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Argument from authority

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An argument from authority[a] is a form of argument in which the opinion of an authority figure (or figures) is used as evidence to support an argument.[1]

The argument from authority is a logical fallacy,[2] and obtaining knowledge in this way is fallible.[3][4]

However, in particular circumstances, it is sound to use as a practical although fallible way of obtaining information that can be considered generally likely to be correct if the authority is a real and pertinent intellectual authority and there is universal consensus about these statements in this field.[1][5][6][7][8] This is specially the case when the revision of all the information and data 'from scratch' would impede advances in an investigation or education. Further ways of validating a source include: evaluating the veracity of previous works by the author, their competence on the topic, their coherence, their conflicts of interest, etc.

Validity of the argument in deductive and inductive methods


In the deductive method


This argument has been considered a logical fallacy since its introduction by John Locke and Richard Whately.[9] In particular, this is a form of genetic fallacy; in which the conclusion about the validity of a statement is justified by appealing to the characteristics of the person who is speaking, such as in the ad hominem fallacy.[10] For this argument, Locke coined the term argumentum ad verecundiam (appeal to shamefacedness/modesty) because it appeals to the fear of humiliation by appearing disrespectful to a particular authority.[11]

This qualification as a logical fallacy implies that this argument is invalid when using the deductive method, and therefore it can't be presented as infallible.[12] In other words, it's logically invalid to prove a claim is true because an authority has said it. The explanation is simple: authorities can be wrong, and the only way of logically proving a claim is providing real evidence and/or a valid logical deduction of the claim from the evidence.[13][14][15]


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.[10] Other related fallacious arguments assume that a person without status or authority is inherently reliable. For instance, the appeal to poverty is the fallacy of thinking that someone is more likely to be correct because they are poor.[16] 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 an appeal to the common man.[17]

In the inductive method


However, when used in the inductive method, which implies the conclusions can not be proven with certainty,[12] this argument can be considered a strong inductive argument and therefore not fallacious. If a person has a credible authority i.e. is an expert in the field in question, it is more likely that their assessments would be correct, especially if there is consensus about the topic between the credible sources.

The general form of this type of argument is:

Person A claims that X is true.
Person A is an expert in the field concerning X.
Therefore, X should be believed.[18]

Nonetheless, it would also be a fallacy, even in the inductive method, when the source of the claim is a false authority, such as when the supposed authority is not a real expert, or when supporting a claim outside of their area of expertise. This is referred to as an "argument from false authority".[19] It can also be considered a fallacy when the authority is an expert in the topic but their claims are controversial or not unanimous between other experts in the field. Some consider that it can be used in a cogent form if all sides of a discussion agree on the reliability of the cited authority in the given context.[20] This form of argument can be considered sound if both parties to the debate agree that the authority is in fact an expert;[20][21][22]

Furthermore, some claim that the act of trusting authorities is unavoidable for science to progress, since it would be a lot harder if not impossible for students and researchers to always resort to the factual evidence and demonstrations for all the knowledge they need to obtain to be able to come across new scientific findings.[23]

At the same time, others claim that authority "has no place in science",[24] meaning that the validity of claims always has to lay, ultimately, on the evidence and proofs provided, and not in the prestige of the authors.[citation needed]

Confusion about its classification as a logical fallacy but a sound inductive criterion


The qualification of this type of argument as logical fallacy implies that it is not a valid way to deduce a conclusion, that is, to prove it.[12] This doesn't mean that a claim from a credible respected authority doesn't generally have a bigger probability of being correct than that of somebody who has no expertise at all; but the strength of this argument is not absolute as it's wrongfully believed by some.[12]

Use in science


Scientific knowledge is best established by evidence and experiment rather than argued through authority[13][14][15] as authority has no place in science.[14][25][26] Carl Sagan wrote of arguments from authority: "One of the great commandments of science is, 'Mistrust arguments from authority.' ... Too many such arguments have proved too painfully wrong. Authorities must prove their contentions like everybody else."[24] Conversely, it has been argued that science is fundamentally dependent on arguments from authority to progress as "they allow science to avoid forever revisiting the same ground".[23]

One example of the use of the appeal to authority in science dates to 1923,[27] when leading American zoologist Theophilus Painter declared, based on poor data and conflicting observations he had made,[28][29] that humans had 24 pairs of chromosomes. From the 1920s until 1956,[30] scientists propagated this "fact" based on Painter's authority,[31][32][29] despite subsequent counts totaling the correct number of 23.[28][33] Even textbooks[28] with photos showing 23 pairs incorrectly declared the number to be 24[33] based on the authority of the then-consensus of 24 pairs.[34]

This seemingly established number generated confirmation bias among researchers, and "most cytologists, expecting to detect Painter's number, virtually always did so".[34] Painter's "influence was so great that many scientists preferred to believe his count over the actual evidence",[33] and scientists who obtained the accurate number modified[35] or discarded[36] their data to agree with Painter's count.

Roots in cognitive bias


Arguments from authority that are based on the idea that a person should conform to the opinion of a perceived authority or authoritative group are rooted in psychological cognitive biases[37] such as the Asch effect.[38][39][40] 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.[41]

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.[42]

Another study shining light on the psychological basis of the fallacy as it relates to perceived authorities are the Milgram experiments, which demonstrated that people are more likely to go along with something when it is presented by an authority.[43] In a variation of a study where the researchers did not wear lab coats, thus reducing the perceived authority of the tasker, the obedience level dropped to 20% from the original rate, which had been higher than 50%. Obedience is encouraged by reminding the individual of what a perceived authority states and by showing them that their opinion goes against this authority.[43]

Scholars have noted that certain environments can produce an ideal situation for these processes to take hold, giving rise to groupthink.[44] In groupthink, individuals in a group feel inclined to minimize conflict and encourage conformity. Through an appeal to authority, a group member might present that opinion as a consensus and encourage the other group members to engage in groupthink by not disagreeing with this perceived consensus or authority.[45][46] One paper about the philosophy of mathematics states that, within academia,

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...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.[47]

Corporate environments are similarly vulnerable to appeals to perceived authorities and experts leading to groupthink,[48] as are governments and militaries.[49]

See also



  1. ^ Latin: argumentum ab auctoritate. Also called an appeal to authority, or argumentum ad verecundiam.


  1. ^ a b "Fallacies". University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  2. ^ Sadler, Troy (2006). "Promoting Discourse and Argumentation in Science Teacher Education". Journal of Science Teacher Education. 17 (4): 330. doi:10.1007/s10972-006-9025-4. S2CID 144949172.
  3. ^ Cummings, Louise (2015). "Argument from Authority". Reasoning and Public Health: New Ways of Coping with Uncertainty. Springer. pp. 67–92. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-15013-0_4. ISBN 9783319150130. The argument from authority has had many detractors throughout the long history of logic. It is not difficult to see why this is the case. After all, the argument resorts to the use of opinion to support a claim rather than a range of more objective sources of support (e.g. evidence from experiments)...These difficulties and other weaknesses of authority arguments have found these arguments maligned in the logical treatises of several historical thinkers...'argument from authority has been mentioned in lists of valid argument-forms as often as in lists of Fallacies'
  4. ^ Underwood, R.H. (1994). "Logic and the Common law Trial". American Journal of Trial Advocacy: 166.
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  6. ^ Eemeren, Frans (2010). Strategic Maneuvering in Argumentative Discourse: Extending the Pragma-dialectical Theory of Argumentation. John Benjamins. p. 203. ISBN 978-9027211194.
  7. ^ Bedau, Mark (2009). The ethics of protocells. Boston, Massachusetts; London, England: Mit Press. pp. 341. ISBN 978-0-262-01262-1.
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  9. ^ Hansen, Vilhem (1998). "Locke and Whately on the Argumentum ad Ignorantiam". Philosophy & Rhetoric, Vol. 31, No. 1. Vol. 31. Penn State University Press. p. 60. JSTOR 40237981. (...) Locke thought no better or worse of the ad ignorantiam than he did of ad verecundiam or ad hominem (…) At the end of his discussion of the ad hominem as a fallacy, Whately says, "The same observations will apply to 'argumentum ad verecundiam' and the rest" (1853, 3.1). (…) If we use this analysis of the ad hominem as a model for how Whately thought of the other ad arguments, then the ad verecundiam will be an argument with premises that say that amazing authority . . . [or] some venerable institution" and a conclusion claiming that the one to whom the ad verecundiam is addressed ought to accept the conclusion in question on pain of being at odds with those commitments. Similarly, an ad populum argument will be one that includes among its premises the claim that such and such is a widely held opinion or commitment "of the multitude" and the conclusion will be that the person to whom the argument is directed is bound to accept a logical consequence of the commitments invoked. {{cite book}}: |journal= ignored (help)
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  19. ^ "Argument from False Authority". Logically Fallcious.
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  21. ^ Lewiński, Marcin (2008). "Comments on 'Black box arguments'". Argumentation. 22 (3): 447–451. doi:10.1007/s10503-008-9095-x.
  22. ^ Eemeren, Frans (2010). Strategic Maneuvering in Argumentative Discourse: Extending the Pragma-dialectical Theory of Argumentation. John Benjamins. p. 203. ISBN 978-9027211194.
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  24. ^ a b Sagan, Carl (July 6, 2011). The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Ballantine Books. ISBN 9780307801043.
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  27. ^ Painter, Theophilus S. (April 1923), "Studies in mammalian spermatogenesis. II. The spermatogenesis of man", Journal of Experimental Zoology, 37 (3): 291–336, doi:10.1002/jez.1400370303
  28. ^ a b c Glass, Bentley (1990). Theophilus Shickel Painter (PDF). Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences. pp. 316–17.
  29. ^ a b Mertens, Thomas (October 1979). "The Role of Factual Knowledge in Biology Teaching". The American Biology Teacher. 41 (7): 395–419. doi:10.2307/4446671. JSTOR 4446671.
  30. ^ Tjio, Joe Hin; Levan, Albert (May 1956), "The Chromosome Number of Man", Hereditas, 42 (1–2): 723–4, doi:10.1111/j.1601-5223.1956.tb03010.x, PMID 345813
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  38. ^ Delameter, Andrew (2017). "Contrasting Scientific & Non-Scientific Approaches to Acquiring Knowledge". City University of New York.
  39. ^ Sheldon, Brian; Macdonald, Geraldine (2010). A Textbook of Social Work. Routledge. p. 40. ISBN 9781135282615.
  40. ^ Bates, Jordan (16 March 2016). "12 Psychological Tactics Donald Trump Uses to Manipulate the Masses". 11. Appeals to Authority.
  41. ^ McLeod, Samuel (2008), Asch Experiment, Simply Psychology
  42. ^ Webley, Paul, A partial and non-evaluative history of the Asch effect, University of Exeter
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  44. ^ "December 2014 – Page 2". Disrupted Physician. 22 December 2014.
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