Definitions

Appeal to majority

Appeal to authority

An appeal to authority or argument by authority is a type of argument in logic called a fallacy. It bases the truth value of an assertion on the authority, knowledge, expertise, or position of the person asserting it. It is also known as argument from authority, argumentum ad verecundiam (argument to respect) or ipse dixit (Latin: he himself said it). It is one method of obtaining propositional knowledge, but a fallacy in regard to logic, because the validity of a claim does not follow from the credibility of the source. The corresponding reverse case would be an ad hominem attack: to imply that the claim is false because the asserter lacks authority or is otherwise objectionable in some way.

On the other hand, there is no fallacy involved in simply arguing that the assertion made by an authority is true, in contrast to claiming that the authority is infallible in principle and can hence be exempted from criticism: It can be true, the truth can merely not be proven, or made probable by attributing it to the authority, and the assumption that the assertion was true might be subject to criticism and turn out to have actually been wrong. If a criticism appears that contradicts the authority's statement, then merely the fact that the statement originated from the authority is not an argument for ignoring the criticism.

Forms

There are two basic forms of appeal to authority, based on the authority being trusted. The more relevant the expertise of an authority, the more compelling the argument. Nonetheless, authority is never absolute, so all appeals to authority which assert that the authority is necessarily infallible are fallacious.

The first form of the appeal to authority is when a person presenting a position on a subject mentions some authority who also holds that position, but who is not actually an authority in that area. For instance, the statement "Arthur C. Clarke released a report showing it is necessary to floss three times daily" should not convince many people of anything about flossing, as Clarke, a science fiction writer, was not a known expert on dental care. Much advertising relies on this logical fallacy in the form of endorsements and sponsorships. A sportsperson or actor, for example, is no more likely than average to have an specialist knowledge of watches or perfume, but their endorsement of a particular brand of watch or perfume is very valuable in advertising terms. In some cases, the advertisers use an actor's well-known role to imply that the person has authority in an area; an actor who plays a doctor on television may appear in their white coat, and endorse a drug or health product.

The second form, citing a person who is actually an authority in the relevant field, carries more subjective, cognitive weight. A person who is recognized as an expert authority often has greater experience and knowledge of their field than the average person, so their opinion is more likely than average to be correct. In practical subjects such as car repair, an experienced mechanic who knows how to fix a certain car will be trusted to a greater degree than someone who is not an expert in car repair. There are many cases where one must rely on an expert, and cannot be reasonably expected to have the same experience, knowledge and skill that that person has. Many trust a surgeon without ever needing to know all the details about surgery themselves. Nevertheless, experts can still be mistaken and their expertise does not always guarantee that their arguments are valid.

In some cases, the appeal to authority plays on the Western culture's respect for credentials. For example, suppose a complex nutritional system and diet guide is endorsed or ghostwritten and credited to a qualified doctor. While a doctor does receive general training on nutrition and diet, they may not be an expert on nutrition and diet, a field for which an expert will often possess PhDs in nutrition and certification as a dietician. The same technique is used with the PhD degree; an advertiser may reinforce their claims about a product by appending an endorsement from John Doe, PhD, but without stating what area the PhD is in. If the product being endorsed is foot powder, and Dr. Doe studied podiatry, the endorsement carries some weight, but if he studied film criticism, he may have no more than average knowledge of the product and its merits.

In mathematics, the second form, especially when the appellant is himself the authority, is wryly referred to as "proof by tenure".

Appeal to authority as logical fallacy

An (fallacious) appeal to authority argument has the basic form:

  1. A makes claim B;
  2. there is something positive about A,
  3. therefore claim B is true.

The first statement is called a 'factual claim' and is the pivot point of much debate. The last statement is referred to as an 'inferential claim' and represents the reasoning process. There are two types of inferential claim, explicit and implicit.

Arguments that (fallaciously) rely on the objectionable aspects of the person for the truth (usually falsity) of the conclusion are described as ad hominem arguments.

Examples of appeals to authority

  • Referring to the philosophical beliefs of Aristotle. "If Aristotle said it was so, it is so."
  • Referring to the philosophical beliefs of Jesus, Muhammad, or any other religious figure. "If (religious figure) said it was so, it is so." Such an appeal may be based upon the belief that the speaker in question is holy and, by extension, inerrant.
  • Referring to a sacred text. "If (the text) said it was so, it is so." Like in the previous example, such an appeal may be based upon the belief that the sacred text in question is inerrant.
  • Quoting a well-known personage: "As Alexander Pope said, patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel." Implying that, therefore, patriotism is always bad. And in fact, it was not Alexander Pope but Samuel Johnson to whom this quote can be rightly attributed.
  • Referring to what one is told by one's teacher and/or parent. "My teacher said so, therefore it must be so."
  • Believing something because it is attributed to an honored profession, as in "This doctor recommends (brand-name) aspirin" or "Bankers recommend that people have six months' wages in a savings account".
  • Something must be true because there is a scientific consensus or the majority of any group agrees.
  • Appealing to some reference or citation from a famous book or author. References in no way ensure, without any doubt, that the claim is true. References simply show where the information or claim possibly originated and to avoid plagiarism.
  • Appeals to various well known opinion poll firms that are assumed to have collected the best data from a large enough sample, and that there were no leading questions.

The fact that an argument is an appeal to authority does not make its conclusion untrue, nor does it make it unreasonable to believe the argument. An appeal to authority cannot guarantee the truth of the conclusion (see Truth and Consensus theory of truth), because the fact that an authority says something does not make it so. Ideally, propositions being true (or having arguments supporting them) is what makes authorities believe them to be true, not the other way around. An appeal to authority thus confuses cause and effect. Furthermore, notice that a rigorous concept of truth is a complex subject.

Epistemology without appeal to authority

A philosophy which denies and rejects harshly the existence of any authority, proof, disproof, or justification, even only with probability, and holds everything open to criticism, including observation (that is, it even rejects the inference "X was observed directly → X is necessarily true" as an appeal to authority), logics and its own very basic positions, such as criticism itself, is pancritical rationalism. Without the need to ever appeal to authority for justification, the pancritical rationalist is able to hold his position with complete integrity, since he is not guilty of relativism or dogmatism.

Sub-categories

Last man standing fallacy — The arguments of the victor in an election or war are axiomatically validated by the victory. It is also known as the Trial by Combat Fallacy, Winner Takes All Fallacy.

Martyr fallacy — The loser is axiomatically correct by virtue of failure (antithesis of Last Man Standing Fallacy), also known as the Underdog Fallacy.

Not universal taxonomy [nomenclature derived from "Lectures on Logic" Dioc.North [Paul Priest, 1991]

References

See also

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