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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

Jason Mathias
Sunday, October 20, 2019 - 02:48:54 PM
Is this an argument from authority fallacy?

Person A claims, "Public schools produce better results as opposed to private schools for reasons X, Y and Z with evidence provided.
Person B claims, "The entire Federal Department of Education is a violation of the Constitution in accordance with the Tenth Amendment and therefor private schools are actually better for education.

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Bo Bennett, PhD
Monday, October 21, 2019 - 07:04:36 AM
No, but it could be a non-sequitur. If it actually were a violation of the Constitution, it wouldn't follow that it is "better for education."

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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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magikkell
Tuesday, September 17, 2019 - 10:10:41 PM
@Bo Bennett, PhD:

Thanks for the interaction. So in light of the way you approach this I'm going to stick with the pseudonymous moniker and not say anything about my credentials since that is something you're pointing out to be irrelevant when something is in dispute.

Ok, so with that, here is a reason to think that even when making arguments appealing to experts is not fallacious at all. If you consider the literature on the epistemology of disagreement (https://philpapers.org/browse/epistemology-of-disagreement) a good number of philosophers think that at least some conciliatory stance is justified. And this, in part, leads to a principle about the rational attitude of statements by experts like that of Adam Elga's equal weights view:

Equal weight view:
Upon finding out that an advisor disagrees, your probability that you are right should equal your prior conditional probability that you would be right. Prior to what? Prior to your thinking through the disputed issue, and finding out what the advisor thinks of it. Conditional on what? On whatever you have learned about the circumstances of the disagreement.
(https://philpapers.org/rec/ELGRAD)

This also falls out of straightforward Bayesian approaches: For anyone's testimony on any issue you have some prior credence about them being right. You can even go so far as assigning a prior credence that they are right, given that they say P, and a prior credence that they are right given that they say ~P. If your other evidence is not indicating anything one way or the other, these likely should be roughly the same. But if they are an expert to any degree, then your prior credence of them being right should be at least some degree greater than .5.

For example, if you're undecided on some proposition Q and sit at credence .5, but you rationally think that any given Q expert is .9 likely to testify truly about matters of Q, and then such an expert says "Q" your credence in Q should go up. And on a Bayesian understanding of what evidence is, if getting something as evidence rationally raises your credence in a proposition, then it is evidence for that proposition.

Hence, expert testimony is (almost) always good evidence, so I don't see how it would be rational to maintain a steady credence in the face of expert testimony.

The only way to not get this result is to say that the testimony of experts is literally never evidence, which is to say that there is no such thing as an expert. But of course, that doesn't allow for any kind of rational or cognitive division of labor at all and would mean that you are no more likely to say true things about social psychology now after getting a PhD then you were before you even knew what social psychology was.

I also find that in the first comment you might be conflating two things when you say:

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.

This misrepresents evidence and metaphysical ground. Evidence is what makes it rational to believe that something is true, but evidence doesn't make anything true. Metaphysical ground, or causes, or some other such things make things true.

Evidence for climate change is things like the predictive models of temperature change, the interpretation of glacial data, etc. But none of this makes climate change true. What makes climate change true is literally the climate changing, and that's it. But we don't have direct access to the climate changing. It changing by itself doesn't give us any reason to believe it is changing - to have reason to believe we need evidence. And that's all the downstream stuff, like what the experts say, what the climate data shows, what the readings at the weather stations are etc.

And of course in the setting of a disagreement it doesn't (directly) matter who actually is an expert to rationally change views - it matters who is rationally believed to be an expert. And if there is disagreement, then appealing to someone your interlocutor doesn't rationally believe to be an expert is a rather pointless move. It won't give them reason to change their view.

But appealing to someone who they agree to be an expert does give them reason to change their mind. Now I'm not sure if you're defining "fallacy" as not giving reasons, or as somehow objectively not being indicative of truth, but in some sense I could then understand appealing to an unacknowledged authority to be a kind of fallacy. But again, if a "valid" authority says that something is true it, and by "valid" we here mean one that there is reason on all sides to believe to be a genuine authority, then I don't know a system of evidential support on which this authority's statement does not count as a reason in favor of whatever they say.

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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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