False Authority: When People Rely on the Wrong Experts

False Authority

 

A false authority is someone whose supposed authority in a certain domain is substantially flawed, generally because their credentials or expertise are irrelevant, dubious, insufficient, or missing entirely. For example, an actor who promotes a medical product despite having no medical training can be considered a false authority, because they lack relevant credentials or expertise with regard to the product that they’re promoting.

An appeal to false authority (or argument from false authority) is a fallacious argument that relies on the statements 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.

The concept of false authority plays a major role in many situations, so it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about this concept, and see how you can respond to the use of appeals to false authority by others, as well as how you can avoid using such arguments yourself.

 

Examples of false authority

The following are examples of common types of false authorities, based on reasons for an authority being considered to be false:

  • A false authority with irrelevant credentials or expertise. This occurs in cases where the supposed authority figure has valid credentials or expertise, but these are irrelevant to the discussion at hand. For example, a physics professor who gives medical advice despite having no medical expertise might be considered a false authority with irrelevant credentials.
  • A false authority with dubious credentials or expertise. This occurs in cases where the supposed authority figure does have some relevant credentials or expertise, but these are of questionable quality. For example, someone who gives medical advice because they paid online to get a medical certification with no required training might be considered a false authority with dubious credentials.
  • A false authority with insufficient credentials or expertise. This occurs in cases where the supposed authority figure has credentials or expertise that are relevant and valid, but are not sufficient when it comes to the topic under consideration. For example, someone who has a first-aid certificate and weighs in on complex medical topics that were not covered by their training might be considered a false authority with insufficient credentials.
  • A false authority with no credentials or expertise. This occurs in cases where the supposed authority has no credentials or expertise at all. For example, a layperson with no medical training who tries to give out medical advice based on their uninformed opinion might be considered a false authority with no credentials.

Furthermore, a person’s authority may be false due to a combination of these and other reasons. For example, someone might have false authority because their credentials are both irrelevant and dubious.

In addition, false authority can be ascribed to entities other than people, such as companies. In such cases, their authority may be evaluated in a similar way as in the case of an individual. For example, if a company claims to be an authority in the field of healthcare, but employs no one who has expertise in the field, and presents no evidence on which to base their authority, that company might be considered to be a false authority.

Finally, note that it can sometimes be unclear what constitutes relevant, valid, and sufficient credentials or expertise in a certain field, and as such it may not always be clear whether a certain authority figure is considered to be false or not. This is more likely to be an issue in certain fields, such as those where there is no formal qualification process.

 

Examples of appeals to false authority

An example of an appeal to false authority is a media celebrity with no medical expertise who endorses an extreme diet, while implying that their fame alone means that they’re qualified to speak on the topic of nutrition. For instance, this type of appeal to false authority can take the following form:

Celebrity: Being a movie star gave me the motivation to develop this new diet, which is safer and more effective than conventional diets.

In addition, a person can use appeals to false authority when talking about someone else. For example:

Marketer: Our new diet is endorsed by this famous movie star, who said that it is safer and more effective than conventional diets.

Similarly, people can use these appeals even when talking about something that they don’t benefit from. For example:

Layperson: I’m following this new diet, because my favorite movie star said that it’s safer and more effective than conventional diets.

In addition, to hide reliance on false authority, the person who’s using the appeal to false authority might refer to the authority’s credentials in a vague manner, or they might be vague about who the authority figure in question is, by using vague phrases such as “they say” or “according to experts”. For example:

Layperson: They say that this new diet is safer and more effective than conventional diets, which is why I’ve decided to use it.

However, someone using an appeal to false authority might also do the opposite, and emphasize the source of false authority, even though it’s flawed. For example, someone who has impressive but irrelevant credentials may emphasize those credentials, as in the following case:

Celebrity: As a movie star who won multiple Academy Awards and who’s latest movie series made over a billion dollars in the US alone, I had a strong motivation to find a way to lose weight. That’s why I developed this new diet, which is safer and more effective than conventional diets.

Also, the person who uses the appeal to false authority might simultaneously dismiss sources of true authority. For example:

Layperson: I don’t believe in the conventional diets that doctors and dietitians try to get you to use. I prefer this new diet, which my favorite movie star just said is safer and more effective.

Finally, the appeal to false authority can be used together with other logical fallacies. The most notable of these is the argument from authority, which involves assuming or stating that the stance of an authority figure must necessarily be right due to their authority. For example:

Layperson: This diet is safer and more effective than conventional diets, because that’s what my favorite movie star said.

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

 

How to deal with false authority

The main way to respond to the use of false authority, and particularly to appeals to false authority, is to explain why the authority in question is false. How you do this exactly will generally depend on the issue with the supposed authority figure. For example:

  • If the false authority has irrelevant credentials or expertise, you can explain why those credentials are irrelevant to the topic being discussed, even though they might be valid.
  • If the false authority has dubious or insufficient credentials or expertise, you can explain why the credentials are dubious or insufficient, even though they might be relevant.
  • If the false authority has no credentials or expertise, you can point out this lack of credentials, and explain why it’s problematic.

When doing this, there are several things you should keep in mind:

  • If there are multiple issues with someone’s authority, you can point them all out, or focus on only some of them. The best course of action depends on factors such as who you’re talking to and what you’re hoping to achieve. For example, if you want to convince someone to stop believing a false authority figure with dubious and irrelevant credentials, you might want to focus just on the dubious credentials, so that they will understand not to listen to the false authority even when it comes to topics where their credentials are relevant.
  • You can use specific examples to illustrate the issues with the false authority. 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.
  • You can explain who or what you would consider to be a proper authority in that case. For example, you can say that, for someone to give you medical advice on a certain topic, you would expect them to have a medical degree from an appropriate institution.
  • You can explain why you believe that certain credentials or expertise are necessary in that particular situation. For example, you can explain why you would only listen to certain medical advice from someone who has suitable medical qualifications.

You can also respond in other ways, either in addition to the above methods or instead of them. For example, if the false authority figure clearly has an incentive to mislead others about their authority, you can point this out. Alternatively, if you can easily disprove the argument in question, without mentioning the false authority directly, you may prefer to do that instead. Similarly, you can ask them guiding questions about the authority figure in question, such as what makes them think that this potential authority figure is worth listening to.

In addition, when responding to appeals to false authority, you may have to deal with other rhetorical techniques that it’s combined with. For example, if someone uses vague language to hide their reliance on false authority, you may have to explicitly point this out.

Finally, there are a few important caveats that you should consider when responding to appeals to false authority:

  • Various factors can influence your decision of how to respond to an appeal to false authority. For example, a notable factor is whether the person who’s using the argument is aware of the issues with their reasoning or not. This is important, because if someone is using this argument intentionally for profit, you might want to respond in a different way than if they are using it because they just don’t understand what constitutes proper authority.
  • There is sometimes uncertainty and controversy regarding what constitutes false authority. For example, in some cases it might be controversial whether a certain qualification is considered to be a valid source of authority. You should keep this in mind when assessing situations, and take this into account when explaining why you believe a certain authority is false.
  • Just because information comes from a false authority, that doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily wrong. For example, just because a false authority figure advocates for a certain course of action, that doesn’t mean that this course of action is necessarily a bad option. In this regard, you should keep in mind that people can produce sound arguments even in areas where they don’t have appropriate qualifications. In particular, you should make sure to avoid the credentials fallacy, which 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.
  • It might be better to focus on parts of the argument other than the false authority. For example, if an argument for a certain course of action involves an appeal to false authority, it might be better to simply explain why that course of action is bad, rather than to address the issues with the false authority in question.

 

How to avoid falling for false authority

To avoid relying on false authority yourself, you can do the following:

  • Ask yourself what credentials or expertise the person in question has.
  • Ask yourself what specific credentials or expertise, if any, are necessary in the present context.
  • Ask yourself whether the potential authority figure’s credentials or expertise are relevant, valid, and sufficient, and make sure to justify each point by explaining why they are or why they’re not.
  • If a potentially false authority figure is promoting themself as an authority, look for warning signs such as that they’re hiding the exact source of their authority, that they have previously misled people about their authority, or that they stand to gain from being misleading.
  • If someone else is promoting a potentially false authority figure to you, look for warning signs such as that they struggle to explain why they believe that authority figure, that they’ve previously believed people who turned out to be false authority figures, or that the authority figure that they’re discussing has a clear incentive to mislead others.
  • Directly evaluate the arguments made by the potentially false authority figure, without considering their source.
  • See what others are saying about the topic or about the authority figure in question, and potentially ask them for feedback on the topic directly.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • A false authority is someone whose supposed authority in a certain domain is substantially flawed, generally because their credentials or expertise are irrelevant, dubious, insufficient, or missing entirely.
  • An appeal to false authority is a fallacious argument that relies on the statements of a false authority figure, who is framed as a credible authority on the topic being discussed.
  • To respond to the use of false authority, you should explain why it’s false, and potentially also explain why authority is necessary in that case and what kind of authority would be appropriate.
  • When responding to false authority, keep in mind that the best way to respond depends on various factors, that there is sometimes uncertainty regarding what constitutes false authority, and that just because information came from a false authority doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily wrong.
  • To avoid relying on false authority yourself, you can do things such as ask what credentials or expertise the person in question has and whether these are relevant, valid, and sufficient in the present context, look for warning signs such as that the potential authority figure is being vague about their source of authority, and evaluate the arguments made by the person in question without considering their potential authority.