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When I assume that whatever some authority figure says is the truth, it becomes a logical fallacy called "appeal to authority". But then how do I assume that the scientific method is (most likely) truthful?

For example, I know that two bodies attract each other with the formula given by F =G m* M/r^2, but how do I conclude this formula is reasonably close to the reality without going through every paper published in this field and without replicating their experiments? A similar example is when I say "evolution is a fact", and I hear "have you seen the evidence"? It feels like an appeal to authority if I just assume that scientific method works.

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    Evolution is proven by Chihuahuas. I don't see the problem you're facing. – elliot svensson Jun 5 '18 at 6:04
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    Napoleon died in Saint Helena the 5th of May, 1821 : it is a fact. Did you attended to the event ? Have you seen the evidence ? Maybe he is still alive (like Elvis Presley)... – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Jun 5 '18 at 8:10
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    The issue is you are not using terms correctly. The scientific method does not provide FACT. At best science proves likelihood of truth because theories must be falsifiable. Science can never give 100% truth by definition. Deductive reasoning can give 100% truths by definition. By 100% truth I mean the claim is impossible to be false. A few examples are all wo.en are human beings, all triangles have three sides, all bachelor's are single men, etc. A fact by definition MUST BE TRUE. This means it is impossible for a fact to be wrong. Claims can be wrong though. – Logikal Jun 5 '18 at 13:12
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    One logical fallacy is an implicit assumption that the scientific method refers to a single thing, e.g., random controlled experiments. In fact there are many scientific methods. – DJohnson Jun 5 '18 at 13:30
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    It is true that most scientists rely on the authority of those past. The difference between that and, say, religious authority, is that in science you can choose to do the experiments yourself. I don't have to believe the speed of light because M&M said so--I can measure it myself. Other types of authority actively discourage questioning, while science encourages it. Religious authority is demanded. Scientific authority is earned by demonstrating a history of being right. – Lee Daniel Crocker Jun 5 '18 at 16:53
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The scientific method doesn't guarantee correctness. It's inherent in it's process to be wrong at times.

The way the scientific method works is by proposing a theory that explains a natural process within some scope. Then scientists don't try to prove it, they try to disprove it. If a theory can't be disproved, it becomes accepted until someone finds a way to disprove it, at which point a new theory gets developed.

Most modern theories, e.g. gravity or evolution, are accepted within their scopes because no one has managed to disprove them despite thousands of scientists trying their best to do so. Disproving popular theories and creating new theories to replace them that don't get disproved themselves results in quite a bit of fame. That doesn't mean that they are necessarily correct, just that no one has managed to prove that they are wrong. At some point in the future a new theory might replace them, but until then the scientific consensus accepts them as true, because they are the best explanation we have for what we observe in nature.

With the scientific method, there aren't really facts or truths. There are theories that no one managed to disprove yet and so they are accepted as true until someone manages to do so. The scientific method consists of constantly doubting theories.

This is opposed to accepting something, e.g. the word of an authority figure, as a fact or truth. If you accept it as a truth, you won't have the doubt required to look for flaws.

Taking evolution as an example. You can propose the theory that god created all animals the way they are now. You can accept it, because it comes from authority. Or you follow the scientific method, interpret it as a theory, use your doubt and look for ways to disprove it, for example by showing that animals changed even just over the last few hundred years. Once you've disproven the theory, you develop a new theory, evolution, which explains the change and look for ways to disprove that.

The scientific method relies on doubt, the appeal to authority on belief.

  • I think the question is, can one correctly accept scientific conclusions without seeing the evidence? Does this imply the informal fallacy of trusting authority figures? – Frank Hubeny Jun 5 '18 at 12:40
  • @FrankHubeny That would essentially ask whether you can trust anything you have not personally experienced. Does France exist? How could I prove it? I could look at a picture, but that could be fake. I could go there, but the airplane might take me somewhere else and everyone around me could just be pretending to be in France. How would I know the difference? It may be an entertaining question for philosophers, but I'd argue whether its a very useful one. It tends to be a useful construct to simply assume that all the rest of humanity are not conspiring together to deceive you. – Tal Jun 7 '18 at 14:34
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For example, I know that two bodies attract each other with the formula given by F =G m* M/r²

Do you? Where did you get that information?

You likely read it in a book, heard it from a teacher or read it on Wikipedia.

But how do you know that whatever source you consulted followed the scientific method and didn't just make it up? If you ask them, they would likely tell you, "I got that information from [other source]". If you follow the sources, you would (hopefully) end up at a source which actually did follow the scientific method and used experiments to test the above hypothesis and was able and willing to show you the protocols of these experiments...

...or maybe you end up in a jungle of circular references, "everybody knows" statements and superstitious pseudoscience. After a while you realize that there is actually no scientific basis to assume that the formula is correct. Maybe the theory of gravity is just as bogus as astrology, homeopathy and the Easter bunny?!?

The difference between appealing to authority and appealing to the scientific method is that someone who uses appeals to authority will tell you:

"You don't need to verify this. Isaac Newton was a genius. He would never make a mistake. Just assume it's correct".

A person who appeals to the scientifc method will say:

"I applaud your scepticism. If you want to verify this for yourself: Newton published his research in [article]. You can read it to check if he maybe made some mistake. Newton's theory was later confirmed by [other people] who published their research in [other articles]. I personally consider this enough evidence that this formula is most likely correct and am confident enough that I would make important decisions based on this assumption. But if you don't trust these people, you might want to perform some research of your own to see if you can falsify it. Maybe you discover something interesting."

  • I made some edits. You may roll them back or edit further if you find these inappropriate. Would you have references to support your position. I suspect Feyerabend might be one reference that could be used, but you may know others. Having references strengthens your answer and gives the reader places to go to for more information. – Frank Hubeny Jun 5 '18 at 12:49
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When I assume that whatever some authority figure says is the truth, it becomes a logical fallacy called "appeal to authority".

Your belief in a statement does not rest on authority when you can do the experiment and see the results for yourself. You can accept someone else's word about the results, but their credibility does not depend on their academic accomplishments; rather, it depends on their own willingness to use the scientific method and to share their data with you.

But then how do I assume that the scientific method is (most likely) truthful?

There is the problem. The first instinct is to say that the scientific method has worked in the past and so it should in the future. But Hume argues that no such conclusion is valid because it assumes what it sets out to prove. Until there is an adequate response to Hume, the method's ability to make accurate predictions will remain an assumption.

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The scientific method is a ...method. It does prove a bunch of stuff but it's widely misunderstood because the knowledge that comes out of it is subtle and generally tends to not work well in generic conversations.

There are generally 3 major approaches to determine "truth":

  • The scientific method, where truth is defined as a theory that replicates the results of scientific experiments (replicable, well documented experiences) within a specific realm of applicability. This method is a mix of induction and deduction.
  • Logic, where all truth takes the form of an implication "If this thing is true, then this other thing is also true". Truth in logic means "consistency". Logic is fundamentally deductive
  • Accepting truth via personal belief. If anyone convinces themselves of something, contrary to science or logic, and they accept that as "truth", then that's also a subjectively valid experience.

The important point here is that the first two points, and in particular the scientific method are predictive--they don't need to be "true" in an absolute sense, but they are a good enough explanation within their realm of applicability.

You can look up the mass and radius of the Earth, plug in your current altitude and get an approximate figure for the gravitational force on a weight. You can also swing the weight and get an experimental figure for that same force and verify that they are very similar. You can check science!

You can look up the many proofs of evolution and verify them yourself, although that requires a bit more of knowledge. For example you can see the tree of evolution based on similarities (i.e. humans and chimps are similar so they are "cousins", humans and zebras are less similar so they are more distant cousins); you can look at a potentially very different tree based on genome changes and verify it's the same tree; you can look at the fossils and verify that older fossils correspond to intermediate forms, and it's the same tree; you can see that the mechanisms of evolution work at a micro scale by reading up on what experiments have been conducted on bacteria; you can see that they work at a macro scale by observing specialization in current species (Darwin's finches are a good example of that). All these don't look like "experiments" but they are. They are all things that are not necessarily a logical consequence of each other and they are predictions that come out of the theory of evolution.

So, I encourage you to think in terms of predictability of a method or a theory, and not in terms of truth. Truth is, in a way, overrated. Being able to count on repeatable outcomes is way more important.

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What you're describing isn't the appeal to [false] authority; it's simply a matter of trust and credibility.

The fallacy you've named is appealing to an authority in one subject but who is commenting on something she is not an authority on.

For instance, Einstein is quoted liberally on topics he's mostly not any kind of authority on, yet people feel that gives some credibility all the same.

  • You are incorrect. The appeal to an authority in a separate field is called a Pseudoauthority which is a distinct fallacy. – Logikal Jun 7 '18 at 12:45
  • "appeal to false authority" is exactly what i described; i am not incorrect in that description. – Steven Hoyt Jun 8 '18 at 13:13
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The scientific method, just like logic itself , is a syntactic (linguistic) structure. They can't be proven. However you can test their internal consistency.

You can also test their relative strength, by contrasting them against another syntactic structure you have more or less confidence in. They can be proven right, wrong or something else with respect to another syntactic structure.

You can appeal to authority in order to convince yourself, just not within scientific discourse.

  • Thank you. But if I believe in scientific method and popular wikipedia articles, which are correct 99% of the time, they believe in their holy book, which is (according to them) correct 100%, has forever been correct and requires no update, how do I proceed? – User49582934 Jun 5 '18 at 5:56
  • You believe in the scientific method and wikipedia, and your friends in holy books? – user2277550 Jun 5 '18 at 5:58
  • You have to shared assumptions (semantics), and a common syntactic model before something can be shown right or wrong. In your case, you share neither, and hence there can't be meaningful discourse of any kind. – user2277550 Jun 5 '18 at 6:01
  • That's actually the most sensible argument I have read in many many years. Thank you. – User49582934 Jun 5 '18 at 6:07
  • You can use any technology based on science to know that the scientific method is in fact extremely semantic. It works, it does not merely claim to work. – Sklivvz Jun 5 '18 at 7:07
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If Newton were alive today, and there weren't so many people using his law of attraction already, simply trusting the equation of your first example would seem foolish indeed. However, it is no fallacy to acknowledge the reputation of this equation historically and to believe that a body of smart folks would have already figured out that the equation didn't work if that was the case.

In your second example, let's write out the full sentences:

Evolution is a fact

The full sentence here is ambiguous. Does this mean...

1) Living creatures descend with modification

or

2) All of the diversity of life was caused without intervention by descent with modification, natural selection, and other evolution mechanisms

?

Under Popper's conception of the scientific method, 1) is clearly no appeal to authority: this happens practically overnight with E. coli and fruit flies. Repeatable! Testable! Observable!

However, 2) is clearly not demonstrable via scientific method, since our present diversity of life would have come about over the unique course of the Earth's actual history... one time.

  • 2) has been demostrated over and over and over via scientific proofs and replications. Just because you can't imagine how that is possible, it doesn't mean it's impossible, or, indeed, done. – Sklivvz Jun 5 '18 at 6:45
  • By Popper's conception of scientific method, a one-time event cannot be demonstrated in the laboratory. – elliot svensson Jun 5 '18 at 15:22
  • I'd argue that the inability to prove #2 has more to do with a poorly constructed concept, more than the nature of the event. It can probably be better phrased in a way that can be falsifiable. – PoloHoleSet Jun 5 '18 at 19:48

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