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Friday, February 26, 2010

Weekly Trivia Files: #7 Questioning Authority, part 2

As I said earlier this week, I'm posting two trivia pieces this week to catch up for time lost last week dealing with computer problems, etc.  My computer is still having a lot of trouble, so I'm using a different one in the house to keep up with all of you.

I'll remind you again that I'm going through all of these argument fallacies to help you become a better debater for your Christian beliefs.  They may be from non-Christian sources, but I think they could strengthen the force of your testimony by preventing people from criticizing your presentation.

Biased or Incompetent Authority

Last time I spoke about citing authorities in unrelated fields to support your argument.  This time I'm talking about citing non-experts, or those whose testimonies are shaped by bias (not fact), to support an argument.  This boils down to citing someone's unsupported opinion (including personal opinion) as proof of what you are saying.

It's important to note that everyone's testimony contains some bias, and no one is completely unbiased, but a true authority on a subject has the factual knowledge to support a position, not just an opinion.

Example: (a statement a student made to one of my professors) "I don't know where you're getting your information, because my grandpa always said that the Bible was written in good 'ol King James English."

Example 2: "Much time had been lost, and sailing had already become dangerous because by now it was after the Fast [Yom Kippur]. So Paul warned them, "Men, I can see that our voyage is going to be disastrous and bring great loss to ship and cargo, and to our own lives also."  But the centurion, instead of listening to what Paul said, followed the advice of the pilot and of the owner of the ship.  Since the harbor was unsuitable to winter in, the majority decided that we should sail on, hoping to reach Phoenix and winter there. This was a harbor in Crete, facing both southwest and northwest." (Acts 27: 9-12 NIV)

Example 2 needs more explanation: I was having some difficulty finding a clear example of this fallacy, since usually the bad authorities cited in the Bible are usually supposed to be experts in the subject they are discussing.  The dynamic in this passage is less obvious.  Here, the centurion has two advisers: (1) a prisoner who claims insight into the weather (either from God or experience; we don't know), and (2) a pilot who set sail at an unconventionally late time and really wants to get his cargo into a large harbor where he can sell it and winter over.  The unbiased adviser, Paul, has much less to gain, since he has nothing to sell and he may be going to his death in Rome, anyway.  The biased adviser, the pilot, either knows nothing about the weather in that region, or has chosen the monetary or personal benefits of making a large harbor over the risks to everyone's personal safety.   Apparently, the centurion took the pilot more seriously anyway, and used his statements to persuade the crowd to vote in favor of sailing on.

This particular fallacy tends to make the one who uses it look uninformed, since the world judges us by the company we keep.  If we cannot find a true authority who supports our topic, we need to reassess our point of view.   As Christians, the best authority we could cite would be the Bible, since others can judge that authority and test its truthfulness themselves.  It's not just my personal bias that makes me say so; the Bible has survived many tests, from archaeology to practical application.  Know it and use it wisely!