Argument from authority or false authority – logical fallacies

This article will focus on the conditional logical fallacy of argument from authority or false authority. It is also known as an appeal to authority, appeal to false authority, and argumentum ad verecundiam (see note 1). In scientific discussions, this logical fallacy is often used by those opposed to the scientific consensus.

Description of the argument from authority

Generally, the argument from authority or false authority,  is an argument from an authority, but on a topic outside of the particular authority’s expertise or on a topic on which the authority is not disinterested (i.e., is biased). The argument is considered conditionally fallacious, because an appeal to authority may be appropriate. 

In order for the argument from authority to be considered a logical fallacy, the argument must appeal to the authority because of their qualifications, and not because of their evidence in the argument. Moreover, the argument can be fallacious if the authority lacks actual qualifications in the field being discussed.

In discussions about vaccines, the anti-vaccine side will often promote individuals who appear to have appropriate credentials, such as an MD, as advocates for their beliefs. However, if this MD rejects the obvious scientific consensus on vaccines, without an equivalent amount  of evidence, then it is considered a fallacy.

It’s the argument and evidence that matters, not the credentials of the arguer. Wikipedia has an interesting policy called “Ignore all credentials.” Their reasoning is that the only thing that matters in creating a neutral point of view (which values reliable evidence over opinions and arguments) are credible citations that support a statement.

A climate change denier may attempt to convince us that because 100 PhDs reject the theory of anthropogenic climate change, without presenting any high quality contradictory evidence, then it’s a fallacy of argument from authority. If many of those PhDs are outside of the fields of climate change, it’s  an argument from false authorities.

And remember, lacking credentials of an authority do not necessarily negate the arguments from that person. If their arguments are founded on robust evidence, that’s all that matters.

What is not an argument from authority?

As we mentioned, this is a conditional fallacy, so an argument from an authority may not be a logical fallacy, and, in fact, may be an appropriate argument. For example, one may be a published and highly respect expert in a field, their arguments can be acceptable, and it’s not a logical fallacy.

These authority figures have extensive work in the field that actually form the body of evidence in support of an argument. The reason we accept their authority is that their works (almost always published and peer-reviewed) of authorities, no matter how eminent or influential, is always judged by the quality of their evidence and reasoning, not by their authority alone.

Example

Dr. Tetyana Obukhanych has a Ph.D. in immunology and has a few publications in the field of immunology. She has been used by the anti-vaccine world as an authority about vaccines. However, her statements about vaccines lack any supportive scientific evidence, and they reject some of the basic principles of immunology. She has no experience in any of the important areas vaccine research, has never personally researched vaccines, so, despite her credentials, she is a false authority.

Notes

  1. I generally italicize latin words. However, according to both the Associate Press Stylebook and various scientific stylebooks, italicization of latin words has been deprecated, especially if they are used commonly. There are a few exceptions, like scientific words like in vivo, in vitro, or in situ because the two words together having meaning. We learn something new every day.

24 Replies to “Argument from authority or false authority – logical fallacies”

  1. Michael, I don’t think Septic Rantor understands much that he hasn’t cut and pasted from Mr Barrett and co. I mean using Medical peer reviewed science as ‘evidence’ is like asking Micky Mouse what he thinks of Donald. The ex editor of the BMJ said that most peer reviewed medical publications are nonsense.

    If the Septic Rantor wants to quote nonsense as evidence it’s going to be a very boring debate – bit like talking to an L Ron Hubbard graduate on engrams. I suppose memes are similar, bit like the survey on attitudes to vaccination – they tried to identify some ‘misunderstanding’ of course there is none.

    All the people I know have looked at the evidence and it all falls to bits – no real placebos, fiddled data, I mean Merck are up in court where 5 of their ex scientists are pushing to have them exposed for fiddling the MMR efficacy stats.

    When the EBM pack of cards falls down, what, are we going to get an apology from asses like Septic Raptor and the like for helping to support the law changes in California with regard to enforced vaccination or prison?

  2. You do not understand this fallacy. An appeal to authority is always a false or fallacious argument no matter who the authority is. It involves claiming something is true because an authority says it is true. You can rely on trusted authorities to make decisions but not determine truth. A great deal of BS will be cleared up when the “skeptic” community finally figures out this particular fallacy.

    1. I’d ask you to not conflate evidence with the authority. If Neil deGrasse Tyson speaks about removing Pluto from the list of planets, he does so as both an authority and as one who has substantial evidence that supports it (or doesn’t, I guess with the new information). An authority may have tons of evidence. And if you’re going to compare authorities Tyson, if he’s speaking about cosmology, is far more of an expert than I. But if he suddenly said “black holes are really god’s farts”, I might want some substantial evidence, even if he is an authority.

      Yeah, I agree. Battling authorities is not a debate. All that matters is evidence.

  3. So in order for you to use the “scientific consensus” Argument from Authority, you need to redefine that logical fallacy. What fallacy is that?

    1. You’re confusing scientific consensus with authority. A scientific consensus absolutely is formed based on evidence, nothing else. It is not an argument from authority which may or may not have any evidence. Evidence matters. Logical fallacies try to trick you by making evidence less important.

      1. A scientific consensus is a measure of the number of people who share an opinion. Opinions are not evidence, and evidence of opinions is not evidence either. Are you saying that using consensus is not a logical fallacy because those scientists really are authorities? An argument from authority is only a logical fallacy if the “authority” isn’t really an authority? It wouldn’t be called an Argument from “Authority,” would it?

        1. Another name for the appeal to the masses fallacy is appeal to consensus. You are right that any argument claiming something is true because the majority of _any_ group says it’s true, is fallacious. Truth is determined by evidence not opinion. Any notion will be more likely depending solely on how much and how good the evidence is.

          A good example against consensus is Semmelweis who was driven insane for daring to suggest that doctors wash their hands between autopsies and surgery. He had evidence, his own experience that handwashing improved his patients’ outcome. This evidence was ignored because it went against the prevailing consensus belief.

          1. It is like arguing with god brethren here. Septic Raptor believes in his medical peer review books and the authority, whatever that is, despite the reality evidence that for example flu vaccines and flu pandemics are not happening. It’s his honorable opinion, if it wasn’t so serious it is rather amusing that he has the same religious convictions in his paradigm that any Catholic has in theirs.

      2. No it isn’t, the consensus is based on pragmatism and market share. The consensus is a group of people who stand to benefit from the result

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