Argument from authority
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“”[L]et the candied tongue lick absurd pomp,
And crook the pregnant hinges of the knee
Where thrift may follow fawning.
|—Hamlet, William Shakespeare|
An argument from authority refers to two kinds of logical arguments:
- A logically valid argument from authority grounds a claim in the beliefs of one or more authoritative source(s), whose opinions are likely to be true on the relevant issue. Notably, this is a Bayesian statement -- it is likely to be true, rather than necessarily true. As such, an argument from authority can only strongly suggest what is true -- not prove it.
- A logically fallacious argument from authority grounds a claim in the beliefs of a source that is not authoritative. Sources could be non-authoritative because of their personal bias, their disagreement with consensus on the issue, their non-expertise in the relevant issue, or a number of other issues. (Often, this is called an appeal to authority, rather than argument from authority.)
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.
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.
- 1 Alternative names
- 2 Forms
- 3 Examples
- 4 Subfallacies
- 5 See also
- 6 External links
- 7 References
Either valid or fallacious:
- argument by authority
- argumentum ad verecundiam (literally "argument to shame", which is kinda cool)
- argumentum ab auctoritate
- appeal to qualified authority
- appeal to authority
- fallacy of argumentum ad verecundiam
- fallacy of argumentum ab auctoritate
“”Provided you ensure that authority’s authority actually applies to the field in question, it’s as good a strategy as any.
A logically valid appeal to authority is based around the following syllogism:
- P1: Experts on a subject are usually correct.
- P2: Experts on the subject have a consensus that P is correct.
- C1: P is probably correct.
In one of its many fallacious forms, 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.
When someone uses themselves as an authority, it is known as Ipse dixit - "he himself has said it."
Common examples of this are the mother who says that her son could not possibly have committed a crime because "I know my boy and he isn't like that." Another example is the ex-soldier who styles himself as a constitutional scholar because of his service.
Appeal to respect
An "argument to veneration" occurs when somebody appeals to a respected figure to back their claims. For example, one might use the words of Martin Luther King or Mohandas Gandhi to further one's argument; however, these figures have authority only in the fact that they are widely respected. In the same way, citing "the esteemed Stephen Hawking" shouldn't be any different from citing "Stephen Hawking", because the argument should rise and fall on Hawking's arguments, not his respect.
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."
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.
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.
Thus, a more accurate phrase would be "Argument or appeal to misleading authority."
Use by creationists
This fallacy is often used by creationists who appeal to authorities with "PhD"s (a mystical qualification in the public's eyes, but not that special) in fields outside of biology or geology. 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) 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.
Use by other cranks
“”A final characteristic of the paranoid style is related to the quality of its pedantry. One of the impressive things about paranoid literature is the contrast between its fantasied conclusions and the almost touching concern with factuality it invariably shows....The paranoid seems to have little expectation of actually convincing a hostile world, but he can accumulate evidence in order to protect his cherished convictions from it.
|—Prof. Richard Hofstadter, "The Paranoid Style in America Politics"|
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. Another notable example would be the Half-assed Oregon Petition, a petition to the United States Government that boasts 31,072 Scientists who deny the existence of Global Warming. Needless to say, the petition suffered the usual problems of the fringe being desperate to cling for support: It leaves out the plethora of scientists with actual expertise in the issue. Most of the signatures were unverifiable, and even among the ones that were, the so-called scientists have either had a case of Inverse stopped clock, expertise in a field irrelevant to Global Warming, touting authority from a Diploma mill, or Lied about their expertise in anything scientific. That only covers the signatures from people that exist at all.
Birthwort (Aristolochia spp.) has been used since at least 300 BCE. In 1597 CE, John Gerarde wrote what became a very popular book, called The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes. The book cited three ancient authorities on the uses of "birthwoorte": Pedanius Dioscorides, Galen (129 - c. 200/c. 216 CE) and Pliny the Elder. The extreme toxicity of birthwort was not discovered until the end of the 20th century CE.
Almost any subject has an authority on every side of the argument, even where there is generally agreed to be no argument.
Science changes, and this is a feature, not a bug. This also means that sources from mere decades ago may be hopelessly out of date, merely by being unaware of recent scientific discoveries. For example, quoting Newton on the properties of light is problematic, since he's missed about four centuries worth of scientific exploration.
Occasionally, somebody may quote outdated authorities with the insinuation that they were right all along, and that the research that disproved them is biased and/or fraudulent. This comes up a lot with racialism, for instance, with lots of citations of turn-of-the-20th-century scientific racists while disparaging later biologists and anthropologists who disagreed with them, like Stephen Jay Gould and Franz Boas. In this case, you're dealing with a conspiracy theorist.
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?" 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.
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. Doctors employed by the tobacco industry are not necessarily reliable, for example.
That said, just because somebody is biased does not necessarily mean they are wrong. Just because somebody is paid by NASA doesn't mean that they're trying to make NASA look good, for example.
- Appeal to tradition
- Expert for hire
- Style over substance
- List of quotes appealing to authority used by creationists
- See the Wikipedia article on Argument from authority.
- Appeal to Authority Breakdown
- "Argumentum Ad Verecundiam", Philosophy 103: Introduction to Logic
- Appeal to Misleading Authority, Fallacy Files
- Your logical fallacy is appeal to authority, YLFI
- Julian Sanchez - Climate Change and Argumentative Fallacies
- Ad Verecundiam
- Or anything on this list, but listing them all would make this article too tedious to read.
- Rocks don't evolve that we're aware of... on second thought, maybe they do!
- Hofstader, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics", Harper's Weekly November 1964.
- The Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes] by John Gerarde (1597). John Gerard]
- Ancient Medicinal Use of Aristolochia: Birthwort's Tradition and Toxicity by John Scarborough, Pharmacy in History, Vol. 53, No. 1, 2011.
- Fallacy: Appeal to Authority
- Biased experts
- Fallacy: Appeal to Authority
- Appeal to Authority