Friday, March 18, 2011

Friday Fallacy: Argumentum ad verecundiam

This lovely fallacy is also known as the argument from authority or faulty appeal to authority.  When you’re working on a research paper or want to sound like you know what you’re talking about, you’ll cite a source-an expert backing up your assertion.  That’s not necessarily a fallacy.  However, people often make the mistake of quoting the wrong experts on the wrong subjects. 

For example, Jenny McCarthy is neither a doctor nor a researcher.  She has no authority or credibility when it comes to vaccines.  However, large groups of people have stopped vaccinating their children due to her belief that vaccines cause autism.  This has caused great harm.  McCarthy may be a celebrity, so she has television presence.  She may be an expert in some areas of pseudo-stardom, but she is in no way an expert on vaccination or medicine.  She’s also not very information literate when it comes to these issues. 

Second example:  Your dentist makes a recommendation to have your old fillings removed because he says they cause everything from arthritis to cancer to warts.  Now, this one may seem slightly difficult given that your dentist is an expert medical professional.  Think about it.  A dentist is an expert in one specific area of human health.  He or she is not going to also be a trained oncologist or other specialist.  How does he/she know your old fillings cause those problems?  This is why second opinions are always good.

Third example:  You ask your mother “why?” about some topic.  She responds with, “Because I said so.”  Parents are considered authority figures, as are teachers, clergy, police, etc.  Does that mean they’re always right about every topic?  No.  The sooner people realize that, the sooner they start questioning and discovering answers for themselves.  That’s called adulthood.  That’s not to say that you should smart off to a cop if you get pulled over for going 75mph in a 35mph zone.  The cop is obviously correct in that situation.

A real world example:  This is a true story.  I once had a freshman student argue with me that his paper should have received an A+ as a grade.  Said paper received a failing grade.  He argued that his high school writing teacher said it was a perfect paper (apparently he had her review it before submission).  He had a hard time improving and eventually dropped the course.  You’d be surprised how many times I’ve heard that argument.  One variation is parental approval of the paper. 

Here’s a hint about this fallacy.  Anytime you catch yourself saying, “Well, my mom says that’s right,” or “Well, my preacher agrees with me,” you’re possible committing an argument from authority.  I make it a point to look up primary resources if at all possible.  Of course, we cannot spend all of our time researching.  We wouldn’t have lives.  So, find credible authorities on a subject (preferably multiple authorities) that have proven trustworthy in their subject fields.  It’s not a fallacy to cite those references.  Don’t rely on those same authorities to get you through other subjects, however, because that is a fallacy.

Is that confusing enough for tonight?  Good, my job is done.  J

Y'all have a wonderful weekend.

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