ESGS Logical Fallacies

Appeal to Authority


Also called Misuse of Authority, Irrelevant Authority, Questionable Authority, Inappropriate Authority, Ad Verecundiam, Genetic Fallacy, Ipse Dixit.

An Appeal to Authority is a fallacy with the following form:


This fallacy is committed when the person in question is not a legitimate authority on the subject. More formally, if person p is not qualified to make reliable claims in subject s, then the argument will be fallacious.

This sort of reasoning is fallacious when the person in question is not an expert. In such cases the reasoning is flawed because the fact that an unqualified person makes a claim does not provide any justification for the claim. The claim could be true, but the fact that an unqualified person made the claim does not provide any rational reason to accept the claim as true.

When a person falls prey to this fallacy, they are accepting a claim as true without there being adequate evidence to do so. More specifically, the person is accepting the claim because they erroneously believe that the person making the claim is a legitimate expert and hence that the claim is reasonable to accept. Since people have a tendency to believe authorities (and there are, in fact, good reasons to accept some claims made by authorities) this fallacy is a fairly common one.

Since this sort of reasoning is fallacious only when the person is not a legitimate authority in a particular context, it is necessary to provide some acceptable standards of assessment. The following standards are widely accepted:

  1. The person has sufficient expertise in the subject matter in question.
  2. The claim being made by the person is within her area(s) of expertise.
  3. There is an adequate degree of agreement among the other experts in the subject in question.
  4. The person in question is not significantly biased.
  5. The area of expertise is a legitimate area or discipline.
  6. The authority in question must be identified.
  7. The authority in question was not joking, not drunk, etc.
What distinguishes a fallacious Appeal to Authority from a good Appeal to Authority is that the argument meets the seven conditions discussed above.
In a good Appeal to Authority, there is reason to believe the claim because the expert says the claim is true. This is because a person who is a legitimate expert is more likely to be right than wrong when making considered claims within her area of expertise. In a sense, the claim is being accepted because it is reasonable to believe that the expert has tested the claim and found it to be reliable. So, if the expert has found it to be reliable, then it is reasonable to accept it as being true. Thus, the listener is accepting a claim based on the testimony of the expert.
It should be noted that even a good Appeal to Authority is not an exceptionally strong argument. After all, in such cases a claim is being accepted as true simply because a person is asserting that it is true. The person may be an expert, but her expertise does not really bear on the truth of the claim. This is because the expertise of a person does not actually determine whether the claim is true or false. Hence, arguments that deal directly with evidence relating to the claim itself will tend to be stronger.


Bill and Jane are arguing about the morality of abortion:
Bill: "I believe that abortion is morally acceptable. After all, a woman should have a right to her own body."
Jane: "I disagree completely. Dr. Johan Skarn says that abortion is always morally wrong, regardless of the situation. He has to be right, after all, he is a respected expert in his field." Bill: "I've never heard of Dr. Skarn. Who is he?"
Jane: "He's the guy that won the Nobel Prize in physics for his work on cold fusion."
Bill: "I see. Does he have any expertise in morality or ethics?"
Jane: "I don't know. But he's a world famous expert, so I believe him."

Dave and Kintaro are arguing about Stalin's reign in the Soviet Union. Dave has been arguing that Stalin was a great leader while Kintaro disagrees with him.
Kintaro: "I don't see how you can consider Stalin to be a great leader. He killed millions of his own people, he crippled the Soviet economy, kept most of the people in fear and laid the foundations for the violence that is occuring in much of Eastern Europe."
Dave: "Yeah, well you say that. However, I have a book at home that says that Stalin was acting in the best interest of the people. The millions that were killed were vicious enemies of the state and they had to be killed to protect the rest of the peaceful citizens. This book lays it all out, so it has to be true."

I'm not a doctor, but I play one on the hit series "Bimbos and Studmuffins in the OR." You can take it from me that when you need a fast acting, effective and safe pain killer there is nothing better than MorphiDope 2000. That is my considered medical opinion.

Siphwe and Sasha are having a conversation:
Sasha: "I played the lottery today and I know I am going to win something."
Siphwe: "What did you do, rig the outcome?"
Sasha: "No, silly. I called my Super Psychic Buddy at the 1-900-MindPower number. After consulting his magic Californian Tarot deck, he told me my lucky numbers."
Siphwe: "And you believed him?"
Sasha: "Certainly, he is a certified Californian Master-Mind Psychic. That is why I believe what he has to say. I mean, like, who else would know what my lucky numbers are?

Noted psychologist Dr. Frasier Crane recommends that you buy the EZ-Rest Hot Tub.

Economist John Kenneth Galbraith argues that a tight money policy s the best cure for a recession.
Although Galbraith is an expert, not all economists agree on this point.

We are headed for nuclear war. Last week Ronald Reagan remarked that we begin bombing Russia in five minutes.
Of course, he said it as a joke during a microphone test.

I asked the Pope is God really exists, and he said "Yes." And he is a religious expert.
True, but the Pope can be considered as significantly biased towards the existence of God.


Einstein wrote that E=m c2, and as he was a renowned physicist, that is certainly correct.


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© ESGS, 2002.