Sunday, June 27, 2010

Arguments from Authority: A Common Mistake

The pet shops in our town do not have the highest ethical or medical standards. Animals in one particular store are handled roughly or chased around the cage until they step up or give in to the intruding hand. Out of the 10 years or randomly dropping into this store not once have I seen the budgerigar and cockatiel cages or their dowel rod perches free from a nice coating of bird droppings. The base diet of their animals (except the carnivores) is seed -but I must mention that they sometimes they do try to make the large parrot diets a little more healthy by occasionally offering mixed frozen veggies-, and lastly (and most horrifically of all) they regularly buy and swap birds without a care about how healthy the bird is. There is absolutely no oversight in screening for health problems in the birds, there is not even a minimum 30 day isolation period for new birds. This scares the be-he-jeebers out of me; especially when I see birds sneezing with runny noses, bobbing tails, labored breathing, ratty feathers or just sitting tired in a corner on a bright, sunny morning.

From the description that I gave above I doubt that any distinguished pet owner would want to purchase anything from that store, it is simply not worth the risk.
Let's call the man who owns the store Rob. Now Rob has been working in the business of animals for 30 odd years and is considered a well respected "expert", according to the locals, in his profession. He can tell you how to raise any kind of creature; from Chameleons to Chinchillas.

Recently Rob hired a co-worker of mine, Kasey. Kasey and I love learning about animals, and apparently she had been learning a lot more about animals at Rob's store. Kasey is a nice person, and since joining Rob's staff she has been enthusiastically learning about our little fuzzy, feathered, and scaled friends. She starts up conversations with "Did you know?" questions about exotic animals, and when she talks about them she has an excited light in her eyes. Animals add a touch of magic into people's lives, and it is this kind of excitement that I like to see in people.
After hearing about Kasey's new job and talking excitedly with her about animals, I noticed that some of her newly gained knowledge was not quite right. She said "Did you know that prairie dogs need a companion? If they don't have one they become depressed and die." And after hearing that (who doesn't know of that same fallacy with lovebirds?) I tried to get her to question that statement. I replied "Well people used to say the same thing about lovebirds and other kinds of parrots, but we now know that this is not true. Like any animal they need to forage, play, socialize and stay busy." Kasey looked a little confused but she did agree that animals do need these things. She told me, being full of conviction, that Rob must be right because he owns the shop and has a lot of experience. I give Kasey kudos for being an eager learner, but it seems that she was absorbing too much information from authority figures without researching and fact-checking the answers.

And besides there is nothing terribly wrong with accepting what Rob says, the expert with 30 years of experience under his belt, as nothing but true gospel right? With all of his experience he must know how to do it all right, right? Wrong.

This is a classic case of "Trust the Authority Figure" AKA an argument from authority. This is how many consumer products -both effective and bogus- make a selling point as well. Phrases like "supported by scientific research" or "four out of five doctors recommend" or "a new study shows" are all examples you see and hear of every day. So how do we know when something is true? Here is a short and simple guideline I pulled from page 223 of the book "Appeal to Expert Opinion."

1. Expertise question: How credible is E (Rob) as an expert source?
2. Field question: Is E (Rob) an expert in the field that A (Prairie dogs) is/are in?
3. Opinion question: What did E (Rob) assert that implies A (Dying from no companion)?
4. Trustworthiness question: Is E (Rob) personally reliable as a source?
5. Consistency question: Is A (dying from no companion) consistent with what other experts assort?
6. Backup evidence question: Is A's (Rob's) assertion based on evidence?

You can probably already see the problem with a short, simple, and broad checklist such as this. It can lead people who are not as adept with critical thinking astray, or to start asking the wrong kind of questions and getting the wrong conclusions. So let’s narrow the Expertise question down, just a tad.

1. What is E's name, Job or official capacity, location, and employer?
2. What degrees, professional qualifications or certification by license agencies does E hold?
3. Can testimony of peer experts in the same field be given to support E’s competence?
4. What is E's record of experience, or other indications of practiced skill in S?
5. What is E’s record of peer-reviewed publications or contributions to knowledge in S?

And to trudge this out even further you would need to research the history of the company through it's licenses, its health checks, possible felony charges, who they hire, and who likes/dislikes the company and for what reasons. But of course this is all just common sense. Apart from actually doing background checks sometimes people can tell what the history of a place just by looking around. It is a little mental checklist in our head; in a matter of seconds we make decisions on whether we like something or not based on pre-set criteria of how we like things to be, for one reason or another. From liking or disliking a glass of wine, to walking into the ambiance of a restaurant, we carry our speedy, handy dandy, little mental checklist wherever we go. The same applies to pet shops and how people care for their animals. Is the place clean? Are the animals treated with respect? Are the animals fed a healthy diet for their species? Are the employees empathetic, knowledgeable, and good listeners? These are some of the things on my mental checklist that I take with me as I walk into a pet store. And if I am found wanting I do not support them with my dollar.

To simplify the above 5 question checklist: Each of these require, a little friend of mine that I know as evidence. Is there evidence of high morals and professionalism? And in Rob's case experience in not necessarily evidence, but there can be evidence of a person's experience. And unfortunately for Rob (as stated in the very beginning) it is evident that he does not run his store in a professional, 30 year experience, manner, the evidence speaks against him. And when responsibly taken care of, prairie dogs will not die without another prairie dog. Case closed.

(but don't take my assertion as true until you know it is. Be a free thinker!)

Copyright 2013 Caitlin Bird
The Sequential Psittacine Blog
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