The Appeal To Non-Authority Fallacy — Excerpt From Everything You Believe Is Wrong

William Briggs:

Stars In Our Eyes
An Appealing Authority

Every kid learns what seems to be, but isn’t, the Appeal to Authority Fallacy early when he asks “Why should I?” and is told “Because I said so.” Only this isn’t a proper fallacy because kids should listen to and honor their parents, and because parents, besides having authority over their children, typically know what’s best for them, and what’s best is in the command, but unspoken. What’s best is in tacit premises behind the father’s “Because”, which turns what might be a fallacy into wisdom.

[Much cutting…]

People are fooled by this simple fallacy, but they are just as easily disabused of it when it is pointed out. Because of this, there is no chapter in this book specifically devoted to the Appeal to Authority. There is another, far better, reason for skipping it, though. That is the existence of a far worse, far more pernicious, and far more destructive fallacy which is a kin to the Appeal to Authority.

This is the Appeal to Non-Authority Fallacy.

A Hole In Many

I shiver when thinking of it. No fallacy is good, of course, but not all fallacies are equal in their pestilential powers. The Ultimate Fallacy has the worst individual consequences, but the Appeal to Non-Authority is the most annoying.

Modern advertising, and, more depressingly, our entire media and governmental apparatus, relies on and seeks out this fallacy. We could even say it is worshiped.

In my Stats 101 class notes Breaking the Law of Averages (a free pdf on my website), I asked this Chapter One homework question (stick with me, here): “Stanford Financial took out a full page ad in the Wall Street Journal with a picture of golfer Vijay Singh listing his enormous number of tournament wins with the words ‘Vijay Means Victory.’ Given this evidence, what is the probability Stanford Financial won’t lose money on your investment?”

The obvious answer is that you can’t know. Singh’s golfing prowess is irrelevant, inconsequential, incidental to whether gambles (i.e. “investments”) with Stanford Financial will lose or win you money. Logically, they may as well have touted my golf scores, or yours. They may as well in their ad featured a pretty actress and printed the words “This is a pretty actress and we are Stanford Financial”. The logical content would be the same. Which is to say, it would have had none at all. Singh, God bless him, is a Non-Authority on financial matters. Listening to him, as it were, on investments because he is an authority in some sport is insane.

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