Propaganda School Part 8: Appeal to Authority

Appeal to authority is when you cite the opinion of some supposedly authoritative person or institution in order to justify an argument you are trying to make. Appeal to authority is mostly considered a fallacious form of argument but it touches on some deep aspects of human nature. It’s natural for us to gravitate to the opinions of well-known people on a subject if for no other reason than that they have probably built their career or reputation in that field and so should know more about it than we do. On the other hand, especially in science, it’s the argument or research itself that should be the thing we pay attention to and not the person who made it. That’s good in theory but even science is full of examples where people lent excessive weight to an idea because the scientist who came up with it was an authority figure in their field.

As a social species, we humans seem to be hardwired to believe statements made by people in positions of authority. This can go to ridiculous extremes as I have seen in my professional life. I remember one particular project I was involved with where the manager on the project, who was a high ranking manager in a very large company, was a complete moron. I mean that quite literally. This particular person would often speak total nonsense. It was quite common for the team to be having a meeting where everybody was reaching a shared understanding of a problem only to have this person walk in and start talking.  You could instantly feel your brain turning to mush and the shared understanding would evaporate into thin air. What was even stranger, though, was that the pronouncements of this person came to be a guide to our work. This wasn’t just for political reasons in that the person was the highest ranking in the group. People actually seemed to believe what the manager said. That’s the power of authority.

How one becomes recognised as an authority figure is not a straightforward matter. One of the foundational myths of our culture is that we live in a meritocracy and that the people who are in positions of authority got there on merit. It’s a nice story but it’s certainly not true on the whole. As my story of the moronic manager shows, people who are very dumb can rise very high especially in the corporate world. A guy I know who is a well-known figure in his field used to joke that the way he became recognised as an expert was to simply start calling himself an expert. He also published a book. It was a self-published book. But in the early days of self-publishing nobody knew the difference between self publishing and traditional publishing. Thus, calling yourself a ‘published author’ at that time was considered by most people to be a guarantee of expertise and so people would instantly believe that he was indeed an authority. How else could he have got a book published?

Being quoted or published in the media is another way to become an authority figure. There is a symbiotic relationship between the media and the ‘experts’. The media uses experts to justify a position on an issue and people who want to be known as experts will try to get themselves published in the media. Having seen just a glimpse of the inside of academia through my honours degree, I can say that there is a lot of jealousy among the faculty about the academics who get featured in the media. This is especially so because the expert game is almost zero sum. Once a newspaper has featured an expert once they tend to want to use them again as it’s simply easier to go with the same person as last time. Thus, it tends to be certain academics who will become the recognised authority on a subject in the public eye while other equally, and perhaps more, competent colleagues are overlooked. From the point of view of the journalist and the broader public, science is science. If we want to know something about linguistics, we should be able to ask any linguist and get the answer. Same for physics. Same for microbiology. Same for epidemiology and so on. But inside academia scientists and scholars usually know who is competent and who isn’t and they know it’s not necessarily the most competent who seek the public spotlight. We’ll see a classic example of that shortly.

There are also other individuals and groups who claim to speak on certain subjects not because of scientific expertise but simply because they represent a point of view. I once knew a guy whose brother had somehow became the media’s go-to man on the subject of men’s rights. The guy I knew was one of the nicest and most generous people I have ever met. I only met his brother once but they were like chalk and cheese. The brother was a deeply weird guy. He had apparently had a bad breakup with his wife and had turned the episode into a personal quest for justice on behalf of all men. This led him to start a men’s advocacy group. The group had only a handful of members and certainly would never have qualified for the attention of the mainstream press. However, the man got himself into the papers by getting charged with stalking his ex-wife. From memory, he was acquitted of the crime but his behaviour and outspoken attitude had caught the attention of the media who then started to use him as an ‘expert’ whenever subjects such as child custody or similar divorce issues came up.

This man was an example of what you might call the anti-expert. These figure prominently in propaganda as they ostensibly represent the other side in an argument but they do so in a way that the media knows will be unpalatable to the majority of the population. As far as I could tell, this guy had some valid points about men’s rights in relation to child custody after a divorce. But the way he spoke and his general demeanour and appearance marked him out as a bit of a whack job. That’s a feature, not a bug, when it comes to propaganda. If the media wants to favour one side of the argument, they will choose a seemingly reasonable and logical person to represent the side they favour while having a nutter represent the other side. They thereby give the appearance of balance while also swaying the reader’s opinion. This kind of thing happens all the time and is a variation on the guilt by association theme from post 1 in this series.

The use of experts and appeals to authority form a very common part of the media landscape. As educated readers of propaganda, we should always be questioning the experts or authority figures presented in the media. Who are they? Why were they chosen? Which other experts or authority figures were not chosen?

For this week’s first example, I can’t help but turn yet again to the RT for a semi-comic example of the appeal to authority. Check out this short article about corona in Russia. Why it’s semi comic is because the expert in this case, Maxim Starodubtsev, makes a statement that is a complete non sequitur. I’ve tried to parse it several times but whichever I do it I simply don’t know what he’s talking about. It’s possible this was simply a bad translation from the Russian but the other statements attributed to Starodubtsev in article also don’t make sense. As a result, the whole article doesn’t make sense. It’s an article that doesn’t really say anything. But it does feature an authority figure to say it.

In the age of the internet, it’s incredibly easy to look up the experts and authority figures who are cited in the media so that you can get a feel for their worldview and how it is being used by a particular media outlet. Maxim Starodubtsev doesn’t return a great deal from a search, presumably because he’s a Russian and doesn’t get translated into English much. Possibly that’s because what he says doesn’t make any sense. This next example does make sense at least in purely linguistic terms. It’s one that I came across while doing the research for my book/blog series on corona and I think it really highlights the power of checking up on the experts who are quoted in a media article.

Corona has been a bonanza of expertise with authority figures being called on daily to fill the pages of newspapers or the minutes of a television news broadcast. This article from the NPR is a case in point. It features a large number of experts and authority figures giving their two cents on the issue of whether sars-cov-2 came from bats. But the expert that caught my attention was one near the bottom of the article – Peter Daszak. Daszak is a zoologist but also a member of a non-profit organisation called Ecohealth Alliance which is a kind of advocacy group for wildlife preservation. I had been researching about the purported bat origins of sar-cov-2 as it was a key point in the public that justified why the virus was ‘new’. As a result, I had seen the name Ecohealth Alliance already and, after some searching to recall where I had seen it, I retrieved another scholarly article that was also about bats and coronaviruses. At the bottom of the article is the text “In the version of this article initially published online, the authors omitted to acknowledge a funding source, USAID-EPT-PREDICT funding from EcoHealth Alliance, to Z.-L.S. T”. Putting two and two together, I realised that EcoHealth was funding published scientific research. That struck me as odd given that they are a non-profit with clearly political/social motivations. In the NPR article, Daszak was being presented as a scientific expert and yet his organisational affiliation was a political one. A quick perusal of the Ecohealth website confirms this.

In my corona book, I noted that this was an example of a trend that’s become all too common in modern science where the funding is provided by groups who have a political interest in producing certain findings. Hardly a recipe for rigorous and unbiased research. That’s a reason to be extra careful about scientific experts and even cited research that are presented to us in the media. So, this was a really good example of where doing a quick bit of research on an expert paid dividends.

Imagine my surprise then when Daszak popped up on my radar just recently for almost exactly the same reasons that I had stated in my book. A couple of months ago, Daszak was chosen to lead a task force investigating whether the sars-cov-2 virus emerged from a virology lab in Wuhan. Recall from the articles above that Daszak had been a strong exponent for the bat origin theory (even though there is actually no evidence for that theory at all). Well, it turns out his scientific peers also think he has a massive conflict of interest in heading the task force and the article is about their objections. The article is also fascinating as it features scientists talking openly about the politicisation of their field especially in the wake of corona. The reason why it’s so perfect for the subject of this post is because, just the like the media must choose an expert to represent a story, so the task force must choose a leader for a task force. But that doesn’t mean the rest of the scientific community agrees with that. In this case, there was open and very public dissent. The Daszak story is the perfect example of why we as readers of propaganda should always assume that whenever a scientific position is proferred in article you can be sure there are many scientists who would disagree with it. If they are not in the article then there is a good chance they have been left out on purpose.

Even scientists can get called ‘conspiracy theorists’ for proposing theories that go against the dominant narrative. Sad to say, this corruption of the science has been going on for quite some time. It was never a good idea to blindly ‘trust the experts’ but it’s a completely naïve position given what goes on in science these days.

Reader Exercise

For this week’s exercise, which I admit will take some time, read the NPR article cited above and pay particular attention to the position of Peter Daszak as presented. Then read the article which contains a number of opinions from scientists in the field on why Daszak is not suitable to lead an investigation into the origins of sars-cov-2. How does the new information you now have about Daszak change your understanding of his expertise and therefore the veracity of the NPR article?

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