Invincible Authority


The argument supports a position by naming a respected and authoritative person, institution or organization that endorses the position. It is implied that this endorsement alone is sufficient to establish the truth of the proposition without regard to the arguments on either side.



While this fallacy is in the "personal" Ad Verecundiam category, the authority appealed to can also be a book or other publication, or an institution of some kind, provided that a person is ultimately responsible for the opinion. Books, for example, are authored by persons (although the actual author may be unknown), and institutions who award prizes, such as the Nobel Prize, have judges. One extreme version of the Invincible Authority fallacy is the attitude, "Well, I read it in a book (or newspaper, or website), so it must be true."



"Linus Pauling says that Vitamin C helps fight colds, so I'm going to take a double dose."


"The world was created in seven literal days. It says so in the Bible."



The term "invincible" authority stresses that the opinion of an expert is being used as a final appeal, without consideration of the (possibly quite sound) arguments that such an expert might be able to offer. Some logicians consider appeals to authority to be fallacious only in cases in which the person (or institution) whose authority is appealed to is not in fact an authority. Hence, celebrity endorsement of products is clearly a fallacy, but adopting opinions on physics based on the say-so of Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking would not be. I disagree with this view. It should be noted that experts often hold differing opinions even in their field of expertise. Einstein and Hawking, for example, hold dramatically different views on physics; yet, both are undeniably experts in that very field. Accepting positions on the opinion of one expert or another (without considering the underlying arguments) has no tendency to lead us closer to the truth. It does not advance the inquiry; it shuts the inquiry down. It never gives us guidance on which expert to believe, or why. Hence, in my opinion (and I am an expert on this subject!) appeals to authority should be considered fallacious even when the authority appealed to is a legitimate and recognized authority.

Invincible Authority does, however, mimic a legitimate pattern of reasoning. It must be remembered that experts become experts by having reasons for their opinions. These reasons are examined by other people interested in the subject (including other experts). People generally come to be recognized as experts because their reasons make sense to others. For those of us who do not have the time (or talent) to consider the arguments for ourselves, it is certainly better to adopt the opinions of an expert rather than the opinions of a non-expert. This is why checking the credentials of authors is an important step in judging the reliability of sources used in research. There is certainly no fallacy in naming an expert as the originator of arguments that are then explained and considered. But there is an important difference between using the credentials of an author as one criterion for the reliability of information, and using the credentials of the author as certifying (invincibly) that the position is true beyond the need for further explanation and discussion.


Source: This fallacy is described by Francis Bacon in Novum Organum (1620). The term "ad verecundiam" first applied to this fallacy, was coined by John Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). The term "invincible authority" appears some time during the 20th Century.


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