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Appeal to Numbers and Supposed Authority

When I was in the U. S. Air Force, I had to attend a human relations training program. The instructor was enlisted, but very proudly informed us of his two master’s level degrees. During the course of his presentation he brought up a particular bumper sticker, which happened to be one I had on my car. Of course my buddies made sure he knew I had one, and so he starts to make his point about how I should not have such a bumper sticker. When I disagreed, and pointed out that nobody was obliged to obey my bumper sticker, he became quite annoyed. During a break he came to me and said, “I have a master’s degree in management and one in human relations. Don’t you think I know what I’m talking about?” He had no way to know that I also had a graduate degree, though I possess only a meager one of the same, but he was very shocked when I said that I too had one of those pieces of paper and so was in a good position to know what it was worth.

His was an argument from authority, and at least it came from an area in which he could claim some authority. He might even have had a point about my bumper sticker. 🙂 But today I’m interested in the argument from authority when one has no authority, and the argument from numbers when one is in the minority. Religious debates, and particularly creation-evolution debates, are often characterized by these types of claims.

Recently in an online debate I observed someone arguing in favor of a young earth brought up a paper on ocean sediments and their evidence for the age of the earth. When another correspondent questioned the report, the first individual called him an undergraduate student critiquing a paper by a PhD in geology. We get various forms of the argument from authority and the argument from numbers in creation-evolution debates all the time and it’s really quite a humorous process. (You can find this discussion on The Religion Forum.

Before I go into this just a little more, let me give you relevant links on this topic. The ocean sediment argument is one of those that is so simplistic and so bad that there really aren’t that many detailed refutations online, so let me give some links. First, the source article is ICR’s Impact #8, Evolution: The Oceans Say No!. Note that while the author’s credentials right now are listed as an MS degree, since this document was written, he has received a PhD. Now in case anyone is interested in the basic refutation to this, try the following article from the US Geological Survey: Developing the theory. It gives some of the basics and should lead you to some answers. In addition, Glenn R. Morton’s article Young Earth Arguments: A Second Look and the following article, The Age of the Earth from the Talk Origins Archive expands on material that may not be fully obvious from the more general article.

Note that there are many people who are quite thoroughly qualified in the field who challenge the views of this “PhD in geology.” And this is the thing that got me thinking about this particular blog entry. Let me give another example. I was debating a Seventh-day Adventist about the proper interpretation of Daniel 8:13 & 14. (I’m ex-SDA, so I occasionally get into these debates.) This individual cites some SDA authorities on the subject, which happen to include my uncle Don F. Neufeld, editor of the SDA Bible Commentary. When I do not accept these individuals as authority (my late uncle would have been appalled at the notion that I would accept his position on authority, but that’s beside the point), he asked how I could hold my opinion against “all those experts.” He suggested I was alone in my opinion. Now I’m not particularly concerned about being alone on an issue, but I found that very interesting, because the interpretation I was proposing is, in fact, one that is either supported or offered as an option by practically every commentary on the book of Daniel. Those who hold the “investigative judgment” position that is held by many SDAs are in a distinct minority. And that is not relevant. I would never use the argument that the SDA position is a minority position as a refutation of that position. It’s perfectly possible that a minority position can be right.

But it again is an example of someone in a position of weakness trying to use the appeal to numbers. The idea is to convince the person holding a minority view that their view is untenable because it is a minority view. But the argument from numbers when one is in a minority position already is a peculiar form of deception, or even of self-deception. I think the two arguments–from (false) authority, and from (false) numbers are closely related, and they are a favorite of creationists of all stripes, from young earth to intelligent design advocates. The number of fake degrees among young earth creationists is one good example (see Some Questionable Creationist Credentials). The fact that they spend a good deal of time talking about the number of people who support them is another.

If you have the evidence, talk about the evidence. If you don’t you have to have something to talk about. But why talk about numbers and authority when those are precisely the things you don’t have? For every PhD that creationists can claim there are thousands in opposition. For examples of the argument from numbers see Project Steve, a satire of lists of people in support of some position or another, when that position is actually supported only by a tiny minority.

Please understand that I am not in any way advocating that one simply accept the real majority position. Sometimes one has to accept authority simply because one is not well enough informed on a particular subject. But those competent in that subject should be able to propose new, minority positions and have them judged on the actual evidence.

I am not certain just why the appeal to (supposed) numbers and the appeal to (alleged) authority are so popular. I can only think of two options. 1) Someone has such a narrow frame of reference that they simply do not comprehend the numbers. I think my SDA friend falls into this category. He was simply unaware of the numbers involved. 2) Someone knows that he has no solid support, but is using deception to convince people who don’t know any better that their position is better than it really is.

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  1. Jay says:

    I’ll take option number 2…

    So Henry, what did the bumper sticker say? 🙂

  2. So Henry, what did the bumper sticker say?

    “America, love it or leave it.” Thing is, today I’d regard the bumper sticker as rude, and wouldn’t put it on my car, though I would still say nobody has to read and/or obey it. One changes as one ages. 🙂

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