Three Different Things that Look Similar

Here are three statements:

  • St. Anselm says that no one really disbelieves in God.
  • Stephen Hawking says that spacetime is smooth at the Big Bang.
  • PZ Myers says that “The only appropriate responses should involve some form of righteous fury, much butt-kicking, and the public firing and humiliation of some teachers”

All three are of the form “person X says Y“, but they’re really three different types of statement. See if you can figure it out before meeting me after the jump.


The first is an argument from authority: respected person X says so, therefore it’s true.

The second is what might be called an argument from expertise: person X has studied the subject in depth, and what they say on the subject is therefore probably true.

The third is simply “person X said this thing, and said it well, so I’d like to share it with you (while giving person X credit for saying it).”

The lines between (2) and (3) can get blurred. You can use Carl Sagan’s “invisible dragon” metaphor to make a point without crediting Sagan, and it’ll be just as valid. But, of course, it’s only polite to give credit to the person who came up with the argument or analogy that you’re using.

The reason I bring this up is that I googled a story that Ken Ham wrote about (note in passing: if true, not cool, dude. Not cool at all) and found page after page after page of the same article copied and pasted all over the right-wing conservative blogosphere.

A lot of the people I read link to their sources, partly because it’s good manners to credit the people you’re referencing, and partly as an implied “go read the original; I’m confident that you’ll agree with my analysis”. A lot of times, when PZ’s upset about some article, I’ll read the original and make up my mind before reading PZ’s rant.

But it occurred to me that, to someone who isn’t used to this sort of thing — citing one’s sources and citing an unquestionable authority; and their negative cousins, quoting an opponent’s argument and quote-mining an opponent — can look the same. If so, no wonder atheists get accused of worshiping Dawkins.

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