Argument from authority

by Tim Harding

The Argument from Authority is often misunderstood to be a fallacy in all cases, when this is not necessarily so. The argument becomes a fallacy only when used deductively, or where there is insufficient inductive strength to support the conclusion of the argument.

The most general form of the deductive fallacy is:

Premise 1: Source A says that statement p is true.
Premise 2: Source A is authoritative.
Conclusion: Therefore, statement p is true.

Even when the source is authoritative, this argument is still deductively invalid because the premises can be true, and the conclusion false (i.e. an authoritative claim can turn out to be false).[1] This fallacy is known as ‘Appeal to Authority’.

The fallacy is compounded when the source is not an authority on the relevant subject matter. This is known as Argument from false or misleading authority.

Although reliable authorities are correct in judgments related to their area of expertise more often than laypersons, they can occasionally come to the wrong judgments through error, bias or dishonesty. Thus, the argument from authority is at best a probabilistic inductive argument rather than a deductive  argument for establishing facts with certainty. Nevertheless, the probability sometimes can be very high – enough to qualify as a convincing cogent argument. For example, astrophysicists tell us that black holes exist. The rest of us are in no position to either verify or refute this claim. It is rational to accept the claim as being true, unless and until the claim is shown to be false by future astrophysicists (the first of whom would probably win a Nobel Prize for doing so). An alternative explanation that astrophysicists are engaged in a worldwide conspiracy to deceive us all would be implausible and irrational.

“…if an overwhelming majority of experts say something is true, then any sensible non-expert should assume that they are probably right.” [2]

Thus there is no fallacy entailed in arguing that the advice of an expert in his or her field should be accepted as true, at least for the time being, unless and until it is effectively refuted. A fallacy only arises when it is claimed or implied that the expert is infallible and that therefore his or her advice must be true as a deductive argument, rather than as a matter of probability.  Criticisms of cogent arguments from authority[3] can actually be a rejection of expertise, which is a fallacy of its own.

The Argument from Authority is sometimes mistakenly confused with the citation of references, when done to provide published evidence in support of the point the advocate is trying to make. In these cases, the advocate is not just appealing to the authority of the author, but providing the source of evidence so that readers can check the evidence themselves if they wish. Such citations of evidence are not only acceptable reasoning, but are necessary to avoid plagiarism.

Expert opinion can also constitute evidence and is often accepted as such by the courts.  For example, if you describe your symptoms to your doctor and he or she provides an opinion that you have a certain illness, that opinion is evidence that you have that illness. It is not necessary for your doctor to cite references when giving you his or her expert opinion, let alone convince you with a cogent argument. In some cases, expert opinion can carry sufficient inductive strength on its own.


[1] If the premises can be true, but the conclusion can be false, then the argument is logically invalid.

[2] Lynas, Mark (29 April 2013) Time to call out the anti-GMO conspiracy theory.

[3] An inductive argument based on strong evidence is said to be cogent.

4 Comments

Filed under Logical fallacies

4 responses to “Argument from authority

  1. “…there is nothing wrong with appealing to authority, if there are reasons to trust such authority. I’m sure you’d rather have your teeth fixed by a licensed dentist than by your neighbor (unless your neighbor happens to be a licensed dentist).” – Prof. Massimo Pigliucci,

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  2. I’m not suggesting that expert opinions should be immune from scrutiny; but I am suggesting that the opinions of experts in the field in question are more likely to be true than opinions of non-experts in that field.

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  3. robert bloom

    “`The value of opinion evidence rests not in the conclusion reached but in the factors considered and the reasoning employed. [Citations.] Where an expert bases his conclusion upon assumptions which are not supported by the record, upon matters which are not reasonably relied upon by other experts, or upon factors which are speculative, remote or conjectural, then his conclusion has no evidentiary value.’ [Citation.]” (In re Lockheed Litigation Cases, supra, 115 Cal.App.4th at p. 563, 10 Cal.Rptr.3d 34.)

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  4. An instance of this fallacy was in the media coverage of Al Gore and Tim Flannery climate change grand wizards, Al Gore has no scientific qualifications, whilst Flannery is a professor of Palaeontology, they not a climate scientists. It is most unlikely that they would have received as much media coverage if they were no high profile
    individuals.

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