Argument from authority

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Argument from authority, also ad verecundiam and appeal to authority, is a common form of argument which leads to a logical fallacy.[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,[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][8]



The argument from authority can take several forms. As a syllogism, the argument has the following basic structure:[9]

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.[10][11]

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 then-accepted view that it was caused mainly by environmental factors,[12] 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.[13] They were thus effectively using the circular argument that "the literature is not in error, therefore the literature is not in error".[14]

Dismissal of evidence[edit]

The equally fallacious counter-argument from authority takes the form:[15]

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, it merely notes that there is disagreement with position T.[15] This form is especially unsound when there is no indication that A is aware of the evidence given by B.[16]

Appeal to non-authorities[edit]

Fallacious arguments from authority can also be the result of citing a non-authority as an authority.[10] These arguments assume that a person without status or authority is inherently reliable. The appeal to poverty for example is the fallacy of thinking a conclusion is probably correct because the one who holds or is presenting it is poor.[17] When an argument holds that a conclusion is likely to be true precisely because the one who holds or is presenting it lacks authority, it is a fallacious appeal to the common man.[5][18][19]

However, it is also a fallacious ad hominem argument to argue that a person presenting statements lacks authority and thus their arguments do not need to be considered.[20] As appeals to a perceived lack of authority, these types of argument are fallacious for much the same reasons as an appeal to authority.[21]

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.[10] Such a determinative assertion is a logical non sequitur as the conclusion does not follow unconditionally, in the sense of being logically necessary.[22][23]

The only exception to this would be an authority which is logically required to always be correct, such as an omniscient being that does not lie.[24][4]

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,[25] despite subsequent counts totaling the correct number of 23.[26] 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.[26]

As Robert Matthews said of the event, "Scientists had preferred to bow to authority rather than believe the evidence of their own eyes".[26] As such, their reasoning was an appeal to authority.[27]

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[28] for nearly a century, and remained even after being shown to be wrong in the 1970s[29][30] and despite being easily disproven on one's own tongue.[31][32]

Cause and treatment of 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[33] the spread of which was preventable by aseptic technique by physicians such as hand washing with chlorine.[13] 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 fevers were caused by environmental factors which would render such techniques irrelevant.[13]

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.[12] However, those who presented this evidence found themselves "fighting against hospital authorities".[34]

It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of women's lives would have been saved if the contagious disease explanation had been accepted when the evidence was presented.[35]

Psychological basis[edit]

An integral part of the appeal to authority is the cognitive bias known as the Asch effect.[27] 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.[36]

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.[37]

Scholars have noted that the academic environment produces a nearly ideal situation for these processes to take hold, and they can affect entire academic disciplines, giving rise to groupthink. One paper about the philosophy of mathematics for example notes that, within mathematics,

"If...a person accepts our discipline, and goes through two or three years of graduate study in mathematics, he absorbs our way of thinking, and is no longer the critical outsider he once was. In the same way [that] a critic of Scientology who underwent several years of 'study' under 'recognized authorities' in Scientology might well emerge a believer instead of a critic. If the student is unable to absorb our way of thinking, we flunk him out, of course. If he gets through our obstacle course and then decides that our arguments are unclear or incorrect, we dismiss him as a crank, crackpot, or misfit." [38]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Gass, Robert. "Common Fallacies in Reasoning". California State University Fullerton. Retrieved 13 August 2015. 
  2. ^ Boyd, Robert (1993). "Argument Analysis and Critical Thinking". Korean Journal of Thinking and Problem Solving: 55. 
  3. ^ Gootendorst, Rob. Some Fallacies about Fallacies. Argumentation: Across the lines of discipline. p. 388. 
  4. ^ a b F. Bex, H. Prakken, C. Reed (2003). "Towards a formal account of reasoning about evidence: argumentation schemes and generalisations" (PDF). Artificial Intelligence and Law: 133. 
  5. ^ a b Baronett 2008, p. 304.
  6. ^ Walton 2008, p. 89.
  7. ^ Walton 2008, p. 84.
  8. ^ Easton, Matt (July 9, 2015). Don't trust historians! or English archers... Schola Gladiatoria. 
  9. ^ Baronett 2008, p. 306.
  10. ^ a b c Gensler, Harry J. (2003). Introduction to Logic. New York, NY: Routedge. pp. 333–4. 
  11. ^ Baronett 2008, p. 305.
  12. ^ 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. 
  13. ^ a b c Carter, Codell (1981). "Semmelweis and his predecessors" (PDF). Medical History. 
  14. ^ Scholl, Raphael (2013). "Causal inference, mechanisms, and the Semmelweis case.". Studies in History and Philosophy of Science. 
  15. ^ a b Walton 2008, p. 91.
  16. ^ Walton 2008, p. 92.
  17. ^ Silverman, Henry (2011). "Principles of Trust or Propaganda?". Journal of Applied Business Research. 
  18. ^ See generally Irving M. Copi (1986). Introduction to Logic (7th ed.). Macmillan Publishing Company. pp. 98–99.
  19. ^ Bennett, B. "Appeal to the Common Man". Logically Fallacious. 
  20. ^ Walton, D. N. (1989). "Reasoned use of expertise in argumentation". Argumentation 3 (1): 69. 
  21. ^ Van Eemeren, Frans; Grootendorst, Rob (1987). "Fallacies in pragma-dialectical perspective.". Argumentation 1 (3): 283–301. 
  22. ^ Foster, Marguerite H.; Martin, Michael L., eds. (1966). Probability, Confirmation, and Simplicity: Readings in the Philosophy of Inductive Logic. Odyssey Press. [page needed]
  23. ^ 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)
  24. ^ Wierenga, Edward. "Omniscience". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University. 
  25. ^ O'Connor, Clare (2008), Human Chromosome Number, Nature, retrieved April 24, 2014 
  26. ^ a b c Matthews, Robert (2011), The bizarre case of the chromosome that never was, Fortune City, retrieved May 14, 2011 
  27. ^ a b Grootendorst, Robert (1992), Argumentation, Communication, and Fallacies: A Pragma-dialectical Perspective, p. 158 
  28. ^
  29. ^ Midura, Margaretta. "On the Road to Sweetness: A Clear-Cut Destination?". Yale Scientific Magazine. 
  30. ^
  31. ^
  32. ^
  33. ^ Sutton, Mike. "Mythbusted: Why the Semmelweis story is both myth and supermyth". BestThinking. Retrieved 5 May 2015. 
  34. ^ Vickers, Rebecca (September 1, 2010). Medicine. Heinemann-Raintree Library. p. 36. ISBN 1410939081. 
  35. ^ Schwarz, Henry (1910). Transactions of the American Association of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Volume 23. pp. 182–183. 
  36. ^ McLeod, Samuel (2008), Asch Experiment, Simply Psychology 
  37. ^ Webley, Paul, A partial and non-evaluative history of the Asch effect, University of Exeter 
  38. ^ David, Phillip J.; Hersh, Reuben (1998). New Directions in the Philosophy of Mathematics (PDF). Princeton University Press. p. 8. 


  • 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]