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Anonymous Authorities

The authority in question is not named, or in written arguments, their is an absence of citation. When an authority is not named, it is impossible to confirm that the authority is in fact authoritative, or even whether the claim is backed by an authority at all. As they say, 62% of statistics are made up on the spot. (Wink. Wink.) Furthermore, if the claim is rooted in an authoritative source, one cannot check to see whether the unnamed authority’s argument should be disputed. A special case of this fallacy is the appeal to rumor or hearsay. Because the source of a rumor is typically not known, it is not possible to determine whether to believe the rumor. And this is especially important because often false and harmful rumors are deliberately started in order to discredit an opponent.

Also see Appeal to Authority for additional pitfalls.



In terms of usage and influence, no place propagates the work of anonymous authorities like Wikipedia. “The Free Encyclopedia” is controlled by about a thousand mostly pseudonymous administrators. These admins rule by fiat, determining which sources, stories, and facts will be included in countless articles on the most contested issues of the day. It is generally impossible to evaluate whether admins have relevant expertise to justify overriding user edits.

Reflecting this anonymity, the APA style guide recommends citing a Wikipedia entry thusly:

Special relativity. (2018). Retrieved August 5, 2019, from

Like Facebook, Wikipedia is also controlling its readers. It feeds them biased articles, exactly one per topic, does not let users give effective, independent feedback on articles (you’re forced to become a participant) or to rate articles. They have in a very real way centralized epistemic authority in the hands of an anonymous mob. This is worse than Facebook. At least with Facebook, Congress can call Mark Zuckerberg to testify. There isn’t anyone who is responsible for Wikipedia’s content. The situation is, in some ways, more dire than with Facebook, because you can’t effectively talk back to Wikipedia.

Larry Sanger, “Want to help build an open encyclopedia network — an ‘Encyclosphere’?” (October 7, 2019).

Chain Letters

I received an email from a friend that lists no less than ninety-two books that Governor Sarah Palin requested be banned from the Wasilla Library in 1996. It says the list was recorded in the official minutes of the Wasilla Library Board. It even includes the Harry Potter series. We should not vote for a censor like Palin who disregards the First Amendment.

While multiple sources attest that Palin did ask some worrisome questions of then librarian Mary Ellen Emmons, the problem here is that a chain-email is not a reliable source and the reader has no access to the Wasilla Library Board minutes to verify the claim. A red flag here is also the inclusion of the Harry Potter books which had not yet been published in 1996. Urban Legend debunkers subsequently tracked down the real source, a list of “Books Banned at One Time or Another in the United States”.

If you believe everything you read on the internet, then it seems that a chemical found in thousands of products is causing an epidemic of severe neurological and systemic diseases, like multiple sclerosis and lupus. The FDA, the companies that make the product, and the “medical industrial complex” all know about the dangers of this chemical but are hiding the truth from the public in order to protect corporate profits and avoid the pesky paper work that would accompany the truth being revealed. The only glimmer of hope is a dedicated band of bloggers and anonymous e-mail chain letter authors who aren’t afraid to speak the truth. Armed with the latest anecdotal evidence, unverified speculation, and scientifically implausible claims, they have been tirelessly ranting about the evils of this chemical for years. Undeterred by the countless published studies manufactured by the food cartel that show this chemical is safe, they continue to protect the public by spreading baseless fear and hysteria.

Steven Novella, “Aspartame: Truth vs. Fiction” at Science-Based Medicine (September 15, 2010).

Generalized Authorities

All the economists have factored in the Bush tax cuts and said that it leads to an increase in the deficit of four trillion dollars.

Eliot Spitzer on Parker Spitzer, CNN, December 7, 2010.

In this exchange, the ever scrupulous Mary Matalin called him on it: “I love the way you quote all these economists. The president said today that economists have told him, do not raise taxes now.” We have here a classic case of dueling authorities, but the viewer is ill-equipped by such an exchange to investigate the matter because “the economists” are unnamed.

Distinguished authorities point out: that medical research of recent ears indicates may possible causes of lung cancer; that there is no agreement among the authorities regarding what the cause is; that there is no proof that cigarette smoking is one of the causes; that statistics purporting to link smoking with the disease could apply with equal force to any of many other aspect of modern life. Indeed the validity of the statistics themselves are questioned by numerous scientists.

UK Tobacco Institute, “A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers“, 1954.


Did you know that Winston Churchill was born in the ladies’ room during a dance?

“The claim… has been circulated on Internet-based trivia lists for as long as we can remember. Given that Churchill was one of the most important figures of the 20th Century… this would seem like a fairly easy item to verify, but once again things were deceptively less simple than they appeared at first blush.” (Mikkelson,, 2008.) The Mikkelsons at make a living of investigating questionable claims, but as a rule, the burden of proof is on the claim and should not be accepted without citation. This is a classic case of a factoid, in the original sense of the term: “something fictitious or unsubstantiated that is presented as fact… and accepted because of constant repetition.” (Random House Dictionary) What is especially tricky about factoids is that they have a prima facie plausibility because they seem harmless enough, with no apparent idealogical motive to raise our skepticism. Ironically, the definition of the term “factoid” has evolved in precisely this way. It has been used increasingly to refer to “trivia” and thereby lost its meaning in common parlance as something that resembles a fact, but is not in fact true. T’is a shame. It was a word we needed in its original sense.

“If you do not ever forward anything else, please forward this to all your contacts… Obama takes great care to conceal the fact that he is a Muslim. He is quick to point out that, ‘He was once a Muslim, but that he also attended Catholic school.’ Obama’s political handlers are attempting to make it appear that he is not a radical… The Muslims have said they plan on destroying the U.S. from the inside out, what better way to start than at the highest level — through the President of the United States, one of their own!!!!”

Apart from the egregious scare tactics employed in this email chain letter, the writer insists that the reader disbelieve Obama’s own testimony about himself without providing any authority to justify such suspicions. This is a classic case of rumor-mongering, the writer urging the reader to perpetuate the rumor instead of to verify it.


Argue that because we do not know the source, we cannot evaluate the reliability of the information. However, in our day, it is often possible to track down the source of a claim through searching the Web. Many times the claim will turn out to be an urban legend or unverified meme. Sometimes the source will turn out to be reliable. Indeed, if the source of a claim cannot be tracked down on the Web, it’s not unlikely that no authority has made the claim in question. Though the responsibility to cite a source lies with the one who makes the claim, it doesn’t prevent an evaluator from taking on this burden if she so chooses. In many cases, unearthing a disreputable source serves to discredit a claim or argument all the more. It is not enough merely to check that a source is provided. The source itself should be checked, because the source itself may be specious. This is why, whenever possible, it is of the utmost importance that one dig through the layers to the original source when questioning the appeal to authority in an argument.


On the difficulty of arguing or contending with anonymous authorities…

“Authority in the middle of the twentieth centry has changed its character; it is not overt authority, but anonymous, invisible, alienate authority. Nobody makes a demand, neither a person, nor an idea, nor a moral law. yet we all conform as much or more than people in an intensely authoritarian society would. Indeed, nobody is an authority except ‘It.’ What is It? Profit, economic necessities, the market, common sense, public opinion, what ‘one’ does, thinks, feels. The laws of anonymous authority are as invisible as the laws of the market — and just as unassailable. Who can attack the invisible? Who can rebel against Nobody?”

Fromm, The Sane Society, p. 152.

On the ubiquity of anonymous authority in everyday life

“But what we find is rather that instead of disappearing, authority has made itself invisible. Instead overt authority, ‘anonymous’ authority reigns. It is disguised as common sense, science, psychic health, normality, public opinion. It does not demand anything except the self-evident. It seems to use no pressure but only mild persuasion. Whether a mother says to her daughter, ‘I know you will not like to go out with that boy,’ or an advertisement suggests, ‘Smoke this brand of cigarettes — you will like their coolness,’ it is the same atmosphere of subtle suggestion which actually pervades our whole social life. Anonymous authority is more effective than overt authority, since one never suspects that there is any order which one is expected to follow. In external authority it is clear that there is an order and who gives it; one can fight against authority, and in this fight personal independence and moral courage can develop. But whereas in internalized authority the command, though an internal one, remains visible, in anonymous authority both command and commander have become invisible. It is like being fired at by an invisible enemy. There is nobody and nothing to fight back against.”

Fromm, Escape from Freedom, p. 166.