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Description of Appeal to Authority

Also Known as: Fallacious Appeal to Authority, Misuse of Authority, Irrelevant Authority, Questionable Authority, Inappropriate Authority, Ad Verecundiam

An appeal to authority or argument by authority is a type of argument in logic, consisting on basing the truth value of an otherwise unsupported assertion on the authority, knowledge or position of the person asserting it. It is also known as argument from authority, argumentum ad verecundiam (Latin: argument to respect) or ipse dixit (Latin: he himself said it). It is one method of obtaining propositional knowledge, but a fallacy in regards to logic, because the validity of a claim does not follow from the credibility of the source. The corresponding reverse case would be an ad hominem attack: to imply that the claim is false because the asserter is objectionable.

An Appeal to Authority is a fallacy with the following form:
    Person A is (claimed to be) an authority on subject S.
    Person A makes claim C about subject S.
    Therefore, C is true.

Definition: While sometimes it may be appropriate to cite an authority to support a point, often it is not. In particular, an appeal to authority is inappropriate if:
    (i) the person is not qualified to have an expert opinion on the subject,
    (ii) experts in the field disagree on this issue.
    (iii) the authority was making a joke, drunk, or otherwise not being serious
    A variation of the fallacious appeal to authority is hearsay. An argument from hearsay is an argument which depends on second or third hand sources.
 

Examples of Appeal to Authority

"If God didn't want people to eat animals, why did he make them out of meat."
     Using this sterling logic, the following could be said, "If God didn't want you to be gay, why did He give you an asshole?"

The Appeal to Authority uses admiration of a famous person to try and win support for an assertion.

Noted psychologist Dr. Frasier Crane recommends that you buy the EZ-Rest Hot Tub.

Economist John Kenneth Galbraith argues that a tight money policy is the best cure for a recession. (Although Galbraith is an expert, not all economists agree on this point.)

We are headed for nuclear war. Last week Ronald Reagan remarked that we begin bombing Russia in five minutes. (Of course, he said it as a joke during a microphone test.)

My friend heard on the news the other day that Canada will declare war on Serbia. (This is a case of hearsay; in fact, the reporter said that Canada would not declare war.)

The Ottawa Citizen reported that sales were up 5.9 percent this year. (This is hearsay; we are not in a position to check the Citizen's sources.)

The milk industry says that dairy products will help me lose weight.

"Isaac Newton was a genius and he believed in God."

This line of argument isn't always completely bogus when used in an inductive argument; for example, it may be relevant to refer to a widely-regarded authority in a particular field, if you're discussing that subject. For example, we can distinguish quite clearly between:
     "Hawking has concluded that black holes give off radiation" and
     "Penrose has concluded that it is impossible to build an intelligent computer"
Hawking is a physicist, and so we can reasonably expect his opinions on black hole radiation to be informed. Penrose is a mathematician, so it is questionable whether he is well-qualified to speak on the subject of machine intelligence.

Bill and Jane are arguing about the morality of abortion:
Bill: "I believe that abortion is morally acceptable. After all, a woman should have a right to her own body."
Jane: "I disagree completely. Dr. Johan Skarn says that abortion is always morally wrong, regardless of the situation. He has to be right, after all, he is a respected expert in his field."
Bill: "I've never heard of Dr. Skarn. Who is he?"
Jane: "He's the guy that won the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on cold fusion."
Bill: "I see. Does he have any expertise in morality or ethics?"
Jane: "I don't know. But he's a world famous expert, so I believe him."

Dave and Kintaro are arguing about Stalin's reign in the Soviet Union. Dave has been arguing that Stalin was a great leader while Kintaro disagrees with him.
    Kintaro: "I don't see how you can consider Stalin to be a great leader. He killed millions of his own people, he crippled the Soviet economy, kept most of the people in fear and laid the foundations for the violence that is occuring in much of Eastern Europe."
    Dave: "Yeah, well you say that. However, I have a book at home that says that Stalin was acting in the best interest of the people. The millions that were killed were vicious enemies of the state and they had to be killed to protect the rest of the peaceful citizens. This book lays it all out, so it has to be true."
 

The common example used against the animal rights movement is to state that a well-known vivisector claims that animal testing is important. Always missing is the fact that the vivisector does not know if another method would have been more or less efficacious, and the fact that the vivisector makes money from vivisecting animals.

Rebuttal

Show that either (i) the person cited is not an authority in the field, or that (ii) there is general disagreement among the experts in the field on this point.


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