Is it really always as simple as ‘an expert said X, therefore it must be true’?

There has been a lot of political upheaval over the last year with some surprising election results, and with it there has been a lot of political discourse and debate; some intelligent and considerate, some not so much.  Whether it was debates over the EU referendum, who should be the next president of the U.S. or France, or discussion over the upcoming British General Election, there has been one type of argument being made time again: the appeal to a higher authority.

A lot of the points I have heard made over this period have been like this: ‘I think something, and this expert agrees with me, therefore I must be right’. I’m sure you’ve also seen how some news articles state things as ‘experts say x,’ without really any argument involved, or any reference to who these experts are or how they came to their opinions, or even the evidence they’ve used! This type of argument in which someone strengthens what they are saying by referring to an apparent “expert” is known as the ‘appeal to authority’. However, these arguments are not only lazy and bad journalism, but they also pose a dangerous example to those that read these kind of articles as they both fall foul of becoming fallacious.

The appeal to authority should work like this:

  1. X is an expert on subject Y
  2. X claims A (A is within subject Y)
  3. Therefore A is probably true (an appeal to authority can never be logically certain, but when done correctly it is very likely be true).

However, the appeal to authority becomes what is known as an ‘informal fallacy’ when the contents of an argument’s premises fail to adequately support the conclusion. With an informal fallacy the logic or form of the argument may be perfectly sound but its premises are wrong and therefore the whole argument becomes irrational. For example, the appeal to authority becomes fallacious when someone references someone who may be famous, but not an expert by any stretch of the imagination. Think celebrity views on Brexit. Here the form of the argument is sound, but the first proposition is wrong as they are not an expert at all, and therefore the whole argument becomes illogical!

Again, the appeal to authority becomes fallacious if you refer to an expert on a topic they are not actually an expert on. You may have an economics professor who is an extremely intelligent man, and world renowned for his academic work, he may even have a Nobel prize for the advance of economic understanding in his area. This man may then go on to appear on TV and talk about how Brexit will either make the world burn, or talk about how it will create a utopia. Whatever side he takes you may watch this man, and then use it when down at the pub to strengthen your argument in favour of what you believe to be right. However, your argument is now a fallacious argument, as this man is actually an expert in ‘virtual economies’ – the kind you get in video games – and so may know next to nothing about macroeconomics and how brexit will affect it. In this example, the first premise – that the professor is an expert on subject Y (virtual economies) – is correct, but the argument is fallacious as he is making a point about A (the effects of Brexit) which is not within subject Y, and so the argument is falling flat on the second premise.

I think it is useful to also point out that when making an argument about a topic which is hotly debated amongst academics, to just refer to an expert in that field is also totally fallacious as he is just one opinion among many on a subject where nobody yet knows the truth.

There are only really a few situations when an appeal to an authority is logical, such as when believing a doctor when he prescribes treatment for a particular illness, as he is a doctor and is an expert on medicine. The appeal to the doctor’s authority breaks down when you start listening to him about his views on politics.  Here, I think it is important to point out, again, that your doctor could still be wrong about the treatment, it just means that your belief in his authority on medicine is logical and not fallacious.

The best advice for avoiding this fallacy comes from the late 6th century saint, Martin of Braga: “Do not let the authority of a speaker move you, consider what is said, not who says it.” Don’t depend on others’ arguments to make your own, learn about the topic, gather evidence, and form your own beliefs; that’s the best way to avoid committing a fallacy that is far too common in our age.

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