Appeal to Authority Is a Logical Fallacy

appeal to authority
English comedian Benny Hill playing a doctor on The Benny Hill Show. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

The appeal to (false or irrelevant) authority is a fallacy in which a rhetor (public speaker or writer) seeks to persuade an audience not by giving evidence but by appealing to the respect people have for the famous.

Also known as ipse dixit and ad verecundiam, which means "he himself said it" and "argument to modesty or respect" respectively, appeals to authority rely entirely upon the trust the audience has as a speaker's integrity and expertise on the matter at hand.

As W.L. Reese puts it in "Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion," though, "not every appeal to authority commits this fallacy, but every appeal to an authority with respect to matters outside his special province commits the fallacy." Essentially, what he means here is that although not all appeals to authority are fallacies, most are — especially by rhetors with no authority on the topic of discussion.

The Art of Deception

Manipulation of the general public has been a tool of politicians, religious leaders and marketing experts alike for centuries, utilizing appeal to authority often to support their causes with little to no evidence for doing so. Instead, these figureheads use the art of deception to leverage their fame and recognition as a means to validate their claims. 

Have you ever wondered why actors like Luke Wilson endorse AT&T as "America's largest wireless phone coverage provider" or why Jennifer Aniston appears in Aveeno skincare commercials to say it's the best product on the shelves?

Marketing firms often hire the most famous A-list celebrities to promote their products for the sole purpose of using their appeal to authority to convince their fans that the product they endorse is worth buying. As Seth Stevenson posits in his 2009 Slate article "Indie Sweethearts Pitching Products," Luke Wilson's "role in these AT&T ads is straight-up spokesman — the [ads] are horribly misleading."

The Political Con Game

As a result, it is important for audiences and consumers, especially in the political spectrum, to be doubly aware of the logical fallacy of merely trusting someone on their appeal to authority. In order to discern truth in these situations, the first step, then, would be to determine what level of expertise the rhetor has in the field of conversation. 

For instance, the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump, often cites no evidence in his tweets condemning everyone from political opponents and celebrities to supposed illegal voters in the general election.

On November 27, 2016, he famously tweeted "In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally." However, no evidence exists that verify this claim, which only sought to alter public opinion of his opponent Hillary Clinton's 3,000,000-vote lead over him in the popular vote count of the 2016 U.S. election, calling her victory illegitimate. 

Questioning Expertise

This is certainly not unique to Trump — in fact, a large majority of politicians, especially while in public forums and on-the-spot television interviews, use an appeal to authority when facts and evidence are not readily available. Even criminals on trial will use this tactic to attempt to appeal to the empathetic human nature of the jury in order to sway their opinion despite contradictory evidence. 

As Joel Rudinow and Vincent E. Barry put it in the 6th edition of "Invitation to Critical Thinking," no one is an expert on everything, and therefore no one can be trusted on their appeal to authority every time. The pair comment that "whenever an appeal to authority is introduced, it is wise to be aware of the area of expertise of any given authority — and to be mindful of the relevance of that particular area of expertise to the issue under discussion."

Essentially, in every case of appeals to authority, be mindful of those tricky appeals to irrelevant authority — just because the speaker is famous, doesn't mean he or she knows anything real about what they're saying.

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Appeal to Authority Is a Logical Fallacy." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 16). Appeal to Authority Is a Logical Fallacy. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Appeal to Authority Is a Logical Fallacy." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).