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Various comments made elsewhere include:

  • In other words, the standards for what is authoritative clearly depend on the claim being supported. (Link)

  • We require references to be of a certain reliability, from a source who has a certain authority on the matter at hand. (Link)

  • I'm not a fan of the "authority" phrase - I couldn't define what it meant without tripping over "Appeal to authority" fallacies. (Link)

  • Also, the famous answer about torture doesn't cite any methodologies (instead its references are all "appeals to authority") ... is it a bad answer then? (Link)

The latest example I've seen is in this answer about dolphins ...

In the presence of a shark, dolphin anti-predator behavior varies with the circumstances. Some simply swim away from the shark, others ram or bite it, and yet others launch coordinated group attacks to drive the predators away. -- Smithsonian National Zoo

... which looks like it's relevant but which is unverifiable.

So: how does an unverifiable allegation published by the Smithsonian (for example) compare with an unverifiable allegation published by a member of the forum?

To take another example, Dian Fossey is considered an 'authority' on the subject of gorillas. Part of her knowledge was from first-hand experience, i.e. field observations: camping in the bush, having a look, and journalling her observations. Why makes 'scientific' observations more authoritative than mere 'anecdotes'?

  • If the consensus is affirmative, this question title may be changed to "What does 'authoritative' mean?" – ChrisW Jun 29 '11 at 12:04
  • A note about the Smithsonian example: References are not provided against every claim, but are provided for the page as a whole: nationalzoo.si.edu/SCBI/AquaticEcosystems/Dolphins/… – Oddthinking Jun 29 '11 at 13:10
  • @Oddthinking - I hadn't noticed that Smithsonian link to a References page. Even so, none of the titles on that References page mention sharks. It's possible that one of those references includes some primary observation or secondary survey of shark interaction but (without reading all the references, which are print and not web) I see no evidence that it does. The only thing I've learned from that page is a list of references/titles which the Smithsonian implies are authoritative. – ChrisW Jun 29 '11 at 13:21
  • I concur that general references are frustrating, as you are forced to read the entirety of all of the articles/books before you can say "This claim is unsupported", and even then it is hard to convince others. Print versus web is just a convenience thing. – Oddthinking Jun 29 '11 at 13:50
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Authoritative is a deliberately fuzzy word and should remain as such for the purposes of this site. This is because any strict definition will always have a fail case where it wouldn't achieve the appropriate result. Much like the word reasonable.

This very much drifts into the "I know it when I see it" territory which is understandably unnerving to a skeptic. This is why we have an entire community that helps provide confirmation and consensus. We, as a site, have declared ourselves the authority on authority. This is good, not bad, because visitors and askers have to decide whether or not to trust our judgement regarding authority. If we, as a community, say an answer is appropriate than they can feel confident in the answer.

That being said, this is also why our request for references and our opinions on original research are so critical to the site. We are the experts in finding the evidence and references and authorities. That is exactly our burden to bear.

I think Sklivvz said it best:

Skeptics are experts in gauging authoritativeness.

  • I think that's an accurate summary of the meaning of the word "authoritative". It is unnerving, given how often (allegedly) entire populations (or entire halves of a population) have apparently been 'wrong'. – ChrisW Jul 1 '11 at 18:21
  • Curiously, I think that Catholicism (contrasted with more literalist interpretations) says that Scripture isn't literal or dead letters but is to be interpreted by the Holy Spirit within the reader. They have things to say about the authority of the Church, too; but still. – ChrisW Jul 1 '11 at 18:25
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'Authoritative' is not an intrinsic property of a (type of) source.

  • The 'authoritativeness' of a source depends on the subject. I am quite authoritative when speaking about software development, much less when talking about DYI. Wikipedia provides quite reliable definition in physics, for example, but it's much less authoritative on a bunch of other subjects (namely controversial topics, where sometimes political correctness trumps skeptical correctness).

  • 'Authoritativeness' is not an on/off, yes/no property, it's a zero to one scale. There are worse and better sources.

  • Therefore, it is legitimate and more proper to compare sources. For example, to judge that source A is more/less/equally authoritative than source B--which is why ideally we would like to have both the question and the answer sourced.

Skeptics are experts in gauging authoritativeness. They don't claim to be right, only to reduce the possibility of being wrong through verification of sources.

The classic from Carl Sagan

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence

is a claim about authoritativeness. The more extraordinary a claim, the more authoritative must be the source supporting it.

  • "I'm a sceptic therefore I'm an expert at choosing who to believe." – ChrisW Jun 30 '11 at 4:59
  • "There are subjects on which I pride myself as quite authoritative." – ChrisW Jun 30 '11 at 5:01
  • In the phrase which Carl Sagan uses to demand "evidence", I'm not sure that/whether "evidence" and "authoritative source" are synonyms. Also: was the original quote "... evidence", or was it "... proof"? Because 'proof' has (or would have) a slightly different connotation: it's related to 'testing' (i.e. experimentation). – ChrisW Jun 30 '11 at 13:19
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    What Sagan meant is that in order to prove something trivial, trivial evidence or proof is sufficient. We don't need a physics paper to have enough evidence that gravity exists. However, to prove something deeper or more controversial we need hard evidence. Ultimately the hardest possible evidence is given by natural sciences, through multiple independent peer-reviewed experiments with a strong, mathematically consistent theoretical framework. – Sklivvz Jun 30 '11 at 17:43
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    In other words, you don't need highly authoritative references to support trivial claims. The expertise of Skeptics is exactly finding hard enough evidence to support or debunk claims. – Sklivvz Jun 30 '11 at 17:45
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    Yeah but I'm not sure how that helps to define 'authoritative', nor what the connection is between 'evidence' and 'authoritative source'. Is it the ability to produce evidence which makes something an 'authoritative source', or is it the fact that it comes from an authoritative source that makes it evidence? I personally have a bias towards authoritative sources: if it's from the government, if it's from the Smithsonian, if it's from the Oxford University Press, if it's published in The Times, if it's ... but I'm not sure whether that's, you know, being adequately sceptical for this occasion. – ChrisW Jul 1 '11 at 2:50
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    ... or even adequately verifiable: maybe the reason someone asked something on Sceptics was, although they already believed, they wanted to know: to read primary sources, the accounts of the initial/original observations. The fact that The Times or whoever might have done their own, behind-the-scenes fact-checking on their articles might help their reputation as an authoritative source, but doesn't (unless they reference their source) make their articles useful references for someone who wants to get at primary sources. – ChrisW Jul 1 '11 at 2:56
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It may mean "more than one professional with personal experience in a reputable field".

If you understand "a professional" as meaning:

  • "someone who has studied/practised the discipline for more than 10,000 hours"
  • "assumed to have a professional reputation among their peers which they'd want to keep"
  • "the field in which the person is a professional is a non-disputed field, like an engineer, but e.g. not a ufologist"

Such an answer would be quite unlike others (which seek to discount e.g. personal anecdotes, observation bias, etc.).

At some point though you understand that science includes making repeatable observations (?and that the plural of anecdote" is "data"?).

See for example this answer: answering questions about the behaviour of things "in the wild" is all about making, having made, and or summarising observations.

  • CW because I'd rather see this improved than down-voted. – ChrisW Jul 1 '11 at 17:04
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    Note: I am quite uncomfortable with this because of the possibilities of abuse. However, in the spirit of improving rather than simply criticising, I've added 2 requirements: that the professional is professional in something non-disputed, to avoid crackpots; that more than one professional independently concurs, which would be somewhat similar to peer-review. However I do think this has the potential of blowing up in our face. – Sklivvz Jul 1 '11 at 17:51
  • @Sklivvz - So, for example: published recommendations (even which don't cite their primary research/sources) from two different governments, about how to try to stay safe in an earthquake, would be pretty authoritative: and especially absent any compelling counter-argument. – ChrisW Jul 1 '11 at 19:41
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I said I couldn't come up with a definition. Having set the bar low, let's see if I can over-achieve it.


Oxford define authoritative as "able to be trusted as being accurate or true; reliable". This is a tautology though, if we say skeptics should only trust sources that are able to be trusted.

Wiktionary provides three definitions of authorative:

  1. Arising or originating from a figure of authority
  2. Highly accurate or definitive; treated or worthy of treatment as a scholarly authority
  3. Having a commanding style.

It is the second definition that is relevant here. In particular, skeptics are wary of "appeals to authority" referring to the first definition.

A critical aspect of avoiding that fallacy is that authority can be challenged with empirical data. No matter how highly a person is regarded, if what they say is contradicted by evidence, we believe the evidence.


(I haven't address the Dian Fossey question. I simply don't know her work well enough to know if she was making systematic observations and experiments to a predefined methodology, or just watching and writing up anecdotes. The latter is still useful as exploratory research for generating hypotheses and systematic experiments.)

  • "Empirical": science is based partly on observation ... but who's observation, and which observations? What distinguishes observations from mere anecdotes? – ChrisW Jun 29 '11 at 13:55
  • "contradicted by evidence": I get the impression that (especially within the context of this forum) an observation is 'good' if and only if it comes from 'an authority', however you define that (and that therefore we may ignore all anecdotes from random people, i.e. reputation is important), AND if there's no or little credible evidence to the contrary (to avoid the kind of 'appeal to authority' problem satirized in this comic). – ChrisW Jun 29 '11 at 14:03
  • We are veering off into the Philosophy of Science. I don't deny that these are interesting ideas, but I don't really have the time to explore them in full. – Oddthinking Jun 29 '11 at 14:06
  • You're right (and here I am, assuming that the scientific method is supposed to be authoritative). And no, you don't really have the time, and besides if you're not the person making the claim (that 'authoritative' means something) you're not the person who is able to understand/defend that claim. If other people want to ask for "authoritative" answers and/or references then they could use this topic on meta as an opportunity to explain/clarify that. – ChrisW Jun 29 '11 at 14:13

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