Argument from authority
|Cogito ergo sum
Logic and rhetoric
“”[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 arguments:
- A non-fallacious 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, insofar as the authorities in question are, indeed, experts[note 1] on the issue in question, their opinion provides strong inductive support for the conclusion: It makes the conclusion likely to be true, not 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 disagreement with consensus on the issue, their non-expertise in the relevant issue, or a number of other issues.
Correct uses of argument from authority involve deferred justification: Insofar as your claim accords with what experts on the issue believe, then your claim is also supported by the evidence the experts are relying on, even if you may not yourself be aware of what that evidence in fact is.
In order to be fallacious, the argument must appeal to and treat as authoritative people who lack relevant qualifications or whose qualification is in an irrelevant field or a field that is irrelevant to the argument at hand. For example, saying "There is no God, because Stephen Hawking said so and is a knowledgeable physicist." is a fallacious appeal to authority, as Hawking's qualifications in physics do not automatically make him an authority on whether or not God exists. However, accusations of a false appeal to authority, or dismissing an argument because of someone's lack of relevant qualifications or expertise, runs the risk of encountering the pitfall of the Courtier's Reply. This is the counterfallacy to a misapplied appeal to authority: that the lack of an official and relevant qualification doesn't automatically undercut the argument.
The expression "appeal to authority" is sometimes reserved for fallacious uses, whereas "argument from authority" is used for non-fallacious deference to experts, but this distinction is not consistently observed in practice.
Either fallacious or not:
- 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
- Viewpoint mining
“”Provided you ensure that authority's authority actually applies to the field in question, it’s as good a strategy as any.
A non-fallacious 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.
- C: P is probably correct.
In one of its many fallacious forms, it could read:
- P1: Experts on X are usually correct about X.
- P2: Those experts say P is correct.
- C: Therefore P is definitely correct.
Experts, too, are sometimes wrong. They are, however, in a position to update their views more readily and with better research on their side. And importantly, even though experts are often wrong, those who disagree with the experts are almost certainly wrong.
The most common fallacious form of appeals to expertise is, however, the following:
- P1: S is an expert on X.
- P2: S says that P, concerning an unrelated topic Y, is correct.
- C: Therefore P is probably correct.
Expertise is not necessarily transferable, and using a person's expertise in one area to justify treating that person as an authority on something else is a fallacy.
|—Bertrand Russell, "On the Value of Skepticism"
Experts provide us with a reason for believing a claim in their special areas because:
- They have access to more information on the subject than we do; and
- They are better at judging that information than we are.
Note, however, that expertise in an area is not only a matter of knowing more facts pertaining to that area. It is a matter of having a detailed overview of the area – knowing how various facts are connected and thus whether and the extent to which an observation is evidence for a claim.
If one believes a claim P because experts say it is true, one's belief is justified (by proxy) by the evidence the expert has access to. In other words, it is, strictly speaking, not that one has good reasons to believe P because experts say so, but because there is plenty of evidence for P – the experts have access to that evidence, and when one tailors one's belief to expert opinion one's belief will also be supported by that evidence (even if one may not be aware of what that evidence is).
By the same token, if one, as a non-expert, disagrees with the experts, one’s belief is automatically not justified. Of course, when one is not an expert in a field, a particular claim pertaining to that field can sound plausible. However, a non-expert will not be in a position to evaluate it in any reasonable manner, since a non-expert lacks access to and ability to assess that evidence. The experts may be wrong – but if one, as a non-expert, disagrees with expert opinion, one is almost certainly wrong.
Who are the experts?
Expertise comes in degrees, and tracks the ability to reliably judge information pertaining to an area as well as knowledge about that area. Expertise in one area does not transfer to unrelated areas, and mistakes about the transferability of expertise is a source of fallacious appeals to expertise.
Though the reasonable option for non-experts is always to defer to experts, the applicability of this piece of advice is in practice complicated by the Dunning-Kruger effect.
It is also important to keep in mind that legitimate expertise requires that the field in question is one that is based on proper methods of inquiry (i.e. science). If the distinction between authorities and non-authorities in a field does no track a difference in proper use of evidence or methods of inquiry, then appeal to authority will be fallacious. Various practitioners of pseudoscience or tooth-fairy science may claim authority in their fields, but insofar as the fields in questions are fields that do not actually allow for differences in epistemic standing (given that the fields themselves are not founded on proper use of evidence or methods of inquiry), such claims are empty. A homeopath may be a legitimate authority about what homeopaths claim, but since homeopathy is based on pseudoscience, a practitioner of homeopathy does not have any legitimate authority when it comes to the medical questions of how or whether homeopathy works.
A 2010 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States (PNAS), which reviewed publication and citation data for 1,372 climate researchers, concluded that 97–98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field support the tenets of ACC (Anthropogenic Climate Change) outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (a scientific consensus). This doesn't mean that the experts cannot be wrong, but it means that one cannot, at present, be justified in believing that those tenets are false. For a non-expert the only rational option is thus to adopt a high confidence in the tenets of ACC that reflect expert consensus.
This is not just a matter of experts knowing more facts, but experts having the ability to actually assess evidence in a proper manner. A non-expert is, accordingly, one who does not know how to properly evaluate how various observations or pieces of evidence should affect a given hypothesis. Being aware of numerous facts or factoids about a topic does not automatically make one an expert about that topic. In Bayesian terms, expertise should primarily be understood as the ability to provide reasonable values to the probability of an observation given a hypothesis or the probability of a hypothesis given an observation.
For instance, suppose that observations confirmed that there is more sea ice in Baffin Bay than originally thought. A non-expert would perhaps be dimly aware that this observation is relevant to the hypothesis that global warming is happening, but would lack the ability to assess whether and to what extent the observation should affect one's confidence in global warming, since a non-expert has no means to assess the extent to which the observation is really an unlikely one given the hypothesis, or the extent to which it should affect one's confidence in the hypothesis if it is, in fact, unlikely (that would depend, for instance, on an assessment of the totality of the evidence). In Bayesian terms, a non-expert lacks the means to properly update his or her confidence in the hypothesis when encountering a particular piece of information. As such, the only rational response is to defer to what the experts are doing with that piece of information.
Similarly, when engaged in a discussion about global warming, a non-expert may be unable to realize that most of the talking points presented by denialists appeal to hypotheses that have already been refuted (e.g. solar spots as a cause of global warming, or natural cycles), misunderstood (e.g. "the Hockey Stick is broken”), or incomplete.
Following Russell's advice, the rational response for a non-expert when presented with denialist talking points is thus not "That's interesting; I have to think about that," but "Why are you telling this to me? I don't know how to evaluate this information. Why don't you go tell the experts. If and only if you can convince them, will I follow suit."
A fallacious appeal to authority is, usually, one where the authority has no legitimate expertise pertaining to the topic at hand. More rarely, a fallacious appeal to authority is committed by selectively using experts to support a claim when there is, in reality, genuine controversy (as opposed to a manufactroversy) about the topic.
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.
"Think for yourself" (or "do your own research") is, when the topic is one on which you are no legitimate authority, an encouragement to commit a fallacious appeal to authority.
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.
Also known as weasel words, this occurs when an unspecified authority is cited as evidence or reason for holding a belief. This is fallacious because said authority may not exist, be relevant, or be appropriate for the discussion. It is simply a means of avoiding specifics while giving a veneer of credibility to the argument. Often, it involves the use of words like "studies show", "they", and "I saw this one article a while back...".
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 legitimate 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 have 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) and/or other similar qualifications/curricula in fields outside of biology or geology.[note 2] 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[note 3]) 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.
Similarly, the Great Barrington Declaration, a pseudoscientific and denialist suggestion on how to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic (by not restricting most peoples' behaviour but instead those most likely to die, seeking to gain herd immunity through infection for the remaining population) aims to have most of its cachet drawn from the supposed scientific backing of its three originators and the supposed legions of health practitioners who agree with it. However much of this "support" is from obviously fake signatories like "Dominic Cummings", "IP Freely" and "Johnny Bananas", and the declaration itself could only be fairly described as not pseudoscientific because it didn't make a decent effort to appear scientific in the first place.
Birthwort (Aristolochia spp.) has been consumed by humans 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 (and importantly quantum mechanics).
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 on 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 (e.g., experts for hire and experts engaging in coverups). 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
Want to read this in another language?
گزارهی صاحبنظر in Farsi
- See the Wikipedia article on Argument from authority.
- Appeal to Authority Fallacy: When and How Is It Wrong to Rely on Experts?
- "Argumentum Ad Verecundiam", Philosophy 103: Introduction to Logic
- Appeal to Misleading Authority, Fallacy Files
- Your logical fallacy is appeal to authority, YLFI
- Example of false authority: False Authority: "Thoughts From a Former NIST Employee" on 9/11 — Metabunk
- Julian Sanchez — Climate Change and Argumentative Fallacies
- Bertrand Russell, "“On the Value of Scepticism", in the introduction to his Sceptical Essays
- Anderegg, William R L; Prall, James W.; Harold, Jacob; Schneider, Stephen H. (2010). "Expert credibility in climate change". Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 107 (27): 12107–9. Bibcode:2010PNAS..10712107A. doi:10.1073/pnas.1003187107. PMC 2901439 Freely accessible. PMID 20566872.
- Airborne: Created by a schoolteacher, so it must work! (January 09, 2006) Respectful Insolence.
- Ad Verecundiam
- 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