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Appeal to Authority

While often it is appropriate to cite an authority to support a point, sometimes it is not. An appeal to authority is problematic if: 1) The person is not qualified to have an expert opinion on the subject; 2) Experts in the field disagree on this issue; 3) The authority was making a joke, drunk, or otherwise not being serious. 4) The authority cited is either misinterpreted or in fact did not even say what is attributed to them. 5) A fifth variation on this fallacy, “circular citation”, is when a source is cited, but the cited source itself does not reference the study or authoritative source that supports the claim being made. Sometimes a whole slew of articles and books will crop up, all citing each other or some common source, but the seminal source itself fails to substantiate the claim with direct evidence or a trustworthy authority. An urban legend is born.

Also see Anonymous Authorities for a related strand of problematic appeals to authority.


Einstein believed, Dawkins said, the Pope wrote …

“Albert Einstein, even after all his research into the nature of the universe, still believed in God. He once wrote, ‘I do not believe that the universe was the result of blind chance.’ If belief in God made sense to Einstein, then it makes sense to me.” (Hughes & Lavery, Critical Thinking, p. 151.) »

Apart from the fallacious appeal to authority, Einstein’s beliefs about God are a matter of contention, many arguing that his occasional use of religious language was merely a poetic way of describing the majesty of the universe. So this may also be a case of misrepresenting or misunderstanding an authority.

Citing a Joke

I saw a video clip of George Bush speaking to an audience that he called an ‘impressive’ crowd: ‘the haves, and the have mores’. He said: ‘Some people call you the elite, I call you my base.’ It is inexcusable that the President, who is supposed to be a servant of all the people, is catering only to the rich and powerful.

Though some may consider this joke tasteless in any case, this footage, reproduced in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 without context, came from an annual charity fundraiser at which politicians are expected to poke fun at themselves. The comment was not to be taken seriously. On the flipside, at the 2009 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, Obama made a similar joke: “Most of you covered me; all of you voted for me.” Even if there’s truth there, it’s easy to see how this quote could be similarly abused to establish authoritatively that the media is biased to the left.

Dueling Authorities

[I]n almost every litigated issue, eminent specialists can be found by both sides: some to testify that the blood is human, others that it is not human; some to testify that the signature is absolutely genuine, others that it is certainly a forgery; some to testify that a certain brand of canned meat is adulterated, others to affirm that it is pure.

Foster, Argumentation and Debating, p. 62.

Epistemic Trespassing, or Not Staying in Your Lane

It occurs when commentators holding real expertise in one field intrude into another, passing judgment where they lack crucial competence. Roaming into a field without expert-level insight, trespassers easily slip up. We have witnessed a cavalcade of epistemic trespassing on pandemic topics. In mid-March a prominent American legal scholar argued that official estimates for COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. were radically overinflated. His theoretical model indicated that “about 500” Americans would die. The head of the Israel Space Agency, a military scientist, produced a statistical model predicting that the virus would peak after 40 days and fall to nearly zero by 70, no matter what containment measures are used. Well beyond that 70-day limit in the U.S., zero is nowhere in sight.

Nathan Ballantyine and David Dunning, “Which Experts Should You Listen to during the Pandemic?” (June 8, 2020).

(As an aside, Ballantine and Dunning don’t also mention that many of the models by specialists were also wrong, most infamously the wildly inflated predicate for lockdowns, Neil Ferguson et al’s Imperial College Report.)

Mischaracterizing Quotes

One of the most commonly printed quotes abut secrecy and secret societies in the U.S. was made by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. It is frequently used by conspiracists to show that Americans distrust secret societies: ‘The very word ‘secrecy’ is repugnant in a free and open society; and we are as a people inherently and historically opposed to secret societies, to secret oaths and to secret proceeding.’ Of course, like any sound bite, the part that gets left out is that Kennedy was actually giving a Cold War-era speech in favor of secrecy. He was asking a ballroom filled with newspaper publishers to keep their mouths shut about U.S. government activities and to not print anything in their papers that might give ‘our enemies’ an advantage.

Hodapp et al., Conspiracy Theories and Secret Societies for Dummies, p. 15.

“Ward Churchill tells a shocking tale of war crimes committed by the U.S. Army at Fort Clark against the Mandan Indians in 1837. Fort Clark stood perched on a windswept bluff overlooking the Missouri River, in what is today North Dakota. Churchill reports that in early 1837, the commander of Fort Clark ordered a boatload of blankets shipped from a military smallpox infirmary in St. Louis. When the shipment arrived at Fort Clark on June 20, U.S. Army officers requested a parlay with Mandan Indians who lived next to the fort. At the parlay, army officers distributed the smallpox-infested blankets as gifts. … While the Mandans and other Indians of the Upper Plains did suffer horribly from a smallpox epidemic in 1837, Churchill presents no evidence whatsoever to indicate that the infection was anything but accidental, or that the U.S. Army was in any way involved… In telling his fantastic tale, Churchill has fabricated incidents that never occurred and individuals who never existed. Churchill falsified the sources that he cited in support of his tale, and repeatedly concealed evidence in his possession that disconfirms his version of events. 

Brown, “Did the U.S. Army Distribute Smallpox Blankets to Indians?” in Plagiary, Vol. 1, No. 9, p. 1.

If torture isn’t wrong, then nothing is wrong.

Abraham Lincoln

This quote, bandied about in discussions of the ethical status of torture, is in fact a distortion of Abraham Lincoln’s words after signing the Emancipation Proclamation: “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong”. In 1863, Lincoln did issue a military mandate, the Lieber Code, that included a prohibition of torture, so Lincoln can surely be enlisted in arguments against torture. Nevertheless, to distort his words — however pithy, unequivocal, and serviceable they are — is an inappropriate appeal to authority. (The appropriation of the quote may have started here.)

Dubious Citations

Like most conspiracy books, The Lincoln Conspiracy has many footnotes and an impressively long bibliography. But, also like most conspiracy literature, it’s a circular citing process, with conspiracists endlessly referring to one another’s work. Despite their abundant cribbing from an earlier conspiracist work from the 1930s by an Austrian chemist name Otto Eisenschimi, the authors claimed to be the only investigators in history who’d ever gotten the story of Lincoln’s assassination right. They also seemed to have connected with an amazing number of documents to back up their version of events, papers, and diaries that had slipped past mere mortal historians. The book’s opening pages were touting these miraculous discoveries, as well as the sever scientific methodology they had put to use in their quest. … But when you read on carefully, you come across the following astonishing statement: ‘The authors acquired a full transcript of the contents of the missing pages and had the contents evaluated by historical experts, but have not been able to acquire copies of the actual pages to authenticate the handwriting.’ What these guys are saying is that they haven’t seen copies of the actual ‘million dollar’ diary pages in which they’ve built just about the entire thesis of their book.

Hodapp et al., Conspiracy Theories and Secret Societies for Dummies, p. 12.

Media and Newspapers as Authorities

As to [General] Macarthur, I don’t feel in a position to have clear opinions about anyone I know only from newspapers. You see, whenever they deal with anyone (or anything) I know myself, I find they’re always a mass of lies & misunderstandings: so I conclude they’re no better in the places where I don’t know.

CS Lewis, “Letter to Mrs. Mary Van Deusen”, April 30, 1951. Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, vol. 3, “Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy”, (1950-1963) p. 114.

Knoll’s law of media accuracy is the adage that “everything you read in the newspapers is absolutely true, except for the rare story of which you happen to have firsthand knowledge”. Essentially, Knoll’s law suggests that people often assume that everything they hear in the media is true, except for cases where they’re familiar.

Erwin Knoll, editor, “The Progressive”

“Early in life I have noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie…I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories; and I saw newspapers in London retailing these lies and eager intellectuals building emotional superstructures over events that had never happened. I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines’.”

George Orwell, “Looking Back on the Spanish War” (1943)

Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this. […] Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. […] You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. […] You read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

Michael Crichton, “Why Speculate?” (speech at the International Leadership Forum, La Jolla, California, 26 April 2002).

The Wrap Up Smear


Show that either:

  1. the person cited is not an authority in the field; or,
  2. that there is general disagreement among the experts in the field on this point; or,
  3. that the authority is being misrepresented;
  4. that the source is not reliable.

Of course, even when an authority has been cited appropriately, reasons can be offered for dissenting from said authority.


On the Necessity of Trusting Authority

While the appeal to authority can be misused, C.S. Lewis points out that the bulk of our knowledge, by necessity, is dependent upon trusting authority, especially the testimony of others. While “because so-and-so said so” is never the determinant of the truth value of a proposition, in most cases we are not in a position to verify even a fraction of the truth claims we encounter every day. As a rule, we are justified in believing claims made on authority unless we have some reason to doubt them.

Do not be scared by the word authority. Believing things on authority only means believing them because you have been told them by someone you think is trustworthy. Ninety-nine per cent of the things you believe are believed on authority. I believe there is such a place as New York. I have not seen it myself. I could not prove by abstract reasoning that there must be such a place. I believe it because reliable people have told me so. The ordinary man believes in the Solar System, atoms, evolution, and the circulation of the blood on authority — because the scientists say so. Every historical statement in the world is believed on authority. None of us has seen the Norman Conquest or the defeat of the Armada. None of us could prove them by pure logic as you prove a thing in mathematics. We believe them simply because people who did see them have left writings that tell us about them: in fact, on authority. A man who jibbed at authority in other things as some people do in religion would have to be content to know nothing all his life.

Lewis, Mere Christianity, 1996, pp. 63-4.

Hughes and Lavery echo this point, though with some provisos.

What the telescope can assure us of; what the microscope can assure us of; what we can be assured of by chemical tests; what we can be assured of by careful induction produced by long and accurate observation — as to all these lines of information experts are summoned to give their testimony under oath. They are, in the main, highly cultivated men, sensitively conscientious. They are usually selected from among the front ranks of their class. They have ample time given to them for their investigations. They are liberally paid for their services, so as to enable them to take any trouble requisite for their special inquiries. Yet, notwithstanding this, there is scarcely a case in which expert testimony is summoned where we do not find, after two or three experts have
testified on one side, about the same number ready to testify on the other side.

Wharton, A Treatise on the Law of Evidence in Criminal Issues, p. 12.

“[N]ot all appeals to authority are irrelevant. In fact, our lives would be intolerable if we were never to rely upon authorities. The reason we consult lawyers, doctors, architects, and engineers, is that we have to rely upon their advice on matters about which we lack knowledge. In general, an appeal to authority is relevant whenever the following two conditions are met: 1) we lack information or experience that is needed to make a reasonable decision, and it is difficult or impossible on the matter in question to obtain it directly for ourselves; and 2) the authority appealed to is entitled to authoritative status on the matter in question… The appeal to authority, even when it is legitimate, should always be regarded as second best; if we are in a position to learn about the matter and decide for ourselves, we should do so.”

Hughes & Lavery, Critical Thinking, p. 151.

On the problem of contradictory authorities…

Testimonials in Advertising, Argumentum Ad Verecundiam

Advertising ‘testimonials’ are frequent instances of this fallacy. We are urged to smoke this or that brand of cigarettes because a champion swimmer or midget auto racer affirms their superiority. And we are assured that such-and-such a cosmetic is better because it is preferred by opera singers or movie stars. Of course, such an advertisement may equally well be construed as snob appeal and listed as an example of argumentum ad populum. But where a proposition is claimed to be literally true on the basis of its assertion by an ‘authority’ whose competence lies in a different field, we have a fallacy of argumentum ad verecundiam.”

Copi, Introduction to Logic, (1953) p. 61.