Fallacies of Relevance: Appeal to Authority

Overview and Introduction

Fallacious appeals to authority take the general form of:

  • 1. Person (or people) P makes claim X. Therefore, X is true.

A fundamental reason why the Appeal to Authority can be a fallacy is that a proposition can be well supported only by facts and logically valid inferences. But by using an authority, the argument is relying upon testimony, not facts. A testimony is not an argument and it is not a fact.

Now, such testimony might be strong or it might be weak — the better the authority, the stronger the testimony will be and the worse the “authority,” the weaker the testimony will be. Thus, the way to differentiate between a legitimate and a fallacious appeal to authority is by evaluating the nature and strength of who is giving the testimony.

Obviously, the best way to avoid making the fallacy is to avoid relying upon testimony as much as possible, and instead to rely upon original facts and data. But the truth of the matter is, this isn’t always possible: we can’t verify every single thing ourselves, and thus will always have to make use of the testimony of experts. Nevertheless, we must do so carefully and judiciously.

The different types of the Appeal to Authority are:

    « Logical Fallacies | Legitimate Appeal to Authority »

    Fallacy Name:
    Legitimate Appeal to Authority

    Alternative Names:
    None

    Category:
    Fallacy of Relevance > Appeals to Authority

    Explanation:
    Not every reliance upon the testimony of authority figures is fallacious. We often rely upon such testimony, and we can do so for very good reason. Their talent, training and experience put them in a position to evaluate and report on evidence not readily available to everyone else.

    But we must keep in mind that for such an appeal to be justified, certain standards must be met:

    • 1. The authority is an expert in the area of knowledge under consideration.
    • 2. The statement of the authority concerns his or her area of mastery.
    • 3. There is agreement among experts in the area of knowledge under consideration.

     

    Examples and Discussion:
    Let’s take a look at this example:

    • 4. My doctor has said that medicine X will help my medical condition. Therefore, it will help me with my medical condition.

    Is this a legitimate appeal to authority, or a fallacious appeal to authority? First, the doctor has to be a medical doctor — a doctor of philosophy simply won’t do. Second, the doctor has to be treating you for a condition in which she has training — it isn’t enough if the doctor is a dermatologist who is prescribing you something for lung cancer. Finally, there has to be some general agreement among other experts in this field — if your doctor is the only one using this treatment, then the premise does not support the conclusion.

    Of course, we must keep in mind that even if these conditions are fully met, that does not guarantee the truth of the conclusion. We are looking at inductive arguments here, and inductive arguments do not have guaranteed true conclusions, even when the premises are true. Instead, we have conclusions which are probably true.

    An important issue to consider here how and why anyone might be called an “expert” in some field. It isn’t enough to simply note that an appeal to authority is not a fallacy when that authority is an expert, because we need to have some way to tell when and how we have a legitimate an expert, or when we just have a fallacy.

    Let’s look at another example:

    • 5. Channeling the spirits of the dead is real, because John Edward says he can do it and he is an expert.

    Now, is the above a legitimate appeal to authority, or a fallacious appeal to authority? The answer rests with whether or not it is true that we can call Edward an expert on channeling the spirits of the dead. Let’s do a comparison of the following two examples to see if that helps:

    • 6. Professor Smith, shark expert: Great White Sharks are dangerous.
    • 7. John Edward: I can channel the spirit of your dead grandmother.

    When it comes to the authority of Professor Smith, it isn’t so hard to accept that he might be an authority on sharks. Why? Because the topic that he is an expert on involves empirical phenomena; and more importantly, it is possible for us to check on what he has claimed and verify it for ourselves. Such verification might be time consuming (and, when it comes to sharks, perhaps dangerous!), but that is usually why an appeal to authority is made in the first place.

    But when it comes to Edward, the same things cannot really be said. We simply do not have the usual tools and methods available to us to verify that he is, indeed, channeling someone’s dead grandmother and thereby getting information from her. Since we have no idea how his claim might be verified, even in theory, it simply isn’t possible to conclude that he is an expert on the subject.

    Now, that does not mean that there cannot be experts or authorities on the behavior of people who claim to channel the spirits of the dead, or experts on the social phenomena surrounding belief in channeling. This is because the claims made by these so-called experts can be verified and evaluated independently. By the same token, a person might be an expert on theological arguments and the history of theology, but to call them an expert on “god” would just be begging the question.

    « Appeal to Authority — Overview | Appeal to Unqualified Authority »

    Name:
    Appeal to Unqualified Authority

    Alternative Names:
    Argumentum ad Verecundiam

    Category:
    Fallacies of Relevance > Appeals to Authority

     

    Explanation:
    An appeal to an Unqualified Authority looks much like a legitimate appeal to authority, but it violates at least one of the three necessary conditions for such an appeal to be legitimate:

    • 1. The authority is an expert in the area of knowledge under consideration.
      • 2. The statement of the authority concerns his or her area of mastery.
      • 3. There is agreement among experts in the area of knowledge under consideration.

      People don’t always bother to think about whether these standards have been met. One reason is that most learn to defer to authorities and are reluctant to challenge them — this is the source of the Latin name for this fallacy, Argumentum ad Verecundiam, which means “argument appealing to our sense of modesty.” It was coined by John Locke to communicate how people are browbeaten by such arguments into accepting a proposition by the testimony of an authority because they are too modest to base a challenge on their own knowledge.

      Authorities can be challenged and the place to start is by questioning whether or not the above criteria have been met. To begin with, you can question whether or not the alleged authority really is an authority in this area of knowledge.

      It isn’t uncommon for people to set themselves up as authorities when they don’t merit such a label.

      For example, expertise in the fields of science and medicine require many years of study and practical work, but some who claim to have similar expertise by more obscure methods, like self-study. With that, they might claim the authority to challenge everyone else; but even if it turns out that their radical ideas are right, until that is proven, references to their testimony would be a fallacious.

       

      Examples and Discussion:
      An all-too-common example of this is movie stars testifying on important matters before Congress:

      • 4. My favorite actor, who appeared in a movie about AIDS, has testified that the HIV virus doesn’t really cause AIDS and that there has been a cover-up. So, I think that AIDS must be caused by something other than HIV and the drug companies are hiding it so that they can make money from expensive anti-HIV drugs.

      Although there is little evidence to support the idea, perhaps it is true that AIDS is not caused by HIV; but that is really beside the point. The above argument bases the conclusion on the testimony on an actor, apparently because they appeared in a movie on the topic.

      This example might seem fanciful but many actors have testified before Congress based on the strength of their movie roles or pet charities. This doesn’t make them any more of an authority on such topics than you or I. They certainly can’t claim the medical and biological expertise to make authoritative testimony on the nature of AIDS. So just why is it that actors are invited to testify before Congress on topics other than acting or art?

      A second basis for challenge is whether or not the authority in question is making statements in his or her area of expertise.

      Sometimes, it is obvious when that is not happening. The above example with actors would be a good one - we might accept such a person as an expert on acting or how Hollywood works, but that doesn’t mean they know anything about medicine.

      There are many examples of this in advertising — indeed, just about every bit of advertising which uses some sort of celebrity is making a subtle (or not-so-subtle) appeal to unqualified authority. Just because someone is a famous baseball player doesn’t make them qualified to say which mortgage company is best, for instance.

      Often the difference can be much more subtle, with an authority in a related field making statements about an area of knowledge close to their own, but not quite close enough to warrant calling them an expert. So, for example, a dermatologist might be an expert when it comes to skin disease, but that doesn’t mean that they should be accepted as also being an expert when it comes to lung cancer.

      Finally, we can challenge an appeal to authority based on whether or not the testimony being offered is something which would find widespread agreement among other experts in that field. After all, if this is the only person in the entire field making such claims, the mere fact that they have expertise doesn’t warrant belief in it, especially considering the weight of contrary testimony.

      There are entire fields, in fact, where there is widespread disagreement on just about everything — psychiatry and economics are good examples of this. When an economist testifies to something, we can be almost guaranteed that we could find other economists to argue differently. Thus, we cannot rely upon them and should look directly at the evidence they are offering.

      « Legitimate Appeal to Authority | Appeal to Anonymous Authority »

      Fallacy Name:
      Appeal to Anonymous Authority

      Alternative Names:
      Hearsay
      Appeal to Rumor

      Category:
      Fallacy of Weak Induction > Appeals to Authority

       

      Explanation:
      This fallacy occurs whenever a person claims we should believe a proposition because it is also believed or claimed by some authority figure or figures — but in this case the authority is not named.

      Instead of identifying who this authority is, we get vague statements about “experts” or “scientists” who have “proven” something to be “true.” This is a fallacious Appeal to Authority because a valid authority is one who can be checked and whose statements can be verified.

      An anonymous authority however, cannot be checked and their statements cannot be verified.

       

      Examples and Discussion:
      We often see the Appeal to Anonymous Authority used in arguments where scientific matters are at question:

      • 1. Scientists have found that eating cooked meat causes cancer.
        2. Most doctors agree that people in America take too many unnecessary drugs.

      Either of the above propositions may be true — but the support offered is completely inadequate to the task of supporting them. The testimony of “scientists” and “most doctors” is only relevant if we know who these people are and can independently evaluate the data which they have used.

      Sometimes, the Appeal to Anonymous Authority doesn’t even bother to rely upon genuine authorities like “scientists” or “doctors” — instead, all we hear about are unidentified “experts”:

      • 3. According to government experts, the new nuclear storage facility poses no dangers.
        4. Environmental experts have demonstrated that global warming does not really exist.

        Here we don’t even know if the so-called “experts” are qualified authorities in the fields in question — and that is in addition to not knowing who they are so we can check the data and conclusions. For all we know, they have no genuine expertise and/or experience in these matters and have only been cited because they happen to agree with the speaker’s personal beliefs.

        Sometimes, the Appeal to Anonymous Authority is combined with an insult:

        • 5. Every open-minded historian will agree that the Bible is relatively historically accurate and that Jesus existed.

        The authority of “historians” is used as a basis to argue that the listener should believe both that the Bible is historically accurate and that Jesus existed. Nothing is said about who the “historians” in question are — as a result, we cannot check for ourselves whether or not these “historians” have a good basis for their position.

        The insult comes in via the implication that those who believe the claims are “open-minded” and, therefore, those who don’t believe aren’t open-minded. No one wants to think of herself as being closed-minded, so an inclination to adopt the position described above is created. In addition, all historians who reject the above are automatically excluded from consideration because they are simply “closed-minded.”

        This fallacy can also be used in a personal way:

        • 6. I know a chemist who is an expert in his field, and according to him evolution is nonsense.

        Who is this chemist? What field is he an expert in? Does his expertise have anything at all to do with a field which relates to evolution?

        Without that information, his opinion about evolution cannot be regarded as any reason to doubt evolutionary theory.

        Sometimes, we don’t even get the benefit of an appeal to “experts”:

        • 7. They say that crime is increasing because of a lax court system.

        This proposition may be true, but who is this “they” who says so? We don’t know and we cannot evaluate the claim. This example of the Appeal to Anonymous Authority fallacy is particularly bad because it is so vague and vacuous.

        The Appeal to Anonymous Authority fallacy is sometimes called an Appeal to Rumor and the above example shows why. When “they” say things, that is just a rumor — it might be true, or it might not be. We cannot accept it as true, however, without evidence and the testimony of “they” cannot even begin to qualify.

         

        Prevention and Treatment:
        Avoiding this fallacy can be difficult because we all have heard things that have led to our beliefs, but when called upon to defend those beliefs we can’t find all of those reports to use as evidence.

        Thus, it is very easy and tempting to simply refer to “scientists” or “experts.”

        This isn’t necessarily a problem — provided, of course, that we are willing to make the effort to find that evidence when asked. We should not expect anyone to believe it just because we have cited the so-called authority of unknown and anonymous figures. We also shouldn’t jump on someone when we see them doing the same. Instead, we should remind them that an anonymous authority isn’t sufficient to get us to believe the claims in question and ask them to provide more substantive support.

        « Logical Fallacies | Argument from Authority »