Thursday, August 1, 2013

Reza Aslan, and What Constitutes Appeal to Authority

Reza Aslan was recently interviewed by FOX News' Laura Green for his new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.  The interview was an intellectual train wreck for Green, who decided that the best line of questioning about the book was how Aslan could possibly be interested in Jesus, being a Muslim instead of a Christian.  The interview is below.

While I have my own reservations as to whether or not this series of "questions" was actually intended to be an interview at all, I still think that this, in particular the complaints it garnered toward Aslan's response, serves as a useful event to help us examine appeals to authority, and develop a better understanding of where it can lead to a fallacy and its progenitors in discussion.

The Argument

The "appeal to authority" (or "argument from authority") is an argument that assumes that the expert authority of a claimant is itself grounds for believing it is true; it is an inductive argument.  We can take for instance the expert consensus view on the causes of climate change (i.e. anthropogenic), and conclude that if all of the experts agree on the topic, it's probably true.  We could phrase it generally, with some symbolism for brevity, as this:

1. A knows a lot about set C,
2. A says B,
3. (B \in \!\, C) \Rightarrow \!\, B

The Fallacy

Being an inductive argument, the conclusion does not follow from the premise.  That is, 3 is not satisfied just because 1 is true.  It can be a compelling argument, but it is not deductive and thus some like to dismiss it out of hand.  There are many ways that this argument can be fallacious though, aside from the particular complaint that strict deductionalists (that's a word now) like to use.  To cover the only ones you're ever likely to see, and indeed the only ones I know off the cuff:

"A knows"

If the credentials of the person (upon which their "authority" would be based) are actually not true, then the appeal to authority is being applied fallaciously.  This is known as "appeal to inappropriate authority;" Christopher Monckton is persistently guilty of this when he talks about climate change, for instance.

Part of Harris' complaint, in fact, is that Aslan's credentials were erroneously touted, and that his focus of study was actually in sociology.  Joe Carter explains the situation at Patheos about the extent to which Aslan has obtained degrees for the specific subjects that he claimed in the interview.  I think that Aslan's tweet responding to Harris is salient, and that the degrees he obtained do not necessarily indicate that he hasn't been involved with historical research during his time obtaining them.  I would certainly say I am more forgiving of the wording used in an off-the-cuff and antagonistic interview, but strictly speaking, Aslan did misrepresent his credentials.  We'll come back to this later though.

"[A knows] a lot"

This is the gap where the argument fails to be deductive, in that "a lot" of knowledge (even most knowledge of a subject) still implies by its very wording that there is a subset of knowledge in the subject area that the authority or expert is not familiar with, or can be wrong about.  You may have heard this objection in a more general manner, perhaps something along the lines of "science gets overturned and improved all the time" – this is implicitly arguing that mainstream science is not necessarily correct just because it is accepted by most scientists.  And so yes, expertise at best really only serves as a proxy for correctness.

"A says B"

A bit less likely to come up than the previous objections is an outright accusation of misrepresentation or lying of some sorts (though in keeping with our analogy, Monckton's misuse of Pinker et al 2005 in his testimony to Congress even after his misrepresentation was pointed out to him by Pinker herself can be argued to be lying of a rather flagrant type).  I suppose it is indeed true that the argument assumes truthfulness on the part of the "expert;" if the expert is not being honest, and we know that, then we cannot use their authority as reason to suppose their correctness.

Did Reza Aslan use this fallacy?  Even this argument?

Ed Brayton has beaten me to the punch in the discussion here, and has concluded "no" since Aslan was arguing that he should write the book because he is an academic, not that he is right because he is an academic.  But let's go into further detail:

Accusations of bias

Laura Green immediately opened up asking why Aslan, a Muslim, wrote a book about another religion:
"Now I want to clarify, you're a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder[sic] of Christianity?"
This question seems innocent enough, in how it could just as easily be interpreted as "You root for Team X, why are you writing about Team Y?" – it's a question about interests, about what strikes one's fancy.

The dog whistle, however, becomes apparent considering a follow-up question at the 6:55 mark in the video:
"Taylor Cain just says, 'So your book is written with clear bias, and you're trying to say it's academic.  That's like having a Democrat writing a book about why Reagan wasn't a good Republican – it just doesn't work."
That's more like it.  Indeed the former interpretation would be strange considering that we are indeed listening to FOX News, the gatekeepers of Christian hegemony and privilege.  The first question, nor its follow-up because Aslan didn't take the bait, was not asked in good faith to find out what strikes his fancy.  They don't care about why he's interested in Jesus.  They care about why he has the nerve to write about Jesus as a Muslim.

A little bell should be going off in everybody's head right now, now that we hear the whistle.  What does one provide as an answer for this, an accusation of bias?  At a fundamental level there are two types of response: somehow demonstrate that one is not biased; or argue that the accusation isn't relevant because the legitimacy of the book is in the arguments that it presents, not in its author's own position on the matter.

This bell should still be ringing.  Nowhere in either answer is there the presumption that the person is right.  It is not necessary for the person answering an accusation of bias to actually demonstrate that they are correct, in order to dismiss such an accusation.  These are two different considerations.

How did Aslan respond to this accusation of bias?  Following Green's question ending at the 0:31 mark:
"Well, to be clear, I am a scholar of religion with four degrees including one in the New Testament and fluency in Biblical Greek, who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades who also just happens to be a Muslim.  So, it's not that I'm just some Muslim writing about Jesus, I am an expert with a PhD in the history of religions.  But, I've been obsessed with Jesus..."
That's quite the touting of credentials!  Let's compare to our template from above:

"1. A knows a lot about set C" – indeed, this is satisfied to quite a large degree.
"2. A says B" – well, he does make claims in his book, so yep.
"3. (B \in \!\, C) \Rightarrow \!\, B" – well, he does essentially state that his book's claims are within his area of expertise, but he actually stops short of saying that what he said is true.  It is implied that what he said has arguments behind it, has scholarly work behind it, but "true?"  No.

Maybe he argued that later.  His next response at the 1:01 mark:
"Because it is my job as an academic.  I am a professor of religion, including the New Testament.  That's what I do for a living, actually. [...] But honestly, I've been obsessed with Jesus for really twenty years: I've been studying his life and his work and the origins of Christianity, both in an academic environment and in a personal level for about two decades."
"3. (B \in \!\, C) \Rightarrow \!\, B"(?)  Nope, still nothing.  It's important to listen to which words he stresses here too: "That's what I do for a living, actually."  It seems that Aslan is answering a different question than "Why are you correct?" (maybe it's the question of bias!).

Third time's a charm? (2:25):
"And to be clear, I just want to emphasize this one more time: I am a historian, I am a PhD in the history of religions.  This isn't a Muslim opinion, this is an academic work, of history[...]"
He likes to tout his credentials, but he's also touting his status as a historian and academic.  Bell still going off?

Allow me to provide a more explicit explanation.  The secular and atheist community tends to value science and academic work, and why?  Because it is unbiased, because it is rational, because it is sourced, because it is objective and because it is empirical.  These are qualities that everyone should be able to appreciate, and these are the qualities of a person that does a good job as a scientist and academic.

We are hearing Aslan tout his credentials and his job positions, not because he is arguing that he is correct, but because he is trying to demonstrate that he is not biased.  Sam Harris uses very contextually false statements to argue that Aslan is appealing to authority – no, double no, not even close "no," blatantly "no."  And we see this plain as day from his statement at the 3:11 mark.
"So again, I mean I know that we've mentioned this three times now, I'm not sure what my faith happens to do with my twenty years of academic years of study in the New Testament. [...] Well it's pretty clear that there are those that do not like the book, or are unhappy with its general arguments – that's perfectly fine, I'm more than willing to talk about the arguments about the book itself, but I do think it's perhaps a little bit strange that rather than debating the arguments of the book, we are debating the right of the scholar to actually write it." 
Aslan took the words right out of every(± 1) thinking person's mouth that was watching that "interview."

Accusations of being wrong

Let's get on with the more substantial statements.  Green's quoting of William L. Craig was responded to as such (4:19):
"Well I disagree.  I have 100 pages of notes, and about a thousand books that I use in my discussions.  And, of course in any scholarly discussion of Jesus, as with any scholarly discussion of any ancient figure, there are going to be widespread differences; but my 100 pages of endnotes cites every scholar who disagrees with me, and ever scholar who agrees with me, and I would suggest that anyone who wants to actually comment on the argument of the book read not just the book but the end notes to figure out where my scholarly argument about Jesus comes from.  And I'm sure you can find people who disagree with me. [...] Absolutely [scholars disagree with me], and many scholars do agree with me."
Aslan says there are scholars that disagree with him.  In fact, he cited them all.  There is no evidence that he was using appeals to authority himself, but this is a pretty large piece of evidence that he would reject the appeal to authority.  He did the exact opposite of appealing to authority.

Once more unto the speech (8:33):
"And there have been thousands of scholars who have written about this very same topic, many who disagree with me, many who agree with me; that's the thing about scholarship, is that it's a debate over ancient history, and I am just one of those people making that debate."
This is not the tune of someone that is claiming that they are correct.  "Debate" is not a term that absolutists like to use, and it is not a term that people appealing to authority like to use.

Aslan's response to accusations of making false claims was to reference his pages of end notes and the ~thousand books that he has cited to make his case.  That is the least fallacious response in the entire world.  And even given thousands of sources, he still says that he is only one voice in a large debate, amongst fellow scholars that agree with him and that (most saliently, here) disagree with him.

And so the answer to our above two questions is "no."  Harris' accusation of Aslan using appeal to authority here is false on a very fundamental level, and can only be made by ignoring – through willful malice or reckless neglect – statements that Aslan made at the end of his interview, nay throughout, that expressly oppose such an argument.

What Constitutes Appeal to Authority

I'll repeat for everyone the brief description of what comprises the actual appeal to authority:
1. A knows a lot about set C,
2. A says B,
3. (B \in \!\, C) \Rightarrow \!\, B
I'd also like to make a few points, using our video example here, about when it's appropriate to actually bring up credentials:
1. When you're asked about your credentials, it's OK to bring them up.
2. When you're asked about your potential bias, it's OK to bring up your academic credentials, because academics by its very nature strives to be unbiased.  Aslan did this numerous times in his interview with Green, stressing that it was his job as an academic to study and write about Jesus, and that scholarship is about debate.
3. When you're accused of making false assertions, you are allowed to cite your sources, but you are not necessarily allowed to bring up your credentials.
And again, the appeal to authority is not necessarily fallacious, it's just not deductive.

Let's all try to remember these tips down the road so we don't accidentally embarrass ourselves.

No comments:

Post a Comment