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“Cyrus Permittting the Exiled Israelites to
	Return to Israel,” woodcut (detail) Hollstein, 
	_Dutch and Flemish Etchings, Engravings, and Woodcuts
	c. 1450-1700_ British Museum #1923,1112.60 Ad Verecundiam
(Argument From
Authority) Examples:
Self-Quiz with Answers

Abstract: Ad verecundiam arguments (arguments from authority) and related fallacy examples are provided and analyzed for credibility in a self-scoring quiz.

Fallacy Practice Directions:

(1) Study the features of the ad verecundiam from the webpage: Ad Verecundiam (Argument from Authority).

Ad Verecundiam Fallacy (the argument from inappropriate authority): the logical error committed when an appeal to the testimony of an authority outside of the authority's special field of expertise is used in support of a conclusion.


(2) Read and analyze the following passages. Selecting (i.e., clicking on) names or concepts in green text provide background information necessary for understanding some of the arguments presented.

(3) Explain with a sentence or two as to whether or not you judge an ad verecundiam fallacy to be present.

(4) Check your answer.


Ad Verecundiam Example Exercises




  1. “[I]n quoting from Talleyrand, “Les méthodes sont les maîtres des maîtres.” [i.e., Methods are the master of the master.] … The use of method in teaching is seeing that the subject-matter taught is realized in the experience of the pupil.”[1]


    Talleyrand was not an educational authority; a method of teaching would master or control a student in a much difference sense than the method of statecraft would “master” a diplomat or political authority. Since Talleyrand is being quoted outside of his field of authority, the fallacy of ad verecundiam occurs.


  2. “[T]he statement of a Chicago dentist — Dr. George W. Cook — made before the Northern Ohio Dental association's recent [1913] convention [is] that sugar is good for the teeth. This will bring joy to thousands of candy-loving grown-ups, to say nothing of the multitude of small children who have been denied sweets …”[2]


    A dentist would usually be considered an authority in the field of dentistry, so the 1913 ad verecundiam argument would not be considered a fallacy at that time. Although the advice given by this dentist turned out to be misguided, his advice at that time would not be considered fallacious since relying upon his advice then would have been an acceptable inductive argument on our part. Authorities are relied upon because they are experienced and knowledgeable about their discipline, but as this example shows, authorities can sometimes be mistaken. (Inductive arguments do not guarantee the truth of their conclusions.) However, today, citing a 1913 dentist's advice is an ad verecundiam fallacy, since the dentist would not be considered an authority in the field.

  3. “The College of Physicians regards the so-called Homeopathists as neither skillful nor safe.

    Therefore the College can not, without betraying a sacred trust, give its license to persons whom they regard as wholly unworthy their confidence, and with whom it is not possible they can hold any communion.”[3]



    The College of Physicians are an appropriate authority to judge the usefulness of alternative medicine systems such as homeopathy; thus, no fallacy occurs in this argument.

  4. “It is not possible to have a high estimate of the intellectual and moral level of the Singhalese monkhood in general. … The well-known authority on Singhalese monkhood, Spence Hardy wrote … ‘There are about nine thousand monks; among them a few — very few — great scholars; the majority are illiterate, and some, to avoid labour, seek a life of indolence sheltered by the yellow robes of priesthood; many are depraved.‘”[4]


    The authority is said to be appropriate so the argument is a typical non-fallacious argumentum ad verecundiam.

  5. “The U.S. military ought to stay out of European affairs, because from the days of Washington we have obeyed the injunction: no ‘entangling alliances.’”[5]


    The so-called presupposition of the “authority“ of traditional practices from colonial times is not a relevant reason by itself for obeying the injunction in current circumstances; citing a precedent does not necessarily justify its current advisability in much altered historical conditions. The ad verecundiam fallacy may be said to occur; nevertheless, empirical evidence of the historical continuity of success of the doctrine makes the argument somewhat probable. Nevertheless, many informal logicians would not consider an appeal to tradition and custom (also known as argumentum ad antiquitatem) as an ad verecundiam argument.

  6. “Dr. Schofield, the well-known authority on mental working, told me that two medical men near Edinburgh were walking in the country and one denied the power of suggestion. The other one called up a labourer in the field, and after asking him the way to Edinburgh, told him he looked very ill, and that he should go to bed at once, giving him his name and the name of his friend — both well-known medical men. Within a week the man was dead. The Daily News, in reporting this case, said nowadays such a thing was as much a murder as if the medical man had fired a pistol in the man's face to see whether it would have any effect.[6]


    The argument in this passage is to the effect that Dr. Schofield, an authority on the occult, is offering proof of the power of suggestion by citing an example where the power of suggestion was confirmed. This passage is not a case of the ad verecundiam fallacy. Instead, the fallacy committed is that of assuming that an event that follows another event is the cause of that second event; hence, the fallacy of false cause or more specifically the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc (i.e., “after this; therefore, because of this”) occurs.

  7. “The injury which may follow …upon severe physical exertion represents but a small fraction when compared with the undoubted benefits which accrue from moderate and reasonable exercise. … Mr. Walter Rye, the well-known authority on cross-country running, writes thus: “We can speak from an experience now covering nearly twenty years, and can positively say that we know of no man of the hundreds with whom we have been acquainted who has been injured by distance-running, and the rate of mortality among running men is singularly small.’”[7]


    An authority in the field cites evidence in the field in support of a conclusion. The ad verecundiam argument in this passage is not a fallacy.

  8. “Ernest W. Burgess, the noted authority on marriage … [pronounces] the basic cause of divorce is marriage.”[8]


    The passage is not argumentative, per se, so no fallacy occurs. The purpose of the passage is not meant to inform but to amuse. If this example were to be taken seriously — even then — the putative fallacy would not be that of ad verecundiam but instead it would be false cause since marriage is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for divorce.

  9. “Monkeys and apes most nearly approximate human musicians. In central Africa these animal tribes have musical centres where they congregate regularly for ‘concerts.’ Prof. Richard S. Garner, the noted authority on apes and monkeys, believes that the time has already come for the establishment of a school for their education. He would have the courses beginning with a kindergarten and advancing through as many grades as the students required.”[9]


    Apes and monkeys have been taught to understand some basic aspects of human language, to use symbols, and to ascertain number sequence, as presumably foreseen by the authority cited. Even so, the claims of the argumentum ad verecundiam are inflated and weak, but not clearly fallacious.

  10. “J. L. Desessarts, Dean of the Faculty of Medicine of Paris (1803), in a work on the ‘Curative Power of Music,’ assumed a mechanical action of music on nervous tissue, whereby the fluidity of humours was increased so as to lead to a favorable crisis. Music, by imparting to the nerves their life, which in certain maladies is suspended or choked, restores this function of vitality to vessels and tissues. It can, therefore, have a powerful influence on the secretions and excretions, and become a constant means of healing maladies that are called ‘humoral,’ gastric, putrid, or malignant.”[10]


    The key to this passage is the attribution, without experimental research, of “assumed” mechanical action on nerves, vessels, and tissues by sound waves. The quoted suppositions are couched in vague, concocted pseudoscientific terms. The authority cited uses Hippocratic terminology of “humours” from the 4th century BCE. The fallacy of ad verecundiam occurs since the physics of sound does not fall within the presumed authority's expertise in medicine as being dean of faculty at a medical school.

  11. “‘Painting and writing,’ says Chou Shun, a Sung painter, ‘are the same art.’ The well-known authority, Dr. John C. Ferguson, tells us that in judging of the merit of a painter the Chinese connoisseur habitually looks first at the poem and then at the picture; and, if the poem does not satisfy his taste, often refuses to look at the picture, judging that it cannot be worthy of his study.”[11]


    No fallacy is present in this passage since no argument is present. If the passage were to be part of an argument in a broader context, no fallacy would occur since the authority quoted is a relevant authority.

  12. The following authority was cited at a meeting of the American Electrochemical Society:
    “[A] noted authority in the field of organised research, … Dr. Whitney … stated that it was a fortunate circumstance when bodies were organized or otherwise induced to react, they did not directly tend, in the majority of cases, to reproduce the energy, or energy of the same form; for instance, reactions do not tend directly to produce heat, but, on the contrary, when energy such, for instance, as heat or electricity is applied, and a reaction takes place, a new compound is produced.”

    The fallacy of ad verecundiam occurs since an authority in “organized research” is not an expert on the nature of chemical reactions.

  13. “When writers of such high attainments and various renown as Dr. Tylor, Darwin, Macaulay, Matthew Arnold, Mr Leslie Stephen, Mr Gladstone, Mr John Morley, Mark Pattison, Sir Henry Maine, Bishop Stubbs and Vorländer, combine in almost unanimous disparagement of [Henry Thomas Buckle and his History of Civilization] … whose views had been formed in no school and his intellect disciplined at no university, it requires some moral courage to call in question the verdict of such a tribunal. … [T]he agreement of his critics cannot be regarded as cumulative evidence. … In fact, Buckle's mental powers throughout his literary career were all aglow, and Mr Robertson appeals very justly to his known remarkable linguistic acquirements and his singular skill as a chess player as proof that in two very different fields of acquirement his merits were incontestable.”[13]


    The argument in this passage is that the judgments concerning the historical scholarship of author Henry Thomas Buckle by the many authorities listed above are incorrect because Buckle, according to Mr. Robertson, was a good chess player and literary writer. Since the latter abilities are not necessarily relevant to being a competent historian, the fallacy of ad vercundiam occurs.

  14. “‘Richard,’ she said, all at once, ‘would you mind my living away from you?’

    ‘Away from me? Why, that's what you were doing when I married you. What, then, was the meaning of marrying at all?’ …

    Sue continued: ‘She, or he, “who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation.” J.S. Mill's those are. Why can't you act upon them? I wish to, always.’”[14]


    To be able to answer this question, one would have to know John Stuart Mill was a renowned 19th century philosopher and utilitarian ethicist. Mill argues that individuals ought to rely on their own experiences as to what is the right action in human affairs. Mill's advice as a reason might not be relevant to Sue's specific decision — we would need more information about Sue's living situation in order to know if the advice were apt. Nevertheless, Sue's quotation is taken from Mill's On Liberty[15] and would not count as a fallacy provided that Mill is taken as a relevant authority on ethical decision-making and Sue is, in this passage, providing reasons for her decision.

  15. “Some of the doctors don't want to believe that electricity can cure … when now X-rays, now radium, now mesothorium effect the most marvelous cures among the pious believers, it is not a subject of surprise if the general practitioner of today becomes sceptical in using electrical apparatus to treat his suffering victims. The physician himself has to be convinced about the curative action of his electrical apparatus. To prove this statement I will mention the well known authority Dr. Bamberger of Berlin, Germany. He believed he had discovered in scrofulosis — tubercular glands, the richest and most fruitful field for the application of electricity in the form of galvanic current and fulguration by high frequency, reasoning, that there where sun, air, hygiene and rich food are so very efficatious, electricity can not be other then highly beneficial.”[16]


    Quoting an authority who believes that high frequency electricity can destroy small growths of tuberculous because sun, air, hygiene, and rich food are effective is an ignoratio elenchi, (irrelevant conclusion fallacy), in itself. Furthermore, the fact that electricity is thought to be effective treatment for tuberculous does not prove that electricity will thereby be effective treatment in general medical practice. Since the quoted authority's belief is not meaningfully related to general medical practice, the fallacy of ad verecunidam occurs.


Notes

[Links go to page cited]

1. Herman Harrell Horne, The Philosophy of Education (New York: Macmillan, 1905), 10.

2. Facts: Monthly Magazine of Dentistry 1 no. 8 (October, 1913), 200.

3. William Sharp, What is Homœopathy? (Philadelphia: F.E. Boericke, 1885), 5.

4. H. Hackmann, Buddhism as a Religion: Its Historical Development and Its Present Conditions, trans. by the author Vol. II in Probsthain's Oriental Series (London: Probsthain, 1910), 117.

5. Albert Craig Baird, Public Discussion and Debate (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1928), 230.

6. F.L. Rawson, “The Nature of True Prayer,” Occult Review 30 no. 1 (July, 1919), 53.

7. Frederick Treves, Physical Education (Philadelphia: P. Balkiston, 1892), 50.

8. Walt P. Riesler, “Origins of Delinquency in the Changing Role of the Father,” Federal Probation 22 no. 1 (March 1958), 49.

9. Royal Dixon, The Human Side of Animals (New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1918), 25-26.

10. Charles M. Diserens and Harry Fine, A Psychology of Music (Cincinnati, Ohio: College of Music, 1939), 167.

11. Henry R. Marshall, The Beautiful (London: Macmillan, 1924), 241.

12. Elmer A. Sperry, “Power and Its Applications,” Chemical News 103 no. 2692 (June 30, 1922), 302.

13. J. Bass Mullinger, “Review: Buckle and His Critics, by John MacKinnon,” Mind: A Quarterly Review of Psychology and Philosophy New Series 4 no. 18 (1896), 266,267.

14. Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1905), II:263, 265. The passage's quotation is from John Stuart Mill, On Liberty 2nd. ed. (London: John W. Parker and Son, 1859), 49.

J.S. Mill, On Liberty 2nd. ed. (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1863), 113.

16. Charles B. Graf, M.D., “Electricity in Gynecology,” The Eclectic Review 17 no. 9 (July 15, 1914), 14.

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