Fallacies: How to Avoid Arguments from Authority

How to Avoid Arguments from Authority

An ‘argument from authority’ is a common fallacy in academic writing. In other words, arguments from authority are ‘bad’ arguments that contain a hidden mistake. But what makes an argument from authority bad? And how can you avoid this error in your own writing? Let’s take a look.

What Are Arguments from Authority?

An argument from authority, also known as an appeal to authority, is an argument that relies on the status of the person cited instead of their ideas. For example, we could say:

Isaac Newton was a great scientist and an alchemist, so we should take the discipline of alchemy seriously.

We would never deny that Newton was a great scientist. His work on gravity and optics? The boy done good. But Newton’s belief in alchemy doesn’t mean we can change lead into gold. To argue that this were possible, we would need evidence. And there is none.

Sir Isaac: Good at gravity, not so hot on elementary chemistry.
Sir Isaac: Good at gravity, not so hot on elementary chemistry.

But arguments from authority do not have to be about something false. For example, we could propose the following argument:

Stephen Hawking – the world’s most famous astrophysicist – believed in the Big Bang theory. As a result, we can assume this theory is true.

On a day-to-day basis, we might be happy with this statement. After all, Stephen Hawking knew more than most people about astrophysics, so we can probably trust his opinion. And it may also be true that the Big Bang theory is the best explanation for the origins of the universe.

However, as an argument for the scientific truth of the Big Bang theory, the example above is just as much an argument from authority as the one about Newton and alchemy. And, as before, we would need evidence to put forward a real argument here, not just an expert opinion.

Authority vs. Scientific Consensus

It is worth comparing arguments from authority with scientific consensus. When we say there is a scientific consensus about something, we mean that at least most scientists agree on it.

But if relying on one expert’s opinion is a fallacy, is the same true of relying on the collective judgement of a community of experts? The short answer is ‘No’.

If you are a lab animal, of course, you may have good reason to distrust anyone in a white coat.
If you are a lab animal, of course, you may have good reason to distrust anyone in a white coat.

For example,  97% percent of climate scientists agree that human activity contributes to climate change. If we were to take a study by one of the 3% who disagree, we could say ‘This expert scientist says there is no such thing as climate change, so we don’t need to worry about it.’ This would be an argument from authority, as our claim is based on someone being an ‘expert’.

However, relying on one of the 3% of scientists who disagree with the scientific consensus means we have to ignore the 97% who say climate change is real. And if we trust the overall community – i.e. scientists as a group – to reach conclusions based on evidence, we need to give more weight to the 97% than the 3% in this case.

Trusting a consensus is therefore not the same as relying on a single authority. We need to be careful, as the scientific consensus could still be wrong. But if we want to prove it wrong, we need to look at their evidence, not just appeal to someone who disagrees with the consensus.

How to Avoid Arguments from Authority

So, how do you avoid arguments from authority in your own academic writing? The simple answer is to always focus on evidence. If someone is known as an ‘authority’ in a certain subject area, that’s a great starting point. But you need to look at what they argue, not just who they are.

If your argument seems to rely on a single, authoritative source, then, you may want to take the following steps:

  • Read your source critically, looking at their evidence in detail.
  • Focus on their reasons for believing something, not their expert status.
  • Look for other sources that back up or counter your ‘authority’.

This should help you to express what your source contributes to your argument beyond the simple ‘authority’ that comes with citing a famous name or well-known expert. And if you need any help making sure your writing is error free and easy to read, simply submit it for proofreading.

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