An argument from authority is a form of reasoning that uses what a qualified person or entity has said about a particular topic to defend a position. For example, it is reasonable to trust what Friedrich Nietzsche said about European thought, because he was an expert in philosophy.
For many critics, arguments from authority can be seen as a fallacy; that is, as an argument that at first sight seems valid, but is not necessarily so.
For this reason, this type of reasoning has been widely criticized since its inception. In fact, the philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) in one of his writings claimed that the argument from authority was the worst reasoning of all.
However, today these arguments are used in many fields and disciplines: they are used by scientists, journalists, economists, writers, advertisers and even politicians.
Several authors agree that arguments from authority can be used as reasoning or defense, as long as the people who use them are aware that any claim could be questioned or wrong in the future.
For example: the famous physicist Lord Kelvin (1824-1907) claimed that it was impossible to create devices that could fly (airplanes, planes…).
It is likely that many people have used this physicist’s credibility to support their position on the impossibility of creating flying machines. Today it is known that, despite the remarkable knowledge and contributions of Lord Kelvin, it was possible to build flying devices.
origins and history
In the Middle Ages
Arguments from authority had their heyday during the Middle Ages, especially with the development of scholasticism (a philosophical and religious current that interpreted Christianity from classical authors such as Aristotle and Plato).
This happened because at that time there were not many written sources that allowed comparing or questioning information. For this reason, the texts of authors such as Aristotle or the Holy Scriptures were considered sources of remarkable prestige that could not be subjected to criticism.
With the arrival of the press, although sources began to be questioned a little more, people still validated their arguments based on the testimonies of notable individuals.
17th-18th centuries onwards
Later, with the entrance of the 17th century, authors such as Descartes and Locke appeared, who questioned the argument from authority as logical reasoning. For example, Locke (1632-1704) proposed that it was better to look for the origin of things from our own thoughts and not according to what others dictate.
However, Descartes himself (1596-1650), although he disagreed with the argument from authority, could not help but use this reasoning in his most famous work, The Discourse on Method (1637).
Today, people continue to use official arguments to validate their positions and convictions. It is even claimed that the Internet has favored the use of quotes and testimonials from notable people as a form of argument.
While the argument from authority is not the reasoning favored by critics and philosophers, this type of defense has allowed many people to learn about the ideas of leading scientists, researchers, and other famous people.
Characteristics of the argument from authorit
– Seeks to justify a premise or point of view
The argument from authority aims to justify a point of view based on the opinion of a prominent person or institution. The idea is to convince others to think or act in a way determined by that person or institution.
For example, according to a famous YouTube nutritionist, eating high-sugar foods is not so bad for your health.
In the previous example, it can be seen that a person tries to justify eating sugary foods from the opinion of a nutritionist. In this case, the person uses the title of nutritionist to defend his point of view.
– It is an opinion and not a solid theory
Sometimes authoritative arguments are used as premises to demonstrate or assert a reality. However, on many occasions these premises are not supported by a verifiable theory, but are actually composed of subjective opinions that do not have firm support.
This happens often in the media. For example, some programs invite certain analysts to opine on a particular topic. In the end, the media may suggest that what the guest said is an absolute truth, when in reality he was just offering an opinion.
– Discard explanations
As arguments of this type are based on references from people in authority, they often disregard explanations that support what that authority is pointing out. That is, these arguments do not require proof that this statement is true.
For example: A person might argue that a well-known dermatologist recommends using coconut oil for health. The person is unlikely to offer explanations as to why coconut oil is good for the skin, as the dermatologist’s noted authority may dismiss doubts or questions about this claim.
Several authors point out that it is important to have references of important people or entities that offer us information about a certain topic; however, the problem is to accept these references in their entirety, without allowing a debate or discussion about what you want to assert.
The structure of an argument from authority will always be the same: a statement “X” is true because “Y” is an authority on the subject. In this way, the argument is assumed to be true, as “Y”’s opinion is objectively well-founded and has enough information and credibility to be correct.
Generally, when “Y” makes an argument from authority, it should be considered true, even if that argument is not necessarily so and is a fallacy.
Examples of authority arguments
– According to the local newspaper, yesterday’s tremor did not cause considerable damage to the infrastructure.
– According to Hippocrates, we should all be our own doctors.
– I am sure that the current pandemic is a divine punishment for the sins committed by humanity; This was assured by the parish priest at yesterday’s mass.
– Touching the nose is bad. That’s what my mother told me and that’s why it’s true.
– My grandmother told me that the white spots that appear on the nails are a consequence of lying (for children, authority is represented in adults. This can be seen in this example and the previous one).
– My nutritionist claims that fasting is necessary from time to time to cleanse the body.
– If you eat healthy and exercise, you will live longer. I read this in an article written by a renowned physician.
– In the municipality of Quibdó, in the Colombian Pacific, there is a serious case of malnutrition, according to the most recent data released by the FAO (United Nations Food Organization).
– Ignorance is the only evil, according to Socrates.
– According to the Greek philosopher Plato, there are two worlds, a palpable one that can be experienced through the senses, and another world that can only be experienced with thought and is known as the world of ideas.
– The WWF argues that forest conservation contributes to mitigating the damage caused by climate change.
– Children who are stimulated from early childhood are more likely to succeed when school begins, according to UNICEF.
– The dance teacher told the students that women love men who can dance.
– The family doctor told the patient that drinking a glass of wine every day helps prevent heart disease and good circulation.
– Tiger Woods says the best way to become a good golfer is to eat an apple on an empty stomach every day.
– My dentist says that to prevent cavities, I should brush my teeth three times a day and floss after every meal.
– Freud says that all women suffer from the Electra complex.
– According to Gabriel García Márquez, writing is the main emotion of human life and every story deserves to be told.
– According to Cristiano Ronaldo, the best way to be a good football player is discipline and perseverance.
– The Minister of Health considers that the main public health problem is the ultra-processed processing of food and tobacco.
– Forbes prepared a report in which it guaranteed that, in times of crisis, luxury products increase their sales by 15%.
– My mechanic assured me that the brake pads had to be replaced in a short period of time.
– The Houston Department of Neuropsychiatry has indicated that the best way to prevent Alzheimer’s disease is to play sports and eat a correct diet.
– My mother advised me to invite my brother to dinner to forgive me.