Stressing status and appealing to authority
|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 scientists. Only 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.
- Climate-change deniers frequently employ the argument from authority. Among the ‘authorities’ they like to promote are
- Christopher Monckton who has claimed to be a member of the British House of Lords, but who has no scientific expertise.
- Ian Plimer, a professor of mining geology, whose expertise is not in climate science and whose evidence has been shown to have multiple errors.
- Bob Carter, a professor with expertise in marine geology, who has published only one peer-reviewed paper related to climate science. It has been shown to have serious flaws.
- David Bellamy, a professor of botany, who has published one peer-reviewed paper on climate change (in a Civil Engineering journal!). His ‘evidence’ has been shown to be faulty.
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?
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.|