Friday, May 23, 2008

Appeals to authority and the trap of experience

Over on his blog, Thomas and I have been having a conversation about the value to Australia of a national space program. I am a supporter, Thomas is opposed. I mentioned that I had had an involvement in this area in the past. Thomas accepted that experience, but politely maintained his position.

Thomas was of course right to do so. However, as happens in discussions with Thomas, our conversation took my thinking in a different direction, the problems associated with appeals to authority and the associated trap that can be created by our own experiences.

My mention of my past role in the national space program could be interpreted as an appeal to authority. I have done this, therefore you should listen to me.

At a personal level I am in fact very suspicious of appeals to authority. As soon as x says that I am a scientist or a Government minister, therefore you should listen to me, warning flags go up the mast.

Just because x is a Government minister, a scientist or, for that matter, someone previously involved with the re-establishment of a national space program does not, of itself, make their views valid.

If a Government minister makes an announcement about a new policy, explaining what it is and the reasons why, we can classify this as giving information or opinion. If, as happened sometimes with anti-terrorism legislation, a minister says that we should go along with a change because the Government knew best, then that is an appeal to authority.

Of course we have to take into account experience and knowledge. When Thomas writes about American politics, I read with interest because he knows his stuff. When a scientist speaks about his area of expertise, I listen because he or she is an expert. However, I never accept even expert views in an unqualified fashion. Experts are wrong too often.

Our thinking, writing and actions always draw from our own experience and knowledge. Further, that knowledge is transmuted through the mental constructs that we use to interpret the world or our own fields of knowledge. With time, our experience accretes to our thinking in ever thickening layers like the build up of silt on a delta. The silt can provide fertile crops, but the river itself slows and meanders.

In consulting, we talk about the half life of knowledge as around a year. Consultants mine their own experiences and knowledge in dealing with clients. If they are not adding new knowledge, then they run the risk that the world will have moved on without them.

I frequently refer to my own experiences in writing. Like everybody, I use those experiences to interpret the world. However, I have always to be conscious of the danger that my views may no longer be relevant.

I love history because here I can bring to bear my full range of knowledge and experience in asking questions of and interpreting the evidence. Unlike science where some of the greatest discoveries are made by the young because they have a greater capacity to break out, the writing of history often gains from the silt of experience.

Current events and activities are a different matter. Here we have to decide what experience is still relevant, what must be put aside.

Take public policy and administration as an example. Over the last year or so, I have written about this area a lot, tracing through and interpreting some of the changes that have taken place. I think that I can claim to have a reasonable degree of expertise.

This helps me to interpret and explain. However, it can also be a problem. In dealing with Government systems whether as a consultant, contractor or employee, what is is what matters.
At an operational level, this requires a split personality. All the knowledge of what was, what might be, what should be, has to be put aside because it can interfere with the simple requirement to get a job done. In fact, over ten years ago now I decided to withdraw from consulting to the Government sector because I felt that it had all become just too hard! I wasn't enjoying it.

Drawing this meander to a close, I think that in making and interpreting claims to authority based on experience, it pays to be cautious. Like the old position of engineer on an aircraft, the world may simply have moved on.

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