Fallacious Argument of the Month: the Appeal to Authority

Fallacious Argument of the Month - the Appeal to AuthorityEach month, in pursuit of better arguments and improved public discourse, I highlight a different logical fallacy. This month I invite you to consider the irrelevant appeal to authority.

People of a certain generation perhaps recall advertisements for Sanka decaffeinated coffee in which actor Robert Young, known for playing a doctor on a popular seventies television drama, Marcus Welby, M.D., warns against the health risks caffeine poses and recommends Sanka to TV viewers.

In Chapter 6 of his popular work, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini describes the influence this particular ad wielded in shaping the coffee purchasing decisions of its audience:

From the first time I saw it, the most intriguing feature for me in the Robert Young Sanka commercial was its ability to use the influence of the authority principle without ever providing a real authority. The appearance of authority was enough. This tells me something important about unthinking reactions to authority figures. When in a click, whirr mode, we are often as vulnerable to the symbols of authority as to the substance.

The well-worn, now comic phrase “I’m not a doctor, but I play one on TV” has its provenance in ads such as this one. But our automatic reaction to authority is no laughing matter.

Clever speakers understand how easy it is to manipulate the public’s deference to perceived experts, using the appeal to authority to disarm our reason in their efforts to persuade us to their point of view. The appeal to authority may assume several forms, including its best known, the irrelevant appeal to authority (invoking an authority figure on a subject on which the authority figure is no expert, such as the Sanka ad). To gird ourselves against such manipulations of our reason, we should perhaps heed the advice of sixties-era protest signs: Question Authority.

By the way, if you’ve enjoyed this series on fallacious arguments and want to learn more about the application of logic in everyday life, there is no better resource than Robert J. Gula’s Nonsense: Red Herrings, Straw Men and Sacred Cows: How We Abuse Logic in Our Everyday Language. It’s available in print and also for free downloading in PDF.