Quasi-fallacies: the courtier’s reply and credential mongering

Look, science!

Look at all that science!

Skeptical arguments generally live in the domain of rhetoric and informal logic. Most informal arguments hinge on the correct identification of logical fallacies. There has been a slow growth in the number of alleged fallacies since the dawn of internet debate. Novel fallacies are usually a re-branding of established fallacies, with the goal of simplified rhetorical clarity. I’m concerned that this also promotes a false confidence that leads to shallow thinking and mis-identification.To paraphrase Occam, “fallacies are not to be multiplied beyond necessity.”

In this post, I’m going to pick on two examples: Prothero’s observations about credential mongering, and Myer’s anti-theology “courtier’s reply” argument that has been referenced by Dawkins and others. I chose these specific examples because they seem to be shaky arguments that can be aimed against each other. I don’t disagree with the conclusions of these arguments in their original context, but these arguments are not able to live independently as authentic fallacies.

It is a great challenge to classify and categorize the vast world of things we don’t believe. A foundational principle of skepticism is that nearly all beliefs are false, meaningless or inadequate in some way. Many groups promote bad beliefs by employing manipulative strategies and logical fallacies. Skeptics like to classify and generalize about these strategies, but this too is an imperfect process. Credential mongering and the courtier’s reply are two arguments that, in my opinion, take us into murky territory.

Prothero’s description of credential mongering:

Another common tactic of creationists is credential mongering. They love to flaunt their Ph.D.’s on their book covers, giving the uninitiated the impression that they are all-purpose experts in every topic. As anyone who has earned a Ph.D. knows, the opposite is true: the doctoral degree forces you to focus on one narrow research problem for a long time, so you tend to lose your breadth of training in other sciences. Nevertheless, they flaunt their doctorates in hydrology or biochemistry, then talk about paleontology or geochronology, subjects they have zero qualification to discuss. Their Ph.D. is only relevant in the field where they have specialized training. It’s comparable to asking a Ph.D. to fix your car or write a symphony–they may be smart, but they don’t have the appropriate specialized training to do a competent job based on their Ph.D. alone. [emphasis added]

It seems to me that the key point is the very last one, that specialists cannot support an argument “based on their Ph.D. alone.” It seems to me that “credential mongering” only applies if we believe that the specialist has no other valid support for their position. Taken all by itself, this sound like begging the question. Why should we accept any book written by a PhD unless it is a narrowly focused research monograph squarely focused on their established expertise?

Myer’s description of the courtier’s reply:

I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor’s boots, nor does he give a moment’s consideration to Bellini’s masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor’s Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor’s raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all. He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D. T. Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk. Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity. [emphasis added]

Here again, we have an something that is more of a metaphor than an argument. If we believe the emperor is naked, then it would be pointless to spend time reading about his clothes. But if we believe he is clothed, then it would seem sensible to point to a supporting body of scholarly works. In order to find a fallacy in the courtier’s reply, we must already believe that the conclusion (i.e. the emperor’s nudity) is established beyond dispute, such that it is unlikely to be affected by further study. Taken by itself, the courtier’s reply also seems to be question begging.

Problems with these fallacies:

  1. Skeptics frequently write on highly general or philosophical topics outside their specialized training. Are their opinions irrelevant? How far afield can an expert wander before becoming irrelevant?
  2. Skeptics often point to the extremely vast quantity of evidence supporting biological evolution or anthropogenic climate change. But if deniers have already decided that those theories are falsified, what stops them from arguing the courtier’s reply? (Other than the fact that when they do it, they’re wrong).

Prothero’s argument gives the impression than one may lose general competency while completing a PhD. This may very well be true. But it almost seems to imply that we should prefer books written by undergraduate students who haven’t yet lost their “breadth of training.

Numerous theists have responded to the courtier’s reply. One example is this post by Cory Gross, which references a quote by G. K. Chesterton that sounds uncomfortably similar to Prothero’s definition of credential mongering:

Now against the specialist, against the man who studies only art or electricity, or the violin, or the thumbscrew or what not… The trouble with the expert is … that wherever he is not an expert he is too much of an ordinary man. Wherever he is not exceptionally learned he is quite casually ignorant. This is the great fallacy in the case of what is called the impartiality of men of science. If scientific men had no idea beyond their scientific work it might be all very well — that is to say, all very well for everybody except them. But the truth is that, beyond their scientific ideas, they have not the absence of ideas but the presence of the most vulgar and sentimental ideas that happen to be common to their social clique.

Chesterton seems to be at some midpoint between Prothero’s argument and the Courtier’s Reply. Gross continues to offer some criticisms of the courtier’s reply argument. I don’t agree with the totality of Gross’s post, but I do agree with his sentiment that the courtier’s reply is an evasive tactic rather than a substantive argument (if taken all by itself).

The bigger problem is that these quasi-fallacies can be incautiously generalized and applied in other discussions.

Critical discussions of the courtier’s reply — this time from skeptical sources — can be found at RationalWiki and on the Background Probability blog. A pro-courtier’s reply argument is given by Chris Hallquist, who notes that PZ described the courtier’s reply merely as “an amusing way to tell someone that they haven’t established their premises.” I like it just fine for that purpose, but some people are treating it like a stand-alone fallacy. A basic example is this post by the Cryptic Philosopher:

The argument that a person cannot argue against a foundational religious text without first reading an extensive array of supplemental materials is fallacious thinking at its finest. It even has a name: the Courtier’s Reply.

It’s just too easy to roll PZ’s “amusement” into a reusable quick-drawn rhetorical device. This device has also appeared in unrelated arguments like this one on gun control:

[Paul Waldman says] we need specific information about guns to write legislation restricting them, which no one doubts, I hope…. But that’s true of most legislation, and yet most debates about passing it don’t generally get into the exquisitely specific details that gun nuts insist on discussing. You don’t need to know everything about the molecular structure of drugs in order to support FDA regulation of them. We hire experts to do this stuff and give them general parameters to work with. That’s how regulation works. So when gun nuts go off like this, it’s for two reasons. 1) They’re showing off, and it’s gross. 2) It’s the Courtier’s Reply. The Courtier’s Reply is a red herring that believers throw up in response to atheists, and it’s only purpose is to silence the opposition by claiming they don’t understand enough to criticize.

It may be true that many miscellaneous details are irrelevant to the bigger questions on gun control. If gun nuts are overpowering a discussion with meaningless distractions, then we already have a term for that: non sequitur. I don’t see how it is correct or helpful to introduce the courtier’s reply into a discussion on gun control.

The “courtier’s reply” and “credential mongering” fallacies are both mixtures of traditional fallacies that may include some mixture of appeal to authority, non sequitur, ad hominem or other fallacies that are heavily dependent on the specific context. In my opinion it is better to stick with the traditional fallacies and do the extra legwork required to point them out.

3 thoughts on “Quasi-fallacies: the courtier’s reply and credential mongering

  1. Pingback: Santa, Jesus and dinosaurs | Fair Coin Toss

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