Argumentum Ad Verecundiam
(Argument from Authority)
Abstract: The argument from appeal to authority, the ad verecundiam fallacy, is characterized with examples
and shown to be a fallacy when the appeal is to an irrelevant authority and
nonfallacious when the appeal is to a relevant authority.
ad Verecundiam fallacy (argument from inappropriate authority):
an appeal to the testimony of an authority outside of the authority's
special field of expertise.
- From a logical point of view, anyone is free to express opinions or
advice about what is thought true; however, the fallacy occurs when the
reason for assenting to a statement is based on following the
recommendation or advice of an improper authority.
Arthur Schopenhauer summarizes how the argument can be used effectively
against some opponents in a dialogue:
“[T]he argumentum ad verecundiam …
consists in making an appeal to authority rather than reason, and
in using such an authority as may suit the degree of knowledge
possessed by your opponent. … The more limited his capacity
and knowledge, the greater is the number of the authorities who weigh
Schopenhauer recommends citing obscure authorities to impress the
unlearned. Logically, however, acknowledging authorities only carries
some significance when the authority is an expert in the field being
- Although some logicians today use the Latin phrase
“argumentum ad verecundiam” (or often,
more simply, the phrase “ad verecundiam”
or “argument from authority”) as the name of a
those phrases were mainly used to describe appealing to any authority's
judgment, relevant or otherwise, for use as evidence in an argument.
These terms were not initially used specifically to denote the fallacy
of appealing to evidence provided by an irrelevant or ill-suited
- Different kinds of authorities are cited by logicians in different
kinds of ad verecundiam arguments:
experts in a particular field of knowledge
(cognitive or epistemic authority);
prestigious or powerful individuals or
governmental, legal or administrative
social, family, religious, or ancestral heads.
- In every case, the relevance or appropriateness of the
authority's expertise to the question at issue is the essential element
under consideration. Effective recognition and avoidance of this
fallacy is necessarily based on an adequate definition of an improper,
inappropriate or irrelevant authority. Developing criteria of relevance
for the extensive diversity of types of authorities proves to be
The Argumentum ad Verecundiam as Distinguished from Similar
- The ad populum fallacy in some cases overlaps instances
of the ad ignorantiam.
- Some ad verecundiam arguments are called the
“argument from prestige” since they are based on the belief
that respected people are not usually mistaken.
In cases where the belief or practices of an elite or privileged group of
persons is being cited, the fallacy is often better termed the “snob
appeal” variety of the ad
- Sometimes, the ad verecundiam and the
ad populum fallacies overlap
and are said to occur together. Schopenhauer recommends the debate
stratagem citing the “universal prejudice” of the many as an
authority in argumentation. He notes:
“There is no opinion, however absurd, which men will not readily
embrace as soon as they can be brought to the conviction that it is
Members of groups often act to minimize internal conflict rather than risk
disputes over more effective policies.
- By way of example, the following passage written by Benedetto Croce who
distinguishes between the eternal idea of the “Holy” Inquisition
and its historical incarnation by the Catholic Church is identifiable as
either an ad verecundiam or an ad populum
“The Inquisition must have been justified and beneficial,
if whole peoples invoked and defended it, if men of the
loftiest souls founded and created it severally and impartially,
and its very adversaries applied it on their own account, pyre
answering to pyre.”
The reason that this passage is fallacious is based on the
distinction between ethics and morals. Ethics is prescriptive,
whereas morality is descriptive. What is done is different
from what ought to be done. What many persons think is
right is not always a sure sign of what is right.
- Other instances when a conclusion is reached by citing the authority of
a large group of specified individuals need not be fallacious because
the authority is relevant.
This example which can be classified as either an ad
verecundiam or an ad
populum is not fallacious:
“Singular as it may seem, trees do not die by the
stroke [of lightning], but continue to grow on, unless shivered
to pieces: the animal on which it falls (as appears by
the testimony of such as have been struck and survived)
neither sees, hears, nor feels anything; but is instantly
deprived of sense.[2nd. emphasis added]”
In this passage, the authority of the group of persons cited is
relevant and so no fallacy occurs.
- The argumentum ad populum in some cases overlaps instances
of the argumentum ad baculum.
- With regulatory authorities
ad verecundiam arguments can be part of an argumentum
ad baculum in some situations:
“The U.S. Department of Transportation, in an effort to
reduce the alarming increase in highway related deaths last
year, announced Saturday that highway funds earmarked for
bridge repair will be blocked in those states not proactively
enforcing federal highway safety measures.”
However, in this case the authority is relevant and the threat is
within the authority's purview so the argument is nonfallacious.
- The nonformal structure of the ad verecundiam fallacy, generally
speaking, has this basic pattern:
informal guide to Ad
Authority L on subject X
claims statement p.
Authority L's expertise is not relevant to
subject X or statement p.
The ad verecundiam argument is considered a fallacy if
any of the following conditions are met:
(1) Expertise: The authority is not an acknowledged expert on
subject under discussion by most other experts in that field.
(2) Statement Accuracy: The authority does not maintain the
statement quoted or maintain any statement provable from that statement.
(3) Statement Relevance: The statement is not relevant to, and
not within the purview of, the subject under discussion.
(4) Substantiation: The authority cannot provide reasons,
grounds, or evidence for the truth of the statement at issue.
typical example of Ad
Researcher Linus Pauling winner of two unshared Nobel
prizes, one for chemistry, another for peace, stated his daily use of
Vitamin C delayed the onset of his cancer by twenty years.
Obtaining Nobel Prizes in chemistry and for peace does
not imply expertise in the prevention of disease.)
Vitamin C is effective in preventing cancer.
An authority is defined here as a person whose opinion or belief
within a specific field of knowledge or practice is acknowledged,
accepted, or entitled to be accepted as being non-biased and reliable.
(Note the assumptive non-fallacious ad populum foundation of this definition.)
- Many advertising campaigns are built on ad ignorantiam appeals. Popular sports figures, musicians, or actors endorse products of
which they have no special expertise, and, in this context, their celebrity status is offered as a reason we should use those products.
- Even so, occasionally a movie star, for example, might also be an
appropriate authority in another field of expertise. For example,
former Hollywood actor and union leader Ronald Reagan could have been
relevantly quoted as a U.S. political authority at the time of his
California governorship or his U.S. presidency. Former Hollywood actor
and film director Paul Newman could have been quoted as an authority
on professional racing during his motorsports career as team owner and
race car driver. The reasoning of these individuals in those respective
fields would not ordinarily be open to the charge of an ad
- Note also that an ad verecundiam argument is not
a deductive argument since its conclusion is
not claimed to follow with absolute certainty. Even reliable authorities
are mistaken at times.
- Ad verecundiam arguments are nonformal
arguments and are often considered inductive arguments (i.e., arguments
whose conclusions are claimed to follow with probability). Ad
verecundiam arguments are not necessarily fallacious even
if the appropriate authorities are found to be mistaken.
- For example, in 1948, readers of Science News were
invited to buy a fluffy 80% cotton and 20% asbestos dish towel
provided by the Science Service Program . Concluding that the
towel would be safe and useful would not have been an ad
verecundiam fallacy at that time even though the authority being
relied upon, Science Service, a program of Science News
itself, was unaware asbestos can cause fatal illnesses. Nevertheless,
the descriptions provided for the towel probable since given what
was believed to be true about asbestos at the time.
- Examples of ad verecundiam arguments extracted from
- Examples of Ad Verecundiam Fallacies:
“I find a second hopeful sign in the fact that many of the finest
minds are to-day recoiling from the voice of absolute scepticism. In
his book, The Return to Faith, Prof. A. C. Armstrong, Jr.,
one of the most cautious students of philosophy, has noted with care
the indications that ’the day of doubt is drawing to a close.’
… Romanes, the famous biologist, who once professed the most
absolute rejection of revealed, and the most unqualified scepticism of
natural religion, thinks his way soberly back from the painful void to
a position where he confesses that ‘it is reasonable to be a
Christian believer,’ and dies in the full communion of the church
“The United States policy
toward mainland China in the 1980's was surely mistaken because Shirley
MacLaine, a well-known actress at the time, emphasized she had grave
misgivings about them.”
Freeman Dyson has called the 1433 decision of the emperor of China to
discontinue his country's exploration of the outside world the
‘worst political blunder in the history of
“Advocates for lifting age
limits on Plan B [a.k.a., the morning-after pill], including Planned
Parenthood president Cecile Richards, insist the pill is universally
safe and, therefore, all age barriers should be dropped. From a
strictly utilitarian viewpoint, this might be well-advised, but is
science the only determining factor when it comes to the well-being of
our children? Even President Obama, who once boasted his policies
would be based on science and not emotion, has parental qualms about
children buying serious drugs to treat a condition that has deeply
- Examples of non-fallacious ad verecundiam
“Living organisms are the original control systems on this
planet. As noted biologist Ernst Mayer puts it, ‘The occurrence
of goal-directed [i.e., control] processes is perhaps the most
characteristic feature of the world of living organisms.’”
“Former U.S. President George W. Bush said that America would be
much stronger if the people would return to traditional American values,
and indeed he argues that we should. He says, ‘I am firmly convinced
that our greatest problems today — from drugs and welfare dependency
to crime and moral breakdown — spring from the deterioration of the
American Family. Families must come first in America.’”
“A 1990 survey found 80 percent of economists agreed with the
statement increases in the minimum wage cause unemployment among the youth
and low-skilled. If you're looking for a consensus in most fields of
study, examine the introductory and intermediate college textbooks in the
field. Economics textbooks that mention the minimum wage say it increases
unemployment for the least skilled worker.”
Although the following passages are considered fallacies in a popular
logic textbook, note why they are not fallacious:
“But can you doubt that air has weight when you have the clear
testimony of Aristotle affirming that all the elements have weight
including air, and excepting only fire?” (Galileo Galilei,
Dialogues Concerning Two New Sciences)
“In that melancholy book The Future of an Illusion,
Dr. Freud, himself one of the last great theorists of the European
capitalist class, has stated with simple clarity the impossibility
of religious belief for the educated man of today.” (John
Strachey, The Coming Struggle for Power)
- Uses of the Ad Verecundiam: Proper experts and authorities
render valuable opinions in their fields, and, ceteris
paribus, their testimony should have direct bearing on the argument at
hand — especially if we have no better evidence upon which to base
a conclusion on securer grounds.
For example, Jeremy Bentham describes four important factors determining
the cogency of an argument from authority, and Winans and Utterback describe the legitimate use of authority in establishing the truth of the premises of an argument. Even so, the specific relevance of the authority as well as the truth of the authority's testimony may become further points of contention.
- To qualify as an authority, the individual must be generally
recognized by peers in the same field or, at least, by peers who either
hold a similar view or peers who recognize the cogency of the point of
view being expressed.
- Examine, for yourself, why the condition of citing many
authorities in a field would not be an instance of the ad
- The conclusions of relevant authorities are not to be accepted
simply on the basis they stated something on, or upon, a subject
of their expertise, but rather on the basis their conclusions were
reached by reason and experience. Consequently, in the absence of
other evidence, arguments from authority can be persuasive evidence
adduced in disputation.
- However, in the final analysis, the Royal Society motto should
hold sway: Nullius in verba (“take no one's word for
Issues are not normally decided on the basis of which of various
opposing relevant and legitimate authorities are the most illustrious.
When authorities differ, arguments such as the following are of
“Catulus, moved me as one by someone learned, eloquent, and
well prepared … His authority, however, is so great that
it clearly would have moved me, if you hadn't opposed it with your
own no lesser authority. So I will get to it — though, if I
may, I will first say a few words about my own
“But man, proud man,
Dressed in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he's most assured
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep”
(William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure
Act II, sc. ii, ll 117-121.)
[Hyperlinks usually go to page cited]
“Whoever backs his tenets with such authorities [‘men, whose
parts, learning, eminency, power or some other cause has gained a name’],
thinks he ought thereby to carry the cause, and is ready to style it impudence
in any one who shall stand out against them. This I think, may be called
argumentum ad verecundiam.”
John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Knowledge,
(London: Printed for G. and J. Offor et al., 1819), 253.
So Locke's coinage of the term was intended to describe the
process of accepting the expertise of an eminent authority's judgment without
further inquiry on the basis of modesty or respect for the authority's experience
and learning. For him, argumentum ad verecundiam is a persuasive technique whereby one overawes by the use of authority without attending to
reasons or evidence relevant to an inquiry.
In the mid-19th century, Schopenhauer writes,
”Those who are so zealous and eager to settle debated
questions by citing authorities … will meet [any] attack by bringing
up their authorities as a way of abashing him — argumentum
ad verecundiam, and then cry out that they have won the battle.”
Arthur Schopenhauer, The Art
of Literature, trans. T. Bailey Saunders (London: Swan Sonnenschien
& Company, 1891), 69.
In sum, Charles Hamlin states, “Historically speaking,
argument from authority has been mentioned in lists of valid argument-forms as
often as in lists of Fallacies.” Charles Hamlin, Fallacies
(London: Methuen Publishing, Ltd., 1970), 43.↩
3'. Benedetto Croce Philosophy of the Practical: Economic
and Ethic (1913; repr., Biblo & Tannen Publishers, 1969), 69-70.
The fallacy is presented in these texts (among others):
Daniel Sommer Robinson, Illustrations of the
Methods of Reasoning: A Source Book in Logic and Scientific Method
(New York: D. Appleton, 1927), 46.
Alburey Castell, Introduction to the Study
of Argument and Proof (New York: Macmillan, 1935), 52.
Charles H. Patterson, Principles
of Correct Thinking (Minneapolis, MN: Burgess, 1936), 85.
W. H. Werkmeister, An Introduction to
Critical Thinking (Lincoln, NB: Johnsen, 1948), 60.
Richard E. Young, Alton L. Becker, and Kenneth L. Pike,
Discovery and Change (Harcourt, Brace & World, 1970), 261.
Nancy D. Simco and Gene G. James Elementary Logic
(Wadsworth, 1983), 265.
Howard Kahane, Logic and Contemporary
Rhetoric (Wadsworth, 1980), 49.
John Eric Nolt, Informal Logic: Possible
Worlds and Imagination (McGraw Hill, 1984), 276.
S. Morris Engel, The Study of
Philosophy (Collegiate Press, 1987), 132.
Irving M. Copi and Keith Burgess-Jackson, Informal Logic
(Wadsworth, 1992), 136.
Douglas Walton, Appeal to Popular
Opinion (Philadelphia: Pennyslvania State University Press, 2010), 45.
Irving M. Copi, Carl Cohen, Victor Rodych, Introduction to
Logic 15th ed. (Routledge, 1018), 140.↩
“[T]he weight or influence to be attached to an
authority … depends upon:
(1) the degree of relative and adequate intelligence of
the person in question;
(2) the degree of relative probity of the same person;
(3) the nearness or remoteness between the subject of his
opinion and the question in hand; and
(4) the fidelity of the medium through which such
supposed opinion has been transmitted, including both correctness and
Jeremy Bentham, Handbook of Political Fallacies,
ed. H. A. Larrabee (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1971), 17-18.↩
“When the Argument is fetch'd from the Sentiments of some wise, great,
or good Men, whose Authority we reverence, and hardly dare oppose, it is
called Argumentum ad Verecundiam as Address to our
Isaac Watts, Logick (London: Printed for John
Clark et al., 1779), 311. I.e., Watts is suggesting our diffidence
to an acknowledged authority.↩