The Appeal To Authority is an argument in which some authority figure (whether it be a person, a book, or an association/institution, etc) is held up as the sole reason to believe or disbelieve a given conclusion. We’re taught (and indeed it’s a proper function in a division of labor society) to trust the opinions of authority figures. Accordingly, the fact that some doctor, scientist, or professor somewhere claims that addiction is a disease – is a convincing enough fact for most people to believe the claim – but that doesn’t mean the belief we’ve been convinced of is necessarily true. Many people use this fallacy (deliberately, or by default through incompetence) either to gain agreement on a point from those who are overly trusting, or to bully agreement out of those who doubt their own power of reason.
An argument in the form of an Appeal To Authority can be logically fallacious in two ways. First, sometimes the authority isn’t as trustworthy as they’re portrayed or held to be. Many people on my side of the debate are quick to cut down Dr Drew or Dr Phil – questioning their medical credentials in response to statements they make supporting the disease model. Although this is a valid refutation of such appeals, I don’t think it’s the best tact to take, but we’ll get back to that.
Commonly, I see this particular Appeal To Authority used in the addiction debate:
Sally: There is no reliable evidence that substance use is an involuntary behavior as proposed in the disease model.
John: Shut up you dummy, the American Medical Association says that addiction is a disease – therefore, it is a disease and addicts can’t control themselves.
In the example above, the premise that there is no proof of compulsivity, and the devastating effects of such a fact on the integrity of the disease model is completely ignored, and the opposing view is asserted arbitrarily only by referencing an authority figure.
In my own case, 15 years ago when I first saw an addiction counselor, he opened up a medical book (which I think was the DSM) and showed me some medical description of addiction as a means to convince me that it was a disease (and that I had the ‘symptom’ of denial!). Personally, I want more than that. I could criticize the objectivity and track records of the AMA and APA all day long. Would I then be using some form of Ad Hominem attack? I don’t think so (it depends on context), technically, but still, I’d rather build my understanding of a conclusion without reference to authority whenever possible. If I started questioning Dr Phil’s credentials out of the blue as a means to deny the validity of his claims, I’d definitely be using an Ad Hominem, because his credentials have no bearing on whether or not his statements about the nature of addiction are true – but if he (or someone else) holds up only his authority as proof of the claim, then his credentials are fair game, and I’m not engaging in Ad Hominem. Nevertheless, to me – this feels classless, and ultimately pointless – because it makes me dependent on credentialed “experts” in the end! – and never brings me closer to a real understanding of the issue at hand.
There is a second and more important way that Appeals To Authority are essentially always questionable – and that’s the track I’d rather take in knocking down this nonsense. Most philosophers hold that appeals to authority can hold some weight when the source is trustworthy – but it is always understood that at best, an appeal to authority is only an inductive argument. That is, no matter how trustworthy the authority is, the conclusion is never logically necessarily true – only possibly or probably true.
An Appeal To Authority essentially boils down to:
Conclusion X is true because Person Z says so. And Person Z knows the truth.
Is that enough? I don’t think so. I want to know the reasons behind Person Z’s claim, how they know the truth, the premises they hold, and the logic by which they arrived at their conclusion. The appeal to authority hastily dismisses the need for any of this evidence, and simply offers up a non-sequitur, usually in the form of a fancy certificate or degree. It simply stifles independent thought, and demands compliance – which is why it should be rejected. Authority counts for something, but it’s not everything.
Appeal To Authority and Ad Hominem: Blood Brothers
The Appeal To Authority is so often accompanied by an Ad Hominem, that it’s definitely worth mentioning here. It often goes like this:
The American Medical Association says that addiction is a disease – do you think you know more about diseases than the AMA, you idiot? What are your credentials anyways? Where did you go to school? What degree do you have? Are you an addict in recovery? How long have you been sober? What research have you published?
Sure, these are mostly questions – but they’re always delivered rhetorically, in an effort to humiliate and shut up the person questioning the disease model. They focus on what the claimant doesn’t have (in the way of diplomas and certifications or personal experience with the ‘disease’) instead of on the strength of his claims. Often, the claimant will respond by citing another authority figure (I get dragged into this nonsense all the time) – and the end result is nobody thinks and judges for themselves, and nobody really understands what they’re saying!