Argument from authority

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The argument from authority (Latin: argumentum ad verecundiam) also appeal to authority, is a common argument form which can be fallacious, such as when an authority is cited on a topic outside their area of expertise, when the authority cited is not a true expert.[1]

Fallacious examples of using the appeal include any appeal to authority used in the context of deductive reasoning or when the cited authority is stating a contentious or controversial position, speaking about issues unrelated to their expertise or if they are not a true expert at all.[2][1]


John Locke, in his 1690 Essay Concerning Human Understanding, was the first to identify argumentum ad verecundiam as a specific category of argument.[3] Although he did not call this type of argument a fallacy, he did note that it can be misused by taking advantage of the "respect" and "submission" of the reader or listener to persuade them to accept the conclusion.[4] Over time, logic textbooks started to adopt and change Locke's original terminology to refer more specifically to fallacious uses of the argument from authority.[5] By the mid-twentieth century, it was common for logic textbooks to refer to the "Fallacy of appealing to authority," even while noting that "this method of argument is not always strictly fallacious."[6]

Contemporary interest in fallacies was reinvigorated with the publication in 1970 of C. L. Hamblin's Fallacies. Hamblin challenged standard treatment of fallacies as dogmatic and unmoored from contemporary logic.[7] As a result, scholars such as Douglas Walton in Appeal to Expert Opinion and Ralph Johnson and J. Anthony Blair in Logical Self-Defense[8] developed more rigorous accounts of how and when arguments from authority are fallacious. Logic textbooks also shifted to a less blanket approach to these arguments, now referring to the fallacy as the "Argument from Unqualified Authority"[9] or the "Argument from Ureliable Authority,"[10] identifying the fallacy as being due to the misuse rather than just the use of authority in argument.

Logical form[edit]


The argument from authority can take several forms. A legitimate argument from authority can take the general form:

X holds that A is true.
X is an authority on the subject.
The consensus of authorities agrees with X.
There is a presumption that A is true.[11]

The argument is fallacious if one or more of the premises are false, or if it is claimed that the conclusion must be true on the basis of authority, rather than only probably true.[11]

Other logicians have claimed that the argument from authority is a statistical syllogism:

Most of what authority a has to say on subject matter S is correct.
a says p about S.
p is correct.[12]

John Hardwig stated in an article published in the Journal of Philosophy that the appeal to an expert is not evidence of the truth of the expert's claim, but rather evidence that experts have conducted an inquiry into the matter and come to a conclusion. He wrote that this makes the appeal a reason to believe a statement.[13]

Appeal to non-authorities[edit]

Fallacious arguments from authority can also be the result of citing a non-authority as an authority.[14] 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.[15] 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.[2][16][17] A common example of the fallacy is appealing to an authority in one subject to pontificate on another - for example citing Albert Einstein as an authority on religion when his expertise laid in physics.[14]

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. As appeals to a perceived lack of authority, these types of argument are fallacious for much the same reasons as an appeal to authority.[18]

Psychological basis[edit]

An integral part of the appeal to authority is the cognitive bias known as the Asch effect.[19] 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.[20]

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.[21]

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." [22]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Walton, Douglas (2008). Informal Logic: A Pragmatic Approach (2nd ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 223–5. ISBN 978-0-521-71380-1. 
  2. ^ a b Baronett 2008, p. 304.
  3. ^ Hamblin, C. L. (1970). Fallacies. London: Methuen. p. 171. ISBN 0416145701. 
  4. ^ Walton, Douglas (1997). Appeal to Expert Opinion. Penn State University Press. p. 53. ISBN 0271016957. 
  5. ^ Walton, Douglas (1997). Appeal to Expert Opinion. Penn State University Press. pp. 54–55. ISBN 0271016957. 
  6. ^ Coleman, Edwin (1995). "There is no Fallacy of Arguing from Authority". Informal Logic 17 (3): 366–7. Retrieved 12 January 2016. 
  7. ^ Hansen, Hans. "Fallacies". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved 10 January 2016. 
  8. ^ Johnson, Ralph H.; Blair, J. Anthony (2006). Logical Self-Defense. International Debate Education Association. pp. 167–176. ISBN 1932716181. 
  9. ^ Hurley, Patrick (2012). A Concise Introduction to Logic (12th ed.). Cengage Learning. pp. 138–9. ISBN 1285196546. 
  10. ^ Layman, Charles (1999). The Power of Logic. Mayfield Publishing Company. p. 178. ISBN 0767406397. 
  11. ^ a b Gensler, Harry J. (2010). The A to Z of Logic. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield. p. 14. Retrieved 7 January 2016. 
  12. ^ Salmon, Merrilee (2012). Introduction to Logic and Critical Thinking (6th ed.). Boston: Wadsworth. p. 119. ISBN 1133049753. 
  13. ^ Hardwig, John (1985). "Epistemic Dependence" (PDF). The Journal of Philosophy 82 (7): 336. 
  14. ^ a b Carroll, Robert. "Appeal to Authority". The Skeptic's Dictionary. 
  15. ^ Silverman, Henry (2011). "Principles of Trust or Propaganda?". Journal of Applied Business Research. 
  16. ^ See generally Irving M. Copi (1986). Introduction to Logic (7th ed.). Macmillan Publishing Company. pp. 98–99.
  17. ^ Bennett, B. "Appeal to the Common Man". Logically Fallacious. 
  18. ^ Van Eemeren, Frans; Grootendorst, Rob (1987). "Fallacies in pragma-dialectical perspective.". Argumentation 1 (3): 283–301. doi:10.1007/bf00136779. 
  19. ^ Grootendorst, Robert (1992), Argumentation, Communication, and Fallacies: A Pragma-dialectical Perspective, p. 158 
  20. ^ McLeod, Samuel (2008), Asch Experiment, Simply Psychology 
  21. ^ Webley, Paul, A partial and non-evaluative history of the Asch effect, University of Exeter 
  22. ^ 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. 

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