In the art of rationality there is a discipline of closeness-to-the-issue—trying to observe evidence that is as near to the original question as possible, so that it screens off as many other arguments as possible.
The Wright Brothers say, “My plane will fly.” If you look at their authority (bicycle mechanics who happen to be excellent amateur physicists) then you will compare their authority to, say, Lord Kelvin, and you will find that Lord Kelvin is the greater authority.
If you demand to see the Wright Brothers’ calculations, and you can follow them, and you demand to see Lord Kelvin’s calculations (he probably doesn’t have any apart from his own incredulity), then authority becomes much less relevant.
If you actually watch the plane fly, the calculations themselves become moot for many purposes, and Kelvin’s authority not even worth considering.
The more directly your arguments bear on a question, without intermediate inferences—the closer the observed nodes are to the queried node, in the Great Web of Causality—the more powerful the evidence. It’s a theorem of these causal graphs that you can never get more information from distant nodes, than from strictly closer nodes that screen off the distant ones.
Jerry Cleaver said: “What does you in is not failure to apply some high-level, intricate, complicated technique. It’s overlooking the basics. Not keeping your eye on the ball.”1
Just as it is superior to argue physics than credentials, it is also superior to argue physics than rationality. Who was more rational, the Wright Brothers or Lord Kelvin? If we can check their calculations, we don’t have to care! The virtue of a rationalist cannot directly cause a plane to fly.
If you forget this principle, learning about more biases will hurt you, because it will distract you from more direct arguments. It’s all too easy to argue that someone is exhibiting Bias #182 in your repertoire of fully generic accusations, but you can’t settle a factual issue without closer evidence. If there are biased reasons to say the Sun is shining, that doesn’t make it dark out.
Just as you can’t always experiment today, you can’t always check the calculations today.2 Sometimes you don’t know enough background material, sometimes there’s private information, sometimes there just isn’t time. There’s a sadly large number of times when it’s worthwhile to judge the speaker’s rationality. You should always do it with a hollow feeling in your heart, though, a sense that something’s missing.
Whenever you can, dance as near to the original question as possible—press yourself up against it—get close enough to hug the query!
1Jerry Cleaver, Immediate Fiction: A Complete Writing Course (Macmillan, 2004).
2See also “Is Molecular Nanotechnology ’Scientific’?” http://lesswrong.com/lw/io/is_molecular_nanotechnology_scientific.
If you actually watch the plane fly, the calculations themselves become moot for many purposes, and Kelvin's authority not even worth considering.
If the Wright brothers were professional magicians, then would you be less inclined to believe your eyes when you saw the plane fly? ;)
I often wonder how people come around to disbelieving things they've seen with their own eyes. In your hypothetical, you have seen the flight for yourself, but the Brothers are prestidigitators. I can see the validity in thinking "I've just seen something hitherto extraordinary, so let's make sure that any other explanations for what I've seen (like wire-tricks) are less likely than postulate: that plane can really fly!" But I don't think it's constructive to just pattern match "These guys make a living tricking people with unbelievable bologna, so going so far as even SEEING something perpetrated by these hoaxters would make me look stupid. Therefore, I didn't see that plane fly"
It would be interesting to see professional magicians try and replicate feats we already know are possible.
Arguments from incredulity are fallacious no matter who makes them or how much authority they possess on any subject.
Doug: If the Wright brothers were professional magicians, then would you be less inclined to believe your eyes when you saw the plane fly?
No, and in related news, the Statue of Liberty just vanishes from time to time...
I guess you're right.
Eliezer, where do your strong claims about the causal structure of scientific discourse come from?
I consider them as obvious first-order approximations, especially to the normative structure. Does an authoritative expert cause a hypothesis to become true, so that we can surgically intervene on the truth of a physical theory by giving its adherents more authority? Clearly not. Does an authoritative expert cause the "arguments" to become stronger? Defining the matter normatively makes it clear that the answer is no. If we talk about perceived arguments, then a good expert makes us perceive the arguments as stronger, but that's simply a question of backward inference not causation - like saying that if the sidewalk is slippery this causes us to think it is raining, but does not cause it to rain.
Since I am discussing what we should pay attention to, not what we do pay attention to, it makes sense to discuss the normative causal struture.
Do you have an alternative suggestion? Clearly there are many things that supervene on expert opinion besides valid arguments, which we could coalesce into a Noise node and a Bias node, describing the invalid influences that we think we can't predict and that we think we can systematically predict respectively:
Truth -> Argument -> Expert Belief <- Noise, Bias
This gives us obvious inferences like "If you know the experts will be biased, but you don't understand their arguments apart from authority, you will be less certain of the truth" and "Surgical interventions on bias and on expert belief cannot make a proposition true, or change which non-authoritative propositions are arguments in favor of it".
You probably have that directional causal structure represented in your mind, which makes the above inferences seem plausible; I just wrote it out.
Does an authoritative expert cause a hypothesis to become true, so that we can surgically intervene on the truth of a physical theory by giving its adherents more authority? Clearly not. Does an authoritative expert cause the "arguments" to become stronger? Defining the matter normatively makes it clear that the answer is no. If we talk about perceived arguments, then a good expert makes us perceive the arguments as stronger
Using the credibility of the authority as a proxy for the unknown quality of the arguments makes it easier to produce a conclusion, but it reduces the certainty of that conclusion significantly, because an additional assumption has been introduced.
Thats an interesting post. Except I have to take issue with one thing.
When I am arguing with people I find we often spend more time debating the whole supporting structure underlying an argument than the point itself. This is most often the case when people have adopted a public opinion as their own. You have to explain to them that the conclusion is wrong because the framework that leads to it is wrong. If that is the case, hugging the query means that you cant stray from the point being discussed to look at fallacies in the thought processes leading up to the false conclusion. So hugging the query presumes that everyone is already on the same page with regard to everything pertinent to the argument except the point under discussion. In some cases, if your going to hug the query, you might as well just concede the point, because the reasoning is built up in such a way that it can really only lead to one conclusion.
"If you actually watch the plane fly, the calculations themselves become moot for many purposes, and Kelvin's authority not even worth considering."
But is that because of screening or just because the probability is so close to 100%? (Maybe this is the same point Doug S. already made.)
I would suggest that what you are doing is "hugging the query" insofar as you try to show that the arguments and assumptions leading to a false conclusion are faulty. Sometimes it's just a long, difficult slog. Arguments about social policy might admit evidence that looks different than the evidence in physics.
Of course, if your sole reason for having the discussion is to lead someone step by step to your pre-determined conclusion, rather than having an honest inquiry of the subject under discussion, you have another problem. ;)
I honestly don't like hugging things, though. So I will go with the literal meaning of your title :)