Science & Pseudoscience Review in Mental Health

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The Roles of Public Access, Authority, and Expertise in (Pseudo)Scientific Argument

Roy Schwartzman, Ph.D., Northwest Missiouri State University

The more proprietary information becomes, the less argumentative force it carries. By restricting access to research techniques and findings, the research becomes insulated from critique. One might argue that such insularity is a normal part of the investigative process. After all, critics must meet minimal criteria for their criticism to be acknowledged as legitimate in the field of research. For example, someone who does not understand the basic components of scientific method and has never studied psychology would be dismissed as a qualified critic of psychological research.

The type of restrictions on access to information that most concerns us, however, is the reluctance or refusal to allow critique from qualified researchers who fall outside a cadre of adherents to a particular method or "school" of psychology. Ideally, a claim or research finding should be subjected to every possible counterargument. The proponents of a claim should be especially enthusiastic about fully disclosing their methods to qualified researchers outside the cadre of adherents so the findings can be replicated independently of the "insiders" (Popper, 1957/1985). This willingness to subject ideas to rigorous testing lies at the heart of scientific procedure.

Maintaining open access to information has a moral dimension that transcends the issue of proper scientific method. The more a group of researchers guards access to their methods and findings from "outsiders," the less their work is subject to critique. That much seems obvious to the point of tautology. The concern here, however, is that people other than the researchers themselves sometimes should be entitled to scrutinize claims. The reluctance to make methods transparent impedes not only the conduct of scientific research but easily serves to disqualify anyone from questioning the research. Disqualifying other researchers does present problems. But perhaps even more disturbing is that input from those who might be affected by the research cannot be considered unless the affected parties have been "converted" to trusting the research. Replication or endorsement of research therefore becomes circular. If one must adhere to the research method in order to test it, then the researcher can hardly maintain the neutrality necessary to conduct an impartial, rigorous test.

Restrictions on access to methods and findings sometimes relies on a conflation of understanding and adherence. To comprehend a method is distinct from being a proponent of that method. Whereas understanding involves knowing about something (e.g., how to administer a treatment), adherence implies advocacy that relies on conviction (which may or may not be based on genuine understanding). It is troubling that many of those who have been initiated into a proprietary technique become advocates of that technique, systematically marginalizing indictments of the technique. In the case of EMDR, the most significant research findings would emerge as reluctant testimony. Specifically, the closest approximation to "crucial experiments" regarding EMDR would be: (1) the replication of Shapiro’s results by researchers who fall outside the cadre of her own trainees, or (2) her trainees disconfirming her results. These two forms of reluctant testimony would avoid questions of whether the allegiance of researchers unduly influenced their findings. The results of research qualifying as reluctant testimony also would hold more interest. The findings in scenario (1) could not be dismissed as the work of "outsiders" who have an ax to grind, and scenario (2) escapes from the accusation that "insiders" must become loyal adherents.

When a theory is made public, which usually involves publication, attention is focused on the merits and drawbacks of the theory itself. Acrimonious disputes may result, but they should proceed on the foundation of "the friendly-hostile cooperation of scientists" mutually dedicated to discovery and to rigorous testing of claims (Popper, 1973/1985, p. 83). Unfortunately scientific arguments, like any verbal disputes, sometimes degenerate into personal attacks and insinuations. Such unsavory argumentative tactics probably arise more from conceptual confusions than from deliberate attempts to injure others.

Authority vs. Expertise

The major difference between an argument against authority and an argument concerning expertise lies in the objectives of the arguments. An argument versus authority questions the author of the argument, citing reasons why the author should not serve as the sole or definitive spokesperson on a particular topic. Authority-based arguments necessarily call into question the legitimacy of claims insofar as those claims might be generated by someone who should not or does not have the power to make those claims. Arguments based on the source’s prestige not only fail to support the truth-value of the claim, but historically they have been used to restrict scientific inquiry. The argument from authority "was the one [kind of argument] most widely used in circles hostile to free, scientific research . . . " (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, 1969, pp. 305-306). When used this way, the argument from authority resembles the parent who terminates a child’s incessant "Why?" by resorting to: "Because I say so." Thus the case is closed.

But if one task or desired result of scientific inquiry is to generate further questions, the argument from authority can stifle criticism and thereby stultify the questioning that subjects claims to rigorous testing. The resort to authority represents a retreat from further scrutiny. Claims might rest on a source’s authority, but expertise invites further testing, a commencement and not a terminus of inquiry. This conception of expertise fits Waddington’s characterization of science as "an ethos based on the recognition that one belongs to a community, but a community which requires that one should do one’s darndest to pick holes in its beliefs" (1948, p. 112).

Since questions of authority are author-based while questions of expertise are more impersonal, confusing these concepts can harm the conduct of inquiry. Arguments purportedly about authority per se easily shift to arguments about the person invested with authority (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, 1969, p. 307). We therefore suggest a clearer delineation between authority and expertise. While the degree of a source’s perceived authority relies on the source’s perceived status, expertise deals with more impersonal, intersubjective criteria for deciding an argument’s quality. The expertise of a source relies on the degree to which that source meets publicly acknowledged criteria for having a voice in the relevant subject matter. Expertise, unlike authority, rests on credentialing mechanisms specific to a discursive community. For example, Milgram’s "researchers" who instructed subjects to administer the electric shocks apparently wielded great authority-or so the subjects seemed to think (Milgram, 1974). Despite their roles as authorities, however, Milgram’s confederates did not satisfy any conditions for qualifying them as experts-aside from a vague connection with administering the experiments.

Expertise is discipline-specific, but it also disciplines argumentation insofar as the discursive community legitimizes or marginalizes claims (Hariman, 1989). To the extent that an expert is recognized in a discipline, then that expert has been certified as having a say. Having one’s say, however, should not be confused with the authority-based tactic of having the last word. While communally based certification, be it formal credentialing or more informal-but no less communal-recognition, allows the expert a voice, the authority is vested with a voice. Put more succinctly, authority implies an entitlement to credibility while expertise implies deferral to communal judgment as to whether credibility has been earned. Linguistic custom acknowledges this distinction. While someone can argue authoritatively by sounding convincing while remaining ignorant, one cannot argue expertly without demonstrating genuine skill.

Expertise, while easily conflated with authority, resembles the communally established and enforced credentialing mechanisms Ziman (1968) identifies as qualifying someone to contribute to the body of scientific knowledge. Expertise, therefore, is not simply an acknowledgment of previous accomplishments but a continual process of subjecting claims to the critical scrutiny of one’s peers (Ziman, 1968). Expertise not only must be earned, but it also undergoes constant reassessment. As a check on the power attendant to expertise, a sustained examination and delimitation of claims generated by purported experts is always in order (Hariman, 1989). Dubos (1970) warns that acknowledgment of scientific expertise should not be accompanied by awestruck compliance in the face of experts. He asserts: "Freedom can be maintained only if citizens understand the intellectual basis of scientific expertise sufficiently well to differentiate between persuasion and manipulation" (1970, p. 225).


Dubos, R. (1970). Reason awake: Science for man. New York: Columbia University Press.

Hariman, R. (1989). The rhetoric of inquiry and the professional scholar. In H. W. Simons (Ed.), Rhetoric in the human sciences (pp. 211-232). London: Sage.

Milgram, S. (1974). Obedience to authority. New York: Harper and Row.

Perelman, C., and Olbrechts-Tyteca, L. (1969). The new rhetoric: A treatise on argumentation (J. Wilkinson and P. Weaver, Trans.). Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

Popper, K. R. (1957/1985). The aim of science. In D. Miller (Ed.), Popper selections (pp. 162-170). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (original work published 1957)

Popper, K. R. (1973/1985). Evolutionary epistemology. In D. Miller (Ed.), Popper selections (pp. 78-86). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (original work published 1973)

Waddington, C. H. (1948). The scientific attitude. Rev. ed. Middlesex: Penguin.

Ziman, J. (1968). Public knowledge: The social dimension of science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.