Fallacy #4: Appeal To Authority

The appeal to authority fallacy (also called argument from authority) is a very simple one, but it can be tricky to deal with. This fallacy says that we should not believe things just because people with authority say they’re right. Typically, the fallacy appears like this:

Person A: XYZ is happening, and the world is in great danger because of it.

Person B: Why in the world would I believe XYZ is happening? I see no evidence.

Person A: Ha! The New York Times, the Harvard Review, the Counsel of Churches and scientific consensus have all said it’s happening!

And here’s another common use:

Person A: Doctor Jones says that we all need to do XYZ, or else horrible things will happen.

Person B: I read his statement, and it misrepresents the data.

Person A: Ha! And where did you get your medical degree?

This fallacy functions on a mistrust of one’s own abilities, at least relative to someone else’s. We’ll go through more details as we go, but fundamentally, belief in authority is a disbelief in self… and that’s not good for us.

More than that, authority has been wrong so many times that throwing darts at a dartboard might give us a better rightness percentage. Here are two fairly trivial examples:

    • Al Gore, Vice President of the United States, etc., said the Arctic ice cap would be gone by the summer of 2013. (“If anything, our projection of 2013 for the removal of ice in summer… is already too conservative.”) The ice is still there.
    • Thomas Malthus, whose theories are still revered in powerful circles, taught that humanity would starve itself to death before very long. That was back in 1798.

The much more serious examples are the great genocides of the 20th century, most or all of which were conducted by legally instituted authority. As Martin Luther King, Jr. noted:

We should never forget that everything Adolph Hitler did in Germany was “legal” and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was “illegal.”

And so, authority should never be accepted as a reason to believe something. And by saying this, we’re really just saying the same thing that science is based upon, as the great physicist Richard Feynman explained:

It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.

The Counter-Argument

As bad as authority is, there’s a legitimate counter-argument to rejecting authority, and it goes like this:

If a question about nuclear physics comes up, or a question about the Persian empire, or the safety of fluoride in drinking water, I don’t have time to research those things… it might take months… and so I have no choice but to rely upon authority.

This is also a type of mistrust in one’s abilities, but not an unfair one; we are limited beings and we really don’t have time to research everything. The solution to this problem, however, really doesn’t include reliance upon authority.

Let’s presume that the question you’re facing is about a complex medical issue, and that analyzing it would require you to read and understand dozens of scholarly papers. You haven’t time to learn everything required, but you have to make a decision, perhaps for a relative. In that case, you still don’t trust authority, but you compare the abilities and intentions of the people you think have spent the necessary time. But be clear on this: Whether or not any of these people are held up as authorities should make no difference.

So, you make a list of people who could know enough about this question, and you consider:

    • How much actual ability do I think they have?
    • Do I think their intentions are to discover the truth about this question, or to promote a drug company that finances them… or something similar?

Based upon ability and intention, you’ll arrive at your decision. You won’t know whether you’re really right or wrong, but you’ll have made your best guess. That’s not ideal, but it’s often necessary.

The best decision in this case isn’t really a reliance on authority, even if the person whose opinion you follow has a fancy title.

(Just to be thorough: The scenario above assumes some level of trust in scientific journals. Sadly, those journals are frequently undeserving of trust, but to keep things uncomplicated I ignored that problem.)

How The Trick Works

The appeal to authority works best when it’s mixed with intimidation of some type. And that will generally be how you encounter it. Humans have a weakness for authority, no matter how many times it disgraces itself. We have “authority recognition” built into us, as neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky noted in his book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best And Worst:

After a mere 40 millisecond exposure, subjects accurately distinguish between high- from low-status presentations.

Status and authority are so deeply related that I think this fits very well. And such a recognition arising in 40 milliseconds means that it’s instinctual, not a result of careful thought. This is the root of our authority problem.

Just to reinforce this, I’ll add that Solomon Asch’s conformity experiments in the 1950s found that huge numbers of people would conform to others, even when they could see that the others were saying something false. And if the others were seen to have high status, the effect was especially pronounced. Undoubtedly you’ve noticed this in yourself at some point.

This, however, is not an insurmountable problem. We have lots of silly instincts that we learn not to act upon… like taking toys from our little brothers and sisters just because theirs are newer than ours. Instincts do not have to be acted upon.

The problem with the appeal to authority usually comes when our vulnerability to status is mixed with some other fear. And that usually comes by referencing a powerful individual: someone who might hurt us in some way if he or she felt insulted by us. Consider these cases:

    • Governments employ thousands of armed men to make sure people obey them. Stand against them too openly and they might send them after you.
    • Teachers hold power over the future of their students. Disagree and they’ll ruin your grade point average. Stand against them too openly and they may flunk you. If they get the school administrators on their side, you may be expelled altogether and kept out of other schools.
    • Disagree with the intellectual bully and you may be ridiculed and expelled from your social circle.

All of these cases happen, and all are things that feel bad in one way or another. And so the appeal to authority has teeth, and shying away from it is understandable.

What To Keep In Mind

The reason we should not shy away from the appeal to authority is because we value ourselves more than we do the consequences of defying authority… because we care more about what is real and right than we do the pain authority can impose.

If we give in to authority, we’re strengthening darkness upon Earth; we’re going along with the misuse of mind, and by doing that we doom the next generation to a worse situation than we’ve faced. If we value ourselves, our future children and our future grandchildren, we have to do and say what’s right; after that we can either avoid the blows or just bear them.

Or, in some cases, we can just stay away from people and situations that we know will thrust the appeal to authority at us. That’s not a good choice for every case – it requires us to sacrifice the actions we otherwise preferred to take – but in some cases it may be the best option.

Still, Albert Einstein was right when he said that the great tragedy of life was what dies in our hearts while we live, and always evading choices brings us to precisely that.

And so, when you run into the appeal to authority, please remember these things:

  1. Authority is a bad reason to believe anything. We may have a weakness for it, but it’s still stupid and we should hold that in mind.
  2. If you have to make a choice you haven’t time to analyze properly, take advice based on ability and intent; from someone who has become able to understand better than you, and who you think is expressing him or herself honestly.
  3. Remember that authority plus fear is an assault upon your personhood, and you should treat it as an assault.

More next time.


Paul Rosenberg