The credentials fallacy is a logical fallacy that occurs when someone dismisses an argument because the person who made that argument doesn’t appear to have sufficient formal credentials in the relevant field.
For example, if someone raises concerns about a certain social issue, 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.
This 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 the credentials fallacy, see some examples of its use, and understand what you can do in order to counter people who use it.
Explanation of the credentials fallacy
In the context of the credentials fallacy, the term ‘credentials’ refers to qualifications or achievements which demonstrate that their holder possesses a certain degree of knowledge or expertise in a given field. Credentials can take many forms, and what constitutes relevant credentials depends on the field which is being discussed.
This means that, for example, having teaching experience could be viewed as a type of relevant credentials when it comes to talking about education, while a PhD could be viewed as a type of relevant credentials when it comes to discussing a scientific field.
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 credentials should certainly be taken into account in some cases, it’s fallacious to assume that if someone doesn’t have the necessary credentials in a given field then everything that they say must be wrong.
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.
Note that when it comes to the credentials fallacy, an important thing to remember is that, though credentials can serve as evidence of someone having expertise in a certain field, a lack of credentials doesn’t necessarily indicate that someone lacks expertise.
This is associated with the idea that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, and is something that is highly dependent on the field in question. For example, a lack of credentials generally matters less when it comes to discussions of video games than when it comes to discussions of neurosurgery.
The credentials fallacy and credentialism
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 valid 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.
Examples of the credentials fallacy
The following is an example of the use of the credentials fallacy:
Alex: If you want to connect better with other people, then you should try to communicate with them in a less confrontational manner.
Bob: are you a psychologist? No? Then why should I listen to you?
Here, Bob dismisses Alex’s advice without actually addressing it, simply because Alex doesn’t have the credentials of a psychologist, despite the fact that those credentials aren’t necessarily necessary in this case.
A similar example of the credentials fallacy is the following:
Alex: there is pretty overwhelming consensus in the scientific community regarding climate change.
Bob: you don’t have a PhD in climatology, so what do you know about it.
In this example, Bob once again uses fallacious reasoning when he rejects Alex’s argument outright, by claiming that she doesn’t have the necessary credentials to discuss the topic.
In addition, note that in some cases, the use of the credentials fallacy might involve reference to unofficial or poorly-defined credentials. 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 tech industry.
Bob: you don’t have enough life experience to give me career advice.
How to counter the credentials fallacy
There are several things that you can do in order to respond to someone who is using the credentials fallacy. You can use any combination of these strategies, and different ones will be more effective in different scenarios:
- Call out the use of the fallacy. Explicitly state that your opponent is using fallacious reasoning, and demonstrate the issue with their argument.
- Redirect the discussion back to the original argument. Since the main issue with the credentials fallacy is that it focuses on the person making an argument rather than on the argument itself, the main way to deal with its use is to redirect the discussion back to the original argument.
- Explain why credentials are not necessary in this case. Try to explain why it’s reasonable to weigh in on the current discussion even without having formal credentials in the field. For example, you can point out that you don’t have to be an author in order to criticize a book.
- Show the issue with blindly relying on credentials. For example, you could point out that even in fields with many credible experts, there are situations where these experts disagree with each other.
- Demonstrate the issue with defining valid credentials. In some cases, it might be beneficial to point out that it’s difficult to defined what sort of credentials are expected in the first place.
In situations where you do have relevant credentials that your opponent is unaware of, you could point them out in order to support your stance, even if the attack on your lack of credentials was fallacious in the first place.
Furthermore, in some situations, the person using this fallacy might be aware of your credentials, but will attempt to invalidate them in some manner. The response in such cases should be similar to the one used when the person using this fallacy claims that you have no credentials at all, except that you have the additional option of choosing to explain why your credentials are valid after all.
Finally, it’s important to remember that people might also attack the credentials of someone who isn’t you, but whose stance is relevant to your argument in some way. For example, a person using the credentials fallacy might try to dismiss your argument by saying that it relies on the reasoning of someone who lacks credentials in a relevant field.
In such situations, you would generally respond using the same set of techniques that you would use if someone used the credentials fallacy against you directly.
How to avoid using the credentials fallacy yourself
The main way to avoid using the credentials fallacy yourself is to focus on your opponent’s arguments as much as possible, rather than on their credentials.
However, there are of course situations where addressing your opponent’s lack of credentials can be appropriate. In such cases, it can be reasonable to mention this issue, as long as you properly explain why credentials are necessary in this case, why your opponent lacks those credentials, and how the lack of credentials affects the point that your opponent is trying to make.
Furthermore, if you do choose to address your opponent’s credentials, then you should generally try to ask your opponent what they think about the credential problem in this case, instead of immediately presenting their supposed lack of credentials as a personal attack.
Doing this has two main advantages. First, it demonstrates your willingness to abide by the principle of charity, by giving your opponent the benefit of the doubt during the discussion. Second, this frames your questioning of their credentials as a reasonable part of the discussion, rather than as an inappropriate ad hominem attack.
Overall, you can avoid using the credentials fallacy by ensuring that you only address your opponent’s lack of credentials in situations where those credentials are directly relevant to the discussion. Furthermore, when bringing up your opponent’s credentials, you should make sure to explain why their lack of credentials is relevant, and then ask them for their opinion on the issue, while also making sure to address the main point that they are trying to make.
Related logical fallacies
When discussing the credentials fallacy, it’s important to point out two related logical fallacies:
- First, there is the argument from authority, which is a logical fallacy that occurs when someone claims that a certain argument must be right, simply because it was stated by a supposed expert on the topic.
- Second, there is the appeal to accomplishments, which is a logical fallacy that occurs when someone claims that a certain argument must be right, simply because it was stated by someone who has a certain set of accomplishments.
Essentially, the difference between the credentials fallacy and these two fallacies is that the credentials fallacy is based on the fallacious assumption that a lack of credentials is a valid reason to assume that a certain person is necessarily wrong, while the argument from authority and the appeal to accomplishments are based on the assumption that the presence of such credentials is a valid reason to assume that a certain person is necessarily right.
The credentials fallacy is often used in conjunction with an argument from authority or with an appeal to accomplishments, since the person using the credentials fallacy will often try to disparage the opinion of the person without credentials, while comparing it with the opinion of those that have them.
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.
Summary and conclusions
- The credentials fallacy is a logical fallacy that occurs when someone dismisses an argument because the person who made that argument doesn’t appear to have sufficient formal credentials in the relevant field.
- This sort of reasoning is fallacious, because it’s wrong to assume that someone is necessarily wrong just because they lack sufficient credentials.
- The credentials fallacy is therefore a type of genetic fallacy, since it focuses on the source of the argument instead of on the argument itself.
- To counter people who use this kind of reasoning, you can explain why it’s fallacious, redirect the discussion back to the original argument, demonstrate the issue with blindly relying on credentials, explain why credentials are not necessary in this case, or demonstrate the issue with defining what constitutes valid credentials.
- To avoid using this fallacy yourself, avoid referring to people’s credentials unless you can clearly explain why their lack of credentials is relevant to the discussion, and if you do choose to refer to their credentials, make sure to also address the main point that they are trying to make.