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