Argument from Authority (Non Fallacious)

Introduction

This is an argument in which the conclusion is supported by citing an authority. Since the argument is based on an appeal to the authority, the strength of the support depends on the quality of the authority in question. Given that no one can be an expert on everything and the fact that people regularly need reliable information, these arguments are very common. In fact, they are used so often that people generally do not even realize they are being used. For example, when a politician cites an economist to justify her policies, she is making an argument from authority. As another example, when a student cites a source stating that a historic event took place, he is using an argument from authority. As a final example, when people trust a news source (such as CNN, The Daily Show, or Fox News) they are probably relying on an argument from authority-they assume the news source should be trusted because the people involved are supposed to be experts.

Not surprisingly, this argument is used when a person lacks the required knowledge and expertise and therefore needs to rely on another source of information. For example, most lawyers are not experts on DNA testing or ballistics, so they hire experts to testify in court. In effect they are saying that what the expert says about the DNA or gun is true because the expert is an expert. This sort of argument is also used when a person wants to add extra weight to his/her position. For example, an author of a book on dieting might cite other doctors and nutritional experts that agree with her views on dieting.

Like other arguments, an argument from authority can be used to establish its conclusion for use as a premise in another argument. For example, a person who is arguing for the censorship of violence might cite an authority who claims that watching violent television makes children violent.

It should be noted that an argument from authority is not an exceptionally strong argument. After all, in such cases a claim is being accepted as true simply because a person is asserting that it is true. The person may be an expert, but her expertise does not really bear on the actual truth (or falsity) of the claim. This is because the expertise of a person does not actually determine whether the claim is true or false. Hence, arguments that deal directly with evidence relating to the claim itself will tend to be stronger.

Despite the inherent weakness in this argument, a person who is a legitimate expert is more likely to be right than wrong when making considered claims within her area of expertise. In a sense, the claim is being accepted because it is reasonable to believe that the expert has tested the claim and found it to be reliable. So, if the expert has found it to be reliable, then it is reasonable to accept it as being true. Thus, the listener is accepting a claim based on the testimony of the expert. Naturally, the main challenge is determining whether the person in question is a legitimate expert or not.

Strict Form

Strictly presented, an argument from authority will have two premises and a conclusion. The first premise claims the person is an authority on a particular subject. The second presents the claim made by the authority in the subject in question and the conclusion asserts that because an authority made the claim in her area of expertise, it is true.

Although people generally present arguments from authority in a fairly informal manner, they have the following logical form:

Premise 1: Person A is (claimed to be) an authority on subject S.

Premise 2: Person A makes claim C about subject S.

Premise 3: Therefore, C is true.

A is a variable that is replaced with the authority’s name, S is a variable that is replaced with the subject and C is a variable that is replaced with the actual claim. For example:

Premise 1: Dr. Michael LaBossiere is an authority on arguments.

Premise 2: Dr. Michael LaBossiere clams in the subject area of arguments, that an argument by example has two premises.

Conclusion: Therefore it is true that an argument by example has two premises.

Standards of Assessment

An argument from authority is assessed in terms of six standards. If an argument meets these standards, then it is an acceptable argument from authority and it is reasonable to accept the conclusion based on the premises. If the argument fails to meet the standards, then it would not be reasonable to accept the conclusion based on the premises. Bad arguments from authority are relatively common and are known as fallacious appeals to authority.

1. The person has sufficient expertise in the subject matter in question.

Claims made by a person who lacks the needed degree of expertise to make a reliable claim will, obviously, not be well supported. In contrast, claims made by a person with the needed degree of expertise will be supported by the person’s reliability in the area.

Determining whether or not a person has the needed degree of expertise can often be very difficult. In academic fields (such as philosophy, engineering, history, etc.), the person’s formal education, academic performance, publications, membership in professional societies, papers presented, awards won and so forth can all be reliable indicators of expertise. Outside of academic fields, other standards will apply. For example, having sufficient expertise to make a reliable claim about how to tie a shoe lace only requires the ability to tie the shoe lace and impart that information to others. It should be noted that being an expert does not always require having a university degree. Many people have high degrees of expertise in sophisticated subjects without having ever attended a university. Further, it should not be simply assumed that a person with a degree is an expert.

Of course, what is required to be an expert is often a matter of great debate. For example, some people have (and do) claim expertise in certain (even all) areas because of a divine inspiration or a special gift. The followers of such people accept such credentials as establishing the person’s expertise while others often see these self-proclaimed experts as deluded or even as charlatans. In other situations, people debate over what sort of education and experience is needed to be an expert. Thus, what one person may take to be a fallacious appeal another person might take to be a well supported line of reasoning. Fortunately, many cases do not involve such debate.

2. The claim being made by the person is within her area(s) of expertise.

If a person makes a claim about some subject outside of his area(s) of expertise, then the person is not an expert in that context. Hence, the claim in question is not backed by the required degree of expertise and is not reliable.

It is very important to remember that because of the vast scope of human knowledge and skill it is simply not possible for one person to be an expert on everything. Hence, experts will only be true experts in respect to certain subject areas. In most other areas they will have little or no expertise. Thus, it is important to determine what subject area a claim falls under.

It is also very important to note that expertise in one area does not automatically confer expertise in another. For example, being an expert physicist does not automatically make a person an expert on morality or politics. Unfortunately, this is often overlooked or intentionally ignored. In fact, a great deal of advertising rests on a violation of this condition. As anyone who watches television knows, it is extremely common to get famous actors and sports heroes to endorse products that they are not qualified to assess. For example, a person may be a great actor, but that does not automatically make him an expert on cars or shaving or underwear or diets or politics.

3. There is an adequate degree of agreement among the other experts in the subject in question.

If there is a significant amount of legitimate dispute among the experts within a subject, then it will fallacious to make an Appeal to Authority using the disputing experts. This is because for almost any claim being made and “supported” by one expert there will be a counterclaim that is made and “supported” by another expert. In such cases an Appeal to Authority would tend to be futile. In such cases, the dispute has to be settled by consideration of the actual issues under dispute. Since either side in such a dispute can invoke experts, the dispute cannot be rationally settled by Appeals to Authority.

There are many fields in which there is a significant amount of legitimate dispute. Economics is a good example of such a disputed field. Anyone who is familiar with economics knows that there are many plausible theories that are incompatible with one another. Because of this, one expert economist could sincerely claim that the deficit is the key factor while another equally qualified individual could assert the exact opposite. Another area where dispute is very common (and well known) is in the area of psychology and psychiatry. As has been demonstrated in various trials, it is possible to find one expert that will assert that an individual is insane and not competent to stand trial and to find another equally qualified expert who will testify, under oath, that the same individual is both sane and competent to stand trial. Obviously, one cannot rely on an Appeal to Authority in such a situation without making a fallacious argument. Such an argument would be fallacious since the evidence would not warrant accepting the conclusion.

It is important to keep in mind that no field has complete agreement, so some degree of dispute is acceptable. How much is acceptable is, of course, a matter of serious debate. It is also important to keep in mind that even a field with a great deal of internal dispute might contain areas of significant agreement. In such cases, an Appeal to Authority could be legitimate.

4. The person in question is not significantly biased.

If an expert is significantly biased then the claims he makes within his are of bias will be less reliable. Since a biased expert will not be reliable, an Argument from Authority based on a biased expert will be fallacious. This is because the evidence will not justify accepting the claim.

Experts, being people, are vulnerable to biases and prejudices. If there is evidence that a person is biased in some manner that would affect the reliability of her claims, then an Argument from Authority based on that person is likely to be fallacious. Even if the claim is actually true, the fact that the expert is biased weakens the argument. This is because there would be reason to believe that the expert might not be making the claim because he has carefully considered it using his expertise. Rather, there would be reason to believe that the claim is being made because of the expert’s bias or prejudice.

It is important to remember that no person is completely objective. At the very least, a person will be favorable towards her own views (otherwise she would probably not hold them). Because of this, some degree of bias must be accepted, provided that the bias is not significant. What counts as a significant degree of bias is open to dispute and can vary a great deal from case to case. For example, many people would probably suspect that doctors who were paid by tobacco companies to research the effects of smoking would be biased while other people might believe (or claim) that they would be able to remain objective.

5. The area of expertise is a legitimate area or discipline.

Certain areas in which a person may claim expertise may have no legitimacy or validity as areas of knowledge or study. Obviously, claims made in such areas will not be very reliable.

What counts as a legitimate area of expertise is sometimes difficult to determine. However, there are cases which are fairly clear cut. For example, if a person claimed to be an expert at something he called “chromabullet therapy” and asserted that firing colorfully painted rifle bullets at a person would cure cancer, it would not be very reasonable to accept his claim based on his “expertise.” After all, his expertise is in an area which is devoid of legitimate content. The general idea is that to be a legitimate expert a person must have mastery over a real field or area of knowledge.

As noted above, determining the legitimacy of a field can often be difficult. In European history, various scientists had to struggle with the Church and established traditions to establish the validity of their disciplines. For example, experts on evolution faced an uphill battle in getting the legitimacy of their area accepted.

A modern example involves psychic phenomenon. Some people claim that they are certified “master psychics” and are experts in the field. Other people contend that their claims of being certified “master psychics” are simply absurd since there is no real content to such an area of expertise. If these people are right, then anyone who accepts the claims of these “master psychics” as true are victims of a fallacious appeal to authority.

6. The authority in question must be identified.

A common variation of the typical fallacious appeal to authority fallacy is an appeal to an unnamed authority. This fallacy is also known as an appeal to an unidentified authority.

This fallacy is committed when a person asserts that a claim is true because an expert or authority makes the claim and the person does not actually identify the expert. Since the expert is not named or identified, there is no way to tell if the person is actually an expert. Unless the person is identified and has his expertise established, there is no reason to accept the claim.

This sort of reasoning is not unusual. Typically, the person making the argument will say things like “I have a book that says…” , or “they say…”, or “the experts say…”, or “scientists believe that…”, or “I read in the paper..” or “I saw on TV…” or some similar statement. In such cases the person is often hoping that the listener(s) will simply accept the unidentified source as a legitimate authority and believe the claim being made. If a person accepts the claim simply because they accept the unidentified source as an expert (without good reason to do so), he has fallen prey to this fallacy.

Examples

Example#1

Premise 1: If violent art has a harmful psychological effect on people, then it should be censored.

Premise 2: However, the study by Loeb and Wombat shows that violent art has little, if any psychological effect on people.

Conclusion: Hence, there is no need to censor violent art to protect people from harm.

Example of Assessment

The source needs to be properly identified. Further, there is a great deal of disagreement among the experts within the field of psychology, especially over the matter of the effects of violent art.

Example # 2

Premise 1: According to medical science, there is no life after death.

Premise 2: Medical science is well established.

Conclusion: It is clear there is no life after death.

Example of Assessment

More information is needed about medical science, such as the exact source of the claim.

Published in: on March 12, 2008 at 7:27 pm  Comments (2)  
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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] lawyers and others who claim that there is a connection. People are often bad at discerning between legitimate authorities on a subject and people speaking on that subject who are famous for something else (like being an […]

  2. […] lawyers and others who claim that there is a connection. People are often bad at discerning between legitimate authorities on a subject and people speaking on that subject who are famous for something else (like being an […]


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