The Problem with Arguments from Authority

I’ll bet you’ve come into contact with an argument in which a number of people have shown support for a cause. Maybe it’s one specific person that people respect or admire, or a group of people qualified to have an opinion.


If you engage in political discussions regularly, it is possible that you have had numbers, groups, or a specific personality used against you. There may be times where someone says: “Who are you to disagree with X?“ Or “Who are you to argue with this many of a specific group of people?” This is an argument from authority, and needs to be properly evidenced in order to actually hold water. This is something most people don’t seem to realise, as usually the word of a scientist or professor is good enough, but without solid evidence, a statement is pretty much meaningless.


Lets say we have a mathematician who is highly regarded by everyone. This mathematician makes a public statement one day that mathematics has been getting things wrong for a long time and actually, two plus two is three. There might be many reasons a mathematician would make this statement, these I will get into later, but it is possible for this information to be false.


It is also possible that this information is not even real, and that the mathematician might be completely unaware that someone has written a false article on them, such as when Elon Musk supposedly supported bitcoin. This was a scam that went round for quite a while and affected many people who didn’t query the information.


Despite the absurdity of the idea that two plus two is three, many people would probably believe this based upon very little evidence, and to someone who has experience in a specific field, it can seem absolutely ludicrous that anyone would believe a clearly incorrect statement. However, most regular people will believe an argument from authority when they see it. This has led to a lot of problems in the world.


So Why Is Arguing From Authority Dangerous?


A lot of the time using the argument from authority is a harmful way to argue in a debate because it is a tool that people who cannot necessarily formulate their own arguments will commonly use for an easy win, usually against an inexperienced opponent.


The problem comes usually from a lack of understanding of the argument by the person using this as a tool or attack strategy. “Here is my assassination of your beliefs. X here knows more than you, and says this.” This can be intimidating for the rookie debater, however it’s important to look at what is being said. Firstly, is it evidenced? Secondly, does that evidence stand up to scrutiny? Thirdly, where is this information found? – As this might mean that it is potentially inaccurate.


Sources are incredibly valuable to backing up arguments, however an unevidenced source is generally easily destroyed by saying: “What evidence is there to support this claim?” or even, “Show me the working out.” This can quickly expose an opponent’s ignorance in the debate. An opponent who has not researched will then have to provide additional evidence that they most likely never bothered to look for. This can result in frenzied internet searches and broken keyboards.


Without evidence, an argument can be quickly dismissed because it is not evidenced or researched. The opponent will usually have no real argument and will most likely fall back on insulting you, which you should count as a victory and move on. It’s important to not engage with people after it gets to the insulting stage, as it lowers your stance tremendously. Usually these attacks will be aimed to hit you with morality. The important thing in this situation is: Do NOT engage. It’s just a trap to make you look bad.


The Opponent Has A Seemingly Genuine Argument From Authority… What Do I Do?


There are potentially two problems with their argument which you should take into account:


1: People, as in your opponent, and the person they’re quoting can make mistakes.

2: People can and will purposefully lie to support a cause they believe in.


What you need to do if you want to argue with them is fairly simple: You need to dig a little into the person making the argument. Why does this person believe this? What evidence have they got to support their claims? Is this evidence actually valid? Who is this person really? Do they have a motive? Usually you will find that the person you are arguing against does not have an understanding of their own, and is basing their opinion on the beliefs of someone else they most likely cannot understand, but they believe in it because it supports their argument. 


We can see huge corruption in the numbers of actors who support political parties which provide their funding, regardless of the damage they will do to the actors’ fans. Fans may well believe that these people have their best interests at heart, which is generally worrying and should be pointed out if you have experience arguing in the context of the debate you are involved in.


Let’s Look at Authority Figures


If you take into account any leader in the whole of history, good or evil, most of them have made mistakes and errors, had lapses of judgment and have done or said things that are not particularly bright. Maybe they have forged political friendships in the wrong places. All people no matter who they are are capable of making a mistake, or having a lapse of judgment.  The amount of people who have taken bribes in order to alter figures, who have purposefully altered their research findings for political leverage is astounding. But let’s have a look at some authority figures!


First Let’s Look at Leaders!


Let’s look at Hitler and Stalin – Which of these would you follow willingly. I mention both of them because they were incredible authority members at the time. Time Magazine’s Person of the Year features Adolf Hitler once and Stalin twice.


Most people use Hitler in arguments, so to make things less boring, I’ll talk briefly about Stalin instead. Stalin inspired his people greatly and his people followed him blindly and believed in him with such devotion that they followed him as though he were a god. He was also responsible for killing a huge number of the very people who supported and believed in him, and now is regarded as one of the most evil mass murderers in history. 


There is a picture of Stalin with the young Engelsina Markizova. It was taken in 1936. It is one of the most famous photographs of Stalin’s reign. A year after this photograph was taken, her father was arrested by Stalin and condemned to death in 1938 under false charges as a spy and an enemy of the state. Her mother suffered a similar fate as she was deported to Kazakhstan where she died in an accident at the age of 32. During his life, Stalin, despite the atrocities he carried out against his people was a leader loved by most of the people under his leadership despite the horrendous conditions they lived in. It was only during de-stalinization that people began to see the horrors of his reign.

For more information on Stalin, this documentary will help.

So what does this have to do with arguments of authority? Well it’s fairly simple really. During his life, people saw him as a kind or benevolent ruler and followed him blindly despite the many atrocities he committed. An argument against such an authority would usually result in an extreme punishment, most likely your death. But in such a situation, you would not believe that would be possible. The documentary goes into detail on how beloved a leader Stalin was, despite his actions.


Now ask yourself, could someone in this enlightened age say that they would blindly follow orders from Stalin? Or would they disagree with these orders out of principle? Just because Stalin would say something does not make it correct, or morally honest. It also doesn’t mean that it would be incorrect. The fact is, when it comes to leaders, many of them make morally ambiguous choices, and just because a leader has authority, does not mean that that leader is always 100% right about everything they say and do.


Richard Nixon, the president of the United States was an arguably great leader, a convincing speaker and a highly intelligent man, but he still had the Watergate Scandal which sadly is usually the main talking point when people mention him. Despite his accolades and life success, how many people would automatically believe anything he said or did?


That said, pick any person who is commonly quoted in arguments against you. I doubt any person would argue that Owen Jones knows more about economics than Thomas Sowell, and yet people will often prefer the morality of Owen’s rhetoric against cold hard facts.


Thomas Sowell’s work is based in facts and statistics, and is definitely worth reading. You can find many of his interviews online which are always fascinating to listen to. If it came to an argument between both of them, Thomas Sowell would win because he collects facts and information and applies the information to his statements. That said, he could still be proved wrong in an argument if he didn’t research correctly – and this is why the argument from authority fails. Every argument needs evidence.


I pointed out recently that 161 British economists purposefully deceived the British people by supporting a party that would cause considerable damage to small companies and people on the minimum wage, pensions, etc. 


So how do we know this is deception rather than a common mistake? Well it’s simple really. The positions held by these economists are such that they should really know enough about mathematics to understand that Labour’s propositions would end up hurting the weaker and more vulnerable in society through their negligent attack on business earning capabilities. 


Don’t take my word for it, however. I am a business owner with a keen interest in economics. When I look at how money will be changed within our economy, I have to think about several things: How will this affect my company’s profits, how will this affect my ability to employ my staff, and how will their lives be altered as a result of these changes. I have to think about their financial security and the cost of living. 


Large companies such as Tesco and Amazon are often cited as the main reasons to increase corporation tax, and to be honest, they would easily survive the changes, however smaller companies will not be able to cope, ultimately costing businesses their ability to keep on trading and resulting in them having to decrease staff numbers in order to keep up with higher business costs and lower profit margins.


Not only will larger companies be able to survive, their competition will ultimately be damaged beyond repair or destroyed, reducing their already failing competition. We have already seen the crippling cost of increasing the minimum wage regarding staffing with the damage it has done to the NHS, but I digress.


When we come to politics, we usually have an emotionally charged argument and it’s self motivated so I’d ask you not to take my word for any of my political leanings here. Rather I would ask you to take away the idea that you should always question things rather than immediately accept them.


I would recommend asking local business owners who run small businesses how hard it is to keep running when the minimum wage goes up to gain some more information on this specific subject and to develop an understanding of the damage yourself. 


The problem with the numbers game as an argument is that just because a certain amount of people believe something to be true. Democracy in general is a mob rule and taking one subsection of society and saying: 400 to 1 people in this position believe this, basically is a show of authority. Not all authorities are correct all of the time as we have established.


Let’s take Global Warming as an example. There are scientists in both camps, for and against global warming, which believe entirely in their personal belief and cannot be swayed. How can scientists get things wrong? If a thousand scientists make a claim based upon evidence and reveal this to people as a truth, people will accept that because these people are in authority, the information is correct.


In the letter released by the Financial Times regarding the economists I mentioned, there was no form of evidencing or an explanation of how the economy would be affected. There was just a list of economists who tried to and succeeded in fooling a large amount of people, and influenced the 2019 elections for their own political gains. They betrayed the people in this society who believed mostly in them. 


To sum it all up…


An argument from authority can be correct, regardless of the source, even if you find that person reprehensible. It can also be 100% wrong even if someone is an authority on a specific subject. You should be careful when using an argument from authority as it’s important to have your own understanding on a specific subject. If you are fighting an argument from authority, you have simply to ask for evidence, and then work against it. Don’t be phased by someone using it, because the whole world can be wrong. Just ask Copernicus. 



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