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Stressing status and appealing to authority

March 28, 2012
You can trust the word of any scientist on anything scientific can’t you? No, that’s a red flag

How to recognise this tactic

People who use this tactic try to convince you by quoting some ‘authority’ who agrees with their claims and pointing to that person’s status, position or qualifications, instead of producing real-world evidence. The tactic is known as the argument from authority.


Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.

Albert Einstein, German physicist , 1901

Why do people use this tactic?

People use this tactic when they don’t have or can’t produce evidence. They hope that those in their audience who are unfamiliar with the particular field will accept what the ‘expert’ says simply because of his claim to authority. The spiel includes things like “professor of X at Y university”, “advisor to the prime minister”, “awarded the Z prize”, “ John Smith, B. Med. Sc., Ph. D.” and anything else that tries to boost the authority of the expert without any reference to evidence.

What’s wrong with this tactic

There’s nothing wrong with mentioning an expert’s position, awards, qualifications etc. It’s when this is not followed by real evidence that there’s a problem. You are expected to defer to their opinion simply because of their authority. If their expertise is not within the field being discussed, their opinion is worth no more than anyone else’s. Science does not work on the authority of scientistsOnly real-world evidence counts.

What to do when confronted by this tactic

Basically the only thing you should trust is the evidence. But lay people usually have to accept someone’s word, even when evidence is provided. Scientists are like everyone else. Many are very well-respected and honourable. Some are dishonest. The scientific community knows this and that’s why it doesn’t defer to pronouncements from anyone. It trusts only peer-reviewed evidence from the real world.

If you have to place your trust in someone, first look at their qualifications and publications. Are they relevant to the field of study? If not, you can disregard the opinion. If they are relevant, ask to see evidence. There may be possible conflicts of interest or ideological positions that may colour their opinion. Also ask how this expert’s stance fits with the accepted science in the field. If it doesn’t fit, they should be able to supply some extraordinary evidence in support.

Variations and related tactics

This tactic is closely related to the use of fake experts, in which organisations or corporations present evidence from ‘authorities’ who in fact have no expertise in the field they are commenting on.

Examples

  • Climate-change deniers frequently employ the argument from authority. Among the ‘authorities’ they like to promote are

This does not mean that there are no climate scientists who are skeptical of climate change. John Christy, Roy Spencer and Richard Lindzen, for example, are recognized climate scientists who have published papers in the field. However, their work has been highly criticised (see here, here and here) and is not representative of the accepted consensus.

  • Creationists employ what would seem to them to be the ultimate in arguments from authority when they present quotes from scripture as evidence against the evolutionary model. Needless to say, the scientific community does not accept this as real world evidence.
  • The use of sporting identities to promote health products is a subtle application of the appeal to authority.

Other relevant articles from Science Or Not?

Trusting the experts: How can I decide which experts to trust on scientific issues?

Add to the list of examples by leaving a comment.

Albert Einstein’s quote is from Letter to Jost Winteler (1901), quoted in The Private Lives of Albert Einstein by Roger Highfield and Paul Carter (1993)
The Credibility Spectrum graphic is from ClimateSight

This is one of ScienceOrNot’s Science red flags. See them all here.
5 Comments
  1. Hi Graham. This is indeed a very intriguing piece because, in my experience at least, climate change deniers seem to use the illegitimacy of arguments from authority to dismiss the validity of the scientific consensus that is arrayed against them. That is to say, they invoke the marketplace of ideas fallacy that expert and non-expert opinions are equally valid instead. However, they have no problem heaping praise upon – and almost indulging in idol-worship of – a “friendly” non-expert like Monckton or, even more so, a genuine (but no less mistaken) expert like Lindzen.

    See also my recent response to Barry Bickmore on this subject:

    http://bbickmore.wordpress.com/2012/03/26/the-monckton-files-squealing-tires/

    • I suppose the deniers can dismiss the consensus, Martin, but in the end, it’s the evidence that counts, independently of anyone’s opinion. How long can they hold out against the evidence that is stacking up against them (and the lack of evidence showing up on their side)?

  2. JaneFreemont permalink

    It sounds like YOU need to learn what an appeal to authority that is fallacious actually is…….

    If the said authority is a world class recognized expert in a given field AND the information is consistent with EXPERT SCIENTIFIC CONSENSUS- THEN IT IS NOT, NOT, NOT a fallacious appeal to authority. Einstein was a great physicist. He said vegetarianism is the best diet. THAT would be appeal to authority….

    YOU are INCORRECTLY using the phrase.

    You are correct not to automatically trust scientists, but simply doing do does NOT meet the criteria for appeal to authority. It’s just stupidity.

    In fact, YOU committed the “appeal to INAPPROPRIATE authority” fallacy.

    You also fail to understand MUCH JUNK gets through peer review. It is only a MINIMAL assurance of quality…

    • I’ll simply repeat one of my sentences from above, Jane:
      Basically the only thing you should trust is the evidence.

      Also, please read the comment policy for this website. There are preferred alternatives to ALL CAPS.

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