Appealing to authorities

November 2004

There is much confusion over what one may prove by citing authorities. It is often noted that we all rely, for a great deal of what we think we know about the world and its history, on having heard it from people who we assume know what they're talking about. Christian apologists then ask why we skeptics so easily dismiss their particular appeals to authority.

We can begin by noting that nobody except for evangelical Christians is saying that people who don't believe their authorities will deservedly suffer for all eternity. I might think someone a fool for rejecting what scientists say about the origin of life, but I will neither think nor say that he thereby proves himself morally degenerate.

This is relevant because of a point that should never be overlooked. An argument from authority is always a fallacy in this sense: No fact is ever established by any authority's say-so. An argument from authority can justify a belief, but it can never prove absolutely that the belief is true.

For example, if a reputable historian who has researched the evidence for King Arthur's existence affirms that the legend was based on no real person, then I justifiably believe that there was no historical King Arthur. However, even the greatest expert in Medieval English history can be mistaken. There could still have been a historical King Arthur, and no historian's judgment would change that fact if it were a fact.

An argument from authority, then, can go one of two ways.

  1. A reputable historian says there was no real King Arthur. Therefore, I justifiably believe there was no real King Arthur.
  2. A reputable historian says there was no real King Arthur. Therefore, there was no real King Arthur.

The first argument is valid. The second is fallacious.

But what if the authorities disagree among themselves?

The appropriate intellectual response depends partly on whether the experts are closely divided. If not, if there is a substantial majority for one opinion, then absent any other considerations one may judge that the majority is likely to be correct. The important thing to remember is that reality cares nothing about votes -- not even unanimous votes.

Regardless of whether the experts are evenly split or overwhemingly in favor of some opinion, a person who justifies his beliefs solely on the basis of authority is being intellectually dishonest if he regards as authoritative only those experts who agree with him. One who claims to be thinking logically must justify his preference by critiquing the experts' arguments.

If expert historians disagree about King Arthur's historicity and I side with those who deny it, I should become familiar with the evidence and with arguments, for and against historicity, that are based on that that evidence. I should then be able to explain why I find the argument against historicity more compelling than the argument for it. If I am unwilling or unable to undertake that kind of research, then the best thing for me to do is reserve judgment. If I nonetheless have an opinion, the next best thing I can do is to admit that I cannot support it.

In many contexts, an unsupported opinion is OK. We all have them and we can't help having them. But we can also admit that they are unsupported if we are intellectually honest. Perhaps more important, we can avoid judging the integrity, either intellectual or moral, of those who hold a contrary opinion.

Now, if I am not an expert, and the experts are overwhelmingly for a certain opinion, how may I justify aligning myself with the minority?

I do it the same way I justify joining one side or the other if the experts are evenly divided. I learn the evidence and the arguments and demonstrate why I think the minority has the better argument.

And those who would defend the majority must do likewise. Presumbly, the majority think there is a flaw in the minority's argument. The majority's partisans ought to find out what that flaw is and point it out. The mere number of experts for or against an opinion is irrelevant. In the final analysis, nothing matters but the evidence and arguments that the experts themselves are offering.

When the authorities disagree, whether lopsidedly or evenly, it is usually reasonable to suspect that the evidence, whatever it consists of, is logically inconclusive. This does not mean nonexperts ought to have no opinion. It does mean that nonexperts cannot be justified in claiming that no reasonable person can disagree with them. If authorities find room for disagreement, then surely the rest of us can, too.

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This page last updated May 29, 2006.