The credentials fallacy is a logical fallacy that occurs when someone dismisses an argument by stating that whoever made it doesn’t have proper credentials, so their argument must be wrong or unimportant.
For example, if a person raises concerns about a political policy, someone using the credentials fallacy might dismiss those concerns without addressing them, by saying that the person who raised them isn’t an expert in the field so their concerns aren’t important.
The credentials fallacy is frequently used in discussions on various topics, so it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about this fallacy, see some examples of its use, and understand how you can respond to people who use it.
Examples of the credentials fallacy
One example of the credentials fallacy is the following:
Alex: There is overwhelming consensus in the scientific community regarding this phenomenon.
Bob: You don’t have a PhD, so it doesn’t matter what you have to say about this.
Here, Bob dismisses Alex’s advice without addressing it, simply because Alex doesn’t have certain credentials, even though those credentials might not be necessary in this case.
A similar example of the credentials fallacy is the following:
Alex: If you want to connect better with other people, then you should try to communicate with them in a less confrontational manner.
Bob: You’re not a psychologist, so there’s no reason why I should listen to you.
In addition, in some cases, the use of the credentials fallacy might involve reference to credentials that are unofficial or vague. For example:
Alex: Maybe you shouldn’t let your kid play with that electrical socket.
Bob: If you’re not a parent, then don’t give me any parenting advice.
Alex: Getting a face tattoo is a bad idea if you want a career in the media.
Bob: You don’t have enough experience to give me career advice.
Explanation of the credentials fallacy
The credentials fallacy is a type of informal logical fallacy, since there is an issue with its premises, and namely with the premise that if someone doesn’t have credentials in a certain field, then any argument that they make can be immediately dismissed. This premise is problematic, since even though it can be appropriate to take credentials into account in some cases, it’s fallacious to assume that if someone doesn’t have appropriate credentials then their argument must necessarily be wrong.
Based on this, the credentials fallacy can be categorized as a genetic fallacy, since it focuses on the origin of the argument rather than on the argument itself. More specifically, it can be categorized as a type of ad hominem attack, since it personally targets the individual who is making the argument.
What are credentials
In the context of the credentials fallacy, credentials are things such as qualifications or achievements that demonstrate suitability to comment on something, generally through expertise in some field.
Credentials can take many forms, and what constitutes relevant credentials varies by field. For example, having teaching experience could be viewed as a type of appropriate credentials when it comes to education, while having a PhD could be viewed as a type of appropriate credentials when it comes to some scientific field.
The credentials fallacy sometimes involves the assumption that if someone lacks formal credentials in some field then they must also lack expertise in that field. This assumption, when flawed, is associated with the concept that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, since just because someone does not have formal proof of their expertise in a field, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t have expertise in that field.
In addition, the credentials fallacy is associated with the concept of credentialism, which is the phenomenon of over-reliance on credentials in situations where they aren’t relevant or necessary. However, the credentials fallacy can also be used in situations where one’s credentials are relevant or necessary. Specifically, this occurs when the attack on someone’s lack of credentials isn’t supported by sound reasoning, as in cases where people fail to explain why the lack of credentials is relevant to the discussion, or in cases where people only mention a person’s credentials, while ignoring their original argument entirely.
How to respond to the credentials fallacy
To respond to the use of the credentials fallacy, you can use some combination of the following techniques:
- Point out the fallacious reasoning. Most notably, this will usually involve pointing out that just because the person who made an argument lacks certain credentials, that doesn’t mean that their argument is necessarily wrong.
- Redirect the discussion back to the original argument. For example, this can involve saying something such as “can we focus on the argument itself, which is what matters here, rather than personal attacks on its source?”.
- Show that the source of the original argument has relevant expertise. For example, you can point out that even though the source doesn’t have a formal education in some field, they have sufficient experience with it through some other means. When doing this, you can also talk to the other person who used the credentials fallacy to understand what they consider to be appropriate credentials and why.
- Explain why credentials are not necessary in this case. For example, if someone says that you shouldn’t criticize an error someone made because you’re not an expert in the field, you can state that the error is obvious enough that expertise isn’t necessary (e.g., by saying “I’m not a car mechanic, but if I see one smashed against a brick wall I know that there’s a problem”). When doing this, you can also talk to the other person to understand why they think that credentials are necessary for this situation.
- Show the potential issues with reliance on credentials. For example, you could point out that often, different credible experts within the same field may disagree with each other.
Which techniques are appropriate to use in your situation depends on various factors, such as who is using the credentials fallacy, and whether they’re directing it at you or at someone else who’s relevant to the discussion in some way.
In addition, when responding to the credentials fallacy, it’s important to remember that not every mention of credentials involves the credentials fallacy, and that credentials can be relevant and appropriate to mention in many cases. For example, when discussing a layperson’s criticism of a well-established scientific phenomenon, it may be relevant to mention that their lack of expertise in the field could mean that they misunderstand the phenomenon in question.
Furthermore, even if an argument involves the credentials fallacy, its conclusion might still be true. For example, if someone states that certain advice must be bad just because the person who gave it doesn’t have expertise in a relevant field, even though their argument as a whole is fallacious, they may still be right that the advice is bad.
Finally, note that if the person using this fallacy combines it with other fallacious arguments, such as abusive ad hominem attacks or appeals to false authority, you might have to address those too in your response.
How to avoid using the credentials fallacy
The main way to avoid using the credentials fallacy yourself is to focus on addressing arguments rather than the credentials of the people who make them, unless there’s a compelling reason to do otherwise. If you do believe that it’s relevant to address the credentials, either in addition to addressing the argument itself or instead of doing so, then you can do the following:
- Consider your phrasing. For example, instead of saying “this person doesn’t have appropriate credentials, so what they say must be wrong”, you can say something such as “this person doesn’t have appropriate credentials, so I am cautious about trusting what they have to say (though there may be truth to it)”. This is the key to avoiding the credentials fallacy, since the fallacy occurs when an argument is dismissed entirely as being wrong or unimportant solely due to lack of credentials.
- Explain why you believe credentials are relevant in this case. For example, you can say “I don’t know enough to assess the evidence in this field myself, so I’m choosing to rely on what the experts say”. This can help support your decision to mention credentials, although it doesn’t help avoid the credentials fallacy itself, since it can occur even if the credentials in question are relevant.
- Explain why you believe that the person in question lacks appropriate credentials. When doing this, it might also help to explain what you would consider to be appropriate credentials in this case and why. This can also help support your decision to mention credentials, although it also doesn’t help avoid the credentials fallacy itself, since it can occur regardless of whether the person in question has appropriate credentials or not.
In addition, if you’re mentioning credentials during a discussion with someone, it might also be appropriate to ask the other person for their opinion on the subject, for example with regard to whether they believe that credentials are necessary in this particular situation, and what they would consider to be appropriate credentials. Furthermore, you can clarify that your mention of someone’s credentials is not meant to be a dismissive personal attack, and that you’re mentioning their background only as it pertains directly to the argument in question.
Two fallacies that are closely related to each other and to the credentials fallacy are the appeal to authority, which occurs when an argument is claimed to necessarily be right, simply because it was made by someone who is perceived as an authority figure, and the appeal to accomplishments, which occurs when an argument is claimed to necessarily be right, simply because it was made by someone with certain accomplishments. These fallacies can be viewed as the opposite of the credentials fallacy, since the credentials fallacy is based on the assumption that a lack of credentials means that someone is necessarily wrong, while appeals to authority/accomplishments are based on the assumption that the presence of credentials means that someone is necessarily right.
The credentials fallacy can be used in conjunction with appeals to authority/accomplishments, in cases where the person who’s using the credentials fallacy to dismiss a certain stance simultaneously uses these appeals to support an opposing stance. Furthermore, the person using these fallacies might also use an appeal to false authority, in situations where the authority figure whose argument they support has authority that is invalid for some reason.
Note: one reason why people use appeals to authority/accomplishments and are receptive to them is the authority bias, which is a cognitive bias that makes people predisposed to believe, support, and obey those that they perceive as authority figures.
Summary and conclusions
- The credentials fallacy is a logical fallacy that occurs when someone dismisses an argument by stating that whoever made it doesn’t have proper credentials, so their argument must be wrong or unimportant.
- For example, if a person raises concerns about a political policy, someone using the credentials fallacy might dismiss those concerns without addressing them, by saying that the person who raised them isn’t an expert in the field so their concerns aren’t important.
- To respond to the credentials fallacy, you can point out the fallacious reasoning, redirect the discussion back to the original argument, show that the source of the original argument has relevant expertise, explain why credentials are not necessary in this case, or show the potential issues with reliance on credentials.
- To avoid using the credentials fallacy, you should focus on addressing arguments rather than the credentials of those who made them, unless there’s a compelling reason to do otherwise, in which case you should carefully consider the phrasing of your argument to avoid fallacious reasoning, and potentially also explain why credentials are relevant in this case, and why you believe that the person in question lacks them.
- Keep in mind that not every mention of credentials involves the credentials fallacy, that credentials can be relevant and appropriate to mention in many cases, and that even if an argument involves the credentials fallacy its conclusion might still be true.