Letter to the editor: Be wary of politically motivated authorities

Maarten Meinders

A recent rebuttal of Rachel Steinmetz’s letter stated that her recommended book, “Dissolving Illusions,” has been “largely discounted by respected science authorities.” Without going into the merits of Ms. Steinmetz’s arguments, this strikes me as a hollow argument. This is known as the appeal to authority fallacy. In today’s toxic-debate climate, a major problem is that one man’s experts are often regarded as another man’s political lackey. It is always worth asking, “Which experts and what are their political leanings?”

That does not make them wrong, but it also doesn’t make the book unworthy of reading because someone’s favorite experts say so. Critical thinking would suggest that one might read the book, judge it upon its merit and then evaluate the criticisms. Anyone can find criticism to anything, but is the criticism politically biased?

This issue often shows up in Wikipedia through the sources they list after each claim. Just hover over them. Too often, a derogatory statement is made about “Dr. John Doe,” a highly respected rocket scientist, as if the claim is a settled, universally acknowledged fact. It’s something like, “Dr. Doe has repeatedly spread disinformation about such and such.” Such absolute statements need to be examined. It is not uncommon that his critics are direct competitors or are known to have an extreme political bias. It is also worth knowing if maybe Dr. Doe is being denigrated by a politicized opinion writer with a degree in underwater basket weaving. In that case, the absoluteness of the judgment that John Doe is a disinformant is misleading. It really should say, “Dr. Doe has been denounced by left- or right-leaning critics for spreading disinformation.” This allows the reader to distinguish unbiased “respected science authorities” from opinionated basket weavers, whether the underwater kind or the dry ones.

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