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Appeal to Authority

Entry 1492, on 2013-01-31 at 13:47:36 (Rating 4, Skepticism)

In the past I have discussed the logical fallacies which people often indulge in, specifically special pleading and ad hominem. Today I want to move on to the appeal to authority. I chose this primarily because it has come up in two discussions I am currently involved with: one against an anti-global warming organisation in Australia and the other against an anti-evolutionist from Brazil. Isn't it great how the internet allows us to get into bitter and protracted pointless arguments with people from all over the world?

Both global warming and evolution deniers often accuse their opponents (in this case me) of succumbing to the appeal to authority fallacy. The first question I ask both of these groups is why the vast majority of experts (practically 100% in the case of evolution and in the high 90s for climate change) think the scientific consensus is sound.

There are really only two responses possible here (for my opponents). First, that there is a vast conspiracy and that huge group are all colluding to misinform the public. And second, that a consensus should be ignored because even an overwhelming majority view can be wrong and anyway, that is just an appeal to authority.

Actually there is a third possibility but that can usually be dispensed with fairly easily. That possibility is that the consensus doesn't exist. This is usually supported by quoting people who present the alternative view. But in every case these represent either a fringe view of a tiny number of people, a view of a non expert, or a politically or religiously motivated personality with no scientific credibility in the area involved.

The problem is that, like many informal logical fallacies, this isn't a simple black and white issue. Appealing to an authority can be a bad thing but it can also be a reasonable way to conduct a debate. It really depends on how the point is made. The same applies to other fallacies such as the ad hominem attack I have mentioned before, because in some cases attacking the person can be fair if that attack is relevant to their claims.

When I support evolution by invoking the fact that practically every working biologist believes it I am appealing to authority but in a fair way. Why do those people believe evolution? Because they know the facts and have investigated the evidence. Their opinion is relevant to the topic. Invoking the opinion of some random person with no formal background in biology, even if they have authority in some other area, would be a genuine fallacious use of the technique.

But once the consensus can be established (and it can, beyond any reasonable doubt) and the appeal to authority can be justified (which, as I said above, I believe it can) then the only defence left is the conspiracy theory. A lot of nutty believers in weird stuff (creationists and global warming deniers for example) don't hesitate to use the conspiracy defence but many (slightly less nutty individuals) realise that does severely weaken their position so they try to avoid it.

The global warming deniers I am debating with have gone with the classic conspiracy theory which basically says that experts are pretending global warming is real to ensure they get research grants for their work in the area. This is so utterly ridiculous that it is laughable to anyone who knows anything at all about how science really works, but these people either have no idea or choose to use the technique anyway because it appeals to the biased views of a lot of the more ignorant sections of the public.

The anti-evolutionist (I suspect he in a creationist although he won't admit it) I am debating with has taken a different course. He has just rejected what biologists think and accused me of the appeal to authority. Even though that is an invalid use of that criticism because the appeal is justified I moved on to something else. The consensus exists because of all the evidence, so if the consensus isn't acceptable I just had to present the evidence directly instead. That's what I'm doing and so far that seems to be far harder for my opponent to refute.

So in summary I think the appeal to authority should be used with caution. Anyone who does use it should be aware of why a consensus exists and should be able to support his view by presenting those reasons directly. On the other hand no one should reject a scientific consensus unless they have a very good reason. And creationists and global warming deniers most definitely don't!


Comment 1 (3425) by Anonymous on 2013-02-20 at 08:59:46:

So you're saying it's OK to appeal to authorities you approve of but not OK to appeal to those you disagree with? Is that how it works for you?


Comment 2 (3426) by OJB on 2013-02-20 at 09:12:35:

Not at all. If someone is a genuine authority I will take their opinion seriously, and I do take a lot more notice of the consensus of expert opinion rather than an individual's.

But in any case the authorities have to be experts in the area they are commenting on. For example I don't think theologians should comment on cosmology or evolution. They can comment on the theology related to those topics but not the science.

And one other thing: experts should be able to back up their opinions with facts and research, plus we should be ready to reject their opinions if better research comes along.

So appeal to authority is OK as long as it is kept in perspective, plus the credibility of the authority must be closely checked.


Comment 3 (3605) by Anonymous on 2013-08-02 at 09:26:12:

Thatís a mighty impressive cop out you got going there. Learning science might help cure your ignorance of the confirned and well documented evidence against evolution that even other darwinists have admitted to.


Comment 4 (3606) by OJB on 2013-08-02 at 09:29:01:

If you look hard enough (and/or get creative) you can find evidence against anything. It's the balance which matters: does the evidence for outweigh that against. Also I'm not even sure exactly what evidence you are referring to here. Maybe you should tell me what it is instead of just making some vague reference to evidence which might not even exist.


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