While preachers preach of evil fates
Teachers teach that knowledge waits
Can lead to hundred-dollar plates
Goodness hides behind its gates
But even the president of the United States
Sometimes must have to stand naked
— From “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” by Bob Dylan
Of all argumentative fallacies, none is more common than “Appeal to Authority”. I call it “The Mother of All Fallacies” not because it birthed the other fallacies, but because of its near-omnipresent entanglement within the inferential chains forming so many other fallacies. Very few (if any) fallacies have no component of Appeal to Authority (or something very close to it) lurking at some level in the background.
According to Princeton.edu, “Argument from authority (also known as appeal to authority) is a fallacy of defective induction, where it is argued that a statement is correct because the statement is made by a person or source that is commonly regarded as authoritative. The most general structure of this argument is:
This is a fallacy because the truth or falsity of a claim is not related to the authority of the claimant, and because the premises can be true, and the conclusion false (an authoritative claim can turn out to be false). It is also known as argumentum ad verecundiam (Latin: argument to respect) or ipse dixit (Latin: he himself said it).
On the other hand, arguments from authority are an important part of informal logic. Since we cannot have expert knowledge of many subjects, we often rely on the judgments of those who do. There is no fallacy involved in simply arguing that the assertion made by an authority is true. The fallacy only arises when it is claimed or implied that the authority is infallible in principle and can hence be exempted from criticism.”
Think about all the authorities we are brought up to trust: parents, teachers, clergyfolk, employers, scientists, The Media….it’s quite a long list. The younger we are, the less of a choice we have in trusting them; it simply wouldn’t be pragmatic to do so until the requisite reasoning skills are in place. But once we become not only suitably equipped — and honest enough to go wherever the evidence leads us — we can and we should cautiously question authority, prioritizing the most important (potentially consequential) things first. Naturally, one’s eternal destiny ranks quite highly in the importance hierarchy, so clergy should expect robust analysis of their assertions. If their assertions begin with “The Bible says…”, they’d better have a handful of good reasons we can rely on The Bible in their arsenal, along with a case for their particular interpretation (and I say this as a committed follower of Christ). Coincidentally, as I was writing this article, my friend Tim Stratton was drawn into a Philosophical/Theological debate with some Presuppositional Calvinists in which the latter committed so many textbook variations of this fallacy that I’m including a link to it HERE as a reference. If you intend to defend your faith publicly, you might want to avoid these fallacies, unless you want it to look like a Medieval cartoon.
“Appeal to Popularity” is a specific form of Appeal to Authority, since popular opinion is regarded by some as authoritative. Although this is more pervasive in the “low-information” crowd, understanding Appeal to Popularity is critical in understanding powerful social movements and much of the “churn” of modern culture. As a subcategory, it is sicker than most other varieties of Appeal to Authority, as it often involves things like wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, gluttony, and craven calculi of personal gain that can extend into mob mentalities when the wrong people get together.
I include a picture of the Pope because he’s currently at the center of a cluster of these fallacies. On one hand, in recent days he has uncritically accepted and promoted explicitly-disproven junk science on “climate change” and Neo-Darwinism, and on another, he has called for the completely corrupt UN to fight this “climate change”, not to mention Capitalism (!) and ISIS. Now, anybody who even addresses the corrupt, anti-semitic UN in a way that lends them respect is a fool — this set of actions is foolish beyond description! Various Popes have been calling for global government since at least the 1960’s, but it appears one is finally going to try to nudge one into place. The UN is a fairly anti-Christian institution set up by marxist globalists, so why give them more power and “legitimacy”? Given the fact that mankind’s nature tends to be disappointingly selfish unless and until a profound experience changes them, and that America happens to have more successfully countered that general tendency than any other country in history, screw that idea (again, speaking as an American)!
The truth is that the Pope is an example of a recipient of tremendous amount of undeserved authority as a popular figure. Supposedly “infallible” Papal Encyclicals with howling inaccuracies and which clash with The Bible are released regularly by The Catholic Church, and have been for hundreds of years. Ask anyone to explain why he should be treated with greater esteem than anyone else, and you’re likely to hear weak variations on reasoning like “tradition”, “because everyone else is doing it”, “because the media does”, “because my family has always been Catholic” etc., all of which are pervaded by Appeal to Authority. I don’t say this to bum anybody out who happens to be Catholic or have Catholic family; I say it to protect something valuable which is currently under a threat. My goal isn’t to create non-believers — just to remove unnecessary and counter-productive “baggage”.
So what’s to be done? Humbly question authority! I’m not talking about the idiocy of “giving the finger” to all authority mindlessly; I’m talking about reasonable, careful and thoughtful questioning of the thought structure behind authoritative claims. Anarchy is hellish, and I agree with the Romans 13 principle of not rebelling against the government for “light and transient” causes. Claims that touch on more consequential matters are naturally to receive prioritized scrutiny. It’s impossible to question everything, so it’s fine to trust the opinions of more experienced people as a “default” mode. This provisional trust can eventually be questioned if/when the requisite knowledge is gained.
Some authorities we’re only going to be able to question on a secondary level — for example, I’m not good enough at math (yet ;^) to confirm that Wiles’ proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem is valid, so I need to consider the opinions of various prominent mathematicians in concluding that it’s probably legit (if I care). There are many things like this for which the best we can do is choose the authorities we trust carefully. As an example, I’ve seen a pattern of honesty and precision in Philosopher/Theologian William Lane Craig’s work such that I take his word as reliable in certain matters I don’t yet understand, subject to the proviso that I may grow to disagree when I achieve greater understanding.
So to recap, question authority thoughtfully, carefully and reasonably. When it’s infeasible to understand the “nuts and bolts” of a situation, defer to authorities that seem trustworthy. Prioritize things which have the greatest possible consequences — like your eternal state — and try not to be adversely influenced by popular culture’s vain, low-information trends that seem to tap the lowest motivations of humanity. While there are occasional drawbacks, like getting a grade lowered by a professor who didn’t appreciate her authority being questioned, on balance I’ve gotten lots of mileage from questioning authority.
Your mileage may vary initially, but if you proceed in a cautious, honest and respectful manner, you’re likely to find your self-esteem and quality of life improving.
Steve J. Williams is the author of Kindle bestseller What Your Atheist Professor Doesn’t Know (But Should)