Think back to your childhood.
Remember when you thought the adults in your life knew EVERYTHING?
Then, somewhere around your teenage years, you probably concluded that actually they know nothing (Editor’s Note: Jon Snow).
A bit after that, maybe you realized that they knew some things, but not others.
Then you read a Socratic dialogue, and you realize that not only do THEY know nothing, but you don’t know anything either, and neither does anyone else.
Therein lies the subject of today’s foray into the world of logic.
THE FALLACY: Appeal to Authority
The appeal to authority is a substitution of thought. Appeals to authority take the form of surrendering your rational faculty to the opinion of someone that is perceived to be, in some way, “smarter” or “better” than the people having the discussion.
The person or authority being appealed to may in fact be correct, but it is a fallacy in reasoning to assume that they are correct because of their position of authority. There is no intrinsic property to a given social position that makes a person inherently correct.
We once had entire systems of government built on this fallacy – we called them monarchy, and for the most part (looking at you, Britain and its commonwealths), society has seen the fault in that reasoning.
Sometimes, a look at expert opinion can be a decent shortcut.
For example, I don’t know much about climate science, but I do know that there are people who have spent their careers studying it, and among those people there is a pretty strong consensus (~99%) that disastrous climate change is currently underway, and that significant adjustments are required to avoid catastrophic consequences.
I have very little rational reason to doubt this science. BUT! To leave it at that would be fallacy, and it’s one commonly employed by those who work to direct climate policy.
Could the scientists be wrong? However unlikely, it’s possible. It may just be that in spite of a virtually unprecedented consensus among scientists, there’s something they’re missing. Advances in scientific understanding that re-shaped existing paradigms have happened before.
So, in arguing the evidence for climate change, a far more compelling case than “Well, the scientists all say it’s true” would be to review these scientists’ publications, examine their evidence, and learn the basis for the theory. I don’t have to become an expert, but if my only point of evidence in arguing the need for climate action is “Scientists say we have to act,” I’m not actually making a logical case for action, I’m just saying that I trust scientists.
I’d be better served to have a contextualized understanding of the evidence.
WHY IT’S WRONG
Authorities can be wrong. Often are wrong!
American authorities told the world there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq; turns out, there weren’t any.
Had we made our decisions based on the (lack of) credible evidence rather than based on a blind trust in authority, that’s a whole war that could have been avoided.
Just because somebody is in a position of authority does not necessarily mean they are correct.
HOW TO CONFRONT THE FALLACY
Always demand evidence beyond the word of some purported expert or authority figure. Make your interlocutor show their work. If they can, great! You can then proceed to argue on the merits of the evidence provided. That evidence may even be so compelling that you’re won over.
If there’s no evidence beyond say-so, you know you’re dealing with an appeal to authority.
Until next time … keep thinking!