In all honestly, I've always had a problem with the "recourse to authority" fallacy.

In theory it seems all sound and convincing: a claim should be judged purely and solely on the argumentation laid to support it but never on who made this claim.

However, in practice it simply doesn't seem to work this way...

  • For some reason websites like Wikipedia tend to have a strict No Original Research rule and demand all claims to be backed up with references to reputable (with an emphasis on "reputable") sources. This seems to be the exact opposite of what the reasoning behind the fallaciousness of recourse to authority would demand, since in Wikipedia a claim is judged purely and solely on the authority that made this claim and never on the argumentation to support it.
    • And yet, AFAIK, Wikipedia isn't being condemned for being the "poster child of the recourse to authority fallacy"; rather, what Wiki strives for is considered a Good Thing™.
  • In turn, claims made by Wikipedia (especially but not exclusively if they violate this 'NOR' rule) are not considered reputable and, IIUC, sourcing a claim in an academic paper with a reference to Wikipedia is a no-no.
    • Is science, therefore, guilty of this fallacy as well?

Actually, and ironically, scientists seem to themselves promote this fallacy more and more often nowadays! How many times have I heared already that 'there came time of experts', that people should stop believing in claims made by charlatans, and they especially should turn they backs on promoters of quack medicine and instead start trusting academic medicine…

It would seem to me that the fallacy of the 'recourse to authority fallacy' lies in it refusing to take into account one simple thing:

It is simply not possible to judge all claims oneself, for the following obvious reasons:

  • One may lack necessary competence to judge a claim.
    • While trying to support the NOR rule one of the Polish Wikipedians said:

Research means adopting a given hypothesis and then verifying it with this or that methodology - the analysis of sources is one of such methodologies. But you surely couldn't have meant this? If so, then as an author you need to at least have a PhD, because unless you are an ingenious self-taught man you are only able to do this on this level.

  • There are simply FAR too many claims for a single man's lifetime to judge!
  • Evidence needed to judge some claims may be unreachable by one man but reachable by another, for example due to classified material or privacy laws.

Am I misunderstanding the reasoning behind the fallaciousness of the 'recourse of authority fallacy'? What piece of its fallaciousness am I failing to grasp?

Final remarks:

  • I wanted to ask this question for a long time… I finally did because this exchange of opinions pushed me.
  • I admit this Q has a personal context… namely, I used to have my own opinion about everything and I used to challenge everyone, even reputable experts, who were holding a different opinion. Now I am strongly suspecting that I used to be (and, hopefully to a lesser degree, still am) an ignorant and arrogant man, that I was a prime example of the Duning-Kruger effect and that while I can and still should educate myself on the topics that interest me, until I get my PhD in all possible subjects I should also assume that people more knowledgeable and more experienced than me are, well, more knowledgeable and more experienced than me and probably their claims hold more water - even if I cannot understand them yet (this last part is important: my reasoning was that I used to reject claims backed up by arguments that didn't make sense to me but I was simply too incompetent to understand these (valid) arguments).
  • One of the intersting consequence of such considerations seem to be religious ones: if there is God, should we accept claims made by God before demanding God to prove them to us? However, I realize that this digression strays (way) too far.
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    Recourse to experts is simply unavoidable. ALL scientific research is based on the "method" of using already available results and evidence and go on... If every scientist has to re-check every fact/evidence/theory starting from the spherical shape of Earth to QM, we (humans) would have made no progress at all. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA May 9 at 14:26
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    In every context : from daily life to scientific research projects we have to make a trade-off taking into account the limited amount of time and resources (brain ?) available. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA May 9 at 14:27
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    I think the issue is that the fallacy is almost always intended to mean either appeal to an inappropriate authority (physicists that don't study climate change on climate change, mathematicians that don't study evolution on evolution etc.) or appeal to a literal authority (king, military, president). Refering to an expert in the field for the truthfulness of a claim is hardly considered invalid reasoning in society. – Cell May 9 at 14:58
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    Appeal to authority is not always a fallacy, see Wikipedia, only appeal to nonauthority is. Alas, in practice it is often hard to tell the difference. – Conifold May 9 at 21:07

You seem to be equating "peer reviewed publications" with "authority". This assumption is false, and your assumptions which hinge on that are then left backwards.

Anyone can get a paper published in a peer reviewed journal and have their work become a properly citable article. Even a child in first grade could do so if they possessed sufficient research and writing skills. All that matters is that the material is sound and correct.

The reason why first grade children do not publish papers is not because they fail to be an authority, but because they have not done the research and lack the writing skills. They lack that by quite a few years.

A less extreme example would be non-authoritative high school or college students. These people are writing acceptable research papers all the time, especially the college students.

Anecdotally, I have a paper published in a field for which I most certainly am not an authority figure at all and am far from being one. I just happened to study the topic well enough and participate in some research, and I got published. The topic has nothing to do with my career or with my college degree.

The citable research paper is not the authority. The citable research paper is the "argumentation used to support the claim" (to use your own words) which could be made by anyone, and the author is irrelevant. In fact, during the review process it is not uncommon for reviewers to be barred from knowing who the paper was written by.

Citable publications are often written by authority figures, but that is not what causes them to make quality citations. And authority figures have been known to make many statements which would be very poor citations as well.

  • (1) By your argumentation one has to read the paper before accepting what is being claimed. Not only the paper itself, but all papers it cites; and all papers the cited papers cite; and so on. Maybe even try to reproduce the result oneself. Otherwise, we're back to the beginning: the strength of the claim lies on the authority of the reviewers and the journal. However, to judge oneself if the paper indeed proves what it claims to prove, one needs considerable competences, so we're back to the beginning - and there were cases were papers published in reputable journals were proven wrong. – gaazkam May 10 at 11:03
  • (2) is unfortunately too long to fit in a comment, so I'll present (2) as a follow-up question, today hopefully, tomorrow at latest. – gaazkam May 10 at 11:04
  • @gaazkam One should read the paper before accepting what is being claimed. One should not simply see that there is a reputable citation provided and assume "Oh, there's a citation. Their point is made." We (yes, myself included) often do not check the contents of citation out of laziness or time constraints, but that does not mean that the citation by itself is sufficient evidence of anything. That is why a very short summary of the relevant point should be included. "According to Bob[1], 'The data for this event contradicted the Complex Model because...'" (1/2) – Aaron May 10 at 13:49
  • @gaazkam (2/2) ... but neither should you check every word of the cited paper and every word of every paper it cites etc.. We do not reinvent the wheel every time we design a new car. We just accept that we believe the wheel works as described and build on top of it. If it is ever proven wheels do not work as we believe, at that time we will accept everything using wheels is also flawed. That's how it works. Build a tower supported from below. If the foundation breaks everything tumbles. If the foundation never breaks you're good. The foundation has broke before and many ideas fell with them. – Aaron May 10 at 13:55

Douglas Walton and Marcin Koszowy note that the argument from authority may not always be fallacious: (page 1 in pdf)

This form of argument was traditionally categorized as an informal fallacy by the logic textbooks, but in recent years a revolution has taken place, and it is now regarded as a legitimate argument. It is nevertheless a dangerous one that can go wrong in some instances and be quite deceptive as a rhetorical tool for strategic maneuvering in argumentation.

To show how the fallaciousness of the argument arises they recall that verecundiam means modesty and John Locke's earlier description claimed one may feel it a "breach of modesty" to question authorities. Walton and Koszowy conclude: (page 3)

Anyone who backs his argument with the pronouncement of such an authority thinks the opinion cited ought to be final, and considers anyone who questions it to be impudent.

This explanation of why arguments from authority, especially the ones classified as arguments from expert opinion, can so easily and so often be fallacious. A fallacy can be defined as deceptive argument used as part of strategic maneuvering by means of which one party in argumentation is employing a clever tactic to get the best of his or her speech partner party unfairly.

They claim this deception may come from confusing two kinds of authority: cognitive authority and administrative authority.

The problem here is that the administrative type of appeal to authority typically seems like it should be less open to critical questioning than the epistemic type of appeal to authority. Therefore if there is some confusion about which category a given appeal to authority should fall into, it may be easy to treat an argument from expert opinion as though it were based on an administrative appeal to authority. Hence there is a normal tendency for the recipient of the argument to be overly intimidated by it, and to presume that it would be inappropriate to raise critical questions about it. So the fallacy in such a case resides in the reaction of the recipient to such an argument, but it may also arise from the way the proponent of the argument puts it forward. (page 5)

This may be enough to ground an answer to the title question:

How far does the fallaciousness of the recourse to authority fallacy reach?

Using expert opinion is not in itself fallacious in an argument. However, if one feels "it would be inappropriate to raise critical questions" then such an argument may be fallacious. The source of the fallaciousness may come either from the "reaction of the recipient to such an argument" or from "the way the proponent of the argument puts it forward".

John Locke, J. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Retrieved on May 11, 2019 from https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.218967/page/n599

Walton, D., & Koszowy, M. (2014). Two kinds of arguments from authority in the ad verecundiam fallacy. Two Kinds of Arguments from Authority in the Ad Verecundiam Fallacy. Retrieved on May 11, 2019 from Douglas Walton's website at https://www.dougwalton.ca/papers%20in%20pdf/14ISSAv08.pdf


How far does the fallaciousness of the recourse to authority fallacy reach?

The argument from authority reaches as far as the facts. Then it stops.

The official argument can be the basis of belief and action so long as there is nothing observed that says it is false. Then the authorized belief must be modified or abandoned. There are plenty of examples in science where orthodoxy and The Powers That Be have dictated beliefs which eventually had to be discarded because they fit so few of the facts.

As suggested by the question itself, recourse to authority is necessary because it is impossible for any given person to know everything. This situation requires a resort to sources more distant from the question under consideration.

In such cases the conclusion is expressed not in certainties, but in probabilities. A conclusion resting on an authorized argument might not be known to a certainty, but only to a likelihood of, say, seventy-five percent.

In that example, the argument from authority reaches three-quarters of the way to a hypothetical situation where the decision-maker has perfect information about the question under consideration. The authority fills in the gaps where the known facts leave off.


I think you've stumbled across something that might qualify as a paradox - should we respect "authority" or scorn it?

In my opinion, the appeal to authority fallacy is a can of worms. It might qualify as a fallacy in some cases but not in others.

But how can we determine which is the case?

We have to evaluate 1) the authority, 2) the statement that's being attributed to that authority and 3) the person making the connection.

Only a fool would consider the U.S. government or most of its agents a reliable authority. Only someone who isn't politically astute would consider Wikipedia a credible source of information.

Yet the government and Wikipedia are both have house vast amounts of information, and both have to tell the truth some of the time. Even their biggest critics (including me) commonly cite government sources and Wikipedia.

Frank Hubby noted the difference between cognitive and administrative authority. We might things more interesting by thinking of the latter as political authority.

But wait - don't politics play a role in determining who's considered a cognitive authority? Politics plays a huge role in the Nobel Prize lottery. (How else can one explain the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to Henry Kissinger and Obama?)

In fact, there are a number of well known "scientists" and "philosophers" who are charlatans. They're essentially political players masquerading as cognitive authorities.

A key factor here is intent.

If a dishonest person knowingly tries to support a devious argument by appealing to an authority he knows is corrupt or incompetent, then we have a fallacy. If an honest person tries to support an argument he believes to be valid by citing an authority who supports that argument, it might not be a fallacy - even if the authority isn't really credible (e.g. Wikipedia).

For example, I could argue that "Even Wikipedia has an article about [fill in the blank] that supports my claims."

In this example, I'm suggesting that Wikipedia has at least some status as an authority, but I qualify my trust in Wikipedia with the word "even."

Of course, when writing about such situations, it's obviously a good idea to try your best to dissect the argument or fallacy.

One other note: We should also distinguish between arguments that are based only on an appeal to authority versus those that also include some facts and/or logic. There's a big difference between saying "Many children were killed because Joe Blow says so" versus "Joe Blow's claim that many children were killed might be indirectly supported by the fact that the authorities didn't allow any potential witnesses or investigators near the scene of the explosion, not to mention the fact that there have been several previous reports of U.S. forces attacking schools."

  • "If an honest person tries to support an argument he believes to be valid by citing an authority who supports that argument..." If the argument is that the honest person's claim is true because of the claim by the authority, then it is a fallacy even if the authority is credible. Logic cannot be proven sound by attaching names to statements. – Aaron May 15 at 18:50
  • We may no be able to prove something is true by citing authority, but, in many cases, authority is used as evidence that a claim or statement is true. In fact, some statements may be utterly worthless without such a citation. If someone tells me there is a planet where it rains diamonds, I'll probably say "Yeah, right." But if a respected astronomer tells me there's evidence that such a planet exists, I'll pay attention. – David Blomstrom May 19 at 0:02

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