Argument from Authority Fallacy

A formal fallacy in which it is argued that because a perceived authority figure (or figures) believes a proposition (relevant to their authority) to be true, that proposition must therefore be true.  This is also known as an appeal to authority. This fallacy occurs when person Y claims that person X is experienced in the topic at hand. Therefore, whatever person X believes is the truth. Alternatively, this can also occur if person Y claims themselves to be the authority, therefore whatever person Y believes is true.


This fallacy can be difficult to avoid because we generally have good reason to believe authority or expert figures.  Frequently, authorities do make accurate claims. However, it is important to realize that the validity of an argument has nothing to do with the person making the claim.  Arguments must be based on evidence. However, there are times when the use of authority is not fallacious. Parents often use their authority to convince children to behave.  The classic, “Because I said so,” response to a child’s questioning is in some ways an argument from authority. Does this mean parents are committing a logical grievance? Do we need parents to prove to their children that sticking their fingers in a power socket is dangerous?  No, we think using authority in situations like this is warranted. When talking about science, however, the use of authority to justify a claim is viewed with suspicion.

Logical Form

  • If a person is an authority on a topic, their claims about that topic are true.

  • Authority, A, claims proposition P is true.

  • P is within the topic that A is an authority on.

  • Therefore, P is true.

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Examples


The following abbreviations are used in the examples below:

PN = The Nth premise for N = 1,2,3,…. (e.g., P1 is the first premise, P2 is the second premise, etc.)

C = Conclusion

1)

P1: Albert Einstein was an expert physicist. 

P2: He came up with the theory of relativity.

C: Therefore, the theory of relativity is true.


Explanation: While Einstein was indeed an expert physicist, earning a Nobel for his work on the photoelectric effect, we shouldn’t believe something just because he said it is true.  There are reasons to believe Einstein was correct: his theory explains the orbit of Mercury, GPS systems work, and gravitational waves have been observed [1,2,3]. All of these reasons validate support for relativity without reliance on the authority of Einstein.


2)

P1: We are the largest and primary authority on anything gun related in the world. 

C: We know that guns are not the issue.

-NRA on rates of gun violence

[Fictionalization]


Explanation: This is an example in which the group uses their own authority as a basis to argue that guns are not the issue. Arguments always need to be grounded in facts and evidence.


3)

P1: The current consensus at NASA is that aliens don’t live on the moon.

C: This is good enough reason to assume that there are no aliens on the moon.

Explanation:  This is actually NOT an appeal to authority.  The conclusion is being taken as a working assumption. This working assumption implies that it is corrigible.  This is called a defeasible argument and also known as deferring to authority.  A defeasible argument acknowledges that the conclusion could be wrong, but none-the-less gives enough reason to provisionally believe the conclusion to be true [4].


4)

P1: Ken Ham would’t lie to me.

C: The Earth is only 6,000 years old.


Explanation:  This is an appeal to authority and could also be an example of appeal to false authority.  Ken Ham earned a degree in applied sciences with an emphasis in environmental biology. He became a high school teacher after graduating, not a professional scientist [5].  While he did earn a degree in science, that alone does not make him a credible expert on planetary evolution.

Conclusion

It is important to be able to recognize when someone is using authority as the premise of an argument.  The trustworthiness of an authority can provide corrigible reason to believe their claims, but should not be viewed as a fully formed valid argument.  The claims made by authorities should be used as a means to focus our attention as we do our own research as they can help point us to the relevant data. Arguments in which the conclusion relies upon the claims of an authority are invalid and should be rejected, which includes your own arguments as well. As a practitioner of the philosophy of Critical Thinking, it is imperative that you scrutinize your own arguments just as thoroughly as you would an opposing argument.


References

[1] Sutter, Paul. Why Relativity's True: The Evidence for Einstein's Theory. Space.com (2018).

[2] Will, Clifford M. Einstein's Relativity and Everyday Life. Physics Central, American Physical Society (2019).

[3] Was Einstein Right About Strong Gravity? Using Gravitational Waves from Merging Black Holes to Test General Relativity. LIGO Scientific Collaboration (2016).

[4] Defeasible Reasoning. Wikipedia.

[5] Ken Ham. Wikipedia.