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appeal to authority

The appeal to authority is a fallacy of irrelevance when the authority being cited is not really an authority. E.g., to appeal to Einstein to support a point in religion would be to make an irrelevant appeal to authority. Einstein was an expert in physics, not religion. However, even if he had been a rabbi, to appeal to Rabbi Einstein as evidence that a god exists would still be an irrelevant appeal to authority because religion is by its very nature a controversial field. Not only do religious experts disagree about fundamental matters of religion, many people believe that religion itself is false. Appealing to non-experts as if they were experts, or appealing to experts in controversial fields, as evidence for a belief, are equally irrelevant to establishing the correctness of the belief.

The irrelevant appeal to authority is a type of genetic fallacy, attempting to judge a belief by its origin rather than by the arguments for and against the belief. If the belief originated with an authoritative person, then the belief is held to be true. However, even authoritative persons can hold false beliefs.

Appeals to authority do not become relevant when instead of a single authority one cites several experts who believe something is true. If the authorities are speaking outside of their field of expertise or the subject is controversial, piling up long lists of supporters does not make the appeal any more relevant. On any given controversial matter there are likely to be equally competent experts on different sides of the issue. If a controversial claim could be established as true because it is supported by experts, then contradictory beliefs would be true, which is absurd. The truth or falsity, reasonableness or unreasonableness, of a belief must stand independently of those who accept or reject the belief.

Finally, it should be noted that it is not irrelevant to cite an authority to support a claim one is not competent to judge. However, in such cases the authority must be speaking in his or her own field of expertise and the claim should be one that other experts in the field do not generally consider to be controversial. In a field such as physics, it is reasonable to believe a claim about something in physics made by a physicist that most other physicists consider to be true. Presumably, they believe it because there is strong evidence in support of it. Such beliefs could turn out to be false, of course, but it should be obvious that no belief becomes true on the basis of who believes it.

further reading

books

Browne, M. Neil & Stuart M. Keeley. Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking (Prentice Hall, 1997).

Carroll, Robert Todd. Becoming a Critical Thinker - A Guide for the New Millennium (Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2000).

Damer. T. Edward. Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments 4th edition (Wadsworth Pub Co, 2001).

Kahane, Howard. Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric: The Use of Reason in Everyday Life, 8th edition (Wadsworth, 1997).

Moore, Brooke Noel. Critical Thinking (Mayfield Publishing Company, 2000).

website

Nizkor on the appeal to authority

Last updated 14-jan-14

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