At least, not a name I could find on this handy list of fallacies.
Hopefully, that means I get to name it myself. I’d like to call it “the Aaron Fallacy”, because I’m writing this post, and because the person who brought it to my attention was also named Aaron (though he was not me). But it seems counterproductive to have a fallacy named after oneself, so instead, I will call it “the Fallacy of Trust”.
(Edit: Shoot, Murray Gell-Mann beat me to the punch. As did Michael Crichton. Still, no point in taking the rest of this down. Maybe it still contains insight?)
The Fallacy of Trust
The Fallacy of Trust occurs when a person who is an expert on foreign policy picks up a newspaper, flips to the foreign policy section, and cries out “balderdash!”
This isn’t the problem. The problem is that the same person will often read the rest of the newspaper without complaint, quietly updating their opinions bit by bit.
Meanwhile, the expert on local politics will cry out “balderdash!” in the local-politics section, but read about foreign policy without complaint.
If we assume that the newspaper is mostly wrong on both topics, then neither expert is gathering information very effectively.
This fallacy, strangely enough, looks like a failure to apply another fallacy — the genetic fallacy, which states that you can’t always judge qualities of things based solely on their source material. Refusing to eat cake when you are allergic to flour is not the genetic fallacy; buying “old-fashioned” cake mix because you trust the wisdom of the ancients is the genetic fallacy.
The Fallacy of Trust also mixes in the very simple fallacy of the Argument from Authority — listening to “experts” because they are experts, rather than fairly considering the merits of their arguments. First, we trust the authoritative newspaper. Second, we fail to update our beliefs about the trustworthiness of the newspaper once we notice its failure to inform us properly on one subject.
Lowering the amount by which we trust newspapers when they let us down is emphatically not the genetic fallacy; even when two sections of a newspaper are written by different people, the process by which content is generated will be similar, as well as the depth of fact-checking.
(If we have prior information that this is not the case — for example, that our paper offers great investigative reporting and poor sports reporting — we might be justified in trusting some sections more than others.)
Where Can You Find This Fallacy?
I’m glad you asked! In general, we are vulnerable to this fallacy when we are in the presence of huge quantities of diverse information, all coming from a single source, especially an expert source. The news media might be our most common weak point in this respect.
Here are some other hypothetical examples (a bit weaker than I’d like). If you spot any real examples going about your business, let us know in the comments!
- A political scientist notes that one of her favorite political commentators consistently makes bad predictions about things like the outcomes of elections and trends in public opinion on a variety of issues. However, she cheerfully reads and accepts the commentator’s musings on how things were better when he was a much younger commentator, and how the youth of today are spiritually bankrupt and certain to run the country into the ground.
- A biochemical researcher is prescribed medication by his doctor that has been shown to be no more effective than another drug that costs only 1/5 as much as the first. He objects to this, but cheerfully complies when the same doctor recommends a regimen of expensive specialty vitamins — after all, he didn’t write his dissertation on vitamins, so he’d better listen to the relative expert in the room.
- A historian of the ancient Middle East notes that the Bible misrepresents many key historical events of the period, but does not update to trust other sections of the Bible less. When asked to explain, they comment: “Well, these key historical events were likely intended as metaphors for something else.” (This mostly applies if the historian believes that the Bible was authored by a single person/supreme being.)