The Verbal Cheap Shot Artist: Part 2 “Appeals to Authority”

This is part two of a 12 week series where I plan to explore the tactics of verbal cheap shot artists – people who can’t, or won’t use valid arguments to present their case, but instead resort to verbal cheap shots. To make sure you don’t miss a single article, be sure and sign up for my RSS feed or subscribe by email (both are free!) so you can get a new article each day!

Another method employed by the verbal cheap shot artist is the appeal to authority. The argument works like this:

An authoritative figure says X; therefore, X is true.

We’ve all fallen for it at some point, and many of us have even used appeals to authority. But it is still a verbal cheap shot, regardless of whether X is true or not. Our arguments should stem from evidence and logic, not just from the opinions of authority figures whether that authority is lawmakers, public opinion, or a genuine expert.

Some examples of appeals to authority:

  • Using Warren Buffet’s investment style as evidence that anyone is able to pick winning stocks or other investments if they’re just willing to put in the time.
  • Claiming that a crime is morally wrong simply because it is illegal. “It’s against the law for liquor stores to be open on Sundays, therefore it’s wrong for them to do so.” Here the lawmakers are the “authority”, whose judgment is taken as correct without debate.
  • Referencing scientific research published in a peer-reviewed journal. “Science (in the form of an article published in a prestigious journal) says X, therefore X is so.” Sometimes the verbal cheap shot artist will say “According to several university studies … “
  • Believing whatever one is told by one’s teacher or professor. “My teacher said it, so it must be right.”
  • Something must be true because it’s in the newspaper or on a television news channel.
  • Something must be true because it’s in a textbook.
  • Something must be true because it’s on the Internet.
  • Something must be true because it’s in an email from a “reputable source.”

I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV

The statement “Warren Buffett recently released a report showing it is necessary to exercise three times daily” won’t convince many people of anything about fitness, since Warren Buffet is not an expert in that field. But a LOT of advertising relies on this logical fallacy; for example when talk show host Glenn Beck promotes buying gold, despite having no expertise in the field of investing.

Citing someone who is an authority in a relevant field should carry more weight, but should not necessarily be compelling. Experts can give credence to an argument, but it’s always better to argue from evidence rather than what some “expert” says.

Ideally, an argument should be based on verifiable evidence, not on the authority of the messenger, but if you can’t provide direct evidence, an “appeal to authority” should at least have the following elements:

1. The authority must have competence in an area, not just political power, glamor, prestige, rank, or popularity. A sports or entertainment figure making claims about foreign policy is an example of how this rule is frequently violated.

2. The judgment must be within the authority’s field of competence. Linus Pauling won a Nobel Prize for chemistry, then later made claims that consuming massive quantities of vitamin C would prevent cancer in humans. This claim was in the field of medicine and thus outside his field of competence. His chemistry expertise doesn’t count and the claim was later proven to be bogus.

3. Direct evidence must be available, at least in principle. If there is no way to gather the evidence, any claims should be very carefully evaluated and possibly disregarded.

4. The expert should be reasonably unbiased (not unduly influenced by other factors, such as money, political considerations, peer pressure, or “the bandwagon”). This is why appealing to one’s own authority is always illegitimate. The Pope claiming that the Sun revolved around the Earth was an example of an authority making a false claim.

5. The judgment must be representative of expert opinions on the issue (as opposed to an unrepresentative sample). Lawyers often find a non-representative “expert” to offer a theory which is not generally accepted, such as the Twinkie defense, in hopes of winning their case.

Don’t let the sacred cows of authority taint your beliefs or judgments without evidence. Evidence is your best friend because without it, we might as well be back in the Dark Ages.

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