When people present an argument, they sometimes refer to the opinion of some authority as evidence for their claim. This is often a person, but it can also be something like a book, a website, or a constitution.
That kind of reasoning can be problematic, especially if the person insists their claim must be true merely because some authority said so. It is not that an expert says it that makes a claim true. What makes it true is the preponderance of evidence for their theory.
An argument from an authority can never prove that something is true. It can, however, make it more likely to be true. But that’s only the case if the authority referred to is actually an expert on the topic at hand.
If the expert is relevant, an appeal to authority is sound. But if the expert is irrelevant, the argument is fallacious. When you come across this kind of reasoning, the trick is to evaluate the relevancy of the expert.
Appeal to Authority Examples
“Mozart heavily influenced Beethoven. I know so because I looked it up online.”
This is an appeal to non-authority. It’s fallacious because we know nothing about the reliability of the website. The internet as a whole can’t be trusted as a reliable authority on anything.
“Eating cooked meat causes cancer. I know so because scientists say so.”
This is an appeal to anonymous authorities. It’s fallacious since we don’t know who these scientists are. If we’re unfamiliar with the research, we can’t know how reliable it is.
“God doesn’t exist. I know so because Stephen Hawking said so.”
This is an appeal to unqualified authority. It’s fallacious because, while Stephen Hawking was a brilliant physicist, that doesn’t automatically make him an authority on whether God exists.
“I need to take my medicine. I know so because my doctor prescribed it.”
This is an appeal to legitimate authority. It’s not fallacious, because the authority has expertise relevant to the claim. Assuming that the doctor has the right medical training, you can confidently follow the prescription.
Now, there’s always a chance that even a highly relevant authority could be wrong, so it’s always a good idea to think of facts as provisionally true.
Accept information from credible experts as correct, but be willing to change your mind whenever you come across an argument with more trustworthy facts.
Question authority and analyze evidence. That way, you’ll be more flexible in your beliefs and less vulnerable to irrelevant expert opinions.
This article is an excerpt from my book The Decision-Making Blueprint.