Arguments From Authority

Tech Times:

Experts are proposing more stringent health warnings amid the steady increase in the number of middle-aged men who drink beer more than the allowed quantities included in the guidelines of alcohol consumption.

A past study has found that 90 percent of people in England do not believe that alcohol consumption may cause cancer, despite the fact that about seven different cancers can arise from drinking alcoholic beverages.

In January, the UK’s chief medical officers have released a guideline [PDF] that lowered the alcohol intake of men from 21 units to only 14 units or 6 pints of beer. The new guidance on alcohol consumption is based on the fact that 14 units of alcohol spread across a week do not increase health risks. However, more than the said amount may up cancer risk and other alcohol-related illness, such as liver failure.

Who cares what “experts” say?

I don’t give a damn what “experts” say.

Whenever I read something like “Experts say…”, I get an immediate rush of disbelief.

I have my own opinions about all sorts of things, and I don’t change them just because “Experts say” something different.

Anyone who calls themselves an “expert”, and uses that to add force to any claims they are making, is mounting an Argument from Authority. They ought to be disbelieved.

I’ll weigh up the evidence for myself, thank you very much.

Suppose some Famous Mathematician says that  (7.772 + 15.3) / 2.8 is equal to 8, I don’t have to believe him. In fact, I shouldn’t believe him.  I should figure it out for myself. And if I do that, I find that actually it’s 8.24 rather than 8. So the Famous Mathematician was wrong. Maybe he wasn’t far wrong, and maybe the missing 0.24 doesn’t matter. Or maybe it does matter.

The trouble comes if I don’t know how to add and subtract and multiply and divide, and so have no way of checking for myself. Then it’s about whether I trust Famous Mathematicians to be able to do what I can’t do, and to always get the right answer.

All the claims that I currently don’t believe are actually mathematical claims of one sort or other. The authoritative claim by health experts that Smoking Causes Lung Cancer relies on mathematical arguments. The authoritative claim by climate scientists that carbon dioxide causes global warming relies on mathematical climate simulation models. The authoritative claim by NASA astronomers that the Chelyabinsk meteor wasn’t a companion of asteroid DA14 that arrived on the same day relies on mathematical orbital simulation models. It’s all mathematics.

But do any of these claimants ever tell people, “Don’t believe us just because we’re experts. Go work it out for yourselves. Here’s how we did it.”?

I’ve never heard any of these people ever tell anyone to work it out for themselves, or explain how to do it. They don’t want people to work things out for themselves, because they’ll most likely find that that they got it wrong – like I just found with the Famous Mathematician just now. No, they just want people to believe them because they’re Famous Mathematicians, or maybe famous Nobel Prize-winning mathematicians, or even knighted, famous, Nobel Prize-winning mathematicians wearing the kind of immaculate, well-cut pinstripe suits and Eton old school ties that shout “Trust me.”

Regardless of the fame and stature of an “expert”, if you have no way of checking the veracity of the claim they’re making, don’t believe it!!



About Frank Davis

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31 Responses to Arguments From Authority

  1. jaxthefirst says:

    “… allowed quantities …”

    [Emphasis mine] Interesting use of language, there.


    “They don’t want people to work things out for themselves, because they’ll most likely find that that they got it wrong”

    Not to mention, of course, that if everyone else can work out the same things as they do, they won’t be “experts” any more, will they? And they really, really like being “experts” ….

  2. Tony says:

    As far as I know (and I’m certainly not going to read their latest propaganda piece), the recent figures have simply been made up with no evidence whatsoever. These arseholes used to at least publish dodgy statistical surveys to try to justify their claims.

    No surprise that one of the most influential claims came from Richard Doll’s ‘Doctors Study(survey)’. In 1978 Doll included a question about alcohol consumption along with his usual smoking questionnaire. He published the alcohol results in 1994.

    Basically (from memory) what he claimed was that low consumption was better than none and that only people drinking more than around 43 units a week did worse than teetotallers. The healthists have redefined the size of UK units since then. Downwards of course, meaning that Doll’s figure of 43 would now be over 60.

    Another major issue is that the ‘over 43’ group had no upper boundary and so would have included people drinking several hundred units a week.

    But in any case, these (mostly self appointed) ‘experts’ are a complete waste of space at best. As you say.

    • Rose says:

      A comment that stuck in my mind.

      Scientists are only human
      “The revelations about Sir Richard Doll’s undisclosed income reflect our increased, and justified, anxiety about conflicts on interest.”


      John Lilburne
      9 Dec 2006 18:20

      “Sir Richard made important contributions to epidemiology, but he was no saint, contrary to the impression given by outraged letters to the press by his colleagues. He had a very well-developed sense of his own importance, which led him to confabulate his own narratives, perhaps unknowingly.

      In the case of his important early work on tobacco, for example, he erased reference to preceding American work and also to the origins of the research, portraying it as a open-ended study of several possible causes of lung cancer rather than as … work commissioned …to examine the effects of smoking.

      He was much given to telling Just-So stories about investigating the correlated growth of motor traffic and being surprised to find that smoking was the culprit, whereas the Home Office papers clearly show that smoking was the target cause from the outset. His later papers tended to rectify these stories, perhaps as a result of criticism.

      Almost all major scientists restructure their own narratives of discovery after they become famous, as one can see by examining the lab notes of Nobel prizewinners and comparing them with the subsequent autobiographical story. There is not necessarily anything very harmful about this very human trait, unless it obscures the contribution of others or misleads young scientists about how great work is done.

      Usually, however, such recognition comes relatively late in a scientist’s career, and is therefore unlikely to have a major impact on his or her research. When it comes early, or the scientist remains active for decades, perhaps as the head of a research institute, such innocent confabulation can provide a sense of infallibility or invulnerability. Linus Pauling is a case in point.

      Whether or not Sir Richard’s work was affected by commissions will have to await the judgement of historians. However, it would be a mistake to suppose that research funded by governments or medical charities is immune from the problems afflicting commercial sponsorship. Whoever pays the piper will want to have some influence over the choice of tunes.

      As civil servants are apt to say, one doesn’t commission an enquiry unless one already knows the answer. Commissioned research in any field does not necessarily have to be swayed or censored by sponsors. They pick whom to fund in the knowledge of the researcher’s existing interests.

      Declaration of interest: I was acquainted with Sir Richard, having spoken at the same conferences, and also with scholars who interviewed him. I have myself been listed in an article in The Lancet as someone who should have declared a past source of funding. With hindsight, that is probably correct.”

  3. Harleyrider1978 says:

    Remember their famous last words the debate is over the junk science is in!

  4. junican says:

    There is a terrible misunderstanding, which is that ‘experts’ know the truth. The reality is that ‘experts’ might know just a little bit more than ordinary, intelligent people, but not very much more. History is full of examples of erroneous ‘consequences’. Natural events, such as volcanic eruptions, have been attributed to the anger of Gods. It is not that long ago that cholera was thought to be caused by ‘miasma’ in the air, before the idea of ‘germs’ gained traction. Even ‘germs’ have been reclassified into good and bad.
    But the important thing is that politicians have put themselves into a position where they have no option but to accept the unaccountable ‘opinions’ of experts. NO OPTION!
    I don’t really give a shit about the EU. It is the UN and WHO, IPCC, which bother me.

  5. Some French bloke says:

    Case in point: in their short paragraph devoted to the embarrassing results concerning inhaling in their 1950 London Hospitals Study (“It would appear that lung-carcinoma patients inhale slightly less often than other patients (X2 [chi squared] = 4.58; n = 1; 0.02<P<0.05), Doll and Hill claimed that the difference was ‘insignificant’ (… X2 = 0.l9; n = 1; 0.50<P<0.70).). In 1959, after Hill handed him over the suppressed data showing that heavy smokers tended to inhale *less* than others in the LC case group, R.A. Fisher – by all accounts better versed in maths than the ‘fearsome twosome’ ever was – came to the opposite conclusion (inhalers get fewer cancers. and the difference is statistically significant).

    “So the Famous Mathematician was wrong. Maybe he wasn’t far wrong, and maybe the missing 0.24 doesn’t matter. Or maybe it does matter.”

    In exact sciences it surely does, and the use of Occam’s razor would wreak havoc on your results; in the case of flawed epidemiological studies, and considering the massive impact of ignored confounders (such as places of residence and occupational hazards), fractions cease to matter.

  6. NellB says:

    And in this particular case (alcohol) we DO have all the ‘evidence’ from previous work – a massive amount of data- the J curve showing that consuming up to around 30+ units a week is more beneficial than not drinking at all! The most recent Sheffield study these liars are using, cut the total numbers into smaller & smaller sub sections to ensure the benefits shown in previous studies were no longer statistically significant. They wonder why we no longer believe a word they say?! What they’re really saying is…’Let’s increase the problem; an increase in ‘problem’ drinkers keeps us in a job’ and means, of course, they’re spending more of our taxes to keep these liars spewing out this rubbish.

  7. An “allowed” level for a Class A Human Carcinogen? I thought the “no threshold theory” held that there was “No Safe Level” — which forms the entire basis for a smoking ban rather than a ventilation provision. Treating alcohol on a level playing field with tobacco, secondary alcohol fumes make indoor drinking in pubs simply unacceptable. People can ORDER alcoholic drinks in pubs, but they need to take them fifty feet from the door, chug ’em, and then come back in to warm up and chat with their friends over coffee and fruit juices (No orange juice though: there’s over 300,000 micrograms of ethyl alcohol in every pint.)

    OJ lovers will have to join the bourbanophiles out by the dumpsters.

    – MJM

    • Tony says:

      Obviously anything containing alcohol (bottles, glasses etc) would have to be kept tightly sealed at all times while indoors. Drinkers would be absolutely free to open them up once they reached a safe distance from the doors. Not much to ask to protect the health of others.

    • Harleyrider1978 says:

      But mike what about screwdriver drinkers aka vodka and oj

  8. Re data-checking: about ten years ago I helped Dave Kuneman in a study similar to Glantz’s Helena study. It covered a period ten times longer and a population 1,000 times larger however, AND, instead of being based on secret proprietary data, it was based on fully available public hospitalization data. See the initial version of it if you like at:

    Our findings basically threw Glantz’s Helena results in the trash: *NO* significant relationship between smoking bans and heart attack reductions!

    We submitted it to the BMJ, which had published Helena a year earlier. They ran it by only ONE peer-reviewer (instead of the customary three) and the one reviewer actually felt it was OK with only a few small criticisms. (The one positive aspect: we were shown the full review and the identity of the reviewer.)

    So did they accept it and publish it? Of course not: they rejected it on the grounds that it didn’t show anything NEW that wasn’t “already generally known.” This seemed a bit odd, since the only PREVIOUS study they had published, Helena, had shown the direct opposite results!

    We appealed.

    The BMJ editor gave it to his assistant who rubber-stamped the rejection.

    We submitted it to “Circulation” which also rejected it but would only share fragments (and fairly neutral fragments) of their peer reviewers’ comments, and which indicated that they would not reconsider it even if we applied all the suggestions of those peer reviewers.

    Finally, we submitted it to “Tobacco Control” (on Mike Siegel’s recommendation) which gave it to three raving Antis to review and who all tore it apart with reasoning and “facts” that indicated they’d barely read it, and certainly hadn’t read it fairly.

    Neither Circulation nor Tobacco Control was willing to share the names of their anonymous peer reviewers.

    That was my one and only attempt to submit valid research to the medical journals: It was clear that the system was fixed against us. Dave and I *did* do a similar economics study a year or so later (See: ) but we never submitted it for publication.

    – MJM

    • Harleyrider1978 says:

      Mike you know full well all the medical journals were ordered to refuse anything that appeared to be tobacco company financed or the basic precept the study undermines the agenda! In other words you were dropped under gag order guidelines!

  9. peem birrell says:

    The mistake is to think these ‘experts’ understand mathematics/statistics. They don’t – as is obvious to anyone who does. But why should they? In ‘public health’ they’re usually medics, nurses, sociologists on the make. The really interesting question is why the media believe them.

    • Rose says:

      Because dissenting voices don’t sell advertising space.

      • nisakiman says:

        I’ve long said that although it was, to all intents and purposes a relatively minor thing, that the biggest coup that TC made was getting tobacco advertising banned. The banning of the actual broadcasting of advertisements was indeed a fairly minor thing. The overlooked and major aspect of the banning of tobacco advertising was that it gave the MSM to the Tobacco Controllers to use to disseminate their propaganda because, as you point out, Rose, dissenting voices don’t sell advertising space, and with the rich seam of income from the tobacco companies cut off, the MSM was left with the alternative of government sponsored anti-smoking messages.

    • Rose says:

      ASH briefing: The UK ban on tobacco advertising

      “The first phase of the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act 2002 came into effect on 14 February 2003.
      The ban is broadly defined: a prohibition on any advertisement that
      has the purpose or effect of promoting a tobacco product.

      That includes at least adverts in print and broadcast media, billboards, the Internet, direct mail, and product placement – but in line with good practice, the legislation does not specify different types of advertising.

      The legislation also bans promotions, free gifts, coupons and sponsorships, where the aim or effect is to promote a tobacco product.”

      “The legislation was fully implemented on 31 July 2005, when international tobacco sponsorship (Formula One, World Snooker) are banned”

  10. Rose says:

    I should be planting out petunias but instead I’ve spent half the afternoon doing this.

    More on the subject of “light” cigarettes or the original demand to the President for regulation of nicotine and tar.

    October 18, 1974


    Dear Dr. Rhoads

    I have recieved and reviewed a preliminary copy of the 1974 annual report of the National Cancer Advisory Board.

    In several places, the Board’s report recommends Federal regulation of the tar and nicotine content of cigarettes. The report does not, however, provide an assessment of the scientific evidence at hand which should provide the basis for such regulation.

    In order that all concerned may be fully informed, I would like to request that the National Cancer Advisory Board review the existing scientific evidence on an urgent basis and provide me with an assessment of the extent to which there exists a scientific basis for responsible regulation of cigarettes.

    I recognise that all questions of regulation necessarily involve a certain amount of reasonable disagreement as well as the exercise of sound judgement. Nevertheless, it is critically important that our judgements be soundly based so that we may proceed with the greatest amount of wisdom.

    I know I can count on the National Cancer Advisory Board to provide me with scientific advice on this important matter of public concern. I would greatly appreciate the Board’s assessment by December 1, 1974.


    Gerald R. Ford.

    Ncab Response to the President (741118 741119)

    “.. Number. 4 was “really an alternative” because both the group which met on November 1 and the earlier Ad Hoc Smoking and Health Committee under Dr. Shubik had felt that the chances of such legislation passing were extremely limited and therefore favored the “Jawboning” approach instead.”

    “Unexpectedly, a new member of the Board, Dr. William 0. Baker, President of Bell Telephone Laboratories, began to question the nature of the reponse to the President. He pointed out that the President mentioned no less than four times his desire for getting scientific evidence on this question. “We have reflected the convictions of scientists in this document,” he said, “but not necessarily the scientific evidence.”

    “Dr. Burger, taking advantage of the confusion, proposed to delete “the last part of the last paragraph on page 3 because “The second sentence weakens the rest of the paper. Burger wants to take out (without saying so) all reference to the need for continued research and preventive action in those other factors that are known to be associated with o^cking and the causation of disease such as occupational hazards (asbestos and uranium mining), environmental pollution, diet and genetic determinants of individual susceptibility.” The effect would be to isolate smoking as the single cause of lung cancer in our highly polluted society.”

    “At the break, Dr.Rauscher; director of NCI, was_inforrced of the problem that Burger’s deletion would cause for him in Congress, the environmental activists, and labor since it would undercut their concern about occupational and environmental health hazards. Letting Burger’s deletion carry would put the NCI and the Administration in the irresponsible position of disregarding any other problem but cigarette smoking”

    “Consequently, at 5:30 p.m. the attached draft was agreed to. It was approved by the full NCAB at 4:25 the next day (Tuesday, Nov. 19, 1974) after about 5 minutes of “deliberation”.

    This document with Reference Appendix also attached and an annotated bibliography to be prepared will be sent to the President under cover of a letter by Dr.Rhoads by December 1.

    Reference Appendix

    Reference Appendix “The scientific literature in smoking and health can not be reported here in detail,because of its vastness”
    https: //

    What does “Jawboning” mean in American, or at least what did it mean in 1974?

  11. garyk30 says:

    Expert is too often a polite euphemism for ‘crank with a cause’.

    Most of the time these ‘experts’ don’t tell the whole truth and are often very bad at math.

    For instance:
    (Somewhat edited for shortness)
    Globally, about 5.5 trillion cigarettes are produced each year.

    Tobacco kills about one in 10 adults each year — about 5 million people.
    (NOTE: Do they really think there are only 50 million adults in the World?)

    In 2007, the international coastal cleanup by the Ocean Conservancy picked up 1,971,551 cigarette butts, which are the most common debris collected.

    (NOTE: you might think that people were wading thru cig butts to get to the oceans.
    But, there are about 1.525 million KM of shorelines; thus, on average they picked up 1 cig butt every 800 meters.)

    (NOTE: you might think that most cigs end up as butts on beaches, but, 2 million out of about 6 trillion is only one out of 3 million.)

    (NOTE: By volume, that many cig filters would fill up only about 13 of the 33 gallon garbage bags.
    And that is a Worldwide clean up.)

    • Harleyrider1978 says:

      Gary lmao excellent and I used the same argument in the Washington state smoking beach ban the Nazis attempted it was eventually tossed aside

      • We’re winning some and losing some on the beach bans. The problem is that analyses like the one Gary did simply don’t get seen by enough of the public.


        • Smoking Lamp says:

          MJM, You are right, the evidence doesn’t support outdoor bans at beach, in parks, and on patios but the antis have a lock on the press. Beyond that the evidence doesn’t support indoor bans and the trumped up risks from second hand smoking but that didn’t stop them either. SL

    • EXCELLENT “Notes” Gary!

  12. garyk30 says:

    We may need ‘expert’ guidance on matters of ‘Public Safety’ on hazards that the public can neither see nor know.

    Matters that can usually result in harm to everyone.

    I do not think that there is such a thing as ‘Public Health’: that is, my health is my responsibility and it is the same for you.

    I certainly do not feel that my health is the responsibility of govt ‘experts’.

    For instance:
    Govt experts tell us that our smoking will cause us to get lung cancer; but, this is not a ‘public safety’ issue, nor is it a ‘public health’ issue.

    This is a private safety issue.

    Controlling private lifestyles is not the govt’s job.

    Antis will tell us that due to our health care being paid for, thru the NHS, by the ‘public our lifestyles are a public matter.

    But, my health care actually costs the individual members of the public very little.

    I might have medical bills that total $100,000; but, the (UK) 45,000,000 other adults would only pay about .1/5 of one cent apiece to cover my expenses.

    This is hardly a burden on society.

    If my medical bills totaled $1,000,000, that would only be a cost of 2 cents per person to the rest of society.

    Again, this is not a burden to the individuals in the rest of society.

    Unfortunately, a large portion of society is not capable of such simple math or reasoning.

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