Is an argument from authority ever not a logical fallacy?

(Standard disclaimer about not being sure which forum to put this in, granting the Mods freedom to move it if they deem it necessary, blah blah blah.)

Argument from Authority:

I’ve been having a few discussions both online and in person lately, and it’s gotten me to wondering if an argument from authority is ever a valid one. Let me give a few examples that have come up for me recently.

1.) There is a discussion in a Yahoo group about artificial intelligence, and whether or not computers can “think” logically. One guy asserts that they can not. A second guy claims that while they kinda sorta can while not being artificially intelligent. First guy says that, while he admits that he doesn’t know much about the subject matter, it sounds like artificial intelligence to him. Second guy argues from authority saying that he is working towards a master’s degree in computer science. Since the first guy has admitted his ignorance on the subject, he should listen to him.

2.) I’m discussing the eternal question of does 0.999…=1 with my dad and brother. Dad says they don’t, brother says they do. Dad argues from authority saying that he’s done some mathematical models for NASA, so we should take his word for it. Brother says that he is a math major and can prove they are equal through inductive reasoning. To make a long story short, everyone goes away angry and convinces they are still right.

I would say that in example #1, the argument from authority is valid, since he is an expert in the subject matter and the other guy isn’t. In example #2, my dad’s argument from authority isn’t valid, since doing mathematical models for NASA doesn’t really have anything to do with the question at hand.

Anyway, my question is this: Are there ever times when a person can argue from authority and not have it be a logical fallacy?

That’s kind of something I have thought about during bizarre arguments with my mom. My mom claims I don’t like peaches, I claim I do. She is arguing form authority that she knows me very well and raised me. I am arguing from the authority that I am the ultimate expert on what I like and don’t like. Can either of us be logically right? It is ‘logically’ possible for me to prove I like peaches simply because I do?

It doesn’t answer your question but it always, but it seems somehow related to me.

It’s a sad world if experts aren’t considered to be more expert than non-experts.

my last sentence should read "It is ‘logically’ possible for me to prove I like peaches, simply because I know I do?

With regard to your question, I’d say that, while experts are not infallible, their “testimony” or whatever it is you can use as evidence carries more weight than people who are just wildly conjecturing. That is, the argument from authority is not absolutely convincing, but can lend more reason to believe that A is the case than that B is.

(It should be noted that I learned this as “argument from inappropriate authority,” which I think more accurately captures the problem.)

I can, however, think of one case where argument from authority is absolutely not a fallacy - when the authority is in fact authoritative. Quoting the Supreme Court for dicussions on the interpretation of the Constitution or the Pope for questions about Catholic Doctrine yield The Answer, period (assuming proper context, etc).

As I understand it, argument from authority is, “Dr. Smartypance of Highfalutin U says the answer is X; therefore you should believe X.”

The non-fallacious way to address this is, “Dr. Smartypance of Highfalutin U says the answer is X, and here is his argument.”

His argument might stem from data that you don’t have access to or the training to analyze; hence his expertise is needed. However, what you’re putting on the table is his argument, not his degrees or his affiliation. If no one else has any information at hand that refutes the argument, then, more or less, Dr. Smartypance’s side wins.

In your first example, Mister CS Man should have offered some citations of the definition of artificial intelligence; he should use his expertise to bring facts to the table strengthen his argument, rather than using his authority to quash the argument. The fact that he has—or, claims to have—credentials should mean that perhaps you trust his word on the subject (especially when it comes down to the hairy details) more than the guy who doesn’t know much about CS, but it’s not a trump card. He still needs to support his argument.

As for your Dad and your brother, your brother should cough up his inductive argument. As a math major, he should be a valuable resource in the debate. Similarly, you dad’s authority on the matter is moot if he can’t make an argument in favor of his position. Maybe in his past work he did learn relevant to this debate, but if he can’t make a cohesive argument in favor of his position, he is, as we say in the bidness, talkin’ the talk without walkin’ the walk.

An argument from authority is never valid because it’s irrelevant to the premise. The argument that the authority makes must stand on it’s own.

Unless, of course, the authority figure’s authority comes from his role.

If the Pope says Papal doctrine is so-and-so, are you going to tell him he’s wrong? :slight_smile:

Podkayne wrote

Actually, what you describe is referred to as a Appeal to Authority.

An Argument from Authority is when the speaker says, “I am an expert, and I say the answer is x.”

An argument from authority is only valid, if, as said, that authority gets to define the answer.

In the case of “I like peaches, and I should know, I’m me” is a proper argument from authority.

Or “The author’s intention with this scene is to demonstrate how angry his character is, and I ought to know, I’m the author.” Unless the author is lying, the best one can argue is that the author failed at his intentions.

In cases of mathematics, there is a true and provable answer. The proof is what is required to win the argument. Saying “I’m a mathematician/NASA engineer/humpbacked giraffe” have no relevance.

Oh, and .999… does equal 1. Of course.

And in example 1, “I’m a computer scientist” isn’t much of an argument. I’ve known a whole lot of them, and they can be wrong about all sorts of things, including computer science.

This is not correct. They are exactly the same thing. The only distinction you make is whether the speaker cites a third party or relies on his own expertise. There is no substantive logical difference between the two.

An appeal to authority is not fallacious when the authority meets certain criteria that legitimize the authority as an expert.

However, in my opinion, if the expert actually does meet those criteria, then he should have no trouble at all convincing a nonexpert that he is correct without having to appeal to authority in the first place.

Without getting too into what the other discussions were, he didn’t offer cites but he did go into detailed explanation as to why he was correct. I suppose I could have asked him to cite a book or a website, but it was actually off-topic and the moderator wanted us to get back on topic, which was whether or not animals can sin. I’m still not sure how we got to AI.

My brother did show his inductive argument. My dad’s view was that since you can’t show it on paper you can’t truly prove it. I asked him to show me an instance where 6 + 3 =! 9, and he accused me asking him to prove a negative. That’s when he said he had been a NASA engineer so you should take his word for it. :rolleyes:

Certainly argument from authority can be valid. I should know, I’ve been in lots of debates where it was used in a useful and constructive manner!


Sorry. Couldn’t help myself.

In an ideal world, one would never have to use argument from authority. An ideal world in this case being that one has an arbitarily long amount of time for the debate, debaters who are willing to expend a lot of effort in learning new material, and every cite you could conceivably need sprung to your fingertips with ease. Obviously this doesn’t happen.

Lets take the AI example - suppose some complicated mathematical reasoning had given bounds on performance of a particular type of AIs, and this was relevant to the discussion. In our ideal world, the expert would explain the requisite mathematics, show how it was relevant to the problem at hand, and give references and time to read the relevant research. Realistically, this isn’t going to happen. The expert will say “There is research and mathematical theory which shows X.”, and if pressed will probably just say “Look, I’m an expert. Trust me on this.” (or words to that effect). If pressed further, (s)he might then go on to give more details, but likely would prefer not to due to the amount of background involved.

The point is that argument from authority is a shortcut. It saves you having to trot out huge reams of stuff that someone familiar with the material would know, and which would detract from the point of the argument. However, argument from authority which you can’t back up if asked for more details is bogus - it’s not a shortcut, merely an unfounded assertion.

Another example of a valid argument from authority is when people are arguing over things which they would know were done to death if they paid the slightest bit of attention to the field. A good example being your 0.999… = 1. The standard response I give in #math over on IRC to it is “Yes they are equal. Google is your friend. Shut up about it or you will find that Kit is not your friend, and that you are on the wrong end of his banstick”, or words to that effect. No offence to you and your family intended. :slight_smile:

Appeal to authority has no place in a logical argument. You can’t prove anything logically that way.

But if you’re just trying to convince someone that something is much more likely to be true than not, then I don’t see why the opinion of an expert shouldn’t be given more weight.

In the examples in the OP, I would think that if someone really is an expert in the matter being discussed, they’d have special knowledge or insight that they could bring directly to the argument, rather than just saying “Trust me; I’m an expert.”

Maeglin wrote


There’s a huge difference between arguing with Stephen Hawking about the origins of the universe (Argument from Authority), and arguing the subject with me where I quote the man (Appeal to Authority).

For more info you may want to read the link in the OP if you really don’t understand.

It actually took me a while to find that link. Initially all I could find was this, which is not what I wanted to discuss.

I think perhaps you would do well to do some further research, Bill. An “argument from” and an “appeal to” are exactly the same thing. It is not fallacious if Stephen Hawking appeals to his authority. It is fallacious if the authority appealed to is either irrelevant or does not meet the established criteria for authority. The linked definition provides a handy summary.

Well, it could be. For a problem in physics with no serious disagreement among experts, his authority is legitimate. For the highly theoretical stuff, where there is often significant disagreement among experts, his authority is not legitimate.

I think the problem is not so much whether it is valid or not but that it’s often impossible for the other side to determine whether it is valid.

Your like or dislike if peaches isn’t a question of logic, so it isn’t really the same thing.

IOW, when you’re arguing about whether you like something, you can argue from authority.