The appeal to authority fallacy occurs when conclusions are deemed true solely because of expert endorsements, regardless of the experts’ actual knowledge of the subject. Citing authorities can lend a perception of credibility to an argument even in the absence of clear reasoning or evidence.
Appeals to authority are often made in the context of academic subjects, health decisions, political choices, and product advertisements.
What is the appeal to authority fallacy?
The appeal to authority fallacy (or argument from authority) is the mistake of relying on expert opinions in the absence of other compelling evidence. The argument may also rely on the opinion of someone who isn’t a legitimate authority on the subject.
Appeals to authority are often compelling when they cite the opinions of famous, credentialed, well-respected people, even if the argument lacks any other evidence or reasoning.
The appeal to authority is often presented in a way that suggests that the debate is a question of simply weighing the opponent’s opinion against the expert’s opinion, and the expert’s opinion should overrule the opponent’s. For example, Warren Buffet’s opinions on investment strategies may deserve consideration in an argument, but stating his opinion alone isn’t sufficient to dismiss an opponent’s argument.
Relying on expert opinions is also fallacious if the person cited isn’t a legitimate expert on the subject, despite being famous or credentialed in another domain. This variation of the fallacy is often called an appeal to false or misleading authority.
For instance, although Elon Musk is famous and wealthy, that doesn’t make him an expert on fitness. Even if additional evidence is presented to support the argument, relying on the opinions of unqualified people is still an unsound argumentative tactic.
Fallacious appeals to authority are informal fallacies that render an argument unsound based on their weak approach to argumentation. They can be categorized as fallacies of relevance, much like tu quoque and the bandwagon fallacy, because they dismiss relevant evidence and reasoning based on information that isn’t particularly relevant.
Appeal to authority fallacy types
Appeals to authority can be divided into categories based on what makes the cited experts’ opinions weak or irrelevant evidence. Fallacious appeals to authority are often based on the opinions of unqualified individuals, anonymous sources, or individuals with an obvious bias.
Appeal to false authority fallacy
Many fallacious arguments that are based on appeals to authority cite the opinions of people who aren’t legitimate experts on the subject at hand.
These arguments can be persuasive in some cases. For instance, an audience might be swayed by the opinion of someone with a degree of expertise in a relevant or related field, even if it’s inadequate to override the opposing evidence. In some cases, the individual cited isn’t an expert at all but is merely someone famous.
Appeal to anonymous authority fallacy
Appeals to authority are often vague, failing to even name a person or organization that holds a certain view. A group of authorities may be referred to with a general term such as “scientists,” “doctors,” or “historians,” with the implication that there is a consensus within a given field even if there isn’t. Vague claims make it difficult to identify, let alone refute, the specific claims and reasoning that the experts allegedly promote.
Appeal to biased authority fallacy
An appeal to authority is fallacious if the individual or group cited has a clear bias, whether based on financial incentives, ideological commitments, or personal relationships that are likely to compromise their objectivity. For instance, a nutrition expert whose spouse has published a best-selling diet book might be biased in promoting dietary recommendations that align with the book’s principles.
When are appeals to authority legitimate?
Not all appeals to authority are fallacious, and expert opinions are strong sources of evidence when used correctly. Sound arguments that cite authoritative sources meet the following criteria:
- The argument’s conclusion doesn’t rest entirely on a vague appeal to authority. Instead, the argument includes a clear explanation of why the position is correct and adequately responds to criticisms.
- The authority cited has legitimate expertise on the specific subject at hand or, if the individual has a legitimate claim to knowledge but isn’t a subject-matter expert, the opinion may be mentioned in passing but isn’t heavily relied upon as a basis for the argument’s conclusion.
- The opinions of experts are represented fairly, without exaggerating their position or claiming there’s a clear consensus in a given field when there isn’t.
Appeal to authority fallacy examples
Citing experts who hold minority opinions in a field can be problematic when it disproportionately emphasizes views not reflective of the consensus. This approach, often involving cherry-picking information, can be misleading. It tends to obscure the more widely accepted understanding and overlooks the broader context and collective evidence that form mainstream thought, leading to a distortion of facts.
However, referencing an expert with a minority opinion is not automatically fallacious. The problem arises when such a view is portrayed as equally or more credible than the opposing view without considering the broader consensus or evidence in the field. A balanced approach involves acknowledging the expert’s perspective, while also critically evaluating its merits in the context of prevailing opinions and evidence.
The appeal to authority is a common tactic in advertising, where endorsements from celebrities or experts are used to persuade consumers. This strategy leverages the perceived credibility and respectability of these figures to influence public opinion or consumer behavior.
Advertisers often select authorities or famous personalities who align with the product’s image or target audience, enhancing the advertisement’s effectiveness. For instance, a sports brand might use a popular athlete as a spokesperson for its products, capitalizing on the athlete’s popularity and perceived expertise in sports. This method not only attracts attention but also suggests a level of product quality or desirability, implicitly endorsed by the authority figure.
Frequently asked questions about the appeal to authority fallacy
When is the appeal to authority a fallacy?
Fallacious appeals to authority make the mistake of relying excessively on the endorsements of experts. These authorities are typically credentialed or famous people, but, in many cases, they aren’t qualified to make definitive judgments about the issue at hand.
Non-fallacious appeals to authority cite legitimate experts on the topic of debate and include other supporting evidence or reasoning.
Why is the appeal to authority fallacy convincing?
Appeals to authority can be convincing because the people being cited aren’t present to explain the evidence. It can be difficult to critically evaluate whether the quoted experts have genuine expertise on the subject and whether their opinions are well-founded and unbiased.
How do I identify an appeal to authority fallacy?
Identifying an appeal to authority fallacy begins with paying attention to any quoted experts and asking the following questions:
- Does the individual or group cited have expertise on the specific subject at hand?
- Is there a consensus among the experts, or is there significant disagreement? If there is an alternative view held by some experts, can your opponent justify choosing one position over the other?
- Can any evidence of bias be found that might cast doubt on the expert’s credibility?