Misleading Appeal to Authority
Subfallacy: Appeal to Celebrity
This fallacy seems to have originated with philosopher John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. There, Locke discusses four types of argument, the first of which he describes as follows:
The first is, to allege the opinions of men, whose parts, learning, eminency, power, or some other cause has gained a name, and settled their reputation in the common esteem with some kind of authority. 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. This is apt to be censured, as carrying with it too much pride, when a man does not readily yield to the determination of approved authors, which is wont to be received with respect and submission by others: and it is looked upon as insolence, for a man to set up and adhere to his own opinion against the current stream of antiquity; or to put it in the balance against that of some learned doctor, or otherwise approved writer. Whoever backs his tenets with such authorities, thinks he ought thereby to carry the cause, and is ready to style it impudence in any one who shall stand out against them. This I think may be called argumentum ad verecundiam.6
Each of the four types of argument is given a Latin name, of which the other three are: argumentum ad ignorantiam, argumentum ad hominem, and argumentum ad judicium. Locke remarks that argumentum ad hominem was already known under that name, which suggests that the others were invented by him in imitation.
Locke refers to these only as "sorts of arguments", and not as "fallacies". However, he says of ad judicium that "[t]his alone, of all the four, brings true instruction with it, and advances us in our way to knowledge." Thus, at the very least, ad verecundiam and the other two were viewed by Locke as inferior types of argument.
[I]t is not what the man of science believes that distinguishes him, but how and why he believes it. His beliefs are tentative, not dogmatic; they are based on evidence, not on authority or intuition.7
Authority A believes that P is true.
Therefore, P is true.
[Arthur Conan Doyle] then performed a dramatic gesture that he had been preparing for ever since the debate had been announced. He took from his jacket pocket a small, black leather-covered notebook. In this book, he said, I have the names of 160 people―politicians, diplomats, authors, scientists, generals, admirals, businessmen and artists―who believed without any doubt or question in the truth of spiritualism. Were these men fools and dunderheads? When these grand sailors led ships into deadly battle against Germany's navy were they idiotic and impractical? When these cabinet ministers decided on affairs of state that could affect the world were they uneducated or callow? … There was a spontaneous round of applause and some in the audience even stood up to show their approval.8
We must often rely upon expert opinion when drawing conclusions about technical matters where we lack the time or expertise to form an informed opinion. For instance, those of us who are not physicians usually rely upon those who are when making medical decisions, and we are not wrong to do so. There are, however, four major ways in which such arguments can go wrong:
- Inappropriate Appeals: If a question can be answered by observation or calculation, an argument from authority is not needed. Since arguments from authority are weaker than more direct evidence, go look or figure it out for yourself.
The Renaissance rebellion against the authority of Aristotle and the Bible played an important role in the scientific revolution. Aristotle was so respected in the Middle Ages that his word was taken on empirical issues which were easily decidable by observation10. The scientific revolution moved away from this over-reliance on authority towards the use of observation and experiment.
Similarly, the Bible has been invoked as an authority on empirical or mathematical questions. An amusing example is the claim that the value of pi can be determined to be 3 based on certain passages in the Old Testament. The value of pi, however, is a mathematical question which can be answered by calculation, and appeal to authority is irrelevant.
Moreover, about some issues there simply is no expert opinion, and an appeal to authority is bound to be a mistake. For example, on controversial issues in ethics or politics your own opinion may be as good as anyone else's.
- No Expertise: The "authority" cited is not an expert on the issue, that is, the person who supplies the opinion is not an expert at all, or is one, but in an unrelated area. The now-classic example is the old television commercial which began: "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV." The actor then proceeded to recommend a brand of cough medicine11.
- Bias: The authority is an expert, but is not disinterested. That is, the expert is biased towards one side of the issue, and his opinion is thereby untrustworthy.
For example, suppose that a medical scientist testifies that ambient cigarette smoke does not pose a hazard to the health of non-smokers exposed to it. Suppose, further, that it turns out that the scientist is an employee of a cigarette company. Clearly, the scientist has a powerful bias in favor of the position that he is taking which calls into question his objectivity.
There is an old saying: "A doctor who treats himself has a fool for a patient," and a similar version for attorneys: "A lawyer who defends himself has a fool for a client." Why should these be true if the doctor or lawyer is an expert on medicine or the law? The answer is that we are all biased in our own causes. A physician who tries to diagnose his own illness is more likely to make a mistake out of wishful thinking, or out of fear, than another physician would be.
Of course, the fact that an expert is biased does not automatically mean he is wrong. However, suppose that a doctor were to recommend an expensive medical test at a laboratory which he or she owns. In such a situation one should, at the very least, seek a second opinion from a physician who lacks this conflict of interest12.
- Unrepresentativeness: While the authority is an expert, his opinion is unrepresentative of expert opinion on the subject. The sad fact is that if one looks hard enough, it is possible to find an expert who supports virtually any position that one wishes to take. "Such is Human Perversity13". This is a great boon for debaters, who can easily find expert opinion on their side of a question, whatever that side is, but it is confusing for those of us listening to debates and trying to form an opinion.
Experts are human beings, after all, and human beings err, even in their area of expertise. This is one reason why it is a good idea to get a second opinion about major medical matters, and even a third if the first two disagree. While most people understand the sense behind seeking a second opinion when their life or health is at stake, they are frequently willing to accept a single, unrepresentative opinion on other matters, especially when that opinion agrees with their own bias.
Bias (problem 3) is one source of unrepresentativeness. For instance, the opinions of cigarette company scientists tend to be unrepresentative of expert opinion on the health consequences of smoking because they are biased to minimize them.
To sum up these points in a positive manner, before relying upon expert opinion, go through the following checklist:
- Is this a matter upon which expert opinion is available? If not, then your opinion will be as good as anyone else's. If so, proceed to the next question:
- Is the authority an expert on the matter? If not, then why listen? If so, go on:
- Is the authority biased towards one side? If so, the authority may be untrustworthy. At the very least, before accepting the authority's word seek a second, unbiased opinion. That is, go to the last question:
- Is the authority's opinion representative of expert opinion? If not, then find out what the expert consensus is and rely on that. If so, then you may rationally rely upon the authority's opinion.14
If an argument to authority cannot pass these five tests, then it commits the fallacy of misleading appeal to authority.
John Congdon writes:
A thought about the "Appeal to Misleading Authority5" fallacy. In your section on this fallacy, you propose a five-point15 checklist for determining if an appeal to authority is appropriate. I would suggest a sixth: "Is there opinion available from this expert on this subject?". In other words, does the authority actually support the appeal, or are the authority's words being taken out of context or otherwise misunderstood?
I have seen similar checklists for evaluating arguments from authority which include such a point. However, there are two reasons why there is no such point on my list:
- Certainly, when evaluating an appeal to authority for cogency, the first step one should take is to verify that the authority is cited correctly. If the authority's position is either misquoted, misrepresented, or misunderstood, then the argument will be uncogent due to a false premiss. However, having a false premiss is not, in my view, a logical fault, but is a factual fault. Factual errors can be just as important as logical errors, but they are distinct types of error.
- Quoting out of context is a fallacy in its own right. It is uncommon to treat quoting out of context as a separate fallacy, but I do so because it is a more common error than a number of traditional fallacies. Because I treat it separately, I don't include it in the checklist for appeal to misleading authority. However, it is true that quoting out of context often occurs in appeals to authority, so it is something to watch out for.
In his later years, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, became a devout believer in ghosts and mediums and devoted himself to proselytizing for spiritualism. The quoted passage describes Doyle's performance during a debate, and while the questions he asked were probably rhetorical, it's useful to answer them:
- "Were these men fools and dunderheads?"
Not generally speaking, of course, which is what gives this question whatever power it has to persuade. One hesitates to say that Doyle, or any other of these unnamed gentlemen, was a fool and dunderhead. But the lesson of examples such as Doyle is that people who are generally not fools and dunderheads can be foolish and dunderheaded about specific subjects.
- "When these grand sailors led ships into deadly battle against Germany's navy were they idiotic and impractical? When these cabinet ministers decided on affairs of state that could affect the world were they uneducated or callow?"
Probably not, but who knows? This relates to point 2 in the Exposition, above. When the grand sailors were leading ships into deadly battle and the cabinet ministers were deciding affairs of state, they may have been smart, practical, educated, and experienced; but when they formed their opinions on spiritualism, they may have been idiotic, impractical, uneducated, and callow. Expertise and intelligence in one area do not necessarily transfer to another, unrelated area.
This is why Doyle's argument in this passage is fallacious: the fact that intelligent people who were experts in various subjects endorsed spiritualism carries little if any logical weight, since their expertise was in fields unrelated to spiritualism and they may have failed to bring their intelligence to bear upon it.
- Nigel Warburton, Thinking from A to Z (2nd Edition, 2001), under "Appeals to Authority".
- Douglas Walton, "Informal Fallacy" in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, Robert Audi, General Editor (2nd Edition, 1999).
- Translation: "Argument to reverence (or modesty)", Latin; see: Eugene Ehrlich, Veni, Vidi, Vici: Conquer Your Enemies, Impress Your Friends with Everyday Latin (2004), under "ad verecundiam". See the "History" section, above, for the apparent origin of this Latin name.
- Translation: "He, himself, said it", Latin; see: Eugene Ehrlich, Amo, Amas, Amat and More: How to Use Latin to Your Own Advantage and to the Astonishment of Others (1985). Cicero, in his De Natura Deorum, writes:
Those who seek my personal views on each issue are being unnecessarily inquisitive, for when we engage in argument we must look to the weight of reason rather than authority. Indeed, students who are keen to learn often find the authority of those who claim to be teachers to be an obstacle, for they cease to apply their own judgement and regard as definitive the solution offered by the mentor of whom they approve. I myself tend to disapprove of the alleged practice of the Pythagoreans: the story goes that if they were maintaining some position in argument, and were asked why, they would reply: "The master said so", the master being Pythagoras. Prior judgement exercised such sway that authority prevailed even when unsupported by reason. (Cicero, The Nature of the Gods, translated with an introduction and notes by P. G. Walsh (1998), I.10)
The phrase here translated as "The master said so" is "ipse dixit".
- Since not all arguments that appeal to expert opinion are fallacious, I use the name "misleading appeal to authority" to distinguish fallacious from non-fallacious arguments of this type.
Update (12/19/2018): My thanks to Geert F. de Vries for pointing out that it is the appeal that is misleading and not necessarily the authority. For this reason, I moved the adjective "misleading" from modifying "authority" to modifying "appeal" throughout this entry, except in quotes from emails that were written prior to this change.
- John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book 4, Chapter XVII.
- Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (Book-of-the-Month Club, 1995), p. 527. Thanks to Theo Clark for calling this quote to my attention.
- Michael Coren, Conan Doyle (1996), pp. 169-170, 174-175, 178, 182.
- Thanks to Gary Foulk for critiquing an early version of this section though I did not take all of his advice.
- For instance, Aristotle claimed, in his The History of Animals, I.3, that men have more teeth than women.
- Kara Kovalchik, "Who Originally Said 'I'm Not A Doctor, But I Play One on TV'?", Mental Floss, 4/22/2014.
- Daniel Campbell writes: "I don't believe you can avoid bias, so how do you find an unbiased authority?"
Here, as elsewhere, we should not make the perfect the enemy of the good. Perfection may well be humanly impossible, so that we are all biased. However, surely we can agree that there are degrees of bias, and that some are more biased than others. If a complete lack of bias is impossible, then we cannot demand it, for "ought" implies "can". But that doesn't mean that we can't expect people to be as unbiased as humanly possible, or at least as unbiased as can be reasonably expected under the circumstances. If a complete lack of bias is too much to ask for, then we can at least look for one of the least biased experts. Such an expert is disinterested, that is, lacks conflicts of interest such as a financial or political interest in one side prevailing. That's not too much to ask of experts.
- Lewis Carroll, "Preface", The Hunting of the Snark (1876).
- An anonymous reader writes:
In appeal to misleading authority, you write the final step as "…find out what the expert consensus is and rely on that. If so, then you may rationally rely upon the authority's opinion." Isn't "rely" here too strong of a word because consensus, in and of itself, does not necessarily show something to be likely to be true? For example, see the consensus on hormone-replacement therapy for women which has been completely reversed.
We're not dealing, here, with theorems in logic or mathematics, so there is always room for error. Your example shows that that the expert consensus may be wrong, but not that "consensus, in and of itself, does not necessarily show something to be likely to be true". If that were the case then there would be no expert opinion on the issue in question, which means that the case would fail at the second step, and never get to the final one. If the consensus of "expert" opinion on a certain subject isn't more likely to be true than an inexpert opinion, then it's worthless. Ignore it.
- Now four points; I have combined two points into one so that the checklist parallels the four ways in which an appeal to expert opinion can go wrong.