All of us, at some point, have succumbed to the argumentum ab veritate or argumentum ad verecundiam or argument from authority. It is not difficult, since in our society more attention is paid to the source of the speech than to its veracity. We think that if someone “important” has said it, it will be true. Unfortunately, this is a relatively common trap that we fall into without realizing it. So we end up accepting false or incorrect ideas without questioning them.
What is the argument from authority?
The argumentum ab veritate or argumentum ad verecundiam consists of defending that an idea is true only because the person citing it is an authority in that field. In fact, more than an argument it is a fallacy. Fallacies are apparently valid reasons to prove or disprove an idea, although in reality those reasons lack logical foundation.
Many people intentionally resort to fallacies to try to persuade or manipulate the others, even though they are fully aware that their arguments lack rigor and truth. The problem is that some of these fallacies can be very persuasive, so they are not always easy to detect. Such is the case with the argument from authority.
The 2 traps that contains the argumentum ad verecundiam
The argumentum ad verecundiam is a resource that is based on the testimony or quotes of people, generally famous or of recognized prestige or authority or even specialists on the subject. Basically its logic is the following:
1. Everything X says is true,
2. If X says “this”,
3. So “this” is true.
However, this apparently logical argument starts from an error since “everything that X says” does not necessarily have to be true. Not only because X can lie, but also because he can be wrong or have a biased view.
Despite this, the argument from authority is often used for two purposes:
1. Anticipate possible contrary opinions, dismantling them beforehand simply because they do not come from a source of authority, so that any possibility of dialogue is closed.
2. Reinforce the idea or thesis that we want to defend, relying not on arguments, reasons and explanations but on a person who enjoys a certain respect or prestige within society.
Referent Power, the psychological phenomenon that sustains this fallacy
The ad verecundiam fallacy is not a new phenomenon. They say that the Pythagoreans often resorted to it to support their knowledge. When someone asked them to explain themselves, they simply replied that “the teacher said so.” That is why this fallacy is also known by the Latin phrase “magister dixit”.
In medieval times, the expression “Roma locuta, causa finita”, which meant “Rome has spoken, the question is solved” was also based on this fallacy. It was referring to the fact that, once the Catholic Church had defined a truth, it automatically became a dogma that did not accept questioning. Therefore, it was not necessary to explain this “truth” or look for its causes, it was enough to refer to the Church to silence any attempt at discussion or constructive criticism.
Unfortunately, also science isn’t lacking in arguments from authority. In the lessons given in medieval universities, the ideas that were collected in the manuals of the ancient writers could not be questioned, as is the case of Galen in Medicine or Ptolemy in Astronomy.
Obviously, resorting to the argument from authority prevents constructive discussion that leads to change or improvement of the original idea. Although we have left the Middle Ages behind, this fallacy continues to accompany us. And we fall for it every time we think something is true just because a government authority figure, an expert, or even a famous person said it.
In fact, it is the strategy that many marketing campaigns use when they use important people (testimonials) in their ads who are a reference for certain groups of buyers. It is implicitly assumed that if that person claims that the product or service is good, it will be true.
In reality, this phenomenon is based on a deeply ingrained human tendency to seek external reference points to guide our behaviors or decisions. When we are young, for example, and we do not know how to react to a new situation, we look to our parents for signs that tell us what to do.
As adults, even though we have acquired more experience, we continue to look for those reference points, especially when we go through times of great uncertainty or we find ourselves in unprecedented situations. However, it is precisely in those moments that we must be more attentive than ever because anyone can establish themselves as a “reference” without being a reliable point of reference.
In fact, in certain systems of social organization, such as dictatorships, the argument from authority can become the only existing argument, so that a single vision of how things should be is imposed. This same phenomenon is replicated within authoritarian families. In these cases, the children do not receive a logical explanation of the norms and rules that are imposed at home, but rather listen: “Because I said so, that’s it!
Is the argumentum ad verecundiam always false?
There are different types of arguments from authority and not all of them are false. It is important to learn to distinguish true statements from those that are not, even if they are supported by the referent power.
We can say, for example, that pi (π) is 3.14 because Archimedes said it using the typical “magister dixit”. The claim that pi equals 3.14 is true, but the argument we use to support it is not valid. Actually, we would have to explain the method used to calculate pi.
Of course, it is not about discrediting the specialists in the various fields of action since in many cases they may have a more extensive and solid knowledge than ours. However, accepting certain ideas just because someone important has said them, without trying to understand them, is not dialectical or intelligent.
Einstein said that “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well.” All ideas, even the most complex ones in Quantum Physics or Social Engineering, can be explained in a simple way so that everyone can understand them. Using the argument from authority to evade these explanations implies keeping ourselves in the shadows of ignorance.
Walton’s six critical questions to debunk the argument from authority
Philosopher Douglas Walton explained that the argument from authority involves using “power” as a weapon, rather than resorting to reason and cognition. He affirmed that it is about “Misuse of an appeal to an authoritative source to try to prevail unfairly, or to “silence the opposition” in a discussion.”
In order not to fall into this fallacy, Walton offered a list of six critical questions to evaluate the argument from authority that person “A” presents us using the power of referent of “E”:
1. Expertise Question: How credible is E as an expert source?
2. Field Question: Is E an expert in the field F that A is in?
3. Opinion Question: What did E assert that implies A?
4. Trustworthiness Question: Is E personally reliable as a source?
5. Consistency Question: Is A consistent with what other experts assert?
6. Backup Evidence Question: Is E’s assertion based on evidence?
With these questions in mind, we could analyze if an idea is valid or, on the contrary, it is just a fallacy based on the power of referent or even if whoever is transmitting that idea to us is deforming it at their convenience. Without a doubt, in these times, are six questions that we should ask ourselves pretty often.
Peyton, T. et. Al. (2018) Examining the Relationship Between Leaders’ Power Use, Followers’ Motivational Outlooks, and Followers’ Work Intentions. Front Psychol; 9: 2620.
Ciurria, M. & Altamimi, K. (2014) Argumentum ad Verecundiam: New Gender-based Criteria for Appeals to Authority; Argumentation; 28(4): 437–452.
Woods, J. & Walton, D. (1974) Argumentum ad verecundiam. Philosophy and Rhetoric; 7(3): 135- 153.
Walton, D. (1997) Appeal to expert opinion: Arguments from authority. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.