Authority and its Irrelevance

by O Society March 31, 2019

In response to several readers’ questions and assertions:

A story being in the New York Times is a reason to believe it.

So is a story being on Fox News. That’s a reason to believe it.

Because your mom or dad said it is a reason to believe it.

Because the president said it is a reason to believe it.

Because I said it here at O Society is a reason to believe it.

^ These statements are all true. ^

However, these statements are all based on an appeal to authority. Which is to say, the reason given is authority.

O Society is all about questioning authority. When someone – and here we mean anyone and everyone – tells us to do something, we ask, “Where does your authority come from? In other words, “Why should I listen to you and do what you say?”

Authority is Not Self-Justifying

O Society is also about being humble and remembering none of us is infallible, especially in subject areas in which we are not fluent.

A doctrine against doctrinaires: the enduring radical modesty of Karl Popper

Appeal to Authority

argumentum ad verecundiam (also known as: argument from authority, ipse dixit)

Description: Insisting that a claim is true simply because a valid authority or expert on the issue said it was true, without any other supporting evidence offered. Also see the appeal to false authority.

Logical Form:

According to person 1, who is an expert on the issue of Y, Y is true.

Therefore, Y is true.

Example #1:

Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist and perhaps the foremost expert in the field, says that evolution is true. Therefore, it’s true.

Explanation: Richard Dawkins certainly knows about evolution, and he can confidently tell us that it is true, but that doesn’t make it true. What makes it true is the preponderance of evidence for the theory.

Example #2:

How do I know the adult film industry is the third largest industry in the United States? Derek Shlongmiester, the adult film star of over 50 years, said it was. That’s how I know.

Explanation: Shlongmiester may be an industry expert, as well as have a huge talent, but a claim such as the one made would require supporting evidence. For the record, the adult film industry may be large, but on a scale from 0 to 12 inches, it’s only about a fraction of an inch.

Exception: Be very careful not to confuse “deferring to an authority on the issue” with the appeal to authority fallacy. Remember, a fallacy is an error in reasoning.

Dismissing the council of legitimate experts and authorities turns good skepticism into denialism. The appeal to authority is a fallacy in argumentation, but deferring to an authority is a reliable heuristic that we all use virtually every day on issues of relatively little importance. There is always a chance that any authority can be wrong, that’s why the critical thinker accepts facts provisionally.

It is not at all unreasonable (or an error in reasoning) to accept information as provisionally true by credible authorities. Of course, the reasonableness is moderated by the claim being made (i.e., how extraordinary, how important) and the authority (how credible, how relevant to the claim).

The appeal to authority is more about claims that require evidence than about facts. For example, if your tour guide told you that Vatican City was founded February 11, 1929, and you accept that information as true, you are not committing a fallacy (because it is not in the context of argumentation) nor are you being unreasonable.

Tip: Question authority — or become the authority that people look to for answers.


Hume, D. (2004). An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.


Example #3: Because your mom said to you, “Son, black holes will not magically clean your room for you by sucking all this crap into space, through a worm hole, and out the other side.”

We ask ourselves, what is the context for ^ this ^ statement???

Well, your mom may not be an authority on black holes in space and singularities; however, because she is your mom and she has authority over you as a parent, you might believe her and clean your room as a result.

To verify whether or not what mom told you is true, it’s probably a better idea to check with an astrophysicist, whose job it is to investigate these black hole phenomena.

So an authentic astrophysicists who studies black holes might tell you:

“Little Billy, I don’t know for certain what would happen because I have no personal experience being close to black holes. I don’t know where the stuff goes for sure. Science is fallible. HOWEVER, based on what we know about astrophysics, this theoretical physics stuff about gravity and mass and worm holes and so on, you’re mom is probably correct.

In any case Little Billy, you should clean your damn room now because mom’s tired of asking you. She’s going to bend you over her knee and spank your little ass soon if you don’t comply. See ya!”

The moral of the story is mom got her information from watching TV. Hollywood. Now Little Billy, Hollywood is mostly bullshit. So don’t believe those movies you see on TV. Star Trek and Star Wars and all that are fun, but you’ll be an idiot if you believe Yoda has a light saber and is going to clean your room with it for you. See?

Mom’s not THAT kind of authority. Somebody like Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking or Neil DeGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicists. So call down to NASA and get one on the phone. Mom’s “Saw it on TV” authority is not a good reason. It’s a reason, and she might actually be correct, but to get a GOOD reason, ask the expert, the scientist.

Turns out, Mom got her knowledge of black holes and time-space travel from watching a cute guy called “Matthew Mcconaughey” in Interstellar.

E=mc² where c = the speed of love

as explained here:

How do you quantify love? What is the number to use for the speed of love?

We know c = the speed of light = 299,792,458 m/s

What is the speed of

The moral of the story is don’t ask your preacher for medical advice and don’t ask your doctor for spiritual advice.

Ask Matthew McConaughey. He’s an astrophysicist and a preacher. Which one just depends on which movie we watch.

Contact: A Journey to the Heart of the Universe

When people drive outside their lane, they often make us more stoopider than when we started if we do.

Know your own limitations. Drive in your own lane. If someone asks you a question, the correct reply is “I don’t know” unless you really do know from having some experience in the matter.

We Are All Confident Idiots

Adding bullshit doesn’t help anything. In fact, it makes things much worse. Which is how America got where it is now. A bunch of people whose egos allowed them to drive in all sorts of lanes in which they are not qualified to be in in the first place.

Just lookit the so-called “President of the United States.” Donald Trump is a reality TV celebrity game show host. His authority to speak on serious matters isn’t any more legit than Matthew McConaughey’s authority on such matters. They’re actors, folks.

Please note, before you start ranting at me being “biased” or something, I like Interstellar, Contact, and science fiction movies in general. Contact and Interstellar should win Oscars. I dunno if they did win because I don’t pay much attention to award shows, but these are good movies. Matthew McConaughey is a wonderful actor.

What I am saying is he should drive in his own lane. In a Lincoln commercial.

Appeal to Irrelevant Authority

An appeal to authority is an appeal to one’s sense of modesty [Engel], which is to say, an appeal to the feeling that others are more knowledgeable. While this is a comfortable and natural tendency for humans, such appeals cannot tell us which things are true and which are false. All appeals to authority are a type of genetic fallacy. Experts do not have the characteristic of producing absolute truth. To determine truth from untruth we must rely on evidence and reason.

However, appeals to relevant authority can tell us which things are likely to be true. This is the means by which we form beliefs. The overwhelming majority of the things we believe in, such as atoms and the solar system, are on reliable authority, as are all historical statements, to paraphrase C. S. Lewis.

It is fallacious to form a belief when the appeal is to an authority who is not an expert on the issue at hand. A similar appeal worth noting is the appeal to vague authority, where an idea is attributed to a vague collective. For example, Professors in Germany showed such and such to be true. Another type of appeal to irrelevant authority is the appeal to ancient wisdom, where something is assumed to be true just because it was believed to be true some time ago.

For example, Astrology was practiced by technologically advanced civilizations such as the Ancient Chinese. Therefore, it must be true. One might also appeal to ancient wisdom to support things that are idiosyncratic, or that may change with time. Such appeals need to weigh the evidence available to us in the present.



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