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Argument from authority

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Logic and rhetoric

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Provided you ensure that authority’s authority actually applies to the field in question, it’s as good a strategy as any.
—Julian Sanchez[1]
... let the candied tongue lick absurd pomp, And crook the pregnant hinges of the knee Where thrift may follow fawning.

An argument from authority (also appeal to authority, argumentum ad verecundiam[2] and argumentum ab auctoritate), when correctly applied, can be a valid and sometimes essential part of an argument that requests judgement or input from a qualified or expert source. The operation of the common law would be impossible without it, for example.

Frequently, however, it is a logical fallacy consisting of an appeal to authority, but on a topic outside of the authority's expertise[3] or on a topic on which the authority is not disinterested (aka. the authority is biased). Almost any subject has an authority on every side of the argument, even where there is generally agreed to be no argument.[4]

When someone uses themselves as an authority, it is known as Ipse Dixit - "he himself has said it."


[edit] Form

The appeal to authority is based around the following syllogism:

  • Premise 1 - Experts on a subject are usually correct.
  • Premise 2 - Experts on the subject have a consensus that P is correct.
  • Conclusion - Therefore P is probably correct.

In its fallacious form, it could read:

  • Premise 1 - People with qualifications are usually correct.
  • Premise 2 - Those people say P is correct.
  • Conclusion - Therefore P is definitely correct.

This fallacious form fails to take into account the area of expertise, as well as the possibility that those people could be wrong. Experts can be (frequently) wrong but are often in the position to update their views more readily and with better research on their side.

The following form demonstrates a further non-fallacious use of the argument from authority, focusing on why experts might assert something:

  • Premise 1 - P is correct.
  • Premise 2 - Experts will study P.
  • Conclusion - Experts will say P is correct.

The following is a hyper-fallacious version, and quite possibly the single most common misuse of it.

  • Premise 1 - Experts say P is correct.
  • Conclusion - P is correct.

[edit] Examples

Of course, the most basic of "good" arguments appealing to authority are those pertaining to research. When collected data has been organized into a paper by qualified researchers some trust is required in taking either the conclusion or basic data results and organizing them into a coherent argument, even if you dispute their interpretation of the data or methodology. Not everybody has a fully-equipped lab, often very expensive supplies, monitoring equipment, enslaved graduate students and imagination for creating methodology to prove a hypothesis. To a certain degree, trust has to be put in the "authority" and good faith of said researchers, their equipment, their supplies, their staff, their Journal editors, their peer reviewers, and if some problem persists (which it occasionally does), their email server. Those who reject every step of this line of appeal to authority usually end up looking like total idiots.

With the rise of postmodernism one must be careful with what qualifies as peer-review research today.

An example of misuse would be appealing to Albert Einstein, a noted authority on physics, to support one's political or religious beliefs. While Einstein undoubtedly had political beliefs, he was certainly no politician and was not experienced in politics to the point where he could make a more informed judgement than most people. He, along with the likes of Stephen Hawking, are often quote-mined as being either for or against the existence of God, and the fact that such "authorities" believed in it one way or another is cited as supporting one position over the other. The fact that the same individuals can be selectively quoted to back up either position should give a good indication of how useful they are as genuine points in an argument. The opinion of an authority speaking outside his/her field is sometimes worth considering because that person is intelligent and knowledgeable about many subjects, but its value is limited.[5]

Thus, a more accurate phrase would be "Argument or appeal to misleading authority."

[edit] Use by creationists

This fallacy is often used by creationists who appeal to authorities with PhDs[6] in fields outside of biology or geology.[7] This is particularly notable in various petitions that appear on sites such as Answers in Genesis that feature prominent scientists that disagree with evolution (more specifically, ones which believe there is a problem with the current theory, which certainly does not equate to outright rejecting the concept). In these lists and petitions, several reputable scientists may appear but few will actually have any expertise in biology (many are geologists[8]) thereby making them unqualified to make an informed and expert judgment on evolution. Project Steve, a pro-evolution version of one of these petitions, on the other hand, has a much, much higher percentage of qualified biologists on its list, and it was a joke to begin with.

[edit] Use by other cranks

The usage of this fallacy is a persistent aspect of many conspiracy theories. For example Steven E. Jones, a particle physicist formerly from Brigham Young University, is an outspoken supporter of the "controlled demolition" version of the various 9/11 conspiracy theories, and much credence is given to his bona fide academic credentials in "Truther" publications. The fact that Jones has no background in material science or structural engineering is ignored (despite those subject areas being far more relevant than Jones' actual expertise in muon-catalyzed fusion). If only such theories had the half-life of a muon...

Pseudosciences also regularly employ this fallacy. A prime example is Peter Duesberg, a cell biologist with extensive credit in virus research. In the 1980s Duesberg presented a (then) plausible hypothesis that AIDS was caused by recreational drug use. Despite the overwhelming evidence that subsequently confirmed HIV as the sole cause of AIDS, Duesberg has maintained his belief, and his credentials are thus regularly cited in HIV denial literature.

[edit] Alternate forms

[edit] Appeal to no authority

Occasionally, this tactic is reversed by appealing to someone who has no qualification or authority on the subject at hand as if this were somehow a valid argument. This is often seen in politics, where the "average Joe" is seen to have more "common sense" than some pointy-headed intellectual, and in conspiracy theories, where most professionals working in the field are considered partners in the conspiracy or paid off. Another example of this is Airborne, which touts itself as "invented by a schoolteacher."

[edit] Disagreement among experts

When there is significant disagreement among experts this can compromise claims to authority by experts in the relevant field. Examples are psychiatry and economics, where there are frequently well qualified experts contradicting each other and they cannot all be correct. Before accepting expert opinion we need to ask ourselves, "Do the experts in this subject agree about this specific issue?"[9] Another area where experts disagree is religion. There are any number of theologians and religious leaders who have spent a lifetime studying the teachings of a particular denomination or sect of Christianity or some other religion and many have impressive qualifications. Despite this there is no agreement what God, Jesus, any other proposed deity, or supernatural entity may or may not have revealed to us. There is not even agreement what deities or other supernatural entities, if any, exist.

[edit] Biased authorities

Bias and prejudice is a human weakness found in experts as well as ordinary people. Wishful thinking is just one possibility when authorities who invested a great deal (of time or money) in developing their expertise naturally want to be correct. Evidence that experts are biased weakens their arguments or rebuts the arguments altogether depending on circumstances. We cannot always be certain whether biased experts have weighed up and evaluated arguments carefully or are speaking from prejudice. Experts can be biased for any number of reasons including who is paying them.[10] Doctors employed by the tobacco industry are not necessarily reliable, for example.[11][12]

[edit] Potential problems

Accusations of a false appeal to authority, or declaring an argument to be invalid because of a lack of relevant qualifications or expertise, runs the risk of encountering the pitfall of the Courtier's Reply. This is the counter fallacy to a misapplied appeal to authority: that the lack of an official and relevant qualification doesn't automatically make the argument invalid.

In order to be fallacious, the argument must appeal to the authority because of their qualification in an irrelevant field and should be irrelevant to the argument at hand. For example, saying "There is no God, because Stephen Hawking said so and is a knowledgeable physicist" is an appeal to a misleading authority as Hawking's qualifications in physics do not automatically make his argument correct—the strength of his actual argument regarding cosmology is what needs to be examined, not his qualification or prior knowledge. On the other hand, dismissing Hawking's argument because he lacks any qualification in theology is an example of the Courtier's Reply. What is important in both fallacies is that it is the argument, its merits and how its premises form a conclusion that is what should be scrutinised and not the subject's previous qualifications.

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] Footnotes

  1. Julian Sanchez - Climate Change and Argumentative Fallacies
  2. "Argument to shame" , which is kinda cool.
  3. Philosophy 103: Introduction to Logic - Argumentum Ad Verecundiam
  4. See here for a detailed explanation
  5. Ad Verecundiam
  6. This is a magical and mystical qualification in the public's eyes, but it's not that special.
  7. Or anything on this list, but listing them all would make this article too tedious to read.
  8. Rocks don't evolve that we're aware of... on second thought, maybe they do!
  9. Fallacy: Appeal to Authority
  10. Biased experts
  11. Fallacy: Appeal to Authority
  12. Appeal to Authority
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