Appeal to Authority Fallacy | Definition & Examples

Appeal to authority fallacy refers to the use of an expert’s opinion to back up an argument. Instead of justifying one’s claim, a person cites an authority figure who is not qualified to make reliable claims about the topic at hand. Because people tend to believe experts, appeal to authority often imbues an argument with credibility.

Appeal to authority fallacy example
“My favorite actor, who starred in that movie about a virus that turns people into zombies, said in an interview that genetically modified crops caused COVID-19. So I think that’s what really happened.”

Appeal to authority is commonly used as a persuasion technique in advertising, politics, and everyday discussions.

What is the appeal to authority fallacy?

Appeal to authority fallacy occurs when we accept a claim merely because someone tells us that an authority figure supports that claim. An authority figure can be a celebrity, a well-known scientist, or any person whose status and prestige causes us to respect them.

An appeal to authority (also known as an appeal to false or unqualified authority) plays on people’s feelings of respect or familiarity towards a famous person to bypass critical thinking. It’s like someone is telling us “accept this because some authority said it.”

Ad hominem fallacy

This sort of reasoning is only fallacious when the person in question has no legitimate authority in the field of knowledge under discussion. For example, to cite Einstein in an argument about education is fallacious, while it’s perfectly legitimate to cite him in a discussion about physics.

Appeal to authority fallacy is a type of informal fallacy which means that the logical error lies in the content of the argument. Regardless of whether the claim is true or not, an appeal to authority is fallacious because it lacks sufficient evidence to support the claim. Appeal to authority, like ad hominem fallacy and genetic fallacy, is a fallacy of relevance. These fallacies appeal to evidence or examples irrelevant to the argument at hand.

What are different types of appeal to authority fallacy?

There are different types of appeal to authority fallacy depending on the reasons why the authority cited should not be trusted.

Appeal to false authority fallacy

This is the most common variation and occurs when someone cites a false or unqualified figure of authority (i.e., an expert who is not a real expert). This explains why celebrities are often used in marketing campaigns.

Appeal to false authority fallacy example
The PrestigeX4000, the pinnacle of automotive excellence. When Jack Steele, Hollywood’s greatest action hero, demands the ultimate driving experience, why settle for less?”

Here, a famous actor endorses a car, even though he has no expertise to evaluate the car in terms of technical aspects, performance, safety, or any other aspect that matters. From a logical viewpoint, this is a fallacy. However, ads don’t aim at logic. Instead, they use celebrities to imbue the product with a sense of prestige and make the ad more memorable.

Appeal to anonymous authority

Appeal to anonymous authority occurs when an arguer attributes a claim to an expert who is not named or identified. Vague statements about “experts,” “historians,” or “authors” who believe, say, or have proven something, attest to this type of reasoning error. Since the experts are not identified, there is no way to verify their knowledge of the topic or the validity of their claims.

Appeal to anonymous authority fallacy example
“I read an article online written by a high-ranking army officer who claims that there is evidence of aliens visiting Earth. However, the officer wishes to remain anonymous. Aliens do exist!”

Appeal to biased authority

Appeal to biased authority occurs when someone who is truly knowledgeable about the topic under discussion makes a claim influenced by their own prejudice or bias, rather than their expertise. For example, an expert may have personal, financial, or professional interests at stake which may lead to biased judgment.

Appeal to biased authority fallacy example
“Dr. Roberts, a history professor and author of the book Why Women Should Stay at Home, claims that the contributions of women in World War II were insignificant. Therefore, we can conclude that women did not play a significant role in the war effort.”

When is appeal to authority legitimate?

An appeal to authority is not always a fallacy. Citing the informed opinion of an expert is legitimate in an argument when certain criteria is met:

  • The authority is an expert in the specific subject area under discussion. Citing your cousin who is a law student in a discussion about a legal issue is therefore fallacious. However, citing your lawyer, who is qualified to give advice, is legitimate.
  • The statement of the authority falls within their area of expertise. If someone is an expert in one area, it does not automatically mean they are an expert in all areas. A medical doctor, for instance, is qualified to speak about diseases, but not about the stock market.
  • There is agreement among experts about the topic under discussion. Although disputes among experts are part and parcel of the advancement of knowledge, there are certain domains where there is a significant amount of legitimate dispute. For example, for every qualified economist arguing for a certain position or theory, there is another one arguing for an entirely different position.
Legitimate vs fallacious appeal to authority example
Person A: This neck pain is driving me crazy.

Person B: My fitness trainer says that exercises and movements that strengthen the neck muscles can help a lot.

Person C: No, don’t listen to any of that. My grandmother’s garlic-based ointment for neck pain is far better than exercise. The recipe has been in our family for generations.

A fitness trainer is more qualified to treat neck pain than your friend’s grandmother, so Person B makes a legitimate appeal to authority while Person C’s appeal is fallacious.

Appeal to authority fallacy examples

Appeal to authority is often used in advertising as a persuasion technique.

Appeal to authority fallacy example in advertising
“Switch to DentaFresh UltraWhite, the toothpaste recommended by 9 out of 10 dentists. Our advanced formula is the secret to a radiant smile and optimal gum health.”

Here is a typical example of an appeal to anonymous authority often seen in advertising. By stating that 9 out of 10 dentists prefer this brand, the ad alludes to the superiority of the product. However, we don’t really know who these dentists are or how they were surveyed. There is no actual evidence to support the claim other than the appeal to the dentists’ authority. People tend to trust dentists’ advice since they are experts, so the ad tries to capitalize on this feeling of trust.

People sometimes try to support their argument by citing experts who have alternative or unpopular viewpoints in their field, even though these viewpoints are by no means representative.

Appeal to authority fallacy and contrarian views
“I don’t believe any of those climate doomsayers. Climate change isn’t real. I have a book at home by a climate scientist that lays it all out.”

Here, the speaker selectively cites one scientist as if they were representing the whole of their field. However, this is not the case. The vast majority of climate scientists (97% to be exact) agree that humans are causing global warming and climate change. The appeal to authority doesn’t support the conclusion that climate change isn’t real because there is strong evidence to the contrary.

Other interesting articles

If you want to know more about fallacies, research bias, or AI tools, make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

Frequently asked questions about the appeal to authority fallacy

How do I identify an appeal to authority fallacy?

To identify an appeal to authority fallacy, you can ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is the authority cited really a qualified expert in this particular area under discussion? For example, someone who has formal education or years of experience can be an expert.
  • Do experts disagree on this particular subject? If that is the case, then for almost any claim supported by one expert there will be a counterclaim that is supported by another expert. If there is no consensus, an appeal to authority is fallacious.
  • Is the authority in question biased? If you suspect that an expert’s prejudice and bias could have influenced their views, then the expert is not reliable and an argument citing this expert will be fallacious.
When is the appeal to authority a fallacy?

Appeal to authority is a fallacy when those who use it do not provide any justification to support their argument. Instead they cite someone famous who agrees with their viewpoint, but is not qualified to make reliable claims on the subject.

Why is the appeal to authority fallacy convincing?

Appeal to authority fallacy is often convincing because of the effect authority figures have on us. When someone cites a famous person, a well-known scientist, a politician, etc. people tend to be distracted and often fail to critically examine whether the authority figure is indeed an expert in the area under discussion.

Sources in this article

We strongly encourage students to use sources in their work. You can cite our article (APA Style) or take a deep dive into the articles below.

This Scribbr article

Nikolopoulou, K. (2023, October 09). Appeal to Authority Fallacy | Definition & Examples. Scribbr. Retrieved February 22, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/fallacies/appeal-to-authority-fallacy/

Sources

Michaud, N. (2018). Inappropriate Appeal to Authority. In R. Arp, S. Barbone, & M. Bruce (Eds.), Bad arguments. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781119165811.ch32

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Kassiani Nikolopoulou

Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex scientific information into easily accessible articles to help students. She specializes in writing about research methods and research bias.