June 28, 2005

The fallacy of appeal to authority

You may choose to write as statements of fact: “Three Nobel scientists support this practice,” or “Dr. Ribes of our biology department said recently…”, but using such statements as part of your argument to convince readers to adopt a point of view, or accept a theoretical understanding of some particular phenomenon commits the logical fallacy known as “appeal to authority.”

A Latin term for this fallacy, argumentum ad verecundiam, means “appeal to the sense of modesty.” The fallacy often works as a persuasive device because many listeners or readers will feel “too modest” to challenge someone they perceive as an authority.

Advertisers, politicians, and interest groups often rely on this fallacy as a rhetorical device to persuade (or dissuade). For example, a shoe company presents a star athlete raving about a certain brand of shoe, or an interest group tells you to ask your Congressional representatives to oppose a certain bill, noting that celebrities X, Y and Z, the Rev. CQ and famous-doctors WF and CC oppose it.

The bottom line: Writers who want to make a credible case for a point of view, a practice, or a perspective, should cite research-based or evidence-based facts and conclusions, using appeals to genuine authorities only as introductory or complementary matter.

The most egregious form of the fallacy appeals to false authorities—famous people who lack expertise in the topic at hand. But, strapped for time and space, many of us pull out a subtler version of the fallacy we might call an “appeal to abstract authorities.” We write: “Research has shown…” or “Government experts have learned…,” without offering much in way of the facts of the matter.

Make sure you don’t introduce this device unless and until you’ve actually looked at the “research” and “findings” of the authorities you cite, enough to convince you of the validity of the research design and its conclusions, and from which you could provide the data if a reader requested it.

Where applicable, in addition to the facts of your topic, you might further enhance your credibility with readers if you also acknowledge such aspects of your topic as its unknowns, findings from legitimate researchers that contradict mainstream ideas, and disproved or discredited hypotheses.

A host of fallacies closely related to the appeal to authority include:

Appeal to popular opinion: Eighty percent of Americans can’t be wrong.

Appeal to veneration: Experts at Harvard Medical School join the Dalai Lama in supporting this practice.

Appeal to tradition: Human societies have honored this practice for thousands of years.

Posted by pboyles at June 28, 2005 3:31 PM

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