we can say is that the fact that Bernard Lewis or John Esposito are recognized authorities on the Middle East makes it far more likely that there is some truth in their opinions than in those of John Doe, who is from Smallville USA, and can't find the Middle East on a map. They may both agree on the facts, but their interpretation of those facts will be different.

The fact that we cannot rely only on authorities for an understanding of the Middle East presents a real problem. As we noted, humans rely on others for most of our information. If we are sick, we go to a doctor to get a diagnosis and we rely on his or her opinion. If we want to know the capital of Afghanistan we consult a book, and if we want to know how a computer or an automobile works we consult other books written by authorities, or we consult experts. But regarding political questions, and especially in the Middle East, it is virtually impossible to find an unbiased political expert.

 

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