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Uncover the intricacies of the argument from authority in this comprehensive guide. Learn when this commonly dubbed “logical fallacy” might actually be a reasonable line of thinking. Perfect for anyone interested in logic, critical thinking, and the role of expertise.
The argument from authority, or “appeal to authority,” is often considered a logical fallacy when it is used to assert or imply that something is true simply because an authority on the subject said it is true, without providing any supporting evidence. However, context and the nature of the claim are important considerations.
In complex fields that require specialized training, like medicine, automotive engineering, or Biblical languages, experts do have a degree of credibility that laypeople do not possess. A heart surgeon, for example, has undergone rigorous education and training that give them specialized knowledge that a nurse or a layperson would not have. Similarly, a master mechanic has an in-depth understanding of automotive systems gained through years of experience beyond the basic understanding most people have from simply operating a vehicle. Why do all technical journals cite authorities if one cannot appeal to authority at all? Why do all commentaries and other Bible study tools cite authorities? It is how you cite authorities that matter. You should not lean on authorities alone. However, if you need to, then at least also cite what they say about the subject in question. The best is citing an authority + providing logical, reasonable arguments for your position as well, even if you are only reiterating your authority’s information.
When it comes to Biblical studies, scholars who understand the nuances of Biblical Hebrew and Greek, and who have participated in translation committees, possess a depth of expertise that someone with only a basic study of the Bible would not have. Their views on Bible translation philosophies are more likely to be nuanced and backed by an understanding of the relevant linguistic, historical, and theological issues.
However, it’s important to note that expertise in one area doesn’t make one an authority in all areas. A heart surgeon may not know best about general healthcare policy, a master mechanic might not be the best person to ask about the economics of car manufacturing, and a Biblical scholar may not be an expert in, say, pastoral care or modern religious practices.
So while an argument from authority should not be the sole basis for accepting a claim, the credentials and expertise of the person making the argument should not be dismissed out of hand. They are one factor among many to be considered, especially when dealing with complex issues that require specialized knowledge. The ideal situation involves experts who can substantiate their claims with evidence, logical reasoning, and a methodology that can be scrutinized, thereby going beyond a mere appeal to authority.
When Argument from Authority is a Logical Fallacy:
- Non-Expert Opinion: When the authority cited is not an expert in the field under discussion.
- Irrelevant Expertise: When the authority’s expertise is in a different field than the topic at hand.
- Outdated Information: When the authority’s opinion is based on outdated or disproven data.
- Bias or Conflict of Interest: When the authority has a stake in the outcome of the argument.
- Appeal to Popular Opinion: When the argument leans on what many people believe rather than empirical evidence.
- False Credentials: When the cited authority does not actually possess the claimed qualifications.
- Isolated Opinions: When the view is not representative of the consensus within the expert community.
- Circular Reasoning: When the authority is cited to support a claim that, in turn, establishes the authority’s credibility.
When Argument from Authority is NOT a Logical Fallacy:
- Relevant Expertise: When the authority is a recognized expert in the specific field in question.
- Peer Consensus: When the authority’s views are in line with peer-reviewed studies or expert consensus.
- Current and Accurate Data: When the opinion or data cited is up-to-date and has been scrutinized for accuracy.
- Independence: When the authority has no stake in the argument’s outcome and is offering an impartial viewpoint.
- Complex Issues: When the issue is complex and specialized, requiring years of study to understand.
- Limited Scope: When the authority’s opinion is cited for a very specific point and not an overgeneralization.
- Provisional Acceptance: When the audience acknowledges that while not definitive, expert opinion is the best available guide in the absence of direct evidence.
By understanding these criteria, one can better discern when an appeal to authority is fallacious and when it is a reasonable part of rational discourse.