Friday, December 17, 2010

The Appeal to Authority Resort

An exchange with a YouTube Skeptic of the "fundy atheist" variety gives me occasion to remark upon a tactic I have not seen in a while. It runs like this.

We offer some fact or argument, and note that it was offered by a certain credentialed scholar in the field of the argument subject.

The atheist shoots back that we are committing a fallacious “appeal to authority” and therefore refuses to answer the argument, which should (they say) stand on its own merits.

Of course, this is clearly an evasion that is as much an admission that the critic can’t answer the argument and needs a way out. If the argument or fact had been presented without reference to the scholar, then the critic would never know that was the source and be left without any way to claim a fallacious appeal to authority was being made. (Of course, too, they would then demand to know where we got our information, as though we just made it up.)

But that’s not the main problem. The main problem is that “appeal to authority” as done above isn’t a fallacy at all. This is an abuse and misunderstanding of what that fallacy actually is.

If the critic is right, and this is a fallacy as stated, then the implications are rather drastic. Academic journal articles and books littered with supporting notes are nothing but long-winded fallacies. Expert witnesses in court settings should be dispensed with, as the use of them is fallacious. Not even a nightly news program can be believed, since we believe what they say based on the authority of the reporter as a witness and as a (supposedly) intelligent human being with competent powers of observation and analysis.

The reality is that the fallacy of appeal to authority does NOT apply to citations of genuine authorities. The main expression of this fallacy is when an irrelevant authority is cited – eg, to deliver some point on nuclear physics by quoting Michael Jordan. Here are representative explanations, one from the nizkor website which collects information on logical fallacies:

This fallacy is committed when the person in question is not a legitimate authority on the subject. More formally, if person A is not qualified to make reliable claims in subject S, then the argument will be fallacious.

So likewise, the Skeptic’s Dictionary online says, approaching the matter from the other direction and explaining what the real fallacy of appeal to authority is:

The appeal to authority is a fallacy of irrelevance when the authority being cited is not really an authority. E.g., to appeal to Einstein to support a point in religion would be to make an irrelevant appeal to authority.

These are representative of many other online and print resources on the subject.

Of course, I am not saying that there is not any discernment involved when an authority is used; these reference sites give plenty of caveats as well, and I’m aware of these in my work. So for example, when I use an authority, I do so having already figured out that the person is a credible authority who deserves attention, that they are not biased to the point of distorting information and arguments, and that their views are solid enough to challenge or overcome opposing views. At such points, the burden is on the critic to meet the challenge – and merely yelling, “argument from authority” isn’t meeting that challenge.

I used the example of an expert witness above. It’s a good one: Use of scholarly sources is, in effect, a testimony by an expert witness in the court (though in this case, the court of reader opinion). Under such circumstances, the critic needs to call their own witness, as it were, if they can’t answer the point made. It will not be sufficient to offer, “Objection! Fallacious appeal to authority!” Rather, in court, it is the responsibility of opposing attorneys to either provide their own expert witness, or by some means try to discredit the opposite side’s expert witness.

Of course, whether they might try to do so legitimately, or dishonestly, is another step in the process. For Skeptic critics, it is often enough (for their audience!) to simply say that a person is religious, so they must be biased and therefore untrustworthy. Or, it may be broadly suggested that because religion is so controversial, no expert witness can be accepted. (The Skeptic's Dictionary above offers this tactic.) That’s not a serious evaluation, though, because it is just as easy to reply that an irreligious person is biased, or that atheism is controversial as a worldview. Stance alone does not indicate bias; nor does controversy alone disqualify authority. Unfair treatment of fact and argument is what matters. Other than that, I don’t see that Skeptical opponents are much into digging up curriculum vitae, or looking up publication records, to decide if a scholar is a credible authority. The easy way out is, well….easier!

Bottom line – the critic who throws out “appeal to authority fallacy” and does no more than that is just showing that they can’t handle what you have to offer – and using that throw-out line as a way to avoid engaging the actual argument or fact presented.


  1. Isn't there enough evidence to question that many journalists are intelligent human beings with competent powers of observation and analysis?

  2. I experienced a situation like this just the other day. After explaining that not all appeals to authority are fallacious, I was told, essentially, that scholars and experts cannot be trusted. When pressed, my opponent argued that this is because experts have been wrong before, and the scholarly community reinforces "orthodoxy." It was also argued that we (Christians) are biased, because we call those who support our positions "experts" and those who do not "fringe."

    Experts are not infallible. But they're usually in a better position to make a determination likely to be accurate than a layman.

  3. Bias and orthodoxy, yep. Or as Dan Brown likes to say, "History is written by the winners." And as I add: "And complained about constantly by the losers." :)