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Logical Fallacy

I shall ‘fess up. I did a Physics degree by the seat of my pants and busked the maths. This meant I had to teach myself a lot of maths off my own hook. It gave me a love of the subject that will never fade. So much so that in my final year as an UG (when I had more scope for electives) I did twenty credits of discrete math (but I don’t talk about it much). What is discrete math? It is maths without limits which anyone who has learned The Calculus will understand. For the rest of you in the naughty corner wondering about what the squire on the hippopotamus is equal to I shall explain.

Discrete is stuff like sets and logic and graph theory. It is all whole numbers. But mainly it was logic. I therefore know argumentum ad verecundiam (argument from authority) when I see it and my co-blogger has yanked up two examples recently. In his piece on George Monbiot’s latest de-pramestration which I have described as not even fiskable earlier (it’s in the comments somewhere) the Monbiot (amongst sundry shit) claims this is an argument:

The contribution of a very eminent climate scientist was edited to make him seem like an inconsistent crank, while maverick outsiders were presented as the voices of scientific orthodoxy.

That isn’t even an undergrad error. That is a blatent appeal to authority. My mug of tea tilted and leaked onto the carpet. That is out-fucking-rageous.

That is one of the most stunning things I’ve ever read presented as evidence of anything. OK. Let’s look at cock-ups committed in the sciences by the eminent and their debunking by “maverick outsiders”. I could be here all day but let’s look at just one case. In the late Nineteenth Century a big debate got going about the age of the Earth. It was pretty much kicked off by Darwinian Theory because it was fairly obvious from the get-go that evolution needed a time-scale way beyond anything in the Bible. Some utterly pignorant things were said at the time. The Times ran with the headline “Grandfather was a Horse” which was only true about people from Norfolk. Lord Kelvin, the great thermodynamicist waded into the debate. He “proved” the Solar System was not more than ten thousand years old. He did this by assuming the radiation of the Sun was produced by it’s gravitational contraction. On that he was dead wrong. The Sun shines by nuclear fusion as was proved many years later by Hans Bethe. But that’s not my point. Lord Kelvin was a peer of the realm, ennobled for his scientific work. He was authority. And this is how wrong he was:

I have cocked-up at times but… I never got anything out by that sort of factor. I never tried to invade Russia either.

And then the Enumerator of Felines mentions homeopathy. An argument in it’s favour is presented by some complete maroon thusly:

In a statement, a Boots spokesperson said: “Homeopathy is recognised by the NHS”.

Wowsers! That is a double appeal to authority. Boots is a huge company. It is therefore an authority. The NHS is also an authority and the largest purchaser of drugs on the planet. Yeah, even more than Pete Doherty.

I think a fair few folk ought to be pistol-whipped onto my Discrete Math course at Nottingham University (which purely co-incidentally was founded by Sir Jesse Boot, the pharmacist). Well, he was an authority too. He managed to buy up a big chunk of the East Midlands and build Trent College (he was later ennobled to Lord Trent) on it. Well, he had created a stunningly successful business and set-up a pretty good university to er… boot.

Sapientia Urbs Conditur as at least one of our regular readers ought to recognise.


  1. CountingCats says:

    It was pretty much kicked off by Darwinian Theory

    Nah, Darwin was able to consider Deep Time (although he didn’t call it that) because his mate Charles Lyell wrote a book which just about founded the modern science of geology. This popularised the concept of Uniformitarianism, which now forms the basis of just about every science (excepting AGW), and which suggests long time scales in order to produce the results we see around us.

  2. Pa Annoyed says:

    Reminds me of John Brignell’s essay.

    Anyway, the whole IPCC thing is one huge massive appeal to authority. “Thousands of peer reviewed scientists in consensus”, and all that. In fact, I’m not sure if most them even have any other argument.

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