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Appeal to Authority
Ad Verecundiam

AKA Fallacious Appeal to Authority, Misuse of Authority, Irrelevant Authority, Questionable Authority, Inappropriate Authority

Category: Fallacies of Relevance (Red Herrings) → Distracting Appeals

An Appeal to Authority is a fallacy with the following form:

  1. Person A is (claimed to be) an authority on subject S.
  2. Person A makes claim C about subject S.
  3. Therefore, C is true.
This fallacy is committed when the person in question is not a legitimate authority on the subject. More formally, if person A is not qualified to make reliable claims in subject S, then the argument will be fallacious.

This sort of reasoning is fallacious when the person in question is not an expert. In such cases the reasoning is flawed because the fact that an unqualified person makes a claim does not provide any justification for the claim. The claim could be true, but the fact that an unqualified person made the claim does not provide any rational reason to accept the claim as true.

When a person falls prey to this fallacy, they are accepting a claim as true without there being adequate evidence to do so. More specifically, the person is accepting the claim because they erroneously believe that the person making the claim is a legitimate expert and hence that the claim is reasonable to accept. Since people have a tendency to believe authorities (and there are, in fact, good reasons to accept some claims made by authorities) this fallacy is a fairly common one.

Since this sort of reasoning is fallacious only when the person is not a legitimate authority in a particular context, it is necessary to provide some acceptable standards of assessment. The following standards are widely accepted:

1. The person has sufficient expertise in the subject matter in question.
Claims made by a person who lacks the needed degree of expertise to make a reliable claim will, obviously, not be well supported. In contrast, claims made by a person with the needed degree of expertise will be supported by the person's reliability in the area.

Determining whether or not a person has the needed degree of expertise can often be very difficult. In academic fields (such as philosophy, engineering, history, etc.), the person's formal education, academic performance, publications, membership in professional societies, papers presented, awards won and so forth can all be reliable indicators of expertise. Outside of academic fields, other standards will apply. For example, having sufficient expertise to make a reliable claim about how to tie a shoe lace only requires the ability to tie the shoe lace and impart that information to others. It should be noted that being an expert does not always require having a university degree. Many people have high degrees of expertise in sophisticated subjects without having ever attended a university. Further, it should not be simply assumed that a person with a degree is an expert.

Of course, what is required to be an expert is often a matter of great debate. For example, some people have (and do) claim expertise in certain (even all) areas because of a divine inspiration or a special gift. The followers of such people accept such credentials as establishing the person's expertise while others often see these self-proclaimed experts as deluded or even as charlatans. In other situations, people debate over what sort of education and experience is needed to be an expert. Thus, what one person may take to be a fallacious appeal another person might take to be a well supported line of reasoning. Fortunately, many cases do not involve such debate.

2. The claim being made by the person is within her area(s) of expertise.
If a person makes a claim about some subject outside of his area(s) of expertise, then the person is not an expert in that context. Hence, the claim in question is not backed by the required degree of expertise and is not reliable.

It is very important to remember that because of the vast scope of human knowledge and skill it is simply not possible for one person to be an expert on everything. Hence, experts will only be true experts in respect to certain subject areas. In most other areas they will have little or no expertise. Thus, it is important to determine what subject area a claim falls under. It is also very important to note that expertise in one area does not automatically confer expertise in another. For example, being an expert physicist does not automatically make a person an expert on morality or politics. Unfortunately, this is often overlooked or intentionally ignored. In fact, a great deal of advertising rests on a violation of this condition. As anyone who watches television knows, it is extremely common to get famous actors and sports heroes to endorse products that they are not qualified to assess. For example, a person may be a great actor, but that does not automatically make him an expert on cars or shaving or underwear or diets or politics.

3. There is an adequate degree of agreement among the other experts in the subject in question.
If there is a significant amount of legitimate dispute among the experts within a subject, then it will fallacious to make an Appeal to Authority using the disputing experts. This is because for almost any claim being made and "supported" by one expert there will be a counterclaim that is made and "supported" by another expert. In such cases an Appeal to Authority would tend to be futile. In such cases, the dispute has to be settled by consideration of the actual issues under dispute. Since either side in such a dispute can invoke experts, the dispute cannot be rationally settled by Appeals to Authority.

There are many fields in which there is a significant amount of legitimate dispute. Economics is a good example of such a disputed field. Anyone who is familiar with economics knows that there are many plausible theories that are incompatible with one another. Because of this, one expert economist could sincerely claim that the deficit is the key factor while another equally qualified individual could assert the exact opposite. Another area where dispute is very common (and well known) is in the area of psychology and psychiatry. As has been demonstrated in various trials, it is possible to find one expert that will assert that an individual is insane and not competent to stand trial and to find another equally qualified expert who will testify, under oath, that the same individual is both sane and competent to stand trial. Obviously, one cannot rely on an Appeal to Authority in such a situation without making a fallacious argument. Such an argument would be fallacious since the evidence would not warrant accepting the conclusion.

It is important to keep in mind that no field has complete agreement, so some degree of dispute is acceptable. How much is acceptable is, of course, a matter of serious debate. It is also important to keep in mind that even a field with a great deal of internal dispute might contain areas of significant agreement. In such cases, an Appeal to Authority could be legitimate.

4. The person in question is not significantly biased.
If an expert is significantly biased then the claims he makes within his are of bias will be less reliable. Since a biased expert will not be reliable, an Argument from Authority based on a biased expert will be fallacious. This is because the evidence will not justify accepting the claim.

Experts, being people, are vulnerable to biases and prejudices. If there is evidence that a person is biased in some manner that would affect the reliability of her claims, then an Argument from Authority based on that person is likely to be fallacious. Even if the claim is actually true, the fact that the expert is biased weakens the argument. This is because there would be reason to believe that the expert might not be making the claim because he has carefully considered it using his expertise. Rather, there would be reason to believe that the claim is being made because of the expert's bias or prejudice.

It is important to remember that no person is completely objective. At the very least, a person will be favorable towards her own views (otherwise she would probably not hold them). Because of this, some degree of bias must be accepted, provided that the bias is not significant. What counts as a significant degree of bias is open to dispute and can vary a great deal from case to case. For example, many people would probably suspect that doctors who were paid by tobacco companies to research the effects of smoking would be biased while other people might believe (or claim) that they would be able to remain objective.

5. The area of expertise is a legitimate area or discipline.
Certain areas in which a person may claim expertise may have no legitimacy or validity as areas of knowledge or study. Obviously, claims made in such areas will not be very reliable. What counts as a legitimate area of expertise is sometimes difficult to determine. However, there are cases which are fairly clear cut. For example, if a person claimed to be an expert at something he called "chromabullet therapy" and asserted that firing painted rifle bullets at a person would cure cancer it would not be very reasonable to accept his claim based on his "expertise." After all, his expertise is in an area which is devoid of legitimate content. The general idea is that to be a legitimate expert a person must have mastery over a real field or area of knowledge.

As noted above, determining the legitimacy of a field can often be difficult. In European history, various scientists had to struggle with the Church and established traditions to establish the validity of their disciplines. For example, experts on evolution faced an uphill battle in getting the legitimacy of their area accepted.

A modern example involves psychic phenomenon. Some people claim that they are certified "master psychics" and that they are actually experts in the field. Other people contend that their claims of being certified "master psychics" are simply absurd since there is no real content to such an area of expertise. If these people are right, then anyone who accepts the claims of these "master psychics" as true are victims of a fallacious appeal to authority.

6. The authority in question must be identified.
A common variation of the typical Appeal to Authority fallacy is an Appeal to an Unnamed Authority. This fallacy is Also Known as an Appeal to an Unidentified Authority. This fallacy is committed when a person asserts that a claim is true because an expert or authority makes the claim and the person does not actually identify the expert. Since the expert is not named or identified, there is no way to tell if the person is actually an expert. Unless the person is identified and has his expertise established, there is no reason to accept the claim.

This sort of reasoning is not unusual. Typically, the person making the argument will say things like "I have a book that says..." , or "they say...", or "the experts say...", or "scientists believe that...", or "I read in the paper.." or "I saw on TV..." or some similar statement. in such cases the person is often hoping that the listener(s) will simply accept the unidentified source as a legitimate authority and believe the claim being made. If a person accepts the claim simply because they accept the unidentified source as an expert (without good reason to do so), he has fallen prey to this fallacy.

Nonā€Fallacious Appeals to Authority
As suggested above, not all Appeals to Authority are fallacious. This is fortunate since people have to rely on experts. This is because no one person can be an expert on everything and people do not have the time or ability to investigate every single claim themselves.

In many cases, Arguments from Authority will be good arguments. For example, when a person goes to a skilled doctor and the doctor tells him that he has a cold, then the patient has good reason to accept the doctor's conclusion. As another example, if a person's computer is acting odd and his friend, who is a computer expert, tells him it is probably his hard drive then he has good reason to believe her.

What distinguishes a fallacious Appeal to Authority from a good Appeal to Authority is that the argument meets the six conditions discussed above.

In a good Appeal to Authority, there is reason to believe the claim because the expert says the claim is true. This is because a person who is a legitimate expert is more likely to be right than wrong when making considered claims within her area of expertise. In a sense, the claim is being accepted because it is reasonable to believe that the expert has tested the claim and found it to be reliable. So, if the expert has found it to be reliable, then it is reasonable to accept it as being true. Thus, the listener is accepting a claim based on the testimony of the expert.

It should be noted that even a good Appeal to Authority is not an exceptionally strong argument. After all, in such cases a claim is being accepted as true simply because a person is asserting that it is true. The person may be an expert, but her expertise does not really bear on the truth of the claim. This is because the expertise of a person does not actually determine whether the claim is true or false. Hence, arguments that deal directly with evidence relating to the claim itself will tend to be stronger.

Click For Fallacy Description
Poisoning the Well
Category: Fallacies of Relevance (Red Herrings) → Ad hominems (Genetic Fallacies)

This sort of "reasoning" involves trying to discredit what a person might later claim by presenting unfavorable information (be it true or false) about the person. This "argument" has the following form:

  1. Unfavorable information (be it true or false) about person A is presented.
  2. Therefore any claims person A makes will be false.
This sort of "reasoning" is obviously fallacious. The person making such an attack is hoping that the unfavorable information will bias listeners against the person in question and hence that they will reject any claims he might make. However, merely presenting unfavorable information about a person (even if it is true) hardly counts as evidence against the claims he/she might make. This is especially clear when Poisoning the Well is looked at as a form of ad Hominem in which the attack is made prior to the person even making the claim or claims. The following example clearly shows that this sort of "reasoning" is quite poor.

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Appeal to Ridicule
AKA Appeal to Mockery, The Horse Laugh

Category: Fallacies of Relevance (Red Herrings) → Ad hominems (Genetic Fallacies)

The Appeal to Ridicule is a fallacy in which ridicule or mockery is substituted for evidence in an "argument." This line of "reasoning" has the following form:

  1. X, which is some form of ridicule is presented (typically directed at the claim).
  2. Therefore claim C is false.
This sort of "reasoning" is fallacious because mocking a claim does not show that it is false. This is especially clear in the following example: "1+1=2! That's the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard!"

It should be noted that showing that a claim is ridiculous through the use of legitimate methods (such as a non fallacious argument) can make it reasonable to reject the claim. One form of this line of reasoning is known as a "reductio ad absurdum" ("reducing to absurdity"). In this sort of argument, the idea is to show that a contradiction (a statement that must be false) or an absurd result follows from a claim. For example: "Bill claims that a member of a minority group cannot be a racist. However, this is absurd. Think about this: white males are a minority in the world. Given Bill's claim, it would follow that no white males could be racists. Hence, the Klan, Nazis, and white supremacists are not racist organizations."

Since the claim that the Klan, Nazis, and white supremacists are not racist organizations is clearly absurd, it can be concluded that the claim that a member of a minority cannot be a racist is false.

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Relativist Fallacy
AKA The Subjectivist Fallacy

The Relativist Fallacy is committed when a person rejects a claim by asserting that the claim might be true for others but is not for him/her. This sort of "reasoning" has the following form:

  1. Claim X is presented.
  2. Person A asserts that X may be true for others but is not true for him/her.
  3. Therefore A is justified in rejecting X.
In this context, relativism is the view that truth is relative to Z (a person, time, culture, place, etc.). This is not the view that claims will be true at different times or of different people, but the view that a claim could be true for one person and false for another at the same time.

In many cases, when people say "that X is true for me" what they really mean is "I believe X" or "X is true about me." It is important to be quite clear about the distinction between being true about a person and being true for a person. A claim is true about a person if the claim is a statement that describes the person correctly. For example, "Bill has blue eyes" is true of Bill if Bill has blue eyes. To make a claim such as "X is true for Bill" is to say that the claim is true for Bill and that it need not be true for others. For example: "1+1=23 is true for Bill" would mean that, for Bill, 1+1 actually does equal 23, not that he merely believes that 1+1=23 (that would be "It is true of Bill that he believes 1+1=23"). Another example would be "The claim that the earth is flat is true for Bill" would mean that the earth really is flat for Bill (in other words, Bill would be in a different world than the rest of the human race). Since these situations (1+1 being 23 and the earth being flat for Bill) are extremely strange, it certainly seems that truth is not relative to individuals (although beliefs are).

As long as truth is objective (that is, not relative to individuals), then the Relativist Fallacy is a fallacy. If there are cases in which truth is actually relative, then such reasoning need not be fallacious.

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Biased Generalization
AKA Biased Statistics, Loaded Sample, Prejudiced Statistics, Prejudiced Sample, Loaded Statistics, Biased Induction

Category: Fallacies of Presumption

This fallacy is committed when a person draws a conclusion about a population based on a sample that is biased or prejudiced in some manner. It has the following form:

  1. Sample S, which is biased, is taken from population P.
  2. Conclusion C is drawn about Population P based on S.
The person committing the fallacy is misusing the following type of reasoning, which is known variously as Inductive Generalization, Generalization, and Statistical Generalization:
  1. X% of all observed A's are B's.
  2. Therefore X% of all A's are B's.
The fallacy is committed when the sample of A's is likely to be biased in some manner. A sample is biased or loaded when the method used to take the sample is likely to result in a sample that does not adequately represent the population from which it is drawn.

Biased samples are generally not very reliable. As a blatant case, imagine that a person is taking a sample from a truckload of small colored balls, some of which are metal and some of which are plastic. If he used a magnet to select his sample, then his sample would include a disproportionate number of metal balls (after all, the sample will probably be made up entirely of the metal balls). In this case, any conclusions he might draw about the whole population of balls would be unreliable since he would have few or no plastic balls in the sample.

The general idea is that biased samples are less likely to contain numbers proportional to the whole population. For example, if a person wants to find out what most Americans thought about gun control, a poll taken at an NRA meeting would be a biased sample.

Since the Biased Sample fallacy is committed when the sample (the observed instances) is biased or loaded, it is important to have samples that are not biased making a generalization. The best way to do this is to take samples in ways that avoid bias. There are, in general, three types of samples that are aimed at avoiding bias. The general idea is that these methods (when used properly) will result in a sample that matches the whole population fairly closely. The three types of samples are as follows...

Random Sample: This is a sample that is taken in such a way that nothing but chance determines which members of the population are selected for the sample. Ideally, any individual member of the population has the same chance as being selected as any other. This type of sample avoids being biased because a biased sample is one that is taken in such a way that some members of the population have a significantly greater chance of being selected for the sample than other members. Unfortunately, creating an ideal random sample is often very difficult.

Stratified Sample: This is a sample that is taken by using the following steps: 1) The relevant strata (population subgroups) are identified, 2) The number of members in each stratum is determined and 3) A random sample is taken from each stratum in exact proportion to its size. This method is obviously most useful when dealing with stratified populations. For example, a person's income often influences how she votes, so when conducting a presidential poll it would be a good idea to take a stratified sample using economic classes as the basis for determining the strata. This method avoids loaded samples by (ideally) ensuring that each stratum of the population is adequately represented.

Time Lapse Sample: This type of sample is taken by taking a stratified or random sample and then taking at least one more sample with a significant lapse of time between them. After the two samples are taken, they can be compared for changes. This method of sample taking is very important when making predictions. A prediction based on only one sample is likely to be a Hasty Generalization (because the sample is likely to be too small to cover past, present and future populations) or a Biased Sample (because the sample will only include instances from one time period).

People often commit Biased Sample because of bias or prejudice. For example, a person might intentionally or unintentionally seek out people or events that support his bias. As an example, a person who is pushing a particular scientific theory might tend to gather samples that are biased in favor of that theory.

People also commonly commit this fallacy because of laziness or sloppiness. It is very easy to simply take a sample from what happens to be easily available rather than taking the time and effort to generate an adequate sample and draw a justified conclusion.

It is important to keep in mind that bias is relative to the purpose of the sample. For example, if Bill wanted to know what NRA members thought about a gun control law, then taking a sample at a NRA meeting would not be biased. However, if Bill wanted to determine what Americans in general thought about the law, then a sample taken at an NRA meeting would be biased.

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Appeal to Fear
Ad Baculum

AKA Scare Tactics, Appeal to Force

Category: Fallacies of Relevance (Red Herrings) → Distracting Appeals

The Appeal to Fear is a fallacy with the following pattern:

  1. Y is presented (a claim that is intended to produce fear).
  2. Therefore claim X is true (a claim that is generally, but need not be, related to Y in some manner).
This line of "reasoning" is fallacious because creating fear in people does not constitute evidence for a claim.

It is important to distinguish between a rational reason to believe (RRB) (evidence) and a prudential reason to believe(PRB) (motivation). A RRB is evidence that objectively and logically supports the claim. A PRB is a reason to accept the belief because of some external factor (such as fear, a threat, or a benefit or harm that may stem from the belief) that is relevant to what a person values but is not relevant to the truth or falsity of the claim. For example, it might be prudent to not fail the son of your department chairperson because you fear he will make life tough for you. However, this does not provide evidence for the claim that the son deserves to pass the class.

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