One of the most widely recognized yet least well understood informal logical fallacies is the appeal to authority: the argumentum ad vericundiam. Most everyone understands that appealing to authority is, in some sense or other, an illegitimate move in any reasoned discussion. (If one doesn’t care a fig about reason, than any rhetorical move whatsoever becomes “legitimate,” which is to say, allowable provided you get away with it.) The problem here, though, is that if one could rigorously eschew all appeals to authority, not only would one avoid a particular fallacy, one would completely subvert the very possibility of reasoned discussion of any kind. Appeals to authority are not only constant, they are absolutely unavoidable in anything that might even barely resemble civilized existence. The problem, therefore, cannot be in the appeal to authority simply in itself, taken at face value.
Consider, for example, the food you eat. What is really in there, and how do you know? If you read the packaging, you are trusting to the authority of the producer and that of the U.S. government to provide you with accurate information. Suppose you are not prepared to do that, and you grow your own food instead. So how do you know what the nutritional content of THAT food is? Did you run all the tests yourself, and if so, on whose authority did you trust that the tests work, that those tests provide the actual information that is claimed for them, and so on? Did you go to University to get an advanced degree in biochemistry? But then, on whose authority did you decide to trust those instructors, those textbooks, those interpretations of you work and results? Clearly these problems can be extended to any form of practice, judgment or evaluation.
The simple and inescapable fact of the matter is that, unless you are prepared to completely reconstruct the entire edifice of human knowledge from its pre-hominid beginnings to the present day, then you are necessarily predicating every decision you make upon a staggering – indeed, simply incalculable – history of previous inquiries and decisions, and the authorities that emerged from these actions. So once again, the problem, therefore, cannot be in the appeal to authority taken at face value.
And, indeed, there is not.
The fallacy only occurs when one appeals to false or misleading authority. This is the fact – absolutely essential for understanding the nature of the error – that tends to get skipped over by people who would otherwise advocate for logic and critical thinking skills. I would not appeal to my postal carrier for medical advice any more than I would ask my physician for the most efficient delivery route in my neighborhood. If I reverse the questions, though, I suddenly have myself legitimate authorities whose authority on their respective subjects has been validated by years of education and experience. This authority is not absolute; the conclusions are not demonstratively true merely on account that these particular authorities have offered those conclusions. But the fact of their respective authorities is certainly probative, and must be taken into account when the matter in question overlaps meaningfully with their respective educations and experiences.
Some folks will try to dodge the issue by using a term such as “expertise” for “legitimate authority,” and thus relegate the dirty “a” word to just and only “bad” things. In a certain sense, there is nothing wrong in doing so; but it is, after all, nothing more than a semantic dodge. At some point – and that point will have to come very early on in the discussion – the distinction between legitimate versus false or misleading authority will have to be explained. So why not simply make the distinction at the outset, and use such adjectives (“legitimate” versus “misleading”) as make clear from the outset what the real distinction is?