The warship Vasa

The warship Vasa and argument from authority

Photos: The Vasa on display in the Vasamuseet, Stockholm, by JavierKohen via Wikimedia.org, CC BY-SA 3.0. Cross-section of Vasa, model in Vasamuseet, photo S. Heard.

I’m writing this post in Stockholm, where I’ve come to be the “opponent” (= external examiner) for a PhD defence. I tacked on a few extra days to see some of the Swedish sights, and none was a bigger treat than the Vasamuseet (Vasa Museum).

The Vasa was a Swedish warship launched on August 10, 1628.  She also sank on August 10, 1628, which was tragic for the 30 people who died in the sinking and a pretty major embarrassment for everyone else in Sweden (then).

Why did the Vasa sink?vasa cross section Proximately, she heeled over in a moderate breeze and took on water through her open gunports (she had two gundecks carrying 72 cannon in all).  Take one step back: why did she heel over so badly?  That’s quite clear: she was built too high and too narrow, without enough room for the ballast needed to keep her stable.  Ah, but why was she built that way?  Here, written history is sketchy but the answer between the lines is clear: because King Gustavus Adolphus, not the shipwright, determined her dimensions*.

So: if you’re going to build a warship, and you can build it to a design by a King or one by a shipwright, the Vasa’s message is that the right choice is obvious.  And this, you are no doubt thinking, brings me to my point: that we should be careful in shipbuilding, and in all other things, to mistrust the argument from authority.  But while I have indeed come to my point, that isn’t it.

We often dismiss the argument from authority, but in fact our entire system of science would collapse without it: when we want to know the answer to a question, our first step is to find an expert and read their papers about it.  We have to do it that way: we can’t remeasure the molecular weight of glucose each time we need to make up a sugar solution. Instead, of course, we have a literature and we use it**.

So we have to accept (at least provisionally) arguments from authority.  The problem, of course, lies in recognizing expertise so we can assign authority to it.  That is, how do we know whether the shipwright or the King has authority in the case of ship design?  How do we know whether a Wikipedia page was written by an expert or a crank?  How do we know whether a paper in Nature (or even one in a better journal) is written by an authoritative, and thus credible, scientist?

This question permeates our lives, of course, and I could write a dozen posts about it. (Hmm.)  Today, three simple points.

(1) This is a perennial problem for communication of science to the public, because the lay public is not well prepared to judge expertise.  It is incorrect to ascribe authority to Jenny McCarthy on the subject of vaccines, and yet millions of people do – and if we’re reasonable about it, it’s difficult to blame them entirely.  An important task for scientists is to help lay audiences recognize authentic science, or authentic scientists on whom they can rely.

(2) This is a central problem in scientific writing. The major function of a Methods section, I’ve argued in my book and elsewhere, is not to allow replication (as much as we pretend it is) but rather to convince the reader that the paper represents credible science done by a credible scientist. That is, the Methods section is a way you secure the reader’s assignment of authority, for instance by showing that you know how to deploy appropriate methods in plausible ways and to use standard methods for data analysis (or know how to justify new methods).  Much about Methods writing over the last 350 years can be understood through this lens: the 18th-century vogue for ridiculous levels of detail, the 20th-century vogue for ridiculous devotion to the passive voice***, and more.

(3) This seems to be increasingly a problem in university governance, which I find interesting. We (scientists) are happy to recognize the authority problem in my point (1), and to be quite derisive not just about the celebrity “authority” (where our derision is well placed) but also about the lay people who ascribe that authority.  Similarly, we’re all invested in my point (2).  We all work hard at judging levels of authority in our literature: we pride ourselves on recognizing appropriate methods and good (and bad) papers and journals. (We may not agree on which are which, or how to tell, but we’re all agreed that such judgement can and should be made).  But when it comes to running a university, in my experience all careful thought about authority goes out the window. University faculty generally believe that all their administrators are stupid or evil or both, and we fail to recognize that if the issue is (let’s say) interpreting non-profit accounting statements, an accountant working for a VP Finance might know something that a PhD ecologist (let’s say) doesn’t. Here we fall to rejecting the argument from authority; rather than asking for expert explanations, we instead demand the right to interpret financial statements (or human rights law or HR best practices or whatever) in whatever way seems OK to us.  That is, I think we are reluctant to ascribe authority to anyone who isn’t us.  And that’s as foolish in running a university as it is in doing science.

To return to the Vasa: argument from authority was a terrible idea when authority over ship design was ascribed to the king.  Argument from authority would have been an excellent idea, and would have saved lives and national embarrassment, if it had been ascribed to the shipwright.  Finding ways to ascribe authority correctly is critical to everything we do – and that explains a lot.

© Stephen Heard (sheard@unb.ca) May 26, 2016

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*^There was an inquiry after the sinking, and it ended up assigning no blame.  This, I think, is because it was quite clear where the blame lay:  the King (off leading his army in yet another campaign of conquest in Poland) either set the design, or else overruled the shipwright’s design, to have a ship taller and better-armed than any other.  Actually saying this was not a conceivable outcome of an inquiry; but not blaming any of the other obvious possibilities (crew drunk? cannons improperly secured? Built ship deviated from plans?) sends a pretty clear message.

**^There is a considerable historical irony here.  The motto of the Royal Society of London, upon its founding, was Nullius in verba, or loosely translated, Take nobody’s word for it.  This enshrined the Renaissance rejection of Scholastic thinking (roughly, if you want to know something, see what Aristotle wrote about it) in favour of Empiricist thinking (roughly, if you want to know something, observe or experiment and find out for yourself).  Of course, it didn’t take long for it to become obvious that science couldn’t make progress without one scientist accepting and building upon the written work of others.  One of the first acts of the Society, in fact, was to invent the scientific journal (with the Philosophical Transactions).  The obvious function of a journal is to report results that, one presumes, readers ought to mostly believe!  The Society’s motto, of course, was promptly changed to… oh, who am I kidding?  It’s still Nullius in verba.

***^Because it was thought to suggest objectivity, and worked in service of what has been called “knowledge that bears no trace of the knower” (Daston & Galison, 2007, Objectivity, Zone Books). Why we thought that simply pretending the author’s nonexistence made our writing more objective, I’m not sure.

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7 thoughts on “The warship Vasa and argument from authority

  1. jeffollerton

    Interesting use of the Vasa as an example, great post. I first visited the Vasa Museum in 1991, not long after it opened, and have been back a couple of times. It’s the most atmospheric of museums, really quite awe inspiring.

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  2. Niklas

    Great post and interesting thoughts. I guess you can say that the academic system is a set of mechanisms to build authority that can be trusted. But I found your suggestion that we are generally poor in accepting valid authority to people outside the academic system to be quite interesting. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that we have such formalised rules for how to assign authority within our system?

    It was nice having you in Stockholm and it is good to see that our great military fiasco can still be a source of inspiration!
    Cheers, Niklas

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  3. Brian McGill

    I think you could generalize this point beyond academics. It is the whole postmodern era we live in. Nobody has authority. Everybody’s opinion is equally valid. Random person on street (and random candidate for Republican nomination for president) now feels quite comfortable decisively dismissing the assessment on climate change of a person with decades of training in meteorology and who has spent years examining data on the question. And nobody calls them out on it.

    I still remember a debate a school budget meeting (we still do things in the old fashioned New England town meeting in these parts), where I said if we add this position back in it will cost the average tax payer x$. Somebody else got up and said oh no, it is way more than that, it is very expensive. I stood up to object and point out that this was a simple fact of math and I was happy to share my calculations and would the other person share their calculations and the moderator actually said “everybody is entitled to their opinion”. At which point I quoted Al Franken (US Senator), “”We are entitled to our own opinions, we’re NOT entitled to our own facts!”

    Don’t get me wrong, this broad trend of questioning of authority and empowering of the individual has had many wonderful benefits, but I think by the time there is nothing at all in the domain of objectivity where one person is right, and the other is wrong, the pendulum has swung too far. And as you point out, academics are as guilty of this as everybody else (despite decrying people not elevating our opinions in our areas of expertise).

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      1. Brian McGill

        I actually think the scholars who started applying postmodernism to philosophy of science as a way to equalize power balances within universities have a lot to answer for with what is wrong with society today.

        I recall a conversation with a communications scholar. She was citing Foucault (a leading postmodernist with an emphasis that claims to have knowledge are really about power dynamics). She pointed out how scientists claims and understandings are influenced by their histories and funding sources and questioning that there is truly an objective reality. I pointed out that of course scientists are human but that if you take the next step to say that means there is no objective reality that scientists are uncovering albeit imperfectly and with mistakes, then you are giving full license to the claims of creationism, climate skepticism and etc as valid. That stopped her cold. And we never discussed the topic again. But I doubt anybody’s world view changed.

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  4. Viqar

    On the issue of university administrators and the “authority” of accountants etc., balance sheets are not rocket science (as the cliche goes), and “experts” in the VP-finance office are taught by people very much like accounting faculty present in most universities … The real question is this: why is inspiring and collegial academic leadership is so hard to find?

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