Is using an academic title automatically an ‘argument from authority’?

We are bombarded with ‘expert opinions’ every day in the media, both printed and broadcast, and many of these people are presented to us with their title: Prof, Dr, PhD, FRS and the like. An example might be this recent story on sleep deprivation and stroke from the Guardian, which is followed throughout.

My questions are: does including their “rank” in the scientific hierarchy automatically say to the audience “you should believe this person for they are more qualified than you“, is this committing an ‘argument from authority‘ and does this even matter at all?

The first question translates basically to whether or not an academic’s title is optional. On the one hand, they’ve earned the degree/accolade by working pretty damn hard and deserve to be called by it. In 3 years time, when (hopefully) I finish my PhD, I’ll be pretty cheesed off if ‘Dr’ doesn’t get written down in the right places. On the other hand, within science (certainly biology/biochemistry), people don’t much use their titles. At the institute where I work, titles are basically relegated to the telephone directory and a handful of email signatures. They certainly don’t appear on published papers, so why in the press release and press coverage. (As an aside, this is different in the medical world such as the BMJ, The Lancet and NEJM, where author qualifications are published). If they aren’t on the paper itself, I think that says to me that they aren’t needed in the press coverage, but I’ll admit that it’s an open question.

Does the inclusion of these titles confer authority on to whatever quote their holder is giving? I think they probably do. This might not be the intention in science reporting but it has that effect. Why else would people be so keen to use the title Dr, if not to be accepted as an expert in a field?

A better question is whether worrying about presenting a well-qualified expert as an authority figure actually matters? As noble as the Royal Society’s motto might be (nullius in verba – On the word of no-one), equally nobody has time to fact check everything, and qualifications and titles are often a pretty good heuristic for reliability. As Paul Nurse (or perhaps “the Nobel laureate Sir Paul Nurse PRS) recently put to James Delingpole (3m30s), when you go to a doctor, you trust their clinical judgment. You might do your own research and disagree with the consensual position, but that would be a very unusual position to take.

The problem – as there is with all such rules of thumb – is that it is open for exploitation. I alluded earlier to those who ‘pass off’ having more qualifications than they have, often in order to lend their opinion legitimacy, often for monetary gain in the form an endorsement by an expert. Weirdly, this means that every time a title such as Dr is used legitimately, it adds weight to all those using the same title illegitimately. A reverse problem can also occur – someone with a legitimate qualification, in a relevant field presents a maverick view rather than scientific consensus and can be spectacularly wrong, but still taken “on authority”. Think Andrew Wakefield and the disproven MMR/Autism link for an example.

On balance, I’m not sure that there is a right answer to the use of academic titles. To me they are a mark of respect and achievement, not authority and certainly don’t mean that everything the holder says is true and sacrosanct, but I’m not sure that is always how they are taken.

“James Streetley BSc (Hons) MRes

Science is Vital

Supporters at the rally

Supporters at the rally

Yesterday, I attended (and helped marshall, as evidenced here) the rally for an important campaign called Science is Vital. It is a campaign against any proposed cuts to the science budget, when the spending review is published later in the month. I urge anybody who hasn’t already done so to: check out their website which details all the reasons why continued investment in science is a necessity, sign their petition and write to their MP about the campaign. It was a fantastic afternoon and great to meet up with so many people that I’ve heard about or briefly tweeted @ them but never spoken; even if it was under unfortunate circumstances with the prospect of cuts hanging over all our heads.

This campaign is more than just a self-interested group getting antsy about a policy they don’t like. Yes, many of the people who have signed the petition are scientists who are understandably worried about their own careers. I am also worried about what the state of biomedical science will be when I start looking for my first position after finishing my PhD in 3 years time.

This is about more than that though. We are saying

We already don’t have enough money to do all the research we need, with only around 20% of grant proposals finding funding, and yet we greatly ‘punch above our weight’, in almost any metric you pick; number of World-class universities, citations per researcher, papers produced against spend. We can’t get more efficient. We are already at the limit.

And it isn’t the scientists that will be the biggest losers in this. They can move to other world-leading institutions in the US, Japan, India, Australia, Germany and others. It is society that loses out, as we have to become reliant on the work of other countries to fulfil our scientific, technological and engineering needs.

The Campaign for Science and Engineering has plenty more on the economic reasons why science funding is a poor judgment, so if you like facts and figures, head here. The Science is Vital campaign has also collated photos and other reports from the event and the Pod Delusion has podcasts of all the speakers and some reporting from the rally. The rest of my own photos from the event can be found in this Flickr set.

Supporting Simon Singh

Simon Singh making speech outside Royal Courts of Justice this morning

Last night I attended my second ever Skeptics in the Pub, this time at the Westminster branch which was entitled “Science Libel Survivors – Rally of the Skeptics”, and held the night before Simon Singh’s hearing at the Court of Appeal regarding his case with the British Chiropractic Association. (For those not familiar with Simon’s case, as Simon put it: the Jack of Kent blog is a good place to start… and end!).

As per my previous visit to a Skeptics in the Pub event, this was an entertaining, chilling and educational event and I’d recommend anyone to give it a go. I’ve heard a lot about Simon’s case thanks to the slightly geeky science, news, politics circle that I seem to move in (students), but hearing the tales of those being sued, particularly Peter Wilmshurst, really brought home to me the need for libel reform in this country. I know it is cliche, but it really is throttling the criticism of scientific ideas and their practice, which is no way to do science: a method which thrives on peer-review and having your ideas scrutinised.

Libel Reform supporters with placards outside the court

With that in mind, I decided to get up extra early this morning and trudge down to the Royal Courts of Justice to show my support for Simon Singh and libel reform in general before his hearing today. I also took the opportunity to sign the petition for libel reform, and encourage everyone to do the same, if not for Simon then the next journalist, blogger, scientist or medic who falls foul of someone with a lot more financial backing and has to retract their statement.

In terms of today, it sounds like a success from what I can see from those avidly tweeting the event with the hashtag #SinghBCA, with the judge’s posing some awkward questions for the BCA. The first news article from the hearing is at the Index on Censorship and Jack of Kent is due to blog about today’s hearing any minute, so I will leave it to those who were actually there and are of a legal persuasion to comment on what actually happened.

However, regardless of today’s hearing and the ruling further down the line, that doesn’t stop the ongoing reform campaign being massively significant, so I urge anyone that reads this to make sure they have signed up.

Jack of Kent has just completed his blog post on the day in court.

UK’s Science and Technology Committee tells us what we’ve known all along

Today, the Science and Technology Committee released it’s Evidence Check report into homeopathy, which they’ve used to call for a withdrawal of NHS funding for homeopathy. I know this will be covered to death in the blogosphere today but I just wanted to add my two cents anyway. (Isn’t that what blogging is all about anyway?)

So the report didn’t tell us anything new, given that it concurred (unsuprisingly) with the Government and almost all the evidence that homeopathy is not efficacious. What is has done though, is propelled this in to the media. This can only be good for starting more dialogue and educating the public on exactly what homeopathy is and why it’s ridiculous. The public aren’t stupid and the concept isn’t hard to grasp, so all we have to do is get out there and tell them – and this story as a news item does exactly that, even if the coverage isn’t perfect. And this is sustained coverage – coming a few weeks after 10:23 and calling for a Government response, which will no doubt ensure further coverage. Especially as wasting public money is on everyone’s lips at the moment.

I look forward to the topic being kicked around a little more in public in the future.