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Authority

An authority is a source of expert information or advice. In Aristotle's time authorities were called witnesses, and he separates them into two categories, ancient and recent. He says, "By ancient witnesses are meant the poets and other men of note whose judgments are on record." Since Aristotle's time the records of judgments of men of note have multiplied astronomically. Each generation, each decade, each year, and even each month adds its contribution to the ever growing mass of recorded "authority." This entire book is founded upon the expertise of one ancient authority, and no doubt he relied on notable predecessors, most of which are lost in the distant past to us.

Aristotle goes on to say that "Recent witnesses are ... any notable persons who have pronounced judgment on some matter." Now, if there is no present shortage of ancient authorities, there is also no shortage of recent ones. It seems that almost everyone is an authority on something nowadays. Whether it's Ann Landers on modern marriage, Michael Jordon on telecommunications, or Joe Namath on panty hose, there is no problem to finding an "expert" these days. I suppose Aristotle faced the same over supply of "experts" in his day for he adds that, "Most credible of all are the ancient witnesses, since there is no possibility of corrupting them."

Most of us today take our "experts" with a grain of salt. We know that the hockey player on the television commercial is out of his field of expertise when he gives nutritional advice, and we also know that the high ranking state politician is not an expert on public education just because he or she speaks as one. But even armed with a touch of skepticism brought about by Madison Avenue "Tom Foolery" and political play- making, we have a difficult time sifting through the mass of would-be authorities to find the true experts. But here is some advice that might help.

Fact and Opinion

If you are looking for expert documentation for facts, you will generally find them linked with the data. In other words, the references that you consult to find the factual material itself will provide the authoritative sources, and it is your job to weigh their relative credibility against any other sources available to you. (Most of your responsibilities for validating the authority of your sources are discussed in the material on statistics.) Remember that authoritative sources of factual material, including statistics, should be reputable, reliable, and relevant. As a student you will become more adept at selecting valid sources as you become more familiar with the subjects that you study and as you become more of an "expert" yourself in your chosen field of study.

Authorities also provide expert opinions. One excellent means of strengthening your position in persuasive discourse or debate is to have the experts on your side. Most of the opinions of authorities that you will be using will be from the written works of experts in their respective fields--textbooks, books on special topics, articles in professional or scholarly journals, and articles in magazines. No one is an expert on all subjects, and no expert is right all of the time. In matters of opinion the reputation, reliability, and relevance of an authority can be established only through careful inquiry and growing competence in your field of study. One note of caution: Today one has to be especially careful to validate information found on the Internet. The cyberworld abounds with self-proclaimed experts. Generally speaking, you will want to provide the most current facts and opinions in your use of the authority S.P.A.C.E. strategy. In today's knowledge explosion, data becomes obsolete and expert opinions invalid on almost a daily basis. Be innovative, imaginative, amd cautious in your search for expert testimony.

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Web Author: J. Kline
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