Fallacy #13: The Argument From Authority

Our fallacy #4 was the appeal to authority, the claim that being authorized makes things right. We noted a similar fallacy in our #8, the naturalist fallacy, a claim that time creates authority and truth. For today’s fallacy, however, I want to turn these around: Not third parties referring to authority, but authority itself telling us what’s right. And so I’m calling this fallacy, the argument from authority.

The things we’ll be covering in this installment involve well-known fallacies like the argument from repetition (repeating something until everyone just accepts it), the courtier’s reply (claiming that the other person’s argument is wrong because he or she lacks credentials) and the argument from incredulity (“Your argument is absurd!”). All of these work because they come from authority, and so I think it’s better to examine them in that way.

In reality the argument from authority is irrational and silly, being a claim that truth follows the person rather than the facts. Nonetheless, we see it all the time. For example:

    • In the political realm, we see charges relentlessly made by authorities against an opponent (“Russia hacked Hillary’s email”) . Soon enough nearly everyone thinks it’s true. After that, facts to the contrary become not just irrelevant and troublesome, but are held to be hateful.
    • We see it in academia, where failure to hold an advanced degree makes one’s opinions moot.
    • We see it in many other settings, where a louder and wealthier person derides the man or woman with a new opinion as “a conspiracy theorist.”

In all of these cases, authority shoves their opinion upon others, many of whom will simply adopt it. The appeal from authority, then, is powerful, and especially powerful in the modern world, where it reaches millions of people in mere minutes. This, then, is something we need to examine.

How The Trick Works

There’s no version of this trick larger and more overt than what is called “the big lie.” And there was probably no greater practitioner of this dark art in the 20th century than Adolph Hitler. Here’s what he wrote about it in Mein Kampf:

In the simplicity of their minds, people more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie, since they themselves often tell small lies in little matters but would be ashamed to resort to large-scale falsehoods. It would never come into their heads to fabricate colossal untruths, and they would not believe that others could have such impudence. Even though the facts which prove this to be so may be brought clearly to their minds, they will still doubt and continue to think that there may be some other explanation.

What Hitler says above is mainly true, but he’s describing only the hidden part of the process: people finding a reason to believe. The underlying reason (which he simply assumes) is a bias toward authority.

As we’ve noted before, humans have a serious weaknesses for authority, and tend to conform to it. If we are to be honest, we must admit that this is a primitive trait, and one that we need to outgrow. (See Fallacy #4: The Appeal To Authority, for more on this.)

The advantage held by authority, of course, is the application of shame and/or violence. When people know that the speaker could reach out and hurt them, they pull backward and find reasons to comply. Now, I’ll expand a little on that to make sure it’s very clear. And bear in mind that I’m being brutally honest here – I think this weakness of ours has to be faced directly.

And so, the process of acquiescing to authority usually runs like this:

  1. The authority makes sure that everyone knows they are the authority. Whether it be a crown, special clothing, banners and backgrounds proclaiming the speaker’s position or whatever, this is a fundamental component. Humans are superb at recognizing status, which is perhaps the core of our weakness. One way or another, authority must show us that it is authority.
  2. We recognize ourselves to be of lower status than the speaker. Whether it’s “He’s on TV and you’re not,” “She runs the CIA,” “The police obey him,” or whatever, we are wired to understand such things and we do understand them. The connections may be made in ‘the backs of our minds,’ but they are very definitely made… unless we train ourselves to discount them, which takes dedication.
  3. The authority tells us, in knowing if not threatening tones, what the truth is, and, probably, that evil people oppose it.
  4. Authority provides us with a reason to believe and obey. This step is crucial because humans are self-reflective beings; that is, we observe and judge ourselves. One thing most of us cannot allow is to judge ourselves as cowards… as less than the heroes of our own story. Even the appearance of a Hero/Coward choice troubles people. And so, some passable excuse is required. These can range far and wide (humans are tremendously creative in this area), but whether it’s, “Without the law, life would be unlivable,” “Democracy has spoken,” or something else, some reason to protect one’s self must be provided. People, as a rule, will not simply admit that they’re obeying out of fear.

And so the appeal from authority is, in reality, a veiled edict and threat. In the case of the classroom or cocktail party bully calling “conspiracy theory,” it’s an active attack; the weapons of such people are ridicule and shame, which are not to be underestimated.

What To Keep In Mind

Firstly, we should be very clear in our minds that authority is the enemy of truth and growth. Every sufficiently experienced person comes to understand this, as Albert Einstein wrote:

Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.

Or as Buddha said:

Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.

If we’re firm enough on the concept that authority is wrong more than right, and has absolutely no advantage when it comes to recognizing truth, we’ve made a strong start. But to that, I’s like us to add a second thing: Openly admitting – advertising – that we’re complying only because of credible threats.

As noted above, people make excuses for obeying so they can remain heroic in the stories they tell to themselves and others. I’m suggesting that we cut through that by being bluntly honest. In a conversation, it would look something like this:

Friend: What do you think about the new XYZ law?

You: I think it’s barbaric, but I’ll have to follow it in public, because if I don’t, I may be arrested by armed men and locked in a cage.

Friend: Um… that’s a rather extreme thing to say.

You: No, it’s an honest thing to say, although it is unusual. I do what they demand because the alternative is for armed men to attack me and lock me in a cage. That’s the true reason we obey and I think we should start saying so.

What we’re doing in cases like these is cutting through a mass conspiracy of compliance and face-saving. Doing this may confuse our friends at first, but after that it gives them a new way to stand as the heroes of their stories: They have the courage to deal with the truth.

As an added benefit, it condemns those who deserve to be condemned.

More next time.


Paul Rosenberg