Appeal to Expert Opinion: Arguments from Authority

Appeal to Expert Opinion: Arguments from Authority

Appeal to Expert Opinion: Arguments from Authority

Appeal to Expert Opinion: Arguments from Authority

Synopsis

A new pragmatic approach, based on the latest developments in argumentation theory, analyzing appeal to expert opinion as a form of argument. Reliance on authority has always been a common recourse in argumentation, perhaps never more so than today in our highly technological society when knowledge has become so specialized-as manifested, for instance, in the frequent appearance of "expert witnesses" in courtrooms. When is an appeal to the opinion of an expert a reasonable type of argument to make, and when does it become a fallacy? This book provides a method for the evaluation of these appeals in everyday argumentation. Specialized domains of knowledge such as science, medicine, law, and government policy have gradually taken over as the basis on which many of our rational decisions are made daily. Consequently, appeal to expert opinion in these areas has become a powerful type of argument. Challenging an argument based on expert scientific opinion, for example, has become as difficult as it once was to question religious authority. Walton stresses that even in cases where expert opinion is divided, the effect of it can still be so powerful that it overwhelms an individual's ability to make a decision based on personal deliberation of what is right or wrong in a given situation. The book identifies the requirements that make an appeal to expert opinion a reasonable or unreasonable argument. Walton's new pragmatic approach analyzes that appeal as a distinctive form of argument, with an accompanying set of appropriate critical questions matching the form. Throughout the book, a historical survey of the key developments in the evolution of the argument from authority, dating from the time of the ancients, is given, and new light is shed on current problems of "junk science" and battles between experts in legal argumentation.

Excerpt

Many of the things we accept are, inevitably, accepted on the basis of authority. If I get a diagnosis of my illness from a physician, I may get a second opinion, but even that opinion has been put forward by a certified expert. I may look up accounts of my illness in a medical library, but these too are written by experts. Of course, we presume that these pronouncements are based on scientifically verified facts, but once again this assumption is only guaranteed by the experimenters being experts in the scientific field in question. If you think of it, in fact, nearly everything we believe is believable because it is based on the opinions of experts. In this age of specialization and professionalization, it is not possible to escape accepting things on the basis of authority.

We like to think, however, that we can make up our own minds individually and autonomously on what to believe, reserving the right to be skeptical and using our own best judgment on what to think with respect to those opinions that really matter. But how real is this cognitive autonomy, given the dominance of fields of expertise and scientific authority in modern civilization? Can the individual thinker really question the established views that constitute the wall of expert scientific opinion that surrounds him or her and have a rational opinion that . . .

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