I Just Love Authority!

Now that I am an evil statist.

In any case, I continue to get a kick out of, while simultaneously being annoyed by, people from the trollosphere who post comments like this:

ME: Well, Heisenberg said quantum mechanics does have such implications.
TROLL: Ah, the old appeal to authority fallacy!

These people have never even bothered to understand what constitutes this fallacy. They simply have taken it on authority that there is such a fallacy, and, given its name, they think they must know what it means.

But the real name of the fallacy should be something like "Appeal to Illegitimate Authority." To quote an authority:

"This fallacy is committed when the person in question is not a legitimate authority on the subject."


  1. I've noticed that this is a general pattern when people try to invoke a fallacy for refutation. But the fallacy always turns out to be a rule that says, "Condition X does not *guarantee* Y."

    But no one cares about that! Generally, we're only interested in whether X indicates Y is more likely, which, if X is invoked as support, it usually is.

    The justification for calling something a fallacy is always, "Well, if X *and* Z are true, Y would be false." In other words, if you have counter-evidence to the X that was invoked, Y might not follow.

    Yet this is no different than saying, "There could be contradictory evidence to that." Yet the invoker of the fallacy would already have done that if they knew of such evidence!

  2. that's not what wikipedia said

  3. Gene, even if the person cited is a legitimate authority, the statement "X is true because Y says so" is a fallacy.

    Say we Paul and Peter are arguing about economics:

    Paul: X is true.
    Peter: No, X is false.
    Paul: Joseph Stiglitz says X, so X must be true.
    Peter: That's a fallacy!

    Peter is right. Just because Stiglitz is a legitimate authority in economics it doesn't follow that what he says on the subject is true.

    Don't you agree? Have I misunderstood your post?

  4. Gene, even if the person who states a fact on some subject is a legitimate authority on that subject, it's a fallacy to claim that his opinion must be true just because he is an authority.

    Say someone is arguing about economics. If he says "X is true because Joseph Stiglitz says so", he is uttering a fallacy.

    Something is not true just because an expert on the subject at hand says so, even if the expert is a legitimate authority.

    Obviously, one can generally trust an expert on a given subject to be more likely to be right about that subject than a non-expert. But that's not the point.

    If this were not a fallacy, then it wouldn't be possible for two experts to disagree.

  5. I agree with what says here:


    That is:

    "An appeal to authority is an argument from the fact that a person judged to be an authority affirms a proposition to the claim that the proposition is true.

    Appeals to authority are always deductively fallacious; even a legitimate authority speaking on his area of expertise may affirm a falsehood, so no testimony of any authority is guaranteed to be true.

    However, the informal fallacy occurs only when the authority cited either (a) is not an authority, or (b) is not an authority on the subject on which he is being cited. If someone either isn’t an authority at all, or isn’t an authority on the subject about which they’re speaking, then that undermines the value of their testimony."

    From the purely logical point of view, an appeal to authority is always a fallacy

  6. Pedro, the question is not whether or not "X says Y" *makes Y necessarily correct*, it is whether or not "X says Y" is good evidence for Y. If X is a quantum physicist and Y is something about quantum physics, than the statement is very good evidence. Go read the link in my post!

  7. Anonymous8:40 PM

    Am I one of these rats of the trollosphere? I certainly hope not. While I may be outspoken (ignorantly so at times), I am just trying to use the internet as an educational tool.

    On the topic, it is difficult to discern what is a legitimate and what is an illegitimate authority, subjectivity definitely comes into play here. To be honest, I never pay much attention to this dynamic unless the argument is entirely without validity on its own merits and the "appeals" are the only substance.

    If the argument itself is sound and the "appeal" is only there to reinforce the argument, then I see no problems. But, for somebody to claim the fallacy for the mere mention of an authority, well that is wrong. Just think of how much science would be completely lost without the citations...

  8. Right, Joseph. And if you and I were arguing quantum physics (assuming you are not a physicist!) our very best bet for resolving any issue would be, "Let's see what the authorities say!"

    We certainly aren't going to go get PhDs in physics, and then set up our own labs to resolve it!

  9. "Am I one of these rats of the trollosphere? I certainly hope not."

    No, certainly not! While we may disagree, we always have polite discussions in which both sides attempt to listen. That's all one can ask.

  10. Anonymous10:56 PM

    Gene, very true. Also, your use of an exclamation in the subject matter is duly noted (I think that I know what you're referencing).

    Essentially, I agree with you here (and there).

  11. "From the purely logical point of view, an appeal to authority is always a fallacy"

    Pedro, that is a fallacious conclusion to draw from the quote you gave! The right conclusion is: If you think an appeal to authority acts as an ironclad proof, you are wrong. There is no logical fallacy involved in presenting supporting but less-than-knockdown evidence.

  12. This comment has been removed by the author.

  13. "Pedro, the question is not whether or not 'X says Y' *makes Y necessarily correct*, it is whether or not 'X says Y' is good evidence for Y."

    Why not? Sometimes, it is. In formal logic, for example, what matters is whether the form of an argument guarantees that the conclusion is true given that the premises are true. If someone resorts to authority to support his claims in a way that suggests that he thinks his opinion is guaranteed to be true because an authority says so, then his argument is a fallacy.

    But from your post it would seem you don't even recognize the existence of this fallacy at all. You say that those that invoke it didn't bother to understand it, and then explain what you call "Appeal to Illegitimate Authority". In my opinion, they are two different fallacies, of different kinds.

    Now, I understand that in your example, it won't do to complain that you are appealing to authority. If the person disagrees with you, and he wants to counter your argument, it would be better to say "Heisenberg was wrong because of such and such". This is more or less what Silas was saying. And this is so, because even though invoking Heisenberg doesn't guarantee that you are right, invoking the fallacy doesn't guarantee you are wrong.

    But what the other kind of fallacy of authority can be useful too:

    ME: X is true because of (argument 1).
    TROLL: Shut up! Mr. Authority disagrees with you, and he's the one that knows about the subject.

    In this case, it's legitimate to invoke the fallacy, even if Mr. Authority is a legitimate authority, because the TROLL is using it to excuse himself of meeting my arguments. What he should say is:

    "(argument 1) is wrong because of (argument 1b)".

    So, I understand your criticism of some of the people who refer to this fallacy.

    But the fallacy exists and sometimes it's legitimate to invoke it.

  14. "Why not?"

    Well, because no one ever appeals to authority in doing formal logic!

    Pedro, I will answer you once again with an appeal to authority.

  15. Anonymous2:09 AM

    "While we may disagree, we always have polite discussions in which both sides attempt to listen."

    I wouldn't say that this was always true (esp. on my part), but it has become increasingly true as time passes. Sometimes it takes a while to get a feel for someone's personality, the nature of internet often makes this process even more difficult.

    I am probably the king of bad first impressions, so I know this process well. It's a fortunate thing for me that first impressions don't always last.

  16. Gene, I looked into this and was surprised to see that in most places they had your concept of "appeal to authority" (I saw the page you just linked to). My surprise was because when they taught me logic in high school, it was formal logic, and they did mention the "appeal to authority" as a fallacy in the sense I use it. They mentioned the "ad hominem" fallacy, too.

    So, now I understand your comment better, because it seems that's how the name is mostly used.

    Still, in the realm of formal logic (I said "pure logic" before, because I wasn't sure it was a formal fallacy), the fallacy exists, although in daily life it's perfectly acceptable to resort to authority as a rule of thumb. But it's perfectly acceptable, if one has arguments, to invoke it in the formal sense, like in the example I gave.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Central Planning Works!

Fair's fair!

Well, So What?