Qualifications matter -why an appeal to authority isn’t always wrong

A follow on from the Douglas Carswell tweet which I mentioned in the previous post was, a twitter interaction with someone that went something as follows:

Them: “The WHO have been dreadful during the virus. A lot of the measures including the 2 metre rule are nonsense.”

Me: “Are you a doctor or epidemiologist? Do you have some evidence for that claim?

Them: “You have made an ad-hominem attack. You are making an appeal to authority.”

Ad- hominem  attacks and appeals to authority are debating fallacies, attempts to argue that depart from logic. The first is about attacking the person instead of their argument. It’s common in politics, to attack a politician as extreme, incompetent or weird instead of actually dealing with the argument they are making. An appeal to authority means that instead of making the case, we rely on the authority of someone else who has spoken on the subject. Christians easily fall into this trap.

“Of course evangelicals should stay in the Church of England, after all, remember what John Stott said….”

“Martyn Lloyd Jones always preached on one verse at a time for at least 50 minutes.”

Mind you, Lloyd Jones and men of his generation would sit on the beach in full suit with waist-coat and tie even in a heatwave but I rarely hear people appealing to his authority on that!

One problem with appeal to authority is that we can end up appealing to someone as an authority figure even when their expertise is not in the relevant field.  For example, I have frequently seen medics and scientists cited on coronavirus despite not being specialists in epidemiology or virology.

So, we have to be very careful about not descending into such arguments. However, you will notice that in our original example, who the person is that is speaking and their authority is extremely relevant.  If I were to tell you that I had asthma, diagnosed by my doctor and you were to reply “Your doctor didn’t know what they were talking about. You don’t have asthma, stop taking your medicine” then it would be entirely reasonable, in fact essential that I asked “Are you a doctor? What is your expertise?” If they said,

“Yes, I am a doctor, here are my credentials. I happen to be a recognised world expert in respiratory conditions and I can show you why your doctor got it wrong”

Then I would do well to listen to them. However, if they said

“No, but here are some links to some articles I read on the web, also not by experts in this area of medicine…”

Then I would do well not to give them the time of the day. 

We live in an age where every opinion is seen to matter and must be given a hearing. However, when we come to matters of life or death like a virus then that approach is highly dangerous. The reason that qualifications matter here is that the rulings on social distancing are based on a medical understanding of how viruses are transmitted. By the way, it is not just about studying some statistics about what has happened. It’s about understanding things like how far the virus will travel in the air and how long it will survive for.

May I suggest that it matters even more when it comes to the question of eternity and spiritual life. Elders in churches, for example, do have a form of authority. It is specifically the authority to teach God’s Word that comes from their careful study of God’s word.

However, the ultimate authority we should listen to is Jesus. He is the one who has been given authority to raise the dead. He is the one who has authority over creation and eternity. We should listen to him.

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