*Note: For reasons that I can only guess, this page has been by far my most popularly viewed post since I published it. Just thought I’d mention that and I hope that all of the people who are finding it through searches are getting something useful out of it.*
The Appeal to Authority is next on our journey through the magical land of incorrect thinking. This fallacy really can be summed up completely in a nutshell, but I’ll take a new angle on it too. Here’s the standard format: X is true because someone says so. The reason this is a fallacy is because the universe does not conform itself to what someone says. The Wise One can say the sky is green, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is really blue. The fallacious logic implies that if the Wise One changed his or her mind, reality would change.
Now, why is this not a fallacy when someone says that, say, “The universe is expanding and I know this because that’s what I was taught in physics class”? Are the creationists right when they say that science is just taken on faith and accepted authority?
Some people rename this fallacy the “Appeal to Unqualified Authority” but I don’t think that quite solves the issue. The problem isn’t that the authority is necessarily unqualified. After all, the worlds biggest fool can be right if they say something true and the smartest person can be wrong if they say that the sky is green. No, the issue isn’t the qualification of the speaker. What we need to realize is that an authority doesn’t say something and that is what makes it true. Rather, the authority (the real, qualified authority) says something because it is true. Gravity doesn’t have an acceleration rate of 9.8m/s/s because Stephan Hawking says it does; Stephan Hawking says gravity has an acceleration rate of 9.8m/s/s because it’s true.
This ties into an issue that I have come across when talking to some people about fun science stuff, like the origins of our universe or black holes or something. Eventually, after the Q and A runs long enough, I run out of answers because I don’t know everything about a subject. Eventually, I have to fall back on, “Well, I believe that the rate of expansion of the universe is accelerating, even if I have no better reason to believe it than because that is what the scientific consensus is.” The scientific process has proven itself dependable, even if it is still a learning process. We wouldn’t have put footprints on the moon if scientists didn’t know what they were talking about. To quote Brian Dunning “It is rational to accept the scientific consensus, even if you don’t completely understand the evidence behind it. It is irrational to disagree with it for that reason.”Personal incredulity or ignorance does not trump the scientific consensus.