Argument from Authority and the Ad Verecundiam Fallacy

The argument from authority is a type of logical fallacy in which a point of view is defended because it has been expressed by someone with credibility or prestige. Logical fallacies are made up of incorrect reasoning used to persuade listeners to support an alleged truth.

In this case, the incorrect reasoning consists of accepting a statement as valid only by looking at the fame of the person who made it and not at the evidence that can support it. For this reason, the argument from authority is also known as the fallacy. ad verecundiam either magister said

The phrase magister dixit It is a Latin locution that means “the teacher said it”. It was used in the scholastic philosophy of the Middle Ages to defend something as true because a bishop, a pope, or the Greek philosopher Aristotle himself had said so before. For example:

“The earth occupies the center of the universe, so Aristotle said and so the church maintains”.

That proposition was upheld for centuries by the authority of the Catholic Church in the medieval world. When the scientist Galileo Galilei dared to propose that the earth revolved around the sun, he was taken to the inquisition in 1633. At trial he had to abjure. But today we know that he was actually right.

Characteristics of the argument ad verecundiam or fallacy of authority

The main characteristic of the fallacy of authority it is that it seeks to validate an affirmation based on what has been said by experts. However, the appeal to authority may contain errors, from which erroneous conclusions follow. Then its characteristics.

1. It is inappropriate: when the cited or brought up authority is not really an expert on the subject matter.

Example:

Charlie Munger said that there was no better teacher of determining the future than history and that there were answers worth billions of dollars in history books that cost $30.

Explanation: Munger is an American millionaire. Many listen to his advice to apply them in the financial world. However, in the argument it is intended to resort to his prestige to point out the value of historical knowledge. Furthermore, from what has been said it follows that there are ways to determine what will happen in the future. Very few historians would dare to endorse that.

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2. It is inaccurate: when the cited authority does not affirm what is attributed to it in the citation.

Example:

As Einstein said, it’s crazy to do the same thing over and over again expecting to get different results.

Explanation: Although the reasoning is insightful, there is no documentary evidence that Einstein ever claimed that. Therefore, invoking the figure of him is fallacious.

3. It lacks relevance: when what is reported is not important for the discussion in question.

Example:

Mahatma Gandhi was a vegetarian. He was a wise and kind man. All good people should be vegetarian and so should you.

Explanation: In a discussion about the benefits of vegetarianism, its consequences for the health or welfare of animals could be mentioned. The fact that Gandhi was a vegetarian does not add positive or negative elements to a vegetarian diet.

4. Lacks foundation: when the aforementioned authority has not given reasons or has not shown evidence to support or defend its opinion.

Example:

I do not support the theory of evolution. The 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, he once wrote that “apes are too good for man to descend from.”

Explanation: Although he is one of the most important philosophers of the 19th century, his assertion about the descent of monkeys lacks scientific foundation. Furthermore, evolutionary theory itself does not state that man is descended from apes, but that both apes and humans are descended from primates prior to both.

Everything also indicates that Nietzsche’s phrase had a sarcastic intention when it was uttered.

See also:

  • argument types.
  • Fallacy.
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Acceptable arguments from authority

Despite being considered a logical fallacy, it is sometimes sensible to accept arguments from authority. This is advisable when an authoritative institution or an expert in a certain field supports a position by referring to evidence, studies or objective reasoning.

Likewise, in everyday life it is generally plausible to listen more carefully to those who we believe know a subject better. If our car is damaged, we will grant certainty to the diagnosis given by the mechanic. If it is a pipe that is damaged, the plumber, etc.

Examples of Acceptable Arguments from Authority

It is humanly impossible to verify all the information that passes through our hands. Then the arguments of authority are admissible when it is considered reasonable to trust the communicator of the information and it is not necessary to verify something declared on our own. Here are some examples.

1. Tobacco is harmful in all its forms and there is no safe level of exposure to tobacco, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

Explanation: the usual thing is to place our trust in the authority of the WHO, since it has the competence to support what has been affirmed. In addition, it is unlikely that we will study the subject in depth until we become qualified experts in the field.

2. There is no question that the earth, our planet, is round. This is what Elcano affirmed when he circumnavigated the globe between 1519 and 1522, and this is how it is maintained by all contemporary scientists.

Explanation: Although I myself have not turned the earth upside down, I give credit to the testimony of another who did. Even more, this testimony is supported by contemporary scientists, knowledgeable in physics, geography and mathematics. Flat earthing does not seem reasonable.

3. The FAO indicated that the economic problems derived from the COVID-19 pandemic caused an increase in hunger in poor countries.

Explanation: the speaker referred to the FAO, acronym in English for Food and Agriculture of the United Nations, major global food organization, to state that world hunger increased in 2020.

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See also 14 examples of arguments.

Argument from fact vs. argument from authority

Arguments of fact rely on observations and data to declare something true. The conclusion reached with the argument of fact assumes the sample of evidence and its analysis. In this sense, the data is impersonal and should not depend on the opinion of the individual or institution that proposes the argument.

Authoritative arguments, on the other hand, work in the opposite way, giving more weight to the author of the argument than to what was said. Thus, if there is no evidence to support them, the arguments of authority are discredited in scientific research.

Authoritative or academic citations

A citation is a piece of text that contains information about ideas or data communicated by other authors and that we add to our writings or speeches. Citations can show research results or ways to approach a problem. Academics rely on these to create and communicate new knowledge.

Quotations must be used with intellectual honesty and must be credited with data and reasoned opinions. Citing an authority without justification will make the authors fall into fallacies.

Bibliography

Angulo, Noel (2013) “The citation in academic writing”. In Educational Innovation. Vol. 13, number 63, pages 95-116.

Doury, Marianne (1998) “The Argument from Authority in Situation: The Case for the Media Debate on Astrology.” In Writings, Journal of the Center for Language Sciences. No. 17-18, pages, 89-112.

Engel, Morris (1994) Fallacies and Pitfalls of Language. The Language Trap. Dover Publications.

See also: Argument.