Expert Opinion

It is surely self-evident that the opinions of an expert on a matter in which they have expertise are of value.

If an atomic scientist offers a description of how an atom is structured then that view must surely have more merit than someone not trained nor experienced in the structure of atoms. It is a generally held principle that an expert (an authority) is more likely to know more about about a claim, within their expertise, than others. Thus that authority’s views must have value over and above other non-expert views. However we must consider some caveats:

  • Of course, the authority needs to be an expert in the field of knowledge that relates to the argument. Too many pontificate about matters outside their expertise and in that case their views are of no more merit than anyone else.
  • The consensually held opinion of many authorities will be stronger support than where equal authorities differ and cannot agree.
  • We must acknowledge the potential for “group-think” where generally accepted views are held by an expert group but they are wrong, and they don’t realise it. There are numerous examples of this in science such as the interesting story of phlogiston. (See link below.)
  • Appeals to authority are no guarantee of the truth of any claim. Whilst they may be good support, in so far that the authority could have reasonably been expected to better evaluate the evidence because of their expertise, their opinions are not conclusive.

In reality most of the knowledge we have comes from others as communicated information. Therefore it is important to differentiate between the sources of that knowledge and their status as authorities.

When considering any claim the opinions of valid authorities lends strong but not conclusive support to that claim.

For more information:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phlogiston_theory
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Appeal_to_authority

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