Day 46 — Appeal to Authority

We covered the inductive fallacy of slippery slope yesterday, which is where a faulty inference is made from a situation and leads to supposedly inevitable conclusions — what about an appeal to authority?

An appeal to authority can be an appeal to the view of someone in power, or even a source such as a text (dictionaries are a good one, since sometimes context and nuance can be missed). The important thing in spotting this fallacy is awareness that an expert in one instance might not be an expert in another — someone who has qualifications in animal medicine might not be the best person to help a human being with an illness and someone with a background in architecture might claim that jet fuel can’t melt steel beams… so you should question the relevance of their authority and ask for good reasons beyond ‘this says so’. I once had someone claim that they knew about educational trends, because their daughter was a tutor at a technical college, so it is surprising how people will stretch their claims to suit their argument.

Carl Sagan wrote of arguments from authority:

One of the great commandments of science is, “Mistrust arguments from authority.” … Too many such arguments have proved too painfully wrong. Authorities must prove their contentions like everybody else.

In psychology, there’s the Asch conformity experiments or the Asch Paradigm, which looked at how a tendency towards popular majority opinion could greatly influence social behaviour. Social psychology studies such as the Milgram experiment certainly demonstrates the danger of taking the authority in charge as the overwhelming source on what is best to do.

Further Resources: