Friday, April 4, 2014

Why credentials matter: Appeal to Authority

A type of ad hominem, the appeal to authority fallacy occurs when one believes what an authority figure says just because they are an authority figure regardless of their expertise in the field, the established consensus, or any biases. To avoid falling for this fallacy, you should examine the credentials of the authority figure making the claim and then compare the claim to what others in that field are saying. This fallacy is very common in advertisements who use “false authorities” to convince us to purchase their product (supermodels selling personal hygiene products, for example), as well as conspiracy theorists (the Kennedy assassination, Big Foot, and the faked Apollo Moon landing).

How this applies: This is very common in creationist circles. You will often find the Discovery Institute and other anti-evolution organizations promoting the opinions of “scientific experts” who claim to disprove various aspects of evolution. The vast majority of these “experts” are not experts in biology, the field to which evolution applies, nor do they earned credibility in the scientific community by publishing peer-reviewed papers, presenting at conferences, or earning research grants. For example, Kent Hovind, a young-earth creationist who lectures widely on the subject, is quick to remind you that he is “Dr. Hovind” even though his doctorate is in Christian Education earned through correspondence from an un-accredited Christian Academy, thus misleading those who are listening to him into believing he is an expert in science.

Examples:

  • UFO proponents have argued that UFO sightings by airline pilots should be given special weight because pilots are trained observers, are reliable characters, and are trained not to panic in emergencies. In essence, they are arguing that we should trust the pilot’s authority as an eye witness.
  • “The administration must know where the WMDs are or they wouldn’t have sent American troops into look for them.” (Also a non sequitur fallacy.)
  • "Saddam must have WMD's; the president wouldn't lie to us."
  • Laws against marijuana are plain silly. Why, Thomas Jefferson is known to have raised hemp on his own plantation.
  • If it's good enough for (insert celebrity's name here), it's good enough for me.