Thursday, August 23, 2012

Appeals to authorities that really aren't

Following up on my earlier discussion of Rep. Akin's absurd comments about rape, it is worth thinking a bit about the evidence Rep. Akin's sites for his beliefs. As he put it in the clip, his opinions were formed on the basis of "what I understand from doctors." As I further noted, the doctor in question appears to be a fellow by the name of Dr. John C. Willke who first made his claims about magic vagina death venom in a book he co-authored with his wife Why Can't We Love Them Both: Questions and Answers About Abortion, first published in 1971. As a recent article published by Salon demonstrates, Willke is anything but a fringe character among anti-abortion groups on the right.

I bring this up as an opportunity to discuss the Appeal to Authority. This is a fallacy in which one appeals to the authority of some individual or group as support for one's position, where that supposed individual or group isn't really qualified to be an authority on that topic. This, of course, is exactly what Rep. Akin did with his claim that his position on rape and abortion was based on his consultations with doctors.

At this point, one might object by noting that Dr. Willke is an MD, having earned his degree from the University of Cincinnati in 1948. Furthermore, he practiced family medicine for much of his career, so doesn't this qualify him as an expert on this subject? The simple answer to this question is no, for several reasons. First, the fact that Dr. Willke was a practicing MD does not mean that he has expertise on how the female reproductive and endocrine systems operate. This is often confusing to people, but we must remember that the human body is incredibly complex and specialized such that knowledge about one area of the body does not generalize to another area of the body. For example, my mom was a cardiovascular pharmacologist for many years, having just retired fro the University of California, Irvine. She has a great deal of specialized knowledge about her discipline, but if she had other questions about medicine, or even about other branches of pharmacology, she would turn to other experts on the topic because, while her knowledge is quite deep, it is not very wide. This is, of course, exactly what we would expect from a medical researcher.  By contrast, in the case of Dr. Willke, as a family practitioner, he has a wide range of knowledge, but none of that knowledge is particularly deep. Again, this is exactly what we would expect from a practicing physician. The key point here is that his experiences as a family practitioner do not give Dr. Willke any expertise or authority on a topic as complex as the female endocrine system. For that, we would need to consult a medical researcher in that field, not a practicing doctor.

This brings up a second, larger issue, one discussed in the above referenced Salon article, which is the tendency of certain politicians, particularly on the right, to basically pick and choose the experts they want to believe. In addition, there is a tendency to pick out someone with a scientific credential who can then be counted on to generate scientific sounding information that supports whatever ideological position one has already decided on. In addition to Akin's views on rape, we can see this as well in the Republican party's dismissal of anthropogenic climate change. The key here is that when we are looking at a complex issue like female reproduction or climate change, we can't just defer to the judgment of one scientists or doctor, rather we need to look at what the consensus view among scientists who study the topic is. In the case of Rep. Akin's comments or global warming denial, the consensus view among scientists is clearly against these positions. And that is why people like Rep. Akin who rely on cherry-picked scientific evidence or one "expert" in the field are guilty of the Appeal to Authority.

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