Authorities in science

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A. Neumaier

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A discussion about authorities in science
Summary: A discussion about authorities in science

Summary: A discussion about authorities in science

In the sciences there are no authorities. You send your work to a respected scientific journal, where it gets peer reviewed and then, if found suitable, published. That's it. If it's interesting enough, it will be cited by other researchers, maybe used for further work, maybe criticized.
The bolded is the authority isn't it?
Well, it's a community of peers. It's the argument that counts, now who has made it.
Highly respected journals and books are the authorities in science. But they can be challenged by arguments based on other facts. The latter are also taken from highly respected journals and books. Thus one cannot dispense with the authorities.

Except in a very narrow field, scientists cannot check the validity of research for themselves. Most scinetists cannot do an experiment that proves the existence of the top quark or black holes, and indeed on most of what they take to be scientific truth.

Thus they are dependent on authorities whom they trust. The authorities in science are highly respected journals and books, and the authors of the latter.

In the absence of being able to check a claim themselves, scientists check what good textbooks and high reputation journals say about it. If this conforms to their general outlook of the field in question, they treat it as a scientific fact.

Of course which books and journal have high reputation is a different matter It is there where
peer review and citation counts ensure (to a limited extent) the level of quality. Nevertheless, highly respected peer reviewed journals still publish lots of mediocre papers, and publishers of highly respected series of scientific books still publish lots of mediocre books.
 

A. Neumaier

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Is reputation the same as authority?
No, but it is related, and the second is often taken as a proxy for the first.
 
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No, but it is related, and the second is often taken as a proxy for the first.
I see that an authority would have a reputation, but I don’t see that having a reputation gives authority. If it is a proxy then it is of the “necessary but not sufficient” sort. I.e. a lack of reputation would imply a lack of authority, but not the converse.
 

fresh_42

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I don't think that authority can be used in the context, at least not in STEM fields. I have only seen two instances where authority played a role at all: in medical sciences and among pilots in times before crew management became mandatory.

Reputation is a better fit. However, reputation is only a necessary condition to be considered or reviewed at all. Without it, it is basically impossible to publish anything, which is why young scientists' first publications are often as coauthors.

A famous example to support my view has been Sir Atiyah and his thoughts on ERH. Neither authority nor reputation prevented him from being criticized, it only ensured that he has been considered at all.

I used to say: "I cannot know all books, but I can know whose recommendations to trust." And I think this is similar here. A certain reputation is a substitute for proofs, especially if proofs cannot be repeated as in your examples. But if there wasn't a top, then sooner or later, likely sooner, the concept would have been dismissed within at most a decade. E.g. the cause for the hyperspeed neutrinos, the wire failure had been found quickly.

I am more doubtful with experiments in astronomy, and I think in the end because of lacking reputation. Whom can you trust, if the list of authors is longer than the paper itself?
 
Whom can you trust, if the list of authors is longer than the paper itself?
How is that different from high energy physics, e.g. the top quark example you used above?
 
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If I think of “authority” in general, I am familiar with it in three main contexts: religious, military, and governmental. In all three cases “authority” means that a person can make official pronouncements within his or her sphere of influence which are considered binding upon others in that sphere.

There is nothing similar in science as far as I know. The closest I can think of is when a scientist employed other scientists, and even then the authority is by virtue of their status as an employer rather than scientific authority.
 

fresh_42

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How is that different from high energy physics, e.g. the top quark example you used above?
The number of experiments is different. However, I haven't said it is different. If astronomers would publish the existence of a white hole, just to take an equivalent example to the existence of top, rather than some water vapour on an exoplanet, then it will certainly be investigated and confirmed or dismissed as well.
 

fresh_42

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If I think of “authority” in general, I am familiar with it in three main contexts: religious, military, and governmental.
Or for short: Authority implies a kind of hierarchy, reputation does not.
 

A. Neumaier

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f I think of “authority” in general, I am familiar with it in three main contexts: religious, military, and governmental. In all three cases “authority” means that a person can make official pronouncements within his or her sphere of influence which are considered binding upon others in that sphere.
You are limiting the notion to a single one that appeals most to you. But the term hs a more extended meaning:
The dictionary Merriam-Webster said:
Definition of authority
  • 1a : power to influence or command thought, opinion, or behavior the president's authority
  • b : freedom granted by one in authority : right Who gave you the authority to do as you wish?
  • 2a : persons in command specifically : government the local authorities of each state
  • b : a governmental agency or corporation to administer a revenue-producing public enterprise the transit authority the city's housing authority
  • 3a : grounds, warrant had excellent authority for believing the claim
  • b : convincing force lent authority to the performance
  • 4a(1) : a citation (as from a book or file) used in defense or support
  • (2) : the source from which the citation is drawn He quoted extensively from the Bible, his sole authority.
  • b(1) : a conclusive statement or set of statements (such as an official decision of a court)
  • (2) : a decision taken as a precedent
  • (3) : testimony
  • c : an individual cited or appealed to as an expert The prosecutor called the psychiatrist as an authority.
 

fresh_42

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You are limiting the notion to a single one that appeals most to you. But the term hs a more extended meaning:
I guess we assumed that you don't want to initiate a linguistic debate. In the sense of the thread here, authority is limited to what we call "half gods in white" referencing medical professors, i.e. persons who are right qua job, will say hierarchy, and not by reason.
 
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You are limiting the notion to a single one that appeals most to you. But the term hs a more extended meaning
Sure, the one that appeals to me is the meaning I intend to convey when I use the term. That is why I explained my usage and thoughts about it. I wanted to be unambiguous about my intent given the fact that there are other meanings.

Which meaning do you intend to convey?

And more importantly, when others have objected to “pro authority” statements, what meaning do you think they intended to object to (given the assumption that said others are reasonable and well educated people like @vanhees71 )?
 
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Nugatory

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If I think of “authority” in general, I am familiar with it in three main contexts: religious, military, and governmental. In all three cases “authority” means that a person can make official pronouncements within his or her sphere of influence which are considered binding upon others in that sphere.

There is nothing similar in science as far as I know. The closest I can think of is when a scientist employed other scientists, and even then the authority is by virtue of their status as an employer rather than scientific authority.
There is also "authority" in the sense of the adjective "authoritative", which extends well beyond religious, military, governmental or even employee/employer relationships. For example, most people would be willing to accept Encyclopedia Brittanica as authoritative on the popuation of the Seychelles - does that make Brittanica an "authority"?
 

fresh_42

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There is also "authority" in the sense of the adjective "authoritative"
I don't think this distinction makes sense. Authoritative would be attached to a person (in the legal sense) and thus defines again an authority. What all have in common is a hierarchy with the authority at top level. And again, I do not think that such an institution could be applied to any other science than medical. True by authority is worthless in STEM areas, be it books, papers or only opinions. All it may change is whether an opinion is considered at all or not, or whether extraordinary evidence is necessary for opposing positions.

I cannot imagine physicists taking everything for granted what comes out of Penrose just because he can be considered an authority.
 

Klystron

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I don't think this distinction makes sense. Authoritative would be attached to a person (in the legal sense) and thus defines again an authority. What all have in common is a hierarchy with the authority at top level. And again, I do not think that such an institution could be applied to any other science than medical. True by authority is worthless in STEM areas, be it books, papers or only opinions. All it may change is whether an opinion is considered at all or not, or whether extraordinary evidence is necessary for opposing positions.

I cannot imagine physicists taking everything for granted what comes out of Penrose just because he can be considered an authority.
Excellent example. Did not Penrose himself (in "The Road to Reality" 2004) question the application of spin networks twenty odd years after inventing them and after they were adopted by other scientists including Smolin and Rovelli studying loop quantum gravity?

Without the text available I may be mixing up theories but the general example still holds: the 'authority' in the field repudiates his own authoritative status, as if to remind readers "Think for yourselves.".
 
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most people would be willing to accept Encyclopedia Brittanica as authoritative on the popuation of the Seychelles
Good example. I think this meaning is about reputation. They have a reputation for accuracy so people tend to believe what they say. This use of the word “authority” is probably not objectionable to scientists. At least not to me (although I would tend to use the word “reputable” or even “credible”)
 

ftr

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Thanks for opening the thread.
Being an engineer and a businessman with keen interest is physics mainly and other sciences. It struck me that in all field other than physics the controversies although important but did not have much impact, what worked( useful) was good enough. But Physics has two personalities, one is application that acts like other fields and the other is "theory" which raises religion like passions since we consider it as supposedly being about the absolute truth, and so we demand utter clarity.

Yet following on my passion, I find the spectrum of controversies with no clear process in settling issues is very disheartening and creates more confusion than clarity. Sure, the "standard" process does have its merits and it has produced some good results but seems increasingly unreliable.
I know the subject is complex, but Just as an example let me quote from

" Recent modeling studies suggest that peer review is sensitive to reviewer misbehavior, and it has been claimed that referees who sabotage work they perceive as competition may severely undermine the quality of publications. "

Moreover, There is such huge amount of publications in peer and other mediums that many good ideas seem to go unnoticed because it is highly unlikely that a particular ideas will give a complete answer to physics whereby we can throw all the previous books into a museum.

In another word there seems that no "authoritative" body has researched for a better way to disseminate ideas and evaluate reasonably the good ones. Of course that is much harder than piling papers upon papers in a repository and evaluating some of them by other people at ad hoc wimps, preferring the reputable(individual or the nesting organization) over actual substance most of the time.
 
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the other is "theory" which raises religion like passions since we consider it as supposedly being about the absolute truth
I completely disagree with this.

There is such huge amount of publications in peer and other mediums that many good ideas seem to go unnoticed
Evidence?

it is highly unlikely that a particular ideas will give a complete answer to physics whereby we can throw all the previous books into a museum
Is that anybody’s goal? If so, it seems like an extremely bad goal.

preferring the reputable(individual or the nesting organization) over actual substance most of the time.
Evidence?
 

ftr

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I completely disagree with this.
I can only quote the "father of modern physics". "I want to know God's thoughts; the rest are details. "
Evidence?
I think this article and thousands like it are testament to a problem that is well known

As a matter of fact I have worked in scientific research institute and many other companies including some in USA, and you can't tell me that the majority of managers and researchers are "politicians" and game players that try to advance themselves while they try to put down the real innovators or use them to their own advantage. And that goes all across the board. I will be surprised if you don't know that.

Is that anybody’s goal? If so, it seems like an extremely bad goal.
I just said it is hard to do so we need to keep a good eye for the really good ideas and not play the peer paper shuffle.
Evidence?
The old adage applies, it is not what you know it is who you know.
here is JUST an example(you know how it goes in real world, I am sure)
rubbing shoulder with Gerard 't Hooft
 
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I think this article and thousands like it are testament to a problem that is well known
Excellence by Nonsense: The Competition for Publications in Modern Science
I saw a lot of polemic and very little in the way of facts or analysis. You had claimed “There is such huge amount of publications in peer and other mediums that many good ideas seem to go unnoticed”. So I expected a random sample of publications and some analysis of the number of good ideas and the number of ideas that got noticed and something showing how few of the good ideas got noticed. Instead you provided a largely political screed about an overall decrease in quality.

When you make a specific claim and are asked to provide evidence, simply posting a link is not sufficient. That link needs to support the specific claim being made, which this does not. In addition, it is strongly preferable to use professional scientific sources. This source does not appear to be one.

The old adage applies, it is not what you know it is who you know.
here is JUST an example(you know how it goes in real world, I am sure)
Here the specific claim was “preferring the reputable(individual or the nesting organization) over actual substance most of the time”. Most of the time means more than 50% of the time. I expected to see some study that determined the motivation of peer reviewers or editors and demonstrated that publication decisions were based on the content <50% and on reputation >50% of the time. Instead you provide one example of a scientist with a vanity press.

Again, when you make a specific claim and are asked to provide evidence, simply posting a link is not sufficient. That link needs to actually support the specific claim being made, which this does not (not even remotely).
 
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A. Neumaier

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Which meaning do you intend to convey?
I thought I had made it clear enough with my initial post.
Highly respected journals and books are the authorities in science. But they can be challenged by arguments based on other facts. The latter are also taken from highly respected journals and books. Thus one cannot dispense with the authorities.
For a student who must pass a science exam, the professor is an authority in the legal sense.
For all who consult a textbook to inform themselves about the essentials of a subject, or who consult a review article to inform themselves about the state of the art, the textbook or review article is an authority in the sense that they accept as true what is said because the authority said so, unless or until they become aware of dissent. Or, if they think a statement made by an authority is odd they check against other authorities to find out whether it is reliable.
And more importantly, when others have objected to “pro authority” statements, what meaning do you think they intended to object to (given the assumption that said others are reasonable and well educated people like @vanhees71 )?
@vanhees71 read my message and responded with a ''Like'' without writing a reply (which he usually does when significantly disagreeing with me) , so that it is likely that he took the term not very differently from me.
There is also "authority" in the sense of the adjective "authoritative", which extends well beyond religious, military, governmental or even employee/employer relationships. For example, most people would be willing to accept Encyclopedia Brittanica as authoritative on the popuation of the Seychelles - does that make Brittanica an "authority"?
Sure it does, according to my understanding.
True by authority is worthless in STEM areas, be it books, papers or only opinions. All it may change is whether an opinion is considered at all or not, or whether extraordinary evidence is necessary for opposing positions.
Nothing is true by authority - even in a legal, medical, or religious context: What authorities say is considered there as binding independent of whether it is factually true or false.

Most we know in science is accepted as fact by authority - unless there appear conflicting authorities. When an authority is challenged by another authority, the common response is to defer one"s own judgment until the authorities resolved the issue among themselves.
I used to say: "I cannot know all books, but I can know whose recommendations to trust." And I think this is similar here.
And those whose recommendations you trust you treat as authorities by taking their word (as long as unchallenged) for fact. We all need to do, else we would never get to know much.
 
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I thought I had made it clear enough with my initial post.
It wasn’t clear to me, so thank you for clarifying now.

For a student who must pass a science exam, the professor is an authority in the legal sense.
Sure, but that is education, not science. The student passing a science exam is not doing science, they are doing education. They are being educated about science. Even lab assignments are not for example testing the hypothesis that momentum is conserved, they are checking to see if the student can set up an experiment correctly.

For all who consult a textbook to inform themselves about the essentials of a subject, or who consult a review article to inform themselves about the state of the art, the textbook or review article is an authority in the sense that they accept as true what is said because the authority said so, unless or until they become aware of dissent. Or, if they think a statement made by an authority is odd they check against other authorities to find out whether it is reliable.
For me, this usage of “authority” is no different from “reputation”, particularly with respect to that last statement. They accept the statements because the source is reputable or credible. Do you intend to convey something more or different than that?

I have no issue with “authority” as a synonym for “reputation” or “credibility” in science. I only object to the idea of (legal) “authority” as I explained in science. Do you think that narrow type of authority exists in science? If not then I think we are in substantive agreement and only disagree on word choice.
 

A. Neumaier

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For me, this usage of “authority” is no different from “reputation”, particularly with respect to that last statement. They accept the statements because the source is reputable or credible. Do you intend to convey something more or different than that?

I have no issue with “authority” as a synonym for “reputation” or “credibility” in science.
I don't think these terms are synonymous.

When I read or hear something and find it credible it usually means that it does not contradict my standards of how I judge things for being consistent with what I know already. I may even find two
diametrally opposed explanations of something both credible.

Reputation is not something absolute as authority but is usually ''for'' something. A book can be an authority in a field but have the reputation of being difficult to read.

The way I see the terms used, a source is considered an authority if it has a reputation of being accurate, well-documented, and comprehensive, but not if it has a reputation for being sloppy or arbitrary. Only the reputation for being authoritative implies that the source is considered an authority. The authority of a source is particularly impressive when it turns out to be correct in
things I didn't find credible on first sight.

In any case, part of the message in my post was that what we regard as factual and scientific depends to a large extent on trust in sources that we believe to be accurate, based on hearsay, since the amount we can actually check is very limited.

What makes us trust in facts we cannot check ourselves is best labeled with the term 'authority'.
I only object to the idea of “authority” as I explained in science. Do you think that narrow type of authority exists in science? If not then I think we are in substantive agreement and only disagree on word choice.
It seems that there is some degree of such always-be-right-by-decree ''authority'' in certain scientific schools, but not in science as a whole.
 

russ_watters

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For all who consult a textbook to inform themselves about the essentials of a subject, or who consult a review article to inform themselves about the state of the art, the textbook or review article is an authority in the sense that they accept as true what is said because the authority said so, unless or until they become aware of dissent.
I don't think a textbook and a journal are at all similar in that way.

A textbook has a writer and a purpose of conveying the current state of knowledge, and if it includes the very edge of that knowledge it should necessarily convey an equivocal tone. The writer is/should be an Authority, and the book should be trusted as true to the best of the author's knowledge.

Journals neither have writers nor a strong claim that what they publish is true. There's no one to be an Authority and nothing they publish is claimed to be authoritative.

Journals publish papers they deem relevant, interesting and potentially important, but you should never assume that the editors are claiming it is gospel by publishing it. Indeed, isn't the whole point to disseminate and develop new ideas? ...which is to say, unverified?
 
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Reputation is not something absolute as authority but is usually ''for'' something. A book can be an authority in a field but have the reputation of being difficult to read.

The way I see the terms used, a source is considered an authority if it has a reputation of being accurate, well-documented, and comprehensive, but not if it has a reputation for being sloppy or arbitrary.
I am fine with this, a specification of what the reputation is for. Clearly a reputation for being a crackpot doesn't make you an authority. I have no substantive objection to this.

It seems that there is some degree of such always-be-right-by-decree ''authority'' in certain scientific schools, but not in science as a whole.
If that is indeed the case it is not in any of the scientific schools that I have been involved in (predominantly medical imaging). Which schools are you thinking of and do you have specific examples of this?
 

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