Robert Meyer
Non-partisanship, "credible" authority and truth by consensus
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By Robert Meyer
December 21, 2015

Three things which make me perpetually suspicious are claims of non-partisanship, "credible" authority and truth by consensus.

A common tactic employed by editorial writers attempting to make their viewpoint credible, is to quote statistics or perspectives that come from organizations which are officially recognized as non-partisan or not-for-profit. The strategy is effective because in the mind of the public, this ploy creates the impression that the mentioned groups are unbiased or have nothing to gain from promulgating their observations and conclusions. But nothing could be further from the truth.

When I was in high school a popular beverage company produced an advertisement that touted their product by claiming that it contained more food energy than orange juice. In a manner, they were telling the truth about their beverage. But, I laughed about the commercial because I knew that "food energy" was really just a glorified way of saying more calories. They were trying to deceive the public by conflating the phrase "food energy" with the idea of nutritional value. In principle, the same deceptive practice is in play when "non-partisan" is equated with "unbiased."

The term "non-partisan" only means that the identified group is not directly affiliated with a political party. It tells us nothing about whether the group has a blatant ideology or agenda. Why would it even be necessary to say that an organization was non-partisan, unless somebody lacked confidence that the arguments proper were not communicating an apparent objectivity? Likewise, being a non-profit organization doesn't neutralize personal motives, specific advocacy or the influence of money on the conclusions of research or studies.

All persons have biases. All organizations are made up of people with biases and desires for particular outcomes. There is no neutrality. Such is the nature of the human experience. A group or organization can be reasonably even-handed only to the extent that there are adequate checks and balances in its decision making procedures to reign in these human tendencies.

My advice is to identify the persistent agenda of the writers in question, and to determine whether the statistics or perspectives highlighted are selective or truncated, in an attempt to create a false impression. Unfortunately, most of us are emotionally invested in a particular ideology, and interpret all evidence or data in light of that preexisting bias.

How often we hear about the appeal to expertise. A statement may begin with the statement "Most credible experts agree that..." Immediately I ask the question as to what counts for "credible." Does it mean that the authority in question has sufficient educational credentials or experience to be an expert on the matter, or does it merely convey the idea that the sources quoted are credible because they serve to buttress the author's current opinion? The latter motive is begging the question. For that matter, I think it rather naive to assume that every expert is objective or unbiased just because of their specialized knowledge base. The temptation to deceive or manipulate people might be all the greater if one already has public standing to command attention.

This phenomenon is quite prevalent when the discussion turns to "science." We are offered the positive definition of science, meant to cover for the less than pristine normative practices for maintaining the orthodoxy as articulated by "anointed authorities." We are reminded of the versatility and self-corrective nature of scientific investigation, then in the next breathe, we hear the oxymoronic declaration that "The science is settled."

This concept was articulated by the late Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard who said, "Our [scientists'] ways of learning about the world are strongly influenced by the social preconceptions and biased modes of thinking that each scientist must apply to any problem. The stereotype of a fully rational and objective 'scientific method,' with individual scientists as logical and interchangeable robots, is self-serving mythology."

The proper forums for scientific debate are in the laboratories and through publications in the specialized professional journals. When these debates are held before congressional committees and in courts of law, I'm suspicious about whether the goal is truthfulness or intimidation of those who dare to dissent. That's brings us to what I call "The worthless consensus."

How often are we told that we ought to believe something because of an overwhelming consensus? What we are never told is how this consensus is determined, or what it means. If 97% of those in a particular field agree on something, is it because they all came to that conclusion independently, or simply because the many have acquiesced to the prevailing orthodoxy? Don't scientists, just like other career professionals, have a desire to advance in their careers and feed their families? If dissenting might threaten those objectives, it might be quite inconvenient to express skepticism.

For myself, I would rather hear the reasons why the "3 percent" demur, and then be able to decide for myself whether these people are crackpots, iconoclasts, or just being courageous. I doubt the consensus whenever persuasion is replaced by intimidation or shaming. The latter is becoming too frequent. It leads to a worthless consensus.

© Robert Meyer

 

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Robert Meyer

Robert Meyer is a hardy soul who hails from the Cheesehead country of the upper midwest... (more)

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