A “College Football” Theory of Testimonial Authority

The Game-Theoretic Structure of Warranted Testimony

We all “know” that Science works. But HOW do we know? It seems like we just take exotic ideas quantum physics and relativity on authority, right? The following argument derives the validity of scientific authority from an application of game theory. If our argument works, it shows that we can have warrant to accept beliefs that emerge from certain social contexts so long as the these communities implement certain enforceable incentive structures. In short, we should be able to accept the testimony a group if the group is known to behave in certain ways.

To illustrate my principle, let us look at college football. I grew up in an area of the world where we followed college football with equal enthusiasm normally reserved for professional football. While the game rules in these two leagues are similar, there is a big difference in how the national champion teams are chosen. In the professional NFL, there is a year-end tournament ending with a championship game called the “Super Bowl”. In the college NCAA, there are numerous post-season bowl games, but no tournament and no “Super Bowl” or its equivalent to choose the champs. And yet a week or two after the last bowl games are played, the news announces that x team is the “national champion” for the year. The obvious question is “how do they come to this conclusion?”. As a child, I asked and nobody knew. Nowadays, we have Wikipedia to look up things like this here. But back then, we had more freedom to imagine that maybe this was all a scam for some unworthy team to become the champs. If this intuition is valid, then it would also be valid to doubt the testimony of other organizations, both political, commercial, religious and even scientific. In this article, I seek to define the public behavior required of an organization such that its testimonial veracity is increased relative to other possible sources of assumed knowledge. This means that the public would be warranted in accepting its statements as being more likely true than not.

SO now back to the NCAA champs: notice how there is less bickering over the champion than there is over most US presidential elections, even though world of college football resembles 100  fanatical sects who all hate each other.  Maybe the NCAA should elect the next President? Just kidding. My point is that even though I don’t know how the national champ is chosen, my belief that the process is valid and impartial is warranted. This is due to the fact that there is an unforced consensus among the partisans of the different teams. As long as the consensus is real and unforced, am I not correct in assuming on their authority (the conjoint authority of the team partisans) that the outcome of their shared decision-process is trustworthy?

If this inference is valid, then it forms a prototype for a similar inference concerning the outcome of scientific debate, with the title of “Well-Founded Theory” replacing that of “National Champion”. If scientists have a real and unforced consensus about their field of study which is the result of open competition for the title of “Well-founded Scientific Theory”, then we are thereby justified in accepting their Theory and its interpretations as a basis for valid inference.

This is why I feel justified in disbelieving in the Labor Theory of Value, even though I would very much prefer that it were true, and that I have read Adam Smith’s and Karl Marx’s compelling ( to me, at least ) defenses of this theory. I know this because on the whole economists are rather centrist in their politics and would thus be comfortable with it if it were true. Thus, I have a game-theoretical warrant for the conclusion that the Labor Theory of Value is false. This form of argument also derives an equally valid warrant from any example of consensus among any social group that satisfies certain conditions: symmetry of information, broad consensus over the rules of the game, enforceable incentives, and other factors as well. The only task remaining is to catalogue the factors that warrant testimonial validity from actual sources of authority: science is clearly the best source, but college football championship voting is another, jury trails yet another, and so on. In a future, work I hope to elaborate on this using specific case studies.


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