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Philosophy 203: Scientific Reasoning
Appeal to Authority

Abstract:  The argument from irrelevant appeal to authority is characterized and shown to be sometimes persuasive but normally fallacious.

I. Argumentum ad Verecundiam: (authority) the fallacy of appealing to the testimony of an authority outside his special field. Anyone can give opinions or advice; the fallacy only occurs when the reason for assenting to the conclusion is based on following the improper authority.
A. Occasionally, this argument is called the "argument from prestige" and is based on the belief that prestigious people cannot be wrong. In these cases, the fallacy is best termed the "snob appeal" variety of the ad populum.
B. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between the ad verecundiam and the ad populum (q.v., ad populum) when the authority cited is a group with status.
Consider this example from an popular logic text: "Those who say that astrology is not reliable are mistaken. The wisest men of history have all been interested in astrology, and kings and queens of all ages have guided the affairs of nations by it."
C.  The informal structure generally has the basic pattern:
Authority on subject x, L says accept statement p.
is outside the scope of subject x.

is true.
D. Many advertising campaigns are built on this fallacy. Popular sports figures, musicians, or actors endorse products and, in proper context, this fact is offered as a reason we should use those products.
E. Examples of the ad verecundiam fallacy:
1. The brilliant William Jenkins, the recent Nobel Prize winner in physics, states uncategorically that the flu virus will be controlled in essentially all of its forms by the year 2,050. The opinion of such a great man cannot be disregarded.
2. The United States policy toward mainland China was surely mistaken because Shirley McLaine, the well known actress, said, at the time, she had grave misgivings about it.
III. Uses of the ad verecundiam.
A. Proper experts and authorities render valuable opinions in their fields and, ceteris paribus, should be believed when we are unable to come to a conclusion on more secure grounds.
B. To qualify as an authority, the individual must be generally recognized by peers in the same field when the peers hold a similar view. (Examine, for yourself, why this condition is not an instance of the ad populum fallacy.)
IV. Non-fallacious examples of the ad verecundiam.
A. Former President Bush said that America would be much stronger if the people would return to traditional American values, and indeed he argues that we should.
B. Although the following passages are considered fallacies by a popular logic textbook, note why they are not fallacious.
1. "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)   
2. "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)   

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02.12.03     2001-3 OPL

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