Logic Me This

Logic Me This: Argument from Authority

Logic Me This is a regular series on Teen Skepchick where we examine various logical fallacies in an attempt to help you think more like a skeptic.

I’m doing Argument from Authority (or Appeal to Authority) this week. It’s kind of a difficult one to spot sometimes, but here goes:

The general form is this: An authority believes P is true, therefore P is true.

Which, quite often could be true. If I’m not an expert on something, then I think it is perfectly reasonable (and rational! and much better than pretending like you know what you are talking about, when you don’t) to defer to a person who is an expert on that particular topic. But there are a few things to watch out for.

First, is the person in authority, actually an authority on that subject? Don’t quote a physicist on something biological, or vice versa. If a television ad is using a doctor to endorse a particular medicine, are they a doctor of medicine? Or a self-proclaimed “doctor” of homeopathy?

Related to this is, do they sufficient expertise in that area. For example, my friends who are studying medicine might not be the best people to cite in a particular argument. Sometime in the future maybe, when they are qualified, but right now they still have a lot to learn. As do I, so don’t go quoting me as an expert on physics! Sometimes it is very difficult to tell exactly what does and does not count as an expert, so be thorough!

Next, is there agreement amongst other experts in this field? Or are you citing a lone crack-pot? This can be hard, because many fields have a lot of dispute, for example in economics or psychology. But even in these fields there are areas of significant agreement, and these shouldn’t be dismissed.

Another thing to consider are potential biases of the expert. We’re all human, and susceptible to biases, and experts are no exception. So consider what financial or other gain a person might have that would impact their opinion. However, even if their view is skewed in one particular direction, this does not mean that their opinion is invalid.

Next, is the field they are an expert in a legitimate field of expertise? I brought up the self-proclaimed doctor of homeopathy earlier, and any expert in any field of dubious integrity should be treated with all due skepticism. Which, again, can be subject to debate. If in doubt, steer clear of the psychics.

Fishiness can be smelt from a mile away if the authority is unidentified. Any claim that starts with “Experts say…” or “Scientists say…” with no indication of who those experts or scientists are, are generally pretty dubious.

Finally, check to see if the authority is being misquoted, or taken out of context. An example of this was brought up on Pharyngula last week. ‘Nuff said.

It’s a bit of a minefield, so be careful out there! If you can at all invoke an argument on solid evidence alone, and not just at the testimonial of an authority, then that is definitely the better way to go.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Lauren is a Maths and Physics student from somewhere in the southern hemisphere. She has an affinity for reality, and you can find her on twitter @lolrj, or Google+.

1 Comment

  1. May 1, 2011 at 4:00 am —

    Also, even if the quoted expert really is an expert on that particular subject she’s still just one person and can be wrong. What’s the scientific consensus on the matter? Although maybe that could be an argument from popularity, that might be offset by the science community’s love to show each other wrong.

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