Appeal to authority: Wikis


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Argument from authority or appeal to authority is a logical fallacy, where it is argued that a statement is correct because the statement is made by a person or source that is commonly regarded as authoritative. The most general structure of this argument is:

Source A says that p.
Source A is authoritative.
Therefore, p is true.

This is a fallacy because the truth or falsity of the claim is not necessarily related to the personal qualities of the claimant, and because the premises can be true, and the conclusion false (an authoritative claim can turn out to be false). It is also known as argumentum ad verecundiam (Latin: argument to respect) or ipse dixit (Latin: he himself said it). [1]

On the other hand, arguments from authority are an important part of informal logic. Since we cannot have expert knowledge of many subjects, we often rely on the judgments of those who do. There is no fallacy involved in simply arguing that the assertion made by an authority is true. The fallacy only arises when it is claimed or implied that the authority is infallible in principle and can hence be exempted from criticism.


Origin of the expression

The expression was invented by John Locke [2]in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book IV Chapter XVII[3]

The Latin word verecundia means modesty or shyness, and argumentum ad vercundiam means literally 'argument towards modesty', though the phrase is normally rendered in English as Argument from Authority.

Locke explained the meaning of the term as follows: "When men are established in any kind of dignity, it is thought a breach of modesty for others to derogate any way from it, and question the authority of men who are in possession of it."[4]


There are two basic forms of appeal to authority, based on the authority being trusted. The more relevant the expertise of an authority, the more compelling the argument. Nonetheless, authority is never absolute, so all appeals to authority which assert that the authority is necessarily infallible are fallacious.

The first form of the appeal to authority is when a source presenting a position on a subject mentions some authority who also holds that position, but who is not actually an authority in that area. For instance, the statement "Arthur C. Clarke released a report showing it is necessary to floss three times daily" should not convince many people of anything about flossing, as Clarke, a science fiction writer, was not a known expert on dental care. Much advertising relies on this logical fallacy in the form of endorsements and sponsorships. A sportsperson or actor, for example, is no more likely than average to have an specialist knowledge of watches or perfume, but their endorsement of a particular brand of watch or perfume is very valuable in advertising terms. Alternatively they may not be experts in the relevant part of the field (for example, an expert in litigation may not be an expert on trust law or commercial law even though they are indeed a civil lawyer). In some cases, the advertisers use an actor's well-known role to imply that the person has authority in an area; an actor who plays a doctor on television may appear in their white coat, and endorse a drug or health product.

The second form, citing a source who is actually an authority in the relevant field, carries more subjective, cognitive weight. A person who is recognized as an expert authority often has greater experience and knowledge of their field than the average person, so their opinion is more likely than average to be correct. In practical subjects such as car repair, an experienced mechanic who knows how to fix a certain car will be trusted to a greater degree than someone who is not an expert in car repair. There are many cases where one must rely on an expert, and cannot be reasonably expected to have the same experience, knowledge and skill that that person has. Many trust a surgeon without ever needing to know all the details about surgery themselves. Nevertheless, experts can still be mistaken, wilfully deceptive, subject to pressure from peers or employers, have a vested financial interest in the false statements, or have unusual views (or views that are widely criticized by other experts) within their field (this makes the majority of experts right, and thus the renegade expert is wrong), and hence their expertise does not always guarantee that their arguments are valid.

In some cases, the appeal to authority plays on the Western culture's respect for credentials. For example, suppose a complex nutritional system and diet guide is endorsed or ghostwritten and credited to a qualified doctor. While a doctor does receive general training on nutrition and diet, they may not be an expert on nutrition and diet, a field for which an expert will often possess PhDs in nutrition and certification as a dietician. The same technique is used with the PhD degree; an advertiser may reinforce their claims about a product by appending an endorsement from John Doe, PhD, but without stating what area the PhD is in. If the product being endorsed is foot powder, and Dr. Doe studied podiatry, the endorsement carries some weight, but if he studied film criticism, he may have no more than average knowledge of the product and its merits.

In mathematics, the second form, especially when the appellant is himself the authority, is wryly referred to as "proof by tenure".


Appeal to authority as logical fallacy

A (fallacious) appeal to authority argument has the basic form:

  1. A makes claim B;
  2. there is something positive about A that (fallaciously) is used to imply that A has above-average or expert knowledge in the field, or has an above-average authority to determine the truth or rightness of such a matter
  3. therefore claim B is true, or has its credibility unduly enhanced as a result of the proximity and association.

The first statement is called a 'factual claim' and is the pivot point of much debate. The last statement is referred to as an 'inferential claim' and represents the reasoning process. There are two types of inferential claim, explicit and implicit.

The converse, that (fallaciously) relies on something negative about the source and claims that therefore the conclusion is probably false, is called an ad hominem argument.

Examples of appeals to authority


  • Referring to the philosophical beliefs of Aristotle: "If Aristotle said it was so, it is so."
  • Referring to the philosophical beliefs of Jesus, Muhammad, or any other religious figure: "If (religious figure) said it was so, it is so." Such an appeal may be based upon the belief that the speaker in question is holy and, by extension, inerrant. Alternately, the figure may be considered to be an expert on the given subject: "Buddha was a great moral teacher and he said that euthanasia is wrong, so it must be wrong."
  • Referring to a sacred text: "If (the text) said it was so, it is so." Like in the previous example, such an appeal may be based upon the belief that the sacred text in question is inerrant. This argument may also present a false dilemma situation, where the text can be interpreted in multiple dissimilar ways.
  • Referring to a famous text or work: "Democracy in America criticized American political party division, so we ought to promote bipartisanship."
  • Quoting a well-known personage: "As Samuel Johnson said, patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel." Implying that, therefore, patriotism is always bad. (The term "patriot" was used at the time by radical followers of John Wilkes, whom the conservative Johnson opposed); or "There is no need to critically examine Plan A because [person's name] is in favour of it, and [person's name] is [experienced, knowledgeable, respected] in this field."
  • Referring to what one is told by one's teacher and/or parent: "My teacher said so, therefore it must be so."
  • Believing something because it is attributed to an honored profession, as in: "This doctor recommends (brand-name) aspirin" or "Bankers recommend that people have six months' wages in a savings account".
  • Appealing to some reference or citation from a famous book or author without considering the actual truth of the citation. References in no way ensure, without any doubt, that the claim is true. References simply show where the information or claim possibly originated and to avoid plagiarism.
  • Appeals to various well known opinion poll firms that are assumed to have collected the best data from a large enough sample, and that there were no leading questions.

The nature of the fallacy

An appeal to authority cannot guarantee the truth of the conclusion, given the nature of truth and the Consensus theory of truth, because the fact that an authority says something does not necessarily make it so. The fact that, objectively, a proposition is in fact true or that it has good unrelated arguments supporting it will be what makes authorities believe it to be true. The fallacy comes in when the opposite situation occurs, with authority opinions leading to the belief itself. Thus, an appeal to authority confuses cause and effect.

As with all logical fallacies, the fact that an argument is an appeal to authority does not make its conclusion untrue (this line of thought is sometimes known as the logical fallacy fallacy) and does not make it unreasonable to believe the truth of the argument. It also must be noted that a rigorous concept of truth is a complex subject. In informal logic, the fact that a majority of experts in a given field believe X—for example, the fact that nearly all medical scientists think that HIV causes AIDS and reject AIDS denialism—makes it more reasonable for a person without knowledge in the field to believe X.

The bandwagon fallacy is very similar to the appeal to authority, given that it—with popular opinion being cited in support of an idea rather than popular opinion coming to believe an idea based on the idea's own inherent truth—confuses cause and effect in the same way. In normal conversation, these two fallacies frequently intermingle. For example, consider the statement: "Basically everyone, economic experts included, supports the financial bailout and so must I."


  1. ^ [1]The Nizkor Project, Appeal to Authority
  2. ^ [2]Appeal to expert opinion: arguments from authority by Douglas N. Walton, p34
  3. ^ [3]Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding
  4. ^ [4]Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding

External links

See also


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