Appeal to Authority (Ad Verecundiam)

Arguing with friends can be all fun and games having until you start losing confidence in your own words, and need a better back up. What do you do then? Look for external points to back up your stance? Google it? It is not unusual in regular everyday settings to find yourself scrolling furiously through a search engine looking for a website that backs up your point during an argument. This act of yours can be likened to a quest to appeal to authority – whatever authority you can find, whether they are actually relevant to the point or not as long as they support your position. 

In the study of logical fallacies, appeal to authority refers to situations where an arguer tries to convince the audience by appealing to the esteem the audience have for an authority – mostly a famous individual/popular concept – instead of presenting empirical evidence to support their claim. This form of fallacy is also referred to as ad verecundiam, which means “to modesty.” In full, it refers to an argument to modesty, swaying on the belief that it is “modest” to appeal to the opinion of individuals who are smarter than you, or who are regarded as experts. Hence, if they say this is this, then this must be this. Appealing to authority during an argument mostly makes for a bad argument. Therefore, most such arguments tend to be logically fallacious. 

Say, you are arguing that drinking one’s urine is good for the health. And to back up your claim, you scroll through your search engine and dig up an article where a self-acclaimed holistic treatment specialist makes a statement that agrees with your position. Then, you proceed to appeal to authority in your argument, stating that this expert you found on the so-so website says that drinking urine is good for the health, therefore, drinking urine is good for the health. While your reference might be considered an expert in holistic treatments, they are really no experts in the medical field. Also, lots of medical experts have stated to the contrary that there is no medical evidence to support the supposed health benefits of urine consumption. Hence, your appeal to authority is false and invalid, and so is your argument. 

Not all appeals to authority during arguments are automatically wrong. There are scenarios where it is considered reasonable to appeal to authority. 

Example:

“My dentist said that for fresh breath, I should brush my teeth every morning, so brushing your teeth every morning will help you have fresh breath.”

In the example above, the appeal to authority is valid for a few reasons:

  1. Dentists are relevant experts in issues that concern the teeth.
  2. The conclusion reached is one which a great percentage of experts in the field agree with, and evidence can be gathered to support the conclusion. 

For the sake of distinction, various texts have thought it better to use the term “appeal to false/irrelevant authority” instead of plain “appeal to authority” when addressing logical fallacies. 

Appeal to false authority is a common tactic used in marketing and political circles. For instance, we have lots of cereal brands using celebrities to market their products. Such brands bank on the respect consumers have for the celebrities to sell their products. These celebrities can make bogus claims like, “I drink this cereal every morning to stay mentally alert,” positing that such cereal brands make one mentally alert, even though the celebrities are no experts on mental health or dieting. The expertise of celebrities, probably as an entertainer, has no bearing on the assessment of cereals, neither are they the appropriate authority to call on for such matters.

Arguing with friends can be all fun and games having until you start losing confidence in your own words, and need a better back up. What do you do then? Look for external points to back up your stance? Google it? It is not unusual in regular everyday settings to find yourself scrolling furiously through a search engine looking for a website that backs up your point during an argument. This act of yours can be likened to a quest to appeal to authority – whatever authority you can find, whether they are actually relevant to the point or not as long as they support your position. 

In the study of logical fallacies, appeal to authority refers to situations where an arguer tries to convince the audience by appealing to the esteem the audience have for an authority – mostly a famous individual/popular concept – instead of presenting empirical evidence to support their claim. This form of fallacy is also referred to as ad verecundiam, which means “to modesty.” In full, it refers to an argument to modesty, swaying on the belief that it is “modest” to appeal to the opinion of individuals who are smarter than you, or who are regarded as experts. Hence, if they say this is this, then this must be this. Appealing to authority during an argument mostly makes for a bad argument. Therefore, most such arguments tend to be logically fallacious. 

Say, you are arguing that drinking one’s urine is good for the health. And to back up your claim, you scroll through your search engine and dig up an article where a self-acclaimed holistic treatment specialist makes a statement that agrees with your position. Then, you proceed to appeal to authority in your argument, stating that this expert you found on the so-so website says that drinking urine is good for the health, therefore, drinking urine is good for the health. While your reference might be considered an expert in holistic treatments, they are really no experts in the medical field. Also, lots of medical experts have stated to the contrary that there is no medical evidence to support the supposed health benefits of urine consumption. Hence, your appeal to authority is false and invalid, and so is your argument. 

Not all appeals to authority during arguments are automatically wrong. There are scenarios where it is considered reasonable to appeal to authority. 

Example:

“My dentist said that for fresh breath, I should brush my teeth every morning, so brushing your teeth every morning will help you have fresh breath.”

In the example above, the appeal to authority is valid for a few reasons:

  1. Dentists are relevant experts in issues that concern the teeth.
  2. The conclusion reached is one which a great percentage of experts in the field agree with, and evidence can be gathered to support the conclusion. 

For the sake of distinction, various texts have thought it better to use the term “appeal to false/irrelevant authority” instead of plain “appeal to authority” when addressing logical fallacies. 

Appeal to false authority is a common tactic used in marketing and political circles. For instance, we have lots of cereal brands using celebrities to market their products. Such brands bank on the respect consumers have for the celebrities to sell their products. These celebrities can make bogus claims like, “I drink this cereal every morning to stay mentally alert,” positing that such cereal brands make one mentally alert, even though the celebrities are no experts on mental health or dieting. The expertise of celebrities, probably as an entertainer, has no bearing on the assessment of cereals, neither are they the appropriate authority to call on for such matters.

Article Review: 8 reasons why I don’t wear a mask and you probably shouldn’t either

Following the prevalent coronavirus health crises, many conspiracies have been flying about what is or isn’t. The points of various arguments center on lockdowns, masks, mortality rates, vaccines, etc. Like a lot others, this particular article antagonizes the usefulness of masks in combating the spread of the coronavirus.

The author brings up different points to highlight why one should stop wearing masks. While some reasons tend towards imploring common sense, some others are outright conspiracy theories requiring more external push to hit home the points. One of the reasons – “It’s about social control” – leaning on that direction stood out, and to buttress it, the author resorted to appealing to authority. Let’s have a look.

The flaw:

“It’s about social control…In an article for The Federalist that ended up being shared via Twitter by President Trump himself, Molly McCann argued
that the mandatory masking isn’t about safety, but about social control.”

‘To those looking to benefit politically from emergencies, COVID presents an opportunity to advance plans targeted to transform American freedom
and the American way of life,’ McCann writes. ‘Mandatory-masking policies provide a valuable foundation to weaponize the virus against American
liberty—now and in the future.’”

Here the author tells their audience that one reason to stop wearing masks is that the whole concept is “about social control” rather than health and safety. The author goes ahead to prop this point using excerpts from supposed authorities. 

The appeal to false authority:

Really, the basis of the whole point, from start to finish, is basically an appeal to authority – two authorities, to be precise. By relying heavily on quotes extracted from an article published on a higher platform by a secondary authority, the author aimed to convince his audience of his point’s authenticity while using less of his own words. 

But the primary appeal to authority lies on the first line; 

“…ended up being shared via Twitter by President Trump himself…” 

The author banks on the respect the audience has for the president as someone in authority to push the social control narrative. Bordering on the fact that the president endorsed the article by sharing it, the audience should simply believe that wearing nose masks during a viral pandemic is mostly about social control and less about concern for health. Who else would know better about this than the president of the country? If you wouldn’t take the words of the author for it, then you should take that of the president. 

The author’s premise is logically fallacious. First off, the president and The Federalist author, while authorities in some other niches are no authorities in public health matters. Secondly, the conclusion being reached is highly debatable, and the “evidence” brought forward by the authorities is not empirical; rather, they are speculative. The statements quoted and put forward as proofs to back the author’s point are not substantial and are not supported by most experts in the public health field. Therefore, the argument is flawed on many levels, starting from its appeal to false authority to its speculative conclusion. 

Can the argument be better?
The truth is, it would be really difficult for this particular point to be made without appealing to an authority. Going with how fragile the concept the author was playing on seems to be, there will always be that need to remind the audience that, “Hey! I am not making this up! Someone in authority also said it.” However, the article as a whole would be better as an opinion piece if this particular point wasn’t stated as part of the reasons why the author doesn’t wear a mask and why he believes the audience probably shouldn’t, too.

Sign up for our Weekly LSAT Logic for Everyday Life Blog