The authority-can-be-wrong fallacy

An ‘argument from authority’ or ‘appeal to authority‘ fallacy is when an authority figure is used to support a claim and that person is not a true authority on the subject.


  • Warren Buffett thinks we should raise tax rates on the wealthy!
  • Being a good business man does not automatically qualify one as authority on tax policy.

Appealing to authority is considered valid when the person is a legitimate authority on the subject.

I find this unsatisfying.

If we find two legitimate authorities who disagree with each other, where does the argument go?

Not far. You believe your authority, I’ll believe mine. No progress has been made on either side.

We all know of cases where authorities were wrong. There’s an example in the previous post where it appears what diet authorities recommended decades ago may be wrong.

I have innate lack of trust in authorities — even those I agree with.

When I agree with them, I still want to know their basis and reasoning to see if it strengthens or weakens my view.

Many times I’ve researched an authority I agreed with to learn their reasoning and was disappointed to not find it convincing.

For me, even appealing to a legitimate authority is a fallacy (or, at least, not convincing).

I propose a new fallacy: the authority-can-be-wrong fallacy.

That doesn’t mean we should automatically disbelieve everything authorities tell us. Many times they do know a lot about a subject.

But, just remember, they are human and fallible. I think it’s better that we learn from them and try to understand their reasoning, instead of just parroting whatever they say.

Sorry state of discourse

I came across this interesting discussion today.

It’s gone viral. It’s long. But, it’s worth a watch.

A theme of this blog is how productive discourse is tough to come by. This is a good example of why. It reminds me of conversations I’ve tried to have with folks.

Cathy Newman asks Jordan Peterson a question.

He answers.

She tries to restate what he just said in a way that makes his answer sound divisive, explosive or dumb — but is also inaccurate.

It’s a good example of straw man fallacy.

Straw man fallacy is used to obstruct discourse. Instead of talking about the merits or demerits of an issue, it diverts the energy of the discussion to clarifying what is actually being said.

It’s also meant to frustrate folks and get them lose their cool. For many, the person who loses their cool, loses the exchange. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

The topic might be the sum of 1 + 1. Jordan Peterson says it’s 2. Newman asks, “Are you saying that people who think it’s 3 are idiots? That’s divisive.”

If Peterson loses his cool, in many people’s eyes he loses, even though 1+1 is actually 2.

From a young age, I noticed I was different than other folks in this regard.

I never cared much whether someone lost their cool or not. I cared what they actually had to say and the reasoning they used. I cared about their points.

I’ve seen people lose their cool, but still make points that I thought were worth considering. For me it’s been, It’s not how you say it, it’s what you say. 

I never understood what I had to gain from pretending that 1+1=3 simply because someone lost their cool trying to explain that it doesn’t.

For some, I think it’s the identifying with others. If believing 1+1=3 gets them affiliation with folks they want to be affiliated with, then it’s 3 all day long.

For others, it’s simply that they don’t have skin in the game. If it doesn’t really hurt them to believe that, then why spend too much time thinking about it?

Near the 25 minute mark, Newman uses a combo fallacy — red herring/ad hominem. See if you can spot it.

I’ve read comments from those on the right about the above exchange. They think Jordan did a masterful job of handling himself against the barrage of straw men and came out ahead.

I’d be interested to know what folks on the left thought. I’m guessing many might think Newman came out ahead and may feel like Peterson evaded her questioning (er…false accusations) rather than answered them.

The marginal utility trap

I think the idea of marginal utility of income is misused to inappropriately ignore property rights.

Using the Golden Rule, if you are concerned about someone taking dollars from you to give to those they believe have higher utility, then you should not advocate that it be done to others.

That should be enough to stop this bad idea from becoming policy and corrupting the incentives and feedbacks that happen to produce improving standards of living for everyone.

But it’s also worth knowing how it corrupts those incentives and feedbacks.

What marginal utility a third-party thinks another person has with one extra dollar isn’t nearly as important as what that person does to get the dollar.

If the person does nothing to get the dollar, their incentive to do something of value to earn it is subverted.

On occasion, the person’s dignity overrides and they refuse the handout. The typical response, it’s okay. You don’t understand. You see, I’m educated. Let me explain this to you. We’re not giving you the dollar just for you, Silly. See, you help the economy simply by spending that dollar. So, have at it.

Now dignity and shame are removed from the feedbacks that would typically encourage folks to want to do something in return. Now, good luck even getting a thank you card. Wouldn’t that be interesting? Require recipients of taxpayer money to write thank you cards to their fellow citizens.

I just read an article in Bicycling magazine about mountain bike racer, Heidi Swift’s, experience in a race in Haiti (I’ll post a link when it becomes available). Tired and pushing a bike up a steep road with big boulders as pavement (very tough to negotiate in cycling shoes), the author meets an 11-year-old boy who was eager to push for her. He dutifully sticks by her side until he’s sure she can handle it.

For his efforts he scores a Clif bar, a chocolate bar and some cash. Here’s here final words:

He turns to go, and as he does, he smiles at me again. It’s probably nothing more than a polite thanks for cash, and admittedly I am exhausted, but this smile seems to exist outside the bound of our transaction: proud, approving, satisfied and reliable — just kind of thing that could help a girl get to the top of an unclimbable mountain.

Yes. That’s the dignity and pride of someone who earned his keep by producing value. Many in our society have shamed ‘the transaction’ because they view it as a manifestation of greed. They forget the part where value was created for someone else and pride and dignity were also earned in doing the job well.

Contrast her experience in Haiti with the creep in this Judge Judy video that demonstrates that greed exists outside the bounds of mutually beneficial transactions (thanks to Mike M for the video):

We could use more of the ‘proud, approving, satisfied and reliable’ smile from someone who earns his keep and less of the snickering, entitled, disingenuous, scamming attitude that smart people think are helping the economy by spending other people’s money.

Signals v Causes: Preschool

Harry Jackson Jr. agrees with me that supporters of universal preschool may be mistaking signals for causes.

Perhaps creators of programs like Head Start did not consider another possible explanation for the reason elementary school performance so accurately predicts later academic achievement. What if children who typically do well in elementary school tend to have attentive parents who read to them, serve them nutritious meals, and limit their time in front of the television? What if these parents also tend to ensure their children get enough sleep, fresh air and exercise?

I also like this H.L. Menken quote that Jackson provides in his piece:

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

So true.

The universal preschool discussion also reminds me of my government begets more government thread.

Previous government interventions have discouraged family formation and responsible parenting for a portion of the population. That is what is causing under achievement in that portion. Instead of reversing the maligned incentives discouraging good parenting, let’s fix it with the clear, simple and wrong answer: more government in the form of universal preschool.


State your case

In response to this post about rent-seeking, Z A employs a few rant tactics that I think are common barriers to productive discussions. He (assuming Z A is a he) starts with a straw man fallacy.

Economics being the dismal science that it is, I still do not ascribe to the notion that all points are valid and that any moron on the street that tries to form a thought or opinion about the macro-economy has a valid or sound point.

No one, but Z A, has made this argument.

However, if ‘any moron on the street’ expresses an unsound thought or opinion about the macro-economy (or anything), I think it is more productive and compelling to explain why their point is unsound rather than discounting it because of who they are.

As my Mom would say, if you can’t say anything nice, it’s best not to say anything at all. That’s a good rule. I’ll modify to promote productive discussion. If you can’t or are unwilling to show why a point is unsound, don’t say anything at all.

Z A then moved on to explain why he values credentials:

Knowing what someones credentials are in most any case does help in knowing how much they have actually studied that subject.

However, it does determine whether their reasoning is sound or not.

I’ve been in my share of discussions that degraded to a battle of finding credentialed folks who agree with your position, then onto the crediting and discrediting of those credentials. That’s simply not productive.

I agree with what commenter, Grant Davies wrote in response to Z A:

I have always found it more important to weigh the value and the validity of what is presented…

An argument from authority or appeal to authority is a common fallacy (something where the conclusion does not necessarily follow from the premises).

The key form of this fallacy is assuming something is right because an expert says so, but the expert isn’t really an expert in that field.

A second form of this fallacy is assuming something is right because an expert says so, but the topic is something where there is not a great deal of consensus. This is where you get into the ‘battle of experts’ on issues that have experts on all sides.

I believe there is a third form of this fallacy, as well. Experts can be wrong. Experts, after all, are people, so they are subject to the same biases, preferences, simplifications and groupthink as the rest of us.

Experts may well be right about something. I don’t discount what they say just because they are experts. However, I have enough experience with experts being wrong that I have learned that skepticism is useful.

If something is true, I want to know why it’s true, not who believes it’s true or what credentials they have. What’s wrong with that?

Later, Z A wrote:

I could write for hours about the incorrect assumptions and arguments on here but what good would it do if the people I am writing to do not have clue one about real economic theory and thought or the history of those things?

Z A chose to write nine similar paragraphs on my blog about this subject. How did it advance the discussion on the topic?

Why not simply choose just one of these incorrect assumptions, state his case on why he thinks it’s incorrect and perhaps teach us a few things. Or, perhaps, maybe someone would respond to his points and he could learn something. My guess is that the latter is what Z A fears the most.


Straw man army

Much political debate nowadays is one side putting up a straw man fallacy while the other side tries to dismantle it — all of which takes away from productive discourse.

A straw man fallacy is usually an absurdly inaccurate representation your opponent’s position — so absurd that it’s easy to defeat, or knock down, like a ‘man made of straw’.

We begin using straw men right about the time we start talking.

“Mom! Brother called me a booger!”

“Brother, quit calling your sister a booger.”

“I didn’t. I told her she’s a selfish snot, because she will not share her toys with me.”

“Sis, we’ve discussed this. Share.”

Sis, won’t tell Mom what her brother actually said. She intuitively knows that her selfishness will not gain her much sympathy from Mom. Best leave that part out and turn make it seem her brother made an unprovoked malicious comment.

Using a straw seems to imply one of three things.

1. You know, like Sis, that your opponent’s position is stronger than you’d like it to be, so you carefully avoid the truth and construct the straw man.

2. You expect your target audience to be dumb and not recognize the straw man.

3. You’re dumb.

Most political ads are straw men. “My opponent wants to destroy something or the other! Don’t vote for him.”

These campaigners hope that you’re dumb and that the army of straw men they construct will sway your vote their way.

It must work to some degree. Straw men still exist. Unlike Mom, enough of us don’t call BS and request that the campaigners address the real positions.

Keep your eye out for straw men in this election season.

Red Herring Alert

Last week, I heard a local liberal radio talk show host repeat, with gusto, the claim that President Obama has the lowest spending growth since Eisenhower.

Several places have addressed this claim. Here’s one and another. They raise some good points.

But I think spending growth is a red herring. The issue is actual government spending, not spending growth.

As Arthur Laffer and Steve Moore pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, President Obama took over after the grandest public spending binges of all times, one that was supposed to be temporary.

Claiming that locking that temporary spending binge into the budget going forward is a sign of conservative fiscal management is spin.

Consider a CEO who gives himself a $300 million bonus and draws the ire of the Occupy Wall Street types. He gets fired and the next CEO gives himself a $301 million bonus and tells Occupy friends not to worry because the growth in his salary is the lowest in recent history. I don’t think many people would fall for that.