False Authority
KSU   -   English 1101/55 & 57   -   Mr. Hagin   -   Fall 2002   -   Revised: 27 November 2002


False Authority – using a biased, suspicious, or incredible source to defend a conclusion.

One of the best strategies a writer can employ to support his arguments is to tap into the authority of widely respected people, books, or institutions.  A false authority fallacy occurs when people offer themselves (or other suspicious authorities) as sufficient warrant for believing their claims:


Claim: “X is true because I said so.”  also  Claim: “X is true because Y says so.”
Warrant: “What I say must be true.” Warrant: “What Y says must be true.”

Parsing the statement will reveal the invalid conclusion:

Claim: “You must not love me.”
Reason: “You haven’t bought me that bicycle.”
Warrant: “Buying bicycles for children is essential to loving them.”

The authority of these figures in itself is not evidence for the truth of their views.  Someone cannot point to himself as his own authority.  Because his own authority alone is not enough of a reason to defend what he believes, then there is no reason for anyone else to believe him either!

Sometimes the appeal to authority is fallacious because the authoritative person is not an expert on the disputed issue.  Although politicians often promote themselves as experts, many have limited experience in all the fields in which they govern: economics, public safety, law, construction, education, etc.  Still, they may speak as if they fully understand everything that they hope to control.  For this reason, be careful to avoid quoting political soundbites.


Retired politicians are more credible than current ones.  Current politicians often say what they believe the voters will want to hear, rather than a more genuine opinion.


A Supreme Court junkie claims: “Abortion is moral because the Supreme Court said so.”

In 1973, the United States Supreme Court voted 5-4 (in the case Roe v. Wade) in favor of a woman’s right to terminate her own pregnancy.  The majority vote occurred by the closest of possible margins, so any morality implied from this decision is complex or questionable.  What would today’s Supreme Court rule?  What about the Court 20 years from now?  As science, technology, and morality evolve into their future forms, new justices may disagree with the 1973 decision and someday change this law.

Furthermore, abortion is not specifically mentioned in our Constitution (or even the Bible), so ethical interpretations will continue to ebb and flow with each generation.  People who wish to cite evidence in the abortion debate need to expand their knowledge base beyond what four or five out of nine judges think.  Complicated issues like this cannot be effectively argued with only one authority (or split authority).


Everyone’s words should be followed by actions, evidence, and counter-authorities.  This is why a research paper cannot look to just one source and claim authenticity.  Using a variety of sources is vital to substantiate any claim.  If several widely-respected authorities from different perspectives agree on something, then it is more likely to be considered valid (or possibly even true).


A child screams: “Mommy, I don’t like peas and carrots.  Why can’t I have ice cream?”

The mother’s reply: “Because I said so.”

Well, Mom has a point —children should listen to their parents because of their wisdom and status.  What Mom actually suggests, however, is that her authority alone is enough of an explanation to satisfy the question (which is an example of invincible ignorance as well).  Mom is trying to foster good nutrition and healthy eating habits, so her intentions are noble.  As her child matures, however, Mom’s authority alone will not suffice — especially when Junior asks for the car!  Children love to ask “Why?”  If we admire their curiosity and want them to continue their love of learning, then we should not reduce their excellent questions by providing them with generic, invalid, or falsely authorized answers.


A Presidential supporter might say: “George W. Bush knows how to run the country because he’s a business man.  In fact, he’s the only President ever to have earned an MBA.”

This argument assumes that a good business man will become a good president, and that a degree determines success as a business man.  Both assumptions are false.  This speaker owns the burden to prove that these statements are true in this case specifically (and that these connections are valid in general).

A leader of a democratic nation faces different obstacles and makes different decisions than a leader of a corporation.  Often, Presidents must beg and plead for their proposals to be accepted, while a business executive just has to utter the words and his employees dutifully obey (or they will be terminated).  This faulty logic also exemplifies the false analogy, since two different ideas are being compared).

More damage to this argument occurs when the speaker assumes that a person who has completed an MBA (Masters of Business Administration) is qualified to operate a business successfully.  Lots of people have earned degrees, but that may not make up for their lack of common sense or their fear of failure.  The piece of paper only informs someone that coursework was completed successfully.  It does not guarantee that the owner of the certificate has been field tested.

Sure, Bush has an MBA from Harvard, and is the first U.S. president to have this degree.  However, did you know that he served as the president of three oil companies that went bankrupt?  (Source: Harper’s Magazine, February 2002).  The degree does not guarantee success.  In defense of Bush, 9 out of every 10 new companies in America fail within their first year of operation.  Businesses are at the mercy of forces greater than their desire to succeed — poor economic cycles, poor business location, etc.  Again, the degree itself is no authority.


A fraternity president argues: “Dude, we don't want to break the law by serving beer to underage frat boys.  But, since the Epsilon Iota Quotas serve alcohol to their underage members, I guess we can too!”

This example differs from the bandwagon appeal in that the leader wishes to illegally serve alcohol, but not because he’s simply following the crowd.  Rather, he falsely uses the rival fraternity as the “authority.”  This implies that the other fraternity is a respected model of lawfulness for others to follow.  It further suggests that the actions of the other fraternity are appropriate, based solely on the grounds that those in power must be right (or that they have not been caught).

The bandwagon appeal plays a strong role here, because the fraternity president is clearly trying to justify a way to please the most people by throwing a party.  This example also illustrates the moral equivalence fallacy because it uses an unlawful (and emotional) standard to interpret a law through “creative logic.”