The Appeal To Authority – Not So Authoritative

Einstein quote The worst reason there is for believing anything is that someone says so. Einstein said that E=MC^2. Does that make it true? Funnily enough, no.

As it happens, that bit of fundamental physics is true – it has been tested so many times under every condition imaginable that it would be perverse to deny it. It is not true because Einstein said so; it is not true because a teacher says so; it is not true because a university professor says so: it is true on its own merits independent of who makes the claim. And it can be tested, and so far all of the evidence supports it.

Claiming that something is true  because a scientist, doctor, parapsychologist or anyone else with “authority” says so is a fallacy called the appeal to authority. It is usually resorted to by people who cannot prove (or supply any testable evidence to support) the claims they make. 

The appeal to authority is always a fallacy in formal (deductive) logic for the simple reason that even an expert in a given field is not immune to error. Although a qualified person is probably almost always right in what he has to say about his subject, it does not follow logically that he is perfect; there has to be independent, verifiable evidence that can be checked.

Although all appeals to authority are false appeals, there is a distinction between an appeal to authority when someone is qualified in a particular field, and someone whose qualification is in another area altogether. There are, for example, paranormal researchers who are, indeed, scientists, but who are now pursuing what can only be described as fringe science at best. When someone appeals to the alleged authority of someone whose legitimate qualifications have nothing to do with the claims being made in an unrelated area, then that is very definitely the false appeal to authority.

This post came about because of a comment from one of my correspondents in my previous post about some Christian mental health professionals (including a significant number of doctors) who believe that mental illness can often be traced to possession by demons. My correspondent taunted me by saying:

“Terrifying when qualified people acknowledge the existence of something you don’t want to believe in, isn’t it?”

The qualified people he refers to are doctors – people who have been trained over many years in a science-based discipline. They have had to pass rigorous exams to become doctors. They should be capable of diagnosing an ailment and then treating it with the appropriate science and evidence-based treatments that have been developed over many years by empirical research. They have not been trained in exorcism – for which there is no empirical evidence at all.

So, it seems, for my correspondent, the opinion of a qualified person like a doctor (who has no recognised, accredited qualifications in the supernatural) gives weight to the idea that possession is real and that an exorcism is the cure.

OK, let’s test my correspondent’s argument and see if it still holds. A very qualified friend of mine holds some of the highest qualifications it is possible to get in electrical engineering. He is as qualified (or better) in his own area of expertise as the doctors referred to above. In his opinion, the supernatural is bunk.

Here’s the situation:

  1. My correspondent implies that the opinion of some doctors supports the possession/exorcism hypothesis. (More specifically, he says that they “acknowledge” its existence, therefore implying that it really, really is true because they say so.)
  2. My electrically qualified friend says that supernatural possession is not real. (But he says that that is just his opinion.)

In both instances, qualified people have made a statement about something they are not qualified in. And in both instances, quoting them as an authority in possession or any other aspect of the so-called supernatural is fallacious.

The problem can be more subtle, however. In psi research especially, the appeal to authority is widespread. From over a hundred years ago, people like William Crookes – a great scientist – are quoted again and again in support of arguments for an afterlife and supposed communication with the dead. Crookes was a scientist; he also dabbled in séances: he believed it, promoted it, and his say so is good enough for the believers.

Even some modern scientists – from various scientific disciplines – are quoted extensively in favour of the paranormal. But again, the fact that someone has an academic qualification does not mean that their opinion about something that has not been empirically demonstrated should automatically be accepted as true. But it sounds impressive when someone with a PhD makes a pronouncement in favour of the paranormal.

Everyone, whether qualified or not, is entitled to an opinion about anything they are interested in, of course. But it still comes down to one simple fact: the evidence – available, testable and repeatable is what counts, regardless of who makes a claim. There are some astronauts who claim that the US government has captured alien spacecraft and aliens – now hidden away in secret facilities. Their claims might or might not be true, but they supply no tangible evidence, and some believers quote them as “authorities” on the matter.

If you believe in UFOs and you quote the say so of an astronaut, have you proven your case? No, of course not. Have you strengthened your case? Not in the slightest. Are you exposing your ignorance? Obviously.

The bottom line:

Quoting an “authority” is irrelevant with regard to whether a claim is true or not. Someone qualified in a subject might be right most of the time, but he is not immune from error. The fact that an “authority” says something does not automatically make it true.

Quoting someone who is not an authority – even though qualified in another area – is naive at best, or just an example of hopeless incredulity.

In short, the appeal to authority is bad thinking.

As I said at the beginning of this post – and it is worth keeping in mind when someone makes an extraordinary claim – the worst reason for believing something is that someone tells you so.

Trust me – I’m a skeptic.

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3 responses to “The Appeal To Authority – Not So Authoritative

  1. An excellent, incisive argument. The same goes for religion. The issue here is the number of levels we need to drill down before we arrive at a firm definition of the word ‘fact’ and are able to identify its exemplars. Fact is what is known to be true. There are very few, if no, facts to reality. Most of what we know is a highly probable statistically backed hypothesis that is so confirmed by inductive logic that we basically accept it as a fact. It’s important to realise however that because that is the nature of our knowledge, we can always be wrong. This is the problem with the label ‘expert’ as it’s obviously highly subjective and possibly harmful in the sense it can prevent one from seeing the whole picture. All facts are provisional and serve as part of a larger framework of understanding because facts bear relationships to one another. If the relationships are not duly considered, the picture is skewed thus weakening any validity to the term ‘expert in the field of…’

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  2. Freaky Folk Tales,

    Thanks for your comment.

    I agree with the points you’ve made, in particular: “It’s important to realise however that because that is the nature of our knowledge, we can always be wrong.”

    Unfortunately, most people will not accept the possibility that a cherished belief might just be wrong. Superstition persists because some people have beliefs that are immune to reason, and they probably don’t even realise it. And the fallacies they employ must seem like perfect logic to them.

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  3. Pingback: This Is Getting Tedious | Bad Thinking

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