Before i delve further into the misconferral of authority by antifluoridationists, an i’d like to make point about scientific consensus that i neglected in my previous post. It is easy to think of scientific knowledge as essentially static, with the occasional fact or theory being overturned when new evidence surfaces. We imagine scientific knowledge as a sort of pyramid, with the most reliable knowledge composing the base and provisionality increasing as we move upward. While this model is useful for making the quintessentially (Humean–)Bayesian–Pricean point that stronger evidence should more strongly inform our beliefs, it falls apart as soon as we widen our scope from the single
Providence province to which the pyramid aspires. The sciences are not independent avenues of discovery, as imagery of a field of pyramids might suggest, but highly interdependent configurations of highly intradependent evidences and interpretations.
To draw an analogy of my own: The highly symbolic and culturally entangled concept of gender is not reducible to the space determined by orthogonal (and necessarily binary) spectra of identity, expression, “biological” sex, and attraction; it involves the highly nontrivial and individualized interplay of these factors, each of which in turn arises from the interplay of several distinguishable (if not wholly distinct) factors. A perhaps preferable model of gender is the graph representation of these interrelations: a node for each factor and edges tying them together, with the understanding that any particular node (say, “attraction”) may dissolve into a subnetwork of factors (intimacy, arousal, sexuality, satisfaction, saturation, etc.) on closer scrutiny.
Similarly, out of the intricate network of implications, corroborations, constraints, and tensions that connect elements of our aggregate body of facts and interpretations arises a web of knowledge. Moreover, this web may be anywhere localized, as though sliding a magnifying lens over a paper map, so that all our knowledge may be interpreted in terms of its relevance, or “consequential proximity”, to one’s topic of choice. Ultimately no particular discipline or theory is more “central” than any other.
A friend of mine has a calm, concise, and well-contextualized overview of the latest besuffixed pseudocontroversy in the ongoing Internet sexism wars. Coming into this not from the programmer or even gamer culture but from amidst the -ism schism within the secular/atheist/skeptic communities, i see only a couple of opportunities to weigh in.
For whatever reasons, we tend to think of societal studies as not so much varieties of science as methodologies of investigation that pull to varying degree from the sciences. (And by “we” i include laypeople, other scientists, and several experts.) Yet economics, human history, politics, linguistics, and similar disciplines have, in many respects, become as describable and predictable as such essentially deterministic disciplines as climatology and cosmology.
Given this backdrop, i seem never to tire of hearing news that some or other discipline traditionally consolidated with the arts or humanities is succumbing to a more overtly scientific protocol. There seem to be several flavors to this trend, but the most palatable is perhaps “quantification”.
Most recently, via The Chronicle, the multidisciplinary approach to the study of human societies ushered into the public discourse by the popular writings of Jared Diamond appears to have given rise to a revival of interest in quantitative history. I, meanwhile, was surprised to learn that this interest was a revival, as apparently the original grand attempt at applying scientific methodology to history suffered from as much bias and misapplication as became its better-remembered counterpart two decades later.
Like all informal logical fallacies, the argument from authority is often less a cheap rhetorical tactic than a misemployed heuristic. Because (by definition) a significant burden of evidence or reasoning has been shifted to an authority, whatever scrutiny might have been aimed at that evidence or reasoning now bears upon the source of authority.
In fact, authority is, at least in today’s world, an indispensable source of belief. For instance, when getting dressed we implicitly rely on several authorities: To believe that our clothing is appropriate for the day’s weather, we rely on the authority of weather forecasters; that it is appropriate for our occupation, that of tradition or of seniority; that it is appropriate to our appearance, that of fashion; that it has not been negligently laced with toxins, those of moral standards and of government regulatory agencies; and so on.
Obviously there are authorities generally, or at least widely, thought to be reliable that nonetheless are not. We can know this not just because authorities disagree, but because we have more reliable sources of evidence regarding many things in life than authorities. For example, we don’t (or oughtn’t) rely on weather forecasters to know whether it is currently raining in our own neighborhood, or on political commentators to know whether wealth is fairly distributed, or (solely) on the generic advice of any of our confidants to know what course of action to take with respect to a thorny social situation.
An especially common authority cited with regard to an issue is the expert—someone trained, knowledgeable, and experienced in the issue itself or in some discipline(s) relevant thereto, who can convey and contextualize current best knowledge on the subject and its implications for people’s lives. We rely on the experts who prescribe our meds and tune up our bikes as much as we rely on those who inform our healthcare professionals and policymakers. When an expert speaks about their area of expertise, we tend to listen. (While it’s another story in itself, we even tend to listen carefully to experts when we’re predisposed to—even intent upon—doubting them. When we fall into denial, we crave their validation even as we reject their credibility.)
I was terse in my assertion that agency is a necessary component of morality, so that there are two fronts on which i think i could be clearer and more convincing (to myself, at any rate): (1) more precisely demarcate circumstances involving agency from circumstances not, and (2) addressing some plausible objections to the necessity of agency at all.
Within the terrain near the lower threshold of agency i positioned three examples: viruses, agent-based models, and deterministic games. The first of these may have been unnecessarily complex; the behavior of individual proteins and other molecules within a cell themselves exhibit agency, e.g. by traversing and (un)zipping nucleic acids and by ferrying other chemicals from one location to another. One might then object that these processes are themselves deterministically (in the colloquial sense) governed by regulatory processes that themselves may be described entirely in terms of the quantities and behaviors of substances in the surrounding environment. Thus, the whole cell, something rather more complicated than a virus, might be described analogously to a Rube Goldberg contraption, performing all sorts of tricks but with the underlying mechanisms entirely (or adequately) exposed. From this point of view, the perception of agency vanishes.
I want to argue that this is fine—that agency can depend upon point of view.