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Judging Authority


Jere H. Lipps

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 28.1, January / February 2004

We are often required to accept the word of another person, but how can we best judge whether or not that person is a legitimate authority?

Living well requires that we be able to evaluate our environment rationally. Simple things, like crossing the street, shopping, eating, and listening to our doctors, involve three skills: critical thinking, evidential reasoning, and judging authority. Many people, including previous authors writing for the Skeptical Inquirer (Lett 1990; Wade and Tavris 1990), have discussed the first two of these. Here I focus on the last of them, judging authority, but I must revisit the other two first because they are central to it. These same skills are fundamental to scientific reasoning as well, since the ordinary person and the scientist both need to understand our personal or scientific surroundings. Indeed this short article is an outgrowth of material I present to science students first learning the methods of science, but this should not discourage the nonscience reader, for science and everyday life are far closer in function than most would suppose.

There may be little here not fairly obvious to those of you long involved in issues of science and skepticism, but perhaps it can be of some use in your dealings with students, friends, colleagues, and the wider public.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking involves eight skills. These skills require that you understand the problem clearly, consider all possible views about the problem, set emotion aside, and be willing to be flexible when solutions are imperfect. The skills will aid you in dealing with the problem.

Table 1. Skills involved in critical thinking (Wade and Tavris 1990) and simple techniques for achieving them.

The first three critical skills in table 1 may be self-evident, but the others are often difficult for people to practice because of human nature. The analysis of assumptions and biases requires a certain amount of personal insight. We all have biases based on our past experiences and personal beliefs, but we must try to set them aside when we need to understand the way the world works. This is often very difficult to do, because we are not even aware of many of our personal biases. One way to identify bias is to make a list of your feelings and knowledge about the subject. Then apply the evidence. If it does not support your feeling, perhaps the feeling is unjustified. Later, after examining other factors, you can return to this issue with a better understanding of your own emotional biases. If in conflict, your feelings should probably be suppressed in favor of evidence.

The last three items are particularly difficult. We all need explanations, and we tend to jump to conclusions based on too little evidence. Again, an analysis of the evidence is required to determine if it is sufficient. Alternative interpretations should always be sought, even if the evidence seems compelling. In science, this process is known as the “method of multiple working hypotheses,” an especially powerful way of approaching the truth (Chamberlain 1897; Platt 1964; Lipps 1999). Does the evidence allow for other possible interpretations? Try to think of other ways to account for the observation or phenomenon you are interested in.

And last, tolerate uncertainty. No one likes uncertainty in our lives-we all want, perhaps need, to know things such as what is before us, why things happen to us, and what happens when we die. Although difficult, tolerating uncertainty can be done by simply setting aside the uncertainties and, for the moment at least, accepting them and moving forward.

Evidential Reasoning

Evidential reasoning should be used in our daily lives, as it is in science, to evaluate various problems and claims that confront us. We might even make such claims ourselves. All claims should, ideally, be subjected to an analysis like that outlined in table 2.

Table 2. Rules for evidential reasoning (Lett 1990), or a guide to intelligent living and the scientific method (Lipps 1999). All claims whether scientific or not, should be subjected to these rules in order to ensure that all possibilities are considered fairly.

Of these points, perhaps the most critical is the last one. Any claim must be sufficient. In other words, you do not have to prove that the claim is false in order to test it; the claimant must provide sufficient proof himself. Second, the more extraordinary a claim, the more extraordinary the evidence must be to test it. For example, if a person claims that some herb has cured his cancer, you would be well advised to seek a good deal of further supporting evidence before risking your own life. Or if a person claims to have an extraterrestrial being in her garage, do not accept a photograph as proof-demand a piece of it for further study. And last, the word of someone is never sufficient to establish the truth of a claim. This article addresses this last issue, judging whether or not that authority is worth considering.

Judging Authority

The evaluation of authority requires special consideration because all of us must depend on authorities for information almost daily. In science too, we scientists rely on other scientists for certain kinds of information or data, simply because we cannot know enough about everything. Scientific papers are scattered through with references to the work of others. The evaluation of those works and their authors are part and parcel of science. It should be so in general life too.

Who can we trust to help us in our daily lives? That question is not easy to answer. A scientist dealing with auto insurance may be as susceptible to pseudo-authority in that area as anyone else. A politician listening to a case for particular legislation may be incapable of judging the claimant, and thus vote incorrectly. A housewife may listen to glamorous stars pitching a particular useless household product on television, and buy it. Everyone is vulnerable to incorrect judgment of authority.

I present some general guidelines for judging authority, but each case may differ and so require additional methods. These additional techniques usually take the form of further probing questions. We all judge authority but sometimes in the emotions or heat of the moment, we forget to question authority. If the authority cannot pass the general guidelines below, don't believe him (or her). Of course, these are not the only ways a person needs to judge authority, for the skilled charlatan will find ways around any such guidelines. Be alert.

  1. Most important, does the authority use the skills of critical thinking and evidential reasoning listed in tables 1 and 2? If not, question him using those very skills yourself, and don't believe him until he produces the evidence required.
  2. Does the authority have proper credentials? Considerable study or experience in a subject along with the appropriate learning tools are required to become an expert in any field. Does the authority have degrees from a recognized college or university that has the faculty, libraries, and other facilities for proper education in the subject? Has the authority worked in the field for some time for an organization that is known for and equipped for competent dealings in the field?
  3. Does the authority have proper affiliations? Is she identified closely with a reliable organization, such as a university, museum, government agency, hospital, or corporation that practices the subject? If not, ask how she makes a living.
  4. Does that organization have a stake in the claims made by the claimant? Be suspicious of anyone making claims that support the position or product of their own organization. Seek independent evidence that the claim is correct. This may be hard to do for even relatively common decisions we face, but in its essence, this is simply “comparative shopping.” A good comparative shopper is interested not merely in relative costs, but also in the range of products or services available, the quality of the products or magnitude of the services, warranties, and service contracts. Does the expert provide this information, or does he pressure you to decide before you are ready? Be careful of those who will not allow you the time for a carefully reasoned decision.
  5. Has the authority subjected his or her work to peer review? In other words, have other experts evaluated the work so that some independent assessment has been made positively? If not, seek that evaluation yourself or find another authority. In our day-to-day dealings, such information is available on the Internet, Better Business Bureaus, and consumer affairs magazines and agencies.
  6. Is the authority a demonstrated expert in the relevant field? Other trustworthy people should rely on this person’s expertise. Do other experts cite their conclusions? If not, find another authority who others do rely on. Do people you know who have used this person’s expertise recommend him?
  7. Does the authority present arguments without undue call on unsupported or untenable claims? Does the authority present sufficient evidence to evaluate? If not, find an authority that can provide evidence supporting the claims.
  8. Does the authority have a past record of making rational claims backed by evidence or not? Check the usual business sources and your friends.

Even when an authority passes these tests, be aware of lapses that may reveal the degree of knowledge possessed by an expert. Well-known or highly honored people are commonly asked to comment on subjects outside their own field of expertise. We are plagued by testimonials provided by actors, sports figures, television personalities, and a host of others, but do they possess any particular knowledge that would make them an authority on what they are pitching? Probably not. These people should be subjected to exactly the same questions as an unknown authority to determine how much you should rely on their statements. Does a Nobel Prize winner in physics, for example, have any credibility when making pronouncements about evolution? It seems unlikely because the evidence and hypotheses about evolution are very far removed from the usual literature and knowledge base of physics. Be suspicious. Question authority. Use critical thinking and evidential reasoning.

In our daily lives, pseudo-authorities are always making one claim or another to sell you something. Ask questions of your insurance salesman, your plumber, your doctor, your housekeeper, or anyone else that you may depend on for important or essential services and products. Proper judgment of authority can save you money and perhaps a good deal of grief too.

So critical thinking, evidential reasoning, and judging authority are essential to living an intelligent, full, happy, and good life. These are worth considering carefully in our daily lives!


Jere H. Lipps

Jere H. Lipps is a professor in the Department of Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley, where he teaches and does research in marine evolutionary paleobiology. He has been an outspoken advocate of science literacy in America and is a Fellow of CSICOP and a member of its Council on Media Integrity. E-mail: