Argument from authority
An argument from authority is any argument based solely on the credibility of a particular entity (the authority).
The presumption of credibility may proceed from any of several other presumptions, including:
- The authority is the definitive source for knowledge on this subject, so any statement s/he makes on this subject is true by definition or is the official truth
- The authority knows more than you do, so any counter-arguments you might propose are based on ignorance
- The authority is infallible and incapable of error
An argument from authority is a form of reasoning by reputation.
An inverse of this argument could be called the "argument from insufficient authority" or "argument from disqualification", and could be phrased as: "You don't know enough about this subject, so your arguments are wrong regardless of whether they make any sense." This is the essence of an argument sometimes raised against atheists who criticize religion – that they are "ignorant of theology" and hence aren't qualified to criticize its subject matter.
There is also the matter of impeaching credibility, drawn largely from the field of witness credibility and law. This concerns finding a particular authority non-credible, untrustworthy, and/or unreliable.
While the argument from authority proves nothing, it can be valid under certain circumstances:
- If no better evidence is available (see hierarchy of evidence)
- If disagreeing parties can agree on the validity of a particular authority's opinion
- If disagreeing parties can agree that their level of knowledge or expertise is inadequate to properly evaluate a situation
- If disagreeing parties can agree that the effort necessary to reach an objective factually-based conclusion would be prohibitively costly in time, energy, or other resources (see googlegroups:theauthoritarians/msg/ca6ad3594b7188af for some discussion).
- ipse dixit (Latin: he himself said it)
- argumentum ad verecundiam (Latin: argument to respect)
- "Carl Sagan says there can't be life elsewhere in the universe, so that proves it."
- "God says homosexuality is a sin, so it must be."
- "Albert Einstein said 'God does not play dice with the universe.', so quantum physics must be wrong."
As a rhetorical tool, this argument often succeeds in shifting the debate from its original topic to a discussion of the merits of the cited authority, which can easily slide into ad hominem attacks ("you said so-and-so is wrong, well that just proves you're wrong!").