Argument from authority – not always a bad concept

I have noted that on various forums the sheer concept of ‘argument from authority’ is one that should burn in eternity for being a logical fallacy. At a certain level this is at least understandable – someone saying something does not make it true, even if they are an expert in the field. However, I would contend that the concept is at least open to being used in practical ways that indeed make it valid.

In a sense this links back to my essay on ‘ivory towers’ and trying to communicate science (or anything else for that matter) to people who simply may not be able to understand you (for what ever reason). Of course in the theoretical long-term you have to be able to demonstrate your points and contentions are based on evidence and not your interpretation of that evidence or quite simply incorrect but in the short term (and when I am really referring to that most often pointless of exercises the internet debate) this really should be enough. I don’t see any major judicial systems around the world not calling expert witnesses to take the stand because ‘argument from authority’ is bad. What is the point of having experts if you don’t consider their expertise somehow valid?

I know this point is not going to still any of the shill voices of the unreasonable and non-understanding, but it is perhaps worth thinking about even for the hordes that support reason. No, I would not stand by any statement till the end of time without proof and fact checking, but at the drop of a hat, I’d take the word of (to pick a non-random example) Mike Taylor to tell me about sauropod vertebrae that I would about that of 99.999999944% of the world’s population for an instant answer. And yes, I did calculate that.

5 Responses to “Argument from authority – not always a bad concept”


  1. 1 Mike Keesey 27/05/2009 at 1:51 pm

    What we need is an authority on authorities!

  2. 2 David Hone 27/05/2009 at 7:33 pm

    Well, I’ll humbly (i.e. not humbly) submit myself as a candidate if you wish.

  3. 3 Mike Keesey 27/05/2009 at 10:51 pm

    Then, by referring people to you, I can be an authority on authority authorities!

  4. 4 David Hone 28/05/2009 at 10:46 am

    Hmmm, we could spiral into an uncontrolled self-referential spiral of authortitive-ness if I start referring to you as an authority on authorities of authorities….


  1. 1 The grey literature « Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings Trackback on 03/02/2011 at 8:44 am

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