Sorting Through Sophistries:
Appeals to Authority

By Gabriel Blanchard

Is it an error in reasoning to appeal to authority for one's beliefs? Certainly not; but then again, very much so.

This post is part of a series. You can find the introduction to that series here; the next posts are on the fallacies of ambiguityfaulty categorization, misinterpretation, and a different variety of mis-assigning authority.

A number of Greek and Roman poets wrote of the mythological “golden age” or “age of Saturn,” when the gods dwelt among men bodily and the world was free of strife and toil. Several of the deities alluded to as living with humanity, unlike the Olympians, seem more like allegorical personifications: Astræa, for example, the goddess of innocence, who is supposed to have ascended into heaven and become the constellation Virgo, or Clementia (known to the Greeks as Eleos [Ἔλεος]), the goddess of mercy and pity. One of these deities—by some accounts the last of those who left at the beginning of the Silver Age*—was called Verecundia in Latin, and equated with the Greek deity (and noun) Aedos [Αἰδώς]. This is a tricky word to translate into English; the most conventionally equivalent is “shame,” though most linguists find it a little unsatisfactory. Negative feelings about oneself were not really the point of aedos or verecundia as character traits. “Decency” might be closer, or perhaps “humility.” The eminent Classicist Edith Hamilton** explained it as being like the feeling a prosperous man would have in the presence of a beggar, that the difference between them in some sense was not right or was un-fitting.

What has this got to do with fallacies? Well, there is a tradition of referring to many fallacies by their Latin names, which in most cases take the form ad ___m.† One such name is ad verecundiam, or appealing to authority; and, especially with the glowing account we have just gone through of the goddess Verecundia, it may sound bizarre to say that such an appeal is a fallacy!

The truth is a little more complex, and appealing to authority is not an inherently sophistical tactic. Indeed, one of the common topics‡ (part of the discipline of rhetoric) is testimony, of which authority is an important subtype. There are many circumstances where authoritative testimony is the only, or the best, information available to us. When that is true, there is nothing wrong with relying on it—though, as always, we should take care not to confuse it with other sources of knowledge.

But ad verecundiam becomes a fallacy when it is an attempt to intimidate one’s listeners by manipulating their sense of modesty. This normally comes in one of two forms.

The erroneous idea that Ibid is the author of the Lives is so frequently met with, even among those pretending to a degree of culture, that it is worth correcting. It should be a matter of general knowledge that Cf. is responsible for this work ...

The first is appealing to an authority that has been superseded or discredited. Supersession or discrediting of authorities is most common in the sciences (since they are subject to experimental testing), and political arguments about scientific questions abound in this type of fallacy: citing out-of-date studies, or even brand-new studies that have not received adequate peer review, can allow a sophistical arguer to feign scientific support for their idea that does not really exist.

The second is a kind of authority-themed red herring. It appeals to an authority, but not to a relevant authority, not to one who actually possesses the type of expertise required to form a judgment on the subject being debated. A mathematician, for example, is presumably to be trusted about mathematics, but will not necessary have any special knowledge about literary criticism; a literary critic might be at the top of his field, without knowing anything about how to treat mental illness; a psychiatrist will not necessarily be well-informed about the history of the Early Iron Age; and so on.

A kind of sub-variety of the ad verecundiam fallacy, at least sometimes, is the use of jargon. Here again, jargon is not necessarily fallacious; technical terminology is needed in most disciplines, and (humans being social creatures) it tends to get developed with context, in-jokes, and the like. However, when used to intimidate a person into silence—not unlike name-dropping—or to imply that they not only lack prior familiarity with the jargon itself, but even the intelligence to understand the field, that can hardly be considered fair play for obvious reasons.

The remedy for these sophistries, unfortunately, consists in three of the most boring words in the English language: look it up. If it’s a study being cited, look up the study: was it conducted by a reputable institution, or perhaps by amateurs in the pay of a group with avowedly political goals? Did the methodology follow the rules of the discipline, or did it sidestep or break them—or did the people who worked on the study not even divulge the methodology? If it’s a scholar being cited, look up the scholar: are they talking about their own field of research, or are they a crackpot, barging into a topic they know little about? If it’s an instance of technical jargon, look up the word (if possible—unluckily for this one, if a jargon term is extraordinarily technical, it may not appear in dictionaries, or may appear only in “unabridged” dictionaries). Or, why not, ask the person who just used the jargon to explain it to you! Getting past our own self-conceit, and therefore being humble enough to frankly admit ignorance and request knowledge, can be an extremely effective way of cutting through sophistical reasoning in many cases. And if they weren’t using jargon fallaciously, and are not arrogant themselves, even better—you get to learn something.

*Myths vary somewhat. However, the last of all the gods and goddesses to leave the earth is generally agreed to have been Astræa, at the beginning of either the Bronze or the Iron Ages.
**If anything, “eminent” undersells her: Edith Hamilton (1867-1963) was probably the most celebrated Classicist in American history. She was the first woman permitted to enroll at the University of Munich, and was head administrator and later headmistress of Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore (a girls’ college preparatory high school, named for Bryn Mawr College); her books, such as The Greek Way and Mythology, helped popularize classical thought for a whole generation, and are still esteemed today.
†In fallacies thus named, the idea of “an appeal to” is understood; ad means “to” or “at,” and the Latin accusative case (which pairs in these circumstances with the preposition ad) normally ends in –am, –em, or –um in the singular. Thus, e.g., ad hominem literally means “[appeal] to the man,” i.e. to his character; ad ignorantiam means “[appeal] to ignorance”; etc.
‡The common topics are the general types of argument one can construct. Most rhetoricians acknowledge four: definition, comparison, relationship, and testimony. (Sometimes a fifth, circumstance, is added as an independent topic, while others classify it as a subtype of relationship.) These should not be confused with the literary topoi, which are more like images or themes one may use to illustrate an argument.

Gabriel Blanchard is a proud uncle to seven nephews, and has worked for CLT since 2019, where he holds the title of editor at large; he lives in Baltimore, MD.

If you enjoyed this piece, first of all, thank you for reading the Journal! You might enjoy our podcast, Anchored; if you’d like to see more from the Journal, try our short intros to Hugh of St. Victor and Leo Tolstoy, or to ideas like faith and labor and their history.

Published on 22nd February, 2024. Page image of a fresco from the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii, thought to depict Aedos and/or Æschyne (the goddess of shame proper), or their Roman equivalents, Verecundia and Pudicitia (the goddess of modesty).

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