Appeal to Authority. Ideally, we reach our decisions by reviewing information and arguments, and coming to our own conclusions. But because knowledge is very specialized, none of us has the time and ability necessary to understand fully all the fields in which we need to make informed decisions. As a result, we often rely on the opinions of experts--people who have the knowledge necessary to evaluate very specialized information. In accepting or rejecting expert opinion, we usually forgo some or all of the usual analysis of evidence and claims, relying on the expert's explanations or evaluations of the material for us. Obviously, then, we need to be confident of the expertise of the individual on whom we are relying.

As the name suggests, a misdirected appeal to authority usually cites some person or thing (a book, for example) as a source to be trusted on a subject, when in fact that person or thing is not authoritative on that specific subject. As a result, this fallacy is also known as an appeal to questionable authority. One common way to make such an illegitimate appeal more persuasive is to appeal to a recognized authority on a matter outside the area of that authority's expertise.

Celebrity endorsements of commercial products or political positions are often used as fallacious appeals to authority. Just because a person is successful or knowledgeable in one area--say, acting, music, or sports--is no reason to accord his or her claims or opinions added weight in an unrelated area--such as health care, diet, or investments. There is nothing wrong with using a celebrity to attract attention to a cause or product, but the decision about whether the product or cause is indeed worthwhile should be made without regard to the celebrity endorsement.


Exercises

1. Which of the following is probably not a fallacious appeal to authority?

I'm becoming a vegetarian. I.B. Singer said it is the ethical thing to do, and he won the Nobel Prize!

I'm buying a Bumpster mountain bike. My critical thinking instructor says they're the best, and she is so logical!

I'm going to see that new movie. My best friend said it was very good, and we always like the same things!

I'm practicing safe sex. My accountant said it's important, and he was honored as the San Jose CPA of the year.

1. Which of the following is probably not a fallacious appeal to authority? You answered:

I'm becoming a vegetarian. I.B. Singer said it is the ethical thing to do, and he won the Nobel Prize!

It may well be true that vegetarianism is ethically justified, and Singer himself was a vegetarian. But he won the Nobel Prize for his literature, not his ethics. There's no reason to believe that the issues here are so specialized as to warrant reliance on expert opinion, or even if so that Singer was especially qualified to render that opinion.

1. Which of the following is probably not a fallacious appeal to authority? You answered:

I'm buying a Bumpster mountain bike. My critical thinking instructor says they're the best, and she is so logical!

There is a big difference between saying you like something and saying it's the best. If the basis for the decision to buy a Bumpster is simply that you know someone (in this case, an instructor) who has one and recommends it, that may be somewhat limited, but no fallacy. On the other hand, if you are seriously relying on this instructor's claim that a Bumpster is the best bike of its kind, and that instructor has no particular expertise in the field of bicycles (however "logical" she may be), then this would be an example of a fallacious appeal to authority.

1. Which of the following is probably not a fallacious appeal to authority? You answered:

I'm going to see that new movie. My best friend said it was very good, and we always like the same things!

Correct!

Since the decision is based only on a friend's evaluation on a subject of taste not usually complex enough to require expert opinions to aid our decisions, this is not a fallacious appeal to authority.

1. Which of the following is probably not a fallacious appeal to authority? You answered:

I'm practicing safe sex. My accountant said it's important, and he was honored as the San Jose CPA of the year.

Important how? Practicing safe sex is an important health concern and everyone should promote responsible behavior, but there's no reason to treat an accountant as a particular authority on this subject, unless financial concerns somehow enter into it, which certainly would not be the usual case.

Congratulations!

You have completed the exercises for fallacious appeal to authority.