"No expert is perfect."
Appeal to Authority Definition
In an appeal to authority, also known as an argument from authority (Latin: argumentum ad verecundiam), it is argued that something is true, because someone of authority (like an expert) says it is true.
The structure of the fallacy looks like this:
- Smith says X is true
- Smith is an expert
- So X must be true
ex. The queen says the earth is flat, the queen knows all, so the Earth must be flat.
In other words, someone claims they are right, because an expert says so. And because the expert says so, it must be true. This is defective induction because no expert is perfect. An expert is never 100% right, all the time.
There is nothing wrong with arguing that what an expert says is true. It however becomes fallacious when arguing that the expert is exempt from criticism & incapable of making mistakes.
Appealing to authority is frequent in common discourse where providing complete evidence is rarely possible, and in many cases is a weak form of evidence rather than a logical fallacy.
Appeal to authority is a logical fallacy of Irrelevant Conclusion (Latin: Ignoratio elenchi), where one argues an irrelevant point to try to prove the point of an issue. When arguing, it is always best to address an issue as directly as possible, rather than rely on or quote an expert.
6 Questions Checklist:
To evaluate the authority's reliability, you must answer to the 6 standards of acceptance:
- Has the authority been identified?
- Is their area of expertise legitimate?
- Does the authority have sufficient expertise in the subject at hand?
- Is the claim made by the authority within their area(s) of expertise?
- Is there sufficient agreement among the other experts in the subject?
- Is the authority significantly biased?
When you are reading or listening to an authority, it is important to keep in mind:
- Am I interpreting this correctly? How might others interpret this differently?
Appeal to Authority Examples (6 Questions)
Has the authority been identified?
In June 2008 Billy Booth wrote:
Scientist's opinions are normally held in high regards. However, failure to mention the names of the scientists, or the organizations they belong to undermines the ability to know whether they are genuine experts or not. Should we believe Billy Booth, solely because the nameless agree with him?
“Here's something to chew on, and I know it will cause some controversy among our readers. Scientists from the US and Europe have announced that genetic material that originated from outer space might prove that "we" originated from some other life form.
This material was found in a meteorite in Australia. Scientists, they say, have actually proven that two bits of coding, called nucleobases, are extraterrestrial.”
Is their area of expertise legitimate?
Sylvia Browne, Psychic Detective & Clairvoyant published this prediction for 2011:
"I predict we can truly say "goodbye" to the common cold in 2009 or 2010. The solution to the common cold involves heat. Keep in mind that the body's first response when we develop a cold is to come down with a fever. Many doctors today no longer rush to push patients to take temperature reducing medications when they come down with a fever, unless the fever is dangerous. They feel the immune system is the patient's best medicine and should be given a chance to fight back. So as the immune system fights a cold with heat, the cure for the common cold certainly may lie in this first signal to heal."
In 1988 the U.S. National Academy of Sciences reported that there is no scientific justification from research conducted over a period of 130 years for the existence of parapsychological phenomena. And according the the Skeptical Inquirer,
"...in the 115 available cases Browne was correct zero times and wrong twenty-five times. Ninety out of the 115 cases have unknown outcomes. A previous examination of thirty-five cases Browne made predictions about was published in Brill’s Content. The magazine concluded: “In twenty-one, the details were too vague to be verified. Of the remaining fourteen, law-enforcement officials or family members involved in the investigations say that Browne had played no useful role.”"
Sylvia Browne's predictions are interesting, but are unreliable because her profession has never been substantiated as legitimate.
Does the authority have sufficient expertise in the subject at hand?
In 2005, Ebay CEO Meg Whitman discussed the company's Chinese subsidiary EachNet:
"We love competition. Absolutely love it. We have from the earliest days. It motivates us. It makes us hungry. It makes us stronger and it makes us very, very determined. We are on a tear to be the undisputed winner in China and the additional $100 million investment we announced last month should be a sign of an unmistakable commitment and an unstoppable determination to win that market."
But by 2007, EachNet had completely closed its operations, overtaken by the Chinese competitor Taobao. Meg Whitman, former executive for DreamWorks, Procter & Gamble, and Hasbro, a Princeton & Harvard graduate, and candidate for governor of California is a foremost expert in business. So why was she so mistaken regarding EachNet?
Whitman did not have the experience in Chinese business to clearly see the cultural differences that would effect EachNet. Peter K. Yu writes about the historical role of copying in ancient China:
"By contrast, eBay China was especially vulnerable to negative fallout from Chinese
counterfeiting. Given eBay’s global platform, any counterfeit seller in China could list goods on
a system that would be displayed on eBay websites around the world. Consequently, the sale of
counterfeits globally on eBay exploded after the company’s expansion into China in 2004.
fact raised a serious dilemma for eBay corporate. The worldwide organization could be subject
to legal actions in the U.S. and Europe because of the availability of these counterfeits in such
regions. Yet if eBay became strict regarding counterfeits, it would lose a significant portion of the Chinese market. Taobao, as a purely Chinese operation, faced no such bind."
Unlike today's Westerners, the Chinese in the imperial past did not consider copying or imitation
a moral offense. Rather, they considered it a 'noble art', a 'time-honored learning process'
through which people manifested respect for their ancestors...
Confucius proudly acknowledged in the Analects that he had “transmitted what was taught
to [him] without making up anything of [his] own."
Whitman is a great American businesswoman. But as she is doing business in China, she needs to be a good Chinese businesswoman too before her claims on Chinese business can be deemed reliable.
Is the claim made by the authority within their area(s) of expertise?In April 2005, David Bellamy wrote an article to New Scientist:
“Further to your coverage of climate change and melting ice in the Himalayas (19 March, p 6), it should be pointed out that glaciers in many other parts of the world are not shrinking but in fact are growing.
Norway's glaciers are growing at a record pace. All 48 glaciers in New Zealand's Southern Alps are growing, the Franz Josef by about 4 metres a day. Pio XI, the largest glacier in the southern hemisphere, and the Perito Moreno Glacier, the largest in Patagonia, are also growing despite the fact that they should be melting because of warm winds zephyr'd from El Niño seas.
Glaciers are real cool in California, where all seven on Mount Shasta are growing apace and three have doubled in size since 1950. Further north, in Washington state, America's youngest glacier in the crater of Mount St Helens holds a record for fastest-growing lump of ...”
Is David Bellamy an authority on this matter? Is the claim made by the authority within their area(s) of expertise?
David is a trained botanist – a branch of science that investigates plant life. He has not studied earth science, the branch of science that includes glaciology. Therefore we can be firm that either the information is not trustworthy or that he obtained it from an authority on the subject.
Mr. Bellamy later cited Robert W Felix as his source. Is Robert Felix an authority on this matter? According to his biography Mr. Felix is a former architect.
The article is no longer persuasive, as neither expert is speaking in their field of expertise.
Reader Pandaemoni writes:
"I do agree with the blog post... that one must be careful that the expert actually have relevant expertise bearing upon the proposition at hand. It also helps to determine, even if the expert has the needed expertise, whether the position stated by that expert comes from first hand evidence or is itself hearsay. Being hearsay diminishes (but need not always demolish) the usefulness of the expert's opinion."
Due to a growing number of submissions, I decided to give this section its own page.
Is there sufficient agreement among the other experts in the subject?
In the March 2009 issue of the journal Environmental Geosciences, a hypothesis was presented by Clemson University researchers James Castle, and John Rodgers that toxic algae plays a major role in mass extinctions - including the death of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
"The toxins tend to become stronger and released when there's something that stresses the algae, [such as] a change in salinity of the water, a change in temperature," said Castle. "There could have been an impact or volcanic eruption, and that may have stressed the algae, [and] by changing the conditions, they released toxins that kill the organisms."
The theory is novel and interesting, but do other experts agree? Not yet. Mathew E. Clapham, a marine paleoecologist that studies Permian-Triassic extinction said this:
Clapham goes on to say:
"In all cases, the microbial sediments post-date the extinction, so it seems unlikely that they were the actual cause,"
Fredrick Rich, a geologist at Georgia Southern University said this:
"Because cyanobacteria have been around for most of the history of life on Earth, it's virtually certain that there were times in the past when there were local die-offs due to cyanobacterial toxins... But to demonstrate that it was a global event, or something significant enough, I'm not sure that that's likely."
"Who knows what the causes were, or might be, for a species' extinction?... It is all, and is absolutely, and without equivocation, speculation to decide how something or someone died."
Understandably, Castle and Rogers must convince their colleagues before they can become authorities on the matter. The hypothesis, intriguing as it may be, must be taken with a grain of salt until the disputes are settled.
Is the authority significantly biased?
Speech to the Reichstag, January 1939:
Whether it was a childhood revolt against his dad, or the belief that Jewish people stole victory from World War 1, it is clear Adolph Hitler's bias led him to become the world's most infamous anti-Semite. Hitler's unabated hate exposed a degree of bias that render his claims on Judaism notoriously inaccurate.
"In the course of my life I have very often been a prophet, and have usually been ridiculed for it. During the time of my struggle for power it was in the first instance only the Jewish race that received my prophecies with laughter when I said that I would one day take over the leadership of the State, and with it that of the whole nation, and that I would then among other things settle the Jewish problem. Their laughter was uproarious, but I think that for some time now they have been laughing on the other side of their face. Today I will once more be a prophet: if the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevizing of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!"
Examples in Dialogue
Should the US invade Iraq?
Bob: I don't think the US should go in!
Sera: You are wrong. After UNSCOM left Iraq in 1998 the Iraqi weapons program continued to sophisticate at an alarming rate. Many Iraqi defectors have pledged this fact. They are producing weapons of mass destruction and we must stop them. Listen to Colin Powell, on February 5, 2003 he said "We know that Saddam Hussein is determined to keep his weapons of mass destruction, is determined to make more." Dick Cheny, Tony Blair, and many other very knowledgeable people have all agreed that Iraq has WMDs!
Bob: You make a good point. But do you understand that the defectors, Powell, Cheny, and Blair could all be making mistakes?
Sera: That's impossible!
Bob: They are not perfect, are they?
Do miracles exist?
Sera: I'm not sure I can believe in miracles without strong evidence!
Padre Pio and the Curé d'Ars
There is strong evidence. There are myriads of great miracle workers like
. They have been studied so exhaustively that they are strong reasons to believe. Especially Nobel Prize winning author Sigrid Undset converted to Catholicism because of her extensive studies on Medieval mystics.
Sera: Sigrid Undset converted to Catholicism after the outbreak of World War 1 and a divorce. Perhaps she was emotionally unstable at the time which upset her rationality. Furthermore, her credibility from the Nobel Prize was in Literature, "principally for her powerful descriptions of Northern life during the Middle Ages" Which is not very relevant to the question of whether miracles exist.
Sera: What is the most convincing miracle to you?
Bob: The apparition of Mary that appeared in Cairo in the 1960's. It occured in a church called Zeitoun and for at least a year a million people witnessed it including international media and the president Nasser of Egypt! How can you explain the president himself vouching for its truth?
Sera: Isn't it possible the apparition was an elaborate hoax set up by the church to encourage more visitors?
Bob: How so?
Sera: As nobody was allowed on the rooftop, there could have been costumes and lights to illuminate the actress portraying Mary. Much in the same way as a magician's show in Vegas fools millions of viewers, isn't is possible Nasser of Egypt could have himself been fooled?
What are the best movies?
Bob: I need a new movie to watch. What is the best movie?
Sera: That's easy, IMBD.com has a list of the 250 most popular films of all time. They also show you which movies have won the most Academy Awards.
Bob: But popularity among the IMBD audience does not equate to quality in my eyes. And some would argue the Academy Awards are biased as they never choose comedies for best film, and I love comedies!
Sera: In that case I think you should rent Norbit! It really fits your personality.
Continue to: User-Submissions
Do you understand?
Can you catch Colbert's "Appeal to authority?"
Which of the 6 standards of acceptance is TV Show Futurama referring to?