An appeal to authority can be reasonably grounded when the authority bases his conclusions on examination, experiment, knowledge, or some set of reasons he is competent to judge. The opinions of experts are very good to have. The problem is that it is not always easy to tell when an appeal to authority is reasonably grounded and when it is merely an appeal to prestige--an appeal to the fame or position of the asserter. Has the authority conducted a thorough investigation or is he simply giving his unfounded or even prejudiced opinion?
One of the largest exhibitions of the fallacious appeal to prestige occurs in areas of controversy, where certain complex truths remain only partially understood. Every time a report, study, or article comes out with some new information (or just another opinion), that report is heralded by those whom it pleases as the final truth, proved so by an appeal to the prestige of the issuer. Thus what should have been an ongoing factual debate is rendered a mere battle of reputations. You should believe my truth because I have more famous people supporting it than my opponents have famous people supporting their truth. One long-running example of this is the debate over marijuana. Some authorities believe it causes permanent reduction in intelligence and general brain function while other authorities believe it is no worse than tobacco and maybe better. The ultimate determination ought to be made by objective tests and measurements, and not by comparing credentials.
Here are some common problems to keep in mind when considering or evaluating an appeal to authority:
So, as useful as the opinion of an expert is, it is still not a substitute for one's own thinking. Always prefer the merits (proofs) for an argument to the fame of its supporters, and always feel free to sift information for yourself.
Note in these examples how the appeal to prestige relies on status rather than evidence:
On the Appeal to Prestige
Nothing overshadows truth so completely as authority. --Alberti
A Story of Prestige
A horse dealer had an excellent animal for sale, but at the market it attracted no customers. So he went to see the famous horse trainer Po Lo. "In three days no one has noticed my superb horse," he said. "What I'd like you to do is to walk around the horse and inspect it, then walk away--but look back. For this I'll give you a morning's profit from my other sales." Po Lo circled the horse and examined it, walked away, but looked back; and within the day the horse was sold for ten times what it was worth.
--Chan Kuo Ts'e, tr. Moss Roberts
The Appeal to Force (Argumentum ad Baculum). This is simply the adult form of arguing the way a bully does: if you don't accept my opinion, I'll punch you in the nose. The arguer demands acceptance of his proposition not because it is true or proved but because there are consequences for rejecting it.
A good example from a few years ago is the tactic some door-to-door salesmen used to promote smoke detectors. The salesman would show his prospect several color pictures of children who had been burned to death in home fires, and then by playing on the feelings of the now suitably horrified prospect, would sell eight or ten detectors at over a hundred dollars each. A calm and rational evaluation of the situation would have resulted in the realization that two or perhaps three detectors would be entirely sufficient for most homes, and further, that they could be bought from a store for less than thirty dollars each. Once again we see the truth of the old maxim, "It costs extra to let your guts do your thinking."
The ad hominem fallacy has a particular, subtle form which uses the rhetorical device apophasis--pretending to deny what is really being asserted:
The second circumstance where personal character qualities can be relevant involves an estimate of behavior based on personal values. That is, the fact that Jones has been convicted of embezzling money from his employers twice before would be a relevant criticism when considering him for the job of treasurer of the company. And if your local representative has been convicted of taking bribes in exchange for votes, you would not be guilty of an ad hominem if you told others not to vote for him because of what he has done. However, it would be an ad hominem to say, "Congressman Smith's ideas about highway improvement are worthless because he takes bribes." Again, ideas can be attacked only by other ideas or by evidence.
Argumentum ad Populum. Also known as the Appeal to the Masses or the Bandwagon Appeal, this argument makes an appeal to a person's sense of belonging or wanting to belong to a particular group. The appeal may be to a political, racial, or religious grouping, but more frequently it involves a social cluster and an address to the beliefs and actions which define the cluster. Peer group pressure, fads, styles, trends, fashions, social acceptability, and fear of ostracization are powerful operators on human behavior and can be used very effectively to manipulate people. People have both a strong desire to belong (since we are social beings) and a general sense of "the normal." The ad populum fallacy takes advantage of this by mistakenly equating a certain popular notion or the mood of a riled-up mob with the normal, true, and acceptable. People are great imitators; they tend to do whatever is "in" and they tend to think whatever is the "right idea." This "human see, human do" phenomenon helps explain everything from goldfish-swallowing fads to the sudden popularity of adultery, and everything from bestselling records to the current focus of literary criticism.
Democracies are especially susceptible to this tyranny of the majority appeal, because political issues are commonly decided by majority vote, and social harmony is maintained partly by each citizen being agreeable. But truth and morality are not determined by popular vote, and to accept ideas or behavior patterns only because they are common can result in nothing less than delusion and oppression. As Anatole France reminds us, "If fifty million people say a foolish thing, it is still a foolish thing." Think for yourself and you will never have to admit that you have become a willing victim of social pressure.
Of course, many things that are commonly believed or promoted are quite true, and it would be foolish to suggest that all traditional beliefs, values, patterns, and so forth should be rejected because they are common (see the next fallacy); the fact is, much of tradition is true, helpful, or valuable precisely because it has been often examined, and those who reject it out of hand are as errant from wisdom as those who accept everything just as it is offered. The point is, then, that you should (1) be suspicious of arguments based largely upon their current popularity, (2) keep your mind operating when you are offered traditional information, and (3) never offer as a proof the fact that something is popular. In other words, keep your back to the wind of popular opinion (plenty of it will blow down your collar anyway), and reexamine your dogmas once a year: the good should be reaffirmed and the bad revised or discarded.
The basis for an ad populum appeal may be true (that is, it could be based on a genuine majority opinion) or it may be simply wishful thinking by the arguer. But whether the claim is true or false, the appeal is designed to create the urge to "jump on the bandwagon." (The propaganda analysts, in fact, call this the bandwagon appeal.)
On Ad Populum
. . . For most minds are the slaves of external circumstances, and conform to any hand that undertakes to mold them, roll down any torrent of custom in which they happen to be caught, or bend to any importunity that bears hard against them.
The Appeal to Individualism. By a paradox of human nature, we have, along with our desire to belong, an equally strong desire to be independent and unique. We want to be like some people so that we will not feel alienated, but we want to be different from nearly everybody else. Such a situation makes possible a "mass appeal to individualism," where an advertiser, for example, will attempt to sell a product to a considerable number of people by telling them that it will make them different or that it is a product for only a select few. The same kind of appeal, coupled with the adolescent flock urge in young people, can create a trend of major proportions in records, clothes, and even behavior, which then becomes almost a prerequisite for social acceptance in that group: as we have witnessed in the "individualistic" fads and styles of our younger days, a mass desire to be "different" (from another group or generation) often leads to a slavish conformity of the most absurd and bizarre kind.
Actually, the appeal to individualism can be divided into three often interrelated forms. The first is an appeal to be different simply for the sake of being different. It is an appeal against tradition and the common; whatever is common, standard, ordinary should be rejected because it is common, standard, and ordinary--qualities the "individualist" defines as dull and unthinking. But this, of course, is no less reactionary than its ad populum counterpart.
Arguers often exploit this desire for a different drummer by calling upon it and then presenting their own position as that of the true independent thinker. "You should think for yourself," they say, and then, "Here's what you should think." Or, "You know, people who don't follow the mob think this way." The appeal is useful for arguers who find themselves in a minority position. If only a handful of people are buying a particular model of car, the advertiser can appeal to prospects to "be different." A small political faction can gain adherents by telling others not to be "pressed into a mold" or not to imitate those whose ideas have been "stamped out by a cookie cutter." It is pretty easy to characterize the common or majority as humdrum and boring while presenting the alternative as new, different, and original. (Remember the "it's different--I like it" soft drink advertisements?)
|the herd||the crowd|
|flock of sheep||stand alone|
|one of a kind||you|
The second form of this fallacy occurs as flattery or as a direct appeal to the individual ego: "You're pretty special, and this product is for special people," or "I know you will agree with me because you are so intelligent and well-informed." Sometimes this form uses a challenge: "Are you brave and rugged enough to join our group?"
Transference. Also called the fallacy of association, this classic fallacy of shifting the argument attempts to persuade the hearer, viewer, or reader by associating with the argument, product, or action something attractive or already acceptable or something unattractive or unacceptable.
Products are packaged in brightly-colored boxes with words like "New!" "Exciting!" and "Powerful!" printed all over them so that a prospective buyer will transfer the evoked positive feelings from the package to the product. Well dressed, good looking spokesmen make other products and ideas attractive and acceptable by being so themselves. In the days when "only prostitutes" dyed their hair, advertisers made hair coloring acceptable, even desirable, by associating it in advertisements with happy children and a contented husband. The woman who dyed her hair had an attractive family life and was loved and accepted.
We transfer our perceptions of externals--happy domestic situations, good looking men, fancy packaging, nice surroundings--to the essences, whether hair dyes, cars, perfume, or philosophies, political stances, and behavioral norms. Our associations demand consistency: a politician who supports motherhood and apple pie must have other good ideas, and a product in an expensive, good looking package must be high quality itself. Unfortunately, believing in transference (or falling for its appeal) opens us to costly and disappointing delusions.
Transference can be divided into several parts just for clarity. The first is the fallacy of external/internal equation, which might also be described as the whitewashed wall fallacy, after the ancient practice of unscrupulous builders who, having made a flimsy wall of loosely piled stones, covered the outside with whitewash to hide the fact that there was no mortar between the stones. This is the fallacy of judging a book by its cover--the external appearance of something is assumed to represent accurately its internal qualities. Needless to say, judging by external appearance or outer form is very foolish, and is becoming more so as the public's willingness to do so is increasingly exploited.
A typical example of this associative appeal is the appeal to sex. There is hardly a more successful method of defeating the reasoning ability and swaying the judgment than to bring sex into the question, whether overtly or through subtle suggestion.
The main form of the appeal to sex is the erotic or carnal appeal--what we might call an appeal to lust. Advertisers use it regularly; the saying, "Sex sells," has proved so true that perhaps a third or more of all advertising uses this appeal in some way. Visual appeals usually show a woman with part of her body uncovered (this is called "cheesecake" in the advertising business), while verbal appeals often rely on double meanings and innuendoes.
Best advice: base your decisions on reasons rather than on anatomy.
Another significant form of the transference or association fallacy is the genetic error. This fallacy makes the mistake of judging an idea's truth or value by the person or institution originating or pronouncing it. But even though an idea might have been originated in the distant past, uttered by a criminal, or formulated by an amateur, it still might be true. And though another idea might have been approved by the latest scientific organization, uttered by a revered forefather, or formulated by an expert, it still may be false. The truth or worth of an idea, especially in areas like morals, politics, and philosophy, must be determined on its own merits; its origin is either completely irrelevant or at best (in the case of scientific discoveries and some expert opinions) a modest indicator of probability.
For some reason, the genetic error is very frequently committed by using quotations from the founders of America (everything they said must be true and right) and from Adolf Hitler or another such villain (everything he said must be wrong and vicious). And depending on individual political leanings and emotional responses to Karl Marx, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-Tung, and so forth, these people are also used to "prove" how bad or good, true or false a particular idea must be, because they supposedly originated (or at least uttered) it.
The final form of transference is the appeal to way of life. This appeal attempts to sell happiness or elegance as a concomitant of the product or idea being promoted. You have probably noticed that in almost all advertisements, no matter what the product is, the people pictured are having an astonishingly good time. Idea pushers sometimes use the appeal to way of life to market their wares to people who appear to value happiness or a good time above truth, morality, or justice. The appeal in this form can be quite selfish: "If we convict Button of embezzling those pension funds, his company will no longer support our little league team. Let's let him off."
Typical way of life appeals include claims to "live a little," "have
fun," "feel the excitement," and "try a new adventure."
Go for the Gusto!
Motivation researchers are those
harlot social scientists who, in impressive psychoanalytic and/or sociological
jargon, tell their clients what their clients want to hear, namely, that
appeals to human irrationality are likely to be far more profitable
than appeals to rationality. --S. I. Hayakawa
Hypostatization. Also called reification, this fallacy involves the appeal to a personified abstraction. That is, an abstract concept is treated as if it were something real or even alive, with motives, desires, and so forth. The problem in spotting this fallacy is that we use personified abstractions in everyday speech without deception or irrationality. For example, we often say something like, "The state now requires us to fill out three copies of form 4026," when "the state" is not really a being that can "require" anything. What we mean, really, is that certain provisions of state law say that we must fill out these forms or face some penalty at the hands of those who enforce the law. Note these similar examples of verbal shorthand using personification:
This fallacy has found popularity with journalists and others who quote sources because instead of naming a perhaps little-known individual, a publication or organization can be named as author of the remark. Note how much more important and prestigious these comments sound than if "Henry Jones" or "Tom Scribes" had been named:
A final use of the fallacy of hypostatization is by the materialists, who, while seeing the universe as purely material and spiritually meaningless, still feel the need for meaning in the world and in their lives. Thus, we find them undermining the implications of their beliefs by ascribing care and intention to abstractions. Some examples:
Here are some other examples of this fallacy:
1. In our taste test, more people preferred the taste of Diet Castor Oil Margarine to the taste of any other spread, so you know that it's the one for you.
2. My client is not the guilty party. California is the guilty party. And California should be put on trial, convicted, and punished.
3. This is the same candy bar that the Olympic gold medalists ate during the games. Go with the gold medal candy bar.
4. Don't you want to be yourself? Step apart from the old gang and find your own way. While the world is running after the big names, a few smart, independent people are recognizing the value of Groasties brand fried beetles.
5. Every hour, seventy-four Americans die from heart attacks. Many of these deaths are agonizingly painful. Most of those who die leave behind loved ones, moaning, even shrieking, with grief and misery. Do you want this to happen to you and your family? If not, send $150 today for "The Heart Attack Prevention Plan." Before it's too late. (By the way, just how does your heart feel right now?)
6. So Fred Johnson says my interpretation of these data is incorrect, huh? Well, did you know that Fred Johnson was fired from his last job for incompetence and insubordination?
7. Yes, both of these tape recorders are on sale, but this one is our best seller.
8. SexiKurl Eyebrow Pencils. When you know you're a woman, you use them.
9. Converse shoes. You know they're good because famous tennis star Chris Evert wears them.
10. You don't like our plans for the new Model 21? Well, if you don't like the products our company is planning to bring out, maybe you should be working for someone else. If you can't overcome your negative feelings, let me know and I'll be glad to write you a letter of recommendation.
1. Seventeen percent of our sample of 1500 lower-division college students said that this chapter is "incomprehensible," while another 38 percent found it "very difficult." Since this book is aimed at a lower division college audience, I think that means we should rewrite the chapter.
2. When they plant an outdoor cactus garden, most people choose this opuntia species, while practically no one chooses that ferrocactus. That should convince you to go with the opuntia.
3. I know that Senator Billings opposes the tax reform plan, but did you know he's an alcoholic? And are you going to let the opinion of some cheap drunk get in the way of doing what is right? So come on and vote for the plan.
4. Why should you pay $140 for a pair of El Unique shoes? Because you're an individual, not like everyone else. These are the shoes that are as different and special as you are.
5. When you consider whether or not to accept the eyewitness testimony of Mr. Enilnow, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, remember that he is the only witness to the events he has described and that, as you have heard from several other witnesses, he has the reputation of being the "town liar" whose word cannot be trusted.
6. McDonald's has sold over 50 billion hamburgers. When you're looking for a good place to eat, why not choose the place so many other people have chosen--McDonald's.
7. Look: "Al Unser's Auto Repair." He's a famous race care driver so this must be a good repair shop.
8. Look, if you don't want to get beaten to a pulp in the next five minutes, you'll stop calling me a bully.
9. Real men wear Macho Stinko aftershave, because real men know how to be men.
10. Fred Blort is not on trial here--America is on trial. Yes, America
is responsible for this man's problems.
Another Word on Thinking
When one of those who were present
said, Persuade me that logic is necessary, he replied, Do you wish me to
prove this to you? The answer was, Yes. Then I must use a demonstrative
form of speech. This was granted. How then will you know if I am cheating
you by argument? The man was silent. Do you see, said Epictetus, that you
yourself are admitting that logic is necessary, if without it you cannot
know so much as this, whether logic is necessary or not necessary? --from
the Discourses of Epictetus
appeal to prestige
appeal to force
argumentum ad hominem
argumentum ad populum
appeal to individualism
1. Discuss the various forms of the transference or association fallacy.
For each question, choose the single best answer.
1. Come on, Fred; it's time to sacrifice the virgins to the volcano god. The whole tribe is joining in, so what are you objecting to? You don't want to be left out, do you?
D. ad hominem
E. ad populum
2. I know you will vote for Proposition 23 because you seem to be so intelligent, aware, and caring.
D. ad hominem
E. ad populum
3. I think it's pretty obvious that this prison reform plan is no good simply because the prisoners themselves originated it.
A. transference (genetic error)
D. ad hominem
E. ad populum
4. This brand of microcomputer is outselling all the others by far--so if everybody is buying it, it must be the best and you ought to get one, too.
D. ad hominem
E. ad populum
5. Aren't you tired of the same old stuff--that just everybody is after? Don't you feel the urge to be different--to assert your unique self and your own tastes? Well, now there's a product for you: Harvey's mint-flavored, chocolate-coated grasshoppers. They're not for everybody, but then, they don't try to be.
D. ad hominem
E. ad populum
6. How dare you question the accuracy of this report-- it was prepared by and has the sanction of the United Nations, an organization with dozens of member countries, including all the advanced super powers.
D. ad hominem
E. ad populum
7. "When Pashhur the Priest . . . heard Jeremiah prophesying these things, Pashhur had Jeremiah the prophet beaten, and put him in the stocks. . . ." --Jeremiah 20:1-2
D. ad hominem
E. ad populum
8. Ladies and gentlemen, I have come here to reason with you. And I know you will listen to reason, because you have been intelligent enough--you have cared enough--to come out and listen to me this evening. Most people are content to stay home in front of the television, drinking beer and eating popcorn. But you, thankfully, have made a wiser choice.
D. ad hominem
E. ad populum
9. My opponent, on the other hand, is only looking out for old number one. He's not just a career politician, but a skunk--a crafty, smelly, crooked skunk. You can't believe a thing he says. We even have heard rumors that he's had to pay his wife to stay with him through the election. I'm sure you don't want to vote for a guy whose wife can't even stand him.
D. ad hominem
E. ad populum
10. The New York Times thinks this is an excellent book. Let's get a copy.
E. ad populum
Answers to Test Yourself: 1E2C3A4E5C6A7B8C9D10D