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Appeal to Authority

argumentum ad verecundiam

(also known as: argument from authority, ipse dixit)

Description: Insisting that a claim is true simply because a valid authority or expert on the issue said it was true, without any other supporting evidence offered. Also see the appeal to false authority.

Logical Form:

According to person 1, who is an expert on the issue of Y, Y is true.

Therefore, Y is true.

Example #1:

Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and perhaps the foremost expert in the field, says that evolution is true. Therefore, it's true.

Explanation: Richard Dawkins certainly knows about evolution, and he can confidently tell us that it is true, but that doesn't make it true. What makes it true is the preponderance of evidence for the theory.

Example #2:

How do I know the adult film industry is the third largest industry in the United States? Derek Shlongmiester, the adult film star of over 50 years, said it was. That's how I know.

Explanation: Shlongmiester may be an industry expert, as well as have a huge talent, but a claim such as the one made would require supporting evidence. For the record, the adult film industry may be large, but on a scale from 0 to 12 inches, it's only about a fraction of an inch.

Exception: Be very careful not to confuse "deferring to an authority on the issue" with the appeal to authority fallacy. Remember, a fallacy is an error in reasoning. Dismissing the council of legitimate experts and authorities turns good skepticism into denialism. The appeal to authority is a fallacy in argumentation, but deferring to an authority is a reliable heuristic that we all use virtually every day on issues of relatively little importance. There is always a chance that any authority can be wrong, that’s why the critical thinker accepts facts provisionally. It is not at all unreasonable (or an error in reasoning) to accept information as provisionally true by credible authorities. Of course, the reasonableness is moderated by the claim being made (i.e., how extraordinary, how important) and the authority (how credible, how relevant to the claim).

The appeal to authority is more about claims that require evidence than about facts. For example, if your tour guide told you that Vatican City was founded February 11, 1929, and you accept that information as true, you are not committing a fallacy (because it is not in the context of argumentation) nor are you being unreasonable.

Tip: Question authority -- or become the authority that people look to for answers.

References:

Hume, D. (2004). An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Courier Corporation.



Registered User Comments

magikkell
Tuesday, June 25, 2019 - 05:47:40 AM
I just got linked here in a reddit discussion. And this is a rather awful description of this fallacy. Here is a much more widely accepted and philosophical sound description from a better source, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/fallacies/

> 9. The ad verecundiam fallacy concerns appeals to authority or expertise. Fundamentally, the fallacy involves accepting as evidence for a proposition the pronouncement of someone who is taken to be an authority but is not really an authority. This can happen when non-experts parade as experts in fields in which they have no special competence—when, for example, celebrities endorse commercial products or social movements. Similarly, when there is controversy, and authorities are divided, it is an error to base one’s view on the authority of just some of them. (See also 2.4 below.)

It's somewhat mean to say this, but I feel like given the irony here it's fitting: Someone with two online degrees in Social Psychology isn't really an expert in philosophy. So that you're putting on this website seemingly expert advice, though you're not, and then get the very fallacy about expertise wrong is just a little too on the nose not to call out.

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Tuesday, June 25, 2019 - 08:30:41 AM
Slight update to my last comment:

There is also the appeal to false authority which is more in line with what the SEP has described: https://www.logicallyfallacious.com/tools/lp/Bo/LogicalFallacies/244/Appeal-to-False-Authority

Given your feedback, I do think I should revise this page to mention the other definition used and the controversy surrounding this fallacy. Thanks again for your feedback.

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Tuesday, June 25, 2019 - 11:58:46 AM
Based on that definition, people will engage in endless debates on who is or is not an authority what what matters is the truth of the claim. It is not fallacious to take the medical advice of your doctor not because he is an authority; it is because WHY he's an authority. Climate change is not real because Bill Nye the Science Guy says so, but because there is a overwhelming evidence for it. I strongly disagree with the SEP definition on this fallacy. They even admit that this is not the original definition as Locke first stated it (see the section 2.4). SEP makes an attempt to reconcile the reasonableness with legitimate expert advice with the problem of accepting everything as true based only on the credibility of the source, but in doing so turns the focus on the authority rather than the evidence for the claim. This is the problem.

There are sources that are are better in line with the definition I have here such as https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/appeal-to-authority and Carl Sagan's use of the term in his book "The Demon Haunted Word": "One of the great commandments of science is, 'Mistrust arguments from authority.' ... Too many such arguments have proved too painfully wrong. Authorities must prove their contentions like everybody else.".

There are countless situations where authorities are divided on issues and simply saying something is true because person X said so and the person X is a authority is fallacious. Further, asserting that authority is the right one is a game that both sides can play. Experts or authorities on issues can be wrong on those issues; they are just more likely to be right than non-experts or authorities.

As for your "concern" on my education and expertise, I don't think you are mean, just not aware of the facts. First, a PhD literally means "doctorate of philosophy." The sciences cannot be understood without a strong understanding of philosophy which serves as the foundation. Second, fallacies are multi-disciplinary and strongly intertwined with psychology. The reason my book does extremely well is because I bring this understanding to fallacies where those who are not aware of the psychological aspect of fallacies and reasoning do not. Third, aside from my formal education, I have been answering questions, having discussion about, and doing research on fallacies for hours a day since 2012, a partial record of which can be found on the Q&A section in this site. If that doesn't make me an expert or authority on logical fallacies in your view, then what is ironic is that demonstrates precisely why appeals to authority cannot be simply claiming that they don't agree someone is an authority or not.

Thank you for your comment, and I hope that my response made the problem with the SEP definition more clear.

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Mike777
Tuesday, March 05, 2019 - 05:18:24 AM
This question is mainly about consistency regarding Appeal to Authority since I've seen variations on it's definition. It mainly concerns people of faith appealing to their religious text. Example:
If 2 christian theologians are arguing about something related to the bible, then it should make sense to appeal to the bible (since the bible is the authority that both individuals use.) Both accept the premises of the bible and are using it in their debate. If it was used as evidence against someone who didn't believe, it could just be called begging the question, but under the context listed, would this be somehow fallacious?

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Tuesday, March 05, 2019 - 06:22:02 AM
Hi Mike, it all depends on their claim. For example, if the claim is that "it says in the Bible..." then of course the Bible is the authority for that claim. In other words, to verify that claim with evidence, one could only look to the Bible to see if it does actually say what it was claimed to say. It is like playing a game of Monopoly and one person claiming "You go directly to jail if you roll doubles 3 times in a row... because this is what is says in the rule book." The rule book is authority of that matter, unless all parties have agreed to "house rules." A player could also question the established rules and elect to change them, but that does not matter to the initial claim. The point is, the person who made the claim about going to jail because it is in the rules is NOT acting unreasonably (i.e., saying something fallacious).

The problem is, many Christians really mean "it says in the Bible therefore it means...." Now the claim is one of interpretation and meaning. The correct response to this is "Yes, it does say that in the Bible, but I disagree with what you think it means." There is no authority on interpretation (thus the thousands of Christian denominations).

Another application of this fallacy is more along the lines you mention. When a Christian is using the Bible as evidence that what it says in the Bible is true (not THAT is says X, but that X is true). This is the Ultimate Appeal to Authority fallacy. It doesn't matter if a Christian is talking to another Christian or an atheist. In the case of two Christians, they are both accepting a premise on faith rather than evidence (i.e., "everything in the Bible is true"). Of course, there is also the problem of what kind of truths are being presented (literal, allegory, "spiritual", etc.).

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Lars C
Saturday, June 02, 2018 - 10:12:20 AM
Is it an appeal to authority fallacy if someone argues that X is how the state of things should be because it says so in the law or in the constitution?

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Saturday, June 02, 2018 - 10:14:44 AM
That certainly could be argued. The real argument would be is if the Constitution is the legitimate authority on the state of things.

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Lars C
Saturday, June 02, 2018 - 10:55:53 AM
@Bo Bennett, PhD:

One example:

In paragraph 4 of the Norwegian constitution it says this about our kings:
"The king must always confess to/follow the evangelical-Lutheran religion"

So one could argue:
the king of Norway must follow the evangelical-lutheran religion (in other words be a Christian) because it says so in the constitution.

Wouldn't that be an appeal to authority fallacy?

I think it does. If I were king I would need a better reason than "it says so in a law book". What if I didn't want to follow the evangelical-lutheran religion? I can't be forced to a lutheran.

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Saturday, June 02, 2018 - 11:38:19 AM
@Lars C: I don't know anything about Norwegian constitutional law, but it would seem to me that this is a pretty legitimate authority for this issue from what you wrote (so not fallacious). Is the Norwegian constitution a legitimate authority on the king's religion? Should it be? These are two good questions that need to be asked and debated.

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Wednesday, February 27, 2019 - 07:25:55 AM
@jota: The fallacy is "Insisting that a claim is true simply because a valid authority or expert on the issue said it was true, without any other supporting evidence offered." Lars asked if "the king of Norway must follow the evangelical-lutheran religion (in other words be a Christian) because it says so in the constitution" is fallacious. The Norwegian constitution is the ultimate authority of the law of the land, so this is not fallacious. There is no greater external source to reference. This is not a question of SHOULD this be law it is a question of IS it law, and the answer is "yes" (true) because it is in their Constitution. There is no greater "evidence" one can obtain that would falsify this claim.

Let me stress again that one can argue all day long if this SHOULD be the law, but it is objectively true that it IS the law according to the most authoritative document in their law system (I assume since I am not a Norwegian lawyer). Claiming that something is law because it is clearly stated in their highest law document is not a fallacy.

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C. Loftus
Saturday, September 29, 2018 - 02:57:36 PM
Would it be considered appeal to authority if you referred to a consensus among multiple authorities?
Example:
Most experts in the field of Y agree that X is true, so X is true.

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Saturday, September 29, 2018 - 03:33:04 PM
Yes. However, it would not be fallacious if the conclusion were slightly different:

Most experts in the field of Y agree that X is true, so X it is reasonable to accept X as true.

Of course, the expertise has to be properly established. For example, if most experts in Tarot card readings think the cards tell the future, it is NOT reasonable to accept it as true. Basically, expert opinion is (or should be) a shortcut for obtaining legitimate evidence. So the assumption is that the experts obtained their evidence for their expert opinion legitimately.

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Jeremiah
Thursday, February 07, 2019 - 08:04:51 PM
@Bo Bennett, PhD:
Hai sir,.
Is the appeal to authority is occurs when the argument quotes an expert who is not qualified in the particular subject matter....

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Phil Wick
Friday, May 18, 2018 - 03:48:22 PM
I have a friend that is a computer programmer. She states that since she deals in logic issues all day, and logic is her job, that there is no way that she commits logical fallacies. Would that statement in itself be an appeal to authority?

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Friday, May 18, 2018 - 05:37:56 PM
As one who programs an average of 5 hours a day for the last 25 years, I can confidently say that while understanding computer logic is helpful to real world logic, it certainly does not prohibit one from logical errors. But, no, that wouldn't be an appeal to authority; it would simply be a claim. Perhaps even a non sequitur.

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