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Argument from authority

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Argument from authority

Argument from authority (Latin: argumentum ab auctoritate), also authoritative argument and appeal to authority, is a common form of argument which leads to a logical fallacy when misused.[1]

In informal reasoning, the appeal to authority is a form of argument attempting to establish a statistical syllogism.[2] The appeal to authority relies on an argument of the form:[3]

A is an authority on a particular topic
A says something about that topic
A is probably correct

Fallacious examples of using the appeal include any appeal to authority used in the context of logical reasoning, and appealing to the position of an authority or authorities to dismiss evidence,[2][4][5][6] as authorities can come to the wrong judgments through error, bias, dishonesty, or falling prey to groupthink. Thus, the appeal to authority is not a generally reliable argument for establishing facts.[7]


The argument from authority can take several forms. As a syllogism, the argument has the following basic structure:[4][5]

A says P about subject matter S.
A should be trusted about subject matter S.
Therefore, P is correct.

The second premise is not accepted as valid, as it amounts to an unfounded assertion that leads to circular reasoning able to define person or group A into inerrancy on any subject matter.[4][5]

Dismissal of evidence

The equally fallacious counter-argument from authority takes the form:[8]

B has provided evidence for position T.
A says position T is incorrect.
Therefore, B's evidence is false.

This form is fallacious as it does not actually refute the evidence given by B, merely notes that there is disagreement with it.[8] This form is especially unsound when there is no indication that A is aware of the evidence given by B.[9]

Appeal to non-authorities

Fallacious arguments from authority often are the result of citing a non-authority as an authority.[4] First, when the inference refers to an inexpert authority, it is an appeal to inappropriate authority, which occurs when an inference relies upon a person or a group without relevant expertise or knowledge of the subject matter under discussion.[5][10]

Also, because the argument from authority is not a logical argument in that it does not argue something's negation or affirmation constitutes a contradiction, it is fallacious to assert that the conclusion must be true.[4] Such a determinative assertion is a logical non sequitur as the conclusion does not follow unconditionally, in the sense of being logically necessary.[11][12]

Argumentum ad verecundiam

The phrase argumentum ad verecundiam is sometimes used synonymously to mean "argument from authority". While it is linked, it does not have the same meaning. The Latin noun verecundia means "modesty" or "shame". Its link to arguments from authority is that they are used to make those who lack authority feel shame about discussing issues they lack credentials of expertise in, and back out of an argument.[13]

Notable examples

In 1923, leading American zoologist Theophilus Painter declared based on his findings that humans had 24 pairs of chromosomes. From the 1920s to the 1950s, this continued to be held based on Painter's authority,[14] despite subsequent counts totaling the correct number of 23.[15] Even textbooks with photos clearly showing 23 pairs incorrectly declared the number to be 24 based on the authority of the then-consensus of 24 pairs.[15]

As Robert Matthews said of the event, "Scientists had preferred to bow to authority rather than believe the evidence of their own eyes".[15] As such, their reasoning was an appeal to authority. [16]

Another example is that of the tongue map, which purported to show different areas of taste on the tongue. While it originated from a misreading of the original text, it got taken up in textbooks and the scientific literature [17] for nearly a century, and remained even after being shown to be wrong in the 1970s[18][19] and despite being easily disproven on one's own tongue.[20][21]

Psychological basis

The appeal to authority is an integral part of the Asch effect.[22] In repeated and modified instances of the Asch conformity experiments, it was found that high-status individuals create a stronger likeliood of a subject agreeing with an obviously false conclusion, despite the subject normally being able to clearly see that the answer was incorrect.[23]

Further, humans have been shown to feel strong emotional pressure to conform to authorities and majority positions. A repeat of the Asch experiments found that "Participants reported considerable distress under the group pressure", with 59% conforming at least once and agreeing with the clearly incorrect answer, whereas the incorrect answer was much more rarely given when no such pressures were present.[24]

See also


  1. ^ "Logical Fallacies". Fall 2008. Retrieved 2014-01-25. 
  2. ^ a b Salmon, M. H. (2006). Introduction to Critical Reasoning. Mason, OH: Thomson Wadsworth. pp. 118–9. 
  3. ^ Gootendorst, Rob. Some Fallacies about Fallacies. Argumentation: Across the lines of discipline. p. 388. 
  4. ^ a b c d e Gensler, Harry J. (2003). Introduction to Logic. New York, NY: Routedge. pp. 333–4. 
  5. ^ a b c d Baronett, Stan (2008). Logic. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall. p. 304. 
  6. ^ Walton 2008, p. 89.
  7. ^ Walton 2008, p. 84.
  8. ^ a b Walton 2008, p. 91.
  9. ^ Walton 2008, p. 92.
  10. ^ See generally Irving M. Copi (1986). Introduction to Logic (7th ed.). Macmillan Publishing Company. pp. 98–99.
  11. ^ Foster, Marguerite H.; Martin, Michael L., eds. (1966). Probability, Confirmation, and Simplicity: Readings in the Philosophy of Inductive Logic. Odyssey Press. 
  12. ^ Peirce, Charles Sanders et al. (1883) [Digitized Jun 15, 2007]. Studies in logic. By members of the Johns Hopkins university. Little, Brown.   (available as a free google eBook)
  13. ^  
  14. ^ O'Connor, Clare (2008), Human Chromosome Number, Nature, retrieved April 24, 2014 
  15. ^ a b c Matthews, Robert (2011), The bizarre case of the chromosome that never was, Fortune City, retrieved May 14, 2011 
  16. ^ Grootendorst 2008, p. 158.
  17. ^
  18. ^ Midura, Margaretta. "On the Road to Sweetness: A Clear-Cut Destination?". Yale Scientific Magazine. 
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^ Grootendorst, Robert (1992), Argumentation, Communication, and Fallacies: A Pragma-dialectical Perspective, p. 158 
  23. ^ McLeod, Samuel (2008), Asch Experiment, Simply Psychology 
  24. ^ Webley, Paul, A partial and non-evaluative history of the Asch effect, University of Exeter 


  • Gensler, Harry J. (2003). Introduction to Logic. New York, NY: Routedge. pp. 333–4. 
  • Baronett, Stan (2008). Logic. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall. 

Works cited

  • Walton, Douglas (2008). Informal Logic. London: Cambridge University Press.  

External links

  • The dictionary definition of ad verecundiam at Wiktionary
  • The dictionary definition of auctoritas at Wiktionary
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