How might one successfully appeal to authority as a means of arguing for the truth of a proposition? It is often said that bringing up authority in an argument is a fallacy. Or, it is sometimes more thoughtfully claimed that one may appeal to authority so long as the authority is an expert in the relevant field. I think the former is too restrictive, and the latter too permissive.
The relevant page at your logical fallacy is is surprisingly good on this one:
It’s important to note that this fallacy should not be used to dismiss the claims of experts, or scientific consensus. Appeals to authority are not valid arguments, but nor is it reasonable to disregard the claims of experts who have a demonstrated depth of knowledge unless one has a similar level of understanding and/or access to empirical evidence. However it is, entirely possible that the opinion of a person or institution of authority is wrong; therefore the authority that such a person or institution holds does not have any intrinsic bearing upon whether their claims are true or not.
Consider two sorts of claim: “p is true”, “p seems likely to be true/I conditionally assume p“. I propose that appeals to authority are only valuable when their intended conclusion takes the form of the latter.
The Nizkor Project suggests that the appeal to authority is only fallacious when the authority is not really an authority:
An Appeal to Authority is a fallacy with the following form:
- Person A is (claimed to be) an authority on subject S.
- Person A makes claim C about subject S.
- Therefore, C is true.
This fallacy is committed when the person in question is not a legitimate authority on the subject. More formally, if person A is not qualified to make reliable claims in subject S, then the argument will be fallacious.
I don’t think this is quite right. 3) doesn’t follow from 1) and 2), regardless of whether or not the authority is an expert in the relevant field. It is fallacious, but it is because the argument is logically invalid, i.e. the conclusion can be false even when the premises are all true. We can, however, adjust the argument such that it is no longer invalid:
- If a person is an authority on a subject, and if they make a claim relevant to that subject, then we have a justification for conditionally accepting the claim.
- Person A is an authority on subject S.
- Person A makes claim C about subject S.
- We have a justification for conditionally accepting C.
Now, if A is an authority on S, then that’s all we need to say, and by ‘conditionally accepting’ I mean that we tentatively assume the truth of C for practical purposes. If they’re not a ‘legitimate authority’ then they’re not an authority on S. Furthermore, it is worth noting that while we have a justification for conditionally accepting C, there may be stronger reasons justifying the converse. For instance, if a zoologist denies evolution, we still have many much stronger reasons in favour of evolution, including appeals to the relevant authority of (many more) other biologists. This is, of course, a much weaker claim than ‘C is true’. Appeals to authority, relevant or not, cannot themselves lead us to know that something is true. Rather, they are simply an indication that there are probably good arguments that do demonstrate that a proposition is true.
So, there are situations in which bringing up a relevant authority can be helpful. As I said in an earlier post:
We might defer to authority on some occasions – I don’t really know much about climate change but I defer to the experts who do, and thus believe that man-made climate change is a very real problem. This sort of deference, though, is a time-saving mechanism. We do so only because we have limited time and resources to get acquainted with a given subject. If we have our own arguments, and our own position, then the best way of verifying that position is to test it against objections – not simply see if an authority agrees and adjust our beliefs so they are in synchronisation with theirs.
However, appeals to authority should not be a primary method of inquiry. At their most useful, they can provide inspiration to double check our own position on a subject. If you think that Kent Hovind’s objections to evolution are compelling, but you are baffled that so many real scientists accept evolution even in light of Hovind’s widely-available lectures, then if you are honestly seeking the truth it should urge you to investigate thoroughly why it is that these scientists weren’t as swayed by Hovind as you were.