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When can we challenge authority with authority?

Michael Nelson writes:

I want to thank you for posting your last decade of publications in a single space and organized by topic. But I also wanted to share a critique of your argument style as exemplified in your Annals of Surgery correspondence [here and here]. While I think it’s important and valuable that you got the correct reasoning against post hoc power analysis on the record, I don’t think there was ever much of a chance that a correct argument was going to change the authors’ convictions significantly. Their belief was not a result of a logical mistake and so could not be undone by logic; they believed it because it was what they were originally taught and/or picked up from mentors and colleagues. I suggest that the most effective way to get scientists to change their practices, or at least to withdraw their faulty arguments, is to challenge authority with authority.

What if, after you present your rational argument, you then say something like: “I know this is what you were taught, as were many of my own very accomplished colleagues, but a lot of things are taught incorrectly in statistics (citations). However, without exception, every single one of the current, most-respected authorities in statistics and methodology (several recognizable names) agree that post hoc power analysis (or whatever) does not work, for precisely the reasons I have given. More importantly, their arguments and demonstrations to this effect have been published in the most authoritative statistical journals (citations) and have received no notable challenges from their fellow experts. Respectfully, if you are confident that your argument is indeed valid, then you have outwitted the best of my field. You are compelled by professional ethics to publicize your breakthrough proof in these same journals, at conferences of quantitative methodologists (e.g., SREE) and any other venue that may reach the top statistical minds in the social sciences. If correct, you will be well-rewarded: you’ll instantly become famous (at least among statisticians) for overturning points that have long been thought mathematically and empirically proven.” In short, put up or shut up.

My reply:

That’s an interesting idea. It won’t work in all cases, as often it’s a well-respected authority making the mistake: either the authority figure is making the error himself, or a high-status researcher is making the error based on respected literature. So in that case the appeal to authority won’t work, as these people are the authority on their fields. Similarly, we can’t easily appeal to authority to talk people out of naive and way-wrong interpretations of significance tests and p-values, as these mistakes are all over the place in textbooks. But on the occasions where someone is coming out of the blue with a bad idea, yeah, then it could make sense to bring in consensus as one of our arguments.

Of course, in some way whenever I make an argument under my own name, I’m challenging authority with authority, in that I bring to the table credibility based on my successful research and textbooks. I don’t usually make this argument explicitly, as there are many sources of statistical authority (see section 26.2 of this paper), but I guess it’s always there in the background.

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