Experts, journalists, and us

(Originally posted at dherrera.org)

Douglas Walton’s book Appeal to Expert Opinion offers a method of evaluating someone’s use of appeals to authority to determine whether the appeal is fallacious. Chapter 1 outlines some of the difficulties we face when deciding whether to accept an expert appeal.

In this post I’ll describe those difficulties and offer my own thoughts on how the difficulties relate to our evaluation of arguments from journalists. What follows is heavily influenced by Walton’s book; page numbers in parentheses refer to it.

(What do I mean by arguments from journalists? I’m talking about when journalists try to tell us something about how the world is or should be. I recommend you skim an earlier post to get a fuller sense of what I’m thinking about.)

Confronting appeals to experts

One difficulty in evaluating appeals to authority lies in that when we evaluate these appeals, we must grapple with the expert’s way of viewing the world (19). If that expert comes from a complex field, like medicine or ethics, then she will most likely come to her opinions (her conclusions, her “expert” opinions) using an epistemology sensible to people in the field but not necessarily those outside it.

When deciding whether to accept an expert appeal, our inability to understand the expert’s logic is troubling to us because it means we cannot test it. To borrow from Thomas Haskell’s introduction to The Authority of Experts, we want to use “our” reasons and logic to reach what we consider “good,” sensible conclusions. The expert’s opacity gets in our way, and, if nothing else, that’s troubling at a gut level. In terms of critical thinking — evaluating reasons and evidence given to support a conclusion — it’s a big roadblock.

A second difficulty in evaluating appeals to authority occurs when experts try to communicate their opinions to people outside the field. For one, the communication to non-experts must simply make sense to the listener. A “simple” explanation that I still don’t understand is still no good to me, assuming I’m honestly trying to understand it.

For another, we also need to have a reliable system for evaluating whether the lay explanation fairly represents the full expert opinion (23-27). We need tools to alert us to when the lay explanation is incomplete, self-aggrandizing, or simply wrong. When considering an appeal to authority, then, we might encounter this second difficulty if we lack a system for making such evaluations.

Our struggles here might not be our fault. Experts can be intimidating, sometimes to the point of belittling us or capitalizing on our powerlessness (22-23).

Whatever the cause, if non-experts cannot understand detailed, technical arguments offered within the field by experts, and if they can’t understand the arguments as intended for a layperson, then what is the poor non-expert to do when it comes time to evaluate the appeal to the authority?

Journalism and appeals to authority

Next, I’ll try to apply to journalism these difficulties of judging appeals to authority. I think the difficulties apply in at least two ways: in how journalists reach their conclusions, and in how we as audiences evaluate journalistic conclusions.

First, let me say that I assume it pretty obvious that journalists regularly utilize appeals to experts to draw conclusions.

As such, to accept journalist’s arguments, we, the audience, need to know that journalists can overcome the two difficulties outlined above. If we aren’t sure that journalists can overcome these difficulties, then our task of determining whether to accept what the journalist has to say about the world becomes that much harder.

Regarding difficulty 1: most journalists, at least by training, are not experts in the fields from which they find expert sources. Consider a situation where a journalist uses an internal report about something to draw conclusions for a story. The epistemology employed in their source’s report might be as foreign to journalists as it is to us (certainly, some journalists will be more familiar with source’s epistemology and more able to understand and express it).

Where journalists do not understand the epistemology of other fields, the audience faces a problem. The journalist can’t use her reason and logic to check the expert conclusion. So we can’t judge the expert and we can’t pin our hopes on the journalist. Is the only solution here having to simply trust that the journalist chose the proper expert?

Regarding difficulty 2: like the rest of us humans, journalists face the challenge of understanding the lay explanation of expert conclusions. An example here might be a journalist asking a political scientist how to best interpret some polling data. The political scientist probably will start offering a simpler explanation to the journalist than you’d find in an academic journal.

For us to accept a journalist’s conclusion that builds off appeals to experts like the political scientist, we need to know that journalists understood what the experts told them enough to correctly describe it in news stories. This, again, is not an impossible hurdle, but perhaps a tough one.

Furthermore, like the rest of us, journalists interacting with expert sources face the possibility of intimidation or rough treatment. Journalists might face this possibility more than non-journalists because of pressures to meet deadlines, or to impress the source, or to not alienate the source so as to keep information subsidies coming.

I don’t think there needs to be blame attached to when this happens; I do think that we need to be aware of it when deciding whether to accept a journalist’s conclusions.

If anything, the need to know how journalists interacted with experts and whether journalists understood what they were told only strengthens arguments in favor of increasing openness and intimacy between journalists and audiences. Journalists could start telling us not only “here’s where I’m coming from” or “here’s where I’ve donated” but “here’s how I felt after the interview.”

Journalists as experts

So far, the sense of “expert” as relates to journalism has leaned towards people who aren’t journalists — economists or doctors, maybe.

But what if we say journalists, too, are experts? I don’t think it too much a stretch to include journalists as a form of expert. We cite them as authoritative all of the time. Most of us have said “according to The New York Times…” or “Jane Meyer revealed that…” with straight faces. Unless we offered additional evidence, we used these journalists as authorities.

If journalists can be experts to whom appeals to authority are made, then what are the implications for us as audiences determining whether to accept their conclusions?

I’ll throw out a couple of ideas.

One implication regards difficulty 1 from above — our need to understand the epistemology used by a field to come to its conclusions. If journalists are experts, then audiences now face an additional epistemology to understand when consuming news: the epistemology by which a conclusion makes sense within the field of journalism (one example might be the objectivity and the view from nowhere).

By the definition above, this epistemology can be as impenetrable to audiences, without additional study on their part, as those of our physicians or mechanics.

Yet, as we ponder whether a journalist was correct to write a story concluding, say, “Israel and the U.S. collaborated on Stuxnet,” we are unable to come to our own conclusion without a sense of how the journalist came to theirs.

We can, though, also question why journalism requires a separate epistemology from the “standard,” so to speak, reasons and conclusions available to all of us. What is inherent in saying “Israel and the U.S. collaborated on Stuxnet” or a similar conclusion that requires a different standard of evidence or reasoning than those taught in basic textbooks? Why do journalists require the same level of speciality as physicists in this regard?

A second implication regards difficulty 2 from above. Experts can deliver lay explanations of conclusions that are more complicated within the discipline.

Suppose that a news story was actually the lay version of the journalist’s complicated, intra-discipline conclusion. As audiences, then, we face again the problems and questions described above.

We have no easy means of testing whether the simple argument fairly represents the full expert opinion. Journalists presenting “lay” conclusions to audiences might puff up their work or omit important counterarguments. We need a reliable system for responding to these problems. (This is all, of course, on top of our need to evaluate the other expert opinions within journalistic stories.)

As with other experts, as audiences we also must be wary of intimidation or belittling on the part of journalists. I return, again, to Jay Rosen and his criticism of the “Church of the Savvy” political press for their assumption that only they have access to “the way things really are” in Washington, and so the press can write the way it does legitimately.

The potential for intimidation here is high given that, in many cases, journalists are our only source into politics or businesses; if we choose to reject journalists as authorities on these topics, we might have few other options for obtaining necessary news and information. Thus, “here’s the way it really is” holds some power over us as audiences trying to figure out whether it really really is.

Conclusion

I hope some of the ideas presented here about argument and journalism made sense.

As a reminder, this is a long-term project for me. I am eager to reconstruct my views based on comments and suggestions, especially from people with a background in argumentation.

I’m looking forward to reading critiques.

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