Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Appeal to Authority is a Necessary Evil

Posted by Michael Dickens on July 25, 2009

An appeal to authority goes like this:

1. Person A believes B.
2. Person A is an expert on the subject of B.
3. Therefore, B is true.

This is clearly fallacious. However, an appeal to authority is sometimes useful with scientific topics. My explanation goes something like this:

1. There is too much knowledge on the given subject for one person to have it all.
2. An expert is more likely to have more knowledge than the average person.
3. I am an average person.
4. Therefore, an expert’s opinion is probably based on more and better information than mine.
5. Therefore, an expert is more likely to be right than I am.
6. Therefore, I should trust an expert’s opinion.

This works in many situations. For example, I do not know the proof for Fermat’s Last Theorem. But expert mathematicians say that the proof is sound, so I trust them. This does not prove that the proof for Fermat’s Last Theorem is sound, but at least we have good reason to believe it.


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