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.
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.)
You might have no idea that a local group called Fluoride Free NRV, spearheaded by Dan Steinberg, is attempting to rally public support for an end to the fluoridation of our water, which they denounce as “ineffective for preventing cavities”, “harmful to public health”, and “unethical forced medication”. (But then i would conclude that you must not live in Blacksburg.) In November a friend of mine handed me a copy of this flier at the Farmers Market, asking if i’d join the campaign, and Mr. Steinberg got a blurb on the last Environmental Coalition newsletter of the semester. I’ve been doing some research in response to a few of the scarier (and stranger) claims the group has made, and, suffice to say, i’m not panicking.