Saturday, May 18, 2024

Argument from authority

From Wikipedia:

Scientific knowledge is best established by evidence and experiment rather than argued through authority as authority has no place in science. Carl Sagan wrote of arguments from authority: "One of the great commandments of science is, 'Mistrust arguments from authority.' ... Too many such arguments have proved too painfully wrong. Authorities must prove their contentions like everybody else." Conversely, it has been argued that science is fundamentally dependent on arguments from authority to progress as "they allow science to avoid forever revisiting the same ground".

One example of the use of the appeal to authority in science dates to 1923, when leading American zoologist Theophilus Painter declared, based on poor data and conflicting observations he had made, that humans had 24 pairs of chromosomes. From the 1920s until 1956, scientists propagated this "fact" based on Painter's authority, despite subsequent counts totaling the correct number of 23. Even textbooks with photos showing 23 pairs incorrectly declared the number to be 24 based on the authority of the then-consensus of 24 pairs.

This seemingly established number generated confirmation bias among researchers, and "most cytologists, expecting to detect Painter's number, virtually always did so". Painter's "influence was so great that many scientists preferred to believe his count over the actual evidence", and scientists who obtained the accurate number modified or discarded their data to agree with Painter's count.

Economics is a minefield of Theophilus Painters. By comparison, the 30-odd years of Painter's dominance in zoology was a golden age.

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