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Appeal to authority

a potentially defeasible argument in which, instead of bringing forward factual arguments, one simply refers to the statement of an authority.

Other names

  • Argument from authority
  • Argumentum ad verecundiam
  • Ipse dixit!

Description

There are many situation in which it is a good idea to take the opinion of an authority seriously: for example, because of their medical training, doctors can speak from a position of authority when it comes to matters of health, and one should not lightly disregard their advice – at least in the case of serious illnesses.

However, also experts are not immune to error, and there are numerous examples where the opinions of authorities have subsequently turned out to be wrong.

That is of course not a reason to reject the opinions of experts on principle, but an indication that the mere fact that an expert expresses a certain opinion is not sufficient proof that this opinion is correct.

This applies all the more if the experts contradict each other, for example because there are different opinions among them on the specific question.

Ultimately, it is necessary to weigh the possible knowledge advantage that an authority has against the importance of questioning authority. Under no circumstances, however, should one be tempted to cherry-pick and believe only those authorities who confirm one’s own preconceived opinion and ignore others.

When is a reference to authority really a defeasible argument?

No superior knowledge

It follows from the above that the statement of an authority is generally a defeasible argument if it is not based on a position of superior know­ledge over the parti­ci­pants in the dis­cussion.

For example, when discussion medical questions: while refering to the opinion of a medical doctor is certainly a trump card in a discussion among lay­people, the same references does not count as “based on superior knowledge” when the discussion is among medical professionals, which all have had similar training and education. Depending on the specific specialisations and experiences, it may even be representing a weaker position.

False authority

In the worst case, the alleged authority referred to is not really authoritive in this situation at all. This is probably by far the most common fallacy in discussions on the Internet. For this reason, a whole separate article is devoted to these forms of defeasible argument:  Argument from false authority.

Dispute among experts

There always exist different expert opinions in every field of science and on almost every topic, and it is virtually impossible for outsiders to tell to what extent the arguments put forward by one expert are actually more accurate and credible than those of the other.

Without a very good knowledge of the subject area, it is also impossible to assess whether one expert may be an outsider in that subject, while others may have the vast majority of their peers behind them.

For these reasons, scientific discourse should be conducted in scientific publications, rather than in the press or on social media.

Note: The fact that debates among scientists are carried out in the open scientific publications also has the consequence that it is possible to find some scientific paper supporting practically any point of view. Without a deeper engagement with the subject in question, it is practically impossible for outsiders to assess whether the arguments in a publication are really valid or perhaps have long since been refuted.

Discussion about norms

Even normative authorities such as legal texts or technical specifications have a history of creation and often also of revision. If the discussion is about whether and how such rules should be established or changed, then a simple reference to the status quo is not helpful.

Reversed appeal to authority

A variant of the appeal to authority argument is to reject a position simply because it does not come from an expert. This can takes the form of an ad hominem argument.

In this form, expertness is usually defined solely in terms of formal professional training or reputation. An example would be a statement like the following:

XYZ can’t know this, because he didn't study that!

In most situations, the question by whom it is brought forward is irrelevant for the validity of an argument – this applies in the negative sense just as much as in the positive. And just as experts may be wrong (at least occasionally), lay people may also have correct insights.

However, while the mere fact that a position is put forward by an outsider is not a reason to reject it, one should always look critically at the evidence put forward to see if it is really conclusive.

Note: if a lay person’s opinion is opposed to that of an expert, it is a good first idea to give more credence to the expert. Then it remains to be investigated if there are other reasons to revise this first assessment.

Justified use

Examples of situations in which an appeal to authority is generrally justified.

Normative authorities

Certain authorities have normative powers with regards to a subject of discussion. In other words, something becomes a fact by the power of thesse authorities saying so. These include, but are not limited to, legal texts, court rulings, technical specifications, and – depending on one’s point of view – possibly certain religious institutions. In this case, of course, a discussion is idle. The word of this authority is – in some cases even quite literally – law.

A: Hit and run is a punishable offence in the UK!
B: Who says so?
A: It’s in the Road Traffic Act 1988, Section 170.

Since the law is put into place by a decision of the UK Parliament, which has normative authority to pass such legislation, the reference to such an autority is justified.

The same applies to other institutions that have a decision-making power. Such an institution is, for example, the parents, who are allowed to define certain rules with regards to their children. Anyone who has children of their own is probably familiar with discussions such as the following example:

Child: Why do I have to go to bed already?
Father: Because me and your mother have decided that 8 o’clock is bedtime for you.

Determining bedtime is part of the normative competence of parents and, accordingly, referring to it is enough to end this discussion (this doesn’t – and should’t – stop children from questioning such decisions).

Different to some other languages (notably French) there is no authority that can define the “proper” grammatical and orthographical rules of the English language. However, it is safe to assume that the publishers of dictionaries and school books have gathered a good amount of expert knowledge in which spellings and orthographic rules are suitable and generally understood by other speakers of the language.

Clear knowledge advantage

Furthermore, a reference to an authority is justified if that authority has a significantly greater knowledge of the subject than the participants in the discussion.

For example, one should first assume that a licensed physician, after many years of training and practical experience, has a knowledge advantage over most patients – even those with an interest in medicine – that should be taken seriously.

A: Why are you taking antibiotics? They do more harm than good.
B: Because my doctor prescribed them to me to fight an infection.

Even though – as discussed above – doctors can be mis­taken and have different approaches to treat certain dis­eases, a doctor’s re­com­men­da­tion initially weighs much more heavily (until proven other­wise) than any lay opinion on the same subject.

It should be noted at this point that there are re­pre­sen­ta­tives of certain alternative medical pro­fes­sions who like to claim to be authorities on medical issues and may also have a certain knowledge advantage over laypersons, but who cannot claim such status when compared with trained physicians. The German „Heil­prak­tikers“ (healing practitioner) are an example for such an untrained medical professional.

See also

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