by / 2 Comments / 9 View / April 9, 2015

APPEAL TO AUTHORITY – Misplacing or misusing a source of authority in an argument. 

​There are a few varieties of the Appeal to Authority fallacy. We should remember that quoting authorities is not always a fallacy. One way this is an issue is by consulting a poor authority. Poor authorities are ones who have no expertise on the specific topic being debated. We should do our best to parse out the reliable authorities from the poor ones.

Certain times this is clear. A commercial that uses celebrities to sell products is using a false authority; the actors are not experts, they just get paid to sell products. And asking your doctor for advice on your cancer treatment is not a fallacy. Your doctor probably knows better than you how to treat cancer.

There is some gray area, however. It is the questionable authorities who reasonable people may disagree on. We should be able to defend our choice of sources, noting how the source is helpful to the argument.

Another version of the fallacy is in assuming that a claim cannot be wrong because it was proposed by a legitimate authority. Authorities generally are not, themselves, definitive proof for any conclusions. Even if the source is valid, experts can be wrong. If an arguer gives proof against a particular claim by an expert, the proof should be accepted and the source should be discarded.

One example is the famous claim by RA Fisher that smoking does not cause cancer. He was a geneticist and a statistician; he is sometimes referred to as the “father of modern statistics.” Fisher made several attempts to question the causal link between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer. The evidence today points contrary to Fisher’s stance. Since he was a major authority figure in the realm of statistics and genetics, one may wrongly assume that Fisher must have been correct. This would be placing too much weight on the authority and not enough on the evidence.

2 Comment

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