Appeal to Authority Fallacy | Definition & Examples
Appeal to authority fallacy refers to the use of an expert’s opinion to back up an argument. Instead of justifying one’s claim, a person cites an authority figure who is not qualified to make reliable claims about the topic at hand. Because people tend to believe experts, appeal to authority often imbues an argument with credibility.
Appeal to authority is commonly used as a persuasion technique in advertising, politics, and everyday discussions.
What is the appeal to authority fallacy?
Appeal to authority fallacy occurs when we accept a claim merely because someone tells us that an authority figure supports that claim. An authority figure can be a celebrity, a well-known scientist, or any person whose status and prestige causes us to respect them.
An appeal to authority (also known as an appeal to false or unqualified authority) plays on people’s feelings of respect or familiarity towards a famous person to bypass critical thinking. It’s like someone is telling us “accept this because some authority said it”.
This sort of reasoning is only fallacious when the person in question has no legitimate authority in the field of knowledge under discussion. For example, to cite Einstein in an argument about education is fallacious, while it’s perfectly legitimate to cite him in a discussion about physics.
Appeal to authority fallacy is a type of informal fallacy which means that the logical error lies in the content of the argument. Regardless of whether the claim is true or not, an appeal to authority is fallacious because it lacks sufficient evidence to support the claim. Appeal to authority, like ad hominem fallacy and genetic fallacy, is a fallacy of relevance. These fallacies appeal to evidence or examples irrelevant to the argument at hand.
What are different types of appeal to authority fallacy?
There are different types of appeal to authority fallacy depending on the reasons why the authority cited should not be trusted.
Appeal to false authority fallacy
This is the most common variation and occurs when someone cites a false or unqualified figure of authority (i.e., an expert who is not a real expert). This explains why celebrities are often used in marketing campaigns.
Appeal to anonymous authority
Appeal to anonymous authority occurs when an arguer attributes a claim to an expert who is not named or identified. Vague statements about “experts”, “historians”, or “authors” who believe, say, or have proven something, attest to this type of reasoning error. Since the experts are not identified, there is no way to verify their knowledge of the topic or the validity of their claims.
Appeal to biased authority
Appeal to biased authority occurs when someone who is truly knowledgeable about the topic under discussion makes a claim influenced by their own prejudice or bias, rather than their expertise. For example, an expert may have personal, financial, or professional interests at stake which may lead to biased judgement.
When is appeal to authority legitimate?
An appeal to authority is not always a fallacy. Citing the informed opinion of an expert is legitimate in an argument when certain criteria is met:
- The authority is an expert in the specific subject area under discussion. Citing your cousin who is a law student in a discussion about a legal issue is therefore fallacious. However, citing your lawyer, who is qualified to give advice, is legitimate.
- The statement of the authority falls within their area of expertise. If someone is an expert in one area, it does not automatically mean they are an expert in all areas. A medical doctor, for instance, is qualified to speak about diseases, but not about the stock market.
- There is agreement among experts about the topic under discussion. Although disputes among experts are part and parcel of the advancement of knowledge, there are certain domains where there is a significant amount of legitimate dispute. For example, for every qualified economist arguing for a certain position or theory, there is another one arguing for an entirely different position.
Appeal to authority fallacy examples
Appeal to authority is often used in advertising as a persuasion technique.
People sometimes try to support their argument by citing experts who have alternative or unpopular viewpoints in their field, even though these viewpoints are by no means representative.
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Frequently asked questions about the appeal to authority fallacy
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