The appeal to authority fallacy, also known as argument from authority, is a type of logical fallacy that refers to the different ways of fallaciously using the statements or opinions of authority figures in order to support a conclusion.
For instance, someone may assume that something must be true if a so-called expert believes it to be true, and no other evidence is needed.
This flawed line of reasoning is important to understand as it is commonly used in many different domains and types of discussions, both online and offline. In this article, we’ll explain in detail how the fallacy and some of its sub-fallacies work, as well as when an argument from authority is legitimate.
What Is the Appeal to Authority?
As stated above, the appeal to authority fallacy occurs when one misuses the testimonies of perceived authorities in an attempt to back up a certain claim or position.
There are a number of ways this can occur. One way, which is likely the most common type of this fallacy, works by relying upon the testimonies of irrelevant or poor experts. This is known as the appeal to false authority. A simple example would be:
- “Albert Einstein, one of the smartest people ever, said that the best and healthiest breakfast is bacon and eggs, so it must be true.”
Einstein was undoubtedly smart, but he is not an authoritative source on what is a healthy breakfast: his area of expertise was in a completely different field.
Another faulty argument from authority would be when someone asserts that climate change cannot be real because one environmental scientist, who has been studying climate change, says it is not real. This testimony from an authority, in this case, doesn’t provide strong inductive support for the conclusion since the scientific consensus (97% of climate scientists) agrees that climate change is real, and is likely caused by human activities.
Note that, although arguments from authority can be fallacious, they can also be completely reasonable and non-fallacious. Thus, it’s important to understand the differences: we shouldn’t dismiss the statements of valid authorities or the scientific consensus on false grounds. More of this soon.
This particular fallacy is an informal fallacy and belongs to their sub-category of fallacies of relevance. Even more specifically, it is seen as a type of genetic fallacy.
- Informal fallacies refer to arguments containing weak, irrelevant, or false evidence that weakens the conclusion or renders it incorrect. They stem from an error in
reasoning rather than an error in the argument’s logical structure.
- Fallacies of relevance occur when the evidence is not relevant to the conclusion, and thus doesn’t provide adequate reasons to believe that the conclusion is truthful.
- Genetic fallacy occurs when a claim is judged solely because of its source, rather than on the merits of the claim.
Legitimate Arguments From Authority
Making a claim based on the opinions of experts is by no means always unreasonable or fallacious. In many issues, we have to rely upon the testimonies of relevant experts and scientific consensus – that is, the collective position of the scientists in a particular field of study.
For instance, for someone who is not a medical professional, it’s a better option to seek a medical expert’s advice about their medical issues than do what they themselves believe to be correct.
Relevant experts can provide us with strong reasons to believe that something is true due to their experience, training, knowledge, and access to more information. They are able to evaluate information better and put more compelling evidence and arguments together than a non-expert could. Consequently, when someone makes a claim that is in accordance with the views of the experts, it’s also supported with all the evidence the experts are relying upon.
As such, there are certain requirements that should be met for an argument from authority to be legitimate:
- The authority is an acknowledged expert in the field under consideration.
- The statement of the authority is relevant to their field of expertise.
- There is a general agreement among experts in the field under consideration.
However, note that even the views of valid experts cannot guarantee that something is true; in terms of logic and argumentation, even experts can be wrong and their testimonies can only suggest that something is likely to be true, not that it is necessarily true. As Alfred Sidgwick, a British logician, wrote in his Fallacies: A View of Logic from the Practical Side:
A man may have all the wisdom and learning of an Aristotle, and yet be quite mistaken on a given point. The recognition of this fact tends to make us value conclusions more on their merits and less on the merits of those who advance them.Fallacies: A view of Logic from the Practical Side (1883) by Alfred Sidgwick.
Keep in mind that appeals to authority deal with inductive arguments, meaning arguments that are meant to provide strong enough evidence to support a probable truth of the conclusion. As such, the logical form of a non-fallacious argument from authority would be:
- Authorities on a certain issue are usually correct.
- Authorities on the issue have a general agreement that X is correct.
- X is likely correct.
Fallacious Appeals to Authority
Generally, a fallacious appeal to authority is one that fails to meet the requirements of a legitimate one: the authority is not a real expert in the relevant area of knowledge, their statement is not concerned with the actual issue, or their views go against the general agreement among experts in that field of study.
Let’s look at various ways this fallacy may occur.
This is likely the most common way of erroneously citing (supposed) experts. It occurs when someone uses the words of poor or irrelevant authorities as evidence for a claim. In such a case, the authorities are unqualified or their expertise is not relevant to the argument being made.
A typical example of this fallacy would be almost any celebrity endorsement in advertising.
Against the Consensus
When an expert’s views are contradictory to the consensus (or general agreement) within a field of study, their testimony can only provide weak evidence.
As seen in the example earlier, if 97% of climate scientists say that climate change is real, it is unreasonable to make a conclusion based on the beliefs of the 3% who disagree.
Ipse dixit, which is Latin for “he himself said it”, is a term that refers to a situation where someone fallaciously uses themselves as an authority in an attempt to prove that something is true.
For example, a patient asserts that their doctor’s opinion about their condition is wrong since “it is their body, so they must know better than doctors”.
Appeal to Unnamed Authorities
It’s fallacious to make a claim based on authorities’ opinions that cannot be verified. This type of claim often appeals vaguely to some unnamed experts.
For example, someone claims that “most dentists say toothbrush X is the best kind of toothbrush for you, so it must be true”. If this is the only proof they offer, and we are unable to verify if it’s actually correct, we don’t have real reasons to believe it’s truthfulness.