Friday, February 26, 2016

Ex Cathedra


Here is a fun Latin expression for the day: ex cathedra. Literally, from the chair. Once upon a time cathedra referred to a teacher's chair and is more commonly known as the seat of a bishop or even the Pope. Hence, a cathedral is a church that houses a bishop's seat.

When someone is arguing from a place of expertise, such as when an attorney comments on a matter of law or a physicist explains why astronauts float in space, you might say they are arguing ex cathedra - from a place of authority.

It can also be used to point out when someone is being pompous or when someone attempts to intimidate you in an argument by using their position or their academic background. Case in point, my "Desert Sage" column this week points out that the first "climate refugees" (people forced to flee sea level rise) in the United States are native Americans. This provoked a response from a prolific local climate change denier, who makes much of his background as a meteorologist for the military.

Before drowning me in cherry picked data selected for the purpose of obscuring anthropogenic causes of global warming, thermal ocean expansion, and other phenomena that the overwhelming majority of peer-reviewed, published scientific research by climate scientists  affirms is indeed taking place, the complainant opened with a sneering implication that my master's degree in the "fine arts" hinders my understanding of scientific research, whereas his area of study back during the Gallic Wars or whenever it was, was in "science." This is an ex cathedra argument, and a rhetorical fallacy: it's ad hominem, an argument aimed at discrediting the person rather than the substance.

Or to put it more grossly, it's bullshit. Granted, we can acknowledge expertise: a person who studied and practiced law for decades almost certainly can claim a more thorough understanding of the intricacies of law than a "layman."

That said, any educated person, a person who knows how to read and learn, can understand subject matter out of their academic "lane." One of the most powerful federal legislators during the George W. Bush years had been not a lawyer but a pest exterminator prior to his time in Congress. A dentist can appreciate great art. A painter can understand biology. This should go without saying, but in an era where humanism is under concerted attack, we are moved to argue that the cathedra belongs to one who shares their expertise for the edification of all, not to browbeat and silence others.

Also, a degree or other credential does not validate an argument. A fine arts major can practice bad art, I'm certainly capable of giving a poor performance on stage, and a trained scientist can espouse pseudo-science either because they are opining outside their area of expertise (as when an astronaut spouts nonsense about hydrology or somesuch) or because they are cognitively biased or just batshit crazy.

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