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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.

  1. Argumentum ad Verecundiam fallacy (argument from inappropriate authority): an appeal to the testimony of an authority outside of the authority's special field of expertise.

    1. 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 with him.[1]
      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 cited.

    2. 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 fallacy,[1] historically 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 authority.[2]

    3. Different kinds of authorities are cited by logicians in different kinds of ad verecundiam arguments:

      1. experts in a particular field of knowledge (cognitive or epistemic authority);

      2. prestigious or powerful individuals or institutions;

      3. governmental, legal or administrative officials;

      4. social, family, religious, or ancestral heads.

    4. 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 formidable.

  2. The Argumentum ad Verecundiam as Distinguished from Similar Informal Fallacies

    1. The ad populum fallacy in some cases overlaps instances of the ad ignorantiam.

      1. 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 populum fallacy.

      2. 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 generally adopted.”[3]
        Members of groups often act to minimize internal conflict rather than risk disputes over more effective policies.

      3. 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 fallacy:
        “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.”[3']
        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.

      4. 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]”[4]
        In this passage, the authority of the group of persons cited is relevant and so no fallacy occurs.

    2. The argumentum ad populum in some cases overlaps instances of the argumentum ad baculum.

      1. With regulatory authorities[5] 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.

  3. The nonformal structure of the ad verecundiam fallacy, generally speaking, has this basic pattern:

    informal guide to Ad Verecundiam Fallacy:

    Authority L on subject X claims statement p.

    Authority L's expertise is not relevant to subject X or statement p.

    p is true.

    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.[5a] For example:

    typical example of Ad Verecundiam Fallacy:

    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.)

  4. 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.

    1. 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 verecundiam fallacy.

    2. 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.

      1. 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.[6]

      2. 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 .[7] 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.

  5. Examples of ad verecundiam arguments extracted from various readings:

    1. 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 of Jesus.’”[8]

      “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.”[9]

      ”Distinguished Scientist 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 civilization.’”[10]

      “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 psychological underpinnings.”[11]

    2. Examples of non-fallacious ad verecundiam arguments:

      “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.’”[16]

      “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.’”[17]

      “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.”[18]

      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)[19]

      “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)[20]

  6. 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,[12] and Winans and Utterback describe the legitimate use of authority in establishing the truth of the premises of an argument.[13] Even so, the specific relevance of the authority as well as the truth of the authority's testimony may become further points of contention.

    1. 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.

      1. Examine, for yourself, why the condition of citing many authorities in a field would not be an instance of the ad populum fallacy.

      2. 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.

    2. However, in the final analysis, the Royal Society motto should hold sway: Nullius in verba (“take no one's word for it.)”[14]

      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 minor consequence:
      “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 reputation.[15]

“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.)

Notes: Ad Verecundiam

[Hyperlinks usually go to page cited]

1. Arthur Schopenhauer, The Art of Controversy and Other Posthumous Papers trans. T. Bailey Saunders (London: Swan Sonnenschein, 1896), 36.

1'. See, for example, Douglas Walton, Appeal to Expert Opinion: Arguments from Authority (Philadelphia: Pennsylvania University Press, 2010), 90.

2. In the late 17th century, John Locke first used the phrase to describe one of four kinds of commonly used “assent producing devices”:

“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.Schopenhauer, Art of Controversy, 37.

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, Rhetoric: 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.

4. Authority of command is discussed by Jean Goodwin, “Forms of Authority and the Real Ad Verecundiam, ” Argumentation Vol. 12 (1998), 267-280.

5. Luke Howard, Seven Lectures on Meteorology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 95.

5a. Douglas Walton's “crucial questions” for the defeasibility of the ad verecundiam are stronger than those recommended here. See Douglas Walton, Legal Argumentation and Evidence (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002), 49-50 and Appeal to Expert Opinion (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002), 211-225.

6. Other authors classify ad verecundiam arguments differently. Hamlin prefers to classify arguments from authority as “non-deductive” arguments rather than inductive arguments. He writes, “[T]here are clear cases of arguments that are non-deductive: inductive arguments, statistical or probabilistic arguments, arguments from authority …” C. L. Hamlin Fallacies (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd.: 1970), 249-250.

7. Janet Raloff, “Plumbing the Archives,” Science News 181 No.6 (March 24, 2012), 21.

8. J. T. Plunket, “The Personal Christ, Gospel for Our Time,” in The Presbyterian Quarterly ed. G. B. Strickler, et al.(New York: A. D. F. Randolf Company, 1898), Vol. 12, 549.

9. Described in Charles Stuart Kennedy, Harry E. T. Thayer, Deputy Chief of Mission to George Bush, interview The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project Library of Congress (November 19, 1990), 39.

10. Thomas Sowell, “A Historic Catastrophe” Index Journal 97 No. 148 (July 23, 2015), 6A.

11. Kathleen Parker, “Prude or Prudent?” Index-Journal 94 No. 4 (May 5, 2013), 11A.

12. Bentham writes:

“[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 completeness.”

Jeremy Bentham, Handbook of Political Fallacies, ed. H. A. Larrabee (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1971), 17-18.

13. Winans and Utterback point out that the argument from authority is useful when matters of fact are beyond the knowledge of the disputants and agreement is had as to the relevant authorities. Qualifications of authority obviously depend upon “reputation for intellectual competence” and “reputation for veracity.” James A. Winans and William E. Utterback, Argumentation (New York: The Century Company, 1930), 157-171. In this, these authors follow the more subjective interpretation first presented by the latter 18th century logician Isaac Watts who writes,

“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 Modesty.”

Isaac Watts, Logick (London: Printed for John Clark et al., 1779), 311. I.e., Watts is suggesting our diffidence to an acknowledged authority.

14. “Science progresses by testing a hypothesis against the available evidence obtained through experiment and observation of the natural world. It is not based on the authority or opinion of individuals or institution. In fact the Royal Society motto ‘Nullius in verba’ can be roughly translated as ’take nobody's word for it’”. Parliament House of Commons: Science and Technology Committee, 2011 Peer Review in Scientific Publications(Great Britain: Stationery Office, 2011), 103.

15. Cicero, On Academic Scepticism ed. Charles Brittian (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, 2011), 38.

16. Curran F. Douglass, Rationality, Control, and Freedom (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 97.

17. George Bush, ”Remarks to the National Association of Evangelicals in Chicago Illinois, March 3, 1992,” Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: George Bush, 1992-3 Book 2 (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1993), 368.

18. Freeman Dyson is a theoretical physicist. Walter Williams, “Higher Minimum Wages,” Index-Journal 94 No. 301 (February 27, 2013), 7A.

19. I. M. Copi, Introduction to Logic (New York: Macmillan, 1994): 135.

20. I. M. Copi, ibid, 133.

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