What is the appeal to authority?

Is it wrong to appeal to authority? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.

I am constantly amazed at the new lows of anti-intellectualism that internet atheists will sink to all the while thinking that they are superior intellects. One of these is complaining about appealing to authority. Here’s the deal. Sometimes appeals to authority are invalid, but for these atheists, any time you cite any authority on any topic, it is a logical fallacy.

Keep in mind what it would mean if you did not believe in any authority. Odds are, you would not believe much of anything. Unless you personally observed through a telescope yourself, you would have to say that you don’t know if some planets or galaxies existed. You could not rely on anything scientific unless you had done the experiment yourself. You could not trust your doctor, dentist, mechanic, electrician, etc. There would be no need to read anything as that is another authority nor listen to a lecture or talk for the same reason. This is just scratching the surface.

Appeals to authority are not always wrong.

But what can make them wrong?

One big problem is talking about something outside of your expertise. A great example of this is celebrity endorsements. If celebrity X endorses the product, it has to be good. Well, unless celebrity X has some specific learning in the field, why should anyone give a rip?

How about people who have learning? Richard Dawkins would be just fine to quote if you were making a point about evolution. When he writes¬†The God Delusion, he’s talking outside of his field as he is not an expert in religion, history, metaphysics, philosophy, or biblical studies.

Let’s go the other way now. If you were talking about the New Testament, it is just fine to quote N.T. Wright. If you are talking about the Big Bang Theory, you need to quote someone else. Wright is an excellent New Testament scholar, but he is not a scientist.

Note that an appeal to authority doesn’t mean that it is true. Authorities can be wrong, but it does mean that you had better have some serious evidence if you’re going to go against the authorities in the field. This especially applies to Jesus mythicists. Good luck finding a professor in New Testament or classical history at an accredited university that gives any credibility whatsoever to Jesus Mythicism. That doesn’t prove that mythicism is false, but it shows that the mythicist¬†side has a whole lot of work to do to show they have a case.

Something interesting about this is that the claim that the appeal to authority is always invalid is self-refuting. When people want to tell me this, they normally show a web link. Ignore the fact that normally in the link there’s an explanation about valid appeals to authority and invalid appeals to authority. Either way, the person is presenting an authority, a web link, to tell me that I should not accept an authority. If not that, they are speaking on their own authority that one should not appeal to authority.

So for internet atheists, I challenge them if they think that any such appeal is always invalid to try to live that way. Be your own doctor and everything else. See how long you function in the world. Then go and learn what the appeal to authority really is and return to reality.

In Christ,
Nick Peters


False Views On The Appeal To Authority

What is the Appeal to Authority? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

I’ve seen it happen way too many times. It’s the kind of mistake I can’t believe that thinking people make, but unfortunately, they do. It is not that they use the Appeal to Authority. It is that they misunderstand what the Appeal to Authority is.

Picture me in a debate and saying “New Testament scholars like Hurtado, Bauckham, Keener, Ehrman, Bird, and others agree.”

What’s the reply? “You’re appealing to authorities which is fallacious.”

Let’s start out with an obvious rejoinder. Do you say that to appeal to an authority on a claim is necessarily fallacious? If so, then upon what authority do I take that claim? Is it not just as fallacious to appeal to your own authority if all appeals to authority are fallacious?

The biggest problem with this type of argument is that it doesn’t realize that the Appeal to Authority deals with appealing to authorities that are not valid authorities. If you want to discuss the fine points of New Testament scholarship, it is just fine to appeal to N.T. Wright or Bart Ehrman. If you want to discuss the fine points of evolution, it is not fine to respond to these men as fine as they may be in their respective fields. It would be fine to appeal to Richard Dawkins. At the same time, Dawkins would not be qualified to speak on the fine points of the New Testament.

We all rely on authorities every day because none of us can learn everything. If you have ever gone to a doctor and taken something at the doctor’s recommendation, unless you are a doctor yourself you accepted a claim because of an authority and if someone asked you “Why are you taking that medication?” you could say “My doctor told me too.”

Now of course, your doctor could be mistaken. The appeal to authority does not mean the authority will get everything right. It means all things being equal, their opinion in their field is of more value than the opinion of the layman in the field.

This is also why it’s important to see what field someone is an authority in. Their field could touch on another, but it’s best to go to the main authorities. Here are some questions you can ask yourself when considering if someone is a valid authority.

Do they have sufficient studies in the field that they’re in? If your person has a Ph.D. from an accredited university, you can be quite sure that they do.

Is the person recognized by others as an authority, including opponents?

Is the person generally shown to be honest in their assessments and seeking to avoid bias?

If the person is a Ph.D. do they teach at an accredited university or have they retired from that position?

Last night, my wife and I were at an event talking about a brand of products meant to help improve one’s health. At the start, I see a reference to a doctor who promotes these products. What am I soon doing? Looking up that doctor’s name on Google and seeing what is being said about him. Are there any harsh criticisms? Is there skepticism? Is this person seen as a kook in the scientific community? Since he is a doctor, what is his doctorate in? (It would not be as impressive to find out that Dr. X is a Dr. of New Testament who is giving this as a great benefit to health. He might know his New Testament well, but that does not make him an authority on health.)

Note with that last point that to say someone is not an authority in a field does not mean that they are ipso facto wrong. It just means that if all you have to go by is their say so, then you are indeed entitled to be skeptical.

Now if this person produces data of some sort, then that data must be interacted with. Someone who is not an authority in a field can present data for a position and then what you are discussing is not so much that person’s opinion, but rather what that data is and how it should be interpreted.

To say that to always appeal to an authority is wrong is a mistake indeed. The problem is when one appeals to an authority that is not a valid authority in the field. All of us rely on authorities as we must as none of us can verify every claim made to us in this life. (Few of us can verify the Earth goes around the sun yet few of us at the same time doubt that.)

If someone tells you that an appeal to authority is always a fallacy, be sure to call them on it. The person who thinks this way will inevitably want to live by their own authority and decide everything that way.

Kind of fallacious isn’t it?

In Christ,
Nick Peters