False Views On The Appeal To Authority

What is the Appeal to Authority? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

I’ve seen it happen way too many times. It’s the kind of mistake I can’t believe that thinking people make, but unfortunately, they do. It is not that they use the Appeal to Authority. It is that they misunderstand what the Appeal to Authority is.

Picture me in a debate and saying “New Testament scholars like Hurtado, Bauckham, Keener, Ehrman, Bird, and others agree.”

What’s the reply? “You’re appealing to authorities which is fallacious.”

Let’s start out with an obvious rejoinder. Do you say that to appeal to an authority on a claim is necessarily fallacious? If so, then upon what authority do I take that claim? Is it not just as fallacious to appeal to your own authority if all appeals to authority are fallacious?

The biggest problem with this type of argument is that it doesn’t realize that the Appeal to Authority deals with appealing to authorities that are not valid authorities. If you want to discuss the fine points of New Testament scholarship, it is just fine to appeal to N.T. Wright or Bart Ehrman. If you want to discuss the fine points of evolution, it is not fine to respond to these men as fine as they may be in their respective fields. It would be fine to appeal to Richard Dawkins. At the same time, Dawkins would not be qualified to speak on the fine points of the New Testament.

We all rely on authorities every day because none of us can learn everything. If you have ever gone to a doctor and taken something at the doctor’s recommendation, unless you are a doctor yourself you accepted a claim because of an authority and if someone asked you “Why are you taking that medication?” you could say “My doctor told me too.”

Now of course, your doctor could be mistaken. The appeal to authority does not mean the authority will get everything right. It means all things being equal, their opinion in their field is of more value than the opinion of the layman in the field.

This is also why it’s important to see what field someone is an authority in. Their field could touch on another, but it’s best to go to the main authorities. Here are some questions you can ask yourself when considering if someone is a valid authority.

Do they have sufficient studies in the field that they’re in? If your person has a Ph.D. from an accredited university, you can be quite sure that they do.

Is the person recognized by others as an authority, including opponents?

Is the person generally shown to be honest in their assessments and seeking to avoid bias?

If the person is a Ph.D. do they teach at an accredited university or have they retired from that position?

Last night, my wife and I were at an event talking about a brand of products meant to help improve one’s health. At the start, I see a reference to a doctor who promotes these products. What am I soon doing? Looking up that doctor’s name on Google and seeing what is being said about him. Are there any harsh criticisms? Is there skepticism? Is this person seen as a kook in the scientific community? Since he is a doctor, what is his doctorate in? (It would not be as impressive to find out that Dr. X is a Dr. of New Testament who is giving this as a great benefit to health. He might know his New Testament well, but that does not make him an authority on health.)

Note with that last point that to say someone is not an authority in a field does not mean that they are ipso facto wrong. It just means that if all you have to go by is their say so, then you are indeed entitled to be skeptical.

Now if this person produces data of some sort, then that data must be interacted with. Someone who is not an authority in a field can present data for a position and then what you are discussing is not so much that person’s opinion, but rather what that data is and how it should be interpreted.

To say that to always appeal to an authority is wrong is a mistake indeed. The problem is when one appeals to an authority that is not a valid authority in the field. All of us rely on authorities as we must as none of us can verify every claim made to us in this life. (Few of us can verify the Earth goes around the sun yet few of us at the same time doubt that.)

If someone tells you that an appeal to authority is always a fallacy, be sure to call them on it. The person who thinks this way will inevitably want to live by their own authority and decide everything that way.

Kind of fallacious isn’t it?

In Christ,
Nick Peters

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28 Responses to “False Views On The Appeal To Authority”

  1. Boxing Pythagoras Says:

    Nearly complete agreement, here. My only contention would be that there are cases where even an appeal to a valid authority can be fallacious. The real fallacy is in asserting that a premise should be accepted simply because it is proffered by a purported authority.

    For example, if I were to assert that the proper reading of Mark 1:41 is that Jesus was “moved with anger” rather than pity simply because Bart Ehrman suggests this is the correct reading, I would be making an Appeal to Authority fallacy despite the fact that Ehrman is a noted authority. This particular reading is a minority position in scholarship, and while there are good arguments one can make for its authenticity, “because Ehrman says so” is not one of them.

    There is a big difference between citing the arguments made by authorities, and claiming something is true simply because an authority said it. The latter is the fallacy, whether the authority is valid or not.

    • apologianick Says:

      I believe I had stated this also when I said that an appeal to authority does not make it right. An authority can be wrong. For instance, if we are talking about the text of Mark 1:41 and all we have are the opinion of Bart Ehrman or the butcher at the grocery store, well all things being equal, it’d be wiser to go with Ehrman. When one looks at the data, one might disagree.

      btw, I actually do think it is quite likely that the original reading was “moved with anger.”

      • Boxing Pythagoras Says:

        Apologies! Somehow I missed that you had addressed this in the article.

        But, in general, I agree. Valid authorities are obviously preferable to the alternative, and valid authorities with reasonable and sound arguments are more preferable, still.

        For what it’s worth, I also tend to argue for the “orgistheis” reading of Mark 1:41. Thanks, Nick!

  2. Jeff Says:

    You seem to be equating sound/fallacious with correct/wrong. Yes, it’s true that an appeal to a false authority is fallacious and also (probably) wrong. However, it’s also the case that an appeal to a legitimate authority is fallacious; the difference is that it’s probably not wrong, for exactly the reason you said — none of us can investigate everything, and the odds are pretty good that a legitimate authority will be correct about a subject within their field of expertise. So, you’re generally on level ground using a legitimate authority’s claims in building an argument, if the goal is to determine what is most likely true. But strictly from the standpoint of rigor, yes, an appeal to authority is always fallacious.

    • apologianick Says:

      If you want to say an appeal to authority is always fallacious, by whose authority do you determine that?

      • Jeff Says:

        Not a serious response. Try again.

      • apologianick Says:

        Well you’d need to show why.

        If you want to say authority alone does not settle the matter, that is not under dispute and no one is saying that, although it does put the burden of proof elsewhere, but if you want to say it’s always wrong to use an authority, then there is a problem.

      • Jeff Says:

        I didn’t say it was wrong to use an authority in building an argument. In fact, I said the exact opposite. What I said was that it’s always /fallacious/. And indeed, as I said in my first sentence, “fallacious” and “wrong” are not the same thing.

        I guess my point is mostly that you’re using your terms imprecisely. It’s not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things.

      • apologianick Says:

        Except I still see no reason to think an appeal to authority is always fallacious.

      • Jeff Says:

        Then, again, I think you may be misunderstanding the difference between “false” and “invalid/fallacious”.

        You yourself stipulated to a perfectly good illustration of this principle above: Ehrman is a credible scholar in field X. Ehrman says Y (and Y is pertinent to field X). Therefore, Y is true.

        This is an invalid /argument/, whether or not Ehrman is in fact an expert in X, and whether or not Y is, in actual fact, true. Fallacious means that it violates the laws of logic, not that it necessarily leads to an untrue conclusion.

      • apologianick Says:

        But even most textbooks on logic do not always consider it fallacious. It is only fallacious at certain times. They would also agree that saying X is true because Y says it is is a fallacy.

  3. Log Says:

    The only time an appeal to authority is not a fallacy is in the case of a witness to an event. Otherwise, I want to see your evidence and analysis, because I don’t trust you.

    • apologianick Says:

      Log: The only time an appeal to authority is not a fallacy is in the case of a witness to an event.

      Reply: Should I take this claim on your authority?

      • Log Says:

        Unless you have a functioning mind-reading device that you can produce for public examination, then you don’t have a competing authority on my motivations, or a competing account of my experiences.

      • apologianick Says:

        Never said anything about your motivations or experiences. I just asked if I should trust your claim on your authority. The question still stands.

      • Log Says:

        Then you haven’t understood my claim.

        I’ll try again: Credentials do not imply truth.

      • apologianick Says:

        Credentials don’t mean what someone says is absolutely true, but it means all things being equal, they are more likely to be true.

        If you disagree, then the next time you’re sick, don’t visit a certified doctor. Go ask your mechanic what he thinks.

      • Log Says:

        I want to see the math behind that claim of likelihood. If it is simply an idiomatic expression of trust in credentials, then it would be meet of you to say so.

        Jeremiah 17:5
        5 ¶Thus saith the Lord; Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the Lord.

        Of course, heh, such things are only persuasive to them who accept the Bible as authoritative.

      • apologianick Says:

        Would you trust your mechanic to do surgery on you? Why or why not?

      • Log Says:

        Why would my answer to that question matter to you? I have no credentials to prove my authority to answer it.

      • apologianick Says:

        The appeal to authority applies to specialized knowledge and not to general knowledge. You are an authority on your own desires.

      • Log Says:

        Science, to be science, is general knowledge – publicly demonstrable and accessible to the raw senses and reason.

        Therefore, appeals to authority in science are, at best, irrelevant if the authority happens to be speaking the truth – because anyone can do the experiment – and at worst wrong, if the authority happens to be lying and is using his credentials to cover that fact.

        When, in your view, do credentials become reliable indicators of truth? Why? What gives you the authority to impose your standard of rationality upon others?

      • apologianick Says:

        Assuming everyone can repeat the experiment, can properly interpret it, etc. Not everyone can. That requires specialized knowledge. If you don’t think it does, then you should trust a preacher by his authority just as much saying the Earth is young.

        No one is also saying credentials alone, but what is being said is that those with credentials should be taken more seriously than those who have none.

        I also never said a credential is an indicator of truth, but rather an indication that the person is more educated on the topic and should be treated with greater respect and credibility.

        Now if you don’t think so then again, do you want a mechanic to do surgery on you? It’s general knowledge after all. Right?

      • Log Says:

        No one is also saying credentials alone, but what is being said is that those with credentials should be taken more seriously than those who have none.

        That, precisely, is the point of dispute. It is a value judgement that I disagree with. I’ve known too many credentialed quacks and authoritative liars.

        Therefore, I say again, show me the evidence and analysis, because I don’t trust you.

      • apologianick Says:

        Just as I have seen quacks and liars. No one said credentials mean absolute truth. No one said it even means the person can’t be a quack or liar. It means that all things being equal, their opinion would carry greater value. Like I said, Bart Ehrman has more authority on textual criticism than a layman in the pew, even though I disagree with his conclusions, because he has seriously studied the subject matter.

        Again my question. Would you let a mechanic do surgery on you?

      • Log Says:

        Yes, I would let a mechanic do surgery on me, if he could persuade me that he can do the job to my satisfaction and earn my trust thereby.

        On the other hand, I can think of doctors I would not trust to merely prescribe anything to me or mine.

      • apologianick Says:

        I can think of doctors I would not trust based on their actions, but then that is not all things being equal.

        I could not trust a mechanic to do it ever. It would always be a doctor.

  4. JC Says:

    Dick Van Patten would clearly say you have no idea what you’re talking about.

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