Thank you to everyone who has submitted their examples on the argument from authority fallacy! 


Thank you reader Pandaemoni for contributing a perfect opening to the subject:

"The problem that people do sometimes miss about logical fallacies is that, starting with a proposition of uncertain veracity, sometimes things like an appeal to authority provide evidence in favor of the statement. Not that such evidence makes the statement conclusively true, but rather just more reliable than the statement would have been without that evidence."

Belief is not a decision, it is a reaction to evidence.  Appeals to authority can provide weak evidence, or can turn arguments fallacious.  However, in Law appeals to authority are accepted as critical evidence, and scientific papers often cite and quote authorities.  So much depends on the context to determine whether the appeal provides strong, weak, or fallacious evidence.  Thus the important factor is in judgement, not in simply labeling something as a logical fallacy.

Too often people throw around the term "appeal to authority" as if they had identified a criminal and put them away without further regard.  But it is never that simple, and often the fallacy is falsely labeled.  Martin Brock does an excellent job at filtering those labels in stating that "semantic naming conventions are not fallacies."  Thanks for the contribution Martin.

"An appeal to authority is not fallacious unless the appeal purports to substantiate an empirical point and cites an authority not qualified to testify on the point. Appeals to authority are particularly germane on essentially semantic points. Words mean only what people mean by them, but words can have diverse meaning, and authorities often provide these meanings.

Newton redefined "energy". Einstein redefined "gravity". Bohr and others redefined "particle". Modern physicists could have invented new terminology instead, but they did not. For various reasons, they could not. The early authorities on quantum theory are essentially the only reason we now use the word "particle" in its quantum mechanical sense. An appeal to their authority is the only possible evidence for the "correctness" of this usage.

So when Einstein says that he believes in the "God" of Spinoza, he appeals to an authority, but he commits no fallacy, and when others cite Einstein's usage of "God" as authoritative within a particular theological denomination, they don't commit a fallacy other. Reform Jews routinely cite both. Systematic naming conventions are not fallacies. They are denominations.

When someone calls an appeal to Spinoza or Tillich, for a particular usage of "God", a fallacious appeal to authority, he often commits the fallacy himself. His objection is not to Tillich but to Tillich's denomination. The objection itself essentially appeals to other authorities, like Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell. It asserts that Falwell's "God" is the only legitimate usage of the word and that another usage is fallacious because it is not authoritative."

Jeff D
 writes an important submission on distinguishing different forms of the argument.

"When they are misused, appeals to authority can be a weak or even a fallacious form of argument.

But whether a statement by an "authority" has probative value as evidence, and how much probative value it has, depends on (1) the content and nature of the proposition being advanced or supported, (2) the knowledge, intellect, and skill of the "authority," and (3) whether the "authority" has personal experience in situations that are similar or pertinent to situations in which the proposition being advanced is claimed to apply.

For example, consider a skilled surgeon who testifies before a pre-suit medical review panel on the issue of whether another surgeon committed malpractice (failed to conform his or her conduct to the standard of care for the type of operation and the condition being treated). Or an expert on fires and explosions or metal fatigue who testifies about the cause of a fire or the failure of a metal part. The rules of evidence in the U. S. federal courts and in most U. S. states allow some factual allegations to be supported or proven by resorting to published treatises, almanacs, weather bureau reports, encyclopedias . . . . another form of an argument for authority.

In the realm of "the law," the opinions of experts -- authorities -- are offered as powerfully persuasive evidence, and the factual basis for experts' opinions is tested, questioned, attacked, picked apart. A growing body of case law has arisen from the Supreme Court's Daubert decision, which is generally regarded as having raised the bar on what kind of "scientific evidence" -- which necessarily involves presentations by experts or authorities -- will be admissible, in order to keep "junk science" out of the courtroom.

So, there are areas in human culture where arguments from authority are used, are believed, and work. But there are also safeguards to help determine whether an alleged "expert" is actually an expert and has done his or her homework.

Outside the law and courtrooms, arguments from authority are misused, such as in the form of quotations from long-dead, famous scientists or philosophers or politicians. Such quotations or out-of-context attributions don't necessarily support or prove anything, and paradoxically, I will close with one from Leonardo daVinci:

"Whoever in argument adduces authority uses not intellect but memory.""

Daubert is a rule about the admissibility of "expert witness" testimony as evidence.  Read more about it here:

Anonymous writes about her funny first-graders.

"I teach first grade in a low income area of the South. First graders have opinions about everything.

Student: Barack Obama is a bad president.
Me: Why do you think so?
Student: He's letting all the muslims into our country.
Me: Who told you that?
Student: My dad

Student2: Christians can't dance.
Me: Says who?
Student2: My dad

By the way, the second student's dad is a preacher. So double authority for the kid, dad and preacher. Poor kid was afraid to dance the chicken dance."

Thanks Quantum Quack for reminding us on the dangers of this fallacy:

"You could use Military training as an example where by soldiers have to accept the competancy of their superiors or get in to trouble if they don't. This would highlight the dangers of accepting the appeal to authority. Remembering WW1 disasterous military campaigns such as Gallipoli. [Australian forces] and the incredible mistakes made by their superiors that lead to the inevitable slaughter. Thankfully the military have taken critical assessment more seriously. Even the conflict in Irak beggars a mention...i.e. WMD's not found."

Read more about the Gallipoli Campaign:

Asguard writes about appeal to authority and medicine:

"If you read the ARC guidelines for arrest they state for adrenaline "no evidence for use, recommended" this is because there aren't even animal studies to support its use, it's based on expert opinion. The push to evidence based Med is very recent I might point out, previously it was all down to expert opinions and personal experience. Myself, I'm a supporter of evidence based Med and guidelines for treatment but there is a strong movement in Med against it because its slow to change anything, it ignores personal experience and case by case treatment. That's the argument anyway."

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