Argumentum ad verecundiam

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An argument from authority is one in which a proposition is claimed to be true because an esteemed person says it is true. It is a fallacy in that it relies on the person's fame or reputation, rather than on logical arguments or empirical evidence.

Examples

  • "Albert Einstein believed in God. Are you saying that Einstein was wrong?"
  • "Robert Gentry, a world-famous astronomer, calculated that the odds of life appearing by chance are astronomically low."

Discussion

It is not always a fallacy to say that "So-and-so says that X is true, therefore X is probably true." For this discussion, it is necessary to distinguish between an expert and an authority.

If a famous astronomer says that the universe is expanding, then it is very likely that the universe really is expanding. If a qualified doctor says that a patient is suffering from Parkinson's disease, that's most likely the case. In these examples, the astronomer and the doctor are experts in a field, and are addressing topics within their area of expertise. As experts, they have studied their respective fields, are familiar with the state of the art, have studied how to recognize certain events, features or conditions, know how to recognize many problems that might lead a layman astray and how to work around them, and so forth. When we take an expert's word for something, we are saying, in effect, that if we had the time to learn as much about the field as the expert has, we would be able to examine the evidence and reach the same conclusion.

Naturally, this applies only to experts speaking within their field of expertise: there is no a priori reason to take an astronomer more seriously than anyone else on the subject of foreign policy or theology.

On the other hand, if the Pope says, ex cathedra, that contraception is a sin, then that's true as well. In this case, the Pope is an authority in matters of sin: it is his job to determine what is and isn't a sin in the Catholic church. In a very real sense, contraception is a sin not because it is intrinsically bad, or even because it contradicts the Bible in some way, but merely because the Pope has declared it to be so.

Note that in science, there are experts, but (ideally) no authorities.


v · d Logical fallacies
v · d Formal fallacies
Propositional logic   Affirming a disjunct · Affirming the consequent · Argument from fallacy · False dilemma · Denying the antecedent
Quantificational logic   Existential fallacy · Illicit conversion · Proof by example · Quantifier shift
Syllogistic   Affirmative conclusion from a negative premise · Exclusive premises · Necessity · Four-term Fallacy · Illicit major · Illicit minor · Undistributed middle
v · d Faulty generalisations
General   Begging the question · Gambler's fallacy · Slippery slope · Equivocation · argumentum verbosium
Distribution fallacies   Fallacy of composition · Fallacy of division
Data mining   Cherry picking · Accident fallacy · Spotlight fallacy · Hasty generalization · Special pleading
Causation fallacies   Post hoc ergo propter hoc · Retrospective determinism · Suppressed correlative · Wrong direction
Ontological fallacies   Fallacy of reification · Pathetic fallacy · Loki's Wager
v · d False relevance
Appeals   Appeal to authority · Appeal to consequences · Appeal to emotion · Appeal to motive · Appeal to novelty · Appeal to tradition · Appeal to pity · Appeal to popularity · Appeal to poverty · Appeal to spite · Appeal to wealth · Sentimental fallacy · Argumentum ad baculum
Ad hominem   Ad hominem abusive · Reductio ad Hitlerum · Judgmental language · Straw man · Tu quoque · Poisoning the well
Genetic Fallacies   Genetic fallacy · Association fallacy · Appeal to tradition · Texas sharpshooter fallacy
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