Several weeks ago one of my Facebook friends shared a post that slammed electric cars. The post struck a chord with me because of its negativity and its blatant appeal to an irrelevant expert. Here, the expert was both unnamed, and if he even existed, wrong.
This is an example of a common trick folks often use when they discuss climate change. Sometimes, as in my friend's post, the expert is anonymous. Other times, the expert may be a famous actor, a Ph.D. in an unrelated field, or worst of all, the self-proclaimed expert - you know, the guy with a bias and a blog.
When I saw my friend's post I was so troubled, I actually checked the numbers. I don't think the post wanted me to do this. It wanted me to believe that an expert said this and then accept the argument at face value.
But, I was bad and did a bit of research on my own. I established that the data was incorrect and then verified my work with another engineer.
All of this effort confirmed the bias of the post. The poster used false data from an unnamed, imaginary expert. They wanted me to conclude that electric vehicles are a bad idea, a tool of the leftist elite, and a way to rob energy workers of their income. As I have often said in this video series, it's a crock.
Appealing to the Irrelevant Expert - A Useless and Entertaining Diversion
Appealing to the expert is a common ploy, and one used by both sides of the climate dialogue. It is also lazy. Folks use it to support a position without the need to provide any evidence, nor the need to do any thinking at all. If, an expert says it, it must be true.
When it is the other side's expert, we will often complain. I hear things like:
"Jane Fonda is a leftist hack who knows nothing about climate change!"
But our expert inspires us and we say things like:
"Jane Fonda is simply using her fame to bring awareness to the serious climate change threat!"
While fun, we move nowhere in our common understanding of climate.
The Expert is Less Important than Their Information
The person is less important than their assumptions, observations, and data. If they do not share this knowledge, we should be very wary. So, we need to do a bit of homework before we boost the work of a supposed expert. What are their credentials? What sort of doctor are they? A Ph.D. in literature is not the best person to guide our opinions on quantum physics. The literature professor and the physicist are both experts. But, you'd think their actual area of expertise should have some bearing on their credibility on a particular topic.
We Need to Do Our Homework
We should also ask if the information makes any sense in the first place. Does is pass a "sniff test". We can do a bit of checking on our own? And, often there are folks who can help us better understand the data and guide us to a more fulsome understanding of the issue?
Doing a bit of homework and some critical thinking goes a long way toward protecting ourselves from the illegitimate expert trick.
There are real experts. These are folks with many years of working in a field, and who have access to data the average person doesn't see, or understand. But even then, it isn't their name, their fame, or any other criteria that proves their argument. What matters is is their knowledge, and their ability to explain how the information supports their view.
Appealing to the Irrelevant Expert Reveals Climate Depression
I see appealing to the irrelevant expert as a symptom of depression in the climate grief cycle. This is where folks no longer deny that there is an issue and seem to have a handle on their fear and anger. But, the scale and personal implications of climate change depresses them. So, they are trying to feel better. Perhaps, they can find an expert who will tell them:
"Everything is OK. You’re doing fine."
That would make everything better!
Once again, putting aside the fact that trolls often use this tactic, most folks who appeal to an irrelevant expert are simply trying to come to grips with climate change. We need to listen. Where possible, we can share factual information to help them out. But the worst thing we can do, is put up our expert to refute their expert. This is simply an entertaining and unproductive sideshow, like a boxing match. When the bout is over, we still have to do the real work of finding common ground.
Let's Chat about Appealing to the Irrelevant Expert
I'd love to hear your thoughts about black and white argument. Join the conversation by commenting below. Here are a few questions to stimulate your commenting juices.
- When is the last time somebody tried to influence you with a black and white argument?
- Did you recognize the tactic right away, or did it take a while for it to dawn on you? This is what I call the “Hey! Wait just one minute.” syndrome.
- Have you ever caught yourself unintentionally using a black and white argument?
It seems that I have been discussing climate tactics for a while now. Here is a link to one of my earlier videos, when I first started on this theme. Once you start to see these things, it is hard to ignore them.
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About the Author
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Joel is an engineer and risk management specialist with over forty years of professional practice. He is committed to helping his clients achieve climate resiliency and sustainability.