The “Arguing from Authority” fallacy


I suspect that perhaps most are familiar with the fallacy of arguing from authority, but just in case not, then in essence, this is the basis for it.

A claim is correct because the claim has been made by somebody who is authoritative.

OK, if it is a well known fallacy, then why write about it? Well, I’d like to take a look at three real-world examples to illustrate that there are multiple variations of this, and that no variation is an exception. This includes:

  • Fake Credentials – A supposed expert making claims, but their Ph.D. is fake
  • Out-Of-Context Credentials – A supposed expert making claims, but the subject of their degree has nothing to do with the claim
  • Real Credentials, but a bullshit claim – An true expert, with a real claim, but no actual evidence for the claim

So lets take a look at each of these it turn.

Fake Credentials

These are quite easy to obtain, just fill in the appropriate forms, send off a few dollars and instantly you are fully accredited (supposedly). An example is Thunderwood college. This in fact is a site run by well-known skeptic Brian Dunning, not to enable you to scam others with a fake degree, but rather to parody the existence of the many fake degree mills that will churn out worthless certificates in exchange for a large fee.

So would anybody seriously attempt to use a fake degree and claim to be an expert? You bet they would. A good example in the UK is ‘Dr’ Gillian McKeith who used her fake title to sell TV shows, diet books and herbal sex pills, but it was all a complete sham. You can read about what happened to her and how she was exposed as a fraud, by clicking here to read Dr Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column. Incidentally, Ben is not only a noted skeptic and a great writer, but he is also a real medical doctor. (Hint: He actually attended a fully-accredited college for years of study, then passed exams). Sadly Gillian is not the only example, there are many others still out there.

Out-Of-Context Credentials

This is where folks who believe themselves to be smart, because they have real degrees, start spouting way outside their areas of expertise. I came across a great example of this on the UK Creation Science Movement website. They have a list of expert speakers and subject matter experts listed here. All four have a string of letters after their names, take a glance and it all appears to be quite impressive (to the non-skeptical). These are the folks who promote creationism as a more credible answer and assert that natural selection is simply wrong.

OK, lets take a quick look and see if their qualifications are in any way appropriate for them to claim to be experts within this arena.

  • First we have Dr David Rosevear. He has a PhD in Organometallic Chemistry. Now, I’m sure he truly knows quite a bit about Organometallic Chemistry and is also a very smart chap, but in what way does this qualify him to be an expert on natural selection or creationism?
  • Next we have Malcolm Bowden. He is a consulting Civil and Structural Engineer. Nope, no hint of any connection here to evolutionary biology
  • Then we have Dr Stephen Hayes. He is a General Medical Practitioner (GP) with a special interest in skin disease, particularly the use of dermoscopy for the early detection of melanoma skin cancer. Sigh! … no I’m not finding a connection here either.
  • Finally we have Andrew Sibley, a Meteorologist working as a weather forecaster in the UK. I would find it very credible that he might indeed be a Climate Change Subject Matter Expert, but once again, no connection to evolutionary biology or creationism

All four are indeed smart chaps, and all four do indeed have real qualifications.  The premise here is that they are authorities because they all have a string of letters after their names, yet none of the qualifications are appropriate to or connected in any way to the subject that they promote.

Real Credentials, but a bullshit claim

So what happens when you have a real expert with a real degree that is appropriate to the topic, does this then imply we should take his word as an authority? Nope. You should of course pay more attention, but it can never be a decisive factor … ever.

Lets look at an example.

Michael Behe is a professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, yet he is also an intelligent design advocate (least you wonder and are not familiar with that term, its creationist code for “God did it”). The basis for his stance revolves around the irreducible complexity of essential cellular structures, so as a professor of biochemistry at a well-respected university we should of course take his word as an authority that intelligent design is credible and scientific …. er no. That’s what the intelligent design community would suggest, and so they will have him doing the rounds on their circuit as proof incarnate that intelligent design is scientific and is also a viable alternative to evolutionary theory.

Now, lets look at the facts.

  • Irreducible complexity has been refuted in peer-reviewed research papers and has been rejected by the scientific community, yet Behe continues to argue for it.I believe the phrase that perhaps best describes this is “flogging a dead horse”.
  • In Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District,Behe was called as a primary witness for the defense and asked to support the idea that intelligent design was legitimate science. Behe was forced to concede that “there are no peer reviewed articles by anyone advocating for intelligent design supported by pertinent experiments or calculations which provide detailed rigorous accounts of how intelligent design of any biological system occurred“and that his definition of ‘theory’ as applied to intelligent design was so loose that astrology would also qualify.

So while indeed he is a real professor at a real university, he is also a complete kook. How does his university feel about all this? Well, they also consider him to be a kook, they have this disclaimer on their website and disassociate themselves completely from his ideas …

The department faculty, then, are unequivocal in their support of evolutionary theory, which has its roots in the seminal work of Charles Darwin and has been supported by findings accumulated over 140 years. The sole dissenter from this position, Prof. Michael Behe, is a well-known proponent of “intelligent design.” While we respect Prof. Behe’s right to express his views, they are his alone and are in no way endorsed by the department. It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific.

Conclusion
When faced with a claim that is justified by any form of authority, even legitimate well-recognised authorities, you should be highly skeptical.

The only basis for the verification of a claim is evidence.

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