Authority is quite degrading

A spirited discussion sprang forth in my comments due to my post concerning authority. David Mattison (whom I was picking on in my post) swung by to further explain his position. Snippets from the comment, and my responses:

After quoting one of the FluWiki contributors as saying that they would remove the fluwiki when a comparable “authoritative” source comes along, David says:

So obviously even one of the contributors recognizes that there’s a distinction between this grassroots effort and an “authoritative source”. So much for not appealing to authority when you need to.

I think perhaps you misunderstand me…I’m not defending the FluWiki as a good source. I’m arguing against the use of authority as a measure of truth/validity. In this case, I think he’s as wrong as you are to insist on authority as a measure of truth. Later in your comment, you say:

There’s a big difference between an appeal to authority and learning how to distinguish what’s authoritative and what’s worthless information. One criterion is who or what is making the claim or stating the “fact”.

If there is a “big difference” between those two things, I certainly don’t see it. I’m not arguing the merits of the term “authoritative” which is completely different, and refers to the information in question after judgements have already been made. I’m arguing that to judge new information by its source alone is a fallacy. One criterion for you may be who or what is stating the fact, and what I am claiming is that who or what is stating a fact is irrelevant to the fact itself. If said fact is supported by a web of like facts, then yes, I think the fact-in-itself is the item we are concerned about, not the authority of the source. You ask:

Would you believe information on a university Web site authored by an evolutionary biologist over a Creationist or an Intelligent Design Web site?

🙂 I think you picked a poor example, and not because of the speciousness of ID. I did both Master’s and a bit of PhD work in the Philosophy of Science, specifically the Phil. of Biology, specifically evolutionary theory. 🙂 So you couldn’t have picked a “truth” battle more near to my heart.

Even with that said, I wouldn’t trust a Evolutionary biologist at a .edu over an ID site at a .com because of that alone. I would trust the Evolutionary Biologists fact because I could check his sources, follow his bibliography, examine the information on other sites, and come to the conclusion that he was right and that the ID site was complete and utter nonsense. This is exactly the way that the biologist himself would operate, and is one of the manners in which science builds knowledge…test the hypothesis. Would you trust a biologist hosted on a .edu that defended Intelligent Design?

Here’s my argument, boiled down and condensed for brevity. In the past, librarians and information scientists used “authority” as a measure of truth due to time constraints…we simply couldn’t check the sources of everything that we evaluated, and instead relied on this vague, unsubstantial notion of authority to cover our assurance that this fact or that information was “good”. We no longer have that excuse. The current world of information is hyperlinked, always on, and ubiquitous.

As an Instructional Librarian, I simply feel that it’s lazy scholarship to teach our students that authority is an appropriate measure of truth. We should be teaching them critical thinking skills that they can use to evaluate information, and not acronym laden checklists.

In case you missed these links in the post below, check out a few of these authorities: Alan Sokel, Jayson Blair, SCIGen, and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Finally, Justin chimed in with some very good comments…and leaves us with a great question:

Finally a question for my librarian friends: we talk of [traditional] authority as if it can be measured. But my understanding is that it’s much more in line with the Matthew effect above, in other words, it’s essentially subjective. Is that the case? Do you measure or compare the authority in some kind of empirical way?

3 thoughts on “Authority is quite degrading

  1. Sorry about that comment that got through Jason. When I tried posting it I got a long PHP/MysQL error message. I didn’t think it made it so left it for some further mulling. I’m working on a reply to the DIGREF mailing list. I should say in this comment, having now seen your responses to my mis-posted comment, that I certainly was not arguing that the Flu Wiki or any source should be accepted solely on the basis of its authority. Did you not see the other criteria I associated with that word? As far as “The current world of information is hyperlinked, always on, and ubiquitous.”, that may be so in the Academy, but out here in the real world, not everything is on the Internet and equally available to all, nor are URLs persistent and reliable. Authority or the authoritativeness of the source, despite your mighty protestations (I am familiar with the Sokal incident), is still very much a valid and reliable method of information evaluation, just not, as you said, to the exclusion of other information evaluation criteria.

  2. I suppose that we are going to agree to disagree, then.

    My position is a philosophical one…that authority is not a reliable method of assigning truth values. Even as a portion of the assignment, I question the usefulness of it.

    Moreover, I feel we do our students a disservice by teaching them that it is, and this is the real issue in my mind. I’m working towards an article more fully fleshing out my feelings on this matter, and will hopefully get something out soon.

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