Courtier's reply

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The courtier's reply is a type of informal fallacy, coined by American biologist PZ Myers, in which a respondent to criticism claims that the critic lacks sufficient knowledge, credentials, or training to pose any sort of criticism whatsoever.[1] It may be considered an inverted form of argument from authority, where a person without authority disagreeing with an authority is presumed incorrect prima facie.

A key element of a courtier's reply, which distinguishes it from an otherwise valid response that incidentally points out the critic's lack of established authority on the topic, is that the respondent never shows how the work of these overlooked experts invalidates the arguments that were advanced by the critic.

Critics of the idea that the courtier's reply is a real fallacy have called it the "Myers shuffle", implying calling someone out for an alleged courtier's reply is a kind of rhetorical dodge or trick.

Usage history[edit]

American Professor of Biology PZ Myers coined the term courtier's reply in a December 2006 entry on his blog, Pharyngula. Myers was reacting to some of the criticism leveled at the 2006 book The God Delusion, in which author Richard Dawkins argues against the existence of a supernatural creator. Critics argued that Dawkins' lack of qualifications in philosophy or theology called into question a number of his arguments. Myers responded to this criticism by making an analogy, comparing Dawkins to the boy at the end of the fable The Emperor's New Clothes, who is the only reasonable voice that recognizes the Emperor is naked. Myers satirized the aforementioned critics as follows:[1]

I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor's boots, nor does he give a moment's consideration to Bellini's masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor's Feathered Hat. We have entire schools dedicated to writing learned treatises on the beauty of the Emperor's raiment, and every major newspaper runs a section dedicated to imperial fashion; Dawkins cavalierly dismisses them all. He even laughs at the highly popular and most persuasive arguments of his fellow countryman, Lord D. T. Mawkscribbler, who famously pointed out that the Emperor would not wear common cotton, nor uncomfortable polyester, but must, I say must, wear undergarments of the finest silk. Dawkins arrogantly ignores all these deep philosophical ponderings to crudely accuse the Emperor of nudity.[1]

Myers also characterized H. Allen Orr's criticism of The God Delusion as an example of this argument.[1][2]

Dawkins himself responded to critics of The God Delusion who argued that he is not a theologian and stated, "Most of us happily disavow fairies, astrology, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster without first immersing ourselves in books of Pastafarian theology."[3] Dawkins quoted the courtier's reply in a debate with Alister McGrath,[4] and he also referenced it in the preface to The God Delusion's 2007 paperback edition.[5]

English literary theorist and critic Terry Eagleton wrote of The God Delusion: "What, one wonders, are Dawkins's views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them? Or does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case?"[6] Luke Muehlhauser, the executive director of the Singularity Institute, wrote on his blog, Common Sense Atheism, that this criticism is irrelevant when the existence or otherwise of God is discussed. Muehlhauser wrote, "Eagleton misses the point. If a creator god doesn't exist, it doesn't matter whether the imaginary god's grace is best described by Rahner or someone else. Besides, the millions of believers to which Dawkins writes have never heard of Rahner, either. Christianity as practiced by billions of people is not the Christianity of the academic theologians."[7]


Roman Catholic philosopher Edward Feser, writing in The American, has called the courtier's reply a rhetorical "pseudo-defense" employed as a "clever marketing tag" in order for members of the New Atheism movement to avoid criticism of their arguments. Feser terms the courtier's reply "the Myers shuffle".[8]

The "Myers shuffle" criticism points out that the courtier's reply rhetoric is usually a summation of logical fallacies or sophistry, and characterizes Muehlhauser's assertion that criticism of someone's philosophical or theological ignorance is irrelevant when the existence or otherwise of God is disputed as a case of the special pleading fallacy. Feser further claims that asserting that the "average believer" is not well informed about theology is a red herring, since something being true does not depend on how many people believe it is true.


  1. ^ a b c d Myers, PZ (December 24, 2006). "The Courtier's Reply". Pharyngula.
  2. ^ Orr, H. Allen (March 1, 2007). "A Mission to Convert". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved February 4, 2013.
  3. ^ "'I'm an atheist, BUT...' by Richard Dawkins (1 of 6)". YouTube. July 1, 2007, Retrieved February 4, 2013.
  4. ^ Myers, PZ (2007-03-28). "The "magnificent P-Zed"?". ScienceBlogs.
  5. ^ "Richard Dawkins reads the new preface to The God Delusion (paperback)". 2007-06-20. Retrieved 2007-07-18. See also Dawkins, Richard (2007-05-12). "How dare you call me a fundamentalist". The Times. London. Retrieved 2007-07-18.
  6. ^ Eagleton, Terry (19 October 2006). "Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching". London Review of Books. Vol. 28 No. 20 pp. 32–34
  7. ^ Muehlhauser, Luke (January 6, 2010). "The Courtier's Reply, the Not My Theology Reply, and Straw Men". Common Sense Atheism.
  8. ^ Feser, Edward (March 26, 2010). "The New Philistinism" Archived 2013-04-21 at the Wayback Machine. The American. American Enterprise Institute.