Tag Archives: appeal to authority

Scott Aaronson

[W]e all know that arguments from authority carry little weight: what should sway you is not the mere fact of some other person stating their opinion, but the actual arguments and evidence that they’re able to bring.  Except that as we’ve seen, for Bayesians with common priors this isn’t true at all!  Instead, merely hearing your friend’s opinion serves as a powerful summary of what your friend knows.  And if you learn that your rational friend disagrees with you, then even without knowing why, you should take that as seriously as if you discovered a contradiction in your own thought processes.  This is related to an even broader point: there’s a normative rule of rationality that you should judge ideas only on their merits—yet if you’re a Bayesian, of course you’re going to take into account where the ideas come from, and how many other people hold them!  Likewise, if you’re a Bayesian police officer or a Bayesian airport screener or a Bayesian job interviewer, of course you’re going to profile people by their superficial characteristics, however unfair that might be to individuals—so all those studies proving that people evaluate the same resume differently if you change the name at the top are no great surprise.  It seems to me that the tension between these two different views of rationality, the normative and the Bayesian, generates a lot of the most intractable debates of the modern world.

Scott Aaronson, ‘Common Knowledge and Aumann’s Agreement Theorem’, Shtetl-Optimized, August 14, 2015

C. D. Broad

When I ask my expert colleagues whether I can safely accept Eddington’s conclusions in these matters, they always answer in the negative. But this does not satisfy me. For I am quite convinced that their unfavourable answer is not based on a first-hand study of the arguments. It is quite plain that their attitude may be summed up in the sentence: “This kind of thing must be wrong somewhere; but I can’t be expected to waste my valuable time in finding out precisely where the mistake lies.”

C. D. Broad, ‘Sir Arthur Eddington’s The Philosophy of Physical Science’, Philosophy, vol. 15, no. 59 (1940), p. 312

Henry Sidgwick

It is sometimes said that we live in an age that rejects authority. The statement, thus qualified, seems misleading; probably there never was a time when the number of beliefs held by each individual, undemonstrated and unverified by himself, was greater. But it is true that we only accept authority of a peculiar sort; the authority, namely, that is formed and maintained by the unconstrained agreement of individual thinkers, each of whom we believe to be seeking truth with single-mindedness and sincerity, and declaring what he has found with scrupulous veracity, and the greatest attainable exactness and precision.

Henry Sidgwick, ‘The Ethics of Religious Conformity’, International Journal of Ethics, vol. 6, no. 3 (April, 1896), p. 280