Argument from authority

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Argument from authority, also authoritative argument and appeal to authority, is a common form of argument which leads to a logical fallacy when misused.[1]

In informal reasoning, the appeal to authority is a form of argument attempting to establish a statistical syllogism.[2] The appeal to authority relies on an argument of the form:[3]

A is an authority on a particular topic
A says something about that topic
A is probably correct

Fallacious examples of using the appeal include any appeal to authority used in the context of logical reasoning, and appealing to the position of an authority or authorities to dismiss evidence,[2][4][5][6] as authorities can come to the wrong judgments through error, bias, dishonesty, or falling prey to groupthink. Thus, the appeal to authority is not a generally reliable argument for establishing facts.[7]

Forms[edit]

General[edit]

The argument from authority can take several forms. As a syllogism, the argument has the following basic structure:[4][8]

A says P about subject matter S.
A should be trusted about subject matter S.
Therefore, P is correct.

The second premise is not accepted as valid, as it amounts to an unfounded assertion that leads to circular reasoning able to define person or group A into inerrancy on any subject matter.[4][9]

One real world example of this tautological inerrancy is how Ignaz Semmelweis' evidence that puerperal fever was caused by a contagious agent, as opposed to the accepted view that it was caused mainly by environmental factors[10] was dismissed largely based on appeals to authority. Multiple critics stated that they did not accept the claims in part because of the fact that in all the academic literature on puerperal fever there was nothing that supported the view Semmelweis was advancing [11]. They were thus effectively using the circular argument that "the literature is not in error, therefore the literature is not in error" [12].

Dismissal of evidence[edit]

The equally fallacious counter-argument from authority takes the form:[13]

B has provided evidence for position T.
A says position T is incorrect.
Therefore, B's evidence is false.

This form is fallacious as it does not actually refute the evidence given by B, merely notes that there is disagreement with it.[13] This form is especially unsound when there is no indication that A is aware of the evidence given by B.[14]

Appeal to non-authorities[edit]

Fallacious arguments from authority often are the result of citing a non-authority as an authority.[4] First, when the inference refers to an inexpert authority, it is an appeal to inappropriate authority, which occurs when an inference relies upon a person or a group without relevant expertise or knowledge of the subject matter under discussion.[5][15]

However, it is a fallacious ad hominem argument to argue that a person presenting statements lacks authority and thus their arguments do not need to be considered. As an appeal to a perceived lack of authority, it is fallacious for much the same reasons as an appeal to authority.[16]

Use in logic[edit]

It is fallacious to use any appeal to authority in the context of logical reasoning. Because the argument from authority is not a logical argument in that it does not argue something's negation or affirmation constitutes a contradiction, it is fallacious to assert that the conclusion must be true.[4] Such a determinative assertion is a logical non sequitur as the conclusion does not follow unconditionally, in the sense of being logically necessary.[17][18]

The only exceptions to this would be an authority which is logically required to always be correct, such as an omniscient being that does not lie.[19]

Notable examples[edit]

Inaccurate chromosome number[edit]

In 1923, leading American zoologist Theophilus Painter declared based on his findings that humans had 24 pairs of chromosomes. From the 1920s to the 1950s, this continued to be held based on Painter's authority,[20] despite subsequent counts totaling the correct number of 23.[21] Even textbooks with photos clearly showing 23 pairs incorrectly declared the number to be 24 based on the authority of the then-consensus of 24 pairs.[21]

As Robert Matthews said of the event, "Scientists had preferred to bow to authority rather than believe the evidence of their own eyes".[21] As such, their reasoning was an appeal to authority.[22]

The tongue map[edit]

Another example is that of the tongue map, which purported to show different areas of taste on the tongue. While it originated from a misreading of the original text, it got taken up in textbooks and the scientific literature[23] for nearly a century, and remained even after being shown to be wrong in the 1970s[24][25] and despite being easily disproven on one's own tongue.[26][27]

Surgical sterilization and puerperal infections[edit]

In the mid-to-late 19th century a small minority of doctors, most notably Ignaz Semmelweis, argued that puerperal fevers were caused by an infection or toxin[28] the spread of which was preventable by aseptic technique by physicians such as hand washing with chlorine.[11] This view was largely discounted because, as one 1843 paper noted, "writers of authority...profess a disbelief in [such a] contagion", and instead held that puerperal infections were caused by environmental factors which would render such techniques irrelevant.[11] This was in spite of evidence against their proposed explanations, such as Semmelweis' observations that two side-by-side clinics had radically different rates of puerperal infection, that puerperal infection was extremely rare in births that took place outside of hospitals, and that infection rates were unrelated to weather or seasonal variations, all of which went against the prevailing explanation of environmental causes such as miasma.[10]

Psychological basis[edit]

An integral part of the appeal to authority is the cognitive bias known as the Asch effect.[22] In repeated and modified instances of the Asch conformity experiments, it was found that high-status individuals create a stronger likelihood of a subject agreeing with an obviously false conclusion, despite the subject normally being able to clearly see that the answer was incorrect.[29]

Further, humans have been shown to feel strong emotional pressure to conform to authorities and majority positions. A repeat of the experiments by another group of researchers found that "Participants reported considerable distress under the group pressure", with 59% conforming at least once and agreeing with the clearly incorrect answer, whereas the incorrect answer was much more rarely given when no such pressures were present.[30]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Logical Fallacies". Stanford.edu. Fall 2008. Retrieved 2014-01-25. 
  2. ^ a b Salmon, M. H. (2006). Introduction to Critical Reasoning. Mason, OH: Thomson Wadsworth. pp. 118–9. 
  3. ^ Gootendorst, Rob. Some Fallacies about Fallacies. Argumentation: Across the lines of discipline. p. 388. 
  4. ^ a b c d e Gensler, Harry J. (2003). Introduction to Logic. New York, NY: Routedge. pp. 333–4. 
  5. ^ a b Baronett 2008, p. 304.
  6. ^ Walton 2008, p. 89.
  7. ^ Walton 2008, p. 84.
  8. ^ Baronett 2008, p. 306.
  9. ^ Baronett 2008, p. 305.
  10. ^ a b Nuland, Sherwin (30 January 1979). "The enigma of Semmelweis—an interpretation." (PDF). Nuland, S. B. (1979). The enigma of Semmelweis—an interpretation. Journal of the history of medicine and allied sciences: 259-260. 
  11. ^ a b c Carter, Codell (1981). "Semmelweis and his predecessors" (PDF). Medical History. 
  12. ^ Scholl, Raphael (2013). "Causal inference, mechanisms, and the Semmelweis case.". Studies in History and Philosophy of Science. 
  13. ^ a b Walton 2008, p. 91.
  14. ^ Walton 2008, p. 92.
  15. ^ See generally Irving M. Copi (1986). Introduction to Logic (7th ed.). Macmillan Publishing Company. pp. 98–99.
  16. ^ Van Eemeren, Frans; Grootendorst, Rob (1987). "Fallacies in pragma-dialectical perspective.". Argumentation 1 (3): 283–301. 
  17. ^ Foster, Marguerite H.; Martin, Michael L., eds. (1966). Probability, Confirmation, and Simplicity: Readings in the Philosophy of Inductive Logic. Odyssey Press. [page needed]
  18. ^ Peirce, Charles Sanders et al. (1883) [Digitized Jun 15, 2007]. Studies in logic. By members of the Johns Hopkins university. Little, Brown. ISBN 978-1-236-07583-3. [page needed] (available as a free google eBook)
  19. ^ Wierenga, Edward. "Omniscience". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University. 
  20. ^ O'Connor, Clare (2008), Human Chromosome Number, Nature, retrieved April 24, 2014 
  21. ^ a b c Matthews, Robert (2011), The bizarre case of the chromosome that never was, Fortune City, retrieved May 14, 2011 
  22. ^ a b Grootendorst, Robert (1992), Argumentation, Communication, and Fallacies: A Pragma-dialectical Perspective, p. 158 
  23. ^ http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/20/science/no-clear-cut-taste-map-of-the-tongue.html?_r=0
  24. ^ Midura, Margaretta. "On the Road to Sweetness: A Clear-Cut Destination?". Yale Scientific Magazine. 
  25. ^ http://www.livescience.com/7113-tongue-map-tasteless-myth-debunked.html
  26. ^ http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/11/health/11real.html?_r=0
  27. ^ http://www.aromadictionary.com/articles/tonguemap_article.html
  28. ^ Sutton, Mike. "Mythbusted: Why the Semmelweis story is both myth and supermyth". BestThinking. Retrieved 5 May 2015. 
  29. ^ McLeod, Samuel (2008), Asch Experiment, Simply Psychology 
  30. ^ Webley, Paul, A partial and non-evaluative history of the Asch effect, University of Exeter 

Sources[edit]

  • Baronett, Stan (2008). Logic. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall. 
  • Walton, Douglas (2008). Informal Logic. London: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-71380-3. 

External links[edit]