The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Friday, June 30, 2006


In a new Tech Central Station post entitled The Chomsky Fallacy, Keith Burgess-Jackson discusses the authority stemming from acknowledged expertise. He advances two major theses. One is that this expertise is not transferable to other realms:
So why does anyone care what Chomsky thinks? I suspect it's because people commit a fallacy. Expertise (or the authority that rests on it) is not transferable from realm to realm. It's realm-specific. Imagine if it were transferable. Stephen Hawking, the great physicist, would be authoritative on baseball, plumbing, and economics. Bill James, the baseball statistician, would be authoritative on the war in Iraq, botany, and campaign finance.
There is a kernel of truth here, but Mr. Burgess-Jackson greatly overstates his case. The main reason is that knowledge is not so compartmentalized as he portrays it. For example, in creating Sabermetrics, Bill James used and demonstrated a deep and thorough -- indeed, an authoritative -- knowledge of the uses and limitations of statistics; of lucid but not oversimplified technical writing; and, of course, of baseball itself, including the non-statistical lore and culture of the game.

These demonstrated skills would make Mr. James a respectable authority, should he choose to make pronouncements, in a variety of fields. In addition, there is the less quantifiable but broader issue of the trust Mr. James has merited by his earlier work; trust not only in his authority but in his approach to a problem. Similarly, Mr. Chomsky, however loathsome his principles, has demonstrated deep mastery of a wide range of subjects. Consider David Berlinski's description in Black Mischief [p.111 in the second edition]:

It went on for an hour, an effortless display of intellectual mastery, ranging over half a dozen disciplines, breezy almost, but superbly controlled, a superior intelligence, utterly at ease, impervious to criticism.

Some salami.

Mr. Burgess-Jackson is attempting to make every man a specialist, apparently indifferent to the existence of true polymaths. But this error is trivial compared to his next one.
Ultimately, each of us must make up his or her own mind on each issue. There are no moral authorities. If you decide to accept whatever the Pope says on moral matters, then you've made the Pope your moral authority; but the decision was yours. You decided to submit to the Pope rather than think things through for yourself. So maybe I should qualify what I said. There are no externally imposed moral authorities, i.e., there is nobody who, by dint of training, practice, or experience, has special insight into the good, the right, or the just.
This is somewhat Gnostic, in that it assumes that each individual is an independent moral arbiter and whatever honestly feels right, must therefore be right. But there is an even deeper fallacy here; namely the idea that the accumulated wisdom and teachings of others should have no bearing on moral decisions. Mr. Burgess-Jackson is claiming that not only the Pope's position at the head of the Church, but also the organization of trained theologians and the accumulated centuries of effort in finding a consistent moral position, should count for nothing.

In dealing with the laws of man, this would be immediately risible -- equivalent to a statement that any human is qualified to argue on an even footing against the best law firms of the land. But moral thought apparently has its own existence, not bound by the rules of other forms of knowledge:
On matters that require no expertise, such as morality, make up your own mind -- after gathering all relevant facts. This is not to reduce morality to taste; for there is a logic to moral judgment. Moral judgments must be consistent.
And the examining of moral arguments for "consistency" -- the only universal good Mr. Burgess-Jackson is willing to offer -- apparently "requires no expertise". Nor, one must imagine, does it require any significant expenditure of time or effort; thus we may discard the teachings of others and reinvent the wheel without fear that the quality of our moral decisions will suffer.

So we are all irremediably ignorant in fields outside our narrow sphere of expertise, with the one exception of the knowledge required for moral judgement, where suddenly every man is a polymath. Thus it is in Mr. Burgess-Jackson's world. But not in mine.