Appealing to Authority is not a Fallacy; it is a sign of Wisdom

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.

2 thoughts on “Appealing to Authority is not a Fallacy; it is a sign of Wisdom”

  1. I searched through my RSS reader looking for that link from earlier today from that person talking about using “logic” wrong so I could post it here as a counterpoint. It would be hilariously ironic, of course, citing that authority to prove this wrong. Then I realized who had posted it. It’s as if the person who wrote this post didn’t read that post.

    You don’t seem to understand the difference between deductive and inductive reasoning. An appeal to expertise is often not fallacious when using inductive logic, but it’s always a fallacy of deductive logic. Specifically, if you cite an authority, without evidence, as a premise to reason deductively, it is fallacious.

    Yet even in an inductive argument, use of an appeal to expertise will still result in an unconvincing argument if agreement on the expert cannot be established. If you think that the chance of an expert being right is 94% and I think it is 49%, your argument will not convince me. You can call me unreasonable, and that might be true, but you’ll have to abandon your presumption and make an evidence-based argument if you wish to press your point.

    So in practice, citing an authority is only useful if the person you argue with accepts your expert. While an appeal to expertise saves time for lesser, uncontested premises, expertise is nearly useless for major, contested premises. For example, if you say you were born on such-and-such a date, I’ll probably accept this. If you say you can fly like Superman, I won’t accept your expertise.

    Now, if you want to avoid reasoning, then you can make an appeal to expertise to decide or defer an issue for you. People do this all the time and it’s perfectly reasonable. Since you are avoiding reasoning entirely, it can’t be a logical fallacy. You could be right, you could be wrong, but logic isn’t helping you decide that because you are not using logic or making an argument. So, instead of saying “logic says you should base your beliefs on what experts tell you”, say “it is wise to base your beliefs on what experts tell you.” It’s wack, but at least this way you won’t misuse the word “logic.”

    An appeal to expertise is intellectually lazy. If someone is an expert, cite their evidence and arguments, not the fact that they have evidence and arguments. Merely citing authority often presages disinterest in rationally examining the evidence and steamrolling the debate.

    You need expertise to reliably know who the experts are. This begs the question, which is why you should avoid using an appeal to expertise for critical arguments, unless you have no other choice.


  2. This entire comment looks like a cut-and-paste job from the Wikipedia article, with no serious attempt to actually understand and respond to what I wrote. I warned against trying that in my previous article. Genuine experts can usually tell you you are faking it, even if you copy from other experts.


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