Appeal to Authority Logical Fallacy

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An appeal to authority logical fallacy falsely uses an authority as evidence. When a good or bad authority says something, them, saying something, is not the evidence.

Also Known As:

  • an argument from authority, “ipse dixit”
  • appeal to unqualified authority
  • an argument from false authority

Logical Form:

According to expert authority 1, X is true; therefore, X is true.

Latin:

argumentum ad verecundiam

Examples:

1: “Alex Jones says the government is putting chemicals developed by the Pentagon in water and turning frogs gay; therefore, it is true.”

2: “I know Nazi’s started Planned Parenthood because Breitbart.com says so.”

Personal Comment: By the way, I despise Alex Jones and Breitbart, not for their viewpoint, but because they are bad authorities. They knowingly tell lies over and over to their followers as an authority — as if they are gospel. I am so disappointed and disgusted by those bad authorities I actually despise them. I’m also disappointed in those that blindly follow bad authorities, but I understand that logic and reason are scarce in our society, and many let emotion skew their reality. (More on good and bad authorities below.)

Appeal to Authority Overview

The appeal to authority fallacy is one of the Top 10 Logical Fallacies. A logical fallacy is an error in reasoning making an argument invalid. Logical fallacies avoid discussing the issue directly usually because the person using the fallacy either does not know a valid argument, or they do not really wish to discuss it. The fact that someone uses a logical fallacy does not mean they’re wrong about the argument, it just means they have yet to make a valid argument.

The appeal to authority logical fallacy is perhaps the most important fallacy to understand and to know how to handle. Why? Because we all use authorities to shortcut deciding what is true, and what is not. Why? Because it’s faster to rely on an expert, and, quite frankly, very few people are good at reasoning all the time. Knowing the logical fallacies well will help you reason better. After all, one of the few things you have control over in your life is what you allow into your mind. The ability to recognize valid and invalid arguments as well as good and bad authorities will help you verify good information and filter out the bad.

How do you know your authorities are good authorities? Are all their arguments correct? Do you assume they all are just because your authority said so? If not, how do you know which arguments they make are valid and which are invalid?

The “Appeal to Authority” logical fallacy identifies a common invalid argument. When someone or entity, authority or not, says something, them, saying something, is not the evidence. To determine if something is a valid argument, you have to agree with the underlying facts and evidence. It is not a valid argument when someone says, “This thing is true because so-and-so said so.” You have to dive into why so-and-so came to their conclusion.

Why do people use authorities as arguments?

I think the fact that experts are not always right is contributing to many otherwise-smart people believing obviously-false things. Let’s explore two statements, one supporting a valid argument and one supporting an invalid argument, and how this logical fallacy explains some of the reason why people believe obviously false things.

Statement 1: A Trusted Authority Saves Time

Take the following argument:

“Neil deGrasse Tyson says string theory is not yet true, therefore string theory is unproven.”

In this case, the argument is invalid. When Neil says “string theory is not yet true”. It’s an appeal to authority logical fallacy. Just because Neil said it, does not make it true. But, in this case, until another authority tells me otherwise, I’m going to accept Neil’s conclusion because I’m only interested in string theory if and when it’s true. Until then, I want to spend my time on other issues. I “trust” Neil, but I’m open to challenges. Meaning, if another authority, or perhaps anyone, says string theory is true and points me to an argument, I’ll review the argument to see if it’s valid. If it’s not valid, I still trust Neil. If Neil was wrong, I evaluate why and consider dropping him as a good authority, or at least trust him less. As Reagan famously said, “trust but verify”.

I then might adopt the following lifestyle argument to guide me on how to use up my time:

“String theory is not yet true, I do not wish to read up on unproven theories, therefore I will not read up on string theory until it is true.”

Over Trust of Authorities

Putting aside the good vs. bad authorities aspect for a bit, let’s take celiac disease as an example. It’s a good idea for you to stop eating wheat because you believe a health-authority when they say you should stop eating wheat because it causes you health problems. This is especially true if that heath-authority is a doctor and the doctor tested you for celiac disease. However, if the health-authority is not a doctor, or you have not been tested, should you stop eating wheat? I think that depends on how much you trust your authority, and whether or not there are any downsides. How much do you like wheat? What are the benefits of eating wheat compared to the downsides of avoiding it?

Good Authority Example:

I currently consider the CDC a trusted source, a good authority, so I tend to believe statements like the following,

“The CDC says there is no link between vaccines and autism, therefore vaccines do not cause autism.”

Although I tend to believe statements from the CDC, the statement itself is not a valid argument. Even though they are a good authority using a scientific process, they still might be wrong. If someone says to me, “that’s an appeal to authority logical fallacy”, I have to agree with them because it is. At this point, I can put forth the valid argument supporting that statement (perhaps a link), or I can ask the other person if they have an argument supporting a different conclusion.

I think it is fair to say you can believe a good or trusted authority, but you should be open to both reviewing the overall truthfulness of an authority, and questioning any specific conclusion.

Although I personally tend to believe what the CDC says, I am open to any valid argument that links vaccines to autism, but, so far, I have seen no compelling evidence. My assumption is that the CDC uses a scientific process to come up with conclusions. Furthermore, I believe that anyone can prove them wrong with a single valid argument. Finally, I believe the CDC will correct themselves if proven wrong and evolve to a new truth once presented with a valid argument.

Now, the problem. How do you identify a good authority? And, most of us are too lazy or lack time to actually read the argument the good authority sends us so we don’t have a valid argument to present when challenged. Not even a link. Usually. So, we’re left with asking the other person to give us a valid argument against the CDC conclusion. But, if they simply present another bad authority, we are in a bad place. We both are relying on which authority we “like” better. That’s not a logical, nor reasonable approach. A good authority is good because they are correct, and a bad authority is bad because they are wrong.

Using Trusted Authorities Saves Time

Why do we trust authorities? One good reason might be that it saves us time and energy. It’s a lot of work to read every study on everything that impacts our lives. We need good authorities to tell us what is true, and what is false. If we choose good authorities, then we can simply accept their conclusions and move on. By relying on good authorities, we can accomplish more and live a better life. Scientifically, that’s ok only if you are willing to look behind the curtain when confronted.

Left, Right, and Other Viewpoints

Just for the record, left or right bias does not bother me and I encourage you to not let it bother you. FACTS matter. A viewpoint is valid so long as it is based on facts and reality. One can disagree, but it’s valid so long as the underlying facts are true. Anyone who repeats lies after they are proven wrong is a bad authority. NPR is a good authority. When they make mistakes, they correct the error and most importantly, stop repeating the mistake. Why does this matter? Because if you are basing your viewpoint on bad facts, there is no way we can agree. We must first agree on the facts.

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