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.


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