June 14, 2011

Logic Lessons: Appeal to Authority

This article is a bit tricky because there are gray areas. 

The fallacy of Appeal to Authority (sometimes called argumentum ad verecundiam) can be rather obvious. It can be like children arguing, "Plumbers have secret hiding places for guns in their shoes. The guy at the newsstand said so!" If "the guy at the newsstand" is not a former plumber revealing well-guarded secrets to kids, he is not an authority to which they can appeal. In the simplest sense, argumentum ad verecundiam appears when the "authority" is discussing something outside his or her field of expertise. 
When zoologist Richard Dawkins says, "They believe this because they rate a particular bronze age origin myth more highly than all the scientific evidence in the world. It is only one of literally thousands of such myths from around the world, but it happened, by a series of historical accidents, to become enshrined in a book — Genesis.…the fact that half of Americans take Genesis literally is nothing less than an educational scandal", he is merely expressing an ill-founded opinion because he is not qualified to make such assertions. If he was making a remark about zoology, that would be a different matter.

Polycarp. His name does not
mean "many fish".

Christians have done this as well. For instance, "The Pre-Tribulation Rapture cannot be a valid doctrine because it does not appear in the writings of the church fathers". This an Appeal to Authority because the church fathers deserve a great deal of respect, but they were not writing Scripture. (It also leans a bit toward "argument from silence", but we'll deal with that one another time.) In this area, it does not matter whether or not the church fathers wrote on the subject.

A gray area can happen when people will use an authority on a subject as if he trumped all others. For instance, Finkelstein changes the dates for archaeological research on the Bible. He presents his case as if his was the only view, conveniently disregarding the views of other, more qualified archaeologists. But Mr. Awful Bitter takes his "authoritative" findings and presents them in an "argument" as if Finkelstein's remarks were the ultimate authority.
Authority must be used carefully. In some instances, the remarks of the authority can result in "case closed" because Joe Expert gives a definitive answer. More often, however, someone's expertise can be used to give weight to an argument, and the discussion goes on from there. 

Avoid going generic. "Scientists say/believe" is not very impressive, capice?

Be careful of a few things. First, simply because someone quotes an expert (someone who is actually skilled on the subject in question) does not necessarily mean that argumentum ad verecundiam is taking place. Second, depending on the situation, your expert may not have a Master's Degree in the subject, but may demonstrate good knowledge on the subject. Take that on a "case by case" basis. Third, citing experts can easily be used as a substitute for actual thinking, and may as well be an Appeal to Authority when practiced.

Now if you'll excuse me, my plumber is going to advise me on my new gun. He knows more about the Walther P-99 than I do. And we'll discuss some theology, because I am more skilled in that area than he is. But I won't tell him about his stock options!

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