False Authority: When People Rely on the Wrong Experts

False Authority

 

A false authority is an authority figure whose authority is invalid because they either have dubious credentials, irrelevant credentials, or no credentials at all. For example, an actor who has no medical training but advocates for a certain type of alternative medicine is considered a false authority with no credentials.

An appeal to false authority is an argument that states that we should listen to the opinion of a false authority figure, who is framed as a credible authority on the topic being discussed. For example, an appeal to false authority could involve saying that we should listen to what an uneducated actor has to say when it comes to different types of medical treatments.

Since the concept of false authority appears in many situations, it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will first learn what a false authority is, and about what types of it exist. Then, you will learn about how people use the appeal to false authority in their arguments, and see how you can respond in situations where this happens.

 

Types of false authorities

There are three main types of false authority, each of which represents a different reason why someone’s authority is invalid:

  • A false authority with dubious credentials. This occurs in cases where the supposed authority figure does have some sort of relevant credentials, but these credentials are of questionable quality. For example, a homeopathic doctor with no formal medical training who is discouraging the use of conventional treatment is a false authority with dubious credentials.
  • A false authority with irrelevant credentials. This occurs in cases where the supposed authority figure does have valid credentials, but these credentials are irrelevant to the discussion at hand. For example, a physics professor who tries to give out medical advice despite having no medical training is a false authority with irrelevant credentials.
  • A false authority with no credentials. This occurs in cases where the supposed authority has no credentials at all. For example, a layperson with no medical training at all who tries to give out medical advice based on their uninformed opinion is a false authority with no credentials.

Note that false authority can be ascribed to entities other than people, such as books or companies. For example, people often use things which are written in holy texts in order to support their arguments (a concept known as the appeal to holy scriptures), under the assumption that those texts contain knowledge which is based on divine inspiration.

 

Explanation of the appeal to false authority

Appeals to false authority are used in cases where the authority figure in question has either dubious credentials, irrelevant credentials, or no credentials at all. The appeal to false authority is therefore a type of an informal logical fallacy, since it relies on flawed premises, and namely on the incorrect assumption that the person being discussed in a valid authority figure.

This type of argument is related to the argument from authority, which is a fallacious argument that is used when the opinion of an authority figure is presumed to be inherently right, even when it’s unsupported by evidence. Furthermore, there are many cases where the person using the appeal to false authority will also use an argument from authority, as part of the same line of reasoning.

Note: the appeal to false authority is sometimes referred to using similar terms, such as the argument from false authority, the argument from questionable authority, the appeal to non-authority, and the false authority fallacy.

 

Examples of appeals to false authority

Appeals to false authority frequently appear in many different contexts. A common situation where people rely on false authority is when celebrities endorse various health products in the media, since people listen to their opinion even if it’s entirely unqualified, simply because they look up to them in general. For example:

Movie star: the peanut butter and celery diet is a great way to lose weight. Buy my new book for instructions on how to do it.

And:

Homeopath: I’ve studied these types of illnesses for many years, so I know a lot about the topic, and I’ve seen time and time again that homeopathic treatments can be far more effective than conventional cures.

These examples also demonstrate the fact that people often ascribe authority to themselves in cases where they shouldn’t, and self-proclaimed experts often use the appeal to false authority when promoting various pseudoscientific concepts.

In addition, appeals to false authority often appear together with other types of fallacious arguments.

For example, an appeal to false authority might appear together with an appeal to nature, which is an argument that claims that something is either good because it’s “natural”, or bad because it’s “unnatural”. In this case, the false authority might be a person giving advice on how a certain “natural” product that they sell is more healthy than the alternatives, despite the fact that they don’t have the evidence which is needed in order to support that claim.

Finally, note that in some cases, the person using the appeal to false authority might refer to the authority’s credentials in a vague manner, in order to make it difficult for their opposition to point out the issues with that source of authority.

Furthermore, the person using the appeal to false authority might even take this further, and not offer a specific authority figure at all, but rather use vague phrases such as “they say” or “according to experts”, which makes it even more difficult to point out the issue with that supposed source of authority.

 

How to counter an appeal to false authority

The main way to counter arguments that rely on an appeal to false authority is to point out the issue with the authority figure which is being mentioned. How you do this depends on the type of false authority that you’re dealing with:

  • If the false authority has dubious credentials, you can point out the issue with those credentials, and explain why they’re invalid.
  • If the false authority has irrelevant credentials, you can point out the irrelevance of those credentials, and explain why they’re unrelated to the field which is currently being discussed.
  • If the false authority has no credentials, you can point out this lack of credentials, and emphasize why the lack of credentials is important in this case.

Note that when countering the use of an appeal to false authority, you can use specific examples in order to point out the issues with the type of credentials that the false authority figure has. For example, if the false authority has dubious medical credentials and is preaching a certain course of alternative treatment, you can give examples of issues that occurred with other fake experts who proposed similar types of treatments in the past.

Furthermore, if possible, you can give examples of valid sources of authority on the subject, and explain why their credentials are valid and relevant to the current discussion.

In addition, keep in mind that, in cases where the person using the appeal to false authority knows that the false authority figure has dubious credentials or no credentials at all, they will often attempt to shift the focus of the discussion away from that fact.

Conversely, in cases where the false authority has valid credentials which are irrelevant to the present discussion, the person using the appeal to false authority might try to focus on those credentials, despite the fact that they’re irrelevant. This often occurs when a person is perceived as an expert in an unrelated field or as having a high social status, which they want to capitalize on when discussing the topic under consideration.

Finally, remember that if the appeal to false authority is being used in conjunction with other logical fallacies, such as the appeal to nature, it’s important to also address the issue with those fallacies when you reply to your opponent.

 

Make sure to avoid the credentials fallacy

The credentials fallacy is a logical fallacy that occurs when someone dismisses an argument simply because the person who made that argument doesn’t have formal credentials in the field being discussed, or doesn’t have credentials that are viewed as sufficient.

When responding to the use of an appeal to false authority, it’s important to avoid the potential trap of falling into fallacious reasoning yourself, which could happen if you rely on the credentials fallacy in your response.

To avoid this, you should make sure to properly address your opponent’s stance, and make sure that you fully explain why you believe that the authority figure in question lacks the relevant credentials, and why those credentials are necessary in this case.

 

Account for unintentional use of the appeal to false authority

It’s important to remember that people who base their arguments on false authorities are often unaware that they are doing so. This is especially common in cases where people find it difficult to understand what constitutes good authority, and therefore struggle to figure out whether or not someone has proper, relevant credentials.

As such, try to apply the principle of charity in cases where your opponent uses an appeal to false authority, and as long as it’s reasonable to do so, assume that their support of the false authority figure is unintentional.

Doing so will help you present your stance in a non-confrontational manner, which will make your opponent more willing to listen to what you have to say, and which will lead to a more productive dialogue.

 

Avoid using appeals to false authority yourself

When reacting to someone’s use of an appeal to false authority, it’s important to remember that whether or not someone has valid credentials in a certain field isn’t always crucial to the discussion, and people can be well-informed and capable of producing valid arguments even in areas where they don’t have formal training.

This is a crucial factor to take into account, since attacking someone’s lack of credentials without explaining why those credentials are necessary and without addressing their main point constitutes a fallacious ad hominem attack.

As such, when countering an appeal to false authority, you should always explain why the issue of authority is relevant to the present discussion, while also making sure to also address your opponent’s argument directly.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • A false authority is an authority figure whose authority is invalid because they either have dubious credentials, irrelevant credentials, or no credentials at all.
  • An appeal to false authority is an argument which states that we should listen to the opinion of a false authority figure, who is framed as a credible authority on the topic being discussed.
  • When the false authority has dubious credentials or no credentials at all, the person using the appeal to false authority will often attempt to shift the focus from this fact, but when the false authority has valid credentials which are irrelevant to the discussion, the person using the appeal to false authority will often try to emphasize those credentials, while ignoring their lack of relevance.
  • To counter the use of an appeal to false authority, you should point out the specific issue with the credentials of the supposed authority figure, and explain why this issue is relevant in the context of the present discussion.
  • It’s important to avoid being overzealous when attacking someone’s lack of credentials, since there are situations where people are well-informed despite lacking formal credentials, and since attacking a person directly while completely ignoring their argument constitutes a fallacious ad hominem attack.