5X5 Episode 49

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5X5 Episode 49
Argument from Authority
8th December 2008

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5X5 48 5X5 50
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
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Skepticism 101 - Argument from Authority[edit]

Voice-over: You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.

S: This is the SGU 5X5 and our continuing series — Skepticism 101. We're talking about various logical fallacies and this time we're going to talk about the argument from authority. This is essentially any argument that takes the form that a specific claim is correct because some authority or authority figure says so.

R: We know it's a fallacy because we're telling you so.

S: That's right - because we said so.

J: Well ok, so the basic way that this one works is, somebody puts up an argument or makes a claim and then says "it's true because person X said it's true" and person X could be thought of as an authority on the topic or could be thought of as someone who, at the very least, has an opinion on the topic but, just because you're saying that this person believes it, doesn't necessarily mean that what you're saying is true.

S: It could also be that "I read it in Wikipedia. It's true because I read it somewhere."

R: It's on the internet so it must be true. And, you know, it's important to note that sometimes you do have to fall back on someone's authority to support whatever evidence they're giving — it can help bolster your argument. What this fallacy is about, is saying that something is true just because the person is well-known or famous for whatever.

B: That's an especially important part of this, I believe, 'cos a lot of people would jump on you just because you're using any argument from authority,. But it is an important part of informal logic, we can't have deep knowledge on many topics and we need to rely on authorities very often. And as said earlier, it's very important that it's not a logical fallacy to argue that the authority is correct, just don't— be sure not to argue that they are infallible or correct because they're an authority, and that's the rub with this.

J: Remember the old commercial, "I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV."

E: (laughs) right.

J: And then they go on to, you know, sell something? Well that's an argument from authority.

S: It's actually a false argument from authority. An argument from false authority.

J: (laughs) Don't get technical with me.

E: Prove it.

R: Look, Steve's a doctor, just trust him.

E: Oooh.

S: So this can be a squirrely logical fallacy because, you know, first of all, because an argument is supported by an authority doesn't mean it's not true either. It's just that it's not necessarily true just because an authority's promoting it. However that doesn't mean that authority is of no value. It is as of much value as it has earned. So, for example, the broader scientific community — a consensus of many scientists — independently coming to opinions based upon evidence is of some value, but it's really not the authority itself, they're not true because they have vested in them some authority. It's true because they have a history of a process that is based upon logic and evidence. And what you're really saying is that based upon that history and based upon the legitimacy of that process, the claims that they are saying are probably reliable. They should at least be taken seriously. That's different than saying "this guy has an MD after his name or PhD after his name or even going back - because this guy is the pope, he was appointed, or he is a king, or he has, again, some magical authority, that therefore they must be correct. So not all appeals to authority are logically fallacious or are incorrect. It depends entirely on how that authority is used and what the basis of their authority is.

E: I think a recent good example of this is the case of Dr Edgar Mitchell. He was an astronaut, he's been in outer space, and he also claims to have witnessed extraterrestrial alien activity. And people take him at his word simply because he has been in outer space and because he's an astronaut what he's saying, well, "it must be true because he's been out there and he has seen it." And yet there's no other lines of evidence showing us that alien activity actually exists.

S: Right, that'd be a bad argument from authority because the fact that he was an astronaut does not make him infallible, does not make his opinions more reliable than someone else's, does not exempt him from human emotion or psychology or mechanisms of deception and illusion et cetera. That kind of false authority is used quite frequently with celebrities, people, especially advertising, will use celebrities to promote their products or to make their claims seem as if they are coming from an authority figure, or to extend the UFO example, oftentimes eye-witnesses to alleged UFO phenomena claim to be more reliable because they're an air force pilot or a mayor or some kind of professional, again when in fact that does not give them any authority over being reliably able to make and interpret unusual observations.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.

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