Logical Fallacies 101: The Appeal to Authority

In everything from legal and scientific writing to blog posts, we sometimes see a kind of error known as a fallacy.  Fallacies take lots of forms, but they fall into several distinct patterns, such as Argument at the Man (ad hominem) and the Red Herring, a kind of non sequitur.  Another type is the Appeal to Authority.

Appeals to authority are not always fallacious.  If a student in class has a question, it can be answered by quoting the teacher.  We give credence to an appeal to the extent the authority has expertise in the subject matter at hand.  If the authority is no more expert than anyone else, say if a movie star is quoted about stock car racing, we know to reject the appeal to that authority.  Sometimes, particularly if we agree with what is being suggested, it’s easy to accept an appeal to false authority.

So we see that the Appeal to Authority is closely tied to the Burden of Proof: who is trying to convince whom?  To gloss a bit, it takes much less work to convince someone of something they already believe.

For instance, James Toranto in the Wall Street Journal points out the reflexive credulity of two LA Times authors.  They wrote about the Senate Finance Committee’s decision to drop end-of-life consultations from its version of a socialized medicine bill tiptoeing its way through Congress.  The Senate only partially addressed Mrs. Palin’s concerns, but our focus here is how the LA Times presented it:

The Palin claim about “death panels” was so widely discredited that the White House has begun openly quoting it in an effort to show that opponents of the healthcare overhaul are misinformed.

On Thursday, Obama’s chief spokesman volunteered the “death panels” charge as the biggest misconception about healthcare legislation.

Toranto, commenting in the Journal:

You have to love that last bit. The fearless, independent journalists of the Los Angeles Times justify their assertion that the Palin claim was “widely discredited” with an appeal to authority–the authority of the White House, which is to say, the other side in the debate. One suspects the breathtaking inadequacy of this argument would have been obvious to Times reporters Christi Parsons and Andrew Zajac if George W. Bush were still president. And of course this appears in a story about how the Senate was persuaded to act in accord with Palin’s position–which doesn’t prove that position right but does show that it is widely (though, to be sure, not universally) credited.

As another example, consider the White House Fishy Email announcement.

In this video, Linda Douglass, the communications director for the White House’s Health Reform Office, addresses one example that makes it look like the President intends to “eliminate” private coverage, when the reality couldn’t be further from the truth.

For the record, the President has consistently said that if you like your insurance plan, your doctor, or both, you will be able to keep them.  He has even proposed eight consumer protections relating specifically to the health insurance industry.

Just because the President repeats himself doesn’t make him right.  Note that she does not quote the bill itself or indicate what it says, only what the President has said.  The burden of proof here is on him, and her, to show that what he says is true, not that he has not wavered from his position.

But until I first heard Barack Obama speak, I had never heard the Appeal to Authority played in quite the way he does.  Obama appeals to his own authority.

That’s why I’ve said that, even as we rescue this economy from a full-blown crisis, we must rebuild it stronger than before. And health insurance reform is central to that effort.

This is not just about the 47 million Americans who don’t have any health insurance at all. Reform is about every American who has ever feared that they may lose their coverage if they become too sick, or lose their job, or change their job. It’s about every small business that has been forced to lay off employees or cut back on their coverage because it became too expensive. And it’s about the fact that the biggest driving force behind our federal deficit is the skyrocketing cost of Medicare and Medicaid.

So let me be clear: If we do not control these costs, we will not be able to control our deficit. If we do not reform health care, your premiums and out-of-pocket costs will continue to skyrocket. If we don’t act, 14,000 Americans will continue to lose their health insurance every single day. [emphasis added]

To be sure, appealing to one’s own authority (even with the help of emotional anecdotes and unsourced statistics) is a form of Begging the Question, or circular reasoning. People use that one all the time. But none seem so sure about the unimpeachability of the source.