What is The Authority Fallacy?


  Irrelevant Authority Fallacy

Definition: Attempting to support a claim by appealing to the judgment of one who is not an authority in the field, the judgment of an unidentified authority, or the judgment of an authority who is likely to be biased.” – T. Edward Damer, Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-free Arguments 

It is legitimate when making claims to appeal to those who have access to certain kinds of knowledge, have certain qualifications based on training, and who are free from prejudice or conflicts of interest that may cloud their judgement. Authority is obtained through the accumulation of such knowledge and qualifications, and having the ability to use them without bias. Of course, no single person, even “experts in their field,” are completely and utterly infallible. Still, when we appeal to those without these qualifications, we commit a fallacy – that is, an error in logic.

Appealing to the judgment of one who is not an authority in the field

According to Damer, the most frequent occurrence comes “in the form of a transfer of an authority’s competence in one field to another field in which the authority is not competent.” (102) You might see this when a celebrity or athlete is speaking on politics, when a politician speaks on economics, or when a scientist makes a religious claim. These are just examples, but notice the pattern of attributing competence in one are to a presumption of competence in another area. 

This also happens when certain decision-making power is vested in a title, or office, and along with that is the assumption that their decision-making power grants them a certain “authority” in the decisions they make. You might see this in the office of “president,” or “pastor,” or even “husband.” Their power to make decisions doesn’t necessarily equate to them the competence (authority) in correctly deciding. Office-holders can error in their judgment. This is why those who hold an office do best when seeking counsel or advisers who are competent in areas where the officer is not. 

Appealing to the judgment of an unidentified authority

This appeal is probably seen most often in “anonymous sources” of investigative reporting. A journalist may refer to “my sources on the ground” or “a witness who wishes to not be identified.” Claims made in this manner are inherently suspicious. To consider them credible at all, they need to be corroborated by other known sources with qualified credentials. 

Appealing to the judgment of an authority who is likely to be biased

Bias is impossible to escape, but one can provide a more or less detached assessment of an issue or situation when they aren’t directly involved. For example, not being a judge in your own case. You have a particular vested interest in the outcome and your bias may interfere. This does not mean to be an authority you must be free from any bias whatever. A biologist can have religious beliefs. A pastor can have preference for one interpretation over another. A husband doesn’t need to be a master of everything. 

Responding to this fallacy

Ultimately, when you’re met with someone committing this fallacy, that is, the other person is appealing to irrelevant authority, is to persuade through reasoning that the authority being appealed to is inappropriate. Being persuasive toward this end is a separate matter entirely.

For more information on faulty reasoning, I recommend, Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-free Arguments  by T. Edward Damer.

Kerry Baldwin

independent researcher, author

B.A. Philosophy, Arizona State University. My writing focuses on libertarian philosophy and reformed theology and aimed at the educated layperson. I am a confessionally Reformed Christian orthodox Presbyterian in the tradition of J. Gresham Machen (1881 – 1937)