The Rash from Poison

Although the next question may seem obvious, we often forget to ask whether the authority has been cited correctly. When a person cites an authority, he or she is making a factual claim that so-and-so holds some partic- ular view. Sometimes the claim is false. If someone told you, “According to medical authorities, the rash from poison ivy is contagious when it is oozing,” you would probably believe it. In fact, the citation is incorrect. According to medical authorities, the rash from poison ivy is never contagious. Yet many people hold that it is contagious, and they think that they have medical opin- ion on their side. It is hard to deal with people who cite authorities incorrectly, for we do not carry an almanac or encyclopedia around with us. Yet, again, it is a good idea to spot-check appeals to authority, for people often twist au- thorities to support their own opinions.

It is also worth asking whether the authority cited can be trusted to tell the truth. To put this more bluntly, we should ask whether a particular au- thority has any good reason to lie or misrepresent facts. Presumably, the of- ficials who know most about food production in China will be the heads of the various agricultural bureaus. But it would be utterly naive to take their reports at face value. Inadequate agricultural production has been a stand- ing embarrassment of the Chinese economy. As a consequence, there is pres- sure at every level to make things look as good as possible. Even if the state officials were inclined to tell the truth, which is a charitable assumption, the information they receive is probably not very accurate.

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Experts also lie because it can bring fame and professional advancement. Science, sometimes at the highest level, has been embarrassed by problems of the falsification and misrepresentation of data. Consider the case of Sir Cyril Burt’s research on the inheritance of intelligence. Burt wanted to show that there is a significant correlation between the IQs of parents and their children.