I get rather a remarkable number of comments like this one about a letter I sent to CFI regarding Justin Vacula’s attendance at the Women in Secularism conference this weekend.
Attempting to have him excluded from the event –which is clearly the subtext of the letter you quote here, if it wasn’t why give them a “situation” to “resolve” – will force people like me, who are new to this whole kerfluffle, to believe that you really don’t have ideas worth defending.
Now, setting aside the fact that I, at least, am aware of several ways that conference organizers can limit the disruptiveness of an attendee short of barring them from the conference, and setting aside that I thanked CFI for taking one of those options, there’s a failure of critical thinking in this comment and comments like these that boggles my mind.
Namely, I don’t understand why anyone would consider it compelling to tell me that someone who knows nothing about a situation, particularly a situation about which I’m privy to years’ worth of details, disagrees with me. What about this is supposed to convince me of anything?
Appeals to authority are at least based on a useful heuristic. Such appeals certainly don’t prove anything, but they make use of the fact that an authority has demonstrated competence in at least one field. A random commenter on my blog hasn’t done that much.
If the authority being name-checked is accomplished in the same field as or a related field to the one in which the dispute is taking place, that authority is more useful, though still not necessarily correct, by virtue of being familiar with the information on the topic and the arguments about what that information implies. The appeal to the naive observer explicitly rules out any such usefulness on the part of the person making the argument.
The appeal to the naive observer isn’t even as useful as a bandwagon appeal for suggesting where the truth may lie. A crowd of random people generally has at least some reason for believing the same thing. That reason could be a bad one, based in bias or due to the fact that the reality of a situation is not easily observed, but it isn’t necessarily.
Most people believed in the persistence of gravity well before anyone understood (more or less) what gravity was. That particular shared belief was based in common, correct observation. The bandwagon appeal is used because that kind of collective observation is often useful, even if it can’t always be relied on.
The appeal to the naive observer, however, rules out this kind of usefulness as well. It says, “Hey, I’ve got this tiny, extremely limited dataset. Defer to me!” It’s…not persuasive.
Then again, maybe the appeal to the naive observer is meant to be a marker of impartiality. “Hey, if I haven’t been paying attention to this, I can’t have a horse in this race. Heed my unbiased opinion.” There’s a little problem with this, though. If you haven’t paid any attention, you don’t have the facts at hand. If you don’t have the facts at hand, the only basis for an opinion is existing bias.
It’s possible, though, that the appeal to the naive observer isn’t intended to be an argument about whether the person appealing is correct. It’s possible that the person making that appeal doesn’t care about whether they’re correct. Maybe the appeal to the naive observer is an attempt at social engineering. Maybe it’s saying, “Give up on trying to persuade anyone of XYZ. You can’t, because you failed on me.”
This won’t surprise my regular readers, but I don’t find this argument persuasive either. It relies on one of two ideas. In order for my attempts to persuade people to constitute a failure because they failed to persuade one person, either I would have to count only a 100% persuasion rate as success, or I would have to consider this person to be a perfect representative of all the people out there whom I could persuade.
Needless to say, 100% is an unattainable rate. It’s not what I’m aiming for, because it’s not something anyone could reach. So I’ll be charitable and assume no one making an appeal to the naive observer would be suggesting such a thing.
That leaves us with the other option, the naive observer as representative of all the people I could persuade. This would mean that said naive observer thinks everyone makes up their mind on a topic without taking more than the most superficial glance at one tiny piece of the evidence.
To this I say, “Oh, no, no, no, naive observer. There are many people out there doing this decision-making thing far better and far more humbly than you are. Those are the people I expect I can reach. You have plenty of room to improve before you can count yourself among their number.”
Then I get back to work, laughing, because who comes along to tell me I should listen to them because they know nothing? I mean, really?