[extropy-chat] Appeal to Authority

Ian Goddard iamgoddard at yahoo.com
Thu Mar 16 06:22:53 UTC 2006

I can't find a good explanation of why "appeal to
authority" is a fallacy or at worst something not
properly done in argument. So here's my rough effort
at articulating a possibly inherent vacuity in any
appeal to authority during argument. This should apply
as well to appeals to a consensus of authorities
versus any dissenting authorities. Of course, comments
are welcome.

Why Appeal to Authority is a Null-Move in Argument 

Scientific statements are fundamentally testable
descriptions of, or inferences from, empirical
observations. Appeals to authorities in a field of
science are scientific only in so far as they purport
the existence of a higher success rate for statements
of authorities and by induction infer the likelihood
that the trend should hold in a given case being
argued. Such a scientific appeal argues: "Statements
of authorities pertaining to their fields are usually
more accurate than the statements of nonauthorities;
therefore, they are most likely more accurate in this
case too."

However, the emptiness of such an appeal made by
arguer B against a claim by A lies in the fact that
like all scientific statements, the appeal is
testable. Therefore, arguer A is warranted in invoking
a test by countering that the case at hand may be an
exception to the cited trend. Then the burden of
rejoinder falls upon B to prove that the statements of
authority are in fact empirically sound in the case at
hand, which entails abandoning the appeal altogether
and addressing the empirical facts in the case at
hand. In short, the appeal to authority was nothing
more than a roundabout detour from arguing the
empirical facts in the case at hand. For example:

ARGUER A: It is the case that x, because of y and z.
ARGUER B: Authorities disagree and are probably right.
ARGUER A: But they could be wrong; so prove that
they're right.
ARGUER B: Okay: it is NOT the case that x, because
not-y and not-z, just like the authorities say.

Notice that the parts of the argument involving the
appeal could be excised without consequence other than
yielding a cleaner argument, which all parties should

ARGUER A: It is the case that x, because of y and z.  
ARGUER B: It is not the case that x, because not-y and

The roundabout detour, or null-move, structure of
appeal to authority is probably why you don't find it
in the scientific literature, where the veracity of
empirical claims are tested against empirical data,
not the relative rank or credentials of claimants.


"Without philosophy thoughts are, as it were, cloudy
and indistinct; its task is to make them clear and to
give them sharp boundaries." - Ludwig Wittgenstein 

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