Logical Fallacy 5: Argument From Authority

(also called Appeal to Authority) Stating a claim is true because a person or group of perceived authority says it's true. The claimant emphasizes the many years of experience and/or formal degrees held by the person or organization making the claim.

This argument is the opposite of the Ad Hominem Argument because the arguer appeals to positive characteristics of the source to support their argument, such as its perceived authority. If an advertisement shows someone wearing a white labcoat or a stern business suit, that is an appeal to authority.

This is Part 5 in a series about Logical Fallacies. We are going through one fallacy at a time. There are many types of fallacious arguments. I'm going to try to explain them with examples then find ways to help you refute those arguments when they occur. Please comment or email if there's a particular fallacy you want me to tackle, or if you have success with refuting an argument using a good technique you can share.

While it's reasonable to take into account the proper background of education and credentials, or to be suspicious of someone without such expertise, it must inevitably come down to logic and evidence to support the claim, not the person promoting it.

A good authority supports a position because there is evidence or other justifiable reasons that the argument merits, not the other way around. So, good scientists do not attach significance to their own authority. The theory needs to stand on its own and be peer reviewed. There is no need for an appeal to authority.

Chinese medicine is valid because it's been around for centuries and is based on ancient Chinese knowledge.

Oprah says that The Secret is a powerful book, and that it really works. And we all know that Oprah is an expert on everything and only supports stuff that works perfectly.

The Pope says the basic idea of evolution is OK because that's how God made everything, and the Pope is the supreme expert on all things that have anything to do with god.

Linus Pauling said that taking mega doses of vitamins can lead to all kinds of wonderful health benefits and prevent illness. He was awarded 2 Nobel Prizes on other subjects.

UFOs exist because airline pilots are trained observers and reliable eye witnesses, and are trained to stay calm in an emergency. and they claim to have seen them.

So how do you refute the Appeal to Authority? This one is a bit tougher. Again, this is my opinion because I haven't found any resources on that yet.
  • First, I would start by telling the person that they are using the Argument From Authority and explain what that is.
  • Second, ask for evidence for the claim. Do they have anything to back it up? Where can you find the research and look into it?
  • If the person doesn't have anything to back up the claim, and it's a point of contention that you would really like to clear up, ask for whatever information they have and offer to do the research yourself.

Here is a real example:

My mother is on hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Her doctor is giving her a really hard time and telling her she needs to get off of it as fast as she can and that it's really bad for her to take it. She has lowered my mother's dose to a point where my mother has hot flashes, trouble sleeping, and is generally rather irritated and cranky. It's unpleasant for her (and those around her).

The doctor, who represents a person of authority to my mother, is basing this drastic and uncomfortable change to my mother's well-being on ONE study done several years ago that was widely publicized and created a huge scare. I won't go into the details, but basically the study found that a certain demographic of women fitting very specific criteria were at risk if they were on hormone therapy.

The media ran with it, gave it full authority and dramatized the results to include all women taking any kind of HRT. Many doctors, including my mother's, simply followed the media and the overview of the one study, gave it full authority, and never did any research into the study itself to find out the real results.

To make matters worse, my mother is looking into alternative health products and is cutting her already small dose of real HRT in half because she's afraid of it killing her, making her even more miserable. The alternative products have no scientific basis that they work at all, are terribly expensive, and are based on the claims of movie stars and people like Oprah, who are most likely compensated. The only thing that people are given by these big name stars is anecdotal stories and pseudo-scientific claims that are carefully worded to sound like real science but still sneak past the FDA. Insidious.

But then my mother's doctor is the voice of authority here, and that doctor is basing her authority on the authority of the study. I'm just the daughter, so my mother holds no credence in what I say even though I've looked into the matter and discovered that there is no reason for her to worry because she's not in the demographic of possible risk, based on the actual study's results and not just the media scare.

For this lesson, I’m using 3 resources:

1 comment:

  1. thanks for posting, im trying to explain this to my dad. recently hes been saying: "youre not an expert - you don't know anything", and "people in china only trust experts".

    he also thinks the radiation from japan is going to blow over to united kingdom in 2 weeks.
    and he instantly got worried about stockpiling salt after reading it on the news.

    what can i do? i explained what AFA is, but hes not the learning or listening type.