'Many scientists agree that': The Simpsons and the appeal to dubious authority

Here's a trick to make one thing look true and another thing appear false. All you have to do is break the rules of reasoning. It's easy, and usually nobody notices.

In fact, this rule breaking is so common it has a fancy name: a logical fallacy. Don't let the philosophical jargon faze you. A logical fallacy is just a dodgy move that rigs the game. Sometimes it's deliberate cheating, but often it's an ignorant blunder.

Nutrition science is a mine field of logical fallacies. And here's a big one - the appeal to authority.

'Many scientists agree that ...'

Most of us aren't nutrition scientists. And if you're not an expert at something, you should look to an expert for help.

That said, there's experts, and then there's 'experts'.

Stop slandering poor, defenceless Blinky

Like so many of life's philosophical lessons, The Simpsons has it nailed.

The authority talks like an expert, but they don't have any credentials. This appeal to authority isn't about seeking the 'truth'. It's an attempt to frame the science to sell one side of the story - literally 'sell', because there's often money on the line.

The authority here is a blatant fraud. But let's imagine that it's a qualified expert. Or, maybe there's lots of scientists that are pro Blinky.

You can find an 'expert' or a paper to say most things. I could make a general appeal to a collection of anonymous 'scientists' to prove a thing to be true. They aren't named, so you can't verify it ... but it sounds persuasive, right? (100 scientists agree?! Gosh, that's a lot.)

Should you rely on an appeal to authority?

To do that, you'll need to check up on that 'expert' to make sure that they pass muster. Here are the three main hurdles:

  1. Are they actually an expert?

  2. If they are, do they have expertise in the thing they are speaking about?

  3. If they do, do they have strong and relevant evidence to back any claim they make.

If you can tick all three boxes, then it's far more likely to be legit. 

Take home message

If you fall into the trap of a logical fallacy, that doesn't make you stupid. It makes you human. To properly scrutinise a debate or a 'fact', you have to press pause on your assumptions and put your critical thinking cap on.

Keep your feelers up. Be cautious of selective appeals to authority that sneakily 'cherry pick' experts and studies that support one side of the story. They might sound convincing, but are they attempting to sell you Blinky?

And if it's not the majority opinion? Hear it out. Oscar Wilde famously said that 'Everything popular is wrong'. Investigate the outlier. Check out that person's credentials and data. Maybe they are a unique thinker and on to something. Or maybe they just like to be the black sheep and make a ruckus (and a profit).