The Upzoning Debate and the ‘Appeal to Authority’

By Peter Dorfman

More than 550 Bloomingtonians from all across the city — from Broadview to Blue Ridge — have signed onto a Resolution calling on the Plan Commission and City Council to reject the city’s new zoning map and the text amendments to the UDO that would upzone Bloomington’s single-family neighborhoods.

For perspective, 550 is more than enough signatures on a petition to qualify a candidate to run for Mayor in 2023; in 2019, that number of votes would have won the City Council seat in three of Bloomington’s six geographic districts.

Of course, the petition also has drawn criticism (including a lengthy response from Council Member Isabel Piedmont-Smith, which has generated an interesting, very respectful behind-the-scenes dialog on the upzoning issue.)

The central critique of the petition — particularly in the noisy free-for-all of social media — is that its contentions are “unsupported by research.” Translation: Where are the footnotes? (For the record, the petition’s claims are backed up elsewhere on this website, including here. They’re just not in the petition itself. Signatories don’t seem to mind.)

Once again, partisans on both sides of the upzoning issue are rolling out their reference lists. It’s a very Bloomington habit for ideologues to expect every screed to be peppered with hyperlinks to scholarly articles shoring up their arguments. Now that I’ve been through several rounds of it, I like to think of this form of debate as Trial by Bibliography

Actually, though, there’s a formal term for this kind of rhetorical technique. It’s called Appeal to Authority, or Argument by Authority. You can recognize it whenever someone puts forward an argument and invokes some other entity’s conclusion — that other entity generally being an academic or professional with a title, or a government agency, or some other sacrosanct authority figure or publication — to support the argument rather than providing his or her own reasoning or evidence.

It’s hard to fault members of the target audience in a debate for insisting on data or evidence to support a policy prescription. Still, it’s worth noting that in rhetorical criticism, Appeal to Authority is generally considered a type of logical fallacy.

In fact, the greater the speaker’s reliance on the authority figure’s support for an argument, the more likely it is that the expert’s support is suspect, or that the argument is flat-out wrong. Think about this logically: There is always some degree of likelihood that the expert’s evidence is erroneous (or deliberately disingenuous). The more heavily the argument rests on that evidence, the more vulnerable it is to criticism of the expert source.

An Appeal to Authority is where someone puts forward an argument and invokes some entity’s conclusion, relying on its authoritative position or status, to support it rather than providing their own reasoning or evidence. Such an entity could be a group, person, organisation, scripture, etc.

The basic structure is:

Strong sense:

An authority has stated that X is true; therefore X is true.

or Weak sense:

An authority has stated that X is probably true; therefore X is probably true.

John jackson, 2014

This will strike many in a university town like Bloomington, where many of the players in a policy dispute are academics themselves and accustomed to citing peer-reviewed sources, as counterintuitive. But objectively, fencing with footnotes has barely moved the needle. In the upzoning debate, advocates and opponents each produced substantial documentation for their views and neither side proved its case to the satisfaction of the other. 

What the Resolution says is that the affirmative arguments for upzoning are unconvincing. Bloomingtonians from across the city who signed the petition are signaling that they agree with this assessment.

Richard Florida. Michael Storper. Yonah Freemark. Richard Rothstein. Two years ago, hardly anyone following the upzoning debate in Bloomington would have recognized any of these names or been able to explain what these individuals stood for. The names are becoming increasingly familiar. Today, though, the problem for decision-makers is that both parties are citing these same experts, whose publications in the aggregate either support both perspectives on zoning and density or can be logically interpreted as supporting either position, pro and con.

Then there’s the city’s own commissioned Housing Study (published in 2020). Densification supporters and opponents alike have cherry-picked this document for support. Opponents say it underscores that the city’s cheapest home ownership opportunities are in the core neighborhoods, and that it reinforces the need to conserve those existing homes instead of replacing them with new rental structures. Upzoning advocates cite the study’s contention that the city’s rental vacancy rate is between 2% and 9% as evidence of an urgent need for more apartments at every level of affordability.

The study has its own critics. In several public outreach sessions, city planners struggled to explain how the study arrived at the single-digit apartment vacancy rate, leaving residents in doubt as to the accuracy of that figure (or whether anyone really knows what Bloomington’s apartment vacancy rate is). 

Ambiguities like these call out an obvious shortcoming of the Appeal to Authority argument: It’s not very helpful if all the parties to the discussion don’t agree on how authoritative the sources cited actually are, what their expertise really is or which side’s contentions they actually support.

Nor is it always clear why an ostensible expert holds a particular position, or whether the source is unbiased or free of self-serving motivation. Case in point: A humorous video featuring Los Angeles-based planner Nolan Gray has been making the rounds in Bloomington. The video seeks to undermine the “trope” of the unscrupulous real estate developer (and, to be sure, upzoning opponents here regularly question the motivations and ethics of corporate developers). It’s breezy, funny stuff. But who actually is Nolan Gray and where did this video come from? 

Gray identifies himself as a Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center, and the video displays a logo for the Pacific Legal Foundation.  The Mercatus Center was founded and is in large measure supported by the Koch Family Foundation; several of its board members are closely allied with the Koch organization, including Charles Koch. In 2016, 19 US Senators, Democrats and Republicans, together called out 32 organizations aligned with fossil fuel interests who were engaging in a campaign of climate change denial, including Mercatus. The Pacific Legal Foundation was founded in the 1970s to oppose welfare reform, and counter progressive public interest legal groups supporting environmental and health regulations. They have sued on behalf of plaintiffs against public sector unions, voting rights, environmental protection and affirmative action.

Gray himself has a stated mission not simply to reform zoning but to abolish it outright. In an article called “How to Cover Urban Planning: A Guide for Local Journalists,” he urges reporters to downplay public input at zoning meetings:  “Don’t overemphasize the angry naysayers for things like rezonings, street diets, etc. Don’t give them the lead or headline….The people who show up at the meetings are one unique slice of the community, not ‘the community.'” (Thanks, Russ Skiba, for ferreting out this background data.)

In addition to the issues with specific expert sources, the Appeal to Authority is unhelpful in public policy debate if no one actually bothers to look up the references. I say this as one who has made a career of writing, publishing and defending persuasive text in one form or another for four decades: People don’t read. They skim. Or they glance at a list of supporting references and visually weigh its length or the seeming seriousness of the cited reference affiliations. These are entirely subjective responses. So if you are making what you believe is an objective argument and you believe your audience will actually read the sources you cite and evaluate them objectively…generally you’re mistaken.

For me, the bottom line on references is that in Bloomington they may be de rigeur in policy debates, but there is almost always less there than meets the eye. The debate would be hugely enhanced if more people felt comfortable simply speaking from the heart. 

In 2019, as the debate on the revision of the UDO was getting underway, I had a private meeting at a casual eatery on the Square with partisans from both sides of the density issue. I was the second to arrive; the first one there was a young, fervent densification advocate, a regular spokesman at city government hearings. We’d never talked directly, at least not at length. As others arrived, before we got down to business, I asked him to close his laptop so that we could set the academic references and data tables aside and just express ourselves face to face. To his great credit, he did so willingly and agreed that the discussion would be more productive without these crutches. To my mind, that afternoon’s conversation was the high water mark in the entire upzoning debate. It’s all been downhill from there.

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