When We Shouldn’t – And Should – Argue from Authority

I love taking common platitudes from rationality and pointing out the exceptions.  Why?  Because I hate when a short catchy maxim is used incorrectly to belittle others’ rational arguments.  The irony of smugly calling someone else irrational when you yourself don’t understand how rationality operates is too much.

If anything, my favorite maxim is “this shit is complicated!”  There are a whole bunch of devils in (almost) every detail.  I by no means claim to know all said details and devils, of course, but I would like to talk about a few of them.

For other articles in this loose series, check out:

When We Shouldn’t Argue from Authority

Let’s first clarify when we shouldn’t.

The Fallacy of the Arguing from Authority, also called the ‘Appeal’ to Authority, is a classic.  So I want to start by saying why it is and should be one.  Further, I’d like to carve out three distinct domains in which we can fall prey to this fallacy.

Metaphysical: Authority can’t ‘ground’ the truth of something.  If someone argues that such and such is true because The King of England said so, then they are clearly wrong.  You can simply ignore their argument outright without looking into what the King said.

People don’t set the facts of the world.  Kings, scientists, news reporters, your teacher, the powerful, or any other ‘authority’ can’t ever be the reason something is true instead of false.  They don’t ground and aren’t the source of these facts.  Therefore, they cannot be used to provide reasons for such facts.  That the King said X is true is not the kind of thing that can be a reason why X is actually true.

(The exception to my ‘grounding’ point are some social facts.  For instance, the law may be so for no reason other than the King said so.  But these aren’t what we’re usually talking about when we say people shouldn’t argue from authority.)

Moral: Authorities can only be morally arbitrary.  This point is borrowed from the classic Euthyphro Dilemma.  In short, Socrates asks Euthyphro if either 1) what is ‘good’ is good because God says it’s good, i.e. does God’s command make it good, or 2) God calls what is good ‘good’ because of some reason, i.e. God’s just smart and knows these things?  Just like above, it’s asking what ‘grounds’ or is the ‘source’ of something.  Basically, either God has reasons for calling charity good or he doesn’t.  If he does, then those reasons ground it.  If he doesn’t, then he’s just making commandments arbitrarily.  He could have easily preferred and commanded murder to charity.

Just because someone said you ought to do something isn’t a reason to do it.  An agent’s authority, even God, can’t be the reason someone is right or wrong.

Methodological: Authorities claims aren’t counter arguments.  This point stems from the fact that authorities can’t ground the truth of something, as per the two points above.  Therefore, even if your friend makes the worst argument you’ve ever heard, you can’t bring up in response that some authority says the opposite.  That isn’t a reason why their argument fails.  What some fallible authority says is simply irrelevant to the nature of the evidence itself or structure of the argument the person is making.  You’ll instead have to cite some other evidence to the contrary or point out which step in their argument has some error in logic or inference.

Conclusion: Authorities can’t ground the truth of facts and therefore can’t be used as reasons for why something is true or false.  Because of this they also can’t be used as evidence as to why someone’s argument is wrong.

When We Should Argue from Authority

Now to the interesting part!

When can we believe something for no other reason than that an authority says it’s true?  When can we argue for a point and cite an expert’s opinion on the matter?

The Answer: Legitimate Epistemic Authorities as Evidence.  We can trust an authority’s claim when we have reason to believe they have a strong connection with the truth.  For instance, if I know that Fred has a PhD in physics and has spent years in the observatory studying black holes, then I have evidence that he is an authority on black holes.  Once I figure that part out – that he is an expert – I can also believe the claim he just made about black holes.  I have no other reason whatsoever to believe the claim about black holes other that listening to Fred’s opinion.  In fact, if he explained it to me I wouldn’t understand at all.

More importantly, Fred is a legitimate epistemic authority.  I’m not making the anthropological point that people merely ‘think’ he is an authority or treat him as one.  I’m making an epistemic point, i.e. a point about how he is connect to the truth of these kinds of claims.  Specifically, the scientific method, which Fred has successfully practiced in this field, connects him to the truth of these issues.  In comparison, someone reading a crystal ball is not a legitimate epistemic authority on black holes, no matter how many people believe otherwise.

Real World Examples:  Epistemic authorities are how we in fact learn most of the things we know.  For instance, I believe Moscow is the capital of Russia because my geography teachers said so and map makers put it there.  I’ve never been to Moscow and know nothing of cartography.  I rely solely on their authority.  None of us will do even 1% of the experiments and observations that ultimately justify the things we believe in.

Further, we rightfully rely on authority all the time in arguing with others.  I barely know anything about the chemistry and biology of vaccines.  However, I can pretty safely dismiss the argument my conspiracy theorist friend offers because every qualified doctor disagrees with them.  I don’t know the arguments, I just know what the authorities say.  The same for climate change, Holocaust deniers, 9-11 Truthers, and a ton of other things I believe that countless nuts have arguments against which I can’t directly refute.  Of course authority isn’t WHY these are right or wrong.  Of course it’d be better if I knew the arguments themselves better.  But relying on authority nonetheless justifies my beliefs that climate change is a reality and the Holocaust happened.

Fallibility and the Role of Consensus.  Yes, Fred can be wrong.  And yes the scientific method is not perfect by any means.  But show me a method for gaining knowledge that can’t be wrong and is perfect?  The point is that Fred and the scientific method are reliable sources of knowledge.

But what about when Fred is in the minority of experts?  Most experts, let’s say, disagree with Fred.  Now of course Fred may be right in the end, but let’s just focus on what experts are claiming.  Well, it comes back to reliability.  Fred is reliable, but the scientific community as a whole is much more reliable.  And the community in the long run is the most reliable means to knowledge that exists.

How to Argue from Authority.  Each argument and piece of evidence needs to be assessed directly and on its own merits.  If a Creationist makes an argument using the irreducibility of bacterial flagellum, then bringing up evidence for evolution based on the fossil record is irrelevant.  It’s still evidence, but it doesn’t address their argument directly.

In the same way, appeals to an epistemic authority is evidence for a claim.  However, if you’re debating a point, it’s irrelevant to the other person’s argument.  Appeals to authority stand on their own and need to be assessed on their own.  And like every issue in which we bring in several arguments and pieces of evidence, they’re only one piece of the puzzle.  So even strong consensus may be outweighed by an even stronger new study.

Appeals to authority are argued against only by citing stronger authorities or a differing consensus.  Yes, Fred has a Masters in physics, but this other scientist who disagrees is a Nobel Laureate with two relevant PhDs.  Or yes, Fred may be right, but the rest of the scientific community agrees he’s wrong.


The crux of the problem concerns what ‘grounds’ a particular fact, and whether you have sufficient reason to think the person is a legitimate epistemic authority.  If you’re talking about what grounds the facts, then authority is irrelevant.  If you’re talking about being justified in believing something and you have good evidence a person or group is an authority, then you’re good to go!  In fact, that’s how we learn most of the things we know!

Paul Chiariello (Managing Editor, Rutgers & Yale University)

DSC_0484Paul Chiariello graduated from Rutgers in 2009 after studying Philosophy and Anthropology. Currently he is on the Board of Directors of the Rutgers Humanist Community, Co-founder of the Yale Humanist Community, and Director of the Humanism & Philo Curriculum for Camp Quest.  Paul has a MSc in Sociology of Edu from Oxford, completing his field research in Bosnia on religious identity conflict. He also spent a year studying philosophy of ethics and religion at Yale on a PhD fellowship.  He has worked with research organizations and schools DC, the UN, Uganda, Kenya, India, Indonesia and Germany.

One response to “When We Shouldn’t – And Should – Argue from Authority

  1. Pingback: Going on holiday is… silence in your head | From guestwriters·

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