One of the most significant aspects of civilization is specialization of expertise. People get better at things through study and practice, but such study and practice take time. If you try to be competent at everything, you will have time for nothing but study and practice with no time left over to accomplish anything. It is the defining genius of civilization that each person becomes competent at just a few things and then trades services with other people who have become competent at other things. This organization lets everyone benefit from high competence in every area without actually having to develop high competence in every area.
When you appeal to authority in some area, you are taking advantage of this important aspect of civilization. Rather than investigating some area yourself, you listen to the experts who have investigate the area. Not only does this save your time and effort, but unless you put in years of study to become an expert yourself, it gives you a better answer than you are likely to get based on your own judgement even if you do a bit of study.
Now, obviously there are a potential problems with appealing to authority; here are a few of them:
- The experts may have different incentives from yours, so their answers may be different than you would give, if you had their knowledge. This, for example is why you can’t always trust your mechanic or your doctor.
- The experts may not know the answer, but be unwilling to admit it (even, perhaps to themselves), so they speculate. This is the main reason that science is so wrong so much of the time.
- The experts may simply be frauds. This is the case in most alternative medicine and for most paranormal experts like psychics.
- The expert may not be an expert on the actual question you are considering. One sees this a lot when atheists appeal to a scientist, but appeal to the scientist’s views on history, epistemology, theology, or another fields that the scientist is not expert in.
So, yes, there are problems, but there are problems with any way of acquiring knowledge. Just because there are potential problems with appealing to authority, that doesn’t make every appeal to authority fallacious or justify considering appeal to authority as a fallacy.
It’s worth adding that there is a genuine fallacy that someone might call “appeal to authority” because of the ambiguity of the word “authority”. To avoid the ambiguity, let’s call this new fallacy an “appeal to organizational authority”, and call the one we were talking about before an “appeal to expertise”. The appeal to organizational authority would be an appeal to some person in view of the person’s authority over the people speaking rather than in view of the person’s expertise on the topic being discussed. For example: “the sergeant has authority over you, private, so if he says the moon is made of green cheese, then the moon is made of green cheese!” Of course, even this sort of argument is not always fallacious; consider “the sergeant has authority over you, private, so if he says you have to dig that foxhole deeper, then you have to dig that foxhole deeper!”
Still, in an argument over independent facts rather than issues of duty and behavior, an appeal to organizational authority would be fallacious, but I wouldn’t include it in a list of fallacies for the simple reason that it is a fallacy one never sees. Even when a child says for example, “Santa Claus is real because Mom said so”, the child is appealing to the mother’s greater knowledge, not her organizational authority.
The reason I bring this is up because I get the feeling that when people criticize religious views such as creationism for “the fallacy of appeal to authority”, what they often have in mind is the fallacy of appeal to organizational authority; at any rate, that would justify them calling it a fallacy if they mean that the creationist is appealing to the Bible or to religious leaders or to God on the grounds of the Bible’s, the religious leader’s, or God’s organizational authority. However, although that may be what the critic thinks the creationist is doing, that is not what he is doing. What the creationist is doing is appealing to a source of greater knowledge, which is a non-fallacious appeal to expertise, not a fallacious appeal to hierarchy. The anti-creationist may disagree with the creationist on whether the Bible, the religious leader, or God is a greater source of knowledge, but that is a difference of epistemology, not a sign of a logical fallacy.